Rudolf Joseph Steiner (1861–1925), one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century, was an Austrian philosopher, natural scientist, educationist, and social reformer. He founded anthroposophy, which he also called ‘spiritual science’. He is also well known as the founder of Waldorf education, organic farming methods (biodynamic agriculture), and alternative health practices. His work encompassed numerous areas, including Goethean science, philosophy, esoteric work, pedagogy, medicine, sociology, agriculture, architecture, painting, movement arts, and poetry.
Steiner was born on 25 February 1861 in the village of Murakirály, Austria-Hungary (today Donji Kraljevec, Croatia). His father, Johann Steiner, was a telegraph operator at the Southern Austrian Railway, and his mother was a housemaid. Young Rudolf spent his childhood in the countryside. Very early on, he discovered that he lived in two worlds of reality – the outer world and an inner world of experience. He always found it difficult to share his world of inner experience with others. So, he learnt to remain silent about it. When he was eight years old, Steiner discovered in his teacher’s room a book of geometry. This gave him the confidence that there was in fact a realm of experience accessible only through human thought, not though outer sense perception, but which was accepted as real. Thus, Steiner took mathematics as an important foundation for his striving after knowledge. He remarked, “In mathematics there is afforded a system of percepts and concepts which have been reached independently of any external sense impressions. … One carries over these perceptions and concepts into sense-reality and discovers its laws. Through mathematics one learns to understand the world, and yet in order to do this one must first evoke mathematics out of the human mind.”
In 1879, Steiner enrolled at the Vienna Institute of Technology to study biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. Simultaneously, he pursued his interest in philosophical studies in the search for truth. He studied in detail the writings of German philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and Johann Friedrich Herbart. He also attended various lectures at the University, where he heard the philosopher Franz Brentano, the linguist Karl Julius Schröer, and other scholars.
As a student, Steiner’s scientific ability was acknowledged by Professor Karl Julius Schröer. Steiner was asked to edit Goethe’s writings on nature. Later, he was invited to Weimar, to the famous Goethe archive, where he remained for seven years, working further on scientific writings. Because he moved to Weimar, he withdrew from the Institute of Technology in Vienna without graduating but got his doctorate in philosophy in Rostock in 1891 for his dissertation, Truth and Knowledge.
Ever since his youth, his inclination to pursue science was to blend natural science with knowledge of the spirit. Steiner, in a lecture, remarks, “man by means of his senses grasps the physical side of reality ‘from without’ and by means of his spiritual awareness grasps its spiritual side ‘from within,’ so that all which is experienced appears as an unified world in which the sensible manifests the spirit and the spirit reveals itself creatively in the sensible.” He wrote and lectured extensively on various esoteric subjects such as early evolution of earth and humanity, reincarnation, and the collaborative interrelations between the teachings of Bhagavad Gita and Christ. He also turned towards arts —drama, painting, architecture, eurythmy— showing the creative forming powers that can be drawn from spiritual vision. He found the ancient text of Bhagavad Gita to be a meeting place for East and West. From Bhagavad Gita, Steiner extracted numerous conclusions to serve his spiritual scientific research. He remarked, “… the Bhagavad Gita … resounds to us as something responding to our deepest longings. … We now are at the beginning of an age wherein men’s souls will once more seek access in a new way to the spiritual worlds. We must feel ourselves stimulated to this search when we think of how we once had this access that it once was there for man. Indeed, we shall find it to an unusual degree in the revelations of the holy song of the East.”
The rest of his life was devoted to building up a complete science of the spirit, to which he gave the name Anthroposophy. Steiner designed the Goetheanum (named after Johann Wolfgang von Goethe) located in Dornach, Switzerland, as the world center for the anthroposophical movement. He envisioned it to be a laboratory and workshop for spiritual knowledge to reach out into every department of human activity. He died on March 30, 1925, in Dornach, Switzerland.Rudolf Steiner’s life and work were fully dedicated to bringing a new erudite approach to knowledge through spiritual science, in order to revitalize the most important areas of human culture and education, for the benefit of society at large.