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ANTHROPOSOPHY ("knowledge of the human being" or "human wisdom"), is the name that Rudolf Steiner (18611925), the Austrian philosopher-educator-esotericist, gave to his teachings and to the spiritual practice he recommended as an antidote to modern Western materialistic consciousness. Steiner also referred to his teaching as spiritual science, signaling what he considered to be the empirical character of his research concerning the spiritual world. As a spiritual movement, primarily Western but intended for all of humanity, anthroposophy is continuous with the Rosicrucian stream of the Christian esoteric tradition.

Early History and Teachings

In 1902 Steiner assumed the position of leader of the Berlin lodge of the Theosophical Society, but the centrality of Christ in his teachings, in contrast to the theosophical emphasis on Hindu and Buddhist spiritual teachers, made it inevitable that he eventually would feel the need to separate from that society, which he did in 1912. Steiner's followers, most of whom had been members of the Theosophical Society, followed Steiner when he broke with Annie Besant (then president of the society) and founded the Anthroposophical Society in 1912. Although both Rudolf Steiner and anthroposophy can be seen to have evolved from the Theosophical Society, especially if one compares the writings of H. P. Blavatsky with the early esoteric writings of Steiner (e.g., An Outline of Esoteric Science of 1909), it is more accurate to say that anthroposophy is continuous with the entire Western esoteric tradition, especially the esoteric teachings of Egypt, Greece, Johannine Christianity, and Rosicrucianism.

Steiner's most succinct characterization of anthroposophy appears in the opening paragraphs of Anthroposophical Leading Thoughts, which he wrote in 1924, during the last months of his life:

  1. Anthroposophy is a path of knowing (thinking) to guide the spiritual in the human being to the spiritual in the universe. It arises as a need of the heart, of the life of feeling; and it can be justified only inasmuch as it can satisfy this inner need.
  2. Anthroposophy is communicated knowledge that is gained in a spiritual way. For at the very frontier where the knowledge derived from sense-perception ceases, there is opened through the human soul itself the further outlook into the spiritual world. (Steiner, 1973, p. 13)

From his first systematic work, The Philosophy of Freedom (1984), until his last writings and lectures in 1924 Steiner sought to exemplify, and to enable others to attain, spiritual, or sense-free, knowledge. Anthroposophy may be understood as the discipline of seeing the inner, or spiritual, core of every reality, even realities that seem to be grossly material. Although it ordinarily is understood as a teaching, anthroposophy is essentially a discipline by which to see directly into the spiritual world. Steiner reportedly was able to track the souls of the deceased and read the "Akashic Record," which can be thought of as a transcript of human and cosmic history that is available to accomplished psychics and spiritual seers.

Steiner consistently urged spiritual seekers to eschew the cultivation of revelations received while unconscious and instead develop the capacity for conscious esoteric research. In this respect, anthroposophy has an emphasis different from that of contemporary teachings and practices that rely primarily on dreams, mediumship, channeling, and hypnosis. Steiner's emphasis on the cultivation of higher thinking capacities is different as well from reliance on revelations of ancient wisdom to Blavatsky and to several other first-generation leaders of the Theosophical Society by mahatmas, or discarnate Himalayan teachers.

One of the key claims of Steiner's spiritual science is that knowledge of the higher, or spiritual, world is made possible by the core of the self that he refers to as "Spirit," "Ego," or "I." According to Steiner, each of the four levels of knowledge corresponds to a level of the human being. Sensory perception is made possible by the physical body; imaginative knowledge, by the etheric body; inspirational knowledge, by the soul, or astral body; and intuitive (or spiritual) knowledge, by the I, Ego, or Spirit.

One of the reasons anthroposophy is difficult to summarize is that Steiner prescribes methods for growth on all levels of apprehension or, correspondingly, intended for the development of each of the four levels of the human being. Techniques for the increase of knowledge and the transformation of human beings include the study of natural science, projective geometry, sculpture, and painting as well as speech formation, music, eurythmy (an artistic method of movement to sound), interpersonal relations, the experience of scriptures, and religious rituals. Steiner worked in these and other endeavors as a way of to demonstrate the varied possibilities for the cultivation of imaginative, inspirational, and intuitive knowledge.

According to Steiner, the supersensible knowledge that lies behind his discoveries and disclosures is a distinctive capacity of the present age just as, earlier, the thinking capacity of the classical Greek philosophers and early Christian thinkers was significantly different from that of more ancient seers, whether the rsis of India, Moses, or Homer. In Steiner's elaborate account of the evolution of consciousness thinking has evolved in direct relation to the devolution of clairvoyance. Steiner attempted to show that the supersensible mode of perception he espoused combines conscious thinking with a spiritual or intuitive grasp akin to the clairvoyance characteristic of ancient times. At the center of this double evolution Steiner saw the descent of the Christ, which made possible a reversal of a downward, materialistic trend in favor of an ascent toward an increasingly free, spiritual mode of thinking.

Steiner conducted esoteric research into the afterlife of significant individuals and the secrets of life between death and rebirth. He spoke of Christ as the Lord of Karma. He also gave many lectures on the role of great spiritual beings such as Moses, Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Plato, Socrates, the figures in the New Testament, Saint Francis, and Christian Rosenkreutz in the evolution of human consciousness. In more than a dozen lecture cycles from 1909 to 1913 Steiner disclosed his research on those figures, particularly concerning Krishna, Buddha, and Christ, working collaboratively in the spiritual world on behalf of the evolution of humanity. He also lectured on a topic of significance in light of the current trend toward ecological devastation: the reappearance, beginning in the twentieth century, of the resurrected Christ in the etheric envelope of the earth.

Later Developments

Although few if any of Steiner's thousands of followers have attained the kind of supersensible perception he exhibited, they have applied his spiritual discipline and insights creatively. Among the works arising from Steiner's teachings have been the biodynamic method of soil cultivation, anthroposophically extended medicine, and the Waldorf School movement, currently the largest nonsectarian independent school system in the world. Anthroposophists are also responsible for the Camphill movement, which consists of villages for children and adults who require special mental and emotional care. Drawing on Steiner's lectures on the arts and on his suggestions to artists with whom he collaborated, Anthroposophical artists have brought Steiner's artistic methods to bear on the visual and performing arts, especially painting, sculpture, architecture, speech, drama, and eurythmy.

Steiner intended spiritual science to supersede religion, but in response to a request from Protestant pastors and seminarians for help in fostering Christian renewal, he generated the sacramental forms and organizational structure of the Christian Community, a modern church that is not formally allied with the Anthroposophical Society but is part of the same Johannine esoteric Christian stream and clearly draws its inspiration and much of its teaching from Steiner's spiritual life and research.

At the Christmas Foundation Meeting in 1923, in addition to establishing the Anthroposophical Society as a resource for anyone wishing to gain a basic knowledge of the supersensible, Steiner established the School of Spiritual Science for members of the Anthroposophical Society who were willing to commit themselves to represent anthroposophy or spiritual science in and to the world. Members of the School of Spiritual Science, which Steiner intended to have nine classes but lived to found only the first class, strive to develop imagination, inspiration, and intuition in fields such as mathematics, medicine, pedagogy, agriculture, the social sciences, the visual arts, and the performing arts. Research in those fields is centered in the Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland, but also is conducted by members of the School of Spiritual Science working alone and in groups throughout the world. The publication of books and periodicals and the holding of conferences to explore research in these fields demonstrate the continuing vitality of Steiner's esoteric teaching and method of research.

In the 1930s and 1940s conflicts between European countries adversely affected the working of the Anthroposophical Society. In recent decades the influence of Rudolf Steiner's teachings and the practice of anthroposophy seem to have been limited by a conservative tendency among some anthroposophists.

Subsequent anthroposophical researchers and authors include Christopher Bamford, Owen Barfield, Bernard Lievegoed, Robert McDermott, Robert Powell, Mary Carolyn (M.C.) Richards, Robert Sardello, Douglas Sloan, Edward Reaugh Smith, Valentin Tomberg, Andrew Welburn, and Arthur Zajonc. Endeavors such as biodynamic agriculture, Waldorf education, and anthroposophical medicine stand out as creative examples of thinking, feeling, and willing that advance the effort to (re)join the material and spiritual dimensions of human consciousness.

See Also

Besant, Annie; Blavatsky, H. P.; Rosicrucians; Steiner, Rudolf; Theosophical Society.


Steiner's published writings total more than 350 volumes, most of which consist of cycles of lectures. More than two hundred of these works and another several hundred on anthroposophy, including all the titles listed below, are published by Anthroposophical Press/Steiner Books, Great Barrington, Mass., and are available from

Foundational Books

Steiner, Rudolf. Theosophy: An Introduction to the Spiritual Processes in Human Life and in the Cosmos. Translated by Catherine E. Creeger, Hudson, N.Y., 1994.

Steiner, Rudolf. How to Know Higher Worlds: A Modern Path of Initiation. Translated by Christopher Bamford, Hudson, N.Y., 1995.

Steiner, Rudolf. Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path: A Philosophy of Freedom. Translated by Michael Lipson, Hudson, N.Y., 1995.

Steiner Rudolf. An Outline of Esoteric Science. Translated by Catherine E. Creeger, Hudson, N.Y., 1997.


Bamford, Christopher, ed., intro. Spiritualism, Madame Blavatsky, and Theosophy: An Eyewitness View of Occult History, Great Barrington, Mass., 2001.

Bamford, Christopher, ed., intro. What Is Anthroposophy? Great Barrington, Mass., 2002.

Lipson, Michael. Stairway to Surprise: Six Steps to a Creative Life, Great Barrington, Mass., 2002.

Robert A. McDermott (1987 and 2005)

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