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Discovering a Genius: Rudolf Steiner at 150

style. There is barely a hint of personality in result of this episode is that the language of 

any of Steiner’s writings or lectures, and his basic anthroposophy (before Steiner adopted 

unfinished autobiography, which discusses that name) is suffused with Sanskrit terms 

mostly the other people and ideas he encoun- from theosophy like ‘arupa,’ ‘pralaya,’ and 

tered early in his life, is impersonal to the ‘devachan.’ Two of Steiner’s four ‘basic 

point of blandness. Steiner did indeed affirm books,’ as they have come to be called, have 

the reality of a spiritual world beyond normal overtly theosophical titles: Theosophy (al- 

consciousness, but if this makes him an though it is mostly about psychology), and 

‘occultist’ and a ‘mystic,’ then so were Plato, Die Geheimwissenschaft im Umriß, a compen- 
Ideas that have become 
Kepler, Emerson, Planck, and Newton.
dious counterpart to Blavatsky’s Secret Doc- 
commonplace today,
trine, long published in English under the Anthroposophy is rooted in the Idealism
such as the reality of the 
fatally mistranslated title Occult Science. In of thinkers such as Schiller, Hegel, Fichte,
unconscious, or the
his later works, Steiner developed a new and especially Goethe. These are hardly
active role of the perceiver 
vocabulary: e.g., the devachans give way to obscure names, but they are not well known
in constructing experience, 
ontological realms of ‘being,’ ‘revelation,’ in the English-speaking world, and the spirit
were heresies in
‘living working,’ and ‘finished work.’ Such of German Idealism is contrary to the largely
Steiner’s youth.
linguistic difficulties are surely one reason for
empirical, skeptical cast of Anglo-American

thought. By the end of the nineteenth century, at the zenith the neglect of Steiner. But they are not a good reason. 

of materialism, Steiner’s initial attempts to establish himself,
Making the Esoteric Public
first within academic philosophy, and then the workers’

education movement, both foundered on the same kind of
Another difficulty is that anthroposophy is, in every 

skepticism, which had by then conquered the German-
sense of the word, esoteric. It has its own vocabulary that 

speaking world as well. Ideas that have become common-
needs to be mastered, but that is true of nearly everything 

place today, such as the reality of the unconscious, or the
worth learning. Theosophical terms aside, the language of 

active role of the perceiver in constructing experience, were
anthroposophy is actually quite straightforward and intu- 

heresies in Steiner’s youth. Even the circle of avant-garde
itive, and, on the whole, Steiner writes and speaks lucidly. 

artists that he joined next were so bound up in their own
The real impediment is the ideas, which are often so novel 

personalities and so much in the thrall of Naturalism that
that they make one’s head spin. It is Steiner’s thinking that 

they proved incapable of following Steiner’s attempts to
is deeply and genuinely esoteric. Steiner was a visionary in 

develop the kind of spiritual art that would eventually emerge
the strongest sense of that term: he had developed a high 

in Expressionist movements like The Blue Rider two decades
degree of what is traditionally called clairvoyance. Steiner 

later. The only group open to Steiner’s ideas were
reported as facts things that most of us have not yet 

theosophists, so he accepted their invitations to lecture, and
experienced (or lack the courage to report, or experience but 

eventually he agreed to serve as the Secretary of a new
do not understand). And he assures us that we all have the

German section of the Theosophical Society.
capacity to experience these things ourselves. 

In 1903, Steiner began to speak and write
Anthroposophy is, in One of Steiner’s central teachings is that 

openly about his spiritual research. Yet even
every sense of the word, human culture was, until relatively recently, 

this theosophical phase lasted only a few
esoteric. It has its own shaped by individuals – ‘geniuses’ and 

years: by 1907, deep rifts had opened up be-
vocabulary that needs to ‘initiates’ – who were inspired by their par- 

be mastered, but that is ticipation in a closely-held, esoteric knowl- 
tween Steiner and the society’s leadership,
true of nearly everything edge that goes by many names. Mostly, 
and by 1912, Steiner had resigned in dismay.
worth learning.
Steiner follows the Greeks in referring to this
Unfortunately for Western readers, one

8 • being human

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