Chapter 4


At the end of the last chapter it was mentioned that Rudolf Steiner’s seven year sojourn in Weimar was in some respects disappointing to him in spite of his deep interest in the work to which he had been assigned, and his initial enthusiasm began to wane soon after his thirtieth birthday. The major reason for the disappointment was that he discovered a fundamental difference between his own attitude and that of the majority of his fellow workers, whose approach to Goethe’s work was, to use Steiner’s invariable word for it, ”philological.”

There can be no doubt that the attitude of these men was the polar opposite of his own. There is a kind of learning that became widespread for the first time in the nineteenth century (especially, indeed, in Germany) that concentrates on the textual details of the work of great writers of past epochs, thus too often failing to grasp the scope and true importance of the writers themselves and their works. In present-day Shakespearian studies, for example, especially as they are pursued in institutions of learning, scholars become extraordinarily interested in tracing every image, every historical nuance, the sources used by the master, even the smallest indications of authorship and the tiniest wisp of evidence for his life and activities other than his writing. Such material is the stuff of which doctoral dissertations are composed. Already at the beginning of the 1890’s Goethe was in the process of being mummified by too many of the scholars now engaged in the work of editing his extant manuscripts. And these scholars, to Steiner’s horror, seemed to be precisely those who now enjoyed the highest reputation and whose influence was becoming paramount at Weimar.

Steiner, by contrast, loved Goethe and his work. He entered imaginatively into Goethe’s life and thought. Everything Goethe had written, whether classified as literature or science, was of vital importance to him. In Steiner’s view Goethe’s ideas were still alive and not ready to be embalmed. They should be made known to the entire world so that other men’s thinking could become as alive as his. His scientific observations and experiments, his theory of color, above all his conception of the world implicit in all his work—these things were valued by Steiner but by few others in Weimar, and it was impossible to find anyone to whom he could really talk on these matters with the certainty of being understood. Not even to Hermann Grimm, an essayist of note, a sensitive historian of art, and author of a book on Goethe which was greatly appreciated by Steiner. Indeed, Steiner made frequent references to Hermann Grimm throughout his life, and his friendship with the older man (Grimm was born in 1828), both in Weimar and Berlin, evidently meant much to him.

Grimm was an important figure in German cultural life at the time, though he was not, strictly speaking an academic and was therefore looked down on by some German academic pedants as little better than a dilettante. Only when in mature life he was appointed professor of the history of art in the University of Berlin was he accepted as a member of the academic fraternity, though his many teaching innovations caused some academic eyebrows to rise. Many of his books eventually became classics and all are still in print in German. This was the man of whom Steiner wrote: ”Whenever he appeared in Weimar and in the Archives one felt that hidden spiritual threads united Goethe with the place where his legacy now reposed.” But even Grimm, friendly and helpful though he was to Steiner, could not follow him in his appreciation of Goethe as a seminal thinker, confining himself to an appreciation of and understanding of his work in literature and poetry—much as Schröer had done in Vienna. But this, at least, was a refreshing change from the attitude of most of the ”philologists,” whose feeling for the poetry, if it had ever existed, had been long ago subordinated to their interest in the exact scholarship of textual criticism.

Although Steiner was active in the social life of Weimar, and made many friends, as he had in Vienna, his letters of the time make it clear that he suffered seriously from his isolation and the fact that to not one, not even to Gabrielle Reuter, the authoress referred to in the last chapter, nor to Hermann Grimm, who for all his insights was too much the child of his age, could he speak of what lay closest to his heart, including his spiritual experiences and the content of his inner life. But he was fortunately given the opportunity, as he had been in Vienna, to enjoy a home life because of his work with a family of children. Anna Eunike, a recent widow, asked him to supervise the education of her five young children. This position required him to make his home with the family, and he was given a part of the Eunike house where he could entertain his own friends. The move was a welcome change after the early period of his stay in Weimar when he had been compelled to rent unsatisfactory lodgings. Later when he moved to Berlin Frau Eunike again provided him with a home, and in 1899 she became his first wife.

Perhaps in part because of his relative isolation Steiner spent his seven year period in Weimar in completing, in all essential respects, his philosophical corpus. When he arrived in Weimar he had not yet earned his doctorate in philosophy, in spite of the fact that he had already written and published an important philosophical work on the theory of knowledge implicit in Goethe’s world conception (1886) and had prepared a kind of sequel to that work that might be acceptable as a doctoral dissertation. From the point of view of the authorities in the University of Vienna Steiner’s formal education had been deficient. Having attended only the Realschule and not the Gymnasium he was not eligible to receive a doctorate in philosophy, however brilliant his dissertation. Similar regulations did not apply in Germany. All that was needed was for a recognized professor of philosophy to be willing to accept his dissertation and examine him orally on his general competence in philosophy as well as on the dissertation itself.

The work that Steiner proposed to submit was still concerned with the theory of knowledge, but no longer with Goethe. It was intended as a refutation of Kant’s belief that there are necessary limits of knowledge, but this time Steiner took his departure from Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s book The Science of Knowledge. Steiner’s dissertation when it was eventually submitted bore the full title The Fundamentals of a Theory of Cognition with Special Reference to Fichte’s Scientific Teaching. It was followed in 1894 by The Philosophy of Freedom, or Philosophy of Spiritual Activity, which placed the capstone on his work in epistemology, and showed how a theory of freedom could be derived from a theory of knowledge that places no limits on human cognition. The dissertation, later published under the simpler title of Truth and Science or Truth and Knowledge (Wahrheit und Wissenschaft) was thus a kind of half way point between the 1886 work on Goethe and the major work of 1894.

Early in his stay in Weimar Steiner came upon a three volume work on Plato, written by a certain Heinrich von Stein, professor of philosophy at the University of Rostock in northern Germany. Greatly impressed by this work on Plato Steiner thought it possible that von Stein might be willing to sponsor his dissertation. So he sent off the manuscript and in due course received word that it was acceptable, and instructing him to go to Rostock for his examination, which took place in May, 1891. To his disappointment the oral examination was concerned only with Kant, and not, as he had hoped, with Plato, whom he had in the meantime studied intensively. Kant, of course, presented no difficulties. As for the dissertation von Stein remarked drily that ”one can see from it that you have not produced it under the guidance of a professor,” adding at once, ”but what it contains makes it possible that I can very gladly accept it.”

So Rudolf Steiner earned his doctorate at the age of thirty from a university he had never attended, and did not know, and from a professor whom he met only on this occasion, and who died shortly afterwards. The dissertation, only slightly revised, was published the following year.

Once this hurdle was out of the way, Steiner returned to work on the book that had been maturing in him since he first conceived it in 1881 when he was only twenty years old. But neither at this nor any other period in his life did he devote himself simply to one subject or one book. His bibliography for the seven year Weimar period consists of no fewer than 95 titles, including books and articles, of which his introductions to the works of Schopenhauer and Jean Paul in the Cotta World Literature library were by no means the least. While he was completing The Philosophy of Freedom he was studying Friedrich Nietzsche in an intensive way, having discovered him only the year before going to Weimar. A book on Nietzsche appeared from his pen in 1895, just a year after publishing The Philosophy of Freedom. Lastly he completed his introductions to the scientific work of Goethe for the Kürschner edition, and wrote his major work on Goethe which was published in 1897 (Goethe’s Conception of the World).

The Philosophy of Freedom was referred to time and again by Rudolf Steiner in his later life, and it undoubtedly constitutes his most important philosophical work. In it Steiner believed he had laid the philosophical groundwork for everything he was to give out later as Anthroposophy, which he called the science of the spirit (Geisteswissenschaft). At this time he was trying to convince his fellow-philosophers and scientists that Kant’s teachings on the limits of knowledge must be false. As yet he had said nothing publicly about his perceptions of the spiritual world. He had not yet found his audience for Anthroposophy, nor had he received the indication from the spiritual worlds that he should speak of these perceptions. He was, indeed, constantly asking himself if he should forever have to keep silent, and perhaps have no task to perform but to show through philosophical argument that thinking itself was a spiritual activity, in no way dependent on the senses, that when man thinks he is exercising a faculty that can truly be called supersensible.

As a result of his personal experience Steiner knew for certain that Kant’s teaching must be untrue, and that all those philosophers who still followed him were mistaken. The spiritual knowledge that he himself possessed was as clear and conscious as any other kind of knowledge, yet it was not derived from the sense world. Therefore the world of spirit did exist, and it was accessible to man. What was therefore needed was a theory of knowledge that was capable of explaining his own actual experience that knowledge did indeed have no limits, and that the entire world of spirit could be explored by human thinking once this thinking had been developed to a higher stage than that normally attained by the average human being.

Steiner’s attempt to disprove Kant and establish his own point of view is to be found in the first half of his Philosophy of Freedom, the second half being taken up by his discussion of the consequences for human freedom of the recognition that knowledge has no limits and that thinking is a supersensible activity. Steiner in later life insisted that the two parts of the books belong together and that only by experiencing the first part inwardly can one truly accept the second part of the book, which at first reading appears much more simple to follow. It seems clear that the book does not yield up all its riches at a first reading, and many of Steiner’s followers in fact read it very frequently, perhaps as often as every year, always discovering new insights in it, and measuring their own progress by how much more of it they can understand and apply. It is difficult, indeed virtually impossible, to give any meaningful outline of the content of the book, clear though its arguments are. But an attempt can be made at least to show the kind of argument used to disprove Kant’s thesis that there are necessary limits to knowledge.

Steiner succeeds first of all in demonstrating that no perception by means of the senses is possible unless at the same time a thinking element is present, that is to say, a concept. In actual life therefore concepts and percepts are inseparable. Thinking is therefore an essential element in perceiving, as the Greeks must have known since their original word for seeing was ”noein,” from which came later their word for mind, ”nous.” Since all objects in the world possess both perceptual and conceptual elements, it is never possible simply to perceive an object without in some manner making use of our thinking capacity, if only to take notice of it or to recognize it. Aristotle, who developed a theory of knowledge similar to Steiner’s, was well aware of the two elements present in all objects, and he named the conceptual element the form, while the perceptible element he called substance. Everything in the world was therefore made up of substance and form. For Aristotle as for Steiner the form was no less real than the substance. Both are equally real, though the form, as such, is never visible to the senses, and must be perceived by the thinking. For Steiner, therefore, thinking was in the truest sense of the word, a super-sensible capacity, since it was able to perceive (or conceive) that element in things that is forever imperceptible to the senses. When thinking is systematically developed through exercises described by Steiner in his later works, it is capable also of perceiving (or conceiving) the invisible, supersensible world.

Not only Aristotle but also his medieval successor Thomas Aquinas formulated theories of knowledge similar to Steiner’s though there is no reason to suppose that Steiner was aware of the fact when he wrote his Philosophy of Freedom. In any event the great wealth of illustration and argument that he brings to the subject place Steiner’s book in a different category from theirs. It is worth noting that the second half of the book concerning the reality of freedom and how it can be attained was a subject that had relatively little interest for his predecessors, though it is of surpassing interest for men and women of our present age.

At the beginning of the second part of his book Steiner after a brief digression on the subject of feeling and willing plunges into what must be regarded as the central chapter of the second half, in which he writes of the nature of freedom, and he succeeds in showing with great clarity how all free acts must be preceded by free thoughts. Freedom, for Steiner, was not something that was ever achieved, or enjoyed, but, as Goethe says in his Faust, ”freedom must be conquered anew every day.” Ordinary thoughts are not free, nor are the deeds that we perform in our ordinary life. A thought, for Steiner, can be free only when it has been created anew through the activity of the human spirit. If an act is performed simply out of habit, obedience to that habit prevents it from being a free act, in exactly the same way that an act is unfree if it follows the dictates of a Church, a government, an external authority of any kind, or even an ethical principle which one has accepted. All free acts are individual and unique, and therefore cannot be based on any general principle, however praiseworthy; they can be based only on thinking brought to bear on a specific situation uninfluenced by any previous situation of the same kind or by moral principles enunciated by others, or even by oneself on the basis of similar but essentially different cases in the past.

Since free acts are based, in the last analysis, on thinking, such thinking must be enlivened so that it becomes what we have already called ”living” or imaginative thinking. Hence Steiner speaks of the quality that must be developed if free acts are to be performed as ”moral imagination,” which through inner development can eventually become ”moral inspiration,” and ”moral intuition.” All are the result of what Steiner calls ”spiritual activity,” and it was for this reason that he suggested that the word Freiheit in German, which does not have an exact English equivalent, should be translated in English as Spiritual Activity, making his book’s exact title in English The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity. All editions prior to the current translation by Michael Wilson bore this title, but Wilson decided that The Philosophy of Freedom was less misleading for English speaking people, who, in his view, were inclined to think spiritual activity must be something to do with religion, and the philosophy of spiritual activity would be expected to offer a justification of religious practices. Since the book certainly does provide a philosophical basis for the existence of human freedom in the English sense of the word, describing, as it does, exactly what freedom consists of, as well as what it is not, the title Philosophy of Freedom is fully justified in itself, and it could well be preferable for an English or American audience. Since the English and American peoples believe themselves to be already free, and even that they possess and enjoy certain ”freedoms” guaranteed to them by their governments, it may be as well for them to give more consideration also to the true nature of freedom and perceive for themselves whether or not they enjoy it; if the book were to be called, as Steiner suggested, The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity, its relevance to the question of freedom might easily be overlooked.

For Steiner it was essential to link his demonstration of the spiritual nature of thinking to his discussion of the nature of and possibility of performing free acts, that is to say to link the first half of his book to the second. The moral philosophy that results he called ”ethical individualism,” a philosophy that may be found, more or less explicitly, in the work of Max Stirner, an anarchist philosopher whose book Der Einziger und sein Eigentum, variously translated as The Ego and its Property, The Ego and his Own and The Only One and His Possession, appeared in 1845. Steiner in his book on Nietzsche praised the book, and speculated what the consequences would have been for Nietzsche if he had become a disciple of Stirner rather than of Schopenhauer. Nietzsche himself, the best known living philosopher at the time of Steiner’s stay in Weimar, although because of a mental breakdown he was no longer writing, had in numerous works insisted that the individual man must use his freedom to create his own ethical standards, and not rely on any one else to do his thinking for him. Although very few of Nietzsche’s premises could be accepted by Rudolf Steiner, the ethics resulting from his philosophy was in some respects similar to his, though reached by quite different paths of thought. The similarity was surely responsible for Steiner’s sudden interest in Nietzsche when he first came upon his work in 1889.

By contrast Eduard von Hartmann, a more traditional philosopher than Nietzsche, whose work was admired by Steiner, who had dedicated his earlier work Truth and Science to him, could not understand the true purpose of The Philosophy of Freedom as Steiner had expressed it, and in particular could not grasp the relation between the first and second parts of the book. Though he read the whole with great care when he received from Steiner one of the first copies off the press, he remained unconvinced that Kant’s work was now superseded. He himself was a Kantian type of thinker, though he went further than Kant in some important respects. Holding with Kant that the entire sense-perceptible world is ”merely a subjective phenomenon existing in the mind,” and that consequently reality can be known only by inference, von Hartmann evidently thought that Steiner by abandoning this position was wishing to return to a primitive pre-Kantian belief that the apparent world presented to the senses is a real one. Steiner in fact was quite willing to admit that sense impressions are only mental pictures, but was unwilling to adopt the Kantian position that the mind infers from its own mental pictures the true reality of what lies behind the pictures and this inferred reality is all that man can know. Von Hartmann could not see what Steiner was driving at in his discussion of the linkage between concepts and percepts, nor that it was in any way relevant to his arguments regarding freedom. And as he could not follow Steiner’s arguments in the first half of his book, he regarded the discussions on ethical individualism as interesting in themselves but in no way a logical consequence of those arguments. Steiner, by contrast, believed that his moral philosophy was a necessary consequence of man’s ability to enter the spiritual world through his thinking, and draw from it the concepts which would eventually unite with percepts and result in free human deeds.

It is scarcely surprising that The Philosophy of Freedom (published in an edition of only 1,000 copies) met with little success after its publication in 1894, and that a new edition was not required until 1918, by which time Steiner had been established as a spiritual teacher for many years, and had often drawn the attention of his hearers to the book. By that time also there had been a considerable evolution in men’s thinking, and at least some anthroposophists were well able to follow the arguments and accept the conclusions of the Philosophy of Freedom. Even so, it still is true that the book requires a great effort from the reader, and almost no one can take in all that it has to give at a first reading; and the superficial reader will never make much progress with it.

It may be taken for granted that Steiner was deeply disappointed by the lack of understanding for his work shown by his contemporaries, and, as we shall see in the next chapter, for the last few years of the century he was unclear as to the way that he would take in the future. He was especially incensed by the initial success of the Ethical Culture Society founded by Felix Adler in 1876 that was now spreading to Europe. Adler and his followers wished to found their movement on the highest principles to which men could attain by their own unaided thinking. Steiner regarded this effort as doomed to certain failure because the movement paid no attention to the possibility of basing its ethics on the perception of a spiritual moral world that actually existed, and to which man could have access through his developed thinking. Any ethics that took no account of this was to him worthless, and he said so. But he was unable to persuade any of his friends or associates to take what he said seriously. None of them could see why he was so wrought up about the Ethical Culture Society. As Hermann Grimm remarked with a magnificent obtuseness, the Society ”included many amiable people among its members.”

Remembering this difficult time thirty years later, Rudolf Steiner commented in his autobiography: ”In truth no unknown lies behind the sense world, but within it lies the spiritual . . . . the sense world is in truth spiritual and the human mind is in living union with this recognized spiritual world as it widens its consciousness to encompass it. The goal of the process of knowledge is the conscious experience of the spiritual world in the presence of which everything is resolved into spirit . . . . My endeavor to reach the spirit through the enlargement of consciousness was contrasted [by von Hartmann and others] with the view that ”spirit exists solely in man’s mental pictures . . . . from these no path could be found leading to a real (objective) world of spirit . . . .

“In a certain sense The Philosophy of Freedom released from me and externalized what my destiny had led me to experience in the first chapter of my life, in the form of riddles of existence as natural science perceived them. The next step could now be nothing else than a struggle to arrive at idea-forms for the spiritual world itself. . . .The fact that I did not yet use the term ”anthroposophical” was due to the circumstance that my mind always strives first to arrive at concepts, and scarcely concerns itself at all with terminology. I was now confronted by the task of forming ideas which could express the experience by the human mind of the spiritual world itself.”*

Rudolf Steiner also had to face incomprehension from quite a different source when his friends criticized him for his insistence on the preeminence of thinking in the life of the soul. A good friend from Vienna days kept up a correspondence with him, in which everything not concerned with the life of spirit was discussed in the warmest possible manner. But Steiner and his friend were utterly opposed on this question, and the friend insisted that Steiner was alienating himself from all that was human, and ”rationalizing the impulses of his soul” in working out his philosophy and expressing it in this fundamental book. The friend ”had the impression that in me the life of feeling was changed into a life of mere thought, and this he sensed as a certain coldness proceeding from me . . . . I could not avoid seeing, indeed, that the warmth of his friendship at times diminished because he could not free himself of the belief that I must grow cold in relation to what is human since I consumed my soul life in the region of thought.”

To such a criticism it was impossible for Steiner to reply. From his own actual experience he knew that when he was thinking in a living manner he was actually within the spiritual world, and it was not possible even to enter into that world without taking his ”full humanity” with him. In other words the feeling life must be enhanced if one is to be able to function at all within the spiritual world. The friend, not unnaturally, could not see this at all. For him thinking was abstract thinking, for which Steiner had at least as much aversion as had his friend. ”My friend saw that I moved in thought out of the physical world; but he failed to realize that at that very moment I stepped over into the spiritual. When I spoke, therefore, of the reality of the spiritual, this was to him quite without real existence, and he perceived in my words merely a web of abstract thoughts. I was deeply grieved by the fact that, when I was uttering what had for me the profoundest import, my friend actually felt that I was speaking of a ”nothing.” Such was my relation to many persons.”14

Although, as has been noted, it was in 1889, before he left Vienna, that Rudolf Steiner first became acquainted with the work of Nietzsche, it was in Weimar that he truly immersed himself in his writings, even winning a reputation as an expert on Nietzsche, especially after his book Friedrich Nietzsche: a Battler against his Time appeared in 1895.15 Until the turn of the century he retained his interest and continued to write about him until Nietzsche’s death in 1900. Thereafter references to him in Steiner’s writings are much rarer, and in later life he was much more severely critical of him than he had been during his stay in Weimar and Berlin.

The first book of Nietzsche read by Steiner was Beyond Good and Evil, and it had the effect of exciting in him the desire to read everything else that Nietzsche had written—curiously enough exactly the same reaction that Nietzsche himself had had when reading Schopenhauer for the first time. The year 1889, as it happened, was the year when Nietzsche had his final mental breakdown, making it impossible for him to write any more, even though he lived until 1900. By 1889 his reputation was only just beginning to be established, mainly a result of an appreciation written the previous year by Georg Brandes, the Danish literary historian whose influence in European literary circles was at the time second to none. Nietzsche himself, though grateful to Brandes to whom he addressed his last extant letter, and aware of the importance of his support, never did know the extent of his own popularity, which was already very great at the time of his death, while the vogue for his work has continued in the twentieth century, and even now he may be read more than any other nineteenth century thinker.

For us the problem to be considered is why Steiner, an original thinker and philosopher in his own right, whose thought in essence is poles apart from that of Nietzsche, should have devoted so much attention to him, especially at a time when he was so fully engaged in other work. Even Steiner’s book on him does not really provide the key, and it was perhaps the overwhelming impression he received when he was allowed to go into the room where Nietzsche, by that time in the throes of madness, was resting, that affected Steiner so deeply, coming as it did after five years of concentration on Nietzsche’s writings. From lectures given in later years we know that Steiner became deeply interested in Nietzsche’s destiny, and in the influences he investigated that played upon him from the spiritual world. Whether Steiner already knew these things in the 1890’s we do not know, and there is certainly no indication of such knowledge in his book on Nietzsche published in 1895.

Nietzsche was not truly in the German philosophical tradition at all, nor was he in any sense an academic philosopher. Neither he nor Arthur Schopenhauer, whose writings deeply affected him, were interested by the kind of problems that concerned most philosophers, including the theory of knowledge, which occupied Steiner as well as most of his recent predecessors. Both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche seemed to write their works out of their hearts’ blood and not at all from abstract thinking, and both, according to Steiner, were, in a profound sense, victims of the age in which they were born, of which something more will be said in Chapter 9. Nietzsche, with his particular soul configuration, could scarcely breathe in the materialistic world into which he had been born. He therefore set himself in opposition to almost every feature of the culture of his own age—its professed Christianity (he himself was the son of a Protestant pastor and had been very devout in his early youth), its inability to inspire men to attempt to realize the possibilities inherent in human nature, its lack of freedom.

As Steiner was to explain later in his life, it was a necessary step in man’s evolution that the materialistic world view should be accepted by mankind for a limited period, which included the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth. The darkest period of materialism was the second half of the nineteenth century and man’s immersion in this world conception was, according to Steiner, paralleled by certain events in the spiritual world. Nietzsche was born in 1841 at a period when an important struggle was beginning in the spiritual world, and all through his life his soul was profoundly influenced by the struggle and its earthly consequences, making it impossible for him to accept the culture into which he was born. Hence the subtitle of Steiner’s book ”A battler against his time.”

Indian philosophy long ago gave a name to the period of five thousand years that came to an end in 1899. During this age, which the ancient Indians called Kali Yuga, or the Dark Age, it was held that man’s spiritual faculties, including his clairvoyance, had gradually fallen into disuse, to such an extent that men, instead of being able to see into the spiritual worlds, even came to deny that they existed at all. According to traditional beliefs this age, which had begun about 3100 B.C. was due to come to an end in 1899 A.D., and it would be followed by a new Age of Light, during which man will acquire new faculties enabling him once more to see into the spiritual worlds. It was Nietzsche’s destiny to be born in the darkest period of Kali Yuga, and within his inner being he felt that the age was one in which it was impossible for him to live as a normal human being. Thus when in 1889 his mind darkened, even this was a kind of protection for him, as his thought was growing ever more destructive, especially to himself. When Nietzsche’s sister took Steiner into his bedroom five years after the onset of his madness he may well already have been able to recognize what he spoke of only many years later. At all events it is in the light of this recognition that we should certainly read his description of this meeting, written thirty years later.

”There on the lounge lay the one with benighted mind, with his beautiful forehead, artist’s and thinker’s forehead in one. It was early afternoon. Those eyes which, even in their dullness, yet worked with the permeating power of the soul, now merely mirrored a picture of the surroundings which could no longer find access to the mind. One stood there, and Nietzsche knew it not at all. And yet it might have been supposed, from that countenance permeated by the spirit, that this was the expression of a mind which had all the forenoon long been shaping thoughts within, and which now would fain rest a while. I could feel that the inner sense of shock which seized upon my soul was transformed into an understanding for the genius whose gaze, though directed towards me, yet failed to rest upon me. The very passivity of this gaze that rested on me for such a long time set free the comprehension in my own gaze, so that it could cause the soul force of my eye to work even while it was being met by no response from him. And so there appeared before my soul the soul of Nietzsche, as if hovering above his head, already boundless in its spiritual light, surrendered freely to spiritual worlds for which it had yearned before being benighted but which it had not found; but still chained to the body, which knew of the soul only so long as the world of spirit continued to be the object of yearning. Nietzsche’s soul was still there, but only from without could it hold the body—that body which, so long as the soul remained within it, had offered resistance to the full unfolding of its light.

”I had before this read the Nietzsche who had written; now I beheld the Nietzsche who bore within his body ideas drawn from widely extended spiritual regions—ideas still sparkling in their beauty even though they had lost on the way the power to illumine that they had once had. A soul which bore within it from previous earthly lives a wealth of the gold of light, but which could not in this life cause all its light to shine. I had admired what Nietzsche wrote, but now I saw a brightly shining form behind what I had admired. In my thoughts I could only stammer about what I then beheld, and this stammering is the content of my book Friedrich Nietzsche, a Fighter against his Age. That the book is no more than a mere stammering conceals what is nevertheless true—that the image of Nietzsche himself inspired the book.”16

For a relatively short time Steiner was in close touch with Nietzsche’s sister, who made her brother’s library available to him, and asked him to collaborate in establishing a Nietzsche archive in Weimar to set beside those of Goethe and Schiller. But soon difficulties arose between them and the brief collaboration came to an end. Meanwhile Steiner’s book on Nietzsche had been published in which he seemed to identify himself with Nietzsche in a most extraordinary way. He was later to remark that such an ”objective” book about Nietzsche was never written about him by anyone else, and in it he certainly wrote as if Nietzche’s ideas had been his own. Today this capacity for identifying oneself with someone else is called ”empathy,” but the word had not yet come into general use. In an introduction to the second edition of his book The Riddles of Philosophy which appeared in 1923 Steiner explained why this particular kind of identification with others, especially with those writers whose works he appraised and criticized, was valuable for a man like himself who was pursuing the path of spiritual development. In this passage Steiner was referring to Haeckel, but what he says is surely equally applicable to his relationship with Nietzsche. He had been accused of having changed his ideas when he abandoned philosophy for Anthroposophy. Having at one time been regarded (obviously erroneously) as an ”orthodox follower” of Haeckel, it was supposed that he had undergone ”a complete transformation of spirit” when he wrote his later works on Anthroposophy. His comment on this matter is worth an extensive quotation:

”The question,” he wrote, ”is only seen in the right light if one remembers that my later works, which seem to contradict my earlier ones, are based on a spiritual intuitive insight into the spiritual world. Whoever intends to acquire or preserve for himself an intuition of this kind must develop the ability to suppress his own sympathies and antipathies and to surrender with perfect objectivity to the subject of his contemplations. He must really, in presenting Haeckel’s [or Nietzsche’s] mode of thinking, be capable of being completely absorbed by it. It is precisely from this power to surrender to the object that he derives spiritual intuition. My method of presentation of the various world conceptions has its origin in my orientation towards a spiritual intuition . . . . One must be capable of thinking idealistically with the idealist and materialistically with the materialist. For only thus will the faculty of the soul be awakened that can become active in spiritual intuition.”17

In 1900 just after Nietzsche’s death Steiner summarized his opinion of his work in a memorial address given in Berlin on September 13, 1900. In it he makes clear that he had understood very fully the nature of Nietzsche’s struggle:

”From the most recent natural science he had acquired the idea that a worm evolves into a human being. He himself was never a scientist, and took the idea of evolution from others who simply thought it out intellectually, by contrast with Nietzsche, for whom it was a matter of the heart. While others were waging a spiritual battle against all old prejudices, Nietzsche asked himself how he could live with the new idea, and this battle took place within his own soul. Without his own idea of the superman into which one man evolves, he could not endure the scientific notion of man, and his sensitive spirit was compelled to overcome the natural science that he had absorbed . . . .

”Nietzsche produced no new ideas leading to a new world conception, and we must always recognize that his genius did not lie in this direction. He suffered deeply from the thinking of his epoch, and as a compensation for this suffering he achieved the exalted language of his Zarathustra. He became the poet of the new ideas of the world; his hymns of praise to the ”Superman” are his poetic answer to the problems and findings of modern natural science. Nietzsche contributed nothing to the ideas of the nineteenth century, which would all have been produced without him. In future ages he will not be regarded as an original philosopher, nor as a founder of religion nor a prophet. He will be seen as a martyr of knowledge, who found words in poetry with which to express his suffering.”18

After the publication of his book on Nietzsche Steiner was welcomed into social circles where Nietzsche was greatly revered, and a few sentences from his autobiography will form a fitting conclusion to this section on Nietzsche, showing as they do one kind of influence exercised by Nietzsche’s works shortly before his death.

”The whole group stood, so to speak, under the banner of Nietzsche. They looked upon Nietzsche’s view of life as being of the utmost importance. They surrendered themselves to the mood of soul manifest in Nietzsche, considering it as representing in a certain way the flowering of genuine and free humanness . . . My own attitude toward Nietzsche did not change at all in this circle. But the fact that I was the one questioned when there was a desire to know something about Nietzsche brought it about that the relation of the others to Nietzsche was assumed to be mine also. I must say, however, that just this circle looked up more understandingly to what Nietzsche believed he knew, and that they sought to express in their lives the substance of the Nietzschean ideals of life with greater understanding than was manifest in many other instances, where the qualities of the ”superman” and where Beyond Good and Evil did not always bear the most desirable blossoms.

”For me the circle was important because of a strong and enthralling energy that swept one along with it. On the other hand, however, I found there the most responsive understanding for everything that I felt it possible to introduce into this group. The evenings, made brilliant by Ansorge’s musical renditions, its hours filled with talk about Nietzsche interesting to all, in which far-reaching and weighty questions about the world and life formed, so to speak, a satisfying contrast, were indeed something to which I can look back with contentment as having given a beautiful character to the last part of my stay in Weimar.”19

Ernst Haeckel, the other leading personality whose views were seemingly opposed to his, whom Rudolf Steiner defended against his critics, is no longer much read today. But in his own time he was without doubt the most famous scientist in Germany, for most of his life the center of controversy, a position he certainly enjoyed to the full. Professor at the University of Jena for more than forty years, writer of many books concerned with evolution, in Germany he was scarcely less renowned than his predecessor Charles Darwin, whose work he developed in a manner found shocking by more narrow specialists than he, as well as by theologians and others who for so long refused to accept the Darwinian theory of evolution. As a highly gifted and imaginative popularizer he has during the twentieth century suffered a decline in reputation, since we are inclined to give more credit to specialists, while some of Haeckel’s bolder guesses and suppositions have been falsified by later detailed research. Haeckel also ventured more daringly into the field of philosophy than had Charles Darwin, and for this, according to Steiner, he was very poorly equipped, even though Steiner was perfectly willing to admit that the logical conclusion drawn systematically by Haeckel that man is descended from the apes was firmly based upon his evolutionary material, as interpreted by him.

In an early lecture defending Haeckel, published under the title of Haeckel and his Opponents, Steiner indeed remarks that ”it is characteristic of Haeckel’s deeply philosophical nature that, after the appearance of Darwin’s Origin of Species, he at once recognized the full significance for man’s entire conception of the universe, of the principles therein established; and it speaks much for his philosophical enthusiasm that he boldly and tirelessly combated all the prejudices which arose against the acceptance of the new truth by the creed of modern thought. . . . What has been yielded by the remodelled doctrine of evolution and our present scientific knowledge towards the answering of the ”question of questions,” he has recently expounded in its broad lines in the address On our Present Knowledge as to the Origin of Man. Herein Haeckel handles afresh the conclusion, which for every logical thinker follows as a matter of course from Darwinism, that man has developed out of the lower vertebrates, and further, more immediately from the apes. It has, however, been this necessary conclusion which has summoned to battle all the old prejudices of theologians, philosophers, and all who are under their spell. Doubtless, people would have accepted the emergence of the single animal and plant forms from one another if only this assumption had not carried with it at once the recognition of the animal descent of man.”20 It may be noted that Haeckel was already drawing such conclusions well before Darwin himself did so in his book published in 1871, The Descent of Man and Sexual Selection, though the address referred to by Steiner was itself delivered in 1877 after the appearance of Darwin’s book.

As a consequence of his work on evolution Haeckel came to the conclusion that the only possible conception was monism, the recognition that, in Steiner’s formulation, ”everything which is called for in the explanation of appearances must be sought within that same world. Opposed to this view stands dualism, which regards the operation of natural law as insufficient to explain appearances, and takes refuge in a reasoning being ruling over the appearances from above.” The word translated here as appearances can also be translated by the more usual word phenomena. Two forms of monism are possible, the regarding of all material things as manifestations of spirit, and the reverse, which holds that what is usually called ”spiritual” is in fact only another aspect of the material, as for example such intangible realities as energy. Steiner, of course, held the first view, and Haeckel was accused of holding the second, even though he hotly denied that he was a materialist in the ordinary sense of the word. In a book written in 1900 in which Steiner summed up his philosophical writing, entitled Conceptions of the World and of Life in the Nineteenth Century, which he dedicated to Haeckel, and in which appears a very sympathetic account of Haeckel’s work, he quotes him as follows: ”The spirit and soul of man are also nothing else but energies that are inseparably bound to the material substratum of our bodies. As the motion of our flesh is bound to the form elements of our muscles, so our mind’s power of thinking is bound to the form elements of our brains. Our spiritual energies are simply bound to the form elements of our brains. Our spiritual energies are simply functions of these physical organs just as every energy is a function of a material body.”21

For Steiner such ideas were greatly superior to those of the dualists who held that matter and spirit were two separate entities, leading to the notion of the creation of the material world and men by a higher being who could never be known by man because he was of a quite different nature. Such dualism requires that man should submit to ethical demands made on him by this totally different being, whereas, as we have seen, monism, in Steiner’s words, ”throws man wholly upon himself. He receives ethical standards from no external world-being, but only from the depths of his own being.” Through moral imagination ”man elevates the ethical instincts of his lower ancestors into moral action, as through his artistic imagination he reflects on a higher level in his works of art the forms and occurrences of Nature.” Moreover moral ideals themselves are indeed evolved over the process of time, and there is nothing in Steiner’s ethical individualism that is incompatible with the theory of evolution. As he himself says in The Philosophy of Freedom, this ethical individualism is ”the crowning feature of the edifice that Darwin and Haeckel have striven to build for natural science. It is a spiritualized theory of evolution carried over into moral life.”22

If Steiner had to choose between the Darwinian and Haeckelian theories of evolution as an explanation for the diversity of forms to be found in the world of nature, and the creationist views of traditional theologians, he was unhesitatingly prepared to espouse the former because in his view the facts discovered by the evolutionists must lead to conclusions similar to theirs, whereas the theologians simply paid no attention to the facts and made no real attempt to explain them—a way of proceeding quite out of accord with the spirit of the time which was nothing if not scientific, in the sense that all known facts were taken into consideration by all true scientists, and every effort was made to explain them. Although Steiner could not of course accept the monistic materialism of Haeckel he did not deny the facts that led him to adopt a materialistic viewpoint. It was not Haeckel’s fault that he had an inadequate idea of spirit (as who had not?), nor that he vehemently affirmed the existence of ”spirit” without knowing anything about it. Indeed Steiner in his autobiography reports a personal conversation with Haeckel about it, in which the great zoologist said to him: ”People say that I deny the spirit. I wish they could see how substances take form through their forces; they could then perceive ”spirit” in everything that happens in a retort. Everywhere there is spirit.” To which Steiner appends the remark that ”Haeckel, in fact, knew nothing whatever of real spirit. The very forces of nature were to him ‘spirit’.”

The paragraph that follows is most significant since it explains Steiner’s entire attitude toward Haeckel and the evolutionists. ”Such blindness to the spirit,” he wrote (in the year 1924), ”should not have been attacked at that time with philosophically dead concepts, but it would have become clear how far the age was removed from experience of the spirit, and the effort should have been made to strike the spiritual sparks out of the foundation which the age afforded—the biological interpretation of nature. Such was then my opinion. On that basis I wrote also my Conceptions of the World and of Life in the Nineteenth Century.”23

In other words the theories of evolution, not excluding even the notion that man himself had descended from the lower animals, could have been used as a kind of platform from which could have been launched Steiner’s own teachings about the spiritual origin of man, teachings which, as later expressed in particular in An Outline of Occult Science (1910), took full account of all the factual data assembled by Haeckel and the other evolutionists. It was not yet possible, in Steiner’s view, just before the end of Kali Yuga, to teach the spirit directly, as he was to do after the turn of the century. But such teachings could have been grafted on to the current theories of evolution. Indeed as Steiner was to say later, ”there is no better scientific basis for occultism than the teachings of Haeckel, but Haeckel himself is the worst commentator of his own teachings.” When he first came in contact with Haeckel himself and his work, as Steiner had written enthusiastically to Frau Specht from Weimar (1894), the idea had come to him of creating a ”methodical monism,” which would of course include his own personal knowledge of the reality of spirit: and he told his correspondent that soon this ”younger sister” might be carrying on the combat by the side of her elder sister, the monism of the evolutionists! This letter was written just two months after the appearance of The Philosophy of Freedom, about whose prospects for wide circulation he must have harbored few illusions. But the union of what he had written in that book with what was being taught by Haeckel, especially in his pamphlet Monism as a Link Between Religion and Science which had appeared in 1892, could have truly had a real influence on the arid thinking of the day, in which only science was making progress and that science, unhappily, was heading toward ever greater depths of materialism.

After meeting Haeckel personally and exchanging correspondence with him it became clear to Steiner quickly enough that the kind of collaboration of which for a brief time he seems to have dreamed was impossible, and he pursued the path he had always pursued, of keeping his spiritual perceptions strictly to himself, and working along philosophical paths. But it is also true, as he revealed in his autobiography, that he could not as yet, even if he had wished to, have added the spiritual capstone to the work of the evolutionists for the excellent reason that he was not yet in possession of the spiritual facts. He knew enough by the end of the century to be sure that the ideas of evolution held by Darwin, Haeckel, and the others were incorrect but the full truth had not yet become clear to him. ”Only later,” he explains in his autobiography, ”did I work through to imaginative perception [the first stage of higher knowledge, according to Steiner’s formulation]. This perception first brought me the knowledge that something of the nature of real being different from the simplest organisms was present within spiritual reality in primeval times. That man, as a spiritual being, is older than all other beings. . .that man is a macrocosmic being who bore within him all the rest of the terrestrial world, and who has thus become a microcosm by eliminating all the rest—this was for me a knowledge to which I first attained in the earliest years of the new century.”24

In a lecture of fundamental importance given to a public audience on October 5th, 1905 in Berlin Steiner explained with the utmost clarity why there was no contradiction between his defense of Haeckel and his own teachings on evolution that he was at that time engaged in expounding to the German Section of the Theosophical Society. This lecture, first published in 1935 in English, is worth reading in its entirety, but even the section on how his own teachings fitted the facts uncovered by the evolutionists is too long to be quoted here, and only a brief summary is possible. Theosophy, Rudolf Steiner told his audience, is not ”antagonistic or contradictory to the facts advanced by natural science; only with the materialistic interpretations of these facts it can have nothing to do.”

He then went on to explain that as far as the physical structure is concerned, there is a relationship between man and the higher mammals, especially the apes. But, even from a physical point of view, though both man and ape have a common ancestor, the ape has degenerated from that ancestor, while man has ascended. Man, however, also has a soul-ancestor, who was always present, even in the very earliest times, long before the ape had diverged from the genealogical tree whose most perfect descendant has been man. Animals, all animals, are ”but deteriorated and degenerated forms occupying those lower stages through which the human soul has passed on its upward journey. Externally, therefore the resemblance between Haeckel’s genealogical tree and that of Theosophy is sufficiently striking . . . Hence Haeckel’s deductions are so eminently suited for the learning of sound elementary Theosophy. One need do no more than master, from the theosophical point of view, the facts he has elucidated in so masterly a manner and then raise his philosophy to a higher and nobler plane.”25

It would seem that Steiner and Haeckel, who lived on until 1919, continued to have an amicable relationship, though they came no nearer to a common viewpoint. Steiner always speaks of him with respect, and he made frequent references to him in his lectures. In the very last years of his life when both Nietzsche and Haeckel were dead Steiner also investigated the previous earth lives of these two personalities who played such an important part in his own development during the period he spent at Weimar and the last years of the century; and much in their lives in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is explained thereby. But a discussion of this part of Steiner’s work lies outside the scope of this book.

In the circle which Rudolf Steiner found so congenial during the last part of his stay in Weimar, where Nietzsche was discussed with so much enthusiasm, there was also much criticism of Weimar and the culture associated with it. The work done in the Goethe and Schiller Archives was valuable in itself, and the artistic and cultural life of the small grand-ducal city was agreeable enough. But for those who took the future of German culture seriously it seemed to be a backwater, without any real influence on imperial Germany and its world capital of Berlin. Great events were happening in the world, and Kaiser Wilhelm II and his ministers were playing an active part in them—even if not as active as the Kaiser at least would have wished. German prestige in the world of science and learning, and German industrial development, were scarcely equalled anywhere else, even though the older capitals of London, Paris, and Vienna may have had a more active artistic life than was to be found in the nouveau-riche capital of imperial Germany.

There can be no doubt that Berlin was beginning to beckon to Rudolf Steiner during the last part of his sojourn in Weimar. It seemed to him that he was living in an atmosphere of a hothouse culture which had become cloying to him; and though his admiration for the cultural life of Berlin was far from wholehearted, and his regard for some of its leaders was slight, it was in Berlin that he could hope to find an audience for what was still in the process of gestation within him, for the mission that he believed he would be called upon to fulfill. He had been inwardly isolated in Weimar, as we have seen, but had nevertheless been able to lead an active social life. He had made many friends and had met personally a considerable number of leading personalities in the cultural life of the epoch. His work had been prodigious in its extent, and he had acquired a high reputation in the restricted circles in which it was known; and if he had wished, he could surely have found some congenial academic position in the growing university life of Germany. The men who were responsible for the work in the Goethe Archives were fully satisfied with what he had done, and gave him written recognition in their Annual Report when he left Weimar. ”What was done here,” it was stated, ”by a useful common work and a positive and productive activity, has been found acceptable by all the researchers here. We must thank him for his selfless efforts, and for the many original indications, given as part of a systematic and unitary construction, which assure to Goethe as a man of science a greater and more universal value than had hitherto been accorded to him.”

Some critics, however, were of the opinion that Steiner ought to have gone into much greater detail in his editorial work and in his introductions, that he might have made the effort to show how Goethe had anticipated the findings of some of his successors, and how some of his remarks had been proved and others disproved; his influence on geology, botany, zoology and the other specialized sciences could have been stressed, and the entire work handled in a more systematic manner, acceptable to academic researchers. Some of the errors pointed out by these critics in parts of Steiner’s work could have been, and ought, in their opinion, to have been avoided. To all this Steiner replied that his purpose was known to those who invited him to come to Weimar, and that his intention had always been to present Goethe’s world view, as he had done in his introductions to the Kürschner editions and in his book on Goethe’s theory of knowledge published in 1886, and as he did once more in his last summation, Goethe’s Conception of the World, published just as he left Weimar in 1897. His books and articles on Goethe were works of synthesis, and he had no wish to be a ”philologist,” like so many of his fellow workers in the Goethe Archives. The errors in most cases, he told his critics, he could easily have pointed out himself if he had made the effort. But he continued to consider his presentation of Goethe as something of great value for the world, especially the manner in which he had carried Goethe’s views further to their logical conclusions, as Goethe had not done himself. In short he had performed a creative work which should not be judged in the same way as the work of the collators of Goethe’s manuscripts, who attempted no explanations, still less a synthesis.

Steiner was also later to emphasize in his autobiography that at that time he actually could not have done some of the things his critics thought he ought to have done. ”I have made it clear,” he wrote, ”in this account of the course of my life that, even in childhood, I lived in the spiritual world as that which was self-evident to me, but that I had to struggle hard in achieving everything pertaining to knowledge of the outer world. For this reason I have been a person slow in development as to this form of knowledge in all its aspects. The results of this fact appear in details of my Goethe editions.”

A year before his departure from Weimar Steiner tells us that his inner life began to change, and that from this time onward he was able to orient himself in relation to the external world in a way that had not been possible before. This change again must have played its part in his decision to leave Weimar and begin a new life in Berlin. If he had wished, there can be little doubt that an appeal to his influential friend Hermann Grimm, who now held a chair at the University of Berlin, would have brought Steiner an academic position. But he preferred to follow an entirely different course, which brought him into a milieu the very reverse of the academic—a milieu that can best be described as ”bohemian.” He was given the chance of purchasing the editorship of a periodical that had been established in the year of Goethe’s death, which in its varied career had known a considerable number of different editors. The former proprietor, however, was unwilling to sell it to Steiner without some kind of guarantee, the more so since the latter’s experience of editorship was confined to a brief period in Vienna in the 1880’s, and he was unable to offer any financial guarantees himself. The condition required of him was the acceptance of Otto Erich Hartleben, a well enough known man-about-town, who belonged to a circle of literateurs, and who had the entrée to Berlin café society. In addition Hartleben was himself a writer of some reputation, a poet and dramatist, with a developed interest in all forms of art. This curiously enigmatic personage was familiar to Steiner from his many trips to Weimar, where, characteristically enough, he went in order to take part in meetings of the Goethe Society, which in the end he never bothered to attend, preferring to remain in bed at his hotel—where on occasion Steiner visited him. As might have been expected, Hartleben later absented himself from Germany for visits to Italy at times when his presence would have been welcomed in the editorial offices of the Magazine for Literature of which he was co-editor.

Although Steiner in later years sometimes permitted himself to write sharply about Hartleben and he must have been a sore trial to his conscientious co-editor, nevertheless this literary playboy was, at his best, an interesting, even congenial companion. Indeed he and a number of Steiner’s other friends of this time were not those one would have expected Steiner to have had, if one had known him only during the period of his anthroposophical activity. The first years in Berlin were in all respects difficult ones for him, and, as he tells us, ”so long as I edited the Magazine, it was a constant source of anxiety to me.” But they were also years during which he ”digested,” as it were, the important experience which came to him in his thirty-sixth year, and while the process was going on, he could not have undertaken the work that he undertook after the turn of the century. The many trials of this period brought the two parts of his life into harmony for the first time, and contributed to the maturity and mastery he showed from his fortieth year onward. Even the friendships of those years, damaging as some of them may have been to his reputation, always held something fruitful in them for him. He recognized fully that they were brought to him by destiny, and ”not to accept what I recognized clearly as forces of destiny would have been for me a sin against my experience of the spirit.” Moreover the direct experience of the inner being of so many persons who were so very different from himself was enriching.

Speaking of these years, Steiner wrote later, ”The thought then hovered before me that the turn of the century must bring a new spiritual light to humanity. It seemed to me that the exclusion of the spiritual from human thinking and willing had reached a climax. A change in direction in the process of human evolution seemed a necessity . . . . ”26

But as far as he himself was concerned, ”A state of inner movement, which drove into billows and breakers all the forces of my soul, was at that time my inner experience.”

*The Course of my Life, Chapter 17. The entire chapter, which is concerned with von Hartmann’s failure to understand the book, is of the utmost value for comprehending the essence of the Philosophy of Freedom, to which scant justice could be given in the few passages discussed and quoted in this chapter.




Chapter 5


Rudolf Steiner: Herald of a New Epoch