Rudolf Steiner Biography
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Rudolf Steiner Biography

Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925)

Rudolf Steiner, the founder of the spiritual movement known as Anthroposophy, was born on 27th of February 1861 in the village of Kraljevec, which was then in Hungary and now in Croatia. He had a brother and sister and was the oldest of the three children born to Johann and Franziska Steiner. His parents were Austrian and his father worked as a minor official for the Southern Austrian Railway. His family lived a financially stable existence, but meagre by most standards of the west today.

Owing to his father's place of work being transferred to different railway stations, Steiner's early life was spent in different towns in the eastern region of Austria: Mödling (near Vienna), Pottschach, Neudörfl, Wiener-Neustadt and Inzerdorf (near Vienna).

His earliest education was intermittent and included some home tuition from his father. He attended secondary school at the Realschule at Wiener-Neustadt from 1872 to 1879 and passed his leaving examinations with distinction.

Steiner was already perceptually aware of the spiritual realms in childhood and even then was able to follow the human soul beyond physical death. He was in no way dreamy but was intensely interested in the phenomenal world, and strove even as a young adolescent to establish a conscious bridge between the sense-perceptible world and the living reality of the spiritual world through the sensitive development of intellect. In addition to his school subjects at the Realschule, he read widely, discovering Kantian philosophy as well as that of Johann Friedrich Herbart. He studied literature, world history, physics, self-instruction in mathematics, as well as more practical subjects like bookbinding and stenography. He had acquired a working knowledge of analytical geometry, trigonometry and also differential and integral calculus long before he was taught these at school. To this he later added self-instruction in Greek and Latin.

By the age of fifteen he was tutoring fellow students from his year as well as those from lower years. The school faculty gladly passed this function to him and he was thus able to help supplement the family's meagre income. The experience of tutoring transformed his relationship to knowledge. He describes in his autobiography how what he learnt in school passed to him in a kind of dream state and that to teach others he had to bring the relationship to one of full consciousness. His experience of tutoring also raised his awareness of the difficulties connected with human soul development and were germinal in the later development of the anthroposophic educational system known as Waldorf education.

In 1879 when his father was transferred to Inzerdorf, Steiner studied at the Vienna Polytechnic (Technische Hochschule) with a view to becoming a teacher at a Realschule. Along with taking classes he continued to tutor to make a living and to help his family. His principle subjects were mathematics, natural history and chemistry. During this time he also studied more philosophy and attended philosophy lectures at the University of Vienna. He even "re-wrote" page by page Johann Gottlieb Fichte's Science of Knowledge in his continuous attempt to reconcile the apparently disparate realities of the sense-phenomenal world and the realm of living spirit, which he had no doubt that the human ego was part of. He studied Kant, Traugot Krug, C. F.Thilo, Schelling, Hegel, Robert Zimmerman, Ernst Haeckel, Franz Brentano, and others.

During his first year at the Hochschule he attended lectures on German literature given by Karl Julius Schröer which introduced him to the works of Goethe and Schiller, and at this time he had his first reading of Goethe's Faust. He also learnt public speaking from Schröer during this period.
Though he had, of necessity, to pursue the study mathematics and natural science for vocational reasons, his relationship to them would be remote until he could establish within himself as direct experience, the spiritual basis of knowledge and of the phenomenal world itself.

He relates in his autobiography:
"I felt duty-bound to seek for the truth through philosophy. It was my task to study mathematics and natural science. I was convinced that I should find no relation to these sciences unless their results could be based upon a secure philosophical foundation. But to me the spiritual world was an immediate reality. The spiritual individuality of each person was revealed to me in complete clarity. Man's bodily nature and his activity in the physical world are merely the expression of his individuality. The latter unites itself with the physical germ provided by the parents. When someone died I followed him further on his journey into the spiritual world."

He adds the following anecdote:
"One time after the death of a former classmate, I wrote about this side of my inner experiences to one of my teachers at the Realschule, with whom I had retained a friendly relationship. He replied in an unusually kind letter, but with not a single word did he refer to what I had written about the dead schoolmate."

This was a common experience for Steiner. People did not want to listen to this side of his experiences. As long as he spoke in terms of physical perceptions, opinions, notions and beliefs, this was acceptable. If he referred to conscious perceptual experiences of a spiritual realm, they were not interested.

If on the other hand he was met with proponents of spiritualism (mediumism or similar trance states), then it was he who wasn't interested. "Then it was I who did not wish to listen. To approach the spirit in this way was repellent to me." (See Steiner's lecture series: True and False Paths in Spiritual Investigation.)

During this period (1879 - 1882), Steiner pursued his philosophical quest ever more intently while he maintained his regular coursework, though the latter somewhat haphazardly owing to the amount of time dedicated to his search as well as to his tutoring. Fortunately his earlier self-training in mathematics paid off as he could miss some lectures "without losing the thread." As he had enrolled in the Hochschule on a scholarship, he had to pass a written test each year to prove his accomplishment and this he managed to do.

It was during this time that through his exploration of this discontinuity between the physical and spiritual worlds, he was able to discover, or better, awaken the bridge within himself. It was something that can only be arrived at through one's own active experience in thought pursuing the nature of reality inclusive of thought itself. (See The Philosophy of Freedom.)

Habitually, man establishes an ordered relationship with the world and himself through thought. He sees, muses, experiments (formally or through everyday experience) and draws conclusions relevant to his needs. But his thoughts are completely conditioned by his senses and his senses are completely conditioned by his anatomy and physiology, and therefore even his thoughts about anatomy and physiology are conditioned by this circuitous route. In this sense, thinking is chained to our physical-sensory make-up and can never convey a true or objective reality about the world or ourselves. At most it can convey definable relationships between our various sensory experiences and out of this grows science and technology.

But thought can follow another course. Steiner became acutely aware that in the study of pure mathematics, something is being undertaken which is not conditioned by an unascertainable physiology and anatomy. In mathematics we are directly observing the laws of quantitative relationship, which we can then apply to our sensory world and find that they also hold good for that world. These laws exist, and though we have to have a functioning brain, nervous system, etc. to apprehend them, they themselves are not the result of any physiological process. They exist within their own right and apply as soundly in the phenomenal world as they do within the realm of thought. This opened the door for him to what he later called "sense-free thinking", a faculty which must be developed (not necessarily through mathematics) to raise ordinary consciousness to the level of active spiritual perception.

Once thought has been emancipated from sensory phenomena the human spirit is in a position to not just examine the world through thought processes, but to examine thought as a phenomena itself. When this stage is achieved, the human being is standing on a threshold, for when thought, or thinking, is observed as a phenomena like other phenomena, its aspect must necessarily change and the human being, for the first time in human history, has begun to experience the spiritual world with his higher faculties. (It is certainly acknowledged that all human beings in the past, and still many in the present, were able to experience supersensible phenomena, but these have been through dulling the higher human cognitive faculties which have been advancing now for many centuries. Steiner is a representative of the path whereby these faculties are strengthened and liberated from the senses rather than diminished for the sake of visions, messages, states of rapture, etc.)

Steiner's association with Schröer, who was an inspired champion of German literature and German folk-culture, brought him ever more into contact with the works of Goethe. Goethe's writings and outlook represented for Steiner a truer perception of the world than was offered by natural materialistic science and Darwinism. Through Goethe, Steiner received the stimulus he needed to develop further his own insights gained from spiritual perception. Goethe's outlook and whole tenor of soul resulted from his own spiritual insights which, like Steiner's, were routed in actual spiritual perception, something for which validity was, and still is, fundamentally denied in common culture.

In 1883 at the age of 21, Steiner was invited to edit Goethe's writings on natural science with introductions and explanatory notes for an edition of Joseph Kürschner's Deutschen Nationalliteratur (German National Literature). This experience put Steiner to the test as he had never published before, apart from a few newspaper articles, and he knew that he would be entering difficult ground if he were to try to communicate Goethe's ideas in a way that made sense to the usual ways of thinking and especially with the current enthusiasm for the static concepts which are the stock-in-trade of all modern scientific endeavour. Something completely foreign was going to have to be communicated in an accessible way. Steiner felt with certainty that the static framing of thoughts in schematic form which is used to establish quantified relationships between inorganic forms and processes (e.g. Force = Mass X Acceleration) is inconsistent with the study of anything in the organic world. The processes in living nature are so fundamentally different from those found in inorganic nature that the very quality of thinking employed to understand them must be consistent in some way to those living processes. Thoughts concerning organic nature, to truly apprehend this nature, must grow out of each other in a manner consistent with the growth and metamorphosis found in organic nature. This notion makes little sense to current culture as we view static-schematic thought as the only one that guarantees objective reliability. According to Steiner such thinking is "too weak" to fathom living nature.

What is implicit in this approach is the idea that to understand anything through thought, the type of thinking must be in some way consistent with what is being thought about. A world where exact, static laws are observed, the thoughts must be such as to convey that exactitude and stability. The dynamics of nutrition, growth and reproduction will never be understood by thinking which can only look for chemical formulae or mathematical equations. To study nature using formative thought processes in the manner Steiner suggests, leads to an apprehension of what drives organic chemistry in its formative development of plants, animals and humans. That this approach may simply be seen as a type of subjective imagination, one the one hand, and that it implies something over and above the crude forces of chemistry in the formation of living organisms, on the other, naturally makes it anathema to a materialistic scientific thinking.
Steiner's personal challenge in the task of editing Goethe's scientific writings was to formulate for the world an approach to knowledge which could elucidate Goethe's work, otherwise he must remain somewhat incomprehensible and undervalued as a scientist. Out of this struggle Steiner produced an epistemology (theory of knowledge) for the Goethean approach to science which was published in 1886 as Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception.

In the early 1880's, Steiner became a private tutor to a family of four boys, three of whom he was to give preliminary instruction prior to elementary school and then to coach them through secondary school. The fourth was a backward hydrocephalic 10-year old with poor general health, who had hardly mastered the rudiments of reading, writing and arithmetic. He was considered to be physically and mentally abnormal and it was doubtful whether he could be educated at all. Through Steiner's examination of the whole human and his ability to see where the difficulties lie not just in the physiological processes, but through these processes as expressions of particular soul and spiritual difficulties, he was able to design a program of therapy and study for the boy. In two years he made up the deficiencies in his elementary school studies and passed the grammar school entrance examination. As part of his developmental progress, his health also improved including the hydrocephalus. Steiner continued to work with him through most of his general education, after which the young man continued in study, eventually qualifying as a medical doctor.

This period of tutoring and care lasted six years and sowed the seeds for the later development of a system of therapeutic education.

In 1889, Steiner was invited by the management committee of the Goethe-and-Schiller Archives at Weimar in Germany to edit the scientific writings of Goethe as part of a new comprehensive re-edition of Goethe's works. He moved to Weimar in 1890 and worked for the next 7 years there, publishing seven volumes of the edited works along over 80 other works including his doctoral thesis and his ground-breaking working on heightened conscious activity - The Philosophy of Freedom.

In 1897, at the age of 36, he moved to Berlin. It was around this time that a further development occurred in his own faculties through enhanced forms of meditation which opened the spiritual world even more for him. This convinced him that though ordinary thought and experience is utterly reliant on mediation by the physical organism, concrete spiritual experience can only occur when the human cognitive faculties can begin to operate independently of the body and thus enter a different realm by way of a different form of consciousness.

In 1899, he married Anna Eunike, whom he had known as a close friend for several years in Weimar. It was in Anna's home that he had stayed, virtually as a family member, during the Weimar period.

In Berlin, Steiner purchased and co-edited a literary magazine, Magazine für Literatur and in the evenings gave lecture courses for the Worker's Educational Institute which was founded to give educational courses for working class people in Berlin. Steiner taught a variety of subjects form anatomy and physiology to public speaking. His lecturing career began here and extended over the next few years to other organisations. It was in 1902, that he first publicly lectured on the subject that was to expand in scope and to occupy the rest of his life as a teacher and lecturer. He spoke at the Giordano-Bruno-Bund on the 8th on October 1902 on 'Monism and Theosophy.' By April 1903 he had given twenty-seven public lectures on theosophy. It was during this time that he first used the term 'Anthroposophy.'

By the time of his first public lecture on Theosophy, he had already given over 50 lectures on theosophical subject matter as a guest speaker at the Theosophical Library between 1900 and 1902. Soon after Steiner started these lectures to members of the Theosophical movement, The German Branch of the Theosophical Society was founded and Steiner was elected as Secretary General. It was also here that he met Marie von Sivers who became his close friend and eventually his second wife.

Steiner himself had gone through a fundamental re-orientation in the 1890's as a result of his own spiritual investigations. Up to this time he showed no particular leanings toward Christianity or Christian philosophy. His intellectual and spiritual development showed no allegiance to any belief system, but worked toward what he termed as 'ethical individualism.' Fundamentally he followed the path which aligns itself with the spirit of modern science which strives to observe and understand without bias. This means that self-assessment must be present in every observation and measures are taken to isolate and remove unwitting elements of bias or 'inner adjustment' of observed facts. Steiner's own self-training and inner integrity insisted on this. It was in this strict spirit of such examination that he was to experience as a spiritual fact the central importance in human and world evolution, of the Deed of Christ. This was not something he had expected, but having committed himself to a rigorous pursuit of truth, he was led inevitably to a kind of 'Damascus' experience. "This experience culminated in my standing spiritually in the presence of the Mystery of Golgotha in a most profound and solemn festival of knowledge."

Though Steiner had entered the stream of the Theosophical Society, this conviction and elaboration of a Christ-centred spiritual knowledge put him somewhat at odds with the movement's oriental outlook. They preached a cosmology and a spiritual evolution which had no such central point of reference such as Steiner describes in the Being and historical event of Christ on earth. Steiner also described the Christ event which occurred 2000 years ago as a unique event; that what has been referred to historically as Christ's Second Coming, is to be an experience that human beings will be able to experience as an etheric event as a result of changes which are now beginning to occur with the human etheric body. The Theosophical Society at the time were engineering their own physical return of Jesus in the person of a boy they were raising in India. Steiner publicly balked at the absurdity of this and eventually the German Branch was 'ex-communicated'. As the Indian boy grew older had the good sense to leave the Theosophists and he eventually became known and respected in his own right. This is the person known as Krishnamurti.

It was from those who sensed the greater truth of Steiner's spiritual examinations, and who stayed with him, that the Anthroposophical movement was born.

Steiner continued to write and lecture on the spiritual organisation of the human being; the evolutionary origins of the humanity and of the earth; cosmology and cosmogeny, the role of Christ in human and cosmic evolution, the hierarchies of Spiritual Beings; the Gospels; the Old Testament; the ages of humanity; as well as art, drama, eurythmy, education, sociology, history, science, agriculture, medicine, architecture and many others.  In all he delivered over 6,000 lectures and published dozens of books, all based on his direct spiritual examinations of the matters under consideration.

He also designed and supervised the construction of the Goetheanum, a centre in Dornach, Switzerland, which was to be the operational centre for the Anthroposophical Society. This had hardly been completed when it was burnt by an arsonist on New Year's Eve of 1922/23. A second Goetheanum was designed and built in its place, only being completed after Steiner's death.

In Autumn of 1924 at the age of 63, Steiner became ill with stomach problems and had to stop his lecturing. By this time his output had increased to over 400 lectures a year. He still wrote from his sickbed when he was able to but eventually died on 30th of March 1925.

There has been some suspicion around the circumstances of his illness and death, as to whether there was any wrongdoing. This was even the case during the last months while he was alive. He tried to put an end to this even from his bed by writing on a slate board, the underlying reasons for his illness. He pointed out that he had been able to determine his output from his own perspective but had not taken into account the additional demands that were made on him by others. The contents of this statement are still available in a letter he wrote to Marie Steiner, which is included in Correspondence and Documents 1901-1925.

The legacy left by Rudolf Steiner is too large for any individual or even any generation to fully grasp or evaluate. Each lecture course opens the door to a vastness in understanding that the reader can then pursue on his own terms. For those for whom the knowledge has real value, it is not simply an accumulation of knowledge, of facts, but a stimulus for the spirit and a form of nourishment for the soul. Of course some might be tempted to turn some statement or other by Steiner into some kind of dogma, but it was never intended by Steiner in that way, but as a stimulus for one's own free thinking. In this light, it is hoped that for those who can derive benefit from Steiner's work, his lectures and written works will be available to humanity for a long time to come.

Robert Lawrence
Skylark Books




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