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Summary Article: Steiner, Rudolf 1861-1925
from Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Beliefs and Practices

Rudolf Steiner, one of the most impressive of the late 19th- and early 20th-century Western Esoteric scholars, was also the founder of two Esoteric communities, the Anthroposophical Society and the Christian Community.

The Austrian philosopher of religion and writer Rudolf Steiner. (Getty Images)

Steiner was born February 27, 1861, in Kraljevic, Hungary (now Croatia), the son of a railroad worker. His father’s job took the family to Pottshach, Austria (1863), then to Neudoerfl, Hungary (1869), and finally to Vienna in the 1870s. At the age of 18 he entered the Technical University in Vienna with the idea of eventually going to work for the railroad like his father. His life, however, now began to move in other directions. He had been a very sensitive child and had had various experiences with a supersensible reality. These experiences exerted considerable influence on Steiner, who gravitated toward studies in the humanities and the arts. He eventually transferred to the University of Vienna, where he was introduced to the work of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832).

In 1883, Steiner was invited to edit the scientific writings for the Kuerschner edition of Goethe’s works and write the introduction. He would spend more than a decade on the task, during which time he would become well known for his scholarly accomplishments. In 1888 he was offered a position at the Goethe Archives at Weimar. Between 1890 and 1897 he worked on the Weimar edition of Goethe’s works. He completed his doctoral degree in 1891.

While in Weimar, he had time to pursue what would become the dominating concern of his life, bridging the gap between the world of sense experience and the invisible spiritual world. He published his first major exploration of the spiritual life, The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity, in 1894, in which he offered his initial reflections on the role of thinking as a spiritual activity and conscience as a moral reality.

In 1897, Steiner moved to Berlin as the editor of a literary magazine. Here, he encountered the newly opened chapter of the Theosophical Society, which soon provided the environment for his future work. He began to lecture for the Society regularly. He also went through an intense period of inner struggle that culminated in a visionary experience of witnessing the crucifixion of Christ on Golgotha. This experience led him to conclude that he had gained a true Esoteric understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ mission and Christianity.

Steiner now entered a new phase of his intellectual work and during the first decade of the new century would write a number of books sorting out his Esoteric perspectives. His new approach to Christianity was presented in Christianity as Mystical Fact (1901). He followed with Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and Its Attainment (1904), Theosophy (1904), and Occult Science: An Outline (1909).

With some hesitancy, in 1902 he became the head of the German section of the Theosophical Society. He disliked their emphasis on Eastern philosophy, preferring a Western Esoteric approach to the spiritual life. His concerns came forward in 1909, when he publicly disagreed with Annie Besant, the international president of the Society, at one of their conventions. She gave a talk in which she spoke of Buddha’s superiority over Christ, while Steiner responded with a talk about Buddha as a precursor of Christ. The following year, Besant announced the formation of the Order of the Star of the East to prepare the way for Jiddu Krishnamurti, whom Besant believed to be the coming World Savior. Steiner refused to promote either the Order or Krishnamurti.

As the Order gained prominence in the program of the Society, Steiner proposed that Anthroposophy be formed as a section within the Society for those who did not wish to follow the Society’s Oriental drift. That proved a short-term solution, and the following year he resigned from the Theosophical Society and formed the Anthroposophical Society.

As part of his work with Theosophical Society, Steiner had written and produced several mystery plays. In fact, his second wife was an actress. The break with Theosophy spurred him to design a building in which what he saw as the proper atmosphere for the drama would be present. The infant Anthroposophical Society found the resources to build the proposed structure in Dornach, Switzerland, just as World War I was begun. He named it the Goetheanum.

Steiner spent the war years in relative quiet, but during the decade after the war he vigorously promoted Anthroposophy and laid the ground work for the future application of his work in some prominent areas. In Stuttgart, for example, he opened the first Waldorf School to explore his ideas about education. Society members would subsequently found similar schools wherever the organization spread. In 1922, he responded to some religious leaders within the Society by sanctioning the founding of the Christian Community, which embodied his approach to theology and worship. In 1923-1924 he reformed the Anthroposophical Society and added an Esoteric section for primary explorations in self-development through what he termed spiritual science.

When Steiner died at Dornach on March 30, 1925, the Society was still largely confined to German-speaking Europe. It made its way to the German American community in the mid-1920s and soon spread across Europe. The practical application of his ideas would lead to the formation of structures to practice biodynamic agriculture, Anthroposophical medicine, and the new art of eurythmy.

See also:

Anthroposophical Society; Besant, Annie; Krishnamurti Foundations; Western Esoteric Tradition.

  • Easton, Stewart C. Rudolf Steiner: Herald of a New Epoch. Spring Valley, NY: Anthroposophic Press, 1982. .
  • Hemleben, Johannes. Rudolf Steiner. East Grinstead, UK: Henry Goulden, 1975.
  • Shepherd, A. P. Rudolf Steiner: Scientist of the Invisible. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions/Bear & Company, 1987.
  • Steiner, Rudolf. Christianity as Mystical Fact. West Nyack, NY: Rudolf Steiner Publications, 1961.
  • Steiner, Rudolf. Cosmic Memory. West Nyack, NY: Rudolf Steiner Publications, 1959.
  • Steiner, Rudolf. The Life, Nature and Cultivation of Anthroposophy. London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1963.
  • Steiner, Rudolf. Rudolf Steiner: An Autobiography. Trans. by Rita Stebbing. West Nyack, NY: Rudolf Steiner Publications, 1977.
  • Welburn, Andrew. Rudolf Steiner’s Philosophy. Edinburgh: Floris Books, 2004.
  • Wilkinson, Roy. Rudolf Steiner: An Introduction to His Spiritual World-View: Anthroposophy. East Sussex, UK: Temple Lodge, 2001.
  • Melton, J. Gordon
    Copyright 2010 by ABC-CLIO, LLC

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