History of the Anthroposophical Movement

Lecture 6

by Rudolf Steiner

The Emergence of the Anthroposophical Movement


Dornach, 15 June 1923

I have given you some idea of the forces which determined the first two periods of the anthroposophical movement. But in order to create a basis on which to deal with what happened in the third stage, I still wish to deal with a number of phenomena from the first two.

The first period, up until approximately 1907, can be described as being concerned with developing the fundamentals for a science of the spirit in lectures, lecture cycles and in subsequent work undertaken by others. This period concludes approximately with the publication of my Occult Science. Note 1 ]

Occult Science actually appeared in print some one and a half years later, but the publicizing of its essential content undoubtedly falls into this first period. Some hope was definitely justified in this period, up to 1905 or 1906, that the content of anthroposophy might become the purpose of the Theosophical Society's existence.

During this time it would have been an illusion not to recognize that leading personalities in the Theosophical Society, and Annie Besant in particular, had a very primitive understanding of modern scientific method. Nevertheless, despite the amateurish stamp which this gave to all her books, there was a certain sum of wisdom, mostly unprocessed, in the people who belonged to the Society. This became more marked as the focus of the Theosophical Society gradually moved to London and slowly began to feed, in a manner of speaking, on oriental wisdom. It sometimes led to the most peculiar ideas. But if we ignore the fact that such ideas were sometimes stretched so far that they lost all similarity to their original and true meaning, such books as Annie Besant's Ancient Wisdom, The Progress of Mankind, and even Christianity transmit something which, although passed down by traditional means, originated in ancient sources of wisdom.

On the other hand one must always be aware that in the modern world beyond these circles there was no interest whatsoever in real spiritual research. The reality was simply that the possibility of kindling an interest in a truly modern science of the spirit existed only among those who found their way into this group of people.

Yet within this first period in particular there was a great deal to overcome. Many people were working towards something, but it was in part a very egoistic and shallow striving. But even such superficial societies frequently called themselves theosophical. One need only think, for instance, of the theosophical branches spread widely throughout central Europe — in Germany, Austria and also Switzerland — which possessed only an exceedingly anaemic version of Theosophical Society tenets, impregnated with all kinds of foolish occult views.

One person who was very active in such societies was Franz Hartmann. Note 2 ] But the kind of profound spirit and deep seriousness which existed in these shallow societies will become obvious to you if I describe the cynical character of this particular leader. The Theosophical Society was at one time engaged in a dispute in connection with an American called Judge Note 3 ] about whether or not certain messages which had been distributed by Judge originated with persons who really had reached a higher stage of initiation, the so-called Masters. Judge had distributed these “Mahatma Letters” in America.

While they were both at the headquarters in India, Judge said he wanted some letters from the Masters in order to gain credibility in America, so that he could say he had been given a mission by initiates. Franz Harmann recounted how he had offered to write some Mahatma Letters for Judge, and the latter had replied that this would not permit him to claim their authenticity. They were supposed to fly towards you through the air; they originated in a magical way and then landed on your head, and that is what he had to be able to say. Judge was a very small fellow, Hartmann told us, and so he said to him “Stand on the floor and I will stand on a chair and then I will drop the letters on your head.” Then Judge could say with a clear conscience that he was distributing letters which had landed on his head clean out of the air!

That is an extreme example of things which are not at all rare in the world. I do not really want to waste your time with these shallow societies. I only want to point out that the close proximity of the anthroposophical to the theosophical movement made it necessary for the former to defend itself against modern scientific thinking during its first period.

I do not know whether those who joined the anthroposophical movement later as scientists, and observed anthroposophy during its more developed third stage, have gained sufficient insight into the fact that a critical assessment of modern scientific thinking took place in a very specific way during the first period of the anthroposophical movement. I only give instances, because this process occurred in a number of different areas. But these examples will show you how the theosophical movement was strongly influenced by the deference to so-called scientific authority which I described as particularly characteristic of modern education.

Annie Besant, for instance, tried to use in her books all kinds of quotes from contemporary science, such as Weismann's theory of heredity, Note 4 ] which bore no relevance to the science of the spirit. She used them as if they provided some sort of evidence. If you recall, at the time when we were in a position to start a centre for the anthroposophical movement in Munich many homeless souls were already organized in the sense that they belonged to various societies. Of course centres for the movement had begun to develop gradually in Berlin, Munich, Stuttgart, Kassel, Dusseldorf, Cologne, Hamburg, Hanover and Leipzig, and in Vienna as well as in Prague. When we were establishing the branch in Munich it became necessary to assess critically the various larger and smaller groups which were then in existence.

One group called the Ketterl, consisting of extremely scholarly people, was very much concerned with providing proofs from natural science for the claims which were made on behalf of the spiritual science. If anthroposophy spoke about the etheric body, they would say that science has recognized this or that structure for atoms and molecules. Their formulae and definitions and so on were applied not to processes of the spectrum or electro-magnetism but to processes in the etheric or astral field. There was nothing we could do about that. The whole thing dissolved more or less amicably. In the end we no longer had any links with these investigations.

Not so very different were the efforts of a Dr. Hübbe-Schleiden, Note 5 ] who played an important role in the Theosophical Society. He was a close friend of Madame Blavatsky, and was the editor of Sphinx for a long time. He, too, was obsessed with proving what he felt was theosophical subject matter by means of natural-scientific thinking. He took me to his home, a little way outside Hanover. It was perhaps half an hour by tram. He spent the entire half-hour describing the motion of atoms with his index fingers: Yes, it has to happen in this way and that way and then we have the answer. The atoms move in one incarnation and then the wave motion continues through the spiritual worlds; then it changes and that is the next incarnation. In the same way as modern physicists calculate light in terms of wave lengths, he calculated the passage of souls through various incarnations.

A special version of this way of thinking was evident in the debate about the permanent atom, which took place in the Theosophical Society over a long period. This permanent atom was something awful, but was taken incredibly seriously. For the people who felt the full weight of modern science postulated that while of course the physical body decomposes, a single atom remains, passes through the time between death and a new birth, and appears in the new incarnation. That is the permanent atom which passes through incarnations.

This may appear funny to you today, but you simply cannot understand the seriousness with which these things were pursued, specifically in the first period, and the difficulty which existed in responding to the challenge: What is the point of theosophy if it cannot be proved scientifically! During that conversation in the tram the point was forcefully made that things have to be presented in a manner which will allow a matriculated schoolboy to understand theosophy in the same way that he understands logic. That was the thrust of my companion's argument. Then we arrived at his home and he took me into the loft, and up there — I have to repeat that he was an exceedingly kind, pleasant and intelligent man; in other words, a sympathetic old gentleman — were very complicated wire constructions. One of the models would represent the atom of a physical entity; the next model, which was even more complex, would represent the atom of something etheric; the third model, still more complex, was an astral atom.

If you pick up certain books by Leadbeater, Note 6 ] a leading figure in the Theosophical Society, you will find such models in grandiose form. Atomism flourished nowhere as greatly as among those who joined our ranks from the Theosophical Society. And when younger members such as Dr. Kolisko Note 7 ] and others are engaged in the fight against the atom in our research institute in Stuttgart, Note 8 ] we might well recall that certain people at that time would not have known how to get from one incarnation to the next without at least one permanent atom.

That is something of an image of the way in which the strong authority of so-called natural-scientific thinking exerted its influence in these circles. They were unable to conceive of any other valid way of thinking than the natural-scientific one. So there was no real understanding in this quarter either. Only as the anthroposophical movement entered its second stage did these atomistic endeavours gradually subside, and there was a gradual transition to the subject matter which continued to be cultivated in the anthroposophical movement. Every time I was in Munich, for instance, it was possible to give a lecture designed more for the group which gathered round a great friend of Blavatsky's. Things were easier there because a genuine inner striving existed.

Within our own ranks, too, there was a call at that time to justify the content of anthroposophy using the current natural-scientific approach. It was less radical, nevertheless, than the demands made by external critics today. A large number of you heard Dr. Blümel's Note 9 ] lecture today. Imagine if someone had responded by saying that everything Dr. Blümel spoke about was of no personal concern; that he did not believe it, did not recognize it and did not want to test it. Someone else might say: See whether it is accurate, examine it with your reason and your soul faculties. The first person says: It is no business of mine be it right or wrong, I do not want to become involved with that. But I call on Dr. Blümel to go to a psychological laboratory and there, using my psychological methods, I will examine whether or not he is a mathematician. That is, of course, piffle of the first order. But it is exactly the demand made today by outside critics.

Sadly, it is quite possible today to talk pure nonsense that goes undetected. Even those who are upset by it fail to notice that it is pure nonsense. They believe that it is only maliciousness or something similar, because they cannot imagine the possibility of someone who talks pure nonsense acquiring the role of a scientific spokesman simply as a result of their social standing. That is the extent to which our spiritual life has become confused. The kind of things which I am explaining here must be understood by anyone who wants to grasp the position of the anthroposophical movement.

Well, undeterred by all that, the most important human truths, the most important cosmic truths, had to be made public during the first stage. My Occult Science represents a sort of compendium of everything which had been put forward in the anthroposophical movement until that point. Our intention was always a concrete and never an abstract one, because we never attempted to do more than could be achieved in the given circumstances.

Let me quote the following as evidence. We established a journal, Luzifer-Gnosis, Note 10 ] right at the outset of the anthroposophical movement. At first it was called Luzifer. Then a Viennese journal called Gnosis wanted to amalgamate with it. My sole intention in calling it Luzifer with Gnosis was to express the practical union of the two journals. Of course that was completely unacceptable to Hübbe-Schleiden, for instance, who thought that this would indicate an unnatural union. Well, I was not particularly bothered, so we called it Luzifer-Gnosis with a hyphen. People were very sharp-witted and they were keeping a close eye on us at that time!

Of course we started with a very small number of subscribers, but it began to grow at a very fast pace, relatively speaking, and we never really ran at a deficit because we only ever printed approximately as many copies as we were able to sell. Once an issue had been printed the copies were sent to my house in large parcels. Then my wife and I put the wrappers around them. I addressed them and then each of us took a washing basket and carried the whole lot to the post office. We found that this worked quite well. I wrote and held lectures while my wife organized the whole Anthroposophical Society, Note 11 ] but without a secretary. So we did that all on our own and never attempted more than could be managed on a practical level. We did not even, for example, take larger washing baskets than we could just manage. When the number of subscribers grew we simply made an extra journey.

When we had been engaged in this interesting activity for some time, Luzifer-Gnosis ceased publication — not because it had to, for it had many more subscribers than it needed, but because I no longer had the time to write. The demands of my lecturing activity and of the spiritual administration of the society in general began to take up a lot of time.

To cease publication was a natural consequence of never attempting more than could be managed on a practical level, one step at a time. This belongs to the conditions which govern the existence of a spiritual society. To build far-reaching ideals on phrases, setting up programmes, is the worst thing which can happen to a spiritual society. The work in this first period was such that between 1907 and 1909 the foundations of a science of the spirit appropriate to the modern age were put in place.

Then we come to the second phase, which essentially concluded our attempt to come to grips with natural science. The theologians had not yet made their presence felt. They were still seated so firmly in the saddle everywhere that they were simply not bothered.

When the issue of the natural sciences had been dealt with, we were able to approach our other task. This was the debate over the Gospels, over Genesis, the Christian tradition as a whole, Christianity as such.

The thread had already been laid out in Christianity As Mystical Fact, which appeared in 1902. But the elaboration, as it were, of an anthroposophical understanding of Christianity was essentially the task of the second stage up to approximately 1914. As a consequence I gave lecture cycles on the various parts of the Christian tradition in Hamburg, Kassel, Berlin, Basle, Berne, Munich and Stuttgart.

That was also when, for instance, The Spiritual Guidance of the Individual and Humanity Note 12 ] was drawn up. It was, then, essentially the time in which the Christian side of anthroposophy was worked out, following on from the historical tradition of Christianity.

This period also included what I might call the first expansion of anthroposophy into the artistic field, with performances of the mystery dramas in Munich. Note 13 ] That, too, took place against the background of never wanting to achieve more than circumstances allowed.

Also during this time those events occurred which led to the exclusion of anthroposophy from the Theosophical Society, a fact which was actually of no great significance to the former, given that it had followed its own path from the beginning. Those who wanted to come along were free to do so. From the outset anthroposophy did not concern itself with the spiritual content which came from the Theososphical Society. But practical co-existence became increasingly difficult as well.

At the beginning there was a definite hope that circumstances, some of which at least I have described, would allow the real theosophical movement which had come together in the Theosophical Society to become truly anthroposophical. The circumstances which made such a hope appear justified included the serious disappointment about the particular methods of investigation pursued by the Theosophical Society, specifically among those people who possessed a higher level of discrimination. And I have to say that when I arrived in London on both the first and second times, I experienced how its leaders were basically people who adopted a very skeptical attitude towards one another, who felt themselves to be on very insecure ground which, however, they did not want to leave because they did not know where to look for security.

There were many disappointed people who had great reservations, particularly among the leaders of the Theosophical Society. The peculiar change which took place in Annie Besant from, say, 1900 to 1907 is an important factor in the subsequent course of events in the Theosophical Society. She possessed a certain tolerance to begin with. I believe she never really understood the phenomenon of anthroposophy, but she  accepted it and at the beginning even defended against the rigid dogmatists its right to exist. That is how we must describe it, for that is how it was.

But there is something I must say which I would also urge members of the Anthroposophical Society to consider very seriously. Certain personal aspirations, purely personal sympathies and antipathies, are absolutely irreconcilable with a spiritual society of this kind. Someone, for instance, begins to idolize someone else, for whatever underlying reasons within himself. He will not acknowledge whatever compulsion it is, and sometimes it can be an intellectual compulsion that drives him to do it. But he begins to weave an artificial astral aura around the individual whom he wants to idolize. The latter then becomes advanced. If he wants to make an especially telling remark he will say: “Oh, that individual is aware of three or four previous lives on earth and even spoke to me about my earlier earth lives. That person knows a lot!” And this is precisely what leads to a spiritual interpretation of something which is human, all too human, to use an expression of Nietzsche's.

It would be sufficient to say: “I will not deny that I like him.” Then everything would be fine, even in esoteric societies. Max Seiling, Note 14 ] for instance, was very amusing in certain ways, particularly when he played the piano in that effervescent way of his, and he was amusing to have tea with and so on. All would have been well if people had admitted: We like that. That would have been more sensible than idolizing him in the way the Munich group did.

You see, all these things are in direct contradiction to the conditions under which such a society should exist. And the prime example of someone who fell prey to this kind of thing is Annie Besant. For example — and I prefer to speak about these things by quoting facts — a name cropped up on one occasion. I did not bother much with the literature produced by the Theosophical Society, and so I became acquainted with Bhagavan Das's Note 15 ] name only when a thick typewritten manuscript arrived one day. The manuscript was arranged in two columns, with text on the left side and a blank on the right. A covering letter from Bhagavan Das said that he wanted to discuss with various people the subject matter which he intended to reveal to the world through the manuscript.

Well, the anthroposophical movement was already so widespread at that time that I did not manage to read the manuscript immediately. That Bhagavan Das was a very esoteric man, a person who drew his inspiration from profound spiritual sources — that was approximately the view which people associated with Annie Besant — spread about him. His name was on everyone's lips. So I decided to have a look at the thing. I was presented with a horrendously amateurish confusion of Fichtean philosophy, Hegelian philosophy, and Schopenhauer's philosophy; everything mixed up together without the slightest understanding. And the whole thing was held together by “self” and “not self”, like an endlessly repeated tune. The idolization of Bhagavan Das was based purely on personal considerations. Such things demonstrate how the personal element is introduced into impulses which should be objective. The first step on the slippery slope was taken with the appearance of this phenomenon, which became increasingly strong from about 1905 onwards. Everything else was basically a consequence of that.

Spiritual societies must avoid such courses of action, particularly by their leaders — otherwise they will, of necessity, slide down the slippery slope. That is, indeed, what happened. Then there was the absurd tale connected with Olcott's death, Note 16 ] referred to as the Masters' nomination, which really represented the beginning of the end for the Theosophical Society. That could still be smoothed over, at least, by saying that such foolishness was introduced into the Society by particular people, even if they were acting on the basis of certain principles. It was, however, followed by the Leadbeater affair, Note 17 ] the details of which I do not want to discuss just now. And then came the discovery of the boy who was to be brought up as Christ, or to become Christ, and so on. And when people who did not want to be involved in these absurd matters refused to accept them, they were simply expelled.

Well, the anthroposophical movement followed its set course throughout the whole of this business and our inner development was not affected by these events in any way. That has to be made absolutely clear. It was really a matter of supreme indifference — just as I was not especially surprised to hear recently that Leadbeater has become an Old Catholic bishop in his old age. There was no sense of direction and everything was going topsy turvy.

Indeed, there is no particular need to change one's personal relationship with these people. Two years ago a gentleman who had delivered a lecture at the Munich congress in 1907 Note 18 ] approached me with the old cordial spirit. He still looked the same, but in the meantime he had become an Old Catholic archbishop. He was not wearing the garments, but that is what he was!

It must not be forgotten that the stream which we have been describing also contained precisely those souls who were searching most intensively for a link between the human soul and the spiritual world. We are not being honest about the course of modern culture if these contrasts are not made absolutely clear. That is why I had to make these additional points today before going on to the actual conditions which underlie the existence of the Anthroposophical Society.

Continued in the next issue of SCR.

Thanks to the Rudolf Steiner Archive.