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The word anthroposophy is derived from two Greek words: anthropos, meaning man (which is in turn derived from the word for “turning upwards”), and sophia, meaning wisdom or knowledge. So literally it is the knowledge of man (meaning humans) derived by turning or looking upward to the spiritual realm. Steiner very clearly stated that anthroposophy was not a system, collection of theories, cult, doctrine, dogma, or sect. It was meant to be an individual guide to each individual’s higher understanding of themselves. This higher understanding, according to Steiner, required knowledge of both the physical and spirit worlds.

Steiner began to create this philosophy when he looked at the problems that technology was causing: essentially that technology had progressed faster than human understanding of the world and themselves. However, he didn’t believe that the fault in this lay with the technology or its inventors, but from within mankind itself. For Steiner, the fault lay in mankind’s lack of knowledge about their inner selves. When faith and religion had been overturned by scientific fact and reason during the Enlightenment, Man had become materialistic, or obsessed with the physical realm to the exclusion of all else. Steiner disagreed with proposed remedies of his time: democracy, universal education, and a return to older moral values were all suggested by his contemporaries. Steiner’s belief was that the only solution to this problem was a universal personal knowledge of the spirit world or the Kingdom of God, depending on the nomenclature familiar to the individual.

The two main branches of thought available to him, or the people of his time or ours, were science and religion. He found both inadequate. Science could provide accurate, and necessary, knowledge of the physical world, but it completely ignored the spiritual. Religion was inadequate because, although it did deal with the spirit world, it contradicted science, and could therefore not adequately satisfy the spiritual needs of a thinking person. Steiner did believe that there was a way to reconcile the two, but that more knowledge was needed. He sought to find or create a true spiritual companion for science, that was not its rival (as religion was) but its twin. He wanted what he called a spiritual science.

The base elements of anthroposophy are both complicated and somewhat circular. The first principle is that in order for a person to be complete as a human, they must possess knowledge of both the physical and spirit worlds, and by extension their physical and spirit selves. True knowledge of self is gained through the melding of these two fields of knowledge. The second principle is that this must be a completely individual experience, which is why there is no doctrine, anthroposophy is not a religion, and my application of the world “principle” is actually incorrect. Anthroposophy would be most accurately (by Steiner, at least) be called a philosophy, since that is what he believed humans, beginning with the Ancient Greeks, developed when they lost direct contact with the spiritual world. This contact had been the source of great creativity and the driving force of overall development. Throughout the ancient world, other techniques were developed, through the argument of philosophy, to achieve this same, whole-person development. The Greeks sought it through the development of the physical body through gymnastics, the Romans through the development of the central rhythmic systems using oratory. In the Middle Ages, the idea of whole-person development was abandoned in favor of an academic education based on teaching, with the professor at its head. This was the system that had endured to Steiner’s time, which he found lacking in spiritual meaning (and therefore spiritual understanding), upon whose lack he blamed the problems of his time.

Educational Philosophy

Although anthroposophy was Steiner’s personal philosophy and the one which he promoted through his lectures, it is not taught as part of the Waldorf curriculum. Rather, it is the base upon which the structure and ideals of Waldorf education (including its openness to all belief systems) were built. Steiner was emphatic on this point, that education should be completely universal, and his schools treated it as such. In order to accomplish this, and to place education in its proper sphere, Steiner believed that all schools should be free from government control.

Steiner also defined the difference between instruction and education, which were often used synonymously in his time, and still are today. Education is development, with proper or complete education involving the development of the entire human being as an individual and as part of a community. Instruction is merely the means to achieving this end.

Steiner believed that the human psyche revolved around three activities: thinking, feeling, and will. These activities mapped to various parts of the physical body, specifically the head, heart, and limbs, respectively. This produces the idea of “education for the head, hands, and heart” idea that is associated with Waldorf education. For a human to be “well-rounded,” all three of these activities need to be balanced. Too much thinking produces the professor in the ivory tower, oblivious to everything but the workings of the mind. Too much will produces the athlete that is “all brawn and no brains,” existing on a purely physical plane. Too much feeling produces the typical “starving artist,” whose existence is completely devoted to emotions and relationships to the exclusion even of practicality.

According to Steiner, these three traits do not develop in parallel, but rather in a sequence of emphasis, meaning that while the others still exist and develop, the focus is on one of the three at a given time. Until the age of seven, a child’s will is dominant. They interact with their environment almost exclusively though motion and their senses. Children learn almost unconsciously through their own experiences, and by imitating the actions of others. From seven to fourteen, feeling takes precedence. At this time, imagination and art are powerful forces, and the main vehicles of knowledge. This is also the time when interpersonal relationships gain increased importance. In late adolescence, thinking takes over, building on the foundations laid by will and feeling. At this point, all of the attributes begin to blend together, assuming that each has been previously nurtured. The combination of thinking and feeling produces a fertile creative imagination, while the addition of will contributes a desire to bring these imaginations down to reality. The combination of the three produces a person who can not only imagine solutions, but has the ability to actually implement them within the boundaries of reality.