Rudolf (Rudolf Joseph Laurence) Steiner,
who was of German-Austrian origin, was born on 25 February, 1861 (usually, biographies give the date of his baptism, two days later, as his birth date). His place of birth was a tiny village, Kraljevec, then within the borders of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Today, it is part of Croatia.
He spent his childhood and youth in the vicinity of Vienna, in Steiermark, and in Burgenland. From the age of 18, he studied mathematics, physics, chemistry, and natural history at the Technical University in Vienna. At the same time, he attended lectures by the philosophers Robert Zimmermann and Franz Brentano at the University of Vienna.
At the suggestion of the (at the time) well-known Germanist Karl Julius Schröer, in 1882, at the age of 21, Steiner was given the task of publishing the natural scientific works of Goethe, the central figure in German culture since the 19th century, in Joseph Kürchner’s compilation National German Literature. At 25, he published A Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe’s World-Conception as part of his work.
From 1884 to 1890, he supported himself as a private tutor in the family of a wealthy Viennese businessman. Another activity during his twenties was to write scientific articles for Pierer’s Encyclopedia, where he contributed a number of articles on geology and mineralogy.
Pierer’s, characterized by its brevity and objectivity, aimed to summarize the totality of knowledge at the time and was considered by some the most valuable and most reliable scientific encyclopedia in the German language.
In 1891, Steiner acquired a Ph.D. at the University of Rostock. His thesis title: The Basic Question of Epistemology, Especially in Relation to Fichte’s Philosophy of Science.
He was invited to the Goethe and Schiller archives in Weimar in 1890, the cultural center of Germany at the time, and given the responsibility of editing the natural scientific works of Goethe for the Sophien edition of the works of Goethe. He completed this task in 1897, when he moved to Berlin.
During his time in Weimar, he also edited and published the complete works of Schopenhauer in 12 volumes, and the works of Jean Paul in 8 volumes. In the series Classical Berliner Editions (“with introductions by well known historians of literature”), he published and introduced the works of Wieland and Uhland. In 1893, he published Philosophy of Freedom (later also published as Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path), the basic philosophical foundation for his later works.
In Berlin, he published and edited the Magazine for Literature from 1897 to 1900, and Dramaturgical Papers, official organ of the German Stage Association. During the period, and later, he developed an extensive lecturing and teaching activity under the auspices of a number of literary and scientific societies.
At the fifth centennial of the birth of Gutenberg in June 1900, he was asked to give a festival address to the 7,000 congregated typesetters and printers at the circus stadium in Berlin. From 1899 to 1904, he also worked as a lecturer on history, literature, the art of speaking, and the sciences at the Berlin Workers’ Training School, founded by the Social Democrat Wilhelm Liebknecht. From 1899, he was married to Anna Eunicke, until her death in 1911.
Through his work from the 1880s and onwards, he became well known far outside the borders of Germany as a scholar and cultural personality.
With the turn of the 20th century his life took a new direction.
Based on lectures that he was invited to hold in the Theosophical Library of Count and Countess Brockdorff in 1901/1902, Rudolf Steiner developed in an initial form, during the following decade, what he named an “anthroposophical spiritual science” or “human science in the broad sense” (“Geisteswissenschaft”) encompassing a number of human sciences in the idealistic tradition in philosophy, rooted in the thinking of Aristotle, Plato, and Thomas Aquinas.
In 1902, he was asked to become the General Secretary of the German section of the Theosophical Society. He accepted, but gave the stipulation that he could speak freely only of what he developed through his own spiritual investigations.
The step from traditional scholar to the development and public presentation of spiritual research shocked many of those who up to that time had come to know him as a widely respected scholar and cultural personality.
His closest co-worker from 1902 onwards, and later partner for life, came to be Marie von Sievers (in 1914 Marie Steiner). She made it possible for him to realize his artistic strivings.
In Munich, he staged two dramas by the French writer and poet Edouard Schuré in 1907 and 1909, translated by Marie Steiner. This was to be the starting point for four Mystery Dramas by Steiner, that were staged for the first time in Munich, in 1910, 1911, 1912 and 1913.
In 1912, a separation from the Theosophical Society became necessary, and an Anthroposophical Society was founded by co-workers of Steiner. While he continued his lecturing activity on what he called “spiritual science”, he held no office in this Society, and was not even a member of it.
In 1912, he also initiated a new art of movement, eurythmy, as one part of the general development of the arts at the time, in a kindred spirit to that of Isadora Duncan, regarded as the mother of “modern dance”.
Together with a new art of speech formation, developed by Rudolf Steiner and Marie von Sievers, eurythmy from 1914 has come to constitute the focus for the work on the Goetheanum stage in Dornach (Switzerland). The Goetheanum was designed by Steiner and constructed under his leadership between 1913 and 1919. The first Goetheanum, burnt down 1922/23, was replaced in 1928 by a second Goetheanum, also designed by Rudolf Steiner.
In 1918, when a revolution took place, not only in Russia, but also in Germany, and threatened to disintegrate the social fabric, Steiner presented suggestions for a conscious threefold differentiation of society as a path for the future. It focused on the development of freedom in the cultural sphere, equality in the sphere of politics and legislation, and a globally oriented brotherhood in the sphere of economy. Steiner lectured widely on this topic, leading to a movement for social threefolding.
In 1919, this led to the founding of the first free Waldorf school in Stuttgart at the initiative of Emil Molt, CEO of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory. The school became the model for the Waldorf movement, leading to the building and development of (by 2009) some 1,600 Waldorf Kindergartens and 994 independent Waldorf or Rudolf Steiner schools world wide, offering educational activities from early childhood through high school and in some cases, programs for adults.
Today, Steiner’s ideas about a conscious threefold differentiation of society has been one of the main inspirations for the work by one of the recipients of the Alternative Nobel Prize in 2003, Nicanor Perlas, and other civil society activists.
Steiner also gave indications for a curative education for the developmentally disabled, for an extension of medicine, a renewal and development of agriculture into what today is called biodynamic agriculture, and other areas of practical life. The results of these indications can be seen in numerous institutions and companies throughout the world.
On New Year’s Eve 1922/1923, the Goetheanum, wholly built of wood, burnt to the ground as a result of arson. Up to his death in 1925, Steiner was only able to create an exterior model for the presently existing second Goetheanum, built in concrete. Today, the full version of Faust by Goethe is one of the dramas regularly staged at the Goetheanum.
In 1923/1924, Rudolf Steiner initiated the foundation of, and started to build a general Anthroposophical Society and a School of Spiritual Science. During 1924, his lecturing activity reached a climax, and he held 330 lectures from the beginning of the year to September 29, when he became exhausted and had to stop all public activity. He died six months later, on 30 March 1925 in Dornach.
News of Steiner’s death spread quickly. An obituary appeared in the New York Times the next day, focusing on Steiner’s contributions to social theory, writing.