When Rudolf Steiner was born in 1861 near the confines of the Austrian Empire, the dominant aspect of Western thought was its materialism, the denial by so many thinkers not only of the truths of traditional Christianity, but of any divine activity whatever in earthly affairs. In that year Charles Darwin’s masterpiece The Origin of Species, which purported to explain mankind’s evolution in wholly material terms, was beginning its meteoric success, while Karl Marx’s teachings seemed to offer a convincing and satisfying explanation of mankind’s history without having to resort to any hypothesis of divine purpose or intervention. Auguste Comte’s philosophy of positivism, which attempted to show how man had thrown off old superstitions in order to arrive at an enlightened understanding of the world and man in material terms without the aid of religion, was making new converts every day among mid-nineteenth century philosophers and scientists. Arthur Schopenhauer, deeply pessimistic, had published his epoch-making work The World as Will and Idea, in which he tried to demonstrate the meaninglessness of human evolution, a philosophy soon to be adopted as the point of departure for his own work by Friedrich Nietzsche, a battler, as Rudolf Steiner was later to call him, against his time. Nietzsche’s whole life work, indeed, was a long cry of anguish against the ideas of his day, which he was not able to refute but could not accept with equanimity—his anguish leading him ever more deeply into a kind of nihilism, and above all into that opposition to Christianity that was characteristic of his latest work.
Such was the cultural and intellectual atmosphere of Europe when Rudolf Steiner was born. But from his earliest childhood he was aware of the reality of the invisible or spiritual world, and it was for that reason impossible for him to share the skepticism, agnosticism and materialism of his age. He knew that all reality was not encompassed within the visible earthly world and thus never experienced an anguish comparable to Nietzsche’s. His problem lay elsewhere. Once he had discovered that other men did not possess his spiritual vision he might have conceived it to be his task to convey to others what he himself perceived in the world of spirit, leaving it to those others to convince themselves as best they could of his veracity, and make what they could of his revelations. The revelations themselves they would in effect have been required to accept on faith, or reject because they could not bring themselves to believe them. In essence this was the path taken by seers of earlier epochs, men like Jacob Boehme or Emanuel Swedenborg, who spoke or wrote directly of their spiritual experiences and ”revealed” what they had perceived in the spiritual worlds hidden from the rest of mankind.
Steiner set himself a more difficult task. Recognizing at an early age that the human capacity for thinking is not simply a bodily process carried out by the brain, but is a supersensible activity of the human spirit which uses the brain as its instrument, he made it his task never to speak of any of his spiritual experiences unless he had first clothed them in a conceptual form that could be grasped by other men when they too had activated their thinking. For many years he was known only as a philosopher, and none of those who read his original works on philosophy or his studies of Goethe, which by the end of the nineteenth century had won him a modest acclaim in the cultural world of Wilhelmine Germany, would have been able to detect the spiritual experience that lay behind his philosophical expositions. Only later, at a time when he was speaking openly about Theosophy or Anthroposophy, did he point out to his new audiences how everything that he said later had already been provided with its philosophical basis in his earlier works. He then explained that he could have spoken, even before the end of the nineteenth century, of the spiritual truths that he had apprehended through his supersensible faculties. For example, he could have explained how the activity of the higher self of man is made possible only through man’s permeation by the Christ Impulse. But if he had revealed this truth in his major philosophical work, The Philosophy of Freedom, published in 1894, the disclosure would have been premature. It could not have been accepted and would therefore have been meaningless. Not until after he had spoken of the Christ Impulse for many years and from many points of view did he draw the attention of his hearers to what he had said in 1894, telling of what lay behind the carefully worded statements of the earlier epoch. It seems clear that at no time in his life did Steiner ever say anything gratuitously. It was a part of his genius that he neither said anything for the sake of effect, nor before at least some of his hearers had acquired the basis for understanding what he said.
Thus his life falls naturally into two parts, his philosophical period until 1900, culminating in the completion of his book Conceptions of the World and of Life in the Nineteenth Century, and his theosophical and anthroposophical period, when he devoted the greater part of his books and lectures to revealing numerous truths that derived from his direct experience of the spiritual worlds. He was able to do this after 1900 for three major reasons: he believed, as we shall see, that with the turn of the century the time had become propitious for making such revelations; an audience had now been found that was eager and willing to hear what he had to say; and last, but for him by no means the least important consideration, he felt that he could now put into intelligible concepts what had always been for him a matter of direct experience, the truths of the spiritual world concealed from almost all his contemporaries because they had neither been endowed with the faculties that had been his from birth, nor had they as yet acquired them by their own efforts—as he assured his hearers was possible if they followed the path he was to indicate for them.
Throughout his life Steiner spoke, often in considerable detail, of what he called ”mystery knowledge,” knowledge dating from much earlier periods in mankind’s history when all human beings had been clairvoyant and could see into the spiritual worlds. As men began to perceive the external world more clearly and grew to understand some aspects of it, they gradually lost their primitive clairvoyance, and the earth be¬came more real to them than the world of spirit. The know¬ledge of the course that evolution would take in later epochs was known to some spiritual leaders of mankind. For this reason in almost all parts of the world preparations were made so that knowledge of the spiritual worlds would not disappear from the earth even though direct vision would so largely be lost. This knowledge was therefore preserved in ”mystery centers,” where after due preparation and undergoing certain trials under the direction of their elders, candidates for initiation were instructed in the wisdom preserved from antiquity. In due course they themselves became ”initiates,” with the task of transmitting the wisdom to a new generation of those who had proved themselves worthy to receive it.
Although almost all peoples had established these mystery centers, most of them by the time of the founding of Christianity had become decadent. According to Steiner the old knowledge was dying out or becoming distorted, and no new spiritual knowledge was as yet available. For more than a millennium after the turn of the Christian era it was necessary for men to nourish their souls by contemplating the truths of Christianity without truly understanding them. This, according to Steiner, was the true reason why it was necessary to have an ”age of faith,” which continued until the high Middle Ages, to merge in the fullness of time into an age when men would acquire knowledge and understanding of the world. In that newer age men would at last begin to take their own future in hand, and accept the responsibility for earthly evolution, a responsibility that had formerly belonged exclusively to divine powers. From the beginning of time divine beings had willed that man should be free, but only gradually could they yield up to him those capacities and powers that would enable him to be free, and to take over those responsibilities hitherto exercised by themselves. If man had been endowed prematurely with the scientific knowledge he was to acquire later he would not, could not, have known how to use it—and indeed it can certainly be contended that he still does not know how to use it. But it is no longer impossible, as it was in earlier ages, for him to learn how to use his powers responsibly. The higher beings who watch over man’s evolution have had to take the risk that he will so misuse the powers entrusted to him that he will not be able to reach his goal. But if man were ever to be free, thus becoming a being unique in the whole universe, as it was planned that he should be, the risk had necessarily to be taken.
During the quarter of a century spent in teaching the science of spirit Steiner constantly stressed this theme of man’s task and man’s responsibilities; and he tried to show why it was necessary for him to lose all direct knowledge of the spiritual worlds if he were to be truly free. As it is necessary for evil to exist in the world if man is to be able to make a choice between good and evil, so is it necessary for him to be able to deny the existence of divine powers, and for those powers to be hidden from his vision if he is truly to believe in his own freedom, and not feel himself coerced by beings wiser and more powerful than himself. It is necessary for darkness to exist if light is to be valued at its true worth, and if man is to be able to choose to follow the light and not bog down in the darkness. But Steiner also held that man’s spiritual helpers had not lost interest in him, and had no intention of allowing him to struggle on alone toward the light without aid. However, they too must be willing to respect his freedom, and in no circumstances to coerce him, even for his own good. When therefore men had reached the point of totally disbelieving in the very existence of the spirit, when knowledge of the soul had become vague and only knowledge of the body seemed real, and the body itself was seen to dissolve into its component elements at death, the moment came when it was necessary that they should again be given some true knowledge drawn from the spiritual worlds. It was no longer possible to breathe new life into old religious teachings, however effectively these had nourished the soul in earlier epochs, nor should men be introduced once more to the old mystery knowledge preserved by occultists through the centuries. Such knowledge must now be given in such a form that men could accept or reject it through their own capacity for thinking, and by exercising their own power of judgment. Men must in future feel the need for this knowledge and seek it. Steiner taught that divine powers indeed wished man to have this knowledge so that on the one hand he could fulfill his responsibilities toward the earth and its non-human inhabitants, and on the other could give back to these divine beings from his own freedom what he alone, as a free being, could give—his love.
Such, in essence, was the picture of man and his destiny consistently taught by Rudolf Steiner. But it would be impossible to find such a summary as the foregoing in any of his works. It has always been necessary for the student of his teachings to work hard at every sentence Steiner wrote or spoke, trying to enliven his own thinking by rethinking for himself the often packed concepts that may at first reading appear dry, though never abstract. In order to determine whether they ”make sense” it is almost always necessary to relate them to other concepts that have been slowly and gradually made one’s own, sometimes through years of study. Indeed, it is a curious but well attested fact, familiar to almost all anthroposophists, that every time they return to a book or lecture of Steiner that they had thought was entirely familiar to them, much, if not all of it seems totally new as if they had never read it before. Students of anthroposophy may admiringly refer to the ”more than six thousand” lectures given by Rudolf Steiner, as if numerous university professors had not given far more than six thousand in a lifetime of teaching. What is so extraordinary about Steiner’s lectures is the concentrated thought that went into them and the concentrated thought that is necessary if they are to be grasped by today’s readers. This is, as might be expected, even more true of his books which he worked over again whenever new editions became necessary.
For many years before 1900 Steiner tells us that he was waiting for some kind of indication from the spiritual worlds that the time had become ripe, and that he could begin to speak openly of all that he knew. He was never entirely sure that he would ever be permitted to speak, and time and again he put to himself the question: Must I forever keep silent? Meanwhile he continued to make himself as familiar as he could with all the concepts and ideas accepted by the science and philosophy of his day. Having long recognized that no one else appeared to have the same kind of knowledge as he, and believing, as he did, that mankind needed that knowledge, it was natural for him to suppose that some day he would be given a task to perform. But he was not willing to begin that task without spiritual guidance whose validity he could not doubt. With his knowledge of history and his understanding of the predominant thought of his day, it was clear to him that he would be required to give to mankind something truly new, something that if it were used properly would make man’s future different from what it had been in the past. It could not be a question of making minor changes, slight deviations from the path man was now following. A totally new orientation would be essential. Without abandoning any of the scientific advances of the last centuries, recognizing them for what they were, one of the most stupendous achievements in the history of mankind—spiritual achievements, as Rudolf Steiner did not hesitate to call them—it was nevertheless necessary to make clear that the material world does not comprise the whole of reality. Indeed, in Steiner’s view the material visible world itself cannot be understood without taking into consideration also the immaterial invisible world that enfolds it. The invisible world existed before the material world, solid matter being a very late development in world evolution. It will exist long after the material world has disappeared; man must begin to rediscover it if he is to move onwards toward his goal.
It is impossible to guess what the experience was that convinced Steiner at last that the time had arrived for him to speak. In the autobiography that he left unfinished at his death he was reticent on the subject, even though he did refer clearly enough to some external factors that were present after the turn of the century that had been missing before. From the choice of subjects for his books and his lectures prior to the War it can be inferred that he wished first to lay the foundations of the science of spirit, or Anthroposophy, as solidly as he could before he gave the courses full of practical advice that were characteristic of the postwar years. All his artistic innovations had been inaugurated before the War, though they were perfected afterwards, whereas the scientific work that stems from Anthroposophy belongs almost exclusively to this later period. He had given some lectures on social problems as early as 1905 and 1906, and he had hinted in a lecture on the education of children that he had first given in 1907, that he stood ready to aid in the establishment of a school based on entirely different principles from those in vogue at the time. It was not until almost the end of the War that he proposed detailed changes in the social order, and not before 1919 did he head a movement looking toward the establishment of such a new order. Directly linked with that movement was the first Waldorf School founded in Stuttgart in 1919, followed by a small handful of similar schools during Steiner’s own lifetime. Today more than a hundred and fifty schools throughout the world call themselves either Steiner or Waldorf schools, and all endeavor to follow the principles explained by Steiner in the course of several lecture cycles given between 1919 and 1924. The curative education inaugurated by Rudolf Steiner and biodynamic farming which stems also from his insights both resulted from courses given in June, 1924. Now in 1980 there are more than a hundred curative homes based on his indications, and at least as many biodynamic farms in operation throughout the world. The General Anthroposophical Society, with its center at the Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland, and the much wider Anthroposophical Movement appear to be solidly established, and are certainly gaining new members, even if the membership is modest by comparison with that of movements which make less exacting demands upon their members. By every external standard of comparison Anthroposophy is clearly a more influential movement than it was at Steiner’s death in 1925. Such progress has surely been possible only because its newer adherents have continued to find his indications either fruitful in their own lives, or both in their lives and in their work.
Nevertheless it might well seem presumptuous to call Rudolf Steiner the herald of a new epoch if all there was to show for his life work was the influence he has exercised and is still exercising over an almost infinitesimal percentage of present day humanity. Such men and women are no doubt entitled to think of him as such a herald, and at the same time to think of the twentieth century as a new epoch precisely because it was at the beginning of the century that Steiner began his public work. But have others who have thus far not been influenced by Rudolf Steiner any reason to think of this century as a new epoch? Does a person born in the late twentieth century differ in any significant respect from his predecessor born a century ago? Is the cultural, even the religious climate of our epoch different from that of the 1880’s?
From whatever point of view we look at the past century it seems impossible to doubt that we are living in a totally different world from that of our grandparents. Nothing is even remotely similar to what it was even in 1900. Although there are without doubt numerous materialists alive today, they no longer set the fashion. Nor are materialistic scientists—and numerous scientists are no longer materialists—listened to with awe and respect as they once were. It is no longer fashionable to deride even traditional Western religion, while the urge to seek for enlightenment in non-Western religions and philosophies has never been stronger than now. Whatever name they give to these experiences countless thousands are trying to gain direct experience of the supersensible worlds. Meditation in one form or another has become fashionable, every small town has its specialists in yoga, men and women who a century ago would have thought of themselves as agnostics engage in practices such as that of ”transcendental meditation” in order to enlarge their consciousness and even help them solve their daily problems. Indeed, in our day it is difficult to discover any old fashioned skeptics, however hard one looks.
None of these practices has stemmed from Rudolf Steiner’s work. Nevertheless the world has changed since his time, whatever explanation or combination of explanations we may offer for the phenomenon. And it has changed almost entirely without being in any way influenced, much less guided, by Rudolf Steiner. But he certainly foresaw the changes that were to come in this century, and he perceived the spiritual causes that lay behind them. For this reason as early as 1904 he was already instructing his pupils how to find their true path to the spiritual worlds for themselves; and all his life he was constantly warning against false paths, especially paths that required the dimming of human consciousness. It was an essential part of his teaching that all spiritual knowledge must be acquired, as it must also be checked in full consciousness.
Steiner therefore can be a guide for those who wish to understand our epoch, and for those who wish to play an active part in it, in accordance with the needs of the time. Although he died more than fifty years ago, because his teachings were so much in advance of his time they have not become outdated. On the contrary, still very few of them have been made as yet truly fruitful either in the lives or the work of men and women born in this century. Even his social ideas, put forward as they were for a specific purpose at a definite time in history—the end of World War I—are by no means necessarily archaic. They have never been put into effect, and so may yet be rethought out and applied in the quite different social conditions of a later epoch. So it may properly be contended that he could still be a guide for the end of this century if enough persons occupy themselves with his work, reactivating their thinking and transforming their inner lives as he insisted was necessary, and in the end coming to an understanding of the relationship between the material and spiritual worlds that constitutes the essence of Anthroposophy.
If it is admitted that his work is still worthy of study, why should we also study his life? The life of this modern initiate-teacher, unlike that of some other modern spiritual teachers, seems to have been a truly admirable, even an exemplary one. We do not know much about his inner life after 1906, the year he had reached in his autobiography at the time of his death; and even the years of his youth and young manhood are not at all well documented. Personal information is only too often lacking. So it is necessary when writing a biography of Rudolf Steiner to deal mainly with his work in relation to his life, offering only occasional glimpses of the man as others saw him. But it is nevertheless hoped that out of this material that may sometimes seem dry and factual his essential humanity will shine forth—and that those who read the book will come to feel at the end that they have after all come to know with some intimacy a remarkable man. They may perhaps even feel that he was indeed, as the title calls him, the herald—an exemplary herald—of a new epoch.
Rudolf Steiner: Herald of a New Epoch