Rudolf Steiner was born in 1861 and died in 1925. In his autobiography, The Course of My Life (see Note 1), he makes quite clear that the problems dealt with in The Philosophy of Freedom played a leading part in his life.
His childhood was spent in the Austrian countryside, where his father was a stationmaster. At the age of eight Steiner was already aware of things and beings that are not seen as well as those that are. Writing about his experiences at this age, he said, “... the reality of the spiritual world was as certain to me as that of the physical. I felt the need, however, for a sort of justification for this assumption.”
Recognizing the boy's ability, his father sent him to the Realschule at Wiener Neustadt, and later to the Technical University in Vienna. Here Steiner had to support himself, by means of scholarships and tutoring. Studying and mastering many more subjects than were in his curriculum, he always came back to the problem of knowledge itself. He was very much aware: that in the experience of oneself as an ego, one is in the world of the spirit. Although he took part in all the social activities going on around him — in the arts, the sciences, even in politics — he wrote that “much more vital at that time was the need to find an answer to the question: How far is it possible to prove that in human thinking real spirit is the agent?”
He made a deep study of philosophy, particularly the writings of Kant, but nowhere did he find a way of thinking that could be carried as far as a perception of the spiritual world. Thus Steiner was led to develop a theory of knowledge out of his own striving after truth, one which took its start from a direct experience of the spiritual nature of thinking.
As a student, Steiner's scientific ability was acknowledged when he was asked to edit Goethe's writings on nature. In Goethe he recognized one who had been able to perceive the spiritual in nature, even though he had not carried this as far as a direct perception of the spirit. Steiner was able to bring a new understanding to Goethe's scientific work through this insight into his perception of nature. Since no existing philosophical theory could take this kind of vision into account, and since Goethe had never stated explicitly what his philosophy of life was, Steiner filled this need by publishing, in 1886, an introductory book called The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethes World Conception His introductions to the several volumes and sections of Goethe's scientific writings (1883–97) have been collected into the book Goethe the Scientist. These are valuable contributions to the philosophy of science.
During this time his thoughts about his own philosophy were gradually coming to maturity. In the year 1888 he met Eduard von Hartmann, with whom he had already had a long correspondence. He describes the chilling effect on him of the way this philosopher of pessimism denied that thinking could ever reach reality, but must forever deal with illusions. Steiner was already clear in his mind how such obstacles were to be overcome. He did not stop at the problem of knowledge, but carried his ideas from this realm into the field of ethics, to help him deal with the problem of human freedom. He wanted to show that morality could be given a sure foundation without basing it upon imposed rules of conduct.
Meanwhile his work of editing had taken him away from his beloved Vienna to Weimar. Here Steiner wrestled with the task of presenting his ideas to the world. His observations of the spiritual had all the exactness of a science, and yet his experience of the reality of ideas was in some ways akin to the mystic's experience. Mysticism presents the intensity of immediate knowledge with conviction, but deals only with subjective impressions; it fails to deal with the reality outside man. Science, on the other hand, consists of ideas about the world, even if the ideas are mainly materialistic. By starting from the spiritual nature of thinking, Steiner was able to form ideas that bear upon the spiritual world in the same way that the ideas of natural science bear upon the physical. Thus he could describe his philosophy as the result of “introspective observation following the methods of Natural Science.” He first presented an outline of his ideas in his doctoral dissertation, Truth and Knowledge, which bore the sub-title “Prelude to a ‘Philosophy of Freedom’.”
In 1894 The Philosophy of Freedom was published, and the content which had formed the centre of his life's striving was placed before the world. Steiner was deeply disappointed at the lack of understanding it received. Hartmann's reaction was typical; instead of accepting the discovery that thinking can lead to the reality of the spirit in the world, he continued to think that "spirit" was merely a concept existing in the human mind, and freedom an illusion based on ignorance. Such was fundamentally the view of the age to which Steiner introduced his philosophy. But however it seemed to others, Steiner had in fact established a firm foundation for knowledge of the spirit, and now he felt able to pursue his researches in this field without restraint. The The Philosophy of Freedom summed up the ideas he had formed to deal with the riddles of existence that had so far dominated his life. “The further way,” he wrote, “could now be nothing else but a struggle to find the right form of ideas to express the spiritual world itself.”
While still at Weimar, Steiner wrote two more books, Friedrich Nietzsche, Fighter for Freedom, inspired by a visit to the aged philosopher, and Goethe's Conception of the World (1897), which completed his work in this field. He then moved to Berlin to take over the editing of a literary magazine; here he wrote Riddles of Philosophy (1901) and Mysticism and Modern Thought (1901). He also embarked on an ever-increasing activity of lecturing. But his real task lay in deepening his knowledge of the spiritual world until he could reach the point of publishing the results of this research.
The rest of his life was devoted to building up a complete science of the spirit, to which he gave the name Anthroposophy. Foremost amongst his discoveries was his direct experience of the reality of the Christ, which soon took a central place in his whole teaching. The many books and lectures which he published set forth the magnificent scope of his vision (see Note 2). From 1911 he turned also to the arts — drama, painting, architecture, eurythmy — showing the creative forming powers that can be drawn from spiritual vision. As a response to the disaster of the 1914–18 war, he showed how the social sphere could be given new life through an insight into the nature of man, his initiative bearing practical fruit in the fields of education, agriculture, therapy and medicine. After a few more years of intense activity, now as the leader of a world-wide movement, he died, leaving behind him an achievement that must allow his recognition as the first Initiate of the age of science (see Note 3). Anthroposophy is itself a science, firmly based on the results of observation, and open to investigation by anyone who is prepared to follow the path of development he pioneered — a path that takes its start from the struggle for inner freedom set forth in this book.
Michael Wilson, Clent, 1964.
From the introduction to The Philosophy of Freedom
- Published in parts from 1923–5, and never completed. The titles given for Dr. Steiner's books are those of the English translations. Read the 1928 edition titled The Story of My Life.
- The list of titles is long, but the more important books include:
- For an account of the life and work of Rudolf Steiner, see A Scientist of The Invisible, by A. P. Shepherd (1954). The range of his contribution to modern thought can be seen in The Faithful Thinker, edited by A. C. Harwood (1961).
Rudolf Steiner (Feb. 27, 1861-Mar. 30, 1925) was born in the small village of Kraljevec, Austria (now in Croatia) in 1861 and died in Dornach, Switzerland in 1925. In university, he concentrated on mathematics, physics, and chemistry. Having written his thesis on philosophy, Steiner earned his doctorate and was later drawn into literary and scholarly circles and participated in the rich social and political life of Vienna.
During the 1890s, Steiner worked for seven years in Weimar at the Goethe archive, where he edited Goethe's scientific works and collaborated in a complete edition of Schopenhauer's work. Weimar was a center of European culture at the time, which allowed Steiner to meet many prominent artists and cultural figures. In 1894 Steiner published his first important work, Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path: A Philosophy of Freedom, now published as one of the Classics in Anthroposophy.
When Steiner left Weimar, he went to Berlin where he edited an avant-garde literary magazine. Again he involved himself in the rich, rapidly changing culture of a city that had become the focus of many radical groups and movements. Steiner gave courses on history and natural science and offered practical training in public speaking. He refused to adhere to the particular ideology of any political group, which did not endear him to the many activists then in Berlin.
In 1899, Steiner's life quickly began to change. His autobiography provides a personal glimpse of his inner struggles, which matured into an important turning point. In the August 28, 1899 issue of his magazine, Steiner published the article "Goethe's Secret Revelation" on the esoteric nature of Goethe's fairy tale, The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily. Consequently, Steiner was invited to speak to a gathering of Theosophists. This was his first opportunity to act on a decision to speak openly and directly of his spiritual perception, which had quietly matured since childhood through inner development and discipline. Steiner began to speak regularly to theosophical groups, which upset and confused many of his friends. The respectable, if often radical scholar, historian, scientist, writer, and philosopher began to emerge as an "occultist." Steiner's decision to speak directly from his own spiritual research did not reflect any desire to become a spiritual teacher, feed curiosity, or to revive some ancient wisdom. It arose from his perception of what is needed for our time.
Rudolf Steiner considered it his task to survey the spiritual realities at work within the realms of nature and throughout the universe. He explored the inner nature of the human soul and spirit and their potential for further development; he developed new methods of meditation; he investigated the experiences of human souls before birth and after death; he looked back into the spiritual history and evolution of humanity and Earth; he made detailed studies of reincarnation and karma. After several years, Rudolf Steiner became increasingly active in the arts. It is significant that he saw the arts as crucial for translating spiritual science into social and cultural innovation. Today we have seen what happens when natural science bypasses the human heart and translates knowledge into technology without grace, beauty, or compassion. In 1913, the construction of the Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland began. This extraordinary wooden building took shape gradually during the First World War. An international group of volunteers collaborated with local builders and artisans to shape the unique carved forms and structures designed by Steiner. Steiner viewed architecture as a servant of human life, and he designed the Goetheanum to support the work of anthroposophy drama and eurythmy in particular. The Goetheanum was burned to the ground on New Year's Eve, 1922 by an arsonist. Rudolf Steiner designed a second building, which was completed after his death. It is now the center for the Anthroposophical Society and its School of Spiritual Science.
After the end of World War I, Europe was in ruins and people were ready for new social forms. Attempts to realize Steiner's ideal of a "threefold social order" as a political and social alternative was unsuccessful. Nevertheless, its conceptual basis is even more relevant today. Steiner's social thinking can be understood only within the context of his view of history. In contrast to Marx, Steiner saw that history is shaped essentially by changes in human consciousness changes in which higher spiritual beings actively participate.
We can build a healthy social order only on the basis of insight into the material, soul, and spiritual needs of human beings. Those needs are characterized by a powerful tension between the search for community and the experience of the human I, or true individuality. Community, in the sense of material interdependence, is the essence of our world economy. Like independent thinking and free speech, the human I, or essential self, is the foundation of every creative endeavor and innovation, and crucial to the realization of human spirit in the arts and sciences.
Without spiritual freedom, culture withers and dies. Individuality and community are lifted beyond conflict only when they are recognized as a creative polarity rooted in basic human nature, not as contradictions. Each aspect must find the appropriate social expression. We need forms that ensure freedom for all expressions of spiritual life and promote community in economic life. The health of this polarity, however, depends on a full recognition of the third human need and function ó the social relationships that relate to our sense of human rights. Here again, Steiner emphasized the need to develop a distinct realm of social organization to support this sphere one inspired by the concern for equality that awakens as we recognize the spiritual essence of every human being. This is the meaning and source of our right to freedom of spirit and to material sustenance.
These insights are the basis of Steiner's responses to the needs of today, and have inspired renewal in many areas of modern life. Doctors, therapists, farmers, business people, academics, scientists, theologians, pastors, and teachers all approached him for ways to bring new life to their endeavors. The Waldorf school movement originated with a school for the children of factory employees at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory. Today, Waldorf schools are all over the world. There are homes, schools, and village communities for children and adults with special needs. Biodynamic agriculture began with a course of lectures requested by a group of farmers concerned about the destructive trend of "scientific" farming. Steiner's work with doctors led to a medical movement that includes clinics, hospitals, and various forms of therapeutic work. As an art of movement, eurythmy also serves educational and therapeutic work.
Rudolf Steiner spoke very little of his life in personal terms. In his autobiography, however, he stated that, from his early childhood, he was fully conscious of the invisible reality within our everyday world. He struggled inwardly for the first forty years of his life not to achieve spiritual experience but to unite his spiritual experiences with ordinary reality through the methods of natural science. Steiner saw this scientific era, even in its most materialistic aspects, as an essential phase in the spiritual education of humanity. Only by forgetting the spiritual world for a time and attending to the material world can new and essential faculties be kindled, especially the experience of true individual inner freedom.
During his thirties, Steiner awakened to an inner recognition of what he termed "the turning point in time" in human spiritual history. That event was brought about by the incarnation of the Christ. Steiner recognized that the meaning of that turning point in time transcends all differences of religion, race, or nation and has consequences for all of humanity. Rudolf Steiner was also led to recognize the new presence and activity of the Christ. It began in the twentieth century, not in the physical world, but in the etheric realm of the invisible realm of life forces of the Earth and humanity. Steiner wanted to nurture a path of knowledge to meet today's deep and urgent needs. Those ideals, though imperfectly realized, may guide people to find a continuing inspiration in anthroposophy for their lives and work. Rudolf Steiner left us the fruits of careful spiritual observation and perception (or, as he preferred to call it, spiritual research), a vision that is free and thoroughly conscious of the integrity of thinking and understanding inherent in natural science.