He characterized anthroposophy as follows:
Anthroposophy is a path of knowledge, to guide the spiritual in the human being to the spiritual in the universe…. 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.
Steiner advocated a form of ethical individualism, to which he later brought a more explicitly spiritual component. He derived his epistemology from Johann Wolfgang Goethe's world view, where “Thinking… is no more and no less an organ of perception than the eye or ear. Just as the eye perceives colours and the ear sounds, so thinking perceives ideas.”
From 1879 to 1883 Steiner attended and then graduated from the Vienna Institute of Technology (Technische Hochschule), where he studied mathematics, physics, and philosophy. In 1882, one of Steiner's teachers at the university in Vienna, Karl Julius Schröer, suggested Steiner's name to Professor Joseph Kürschner, editor of a new edition of Goethe's works. Steiner was then asked to become the edition's scientific editor.
In his autobiography, Steiner related that at 21, on the train between his home village and Vienna, he met a simple herb gatherer, Felix Kogutski, who spoke about the spiritual world "as someone who had his own experiences of it...." This herb gatherer introduced Steiner to a person that Steiner only identified as a "master", and who had a great influence on Steiner's subsequent development, in particular directing him to study Fichte's philosophy.
In 1888, as a result of his work for the Kurschner edition of Goethe's works, Steiner was invited to work as an editor at the Goethe archives in Weimar. Steiner remained with the archive until 1896. As well as the introductions for and commentaries to four volumes of Goethe's scientific writings, Steiner wrote two books about Goethe's philosophy: The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World-Conception (1886) and Goethe's Conception of the World (1897). During this time he also collaborated in complete editions of Arthur Schopenhauer's work and that of the writer Jean Paul and wrote articles for various journals.
During his time at the archives, Steiner wrote what he considered his most important philosophical work, Die Philosophie der Freiheit (The Philosophy of Freedom) (1894), an exploration of epistemology and ethics that suggested a path upon which humans can become spiritually free beings (see below).
In 1896 Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche asked Steiner to set the Nietzsche archive in Naumburg in order. Her brother by that time was no longer compos mentis. Förster-Nietzsche introduced Steiner into the presence of the catatonic philosopher and Steiner, deeply moved, subsequently wrote the book Friedrich Nietzsche, Fighter for Freedom. Of Nietzsche, Steiner says in his autobiography, "Nietzsche's ideas of the 'eternal repetition' and of 'supermen' remained long in my mind. For in these was reflected that which a personality must feel concerning the evolution and essential being of humanity when this personality is kept back from grasping the spiritual world by the restricted thought in the philosophy of nature characterizing the end of the nineteenth century." "What attracted me particularly was that one could read Nietzsche without coming upon anything which strove to make the reader a 'dependent' of Nietzsche's'.".
In 1897, Steiner left the Weimar archives and moved to Berlin. He became owner, chief editor, and active contributor to the literary journal Magazin für Literatur, where he hoped to find a readership sympathetic to his philosophy. His work in the magazine was not well received by its readership, including the alienation of subscribers following Steiner's unpopular support of Émile Zola in the Dreyfus Affair. The Magazin für Literatur lost more subscribers after Steiner's close friendship with anarchist writer John Henry Mackay was revealed when Steiner published extracts from their correspondence. Dissatisfaction with his editorial style eventually led to his departure from the magazine.
In 1899, Steiner married Anna Eunicke. They were later separated; Anna died in 1911.
In 1899 Steiner published an article in his Magazin für Literatur, titled "Goethe's Secret Revelation", on the esoteric nature of Goethe's fairy tale, The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily. This article led to an invitation by the Count and Countess Brockdorff to speak to a gathering of Theosophists on the subject of Nietzsche. Steiner continued speaking regularly to the members of the Theosophical Society, becoming the head of its newly constituted German section in 1902 without ever formally joining the society. It was within this society that Steiner met and worked with Marie von Sievers, who became his second wife in 1914.
By 1904, Steiner was appointed by Annie Besant to be leader of the Esoteric Society for Germany and Austria. The German Section of the Theosophical Society grew rapidly under Steiner's leadership as he lectured throughout much of Europe on his spiritual science. During this period Steiner maintained an original approach, replacing Madame Blavatsky's terminology with his own, and basing his spiritual research and teachings upon the Western esoteric and philosophical tradition. This and other differences, in particular the pronouncement by C. W. Leadbeater and Annie Besant that Jiddu Krishnamurti was the vehicle of a new world teacher and the reincarnation of Christ, claims Steiner publicly rejected, led to a formal split in 1912/13, when Steiner and the majority of members of the German section of the Theosophical Society broke off to form a new group, the Anthroposophical Society.
Despite the major convergences between Theosophy and his own esoteric system Steiner later denied that Blavatsky or Annie Besant had been influences upon him. It is, however, often difficult to trace influences upon his thinking, and "Steiner maintained that his philosophy was an integrated whole that came from direct spiritual insight."
Beginning in 1919, Steiner was called upon to assist with numerous practical activities (see below). His lecture activity expanded enormously. At the same time, the Goetheanum developed as a wide-ranging cultural centre. On New Year's Eve, 1922/1923, it was burned down by arson; only his massive sculpture depicting the spiritual forces active in the world and the human being, the Representative of humanity.gif, was saved. Steiner immediately began work designing a second Goetheanum building – made of concrete instead of wood – which was completed in 1928, three years after his death.
During the Anthroposophical Society's Christmas conference in 1923, Steiner founded a School of Spiritual Science, intended as an open university for research and study. This university, which has various sections or faculties, has grown steadily; it is particularly active today in the fields of education, medicine, agriculture, art, natural science, literature, philosophy, sociology and economics. Steiner spoke of laying the foundation stone of the new society in the hearts of his listeners, while the First Goetheanum's foundation stone had been laid in the earth. He gave a Foundation Stone meditation to anchor this.
Reacting to the catastrophic situation in post-war Germany, Steiner had gone on extensive lecture tours promoting his social ideas of the Threefold Social Order, entailing a fundamentally different political structure; he suggested that only through independence of the cultural, political and economic realms could such catastrophes as the World War be avoided. He also promoted a radical solution in the disputed area of Upper Silesia - claimed by both Poland and Germany: his suggestion that this area be granted at least provisional independence led to his being publicly accused of being a traitor to Germany.
In 1919, the political theorist of the National Socialist movement in Germany, Dietrich Eckart, attacked Steiner and suggested that he was a Jew. In 1921, Adolf Hitler attacked Steiner in an article in the right-wing "Völkischen Beobachter" newspaper, including accusations that Steiner was a tool of the Jews, and other nationalist extremists in Germany were calling up a "war against Steiner". The 1923 Beer Hall Putsch in Munich led Steiner to give up his residence in Berlin, saying that if those responsible for the attempted coup [Hitler and others] came to power in Germany, it would no longer be possible for him to enter the country; he also warned against the disastrous effects it would have for Central Europe if the National Socialists came to power.
The loss of the Goetheanum affected Steiner's health seriously. From 1923 on, he showed signs of increasing frailness and illness. He continued to lecture widely, and even to travel; especially towards the end of this time, he was often giving two, three or even four lectures daily for courses taking place concurrently. On the one hand, many of these were for practical areas of life: education, curative eurythmy, speech and drama. On the other hand, Steiner began a new, extensive series of lectures presenting his research on the successive lives of various individuals, and on the technique of karma research generally.
By autumn, 1924, however, he was too weak to continue; his last lecture was held in September of that year. He died on March 30, 1925.
Steiner believed that through freely chosen ethical disciplines and meditative training, anyone could develop the ability to experience the spiritual world, including the higher nature of oneself and others. Steiner believed that such discipline and training would help a person to become a more moral, creative and free individual - free in the sense of being capable of actions motivated solely by love.
Steiner's ideas about the inner life were influenced by Franz Brentano - with whom he had studied - and Wilhelm Dilthey, founders of the phenomenological movement in European philosophy. Steiner was also influenced by Goethe's phenomenological approach to science.
Steiner's collected works include about 40 volumes of his writings and more than 300 volumes of lectures. His most notable writings include:
Steiner led the following esoteric schools:
Steiner defended Goethe's qualitative description of color as arising synthetically from the polarity of light and darkness, in contrast to Newton's particle-based and analytic conception. He emphasized the role of evolutionary thinking in Goethe's discovery of the intermaxillary bone in human beings; Goethe expected human anatomy to be an evolutionary transformation of animal anatomy.
Steiner postulates that the world is essentially an indivisible unity, but that our consciousness divides it into the sense-perceptible appearance, on the one hand, and the formal nature accessible to our thinking, on the other. He sees in thinking itself an element that can be strengthened and deepened sufficiently to penetrate all that our senses do not reveal to us. Steiner thus explicitly denies all justification to a division between faith and knowledge; otherwise expressed, between the spiritual and natural worlds. Their apparent duality is conditioned by the structure of our consciousness, which separates perception and thinking, but these two faculties give us two complementary views of the same world; neither has primacy and the two together are necessary and sufficient to arrive at a complete understanding of the world. In thinking about perception (the path of natural science) and perceiving the process of thinking (the path of spiritual training), it is possible to discover a hidden inner unity between the two poles of our experience.
Truth, for Steiner, is paradoxically both an objective discovery and yet:
A new stage of Steiner's philosophical development is expressed in his Philosophy of Freedom. Here, he further explores potentials within thinking: freedom, he suggests, can only be approached asymptotically and with the aid of the "creative activity" of thinking. Thinking can be a free deed; in addition, it can liberate our will from its subservience to our instincts and drives. Free deeds, he suggests, are those for which we are fully conscious of the motive for our action; freedom is the spiritual activity of penetrating with consciousness our own nature and that of the world, and the real activity of acting in full consciousness. (See the main article on the book Philosophy of Freedom for a fuller exposition.) This includes overcoming influences of both heredity and environment: "To be free is to be capable of thinking one's own thoughts - not the thoughts merely of the body, or of society, but thoughts generated by one's deepest, most original, most essential and spiritual self, one's individuality."
Steiner affirms Darwin's and Haeckel's evolutionary perspectives but extends this beyond its materialistic consequences; he sees human consciousness, indeed, all human culture, as a product of natural evolution that transcends itself. For Steiner, nature becomes self-conscious in the human being. Steiner's description of the nature of human consciousness thus closely parallels that of Solovyov:
Steiner emphasized that there is an objective natural and spiritual world that can be known, and that perceptions of the spiritual world and incorporeal beings are, under conditions of training comparable to that required for the natural sciences, but including extraordinary self-discipline, replicable by multiple observers. It is on this basis that spiritual science is possible, with radically different epistemological foundations than those of natural science.
For Steiner, the cosmos is permeated and continually transformed by the creative activity of non-physical processes and spiritual beings. For the human being to become conscious of the objective reality of these processes and beings, it is necessary to creatively enact and reenact, within, their creative activity. Thus objective knowledge always entails creative inner activity. Steiner articulated three stages of any creative deed:
Steiner termed his work from this period on Anthroposophy. He emphasized that the spiritual path he represented builds upon and supports individual freedom and independent judgment, whereby for the results of spiritual research to be appropriately presented in a modern context they must be in a form accessible to logical understanding, so that those who do not have access to the spiritual experiences underlying anthroposophical research can make independent evaluations of the latter's results. Steiner considered the purpose of human evolution to be the development of the mutually interdependent qualities of love and freedom.
Steiner's literary estate is correspondingly broad. Steiner's writings are published in about forty volumes, including books, essays, plays ('mystery dramas'), mantric verse and an autobiography. His collected lectures make up another approximately 300 volumes, and nearly every imaginable theme is covered somewhere here. (Much of Steiner's work is available on-line at the Rudolf Steiner archive, and Steiner's complete works are searchable at the German language archive). Steiner's drawings are collected in a separate series of 28 volumes. Many publications have covered his architectural legacy and sculptural work.
In 1919, Emil Molt invited him to lecture on the topic of education to the workers at Molt's factory in Stuttgart. Out of this came a new school, the Waldorf school. During Steiner's lifetime, schools based on his educational principles were also founded in Hamburg, Essen, The Hague and London; there are now more than 1000 Waldorf schools worldwide.
Steiner suggested that the cultural, political and economic spheres of society needed to be sufficiently independent of one another to be able to mutually correct each other in an ongoing way. He suggested that human society had been moving slowly, over thousands of years, toward articulation of society into three independent yet mutually corrective realms, and that a Threefold Social Order was not some utopia that could be implemented in a day or even a century. It was a gradual process that he expected would continue to develop for thousands of years. Nevertheless, he gave many specific suggestions for social reforms that he thought would increase the threefold articulation of society. He believed in equality of human rights for political life, liberty in cultural life, and voluntary, uncoerced fraternal cooperation in economic life.
As a sculptor, his works include The Representative of Humanity (1922). This nine-meter high wood sculpture was a joint project with the sculptor Edith Maryon; it is on permanent display at the Goetheanum in Dornach.
Steiner's blackboard drawings were unique at the time and almost certainly not originally intended as art works. Josef Beuys' work, itself heavily influenced by Steiner, has led to the modern understanding of Steiner's drawings as artistic objects.
As a playwright, Steiner wrote four "Mystery Dramas" between 1909 and 1913, including The Portal of Initiation and The Soul's Awakening. They are still performed today by Anthroposophical groups.
Steiner also founded a new approach to artistic speech and drama; see his Speech and Drama Course. Various ensembles work with this approach, called "speech formation" (Ger.:Sprachgestaltung), and trainings exist in various countries, including England, the United States, Switzerland, and Germany; see a list of trainings The actor Michael Chekhov extended this approach in what is now known as the Chekhov method
Steiner's descriptions of certain bodily organs and their functions sometimes differ significantly from those found in medical textbooks. He stated, for example, that the heart is not a mechanical pump but a dynamic regulator of circulatory flow, a view that has been confirmed by recent medical research.
The early decades of the twentieth-century agriculture started using inorganic fertilizers such as nitrogen "condensed" from the air and subsequently applied to the fields. Steiner believed that the introduction of this chemical farming was a very detrimental. Stating "Mineral manuring is a thing that must cease altogether in time, for the effect of every kind of mineral manure, after a time, is that the products grown on the fields thus treated lose their nutritive value. It is an absolutely general law." Steiner was convinced that the quality of food in his time had degraded, and he believed the source of the problem was chemical farming's use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides, however he did not believe this was only because of the chemical or biological properties relating to the substances involved, but also due to spiritual shortcomings in the whole chemical approach to farming. Steiner considered the world and everything in it as simultaneously spiritual and material in nature, an approach termed monism. He also believed that living matter was different from dead matter. In other words, Steiner believed synthetic nutrients were not the same as their more living counterparts.
The name "biologically dynamic" or "biodynamic" was coined by Steiner's adherents. A central aspect of biodynamics is that the farm as a whole is seen as an organism, and therefore should be a closed self-nourishing system, which the preparations nourish. Disease of organisms is not to be tackled in isolation but is a symptom of problems in the whole organism.
Although the number of biodynamic farms in the world is relatively small, as of 2006 about one quarter of the farms in India have adopted biodynamic practices.
It is the being that unifies all religions — and not a particular religious faith — that Steiner saw as the central force in human evolution. He understood Christ's incarnation as a historical reality, and a pivotal point in human history, however. The "Christ Being" is for Steiner not only the Redeemer of the Fall from Paradise, but also the unique pivot and meaning of earth's "evolutionary" processes and of all human history. The essence of being "Christian" is, for Steiner, a search for balance between polarizing extremes and the ability to manifest love in freedom.
Steiner also posited two different Jesus children involved in the Incarnation of the Christ: one child descended from Solomon, as described in the Gospel of Matthew; the other child from Nathan, as described in the Gospel of Luke. (The genealogies given in the two gospels diverge some thirty generations before Jesus' birth.)
Steiner's view of the second coming of Christ is also unusual. He suggested that this would not be a physical reappearance, but rather, meant that the Christ being would become manifest in non-physical form, in the "etheric realm" — i.e. visible to spiritual vision and apparent in community life — for increasing numbers of people, beginning around the year 1933. He emphasized that the future would require humanity to recognize this Spirit of Love in all its genuine forms, regardless of how this is named. He also warned that the traditional name, "Christ", might be used, yet the true essence of this Being of Love ignored.
Steiner made it clear, however, that the resulting movement for the renewal of Christianity, which became known as "The Christian Community", was a personal gesture of help to a movement founded by Rittelmeyer and others independently of the Anthroposophical Society. The distinction was important to Steiner because he sought with Anthroposophy to create a scientific, not faith-based, spirituality. For those who wished to find more traditional forms, however, a renewal of the traditional religions was also a vital need of the times.
On the one hand, he characterized specific races, nations, and ethnicities, each of which he believed to have a unique essence or "folk soul", in ways that have been termed racist by critics, including:
On the other hand, Steiner emphasized the core spiritual unity of all the world's peoples and sharply criticized racial prejudice, stating his beliefs that: