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Anthroposophy, An Introduction

On-line since: 20th November, 2006

Editor's Preface


HIS book is the transcript of a shorthand report of nine lectures given by Rudolf Steiner in the early part of 1924, about a year before he died. Although his audience consisted very largely of people who had been studying for many years the spiritual science which is Steiner's legacy to the world (and which he also called Anthroposophie), he himself described the course as an ‘Introduction’. The German title of the book is Anthroposophie: eine Einführung in die Anthroposophische Weltanschauung. ‘We will begin again,’ he observed in Lecture IV, ‘where we began twenty years ago;’ and he may well have had in mind that the Movement itself had, in some sense, begun again only a month or two before with the solemn Foundation of the General Anthroposophical Society under himself as President at Christmas 1923. Though he proceeded ab initio, assuming no previous knowledge on the part of his hearers, this course is not an elementary exposition of Anthroposophy. We are gradually led deeply in, and the path is steep towards the end.

There are many very different approaches to the general corpus of revelations or teachings which constitutes Spiritual Science. As with Nature herself, it is often only as the student penetrates deeper and nearer to the centre that any connection between these different approaches become apparent. A reader of Christianity as Mystical Fact, for example, which dates from 1902 and of Steiner's lectures on the Gospels might well be surprised to find that it is possible to read Theosophy (1904) without ever discovering that the incarnation of Christ and the death on Golgotha are, according to him, the very core of the evolution of the universe and man. The truth is that the mastery of Anthroposophy involves, for our too stereotyped thinking, something like the learning of a new language. It would be possible to learn to read Greek and only afterwards to discover that the New Testament was written in that tongue.

From this point of view the present book is in the same category as Theosophy, yet even within this category the two approaches are made from such diverse directions that one might almost suppose the books to be the work of different men. Nevertheless it is best to look on the following lectures — as Steiner himself makes it clear that he does — as a supplement or complement to what is to be found in Theosophy.

The book Theosophy is the most systematic of all the writings that Steiner has bequeathed to us. Its whole basis is classification and definition and, taken by itself, it undoubtedly gives (quite apart from the dubious associations which the word ‘theosophy’ has for English ears) a false impression of the nature of Anthroposophy. It is as indispensable to the student as a good grammar is indispensable to a man engaged in mastering a new language, and it contains as much — and as little — as a grammar does of all that the language can do and say. Its method is that of description from outside. And this approach, essential as it is as one among others, is perhaps the one most likely to lead to misunderstanding and misrepresentation. Such terms as ‘soul world’, ‘spiritland’, ‘elemental beings’, ‘aura’, are liable to be taken literally in spite of the author's express warnings to the contrary. The descriptions are taken as reproductions of the reality that underlies them instead of as similes — attempts, that is, at making clear a purely spiritual reality in words which have received their stamp of significance from their relation to the physical world.

No one who studies the teachings of Rudolf Steiner seriously remains in any real danger of succumbing to this sort of literalness. But anyone reading hurriedly through the book Theosophy — or even through Theosophy and the Occult Science — and inclined to judge the value of Anthroposophy from that single adventure may well do so. That is why the present book seems to me to be an important one — not only for ‘advanced’ students of Anthroposophy, to whom it is perhaps primarily addressed, but also to the comparative beginner. It is condensed and difficult for most readers, and above all for those who have never dipped into the broad unbroken stream of books and lectures which flowed from Rudolf Steiner during the twenty years that elapsed between the publication of Theosophy and the delivery of this Course. But even if the content is far from fully understood, it cannot fail to give the reader some idea, let us say, of the sort of thing that is really signified by the spatial and other physical metaphors in which the systematic exposition of Theosophy is couched.

For here the approach is from within. It is no longer simply the objective facts and events, but the way in which the soul tentatively begins to experience these, which the lecturer makes such earnest efforts to convey. We have exchanged a guide book for a book of travel. The one who has been there recreates his experience for the benefit of those who have not, trying with every device at his disposal to reveal what it actually felt like. Of course the difficulty is still there; it can still only be done by metaphor and suggestion; but the difficulty is much less likely to be burked by the reader's surreptitiously substituting in his own imagination a physical or sense-experience for a purely super-sensible one.

Compare, for instance the description of the astral body given in Theosophy with the characterisation of it in No. V of these lectures:

One says to oneself: What I am observing as the astral body of this person is not really present today, i.e. on the 2nd February 1924. If the person is twenty years of age, you must go backwards in time — let us say, to January 1904. You perceive that this astral body is really back there, and extends still further back into the unlimited. It has remained there and has not accompanied him through life. Here we have only a kind of appearance — a beam. It is like looking down an avenue; there, in the distance, are the last trees, very close together. Behind them is a source of light. You can have the radiance of the light here, but the source is behind — it need not move forward that its light may shine here.

So, too, the astral body has remained behind, and only throws its beam into life. It has really remained in the spiritual world and has not come with us into the physical. In respect to our astral body we always remain before conception and birth, in the spiritual world. If we are twenty years old in 1924, it is as if we were still living spiritually before the year 1904 and, in respect to our astral body, had only stretched forth a feeler.

‘Thus,’ he adds a few pages later, ‘if you describe the astral body as I have done in my Theosophy you must realise, in order to complete your insight (my italics)’:

that what is active here is the ‘radiance’ of something far back in time. The human being is really like a comet stretching its tail far back into the past. It is not possible to obtain a true insight into man's being unless we acquire these new concepts. People who believe one can enter the spiritual world with the same concepts one has for the physical world should become spiritualists, not anthroposophists.

In the same way one could compare the description of the etheric body in the earlier book with its treatment here in Lecture IV. The etheric body is not a vehicle of any such ‘life-force’, as is understood by the creative evolutionists. It is totally incompatible with the assumptions of positivist science. If it can be described as a ‘formative forces’ body, it can equally well be described, from another approach, as a thought-body. This is the approach which is required for all the teachings which Steiner developed later concerning the descent of the Cosmic Intelligence and its progressive embodiment in the personal intelligence of man. And it is this approach which is chosen in the book which follows.

He begins by describing the practical steps needed to develop the ‘strengthened thinking’ which is the first stage of higher knowledge. And he continues:

If you strengthen your thinking the supra-terrestrial spatial world begins to concern you and the ‘second man’ you have discovered just as the earthly, physical world concerned you before. And, as you ascribe the origin of your physical body to the physical earth, you now ascribe your second existence to the cosmic ether through whose activity earthly things become visible. From your own experience you can now speak of having a physical body and an etheric body ... I stretch out my physical arm and my physical hand takes hold of an object. I feel in a sense the flowing forces in this action. Through strengthening my thought I come to feel that it is inwardly mobile and now induces a kind of ‘touching’ within me — a ‘touching’ that also takes place in an organism; this is the etheric organism; that finer, super-sensible organism which exists no less than the physical organism, though it is connected with the supra-terrestrial, not the terrestrial.

Equally important is the exposition in this lecture of the way in which astral and etheric find outward expression in the physical constitution of man, the etheric in his fluid organisation, which can only be understood with the help of the concept of the etheric body, and the astral in that ‘third man’ — who is physically the ‘airy man’ and who can be experienced as ‘an inner musical element in the breathing’. The nervous system is shown to be the representation of this inner music.

The matter in this book is extremely condensed and one feels one is maiming it by arbitrary selections such as I am making for the purpose of this Introduction. I have, for instance, said nothing of the extensive and detailed discourse on dreams contained in Lecture VII, and VIII, which some readers may even find the most enlightening thing in the book. One final selection may however perhaps be made. In these lectures Steiner approaches the life after death by speaking of ‘four phases of memory’. The theme is first heard in Lecture VI, where, after speaking of the nature of memory he emphasises that it is not the concern of the remembering individual alone, but is there for the sake of the universe — ‘in order that its content may pass through us and be received again in the forms into which we can transmute it’.

The universe needs us because, through us, it ‘fulfils’ itself — fills itself again and again with its own content. ... The universe gives its cosmic thoughts to our etheric body and receives them back again in a humanised condition.

It receives them back when we die. The moment we die, the world takes back what it has given. ‘But it is something new that it receives, for we have experienced it all in a particular way.’ Then, in the ninth and last lecture, the last three phases of memory lead into — indeed become — in a miracle of condensation — all that is presented so differently in Theosophy under such titles as ‘The Soul in the Soul-World after Death’.

Is this an esoteric or an exoteric work? Certainly it will be more readily appreciated by readers who have worked through other approaches to be found in the books and lecture-cycles and perhaps especially in the Leading Thoughts. Yet it is the whole aim and character of Spiritual Science, as Rudolf Steiner developed it, to endeavour to be esoteric in an exoteric way. For that was what he believed the crisis of the twentieth century demands. And I doubt if he ever struggled harder to combine the two qualities than in these nine lectures given at the end of his life. Thus, although he was addressing members of the Anthroposophical Society, I believe that he had his gaze fixed on Western man in general, and I hope that an increasing number of those who are as yet unacquainted with any of his teaching may find in this book (and it can only be done by intensive application) a convincing proof of the immense fund of wisdom, insight and knowledge from which these teachings spring.


August 1960.

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