Austrian philosopher and educational reformer Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925) remains perhaps best known for the educational methods he pioneered in his Waldorf schools, which have spread slowly but steadily around the world since his death.
The philosophy underlying those schools grew out of a lifetime of innovative thinking that encompassed fields as diverse as traditional philosophy, spiritualism, color theory, art, agriculture, medicine, music, and architecture. A trained philosopher and at the same time a mystic, Steiner believed that spiritual insights could be gained through systematic thought. He founded the spiritual belief system called Anthroposophy, an offshoot of Theosophy, and disseminated his ideas through an energetic campaign that included years of lectures and a group of writings that ran to some 350 volumes when collected. Influential in the worlds of education, occult studies, organic farming, and even interior design (he was fascinated by color and its relationship to personality), Steiner remains an imperfectly understood and often controversial figure.
Rudolf Steiner was born February 27, 1861, in Donji Kraljevec (Lower Kraljevec), a town that was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (it is now in northern Croatia). His father was a telegraph operator who worked for the Southern Austria railway. Steiner's childhood, noted Gary Lachman of the Fortean Times , "had an equal measure of both natural beauty and modern technology"—the Kraljevec area boasted gorgeous Alpine scenery, and the railroad and the telegraph were both new technologies in the 1860s. Steiner's railroad company family moved several times, however, and he spent time in Neudörfl in southern
Steiner's family was not wealthy, and as he continued his schooling he often made ends meet as a private tutor (sometimes to his own classmates) of mathematics and science. In 1879 Steiner enrolled at the Technische Hochschule (Technical University) of Vienna, taking math and science classes but also immersing himself in German philosophy and literature. The writings of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) made an immediate and lifelong impression on Steiner when he was an undergraduate student. Goethe, though best known outside German-speaking countries for his play Faust , was a prolific writer on science and metaphysics who attempted to construct an overarching, holistic philosophy of human perception and belief. Another influence on the young Steiner was a man named Felix Koguzki who gathered and sold herbs for a living but also had a rich life of spiritual and mystical experiences.
One of Steiner's professors noted his enthusiasm for Goethe and his systematic mind, and recommended him for a position as editor of a series of Goethe's scientific writings for a scholarly Deutsche National Literatur (German National Literature) publication project. He began work even before his graduation in 1883. For much of the first part of his life, Steiner made a living as an editor and archivist, working on a complete edition of Goethe's writings in the 1880s and moving to Weimar in eastern Germany in 1890 to take a position at the Schiller-Goethe Archives there. On the side, Steiner took more classes and received a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Rostock in 1891. His dissertation was published as a book, Wahrheit und Wissenschaft (Truth and Science).
During this part of his life Steiner was primarily a philosopher, and one who espoused the concept of idealism—the belief that experience is located in the mind—rather than materialism, which holds that the world, including mental processes, is ultimately reducible to matter and its interactions. Philosophie der Freiheit (Philosophy of Freedom, 1894) was his most important work of these years. Steiner studied the tradition of nineteenth-century German philosophy going back to Hegel and to the radical idealism of Johann Fichte. He continued to make a living as an editor of several different magazines, moving to the German capital of Berlin in 1897. In one article in the Magazine for Literature , Steiner rejected anti-semitic ideas. His positions on the relationship of Germanic peoples to those of other cultures would later prove controversial, however. Steiner married Anna Eunike in 1899, but the marriage later ended in divorce.
Gradually, Steiner's interests broadened beyond philosophy (and if they had not, his name would likely be little known today). He began teaching two evenings a week at the Arbeiterbildungsschule (School for the Education of Workers) in Berlin, a progressive institution where he could discuss ideas of universal education and freedom as they related to the working class. Steiner also joined the Berlin Theosophic Society, a branch of the international theosophy movement. Theosophists held that existing religions were paths, often equally valid, to a higher spiritual truth. By 1902 Steiner had given numerous lectures on theosophy and became the German Theosophic Society's general secretary. To describe his system of "spiritual science," he began to use the word "anthroposophy," derived from Greek roots meaning human wisdom. Among the many books Steiner devoted to Anthroposophy were Outline of Occult Science (1909) and Outline of Esoteric Science (1910).
It was clear that Steiner had found his calling. He became what would now be called a full-time motivational speaker for the last quarter-century of his life, giving some 6,000 lectures that ranged over numerous topics related to the nature of human spiritual life. Steiner lectured on Christian themes, on history, drama, science, agriculture, and virtually any other area of human endeavor that he saw as related to the spiritual quest. He saw the human being as consisting of body, soul, and an eternal spirit that manifested itself anew—he believed in reincarnation. Among the spiritual beings who oversaw human development were the Archangel Michael and a negative Antichrist-like figure he called Ahriman, who sought to prevent human spiritual evolution. One of his favorite themes was that of the Threefold Social Order (or Social Threefolding—the German term is Soziale Dreigliederung : he advocated the separation in human society of the cultural (including educational), political, and economic realms. After his first marriage dissolved, he met anthroposophy devotee Marie von Sivers, an actress from the Baltic region, and the two were married in 1914.
It was around that time that Steiner's relationship with Theosophy dissolved. It had been under strain for some time due to religious disagreements. Steiner remained a Christian, but avoided affiliation with either Catholicism or Protestantism and instead forged his own mystical version of the Christian religion, shaped partly by the beliefs of the Rosicrucian Order. In the early 1910s English-born Theosophy society head Annie Besant, who lived in India, had contended that Jiddu Krishnamurti, a spiritually gifted boy she encountered on a beach, was the Second Coming of Christ. Steiner rejected the idea and led 55 of 65 German chapters of the theosophical movement in a breakaway plan to form a new Anthroposophical Society. The new group grew rapidly under Steiner's charismatic leadership, and Steiner began work on designing a temple-like headquarters building called the Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland. Even during World War I, workers from around Europe, including citizens of warring countries, cooperated without incident in its construction.
Steiner argued that World War I showed the need for a new social order that entailed peaceful methods of conflict resolution. In 1919 he explored these themes in a lecture he gave to workers at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany. After Steiner's speech, factory owner Emil Molt suggested that he set up a school for children of the factory workers, modeled on the ideas he had expressed. Steiner agreed, and the result was the first Waldorf school, named for the factory itself. He stipulated that the school should be run cooperatively by its teachers, and Waldorf schools since that time have all featured cooperative management schemes. Despite his considerable fame, Steiner shunned personal adulation and once remarked that if he could have changed the name of Anthroposophy to something new every day, he would have done so in order to emphasize the need for his followers to think for themselves.
The Waldorf schools were not Steiner's only forward-looking innovation. He also anticipated the growth of organic farming in his opposition to chemical fertilizers. In Steiner's view, a farm should be a self-contained ecological entity. He devised a unique compost recipe that included a stag's bladder; a cow's gut; the head of a cow, goat, sheep, or pig, filled with oak bark; stinging nettles wrapped in peat moss; a cow's intestine filled with chamomile flowers; and crushed valerian flowers. As with others among Steiner's ideas, his followers have discarded some of the more exotic specifics in his writings while maintaining the general ideas. Most controversial among his writings were his racial theories, which assigned specific traits to individual races. In Germany especially, Steiner's devotees came under attack as a result of this aspect of his philosophy.
In the early 1920s Steiner began to encounter heavy criticism. Some of it came from members of the Nazi party angered because Steiner backed independence for the con- tested German province of Upper Silesia (now part of Poland). But Steiner was also attacked by the Catholic and Protestant churches, Marxists, and rival spiritual leaders. On December 31, 1922, the Goetheanum burned to the ground shortly after its completion. The Nazis were generally blamed for the fire, although its cause remained uncertain. Steiner announced plans for a second Goetheanum, built of concrete; it still stands in Switzerland, and both buildings are considered architectural landmarks of the twentieth century.
The attacks, including one in an article by Adolf Hitler himself, took their toll on Steiner, who redoubled his lecture schedule even as he fell into poor health. Toward the end of his life he emphasized his natural farming methods and a new anthroposophic system of medicine that he developed, and in which he began to train physicians. In the fall of 1924 he had to give up his speaking activities due to illness. Steiner suffered from an unknown stomach ailment, and some rumors spread among his followers that he had been poisoned. Steiner, however, discouraged such speculation before his death in Dornach on March 30, 1925.
The Waldorf concept grew slowly as Anthroposophy devotees set up new institutions. By 1939 there were schools in Switzerland, England, Hungary, Norway, and the United States, in addition to seven in Germany. The German schools were shuttered by the National Socialist government but reopened after World War II, at which time Waldorf education began a steady spread around the world. By the year 2000 more than 700 Waldorf schools worldwide featured classrooms painted in the colors Steiner had specified as appropriate for each stage of human development, and focused on learning through direct experience of materials (reading was often delayed until the third or fourth grade), engaging in the structured system of exercise and dance Steiner called Eurythmy, and reciting Steiner's poems about the natural world. Public schools in the United States and Britain were impressed by data showing Waldorf education's ability to reach students who had previously proven disruptive in conventional classroom settings. A large network of educational institutions around the world devoted itself to training Waldorf teachers and to the study of other aspects of Anthroposophy and of Steiner's thought.
Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology , 5th ed., Gale Group, 2001.
Hemleben, Johannes, and Leo Twyman, Rudolf Steiner: An Illustrated Biography , Rudolf Steiner Press, 2001.
McDermott, Robert, The Essential Steiner , Harper Press, 1984.
Religious Leaders of America , 2nd ed., Gale Group, 1999.
Tummer, Lia, and Horacio Lato, Rudolf Steiner and Anthroposophy for Beginners , Writers & Readers Publishing, 2001.
Atlantic Monthly , September 1999.
Independent (London, England), November 1, 1997; January 24, 2007.
Instructor , November 1999.
"Rudolf Steiner: Chronological Biography," http://www.sab.org/br/steiner/biogr-eng.htm (February 3, 2007).
"Rudolf Steiner: Dweller on the Threshold," Fortean Times , http://www.forteantimes.com/articles/205_steiner1.html (February 3, 2007).
"Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925)," Skylark Books, http://www.skylarkbooks.co.uk/Rudolf-Steiner-Biography.htm (February 3, 2007).
Steiner, Rudolf, The Story of My Life , Rudolf Steiner Archive, http://www.wn.rsarchive.org/Books/GA028/TsoML/GA028_index.html (January 3, 2007).