Goethe sought the universal unity of nature in his idealistic morphology. In the original phenomena of nature or in the archetypes of the vegetable and animal world, he discovered the sequence of manifestations of a spiritual content to which man is capable of giving deliberate expression in his own microcosm.
This metaphysical Goetheanism, with its implicit anthropomorphism, is Steiner’s first response to his fundamental romantic question: how can we transcend the intellect, using our own intellect, in order to give expression to the invisible spiritual dimension?
Like the early romantic writers, Steiner’s critique of modernity seeks the reconciliation of science, religion and art—a new cultural mythology stemming from the enhancement of the thought process until it becomes the intuitive experience of original knowledge.
His second answer, which takes the form of esoteric theosophy rather than systematic philosophy, resides in anthroposophic moral science. This was also the principal foundation of his educational anthropology.
Steiner understands anthroposophy as an extended form of scientific cognition that leads from the spiritual in man himself to the spiritual dimension of the universe—as a kind of rationalized mysticism. To the normal scientific knowledge of the physical world it adds the knowledge of another spiritual world which is in the first instance invisible and lies above the senses. Steiner’s cardinal premise is the existence behind the visible world of an invisible world which is hidden in the first instance from the senses and from thinking which is bound to those senses; man is capable of penetrating into this hidden world by developing abilities which are dormant. 7
Steiner’s second premise is that through meditative training of ones organ of cognition, each individual can acquire the ability to progress to a higher universal plane: Man acquires knowledge of the higher worlds when he attains a third mental state, in addition to the states of sleeping and waking.8 In this new state, all the impressions of the senses are eliminated, although full consciousness is retained. In the course of his training, the spiritual pupil lays aside the paralyzed conceptual form of everyday thinking and moves on beyond the imaginative and inspirative phase to the intuitive stage of precise and clear vision. After the soul has become an empty vessel, it experiences a fusion with the whole universe, a state of oneness with the world, but without losing its own essence.9 The organ of cognition is now able to experience the living logic of the spiritual world and its cosmic order.
The basic laws of this occult spiritual world are the processes of reincarnation and karma, and the correlation between the macrocosm and the microcosm. Steiner uses these laws to arrive at a complete explanation of the development of the universe and the life history of each individual. In the view of Steiner and his followers, the universe and man originate from a single primeval spiritual foundation. On the path to physical incarnation in seven planetary ages of the world or reincarnation in countless individual lives, the world and man reunite again with the spiritual.
Steiner’s cosmogony takes the basic form of the gnostic myth: man must lose his worldliness and slavish dependence on material things so that the soul and the world can rise up to self-redemption and fuse once again with the divine spiritual origins which both bear within them. Modern man lives on the fourth planetary phase of development of the earth that entails an experience of individuation and the respiritualization of the individual. Belief in Jesus Christ can be helpful at this developmental phase. Jesus is not seen by Steiner primarily as a historical figure but rather as a cosmic sun being. As a joint reincarnation of the spirits of Buddha and Zarathustra, he represents their religious wisdom. His sacrificial death caused these forces to flow into the world. Since that event, they have made it easier for man to find the path back into the world of the spirit in his secularized and materialistic civilization. 10
Thus each individual has a spiritual nucleus which comes down before birth from the spiritual worlds to unite with the physical and mental envelope; at death, it detaches itself from man to be manifested again in his next life on earth. In the next reincarnation, and as a consequence of karma, i.e. the interweaving of successive human lives, the soul picks up on its thread of activity from the previous life. Steiner sees Karma as a question of individual development and thus follows up on the ideas first voiced by the German idealist E.G. Lessing.