The Creative Genius of Rudolf Steiner
Rudolf Steiner is an enigma and in a number of ways very difficult to approach. His life and work defy conventional categories, and the vastness of it crosses numerous specialties. The 380 volumes of his published writings and lectures constitute a towering edifice that proves not particularly accessible to present-day readers. Overlooked entirely by most conventional histories, he nonetheless had a profound and continuing influence on the current world. This influence came from a near-boundless creativity that manifested in multiple domains, from agriculture to zoology, and including architecture, painting, education, economics, philosophy, cosmology, poetry, playwriting, history, comparative religion, biblical exegesis, medicine, physiology, hermetic exegesis, dramaturgy, design, and stained glass. He even invented an entirely new art form, eurythmy, a movement art that expresses sound in gesture and has several thousand practitioners around the world today. If ever there was a good subject for the study of creativity in individuals, Rudolf Steiner was it.
There was nothing auspicious about Rudolf Steiner’s birth in 1861, nothing that indicated that he was destined to be profoundly creative. His father was a railway station master and his mother a former domestic. They lived an extremely modest life at the fringe of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in Kraljevec, modern-day Slovenia. The language of the region was Croatian, and Steiner's parents were recent transplants from central Austria, there to run the train station. The lifestyle of the region was in many ways still medieval, with a majority of the villagers working in the farm fields by day. This was also the case in Pottschach, the town where Steiner's parents moved when he was two, and where he lived until he was eight.
These surroundings may have been nearly medieval, but the family's life revolved around one of the most modern inventions of the period – the railway. Young Rudolf was fascinated by the workings of the train station, and his father was also determined that his son get a proper technical education. Thus, with preparation, Steiner eventually matriculated into the Technishe Hochschule (Polytech University) in Vienna on scholarship, a school of prestige comparable to that enjoyed by MIT or Caltech in the US today.
However, the growing boy had a much broader range of interests than are typical of future engineers. At 15 a book title caught his eye in a store, and he saved up all his money till he could purchase it: Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. He didn't know what he was getting himself into, yet he poured over the book for months until he felt he understood it. And he describes in his Autobiography how an acquaintance, a local medical doctor, introduced him to the greats of German literature: Goethe, Shelling, Schiller, and Lessing. The teenage Steiner continued to read broadly in philosophy and literature, even as he completed his own secondary school studies and tutored classmates for income. Even in his early years before his time at the University, Steiner was studying across multiple domains, building up expertise that would serve him well in his later life when he moved into more creative work.
Upon his enrollment at the Technishe Hochschule in Vienna, in 1879, the first thing the young Rudolf Steiner did was to roam the bookstores of the city searching for philosophy books, purchasing Fichte’s Science of Knowledge for his own study. He attended the required courses in mathematics, natural history, and chemistry, but as a matriculated student had the right to sit in on any lecture that he pleased, both at his Technishe Hochschule and at the nearby prestigious Vienna University. He made liberal use of this policy, attending lectures on philosophy, literature, and history. These were the days before textbooks, where most instruction was delivered through the professor's lectures. Vienna was the center of the vast Hapsburg Empire and a serious center of learning, so the opportunities for learning open to the young Steiner were incomparable.
It was Professor Karl Julius Schrörer who had the greatest impact on Rudolf Steiner during this time, and would have a profound influence on the future direction of Steiner's life as well. Schrörer was a professor of literature and a specialist on Goethe. While Steiner completed his classes on physics, mineralogy, botany, zoology, biology, geology, and mechanics, he spent a considerable amount of his time at Schrörer’s lectures on literature, and in discussion with the professor. He also tutored students for income and spent the remainder of his time studying German idealist philosophy.
Steiner’s philosophical investigations starting with Kant in his early teens were born of a striving to understand the world and the role of the thinking mind within it. The obsession was born of a personal need to reconcile inner experience with outer reality. As a 19-year old writing to a friend he said:
It was the night from January 10th to the 11th in which I didn’t sleep a wink. I was busy with philosophical problems until about 12:30 a.m. when I finally threw myself down onto my bed. Last year I had been researching whether or not the following statement by Schelling was true: “Within each of us dwells a secret, wonderful capacity to draw back – from the stream of time, from all that comes to us from outside – into our innermost being and there, in the changlessness of the Eternal, to look into ourselves.” I believed, and continue to believe, that I discovered this capacity in myself – I have had a presentiment of it for a long time. Now the whole of idealist philosophy stands in a substantially transformed shape before me. What is a sleepless night compared to that!
For Steiner, philosophy was an all-consuming passion. Likewise his interest in epistemology was not academic, but of deep personal significance, and he felt it to be the foundation for all his later philosophical and esoteric work. But this remained a private obsession as his life moved on through school.
During his third year at the Technishe Hochschule Rudolf Steiner was introduced by Professor Schrörer to the editor Joseph Kurschner as the person to edit Goethe's scientific works for a new edition. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was himself a polymath, having been in addition to Germany’s Shakespeare a politician, diplomat, novelist, anatomist, chemist, physicist, and botanist. To mention just three of Goethe’s scientific findings, he discovered the intermaxillary bone in humans (the existence of which he initially inferred from his morphological study of other higher mammals), introduced the concept of the archetypal plant, and challenged Newton’s optics with his own theory of how light worked. If he were destined to be creative in multiple domains, Goethe would be an excellent model for the young Steiner. And indeed, Steiner developed a lifelong admiration for the Saxon genius.
Goethe’s complete works constitute about 130 volumes, five of which are his scientific writings. Steiner took up the project of editing these eagerly, leaving the university a half year before graduating to devote himself to the project. A year later the first volume of Goethe's scientific writings edited by Steiner was published, complete with commentary. In 1884 in need of an income he took a position as private tutor in the house of a wealthy Jewish merchant. He spent six years of his life as a private tutor with the family while pursuing his intellectual interests on the side. These interests included contemporary philosophy, poetry, and literature, as well as esoteric and occult topics. He also published his first book, the epistemological study A Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's Worldview, in 1886. This philosophical work sold poorly, but not for any lack of originality. Elsewhere I have argued that Steiner’s epistemological work anticipated the constructivist paradigm in 20th Century philosophy that would emerge to challenge both positivism and post-modernism after the Second World War.
In 1890 the 29-year-old Rudolf Steiner was called to the Goethe Archives in Weimar to edit all of Goethe's scientific papers as part of a complete edition of his works. He would spend seven years at the archives while working on the Goethe’s papers, as well as numerous outside projects as his interests dictated. He also started work on a doctoral thesis that year. The Austrian education system rigidly tracked students, and Rudolf Steiner, because he'd been in the engineering track, was ineligible to attend a regular Austro-Hungarian university. He was only allowed to attend polytechnic universities, which granted math and science doctorates, but did not grant philosophy degrees. Thus it was that he had to apply to a German university if he wanted a Doctor of Philosophy degree, and philosophy was the area of his overriding passion. Applying was made easier by the fact that he was already working in Germany.
Rudolf Steiner applied to the University of Rostock with a completed dissertation on epistemology, and took the oral exams in October, 1891. Fifteen years of study in the field paid off and he passed his exams easily. His thesis was also accepted, and he was granted a doctorate on October 26. The title of his dissertations translates as: The Fundamental Question of Epistemology with Particular Consideration of Fichte’s Doctrine of Knowing: Prolegomena to the Understanding of the Philosophical Consciousness of Itself. The title of the revised book version, which was published in 1892, was shortened to Truth and Science. Epistemology, or how we know what we know, was a fundamental and lifelong preoccupation for Steiner.
While assembling what would become five volumes of Goethe’s scientific writings, he began work on a philosophical book on ethical individualism titled The Philosophy of Freedom. This was published in 1893, and until the end of his life Steiner considered it his greatest accomplishment. The public, however, largely ignored it. It is a systematic, highly original work, half epistemology, half ethics, that presents a completed vision of the themes from his two previous books. The voice and style show a bold confidence and originality.
Rudolf Steiner’s next book was briefly popular: Fredrick Nietzsche, Fighter against his Times, published in 1896. The book was a result of Rudolf Steiner's fascination with Nietzsche's work as well as serving as a sort of resume for a job he was negotiating. Nietzsche's sister, Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche, executor of Nietzsche’s estate, was looking to set up an archive for her brother's papers, and Rudolf Steiner appeared to be ideally suited for the job of chief archivist, thanks to his experience at the Goethe archives. The negotiations appeared to be going well, but broke down over the issue of editorial independence when it became clear to Rudolf Steiner that Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche would be forcing her own views onto her brother's work. This is indeed what eventually happened, and Nietzsche's association with National Socialism is as much a result of his sister’s effort as anything in Nietzsche himself. As Rudolf Steiner pointed out in his 1896 book, Nietzsche's philosophy is not a coherent doctrine, but a set of very interesting and often contradictory aphorisms.
During his time in Weimar, Rudolf Steiner started to become active as an independent writer and lecturer. He wrote numerous reviews of books on literature and philosophy and delivered a number of lectures on various topics to different audiences. He edited an edition of the complete works of the philosopher Schopenhauer, as well as those of the romantic novelist Jean Paul. His reputation as a man of letters was waxing. In 1896 he finished his work at the Goethe archives, completing his annotation of the fifth and final volume of Goethe’s collected scientific papers, and because his opportunity at the Nietzsche archive had fallen through, he needed something else. He decided to move to Berlin, capital of the recently unified German state, and a burgeoning metropolis in the middle of a cultural renaissance.
In Berlin Rudolf Steiner circulated among poets and writers, took over the editorship of a literary magazine, and continued to operate as a man of letters. In this context he attended the theatre several time per week, wrote numerous drama reviews, and reviewed every sort of new book from science to literature. He was also asked to start lecturing on history and public speaking at a Marxist institute for the education of the proletariat. He was very popular with the students and his lectures were very well attended, even though he was quite clear with the management from the beginning that he did not share Karl Marx's view of history. Then in 1902 he shocked his friends and acquaintances by joining the Theosophical Society at age forty.
Before examining why Steiner would make such a move, it is worth noting that the majority of Steiner’s significant creative contributions came after this point in his life, and all came from out of his engagement with theosophical concepts. What Steiner did after publicly embracing Theosophy was to work through theosophical doctrine, amalgamating it with his own knowledge and insights, transforming it into his own system, which he named anthroposophy. He did this in lectures and articles, a large percentage of which are still extant thanks to stenographic records made by a small number of his early followers, and it is from these that it is possible to reconstruct the development of his thought. It was out of this worldview that he had developed that he made almost all his creative contributions. That is, he first created an entire systematic paradigm, an ideology as complete as any created by an entire culture, and then applied it to a wide range of problems, with highly original results.
Rudolf Steiner's emergence as the leading proponent of Theosophy in Germany surprised almost everyone who had known him up until then. At a time when the progress of science appeared to many to have made all forms of religion completely obsolete, serious intellectuals did not concern themselves with spirituality. But it turned out that those who knew Rudolf Steiner before 1900 had not really know him well. Certainly he was friendly and easy-going, and could talk with just about anyone on just about any topic. But that did not mean that his contemporaries understood the questions and issues that were at the center of his experience. It turned out Rudolf Steiner had been interested in spirituality all along, but until his invitation to join the Theosophical Society had not found more than a handful of people with whom he could discuss this interest. His autobiography covers the first 40 years of his life in detail and frequently refers to the loneliness he experienced, born of his inability to share his own most central concerns and perceptions with others. His autobiography is the only source we have for this side of his life before his Theosophical period.
In his autobiography Rudolf Steiner describes how he was able to see into another world since his childhood. He explained about his own perceptions, that "… not only external trees or external mountains to speak to the human soul, but also the Beings that live behind them". What had preoccupied Steiner as a child was how to connect the inner life that he experienced so vividly with the outer world, the one that is commonly the only one people take for real. What came to his aid and solace in this was mathematics, specifically geometry. “To me, geometry seemed to be a knowledge that we ourselves produce; but its significance is completely independent of us”. Steiner felt that in geometry and mathematics was an example of something that was objectively true independent of the thinker, and yet was (re)produced in the mind of each individual. That this was possible was comforting to him as a boy because if this was true of mathematics and geometry, then it may also hold true for other forms of knowledge. The problem he had to solve was merely how.
As he grew up Steiner did happen to meet a few other people who were able to see the world has he saw it. When he lived in Wiener Neustadt he used to ride the train to the Technische Hochschule in the center of Vienna, about a half hour ride each way. On his daily commute he met a man who gathered herbs in the mountains and sold them to pharmacies in town. This man, Felix Koguzki, possessed the capacity to see beyond the plants into their essence, and further to their relationship to health, on an intuitive level. Steiner struck up a friendship with Felix, and they discussed Nature and their common abilities to see more than others saw. Steiner described how “with him, one could look deeply into the secrets of Nature” and how “contact with the spirits of nature was something self-evident for him, about which he talked without enthusiasm”. Felix later introduced the young Steiner to another personality, of whom we have only a vague description from Steiner himself. Speaking in the third person, Steiner relates “Felix was, in a certain sense, only the emissary of another personality, through whom in the soul of the young boy – who stood already in the spiritual world – certain regular, systematic things were stimulated”. The exact nature of this instruction remains unclear. Steiner’s biographer Christoph Lindenberg considers the oral instruction to have lasted a few months during the winter of 1881/82, around Steiner’s 21st year, and to have consisted of meditative exercises for inner self-discipline. How his development progressed during his twenties and thirties Steiner does not detail.
One further personality is notable in Steiner’s development as an expert on the esoteric and occult: Frederick Eckstein. So important was this friendship that Steiner wrote to Eckstein in November 1890 that “I would be a completely different person if I hadn’t met you”. Eckstein was a chemist and son of a paper manufacturer. In addition he had a deep and abiding interest in the esoteric and occult traditions as they existed in the literature then available in central Europe, from Hermeticism to Rosicrucianism up to and including the theosophical movement that was just beginning. Steiner later referred to him as “a distinguished scholar of ancient knowledge”.
There is a long tradition of “secret” knowledge referenced in documents going back to ancient Greece. Mystery cults flourished in Athens teaching secrets only to the initiated, with a death penalty for betraying the knowledge to outsiders. Pythagoreans set up a mystical school, and would not impart their secret teachings to any but the initiated. The Renaissance period saw an explosion in interest in the writings of antiquity, including the Gnostics and Neo-Platonists of late antiquity and the texts of Hermes Trismegistus and the Hermetic tradition. In many ways the birth of modern natural science is connected to the Renaissance interest in alchemy and occultism. Historian Jacques Barzun observes, “Kepler was a practicing astrologist, Newton a dedicated alchemist. Bruno … [was ] still working magic”. Paracelsus was leading advances in chemistry, “thinking in symbols and using astrology”. During the Enlightenment the rational and natural-scientific mode of understanding completely eclipsed the alternatives and divorced itself from its alchemical roots. Voltaire and the Encyclopaedists’s determination to free mankind from all forms of superstition included the mystic and alchemical roots of science, and these were largely ignored in subsequent histories. But they were never completely forgotten, and small libraries of these Renaissance-era texts and reprints were assembled during the 18th and 19th centuries by private collectors. Helena Blavatsky read through one such library in her early teens before launching the Theosophical Society decades later. And Frederick Eckstein was another person who had read broadly in Hermetic and occult texts and labored long in understanding them.
With Eckstein Steiner discussed the Hermetic tradition, and especially symbolism in literature and the work of Goethe, at length. Steiner, whose reading throughout his life was omnivorous, had a broad understanding of history and literature into which to integrate their discussions of alchemy, symbolism, numerology, astrology, and especially the new Theosophical ideas with which Eckstein was also familiar. Steiner and Eckstein met in Vienna probably in the autumn of 1889 when they both were 29, and were in contact for the better part of one year before Steiner moved to Weimar and they lost track of each other.
Theosophy was first introduced to German-speaking Central Europe by the translation of A.P Sinnett’s Esoteric Buddhism in 1884, and Steiner describes in a 1913 lecture how he was “among the first to buy a copy”. On the other hand he emphasized then and again writing in 1925 that “it left me with absolutely no impression. … I was repelled by its content, and [was antipathetic] to such a presentation of the suprasensory”, a stance he maintained in 1906 when he privately gave a sharp criticism of what he found to be fundamental errors in Sinnett’s book to Edward Schuré. He further emphasized in both his lecture and autobiography that it was important for him that he had already won his own basic insights into the subject of reincarnation and karma before he read the book in 1884. So already in his mid-thirties, through Eckstein and his own omnivorous reading, Steiner had become familiar with the occult traditions that existed at the time. This is important to note because subsequently when Steiner burst upon the occult scene in 1902 the transition appeared quite abrupt, but in reality he had been studying and refining both his knowledge of occult traditions and his own capacities for decades.
If creativity manifests in taking knowledge and practices from one domain and applying it to another, then Steiner eked out several new domains by merging existing domains with a theosophically-derived world view. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a prominent researcher in the field of creativity studies, relates how a number of graduate students in the 1920’s and 1930’s eventually got Nobel prizes for applying the new realm of quantum mechanics to existing fields like chemistry and biology. In Steiner’s case widespread recognition remains elusive because the domains in which he worked remain so far outside of the mainstream. His genius has been recognized by several hundred thousand people over the course of a century, and his books remain in print, but his ideas are too esoteric (in both senses of the term) to garner mainstream recognition.
So how did Steiner, privately interested in the occult, publicly a philosopher and literary critic, come to stand as the public face of Theosophy? During his pre-Theosophical Berlin phase, from 1898-1902, Steiner lectured broadly to a number of diverse groups. This was a time before television when attending lectures was a form of public entertainment, and demand was always present for engaging speakers. In addition to his almost daily lectures at the Arbeiter-Bildungsschule (the Marxist school for the education of the proletariat) he spoke regularly to members of the Giordano Bruno Bund, who thought of themselves as cutting-edge intellectuals, and who were to quickly shun him once he professed an allegiance to Theosophy, as well as various special events—to university Student Unions, at Jubilee celebrations, and to educators. He also spoke before a group that called itself Kreis der Kommenden (an ambiguous name that could be translated "The Group for What is to Come" or "Circle of Those Who Will Come" or "Those Who Are Coming", so it is usually not translated) on the subject of comparative religion in a lecture titled From Buddha to Christ. Later he was invited to speak to members of the Theosophical Society at the Theosophical Library in Berlin by Count and Countess Brockdorff. His lecture series about mystics of the Renaissance era, delivered in the winter of 1900, were popular, and upon request he reworked them into a book, published in 1901. The book was promptly translated into other languages, and an English edition (titled Mystics of the Renaissance) came to the attention of the Theosophical Society in London, with a little help from the Brockdorffs. The book and his references lead to an invitation to lecture in London at the next Congress of the Theosophical Society. Steiner attended the Theosophical conference in July of 1902. His reputation and talents preceded him, and during the Congress he was asked to become the General Secretary of a new German Section of the Theosophical Society. The German Section was formally founded in Berlin in October 1902.
By 1902 the Theosophical Society was a large and growing international movement. It had been founded in1875 in New York City by three people: William Q. Judge, Henry Steel Olcott, and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (Cranston 140-42) with Blavatsky being the driving force. Blavatsky subsequently moved to India, and then to England, and the headquarters of the movement followed her. She died in 1895, but the movement continued its expansion under the capable leadership of Annie Besant, reaching a high point in the early 1920’s of over 100,000 members worldwide. It was Besant who gave Rudolf Steiner the charter for the German Section. Never more than a cultural niche, the Theosophical Society none the less managed to have a fairly profound impact on Western society, but Steiner would have a bigger impact still.
With the death of Blavatsky, the Theosophy that Steiner encountered was primarily a doctrine, a highly complex system whose experts and leaders were scholars—mostly of Blavatsky’s writings—and which by extension had little interest in practical domains. Having mastered the doctrinal aspect of Theosophy, Steiner was determined to embark on a new project, his biggest yet, to transform Theosophy into something practical. Interestingly, his first move in this direction involved art, and it was with this that his creativity would begin to manifest. This point came at the end of seven years of intellectual work within the German-speaking Theosophical movement, where Steiner had succeeded in establishing himself as a significant teacher in his own right. Already he had produced a substantial body of work and were he to have died that year, he would already have earned himself a place among the most significant and original voices in the occult sub-culture of the 20th century. He had produced eleven written books, seven substantial volumes of collected essays, six volumes of public lectures, and 13 volumes of lectures to members of the German section of the Theosophical Society (though these would be assembled in their current form only much later). Contained within these volumes is a substantial portion of the conceptual structure of his cosmology, anthropogenesis, and anthroposophy. But Rudolf Steiner intended to do more. Certainly he would continue to expand the theoretical and conceptual construct of his worldview in future books and lectures, but he now had another overwhelming concern. He wanted to make this knowledge practical. Of what use is all this theory if it does not change the world?
And so Rudolf Steiner became an artist. It was a conscious step, and his goal was to use art to transform the physical world – art inspired by and permeated with his theosophically-derived original insights. It was nothing if not bold, for little in his background gave any indication of extraordinary artistic aptitude. And he was 47 – not an age at which people can usually manifest or acquire significant new talents. And what's more, he did not focus on just one art; he approached all of them.
Every year the European Branches of the Theosophical Society had a Congress, a big convention where members would get together and hear important speakers in the movement give lectures. In 1907 it was the turn of the German branch to host the event, and Steiner as its leader was determined to leave his mark. And so he started off his career as an artist with a large public exhibit: the Congress of the Federation of European Sections of the Theosophical Society, held in Munich in May of 1907. Steiner was very sure of his vision, but was dependent on the efforts of others to realize it. The canvas was the convention hall, and all of the arts would be applied. Graphic arts, architecture, and interior design would shape the space, and the centerpiece would be theater, in many ways the art with which Rudolf Steiner was most familiar. He was involved in every detail.
The conference became an attempt by Steiner to chart a future course for the entire Theosophical Society and introduce his impulses to the rest of the movement. Whereas the Theosophical Society was in many ways already moribund and essentially retrospective in nature, either looking back to great teachers of the past or serving as a venue for the study of comparative religions, Steiner began unfolding a creative impulse that would echo forward. He was trying to transform the future through no less than the unity of art, science, and religion, and not on an abstract level, but as creative potential. That is why even though Steiner's attempts during that conference failed in many ways, he also succeeded. Although the art at the Congress was not of the best technical quality and the play that he produced was an amateur affair, an impulse had manifested, and this new impulse had growth potential.
What Steiner did was take charge of every aspect of the event. Under his creative direction the entire conference hall was transformed to look like the interior of a temple. He commissioned paintings to go around the hall, to be based on the seven seals in the Book of Revelation. He also staged a play, with himself as director, in which he sought to introduce a new method of acting and declamation. He designed the flyers, and delivered several lectures during the event. But the results were far from perfect. The artist commissioned to execute the paintings was not very skilled technically, and the actors were all amateur volunteers.
The conference came at a critical time for the Theosophical Society, as Steiner himself would point out. With the death of Henry Steele Olcott, co-founder and long-time President of the Society, earlier that year, and the ascent of Annie Besant to the presidency just months prior (she had been the chief executive, but now she held both roles), there was a clear indication of the end of one era and the beginning of another. If the Congress was popular, Steiner and his work might be able to get widespread recognition within the worldwide Theosophical movement.
Even before the four days of the Munich Congress were over it was clear that mainstream Theosophy was not going to take up Steiner's impulses. Despite a few enthusiastic individuals, the reaction among most of the non-German speakers was at best indifference, if not outright hostility. Besant also appeared largely indifferent, as if none of the proceedings made much of an impression on her. Nor did her private conversations with Steiner leave much of an impression either. Steiner had tried to transform the Theosophical Society from within, and failed. At that point it became clear that his impulses would need another venue. The eventual break with the Theosophical Society was now in sight, even though it would take another five years before the German Section split and became the Anthroposophical Society.
Yet for all its outside failure, the 1907 Munich conference was a seminal event in Steiner’s creative development. Out of it would develop many of the impulses for which he is subsequently famous. If the larger and primarily English-speaking Theosophical movement was uninterested in his attempts to bring art into Theosophy, the German-speaking members were quite enthusiastic. Further conferences were planned, and Steiner undertook to write his own play. The 1910 conference, also in Munich, debuted the first of Steiner’s four plays, works that incorporated everything he had learned in his years as a drama critic, but also struck out in an original direction. Steiner being Steiner, this included stage directions, set design, and lighting as well as the script. Written during a period in the history of drama that trended strongly towards a realistic naturalism, Steiner wrote instead a dramatic piece in which the actors articulated in stylized form the feeling and inner state of their characters. The dialogue is highly unrealistic, yet true to character—the inner character that was Steiner’s preoccupation. It is as if in every interaction the characters said what they would say after spending a couple hours going over their feelings with a psychologist. This format is highly original, but the impact was limited to the several hundred people who saw the original staging (the plays are still staged every few years to this day, so that the number of people to have seen them now numbers in the tens of thousands). They had an extremely limited impact on playwrights, or by extension the domain of theater generally, but they did get limited recognition in Steiner’s day from dedicated audiences who came back each year to see the next installment.
The annual performance of Steiner’s plays gave rise to the desire to have a purpose-built theatre and conference center, an impulse that gave space for Steiner to develop as an architect. He broke ground in 1914 on his first major building a 1000-seat theatre/conference center that he named The Goetheanum, constructed in Dornach, Switzerland, near Basle. The strikingly original design incorporated two intersecting domes, a plan that called for considerable engineering expertise to realize. There exists an eyewitness account of Steiner going over the math with the structural engineer, convincing the engineer that the structure was feasible. The building was built by one of the leading Swiss engineering firms and financed entirely from donations, with the finish work (interior decorating) done by an international group of volunteers, all during the First World War. The building was made entirely out of wood, with the interiors elaborately hand carved. The interior of the cupolas were painted, using paints that Steiner himself formulated for the purpose (it was important to him that they be created using plant-derived pigments rather than petroleum-derived dyes). For the windows he developed a new way of creating artistic stained glass windows that involved carving colored glass thinner in some places than others. He made sketches for the design, and collaborators executed the concept. The building, sometimes called a temple, has a place in most history-of-architecture books as the only large-scale building in the German Expressionist tradition. The building was never completed; the last details were being refined when it was burned in an arson attack in 1922. Using insurance money Steiner designed its replacement, this time to be built out of poured concrete. This was completed in 1928 (three years after his death) and stands to this day. This, his second Goetheanum, is even more striking, being the first large-sized building that was both made primarily of poured concrete (a new medium at the time) and to take full advantage of the possibilities of the medium, such as molded non-rectilinear structural walls. In the time between these two major structures, Steiner designed seventeen other buildings, several of them side-buildings to the main one. His design philosophy inspired what is known as the “organic architecture” movement, and it is within the field of architecture that he has the most mainstream acceptance. One can fine his philosophy inscrutable, but the buildings speak for themselves.
The role of a supportive social network in enabling creative expression is most obvious in the case of Steiner’s architecture. As Robert Paul Wiener observes in his book Creativity and Beyond, “even with the greatest of vision, creative ideas simply cannot bear fruit without adequate tools and materials”. For Steiner to be able to express himself in wood (and later concrete) he needed thousands of followers donating the modern equivalent of tens of millions of dollars in order to get the money to pay for the wood, labor, and engineering expertise to get the building erected. The idea may have existed in his head, but it did not stand for outside inspection and admiration until the money provided the resources to construct it. Likewise insurance money was crucial in building the second Goetheanum.
Having started into art at age 47, Steiner found artistic success in writing and staging four four-hour dramas—completely original in style yet historically insignificant—and won international renown and a place in history for two very innovative large buildings. But his creative activity extended well beyond this. In the pure arts he also attempted a number of new things in painting (the results have been judged amateurish by art historians). In the area of sculpture he created a 24-foot wood carving titled “The Representative of Man”, also in a fairly original style with similarities to German Expressionism. In interior design he produced numerous small items for his buildings, from banister railings to radiator covers to door knobs, many of striking originality. He also sketched a few pieces of jewelry that were later custom made for close friends.
In the realm of performance art, in addition to his work as a playwright and theater director, he also invented a sub-genre of dance that he called Eurythmy. He conceptualized its movement-language and grammar, trained dozens of practitioners, choreographed and staged hundreds of performance pieces, adapted it to therapeutic purposes, and even designed two-dimensional painted cut-outs to represent the gestures visually (the so-called Eurythmy Figures).
Beyond these arts lies his creative capacities with language, expressed in both poetry and prose. Because he worked primarily in German, Steiner’s originality in use of language is difficult to convey to English speakers. Steiner was capable of very dry philosophical writing, as his early books attest, but he could write poems, aphorisms, and lively prose. His genius with language is most evident in the meditations and meditative verses that he wrote. He composed these by abusing the German language in a highly creative way. German uses a lot of compound words, words that are made up of two other words. However, only certain compounds are regular, accepted words found in the dictionary. Steiner would create his own compounds, mixing words in ways that are perfectly comprehensible, even as they are completely novel. To see what this is like, consider the English word “fireworks”, a compound of “fire” and “works”. Now consider “waterworks”—uncommon, but comprehensible. How about “lightworks”? You can figure out what that might be, even if it is not in the dictionary. By creating his own compounds, especially in meditative verses, Steiner created lines of poetry that function like Zen koans, linguistic constructs that use the logic of language to stretch your imagination beyond the real, physical world, to contemplate the nature of things. What is the sound of one hand clapping? It causes you to consider the nature of sound, of a clap, of whether these things are separable. Of wholeness and it’s opposite. Likewise—to take one example from literally hundreds—with Steiner’s novel word “Willenswesen”, a compound of volition and being. What is volition being? If I have one, what is it like? Like the koan, it opens the mind to other ways of viewing things.
Using this facility with the German language, at the request of one of his followers who was a Lutheran minister, Steiner wrote out an entire liturgy – seven sacraments – that form the basis of a Christian denomination centered in Germany that has something on the order of 30,000 worldwide members today. Steiner’s church liturgy are in daily use on four continents eighty years later. Each sacrament is highly a structured, profound, poetic masterpiece, and he spent just a few hours on each one, as a side project, between his buildings, plays, international lecturing schedule, and everything else he was working on.
Beyond these traditionally “creative” domains—painting, sculpture, architecture, design, playwriting, poetry, and prose—Steiner was further creative in a whole range of practical areas as well, to include medicine, agriculture, economics, and education. In each of these domains he has left a substantial legacy. In medicine, there are several dozen clinics and small hospitals throughout Europe that practice following his insights, as well as a University (Witten-Herdecke) that trains doctors, and two pharmaceutical companies (Weleda and Wala) that manufacture the several hundred remedies that he developed. In agriculture he pioneered a specific practice of organic, sustainable farming, and today thousands of farms run on his methods. In economics he proposed a fundamental restructuring of Europe’s economy that is still studied as a novel proposal today. And in education he had what is likely his most visible legacy, the Waldorf Education movement, with well over 1000 schools on five continents, all emulating the model school he directed from 1919 to 1925.
If creativity requires both individual impetus and social acceptance, then the last seven years of Steiner’s life, from late 1918 to his death in 1925, provided the social landscape that produced numerous opportunities his creativity to manifest. World War One was a disaster of the first magnitude that shook European society’s faith in the status quo to its foundations. It ended absolute dictatorships in Germany and Austro-Hungary, and led to the establishment of democracy in both. The old ways of doing things were everywhere discredited, and society as a whole was open to new ideas and impulses. Rudolf Steiner, due to his reputation and accomplishments, found himself sought out by numerous people for suggestions and ideas on how to do things better. He responded to every inquiry eagerly.
Before World War One Central European society was fairly rigid. The war changed that, and suddenly the younger generation was looking everywhere for the new ideas and new directions. Out of this social need Steiner got both a larger audience and willing co-workers, people who were eager to put his ideas into practice. This they did in multiple domains, and Steiner working tirelessly was able to seed his ideas in ways that would grow well beyond his influence. His ability to work collaboratively and to inspire others to take his ideas into practice is key to understanding how he could have such an extensive influence in so many different domains.
Several young doctors sought him out for ideas about how to “renew” medicine. He suggested forming a clinic close to his base of operations in Dornach, Switzerland. This they did, and Steiner visited regularly, doing the daily rounds with the doctors, observing patients, making diagnoses, and suggesting remedies. Ten years earlier he had given a cycle of lectures in Prague for doctors, describing human physiology from the point of view of the ancient Hermetic tradition, and interpreting this in terms of his own worldview, anthroposophy. A number of doctors had found this a helpful framework in understanding the nature and role of various illnesses. Now Steiner worked out the implications, especially for thereapies, in detail. Steiner had studied Paracelsus and incorporated his concepts of macrocosm and microcosm, as well as elements of Hahnemann’s homeopathy, into the treatments that he developed. These were administered by the doctors with whom he collaborated, the results noted, and together they built up a body of practice in the new domain of Anthroposophically Extended Medicine. Steiner and his close collaborator Dr. Ita Wegman co-authored a book on the approach.
A factory manager approached Steiner in 1918 about founding a school for the children of the workers in his factory. Steiner, who had written a pamphlet on educational reform ten years earlier, took up the idea enthusiastically. In between his many other activities he found time to recruit a dozen teachers, wrangle the permits (this was the very first private school Germany had ever known, and was allowed even though private schools were technically illegal at that time) and run a teacher training seminar before the school opened in 1919. Steiner worked out the curriculum and the pedagogy, trained the teachers, and then continued as a fairly absentee school director as his schedule permitted. He was only able to visit the school about twenty times in the following five years, but when he was there he was fully engaged, visiting the classes, mentoring the teachers, and chairing faculty meetings that ran to 2:00 AM where they discussed every aspect of the school administration, problem students, remediation plans, and the curriculum. The school was intended from the outset to serve as a model, and as such was highly successful. Within three years another five schools were in the planning stages, and Steiner lectured internationally to support the new school movement. Today there are over one thousand Waldorf Schools around the world, using the basic curriculum and pedagogical principles that Steiner worked out with the teachers at the first school.
The farmers that requested a lecture cycle on agriculture were also not disappointed. Steiner traveled to northern Germany to deliver the eight lectures on farming that included such issues as the problems with monoculture, petroleum-derived nitrate fertilizers, the dangers of pesticides, and the need for sustainable practices (this in 1924!). In addition to articulating his objections, Steiner also laid out alternatives, including practices to increase soil fertility without artificial fertilizers, alternative methods of pest control, and how to work with nature rather than against it to get the most productivity out of a piece of land in a manner that does not deplete the soil. One central component is involves what might be described as homeopathy applied to the soil, a concept that in itself represents a highly original application of one domain into another. Steiner’s methods, which early practitioners named Biodynamics (a trademark) have been applied on an increasing number of acres, starting in central Europe and expanding later into North and South America, Africa and recently Asia. While it has had little appreciable impact on worldwide farm policy, it represents a discernable sub-culture within the field and an early and articulate presentation of organic principles, which otherwise appear to have emerged in the 1960’s and gone mainstream after 2000.
What Steiner’s innovations in all of these areas have in common is that they applied his basic worldview to different practical domains. In the first forty years of his life, from 1861 to 1900, he studied extensively in numerous domains, amassing a formidable body of knowledge in multiple areas – history, science, philosophy, literature, and occult subjects. From 1900 to about 1907 he spent his time intellectually integrating his previous knowledge and personal experiences with the system of Blavatsky’s Theosophy. But he went beyond a simple intellectual synthesis when he decided to apply his insights as art. His following among central European theosophists gave him an audience willing to take a chance on his artistic innovations, however imperfect they might be, as well as fund his more expensive projects, like a large building. In each area he stretched his creative talents, with varying degrees of success. Then after 1918 social circumstances in Europe sent a large number of seekers his direction, often young people with practical questions who were impressed by what Steiner had been able to accomplish intellectually and artistically up to that point. They asked for his insights into areas like medicine and agriculture, and he obliged.
What is so interesting is the fact that so much of what he offered has proven to have lasting value. Although himself never a farmer or professor of agricultural science, he was able in a week to chart a course for sustainable organic agriculture that people continue to find useful nearly a century later, with his methods employed on hundreds of thousands of acres on five continents. Likewise, with no medical training he was still able, from a profound knowledge of healing plants and a uniquely personal and highly elaborated theory of how the human body functions, to both share his perspective as well as apply it to healing real patients. The doctors he was able to train to employ his perspective were able to further develop it into an entire sub-domain of healing, with trainings, certifications, and clinics in operation today. In like manner it was out of an elaborately developed picture of child development that Steiner was able to develop both a pedagogy and curriculum that has proven very successful over nearly a century, and across multiple cultures. Because the system of education that he founded is built upwards from an understanding of how children mature and the types of activities that are appropriate to each stage, the actual curriculum then has a degree of flexibility, so that it can be adopted to local conditions, whether these be Weimar Germany, the US in the 1950’s, or 21st century Taiwan.
Steiner’s creativity was in large measure a result of his own special talent. But it was only able to manifest when the cultural context made a space for it. Whatever profound insights into human nature may have existed in his head before 1900, there was no audience for it, and his output was limited to philosophical works and literary reviews. But when he found eager listeners among Theosophists in Berlin, a new avenue of expression was opened for him, and he began to speak about topics that he had had to remain silent on up until then. A small core of early followers both gave space for him to lecture on occult topics, and also recorded his output so that we have a historical record to evaluate him on. But the theosophical audience was itself limiting, as they wanted to hear theory, but many had no interest in art. As Steiner wanted to transform Theosophy into something practical, he introduced art, alienating a number of his early followers. However, he retained a substantial following, so he charted his own course independent of the Theosophical Society. This afforded him space to be productive in the traditional creative arts, but for his ideas to have space to transform the practical world outer circumstances again needed to be right.
The most comprehensive biography of Rudolf Steiner to date is the 1025 page 2-volume effort by Christoph Lindenberg, published in 1997. It is available only in German. Numerous other print biographies exist.
A good place to start is Rudolf Steiner's Autobiography, which is online complete and unabridged - 300 pages
- Roy Wilkinson Describes Steiner's Life and Significance
- Henry Barnes examines Steiner's significance.
- John Davy surveys Steiner's Life
- Robert Lawrence writes a longer introduction
- An evaluation of Rudolf Steiner's life and work in New Times
- Steiner's Autobiography (complete and unabridged - 300 pages)