Antroposophy 101 AKA All That Weird Shit I’m Always Talking About

29 Sep

asabovesobelowEvery once in awhile, amongst the dick pics and sociopolitcal rants on twitter, or between the lines of an essay, I’ll mention some bizarre occult stuff.  Sometimes it raises eyebrows, but more often, I’ll get some ernest, thoughtful questions in my inbox about it.  Here’s an incomplete introduction to some of the spiritual principles I think about – headquartered in an approaching to being called anthroposophy, developed by Rudolf Steiner.  The below Q&A first appeared in a slight different form on the online spirituality, science and culture magazine, Reality Sandwich.  


Who was Rudolf Steiner and who’s working with Steiner’s ideas today?

Rudolf Steiner was a scientist, philosopher, and spiritual thinker who lived in the late 19th and early 20th Century.  He produced a huge body of work, including thousands of lectures, a whole shelf-full of books, and a building in Switzerland called the Goetheanum.  His work, and the work and perspective of those who are influenced by his ideas, is referred to as anthroposophy.

One of the most impressive things about Rudolf Steiner are the practical fruits of his spiritual worldview.  His influence is felt most strongly around the world in the system of agriculture he created, called biodynamic farming; in Waldorf schools; and in CSAs (community-shared agriculture), which he laid the foundations for.  But Steiner also created a new form of medicine, bee keeping, a way to create stained glass, jewelry making, and more.  His spiritual perspective was even poised to inform the structure of European government near the end of World War I.


Wassily Kandinsky

Steiner’s work has also deeply influenced scientists and ecologists; Rachel Carson was inspired by the work of anthroposophists, for example.

So there are hundreds of thousands of people interacting with anthroposophical ideas, whether they know it or not.  Some people directly influenced by Steiner’s work include novelist Saul Bellow, writer CS Lewis, scientist James Lovelock, artists Joseph Beuys, Wassily Kandinsky, and more.

How did I get interested in Steiner?

When I was in grad school, Rudolf Steiner’s name kept popping up in reading I was doing, but I never really looked into it.  When I went to an environmental conference with my teacher and mentor, world-renowned biologist/geoscientist Lynn Margulis, I came across a brochure for a place called the Nature Institute, which had a three month-long program on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s method of science. 

Even though I was in school already, Lynn said, “If you can get into that program, you’re going.”  You didn’t argue with Lynn Margulis about stuff like that.  So I got in and went, having no idea that Goethe was one of Steiner’s main influences.  Suddenly, I was soaking in anthroposophy. I got an apartment that was literally next to a biodynamic farm and across the street from a Waldorf school.  It was the perfect fit for me: I was in grad school for creative writing and biology, and anthroposophy bridges the gaps between the arts and the sciences.  Eventually I was reading Steiner’s lectures, and even though I didn’t understand any of it at first I felt a feeling of growth as I worked to comprehend what he’d said.


The Goetheanum

What are the basics of anthroposophy?

There aren’t really any basics explicitly laid out, partially because anthroposophy is so far-reaching and complex, partially because it evaded dogma, and most importantly because anthroposophy is so deeply individualized.  Everyone’s ideas of what the fundamentals are will be different. 

That said, there are certain threads that I see again and again in Steiner’s work, so I think of those as my fundamentals.

They are:

The principle that thoughts are as real as objects.  In other words, we need to understand that the thought-world is as important as the material world.  In the current mainstream worldview we tend to dismiss thoughts as illusory, but Steiner would say they are just as foundational to reality as material is.


Owen Barfield

The evolution of consciousness.  Steiner taught that consciousness evolves over time.  He didn’t just mean that the content of our thinking evolved, but that the structure of thought, feeling, and perception evolved.  The difference between what a person six hundred years ago thought and what we think today isn’t just a difference of what but how.  Many anthroposophical thinkers, like writer Owen Barfield, developed this work – pointing to the forms of language we use and art we make as evidence for this.

There is a spiritual landscape populated by spiritual beings, and these beings are constantly interacting with us.  For anthroposophists, these beings are not merely conceptual metaphors, but actual entities.  There’s a vast hierarchy of creation that can be understood only by studying, contemplating, and considering these beings.  This is the hardest principle for people unfamiliar with anthroposophy to deal with, so Steiner goes into great detail about what he means and helps to assist people to discover this on their own (or to reject it!), rather than just taking his word for it.

The highest principles of being are freedom and compassion.  By freedom, Steiner means thinking, feeling, and acting with real intention, rather than being led by compulsion.  Like many spiritual thinkers, Steiner understood that even when we believe were acting out of freedom, we are very often not.  His best solution for this was to work on having compassion for others as a way to develop freedom for yourself and to cultivate an atmosphere of freedom for others to develop in.  If you didn’t buy any of the other stuff about anthroposophy, but got this part down, you’d have a good handle on it.  As usual, Steiner doesn’t just assert this, but gives practical guidance on how to work on this faculty.

How did Steiner use his spiritual insight to create practices and change in the world?

Steiner’s work was about spiritualizing the material and materializing the spiritual, so that we could heal the rift we perceive between the two.  To that end, his efforts were always holistically inspired. 

For example, biodynamic farming isn’t just about making better tasting blueberries.  It’s about healing the soil the blueberries grow on, creating a healthy environment for the farmers, and creating a farm for those blueberries in which each component — the cows, the other plants, the farmers — act as organs in the body of the farm organism.  (By the way, the blueberries taste delicious.)

Another example is the Camphill movement, which works with people who have learning and mental disabilities, who become residents in Camphill communities.  Rather than just shuffling them away or trying to fix these people, Camphill considers them as whole human beings, with their own lessons to teach and lives to live.  They’re no more deficient or in need of fixing than you or I, and our destiny is intertwined with theirs.

A third example is Steiner’s work with money, currently pioneered by organizations like RSF Social Finance.  Steiner wanted us to reconsider our relationship to money, and rather than demonize it, elevate it into its proper place.  Money, he taught, was actually an impulse of brotherhood.  It revealed to us our relationships when we interacted with strangers and people we know in exchange.  So to help improve money, we need to restore it to it its principle of caring relationship.

Those are just three examples in the huge web of Steiner’s efforts to bring the principle of love and spirituality to a world that was becoming heavier and heavier with materialist and consumerist impulses.  They all stem from the principles discussed above, which Steiner wrote and spoke about and enacted his entire adult life.


Rudolf Steiner

14 Responses to “Antroposophy 101 AKA All That Weird Shit I’m Always Talking About”

  1. Doug MacKay September 29, 2014 at 8:21 pm #

    Thank-you for your condensed cogent distillation of Rudolph Steiner. No surprise to either of us that you write clearly and concisely reducing weighty matters down to key principles. As a practicing Buddhist I have begun to look at some of it’s tenants as having out lived their usefulness and just handed down as spoken gospel or hollow tradition i.e. the taking of life. Modern medical science now allows us to live nearly three times as long as Man did in the time of The Buddha however for some those last years are the soul’s wandering through the Bardo States due to life extension. I find the necessity of just occupying a hospital bed waiting life out so the so called journey of the soul is complete, unsatisfactory! I intend to pick up a book about Anthroposophy (this quarter period trying to,plough through Picketty ) and explore whether Steiner’s philosophy can speak to me about a way forward rather than a looking back, hind bound faith based, tradition.

    PS when that moment when you no longer walk into a bar and the whole room would willingly follow you home…and it will…you might consider stumping for Steiner.
    Cheers dug

    • Conner Habib September 29, 2014 at 8:40 pm #

      Thank you for the kind words and the thoughtful comment!
      Just as an interesting thought – modern medicine may not actually be doing the life extension you mention. There’s a lot of evidence that there was a “dip” in longevity because of conditions in cities and then because of the industrial revolution. Infant mortality skews the longevity rate – so modern medicine has helped with THAT, but may only now be rescuing us from its own associated worldview (industrial and reductive science).
      I’m not sure how I feel either way about that perspective – but either way, the question of how to live a meaningful life whether it’s ten or a hundred and thirty years long is with us.

      • Michael Locey September 30, 2014 at 3:54 pm #

        Steiner indicated that those who die after 72 (i.e., live to an old age) are fighting the battle against Ahriman. (The being called Satan in Christian literature; Ahriman seeks to bind human beings to the material earth and deny the spiritual.) Those who die young (before 72) are fighting against Lucifer. (The being called the Devil in Christianity; Lucifer wants to take humanity away into a spiritual world controlled by him and thereby deny the earth.)

        It makes sense when you think of a human being dying early who wants to return to the earth to experience things he/she was unable to in a short life as building up strength to resist the Luciferic impulse to leave the earth permanently behind. The same is true for those of us who live into old age (I remember my Grandmother at 100 saying “Don’t grow old!”) as being somewhat tired of earthly existence and welcoming their time in the spiritual worlds after death. These human beings are developing forces counter to the Ahrimanic striving for everyone to be trapped here with no concern for the spiritual.

        As Steiner indicates that our current age is particularly bound up with the Ahrimanic, it may also make sense that more individuals are living longer in our time than previously.

        Unfortunately, my memory of the corpus of Steiner lectures doesn’t extend to knowing exactly where this particular Steiner insight comes from (dying before and after 72). The extension of this insight in the second and third paragraphs is my own.

      • Conner Habib September 30, 2014 at 9:41 pm #

        Hey there –
        I love this comment. I wonder what happens if you’re fighting both?

  2. Robert Alvarez September 29, 2014 at 8:33 pm #

    Conner, what a great post. And I think it is safe to say that I have been interacting with Antroposophic ideas for the last several years.

    I have long-considered thoughts to be real, certainly not illusory. In fact, recently a close friend and personal hero of mine, said something negative, and I immediately replied with “Do not put that in my space,” although when I said “space” I was referring to the space of my Mind, which he understood as what I meant.

    Also, I have been teaching Prosperity Classes for several years, and although I do not first consider money as a way of connecting with others, I certainly do not see it as “dirty lucre,” as a lot of people do. Incidentally, I needed to look up the spelling of the word “lucre,” as I AM so disconnected from that word’s connotation that I forgot how it is correctly spelled.

    For some reason, I seem to have remembered Rudolf Steiner as connected to the Theosophists, as well. Or am I remembering that incorrectly?

    Have a beautiful day, and a wonderful week. And thanks, again, for a great post.

    • Conner Habib September 29, 2014 at 8:36 pm #

      Hi Robert!
      He was, indeed connected to the theosophists early on. He wasn’t exactly a theosophist, even though he was a bigwig in the theosophical society for awhile and wrote a book entitled Theosophy.
      Rather, he found that the theosophists had a good vocabulary to express his concepts and experiences, and that many of them were sufficiently trained to understand his message. So he worked with them for quite awhile until the theosophical society began to emphasize a lot of ideas he could no longer align with – propping up Krishnamurti as the 2nd coming of Christ, for example.
      Thank you for sharing and for the question!

  3. LickxxxDick September 29, 2014 at 8:51 pm #

    Hi Conner,

    You’re amazing. The depth of your mind amazes me, and I thank you.


  4. D'Arcy Mackenzie September 29, 2014 at 10:37 pm #

    Good piece. As someone who had read and thought about the economic lectures, your comments barely scratch the surface of how profound was his understanding of economic life. But no matter – your article is still worthy. BTW – Thomas Piketty referred to above is aligned with the economic lectures. Thank you.

  5. David Maulsby October 11, 2014 at 2:21 am #

    Thank-you for this clear, broad-ranging and motivating introduction to Anthroposophy. The word itself was the only difficult part to read! In that key idea “thoughts are as real as objects” I see a connection to a monist (aka non-dual) philosophy / spiritual perspective, in which thoughts and matter are of the same essence. Ironically, there are 3 kinds of monism: consciousness is a property of matter; matter is made of consciousness; and both are made of something even more fundamental. Does Steiner pursue any of those lines?

    • Conner Habib October 11, 2014 at 2:57 am #

      Hi David,
      It’s closest to the second proposition – though not exactly that. Everything is consciousness – but consciousness is a constantly evolving state. Nothing is totally static.

      • John Anderson June 21, 2015 at 1:21 pm #


        I have studied Theosophy and Anthroposophy for many years, along with a number of other philosophies. I find it delightful that you have written about these things here, in the public eye. I have often found it difficult to share my spiritual experience with the people in my life, particularly as a member of the gay community, where there is such an aversion to spiritual topics. When I read through your fact sheet a few minutes ago, I literally sat here with my mouth agape. In a few short minutes I have experienced a rather significant shift in consciousness regarding how I see porn stars. Even as someone on the Path, it is easy to fall into objectification and forget that you are in fact a real, living human being. You have depth, intelligence, eloquence and a rich Inner World. You have had pain, fear, love and loss. just like the rest of us. This is not the first time I have received this lesson (finding out the Allen Silver is a Sacred Intimate blew my mind), but this is reaching far deeper into my psyche. Thank you and bless you.


      • Conner Habib June 21, 2015 at 7:46 pm #

        John! Thank you so much for the loving words! It means a lot to me to hear from someone whose mind is genuinely open on so many levels.
        Thank you.


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