Any attempt at creating a cogent
biographical snapshot of the Austrian philosopher
and educator Rudolf Steiner
must begin with the idea that the elusive "spirit
" of man, the concept of the "soul
" of humankind, was the singular subject of the scientific method of inquiry that he spent his life formulating.
Steiner studied the relationship between God
and man, and his discipline led him to build schools, towns, farms, factories, and world-class foundations to keep them running through two world wars and into the 21st century.
He was born in 1861 in the village of Kraljevec, in a part of Austria that is now Croatia. As a boy his life was idyllic; the countryside surrounding his home was his Eden and according to his autobiography, The Course of My Life, by the age of eight, Steiner had already experienced a profound—and troubling--sense of spirituality in his life. So much of what he felt as a boy could not be seen; so much of what he knew could not be described. Rudolf Steiner was a mystic with a mind, and he dedicated his life to forging the tools with which a man can understand, and communicate to others, the life of the Spirit.
Steiner’s father was the town stationmaster and, sensitive to his gifted son’s needs, he sent him to the Realschule at Wiener Neustadt and later to the Technical University in Vienna, where he studied chemistry, mathematics and physics.
From his earliest years, Steiner was determined to use empirical means to catalog, describe, and illuminate the ineffable. His incredible genius and enormous gift for what we would today call multi-tasking allowed him to achieve his doctorate in Philosophy while studying a myriad of other subjects. After University he drifted into literary and scholarly circles in Vienna during a period of enormous national energy and vitality.
He spent seven years in Weimar at the Goethe archive where he edited Goethe’s writings on nature and also published, in collaboration, a complete edition of Schopenhauer’s work. In 1894 he published his own first truly important work, Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path: A Philosophy of Freedom, which remains to this day a classic treatise on his method of knowing--as he put it--other worlds.
By 1899--significantly, at the end of the 19th Century--Steiner was living in Berlin and had begun to experience the painful realization that he was swimming, pretty much all alone, against a rapidly rising tide. He became unpopular in the politicized German capital, refusing to associate himself with any political agenda and choosing, rather, to delve more deeply into the life of the soul.
He published, on Goethe’s birthday anniversary, August 28, 1899,Goethe's Secret Revelation a treatise on the esoteric qualities of Goethe's fairy tale, The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily. As a result he was invited to address a gathering of Theosophists, and for the first time, Rudolf Steiner spoke openly on subjects that had consumed him since he was a boy.
The passion with which he continued to address theosophical groups frightened and confused many of his associates. At a time when all of Germany was beginning to go publicly insane, Rudolf Steiner, the much-respected author, scientist and scholar, was accused of being an occultist. It was an accusation with which he was fated to live for the rest of his life. And it bothered him not a whit.
He continued his difficult and solitary work in earnest by giving his passion a name: Anthroposophy, which he described as a science of the spirit, "introspective observation following the methods of Natural Science," a path of knowlege that can lead the spiritual in the individual human being to the spiritual in the collective universe.
He investigated meditation, karma, metempsychosis, and reincarnation. By 1913 he had broken ground on the Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland, which was constructed, while the First World War raged, by an international group of volunteers. The Goetheanum was burned to the ground by an arsonist on New Years Eve in 1922, but its replacement, completed after Steiner's death in Dornach in 1925, endures as the center for the Anthroposophical Society and its School of Spiritual Science.
Significantly, the arts became Steiner’s most powerful tool in clearing the smoking ruins of German Imperialism. He considered Art the sacramental act that can transform what he termed the etheric into the physical. Art helped Steiner, finally, to bridge the known and the unknown, the two worlds that had troubled him since his youth.We have only to look around us to observe what happens when science alone surpasses the truth of the human heart and knowledge alone molds a technological world without "grace, beauty and compassion."
In opposition to the empirical Europe that imperialism and National Socialism evolved, Rudolf Steiner gave us the tools to build and to heal. He published 30 books and gave over 6,000 lectures, many of which were transcribed and later published. He created new methods of farming, an holistic psychotherapy, clinics, hospitals, and factories.
But most important, Rudolf Steiner gave us schools.
His Waldorf system of K-12 education survived two world wars and the death of the 20th Century, and remains the fastest-growing educational movement in the world. The millions of virtual children of Rudolf Steiner are the everlasting tribute to his idea that without personal spiritual freedom, society dies. Inevitable human conflict can be resolved only when individual imperatives and community absolutes are recognized as creative polarities that have their basis in human nature and are celebrated for what they are: the life-breath of God on Earth, our means of inheriting the Universe.
"ANTHROPOSOPHY is a path of knowledge, to guide the spiritual in the human being to the spiritual in the universe. It arises in people as a need of the heart and feeling life. Anthroposophy can be justified only to the degree that it satisfies this inner need. It may be acknowledged only by those who find within it what they themselves feel the need to seek. Therefore, anthroposophists are those who experience, as an essential need of life, certain questions on the nature of the human being and the universe, just as one experiences hunger and thirst."
--Rudolf Steiner, Anthroposophical Leading Thoughts, Rudolf Steiner, 1904.