VIENNA AND THE DISCOVERY OF GOETHE
At the end of Chapter 1 a brief reference was made to Steiner’s autobiography, and a few extended quotations from it form part of Chapter 2. It now becomes necessary to give some more detailed attention to this work, which is our main source for Steiner’s life until after the turn of the twentieth century.
Steiner began the autobiography late in 1923 at a time when he had become an established teacher, and was well known, especially in central Europe, both as educator and as the founder of Anthroposophy. Soon after he had begun the book he assumed the presidency of the newly founded General Anthroposophical Society, with its center at the Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland, a Society which was world wide in scope. It was in the review published by this Society (Das Goetheanum) that instalments of the autobiography appeared every week until his death in March, 1925. In the very first instalment he explained that he was writing the book, which was to be called Mein Lebensgang (The Course of my Life) because he had often been accused of inconsistency. He wished to show that his ideas had not changed during the course of his life, but had evolved as he himself and his thought had gradually matured over the years. But he felt that it had become necessary to set the record straight, for the benefit especially of those who had recently come into the movement and were unacquainted with its history.
The book is therefore the work of a man in his sixties who was above all a thinker. It was never a part of his intention to recount anecdotes of his youth or manhood simply because they happened and might be interesting to his readers; nor did he plan to write a real biography of himself. He wished especially to trace his thought and show how it had evolved in the course of the years; and indeed in no other of his works does he describe his thinking processes with such clarity and precision as he did in this last book of his lifetime. Nevertheless this is far from being all that he gives us. He also provided a picture, often a very vivid one, of a number of persons with whom he was in contact during these years and his feelings with regard to them—and it is especially noticeable with what charity, indeed loving kindness he describes even those with whom he evidently had little sympathy, while he makes clear also how much he loved his friends. In the course of these descriptions he naturally narrates some selected incidents in his life that he felt to be of significance.
Nevertheless, the book is not easy to use as a source for Steiner’s actual life. It is sometimes difficult to follow the chronology, and it should never be forgotten that he was remembering and describing himself, his feelings, and his thoughts many decades after they had been experienced. He was also carefully choosing what he wished posterity to know about him. So it is of great importance to follow this selection process, and to try to imagine why he chose to record a particular episode or experience and to say nothing about others. It seems clear that he wrote nothing at this stage of his life that he had not made a positive decision to include because of its significance. When at the beginning of the autobiography he writes the sentence: ”It has always been my endeavor so to order what I had to say and what I thought I ought to do according as the matter itself might demand, and not from personal considerations,” we may believe him, and place a proper value on all that he does say even while we may regret that he omitted so many things we should have liked to hear from him. In short, the book is irreplaceable but incomplete, and even with the aid of such letters from the early part of his life as have been preserved and of material collected decades later by would-be biographers, it remains impossible to construct the kind of biography that can usually be written about personages as important, and who lived such public lives as Rudolf Steiner. So our account of these early years will in general follow Steiner’s own procedure of describing the evolution of his thought and the development of his inner life as he described them, adding to these only those episodes and human contacts that seem to have been truly significant in his life and career, and leaving aside those of his recollections that were significant to him, but not to us who live and work so many years after his death.
When Rudolf Steiner moved to Vienna in 1879 the city was world renowned for its cultural life, and its cafés, in particular, were the resort of students from all classes, as well as of poets, artists and writers. It was not necessary to be rich to buy a cup of coffee in the Café Griensteidl and nurse it all the evening while engaging in animated conversations with one’s fellow-students, or even to use the café as an accomodation address, as Steiner did. Until 1884 he had no choice but to live in cheap lodgings, while commuting from time to time to Inzersdorf where his parents lived, or, after 1882, to the pretty little suburb of Brunn am Gebirge where they finally settled. Here, in this village which was also a summer resort, Johann Steiner was able to obtain the job of manager of the freight department of the Southern Railway, remaining there until his retirement in the late 1890’s. Steiner visited there quite frequently, and he occupied a tiny room in the fifteenth century house of his parents. It was there that he wrote most of his first major books. The house is now preserved as a memorial to Rudolf Steiner, who, according to local tradition, was much admired for his industry and intellect, and regarded with considerable awe by the villagers.
Steiner often spoke of himself as being an extremely sociable man, and it is certain that he was well provided with what the Austrians call gemütlichkeit, a kind of soul warmth that enabled him to make friends easily and keep them. In the restricted circumstances of his early life this quality had not had much chance to show itself, as it did now in the student society of Vienna, at an epoch when professors also showed great interest in their more gifted students and invited them regularly to their homes. Steiner’s quite natural and not unusual interest in his fellow students was strengthened in his case by his own special aptitude for listening to others, and, if we are to believe his autobiography, for understanding them, including what they did not say. In a striking passage in his book Knowledge of the Higher Worlds: How is it Attained? (1904) he writes of the necessity for a student on the path of higher development to learn to listen to others while keeping his own inner self utterly quiet, to listen to the most contradictory views, while silencing within himself not only all adverse criticism but even assent. He can thus ”train himself to listen to the words of others quite selflessly, completely shutting out his own person and his opinions and way of feeling.” ”Then he hears through the words into the soul of the other.”
All through his life Steiner practiced this ”exercise” to perfection; and it is clear from his autobiography and from testimony given about him by others, even in his university days, that he possessed this capacity to listen selflessly in a degree astonishing for one of his years. It is indeed difficult to escape the conclusion that, as he tells us, the soul of the other person was actually open to his perception; and throughout his autobiography it is especially striking to note how he speaks of everyone he knew at this time, describing in particular their configuration of soul as if indeed it were open to his gaze. An extant photograph of him in his early days in Vienna shows a young man with most beautiful and delicate features, almost feminine in appearance, with hair worn very long for that epoch, the eyes not yet so penetrating as his later photographs show them, but full of feeling and sympathy, which is also suggested by a mouth of great tenderness. Of this young man one can easily believe that he had numerous friends whom he loved, and by whom he was loved in return though they knew nothing of his inner life. Many of these friends were fated to endure lives of sadness and in some cases to commit suicide, for it seems that the young Steiner was especially drawn to such people. We can understand how he was invited everywhere because he could fit in anywhere, in the homes of his professors, at the salon of a noted young poetess, or at a café thronged with the cultural leaders of Vienna. He tells an amusing story of how he was elected president of the German Reading Hall at the Vienna Institute of Technology because of his well known impartiality. But after he had been in office a short time ”the adherents of the various parties would come to me, and each would seek to convince me that his party alone was right. At the time I was elected every party had voted for me, for up to that time they had heard I had always supported what was justified. After I had been president for a half-year, all voted against me. They had then found that I could not decide as positively for any party as that party desired! ”7
Happy as his relations were, and appreciatively as he writes of his fellow students and professors, it was of the women he knew during these years that he wrote most warmly. Indeed it seems clear that the feminine soul was at the time more open to what he had to give, even though, as far as we know, none of them had any greater knowledge of his own soul life and his exceptional spiritual gifts than had the men. Letters from such distinguished women as Rosa Mayreder, painter, writer and poet, long after he had left Vienna, show how great had been his influence, and especially his ability to enter into their intimate soul life without ever interfering with their freedom or making any demands upon them. Such men, especially as young as Steiner was during the Vienna period, are necessarily rare, and perhaps more appreciated in this respect by women than by men. Soon after he had left Vienna Rosa Mayreder wrote him a letter in which occurs the following passage:
”Every day, indeed every hour, I become more aware of the emptiness that our separation has left in my life, when innumerable subjects for thought awake in me uncertainty, doubt, error, and uneasiness, and make me long for the incomparable happiness that you gave me by your friendly help. The longer you remain away, my faithful friend, the more the thought that you will stay so far away seems unthinkable to me.”8
Of this friend Rudolf Steiner wrote in his autobiography: ”This was the time when my Philosophy of Freedom was taking more and more definite shape in my mind. Rosa Mayreder is the person with whom I talked most about these forms at the time when my book was coming into existence. She relieved me of part of the inner loneliness in which I had lived . . . Often in later life has there risen before my mind in most grateful memory one or another picture from this experience—such, for example, as a walk through the noble Alpine forests, during which Rosa Mayreder and I discussed the true meaning of human freedom.”
A friendship not unlike this one also occurred with another woman writer in Weimar, who later became famous, Gabrielle Reuter. But one Vienna relationship was clearly of quite a different nature. Until recently even the name of the girl was unknown, and it was only by an odd chance that letters written to her by Steiner were at last able to be matched with letters in the Rudolf Steiner Archives in Dornach. In essentials this correspondence merely confirms that the young Steiner was indeed in love with her, and the fact was known to all his friends who even teased him about the relationship. He was a regular visitor at her home, into which he had been introduced by her brother who was a fellow student at the university. The story could easily have been omitted altogether from the autobiography, but evidently Steiner, even in the last year of his life, felt that it was too important to omit. The girl’s father was a recluse who never left his room, although he exercised a strong influence on his family, and indeed upon all visitors to the house. Steiner became deeply interested in the man after reading a number of his books, which were full of interesting notations, as well as from the information he was able to glean about him from members of his family. We do not know whether the younger daughter, Radegunde, with whom Steiner fell in love, recognized his supersensible gifts or not, but at least someone in the family circle must have become aware of the fact that he possessed a remarkable knowledge of this man, whom he had never seen. Otherwise it seems scarcely believable that he should have been asked to deliver the customary funeral address when the father died, in preference to anyone who had actually known him in life, even though only members of the family and the elder sister’s fiancé were present. The brother and sisters told him afterwards that he had given a true picture of the man, and ”from the way in which they spoke and from their tears, I could not but feel that this was their real conviction.”
In a later chapter of his autobiography Steiner returns to the subject of this man whom he had never met, and explains that he had indeed accompanied the man after death into the spiritual worlds. Indeed, it became clear to him afterwards that the main purpose of his intimacy with this family was because he had something to learn from the father he had never met, and not because of the daughter with whom he fell in love for the first, and, as far as we know, the only time in his life. The father, as Steiner already knew from his knowledge of the books he had studied, had been fully convinced by the scientific materialism of the age, and did not permit himself to entertain any ideas of the spiritual worlds of which he was totally ignorant. However, his materialistic ideas had never been allowed to affect his inner life or his actions. Thus when he died, and by so doing actually entered those spiritual worlds whose existence he had denied throughout his lifetime, Steiner was able to accompany him in spirit, and experienced the remarkable fact, which it seems he did not yet know and might never have learned had it not been for his experience, and perhaps would not even have suspected, that the man’s intensive efforts to discover the true nature of the visible world bore good fruit for him in the afterlife even though in this earthly life they had resulted only in the conclusion that current scientific ideas were sufficient to explain the world. Steiner was able to perceive in the case of this man, (and later of another man who had devoted his life just as singlemindedly to the same search), that his denial of the spiritual worlds while he was alive in no way hindered his progress in the spiritual worlds after death. As soon as his earthly body fell away from him, and with it his earthly prejudices, his soul appeared to spiritually awakened sight as shiningly beautiful, thus revealing to Steiner that such ideas, so long as they do not result in actions of the kind that so often result from a crassly materialistic world view, are to be revered, and neither condemned nor despised—as they so often are by people who consider themselves to be superior beings because their outlook is so ”spiritual,” and because they devote themselves exclusively to ”spiritual” pursuits, while making no attempt to appreciate at its just value the hard and patient work accomplished by serious scientists. The lesson was not lost on the young Steiner whose subsequent writings are full of admiring recognition of the ”spiritual activity” engaged in, after their own manner, by scientists, who nevertheless deny the very existence of the spiritual.
In view of the importance of this relationship with the father of the girl he loved, the few words devoted by Steiner to his relationship with her take on an added poignancy. If he had married her, as it seems clear might well have happened if he had spoken of his feelings for her, there can be little doubt that his subsequent life-work could not have taken the form it did. Such a union must have diverted him from the work for which, if not yet perhaps quite consciously, he was preparing himself. Whether or not the twenty-four year old Steiner purposely denied himself this earthly happiness, it was in sad measured words that he wrote of it when he was sixty-three.
”Between the younger daughter and me there gradually came about a beautiful friendship. She really had in her something of the primal type of the German maiden. She bore within her nothing of an education acquired by routine, but manifested an original and charming naturalness together with a noble reserve. This reserve of hers caused a like reserve in me. We loved each other, and both of us were fully aware of this; but neither of us could overcome the diffidence which kept us from saying that we loved each other. Thus the love lived between the words we spoke to each other, and not in the words themselves. I experienced our relationship as an intimate soul-friendship, but it found no possibility of taking even a single step beyond what is of the soul.
”I was happy in this friendship; I felt my friend as a ray of sunshine in my life. Yet this life later parted us. In place of hours of happy companionship there remained only a short-lived correspondence, followed by the melancholy memory of a beautiful period of my past life—a memory, however, which through all my later life has arisen again and again from the depths of my soul.”9
In 1884 Steiner was at last able to move from his lodgings when he became resident tutor with the Specht family, in which there were four boys, of whom Otto, the youngest, suffered from hydrocephalus and was both physically and mentally retarded. Ladislas Specht, the father, was a sales agent for Indian and American cotton, and was financially well off. As a result, for almost the first time in his life Rudolf Steiner had no financial troubles, and was in a position to give up his other tutoring. He could now spend his summer holidays with his employers in the beautiful Alpine country of Upper Austria, and he tells us that it was while living with this family that for the first time he learnt to play (and invent) games.
Although he does not discuss in any detail the educational work that he undertook with the Specht children, it is clear enough from what he says in his autobiography that we may trace to this time the genesis of what later became his curative educational work for children ”in need of special care of the soul,” as he was later to call such children as Otto Specht. His work with the normal members of the family was also to bear fruit in his educational work for normal children for which he became equally famous in later years, and for which he is now known. Although at the beginning he had no knowledge of the particular kind of pedagogy that would be needed for Otto, and was without any practical experience in this domain, his supersensible faculties were by this time sufficiently developed for him to be able to perceive how the boy’s soul, as he puts it, did not ”fit” his body, and he did not hesitate to use his insights to help the lad to awaken his ”hidden mental faculties.” Almost immediately he won the full confidence of the boy’s parents, and was given full charge of his education. At that epoch, in the 1880’s, almost nothing was done for such retarded children by orthodox medicine, so Steiner could have learned little or nothing from that source.
Steiner tells us that this experience was to him profoundly satisfying, and it enabled him ”to gain in a living way a knowledge of the nature of the human being which I do not believe I could have developed so vitally in any other way.” Unfortunately he does not go into any detail as to how he succeeded in ”awakening the soul” of the boy, but such detail as he gives enables us to trace how he arrived at the basic insights that later came to full fruition in the educational work of his mature years. The first necessity was to win the loving attachment of the boy, and then, when this was secure, to devise a method of instruction and a curriculum that would not be too great a strain on his delicate health. At the beginning it was impossible to spend more than fifteen minutes at a time on actual teaching without causing injury to his health, and the young tutor had never to lose sight of the very limited possibilities for improvement, and to observe every change with the utmost attention.
”Through the method of instruction that I had to employ,” he tells us, ”there was laid open to my view the association between the spirit-soul element and the bodily element in the human being. It was then that I went through my real course of study in physiology and psychology. I became aware that instructing and educating must become an art having its foundation in a genuine knowledge of the human being.... I frequently had to spend two hours in preparing half an hour’s instruction in order to get the material for instruction into such a form that, in the least time and with the least strain upon the mental and physical powers of the child, I might reach his highest capacity for achievement. The order of the subjects of instruction had to be carefully considered; the division of the day into periods had to be properly determined. I had the satisfaction of seeing the child in the course of two years catch up in the work of the elementary school and successfully pass the entrance examination into the Gymnasium. Moreover his condition of health had materially improved. The existing hydrocephalic condition was markedly dimishing.... My young charge was successfully guided through the Gymnasium; I continued with him until the next to the last class. By that time he had made such progress that he no longer needed me.”10
The erstwhile retarded child then entered the School of Medicine at Vienna and graduated as a doctor, practicing for many years as a successful physician until he was killed in action during the First World War.
While living in the Specht household Rudolf Steiner was for a short time the editor of a weekly periodical Deutsche Wochenscrift, and had among other duties to compose a weekly article on world events. He admits frankly that his life experience was as yet quite inadequate to fulfil such a task, and he was relieved when the journal suspended publication in a quarrel between the new and former owners over financial not editorial matters. The editorship gave him some new insights into Austrian racial struggles, but otherwise was not especially rewarding. Meanwhile he continued with his Goethe studies already begun in his first year at the Institute of Technology. These proved to be so important in his life that they merit detailed attention here.
As we saw in the last chapter Steiner already became acquainted with the work of Immanuel Kant while still in high school. In his last summer before going to the Vienna Institute of Technology he began to work with great intensity on the German idealist philosophers, having bought several volumes by Fichte, Hegel and Schelling from the proceeds of the sale of his school books. He was at first, and indeed for many years thereafter, especially interested in Johann Gottlieb Fichte and his philosophy of the Ego, since, as he tells us in his autobiography, it was a matter of direct perception for him that ”the Ego is spirit and lives in a world of spirits.” The German idealists had succeeded in achieving numerous insights solely through an intense activity of thought. But unlike Steiner, they had not actually penetrated into the spiritual world consciously, though Hegel, in particular, had experienced this world most intensely through his activity of thought. After studying most carefully what these men had to say Steiner came to conceive it as his task to ”mould into the forms of thought the immediate perception of the spiritual world which I possessed.”
This conclusion he had reached even before entering the Institute of Technology, and it seems likely that he had already come also to the conviction, though perhaps a little less consciously, that it would become for him a spiritual necessity to oppose the prevalent materialistic conception of the world by formulating the spiritual conception which he held to be the true one, which alone was in conformity with what he perceived directly through his supersensible faculties. Pondering over these matters even while he was deeply engaged in his other studies, by the time he was twenty-one he had come to the conclusion, as he puts it, that ”spiritual vision perceives spirit as the senses perceive nature,” and recognized that this spiritual vision did not rest upon ”obscure mystical feeling, but took its course rather in a spiritual activity which in its transparency might be compared completely with mathematical thinking.” Thus, as he formulated it, he felt himself to be ”approaching a state of mind in which I felt that I might consider that the perception of the spiritual world which I bore within me was justified also before the forum of natural scientific thinking.”11
It will not therefore be difficult to see why for Steiner philosophy was scarcely at all a subject for academic study; and it seems that he took no courses at all in philosophy either at his secondary school or university, though he attended some lectures by practicing philosophers, mainly in order to see for himself how they thought, being very little interested in what they thought. His main concern was to discover to what realm philosophers penetrate when they think, a subject that was especially fascinating in the case of Hegel, whose tremendous capacity for thinking he always admired. Steiner felt that he knew the nature of Hegel’s ”living thought-world,” but he could not help being disappointed that Hegel had never been able to penetrate into and perceive a world of concrete spirit. Indeed he goes so far as to say that this failure of Hegel ”repelled” him, whereas the more he entered into the world of geometry, especially synthetic or projective geometry, the more sure he was that this was indeed a real world of spirit, totally unlike the world of sense perceptions in which we ordinarily live. To Steiner mathematical concepts were true, independent of any confirmation from the sense-perceptible world, and this was always a solace for him as he struggled with the concepts of other thinkers who lacked his own first hand experience. Thus he edged his way toward the theory of knowledge that as yet he did not dare to formulate, even to himself, a theory of knowledge that he never found in any of the philosophers whose works he studied, but that he was to find implicit in the work of Goethe, who was not even regarded as a philosopher at all by Steiner’s contemporaries—and by few indeed of his successors.
When at high school Steiner had no knowledge at all of Goethe, but in the course of his studies at the Institute of Technology it became necessary for him to study German literature in a formal manner. Thus when he was only a freshman he made the acquaintance of the professor of German literature at the Institute, Karl Julius Schröer, who took a great interest in him and invited him frequently to his home. Schröer was at the time one of the leading experts on Goethe, and had recently published an edition of Part I of Faust for a series on German literature sponsored by the publishing house of Kürschner. Part II he was already preparing when Steiner made his acquaintance, and the young student at once began to share his enthusiasm. He tells us that he ”listened with the utmost sympathy to everything that came from Schröer,” commenting that his professor ”lived so strongly in the spirit and work of Goethe that, with every sentiment or idea which entered his mind, he asked himself the question: Would Goethe have felt or thought this?”
Steiner soon discovered that Schröer had no interest at all in Goethe’s scientific works, in this conforming to the general opinion of Goethe held in the late nineteenth century. These works were usually regarded as an interesting by-product of his poetic genius, and not at all as a substantial contribution to scientific knowledge—still less as a contribution to scientific method. Newton’s theory of color continued to hold the field as it had in Goethe’s own lifetime, and Goethe’s thousands of experiments in the field of color recorded in his huge book on the subject were almost totally neglected. Even Goethe’s small book on the metamorphosis of plants which had won unstinted praise from the early nineteenth century British historian of science William Whewell (1839) was no longer read, much less taken seriously. Darwinism held the field in biology as Newton in physics. Goethe was classified as a poet and dramatist, among the greatest, if not the greatest in modern times. His proper, and sole, academic niche was in the specialty of German literature.
Steiner, quite independently of Goethe, had already come to the conclusion even before he left high school that Newton’s theory of color was fundamentally wrong, and he was opposed also to what he knew of Newton’s optics. So he began to make experiments as soon as he had the time and opportunity to make them, and could buy the simple equipment that he needed; and in his early days at the Institute he wrote a few simple papers on what he had discovered. These he showed to Schröer, but the professor was not at all interested. Indeed he never at any time showed much sympathy for Steiner’s efforts to evolve for himself a personal philosophy, called by him at the time, for want of a better name, ”objective realism.” For Schröer ideas were simply ”a propelling force in the creative work of nature and of man,” a conventional viewpoint that was of no interest to his pupil, who held that ”behind ideas were spiritual realities of which the ideas themselves were only the shadows.”
The relationship between teacher and pupil might therefore never have made any further progress if Steiner had not one day come upon Goethe’s Farbenlehre (Theory of Color) and discovered that Goethe had made similar experiments to his own, whereupon he proceeded to repeat as many as he could of Goethe’s, always arriving at the same results, and reaching the same theoretical conclusions. When he told Schröer about this work, which now involved Goethe, the professor at once became interested and gave him every encouragement. Steiner then began to devour every scientific work of Goethe that he could find, and as he read his excitement grew. At last he had found someone who had worked in the same field as himself, appeared to have at least some of his own spiritual faculties, and had used them in the field of science—precisely what he intended to do himself!
It may be imagined how much consolation Steiner derived from this discovery, and he tells us that he found inner release from the soul-depressing mood from which he suffered because of his necessary isolation from his companions that resulted from his unique spiritual perception, and he constantly re-read the conversation that Goethe had with his friend Friedrich Schiller after a meeting of the Society for Scientific Research in Jena. Goethe had told Schiller that he had actually seen what he called the Urpflanze, or archetypal plant, whereupon Schiller insisted that what he had seen was only an ”idea.” To which Goethe retorted that he was glad that he could perceive ideas with his eyes. ”I derived comfort,” Steiner tells us, ”after a long struggle of the mind from what came to me out of the understanding of these words of Goethe to which I felt I had penetrated. Goethe’s way of viewing nature appeared to me as in keeping with spirit. Impelled now by an inner necessity, I had to study in detail all of Goethe’s scientific writings.” Before leaving Vienna Steiner also had seen the Urpflanze, but, unlike Goethe, he was able to explain just what it was—a ”sensible-supersensible form which is interposed, both for true natural vision and also for spiritual vision, between what the senses grasp and the spirit perceives.” Goethe, he commented, ”‘saw’ the whole spiritually as he saw the group of details with his senses, and he admitted no difference in principle between the spiritual and the sensible perception, but only a transition from one to the other.”12
In 1883 when Steiner was twenty-two years old an opportunity was presented to him of which he took full advantage. Schröer was, as we have seen, in the process of editing Faust for the publishing house of Kürschner, and he could also have had from the same house the task of editing Goethe’s scientific writings. But, as we have seen, he had no interest in this work except in so far as everything written by Goethe fell within the domain of his interest. He therefore proposed to Kürschner that his young pupil should be entrusted with the editing, since he was already deeply interested in the work, and no other experts were easily to be found. Kürschner agreed to take the chance, although Steiner was completely unknown, and Steiner was appointed as the official editor of the scientific works of Goethe in the German National Literature series. By the following year he had prepared the first group of introductions, and these were immediately published. Three further groups were published in subsequent years.*
It is clear from these introductions that Steiner believed that the method to be used for observing the organic world must differ essentially from that used in observing and describing the inorganic. The first writings for which he provided the introductions include Goethe’s work on the morphology of plants and that on animal morphology, in which the poet predicted the existence of the human intermaxillary jawbone, which had not yet been discovered anatomically. The apparent successes of Goethe’s method aroused the utmost enthusiasm in the twenty-two year old Steiner. He had discovered a key that could be expected to open all doors. The passage in which Steiner predicts the glorious future awaiting scientific investigation through the use of the Goethean method is surely worth quoting in full:
”With what intensity the thought was alive in Goethe to set forth in a major work his ideas concerning nature becomes especially clear when we see that, with each new discovery which he succeeds in making, he cannot refrain from expressing emphatically to his friends the possibility of expanding his ideas to embrace the whole of nature . . . .
”We must regret that such a work was not produced by Goethe. In the light of all that is available, it would have been a creation far outdistancing everything of the kind achieved in modern times. It would have been a canon from which every undertaking in the natural-scientific field would have had to take its point of departure and in connection with which it would have been possible to test the spiritual substance of every undertaking. The profoundest philosophical spirit—a characterization which only superficiality would deny to Goethe—would here have united with a loving absorption in what is presented to sense experience. Remote from any craving for a system supposed to embrace all beings in one universal scheme, here every individual entity would have come into its right. We should have had the work of a mind for which no single branch of human endeavor presses forward to the neglect of all others, but for which the totality of human existence always hovers in the background while it is dealing with a single field. Thus does every single activity acquire its appropriate place in connection with the whole. The objective absorption in the things under consideration causes the mind to enter completely into them, so that Goethe’s theories appear not as something abstracted by a mind, which in its reflecting forgets itself. This inflexible objectivity would have made Goethe’s production the most perfect work of natural science. It would have been an ideal which research scientists would have had to emulate. For the philosophers it would have been a typical model for the discovery of the laws of unbiased world-contemplation. One can assume that the theory of knowledge, which is now coming into view everywhere as a fundamental branch of philosophical knowledge, will be fruitful only when it takes as its point of departure Goethe’s manner of observing and thinking... .”**
Steiner was to learn, painfully enough, in later years how deeply embedded scientific materialism was in the minds of men, especially at the end of the nineteenth century, and how difficult it would be to change their viewpoints. Nevertheless the sentiments expressed in this quotation remained his personal convictions for the rest of his life, and he would have had to change nothing if he had rewritten this introduction in 1924. But he did realize at once after writing it that it was a necessity for him to lay the philosophical foundations of the theory of knowledge he had discovered in Goethe’s work, and that was to become, after a very thorough elaboration, his own. Thus before he embarked upon his second introduction he set to work to sketch Goethe’s theory of knowledge in a book whose title reveals exactly what Steiner believed he had found: The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe’s World Conception. This book was completed at the end of April, 1886 and published before the end of the year. Steiner had just passed his twenty-fifth birthday. Again, it was not necessary for him to change anything of importance when he prepared a new edition of this work in 1924. It remains a bare, perfectly articulated but skeletal presentation of a theory of knowledge, which provides above all a method of studying the organic world that had been Goethe’s special concern. Almost every theme developed later in Steiner’s Philosophy of Freedom (1894) is to be found in this little book, and even today it is well worth reading and studying for itself, and not only because it marks a milestone in Steiner’s thinking. His work on Goethe likewise reached its own climax in the 1890’s with the publication in 1897 of his book Goethe’s Conception of the World, of which a new edition appeared in 1918 at the same time as the second edition of The Philosophy of Freedom.
The discovery and study of Goethe—not only his scientific works but his poetry which he never tired of quoting throughout his life—played a Part in Rudolf Steiner’s life that it is difficult to overestimate. Nevertheless it is untrue to suggest or imply that his thinking was, even in the slightest degree, influenced by that of his great eighteenth century predecessor. It is, indeed, difficult, if not impossible, to find any real influence on his thinking exercised by any predecessor or contemporary. From his earliest youth he had read books to find if other men had ever thought what he himself was thinking. Hence the crucial importance to him of Goethe’s work because he had at last found someone who had indeed thought along the same lines as himself; although Goethe had not himself attained supersensible perception, he had come very close to it, and on several occasions had clothed what he had perceived in marvellous poetic-imaginative form. This is especially true of his ”fairy tale” of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily whose supersensible truth was at once recognized by Steiner, who knew from it to what realm of the supersensible Goethe had penetrated. We have already alluded to Steiner’s comments on the so-called ”archetypal plant” which Goethe claimed to have been able to see, and which Steiner also declared to be a reality in the realm between the sensible and the supersensible.
In Chapter 12 of his autobiography he explains how he was ”constantly driven from Goethe to the presentation of my own world view, and then back to him so that I could interpret his thoughts better in the light of my own thoughts.... I had to struggle for years to obtain a better understanding of Goethe so that I could present his ideas. Looking back on this struggle I realize that it is to this that I owe the development of my own spiritual experience of knowledge. This development proceeded far more slowly than would have been the case if the Goethe task had not been placed by destiny on the pathway of my life. I should then have pursued my spiritual experiences and set these forth just as they appeared before me. I should have been drawn into the spiritual world more quickly, but I should have had no inducement to struggle to penetrate into my own inner being.”
Steiner then proceeds to emphasize how his work with Goethe served a most important purpose in his life work since the attempt to come to terms with him slowed him up, while forcing him to realize that whatever spiritual gifts a person has received as an ”act of grace,” he should never move too quickly, neither being in a hurry to develop his spiritual gifts further nor speaking prematurely of the knowledge resulting from these gifts. While his own mental impulses, as he tells us, were leading him to direct perception of the spiritual world, the ”outer spiritual life of the world brought the Goethe work to me.” These remarks seem to imply that without his struggle with the work of Goethe he might never have laid the philosophical groundwork which was essential for his later presentation of Anthroposophy.
Further light is thrown on Steiner’s understanding of the role of Goethe in his life and work by a lecture given in 1918 to the members of the Anthroposophical Society in Dornach, where the Goetheanum was nearing completion. Here he wished to explain why he had chosen to call the building that was to be the center of Anthroposophy after Goethe and why he was republishing his major work on Goethe for the first time since 1897. Goethe, Rudolf Steiner told his audience, always conceived of man as an integral part of the universe, and refused to look upon him as if he were an isolated being. Man is imbued, he said, with the same wisdom that informs nature . . . . To pursue the path of Goetheanism is to open the doors to an anthroposophically oriented science of spirit . . . . In many ways the safest approach to spiritual science is to begin with the study of Goethe.” With regard to the book Goethe’s Conception of the World Steiner pointed out that it was ”written specially in order to show that in the sphere of knowledge there are two streams today: a decadent stream which everyone admires, and another stream which contains the most fertile seeds for the future, and which everyone avoids.”13
Throughout his life Steiner insisted that the world cannot be understood by the analytical methods of modern science which are competent to deal only with the inorganic world, and not fully even with that, for lack of the ability to perceive the spiritual behind the physical. Indeed analytical science must regard even the organic world as if it were dead if its methods are to be valid and yield any usable information. According to Steiner the only way to comprehend the living organic world is to develop a new kind of thinking that he calls ”living thinking” or sometimes ”imaginative thinking.” Goethe had already begun to develop this kind of thinking for himself without ever having understood fully just what he was doing, and certainly without having ever conceptualized it.
The service Goethe performed for Steiner was to show him that his own kind of thinking was not unique, but that it had been developed by an eminent predecessor, even though it had not been thoroughly worked out by him. His work with Goethe also brought Steiner to the attention of other Goethe specialists, few if any of whom shared his view of Goethe’s preeminent talents as thinker and experimenter. Steiner was treated by these men as an equal, although many of them later were to regard his anthroposophical work as a deplorable waste of his philosophical and scientific talent. Perhaps most important of all the consequences of his immersion in the work of Goethe was, as has been suggested, the fact that it held him back from premature disclosures in the field of Anthroposophy.
From early adolescence Steiner had been a voracious reader, and as we have seen, he studied almost every subject offered both in the Realschule and the Gymnasium. At the end of his high school career he began to study German idealist philosophy in a concentrated manner, and he attended courses on the most varied subjects during his years at the Vienna Institute of Technology, including lectures given by leading specialists at the University of Vienna. What he needed by the time he was twenty-one was to concentrate his attention, and bring his talents to bear on some single field of study that it was really worth his while to grasp from all the angles he could. He found this field in his work with Goethe—not because he concentrated on Goethe himself so much as because through his study of Goethe he was able to create his own philosophy, almost as a byproduct. At all events it started as a byproduct when he discovered the need to write his Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe’s World Conception after he had written his first introductions to Goethe’s scientific work. Thereafter, as we shall see in the next chapter, he went on to write an original philosophical work which was accepted as his doctoral dissertation at the University of Rostock, and he wrote his major philosophical work The Philosophy of Freedom published in 1894, completing this phase of his career in 1900 with a book on the philosophical thinkers of the nineteenth century.
Although we have stressed here Steiner’s primary interest in Goethe as scientist he admired Goethe also not only as poet but as thinker in other realms than science. In 1888 he gave a lecture to the Goethean Society in Vienna on an aspect of Goethe’s work that is rarely stressed, a lecture that was soon published and has been many times republished in the years since. The title given to the lecture was Goethe as the Founder of a New Science of Aesthetics. In it Steiner tried to show that Goethe held a coherent theory of beauty that differed in its essentials from the idea of beauty held by almost all the German idealist philosophers, who regarded beauty as the highest embodiment of the Idea. The lecture is sprinkled with numerous apt quotations from Goethe, including many that Steiner was to quote again and again in later life. It is quite possible that among the distinguished audience were some persons who were hearing him for the first time, and this fact may have played some part in the invitation that was extended to him in the following year, although the actual recommendation that Steiner be given the position certainly came from Schröer, who alone was able to vouch for his qualifications.
A new and complete edition of Goethe’s works was in preparation under the sponsorship of the Grand Duchess Sophie of Saxony, who was a Dutch princess in her own right and was a devoted patroness of all forms of German culture. As a result of receiving a legacy from Goethe’s grandson of all the extant manuscripts of his grandfather the Grand Duchess had decided to create the Goethe Archives in Weimar, and to invite the leading Goethe scholars of the day to edit the new volumes she proposed to publish. By the end of World War I when the work was completed there were 133 volumes in all, of which the scientific books were edited by Steiner.
The work had been in progress for some years when Bernard Suphan, director of the Archives, decided that the scientific work needed a qualified editor. He therefore after consulting Schröer invited Rudolf Steiner to pay a visit to Weimar to look over the scientific material in the Archives to see if he would be interested in collaborating in the new edition. Thus Steiner paid his very first visit to Germany, to a city which was one of the most important cultural centers of the country, as well as being the city of Goethe. Steiner’s initial experience in Weimar seems to have been an overwhelming one, as evidenced by the many letters extant that date from that first visit. In addition to Goethe, Schiller had lived in Weimar, John Sebastian Bach had been court organist there, and in the mid-nineteenth century Franz Liszt had been its director of music. The first performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin had been given there. So Steiner was full of enthusiasm at everything he saw and experienced and immediately made himself familiar with the old haunts of Goethe, who had not yet been dead sixty years. For him Weimar was saturated with memories of Goethe, and when he examined the scientific collection in the Archives he discovered numerous manuscripts that he knew would be of surpassing interest to him. No doubt his enthusiasm communicated itself to Suphan, who invited him to come to Weimar in due course to work with the Archives. On the way back to Vienna Steiner paid a call on the leading philosopher of the day, Eduard von Hartmann, who lived in Berlin, but was disappointed to find that they disagreed on fundamental philosophical matters. He also took the opportunity to visit art collections in Berlin and in Munich before spending the rest of his holidays in the Austrian Alps with the Specht family.
It was in the last months of his period in Vienna that he made the acquaintance of Rosa Mayreder, as well as with a number of theosophists, and he tells us that it was also during this time that The Philosophy of Freedom, which he discussed so often with Frau Mayreder, took final shape in his mind. In 1890 he felt he could safely leave Otto Specht who was now able to make progress on his own. For years he kept in touch with the boy’s mother through correspondence, but there was no further need for his direct help. So in the autumn of 1890 he finally wound up his affairs in Vienna and moved to Weimar. The seven years he spent there were in some respects disappointing to him, but aside from the work he did in the Goethe Archives, he also completed his major philosophical works while he was living there, and accomplished a great deal of other writing, some of which will be mentioned in the next chapter. Most important of all, Weimar brought him into close contact with German culture at a time when imperial Germany in so many respects led the world. The rest of his life until the War was spent in Germany, and he was never again to live in Austria, the land of his birth.
*These introductions are available in English in a book entitled Goethe the Scientist, translated by Olin D. Wannamaker (New York: Anthroposophic Press, 1950). The extract quoted is from this edition.
**Goethe the Scientist, page 39.
Rudolf Steiner: Herald of a New Epoch