Rudolf Steiner History up to 1900

In order to present these ideas in their historical context, a brief overview of
Steiner’s development and of the emergence of the anthroposophical movement is
in order. Steiner was born in 1861 in a town on the periphery of the
Austro-Hungarian empire.[1] He spent his student years in Vienna, where he
concentrated on natural sciences and became involved in German nationalist
student organizations.[2] After editing several volumes of Goethe’s scientific
writings, Steiner moved to Weimar in 1890 to work at the Goethe and Schiller
archive, eventually assisting at the Nietzsche archive as well.[3] He received a
doctorate in philosophy from the University of Rostock in 1891 with a thesis on
Fichte’s epistemology, and in 1893 published what he considered his
philosophical magnum opus, The Philosophy of Freedom.[4] In 1894 Steiner first
met Ernst Haeckel and by the end of the decade became a vocal defender of
Haeckel’s controversial evolutionary doctrine of Monism, one of several
attempted syntheses of science and religion from the era.[5] By the time he
moved to Berlin in 1897, Steiner’s outlook combined elements of German Idealism,
Romanticism, Nietzschean bohemianism and a radical individualism heavily
indebted to Max Stirner.[6]

Failing to establish himself in an academic career, Steiner pursued a series of
literary and educational occupations, editing a prominent Berlin cultural
journal, the Magazin für Litteratur, from 1897 to 1900 and teaching at the
Workers’ Educational School, founded by the Social Democrats, from 1899 to
1904.[7] Steiner also participated in the literary circle known as “Die
Kommenden.”[8] Many of his views on religion in the 1890s displayed a basically
atheist cast of mind, and Steiner at this time was harshly critical of the
established Christian churches as well as of esoteric spiritual alternatives.
His involvement in Monist circles was particularly intensive around the turn of
the century, above all within the Giordano Bruno League, although it is
difficult to assess the impact of this phase on Steiner’s later intellectual
development, not least because of the remarkably ambivalent ideological and
political character of the Monist movement overall.[9]

Between 1900 and 1902 Steiner underwent a profound transformation from
unaffiliated free-thinker to committed occultist. His conversion to Theosophy,
consolidated in January 1902 with his entry into the Theosophical Society, is
somewhat difficult to explain biographically. While Steiner had briefly flirted
with theosophical notions around 1890, his published discussions of Theosophy
during the 1890s were without exception scathingly critical.[10] The
epistemological position outlined in his philosophical works from that decade,
moreover, is decidedly this-worldly and makes no reference, even obliquely, to
the “higher worlds” that stand at the center of theosophical and
anthroposophical thought.[11] Within the space of two years, however, Steiner
was a convinced Theosophist. Without minimizing the anomalies involved in
Steiner’s conversion to an occult worldview, it is worth emphasizing that
fin-de-siècle Theosophy was a notably labile construct that attracted many
people seeking a “synthesis of science, religion, and philosophy.”[12] A number
of personal and circumstantial factors appear to have played a role in Steiner’s
theosophical turn, but there was an unmistakable element of genuine conviction
as well.[13]

Soon after joining the Theosophical Society, Steiner became General Secretary of
its German section, a position he held until 1912, when he broke with mainstream
Theosophy and founded his own movement, establishing the Anthroposophical
Society at the end of 1912. In 1913 Steiner moved the headquarters of the
Anthroposophical Society to the village of Dornach in Switzerland. From then
until his death in 1925, Steiner continued to develop anthroposophy as a
worldview and as a movement, overseeing a steady rise in membership and in
public profile in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria in particular.[14]


[1] There is no scholarly biography of Steiner. Anthroposophist biographies are
invariably hagiographic, albeit to different degrees; the best of them is
Christoph Lindenberg’s two-volume work Rudolf Steiner: Eine Biographie
(Stuttgart: Freies Geistesleben, 1997). Lindenberg’s earlier compilation Rudolf
Steiner: Eine Chronik (Stuttgart: Freies Geistesleben, 1988) is also very useful
for basic data on Steiner’s life. Of the shorter biographies the most generally
reliable is Gerhard Wehr, Rudolf Steiner: Leben – Erkenntnis – Kulturimpuls
(Zurich: Diogenes, 1993). Popular biographies have also been written by
non-anthroposophist aficionados of the occult; see Colin Wilson, Rudolf Steiner:
The Man and His Vision (Wellingborough: Aquarian Press, 1985), and Gary Lachman,
Rudolf Steiner: An Introduction to his Life and Work (New York: Tarcher, 2007).
Both are at times overly credulous toward anthroposophical sources. For a
helpful overview see James Webb, “Rudolf Steiner” in Richard Cavendish, ed.,
Encyclopedia of the Unexplained, Magic, Occultism and Parapsychology (London:
Routledge, 1974), 235-40. Steiner began writing an autobiography near the end of
his life; it remained unfinished and includes only cursory attention to his
theosophical and anthroposophical career after 1900, while the earlier years are
systematically re-interpreted through the lens of Steiner’s mature
anthroposophical perspective. The autobiography nonetheless remains a crucial
document of the late Steiner’s self-perception and self-presentation. See Rudolf
Steiner, Mein Lebensgang (Dornach: Philosophisch-anthroposophischer Verlag,
1925); authorized English translation: Steiner, The Course of my Life (New York:
Anthroposophic Press, 1951). The most comprehensive account of Steiner’s
intellectual development is available in Helmut Zander, Anthroposophie in
Deutschland: Theosophische Weltanschauung und gesellschaftliche Praxis 1884–1945
(Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007), 435-957.

[2] Steiner served as treasurer, librarian, and for half a year as chairman of a
German nationalist student association, the Deutsche Lesehalle at the Technical
College in Vienna, in the early 1880s; cf. Lindenberg, Rudolf Steiner: Eine
Biographie, 62, and Steiner, Mein Lebensgang, 86-87. For background on the
Deutsche Lesehalle see among others William McGrath, “Student Radicalism in
Vienna” Journal of Contemporary History 2 (1967), 183-201. Two of Steiner’s
influential early teachers, Karl Julius Schröer and Robert Zimmermann, may have
facilitated his entry into German nationalist cultural circles in Austria. On
Zimmermann’s involvement in German nationalism see William Johnston, The
Austrian Mind: An Intellectual and Social History 1848-1938 (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1972), 287-89; for Schröer’s views see Karl
Julius Schröer, Die Deutschen in Österreich-Ungarn und ihre Bedeutung für die
Monarchie (Vienna: Deutscher Verein, 1879). On Steiner’s relationship to Schröer
see Zander, Anthroposophie in Deutschland, 441-48. Schröer introduced Steiner to
Goethe scholarship, while Steiner later borrowed the term “anthroposophy” from

[3] On Steiner as a crucial figure in initiating the iconic status of Goethe as
a paragon of conservative Kulturkritik, along with Julius Langbehn, Houston
Stewart Chamberlain, and the circles of the Conservative Revolution, see Karl
Robert Mandelkow, Goethe in Deutschland: Rezeptionsgeschichte eines Klassikers
vol. I (Munich: Beck, 1980), 193-199. See also Mandelkow, “Goethes
Naturauffassung im Urteil der Rezeptionsgeschichte” in Mandelkow, Gesammelte
Aufsätze und Vorträge zur Klassik- und Romantikrezeption in Deutschland
(Frankfurt: Lang, 2001), 77-86, particularly 81. Chamberlain praised Steiner’s
works on Goethe; see Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Immanuel Kant: Die
Persönlichkeit als Einführung in das Werk (Munich: Bruckmann, 1905), 120-21.

[4] Rudolf Steiner, Philosophie der Freiheit (Berlin: Emil Felber, 1894; the
publication actually appeared in November 1893). The book did not find a
substantial philosophical echo but received some attention in the broader press.
The reception in Germany was mixed; the review in the Philosophisches Jahrbuch
1895 was largely critical, while the anonymous reviewer for the Frankfurter
Zeitung was generally positive. The text of these and other contemporary reviews
is available in David Marc Hoffmann and Walter Kugler, eds., Dokumente zur
“Philosophie der Freiheit” (Dornach: Rudolf Steiner Verlag, 1994), 423-500. For
reactions outside of Germanophone Europe see e.g. the largely negative review in
The Philosophical Review 4 (1895), 573-74, or the similarly critical review by
Giovanni Gentile of the revised 1918 edition of the book in La Critica 18
(1919), 369-72. While the work generally preaches an individualist message and
discounts the significance of racial and ethnic categories, it also contains
passages characterizing “race, people, nation” as a “naturally given totality”
and emphasizing the importance of such ‘natural’ traits: “Each member of a
totality is determined, as regards its characteristics and functions, by the
whole totality. A racial group is a totality and all the people belonging to it
bear the characteristic features that are inherent in the nature of the group.
How the single member is constituted, and how he will behave, are determined by
the character of the racial group.” Steiner, The Philosophy of Freedom (London:
Rudolf Steiner Press, 1964), 203. Steiner goes on to say that free individuals
strive to overcome these generic qualities, a trope which later took on crucial
significance in his mature anthroposophical teachings about race and ethnicity.

[5] See Ernst Haeckel, Der Monismus als Band zwischen Religion und Wissenschaft.
Glaubensbekenntniss eines Naturforschers (Bonn: Strauss, 1893). For context see
Niles Holt, “Ernst Haeckel’s Monistic Religion” Journal of the History of Ideas
32 (1971), 265-80, and Mario Di Gregorio, From Here to Eternity: Ernst Haeckel
and Scientific Faith (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2005), 188-261 and
487-98. For Steiner’s vigorous defense of Haeckel, in terms strikingly at odds
with those he was soon to adopt upon turning to theosophy, see Rudolf Steiner,
Haeckel und seine Gegner (Minden: Bruns, 1900). On Steiner’s correspondence with
Haeckel and his intense commitment to Monism around the turn of the century see
also Anthroposophie January 1934, 137-48. For anthroposophical perspectives see
Johannes Hemleben, Rudolf Steiner und Ernst Haeckel (Stuttgart: Freies
Geistesleben, 1965), and Karl Ballmer and Hans Gessner, Ernst Haeckel und Rudolf
Steiner (Besazio: Fornasella, 2003).

[6] On Steiner’s relationship to Nietzsche see Steven Aschheim, The Nietzsche
Legacy in Germany (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 214-15; on
Stirner’s influence on Steiner see Hans Helms, Die Ideologie der anonymen
Gesellschaft (Cologne: DuMont, 1966), 278, 333-39. For Steiner’s own views see
e.g. Rudolf Steiner, Friedrich Nietzsche, ein Kämpfer gegen seine Zeit (Weimar:
Felber, 1895), and Steiner, “Max Stirner” Magazin für Litteratur 1898, reprinted
in Rudolf Steiner, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Literatur 1884-1902 (Dornach: Rudolf
Steiner Verlag, 1971), 211-19, as well as the numerous references to Nietzsche,
Stirner, and Haeckel in Rudolf Steiner, Methodische Grundlagen der
Anthroposophie 1884-1901 (Dornach: Rudolf Steiner Nachlaßverwaltung, 1961).

[7] On Steiner’s teaching at the workers’ school in Berlin see Vernon Lidtke,
The Alternative Culture: Socialist Labor in Imperial Germany (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1985), 163-64. Steiner’s lectures at the school are collected
in Rudolf Steiner, Über Philosophie, Geschichte und Literatur (Dornach: Rudolf
Steiner Verlag, 1983).

[8] In addition to Jewish authors such as Ludwig Jacobowski and Stefan Zweig,
the later Nazi theorist Dietrich Eckart also belonged to the circle Die
Kommenden around 1900 and came into contact with Steiner there; cf. Helms,
Ideologie der anonymen Gesellschaft, 483.

[9] For an incisive analysis of “the politically highly ambivalent Monist
movement” see Gangolf Hübinger, “Die monistische Bewegung” in Hübinger, Kultur
und Kulturwissenschaften um 1900 vol. II (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag,
1997), 246-59 (quote at 247). Hübinger concludes that “Monism, oscillating
between middle-class left social reform and völkisch ideals of the New Right,”
never achieved a clear or coherent political profile (258). Cf. also Frank
Simon-Ritz, “Die freigeistige Bewegung im Kaiserreich” in Uwe Puschner, Walter
Schmitz, and Justus Ulbricht, eds., Handbuch zur ‘Völkischen Bewegung’ 1871-1918
(Munich: Saur, 1996), 208-23, and Matthias Pilger-Strohl, “Eine deutsche
Religion? Die freireligiöse Bewegung – Aspekte ihrer Beziehung zum völkischen
Milieu” in Stefanie von Schnurbein and Justus Ulbricht, eds., Völkische Religion
und Krisen der Moderne (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2001), 342-66. On the
confluence of scientific and religious themes within Monism see Frank
Simon-Ritz, “Kulturelle Modernisierung und Krise des religiösen Bewußtseins:
Freireligiöse, Freidenker und Monisten im Kaiserreich” in Olaf Blaschke and
Frank-Michael Kuhlemann, eds., Religion im Kaiserreich: Milieus – Mentalitäten –
Krisen (Gütersloh: Kaiser, 1996), 457-73. On the relations between Monism and
occultism see Monika Fick, Sinnenwelt und Weltseele (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1993).
On the Giordano-Bruno-Bund in the context of fin-de-siècle Monism see Andreas
Daum, Wissenschaftspopularisierung im 19. Jahrhundert: bürgerliche Kultur,
naturwissenschaftliche Bildung und die deutsche Öffentlichkeit, 1848-1914
(Munich: Oldenbourg, 1998), 214-16. For general background see Paul Ziche, ed.,
Monismus um 1900: Wissenschaftskultur und Weltanschauung (Berlin: Verlag fur
Wissenschaft und Bildung, 2000); Frank Simon-Ritz, Die Organisation einer
Weltanschauung: Die freigeistige Bewegung im Wilhelminischen Deutschland
(Gütersloh: Kaiser, 1997); Volker Drehsen and Helmut Zander, “Rationale
Weltveränderung durch ‘naturwissenschaftliche’ Weltinterpretation? Der
Monistenbund – eine Religion der Fortschrittsgläubigkeit” in Volker Drehsen und
Walter Sparn, eds., Vom Weltbildwandel zur Weltanschauungsanalyse:
Krisenwahrnehmung und Krisenbewältigung um 1900 (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1996).

[10] Steiner’s correspondence from 1890-1891 suggests a clear interest in
esoteric ideas, albeit a temporary one, specifically connected to the Viennese
theosophical circles around Marie Lang and Friedrich Eckstein; see Rudolf
Steiner, Briefe vol. I (Dornach: Selbstverlag Marie Steiner, 1948). For
Steiner’s published polemics against theosophical and other occult tendencies
see Rudolf Steiner, “Allan Kardec, Der Himmel und die Hölle” (1891) in Steiner,
Methodische Grundlagen der Anthroposophie, 493-95; Steiner, “Das Dasein als
Lust, Leid und Liebe” (1892) in ibid., 510-11, attacking a recent anonymously
published book by a
leading Theosophist, Wilhelm Hübbe-Schleiden, whom Steiner later came to view as
a theosophical colleague and mentor; and above all Steiner’s fundamental
critique, “Theosophen,” published in his Magazin für Litteratur in 1897 and
reprinted in Steiner, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Literatur, 194-96. In another 1897
text Steiner expressed stark disapproval of “Christian and mystical notions”;
see Steiner, Goethes Weltanschauung (Weimar: Felber, 1897), 81. See also the
published report from 1893 on Steiner’s critical lecture in Weimar on spiritism
and related phenomena, in which he roundly rejected supernatural explanations
and the notion of “otherworldly beings” (“jenseitige Wesen”) and endorsed
Haeckel’s Monism: “Hypnotismus mit Berücksichtigung des Spiritismus,” unsigned
report originally published in the newspaper Deutschland, March 26, 1893;
reprinted in Beiträge zur Rudolf Steiner Gesamtausgabe 99 (1988), 11-12. Similar
sentiments appeared in Steiner’s 1893 Philosophy of Freedom and his 1895
Nietzsche book as well. As late as 1900, Steiner still flatly rejected the
notion of a “supernatural order of the world” (“übernatürliche Weltordnung”):
Steiner, Haeckel und seine Gegner, 30.

[11] Anthroposophists generally consider Steiner’s early work fully consistent
with his mature views, a claim which Steiner himself often reiterated after
1902. The 1918 second edition of Steiner’s Philosophy of Freedom, for example,
contains numerous passages that have been fundamentally altered from the
original edition, while Steiner’s foreword to the second edition nonetheless
emphatically insists that no substantive changes have been made.

[12] The quoted phrase is the subtitle of the central theosophical text, Helena
Blavatsky’s 1888 work The Secret Doctrine. Other prominent converts to Theosophy
sometimes displayed a similar background and trajectory; Annie Besant, for
example, Blavatsky’s eventual successor as head of the international
Theosophical Society, had been an avowed atheist and actively involved in social
reform efforts before turning to esoteric endeavors. For perceptive studies of
this process see Gauri Viswanathan, Outside the Fold: Conversion, Modernity, and
Belief (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), and Catherine Wessinger,
Annie Besant and Progressive Messianism (Lewiston: Mellen, 1988); for an
alternative account of Besant’s turn to theosophy that emphasizes the role of
evolutionary thought see Mark Bevir, “Annie Besant’s Quest for Truth:
Christianity, Secularism, and New Age Thought” Journal of Ecclesiastical History
50 (1999), 62-93. On the specifically German context around 1900 see Ulrich
Linse, “‘Säkularisierung’ oder ‘Neue Religiosität’? Zur religiösen Situation in
Deutschland um 1900” Recherches Germaniques 27 (1997), 117-41.

[13] Steiner was originally invited to speak to a theosophical gathering in
Berlin in 1900. His choice of a theosophical career, after some hesitation (in
the course of 1900-02 Steiner applied unsuccessfully for several jobs, including
university lecturer and newspaper editor), brought him economic security and a
position of authority within a community of like-minded souls. His about-face
regarding Theosophy may have involved a desire for social recognition of his
prodigious talents, an urge to teach, and gratitude that at least the
theosophists appreciated his abilities and wanted his leadership. Steiner’s
increasingly close personal involvement with active theosophist Marie von
Sivers, whom he met in 1900 and eventually married, played an important role as

[14] For brief discussion of Steiner’s place within the broader religious
landscape of early twentieth century Germany see Thomas Nipperdey, Religion im
Umbruch: Deutschland 1870-1918 (Munich: Beck, 1988), 145-46; a more thorough
analysis is available in Bernhard Maier, Die religionsgeschichtliche Stellung
der Anthroposophie (Munich: Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Religions- und
Weltanschaungsfragen, 1988).

Peter Staudenmaier

© Tom Last 2017