The Anthroposophical Society as a Task of Development

Two volumes from Steiner’s Collected Works, GA 250 and GA 251, were published relatively recently in German, (in 2020 and 2023 respectively), and could prove quite helpful when studying the prehistory and development of the Anthroposophical Society. Although they are yet to come out in English, we offer a short preview.

In regards to truth, many human beings still feel like Pontius Pilate, who asked, “What is truth?” (John 18:38) What the truth is cannot be comprehended in a simple or abstract way. It is best revealed through experience or knowledge. These are two paths that serve to either communicate the truth or help search for it. One is the practice of life, and the other is the practice of knowledge. Anthroposophy, founded and developed by Rudolf Steiner, sees itself as a path of knowledge. In this way, it emphasizes the path of cognitive practice without denying that the other path exists. Cognitive work can lead to truth, but it needs special conditions.

In German culture, the search for truth can be found in a variety of places, above all, in poetry and philosophy. We find exemplary expressions in Goethe’s Poetry and Truth and Rudolf Steiner’s Truth and Science. There is also a third way where the love of truth is expressed and practised: mysticism. The life of Jakob Boehme makes this particularly evident. Not only did he succeed in progressing to mystical experiences, which he regarded as an experience of truth, but he also succeeded in describing them philosophically, so to speak. He manifested something that had been attempted since the 16th century, often under the term “theosophy.”

No Religion Higher than Truth

In the 19th century, the term “theosophy” gained a relatively broad and influential impact with the founding of the Theosophical Society in the United States in association with Helena Blavatsky. The founders formulated the claim that this type of practice should not only be pursued as private mysticism or personal poetic (artistic) or scientific research but rather that it must be developed as a part of the culture at large. The wish to pose the question of truth in a new and expanded way triggered a broad echo among many creatives and researchers who felt that this societal movement was in harmony or connected with their own concerns. During these times, many were challenged and ambivalent about the widely expanding cultural horizons. The openness with which Blavatsky responded to shamanic, Tibetan, and Hindu cultural traditions was not always easy to follow or comprehend due to most people’s ingrained cultural habits. Still, she inspired many with the idea that there seemed to be something like a deeper core within or behind such religious systems and cultural traditions. This outlook, this experience, and, at the same time, this fundamental thesis for further research led to the formulation of the Theosophical Society’s motto, “No Religion Higher than Truth.” With this, Blavatsky and her colleagues contemporized a possibility that was and is unwelcome to monarchical, totalitarian, or absolutist systems. They allowed themselves to question existing conditions and search for a more comprehensive reality and a more humane way of shaping society.

While formulated in the United States, these concerns also found open ears and hearts in Europe, especially among German-speaking countries. Although, there was also resistance to the specific, concrete forms of their expression and organization. As a result, people devoted to these interests and concerns developed unique forms, some more a kind of specialization, others more in competition with the original forms. This new movement in Europe also caused alienation and fear among established religious communities and cultural systems, which led to defamation and hostilities of various kinds. Was this a threat of a new Reformation or even a new pantheism?

Religious traditions affiliated with state churches, in particular, took offense to such claims for creative freedom. (A reflex that can still be found today, for example, in the critical works of Helmut Zander). But, a certain rejection also developed within the people devoted to these theosophical interests. This was not motivated by fear, but by a special love and attachment to the Christian tradition, which was expressed not only in mysticism, but also in artistic and intellectual work. Those who were devoted were more interested in acquiring something than formalizing it. They asked themselves: “How can I integrate into my life what is unique about the truth to which I am devoted and which is important to me because of my engagement with the texts of Christianity and Judaism and their cultural practices?” This orientation arose within a circle of people nourished by the study of Theosophy, not only from Blavatsky but also from Jakob Boehme and other sources of inspiration. And Rudolf Steiner demonstrated a particular clarity and commitment in this direction. This made him a representative, advisor, and developer of this uniquely formulated pursuit. In the context of Annie Besant’s forming of the international Theosophical Society, there was a strong divergence in some respects between the groups in Central Europe and Besant’s efforts, which were now more focused on India, the United States, and England. This dynamic also led to more and more conflicts between individual personalities that were more a result of differences in content and design than personal dislike. When one has to experience insurmountable differences with human beings that you actually love or want to love, it becomes a source of particularly deep pain.

Sources in Europe

During this period (from around 1907–1912), more and more people gathered around Rudolf Steiner. They shared his affinity with the German-speaking traditions of poetry, visual arts, and philosophy, especially, regarding to the search for truth and acquiring heart forces from the sources uniquely available in Europe. This direction was initially referred to as “Rosicrucian theosophy” and then more neutrally and comprehensively as “anthroposophy.” For it was also a fact that Rudolf Steiner had benefited no less greatly from the terminology and some particular content from a kind of Hindu philosophy and the educational practices associated with it. It was therefore necessary to create a system that was not too narrowly restricted to the German-speaking or Central European traditions but without losing too much of their unique characteristics. But, this also meant that the shaping of collaborative interests would manifest in each individual person in an individual way. Rudolf Steiner initially attempted to artistically illustrate this particular challenge of an Anthroposophical Society with the production of his Four Mystery Dramas while at the same time showing the possible ways for a fruitful cooperation. This artistic work developed more and more into a practical orientation. With this, the anthroposophical work not only appealed to people working or interested in art and philosophy but also to those working in business, politics, or other practical fields. At the same time, it was not only in the Mystery Dramas that Rudolf Steiner expressed the fact that absolutes and, therefore, absolutism were no longer appropriate for the modern individual. Although, this also did not mean some kind of total relativism. Rather, Steiner emphasized the progression of abilities and development of each individual personality and the unique social constellation appropriate to each person in their particular situation. Human beings are not yet finished. When faced with the knowledge and realization of the full truth—be it through nature, the cosmos, the divine, or even The Greater Guardian of the Threshold—human beings are called upon to take part in the shaping of their own further development and the worlds.

Volumes GA 250/251 of the Complete Works offer one-of-a-kind material for studying Rudolf Steiner’s own path—from his formal affiliation with the German Section of the Theosophical Society, which he co-founded, to the founding of the General Anthroposophical Society in 1923. These first editions were both edited by Hans-Christian Zehnter and contain lectures, addresses, reports, and minutes of meetings concerning the history and prehistory of the Anthroposophical Society 1902–1922, that is, before its re-founding as the General Anthroposophy Society in Dornach at the Christmas Conference of 1923. Together, these two volumes provide a deep and broad overview of the foundations of the General Anthroposophical Society, the ongoing elaboration of its central concerns and basic structure. Reading this history makes it evident how Rudolf Steiner and the people united with him strove for an authentic and publicly effective form for this work. Along the way, they repeatedly arrived at different stages of forms, some of which proved to be more stable, others more short-lived. These books document the life infused by many in this work to develop an Anthroposophical Society and world culture, which, still today, remains fundamental and inspiring.

Rudolf Steiner: Zur Geschichte der Deutschen Sektion der Theosophischen Gesellschafft 1902–1913 (GA 250), Rudolf-Steiner-Verlag Dornach, 2020.
Rudolf Steiner: Zur Geschichte der Anthroposophischen Gesellschafft 1913–1922 (GA 251), Rudolf-Steiner-Verlag Dornach, 2023.

Translation Joshua Kelberman

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