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What is

by Dr. Carl Unger



Carl Unger (1878-1929)
Manufacturer, engineer, philosopher, member of the board of the Anthroposophical Society, 1912.

Dr Rudolf Steiner has often, and very definitely, explained what anthroposophy is. But such definitions ought not to be torn from their context; for, they characterise the nature of anthroposophy from one or another side.

Nevertheless, the question what is anthroposophy must be answered; for it has been put before us by the whole situation of our time. The well-known “Oxford Dictionary” has given under the title “Anthroposophy” a definition which, by men who knew something about the matter, was felt to be thoroughly unsatisfactory; one of these addressed Rudolf Steiner personally, begging him to give for this dictionary a definition of what anthroposophy is. And Rudolf Steiner wrote down in English: “Anthroposophy is a knowledge produced by the Higher Self in man.” This is an explanation given for the public, for men who want to be informed in using a dictionary. From this definition it follows that anthroposophy is not a dogma or a science in the ordinary sense, but one for the production of which deeper lying forces of knowledge are to be called up.


But quite a different answer has been given by Rudolf Steiner in addressing those who wished to approach anthroposophy in an intimate way, let us say the pupils of anthroposophy. Here he says: “Anthroposophy is a road to knowledge leading the spiritual part of the human being to the spirit of the universe.” Besides these two answers given at opposite poles, let us choose, for our purpose, one lying midway, namely: Anthroposophy is such a road to knowledge as the human soul in our time is seeking. In choosing this definition we want to follow an introduction into the nature of anthroposophy given by Rudolf Steiner in lectures which he delivered during the last year of his life and which have been published as a book under the title: “Anthroposophy”. [see “The Case for Anthroposophy”, e.Ed] He starts from the fact that anthroposophy, like every science of initiation, wants to respond to the dictates of the heart of those who are in need of anthroposophy; and he directs his knowledge to a way that leads thereto. This has been done in bringing into clear and scientific form that which the men of our day have been unable to catch with their scientific consciousness, but have carried about in their souls as an intense desire.


In his “Story of My Life” which Rudolf Steiner published during the last year of his life in continuous articles of the weekly review, “The Goetheanum”, and which afterwards appeared as a book, he has described how spiritual vision was already opened to him in youth. It is sad to read how, with this capacity, he was condemned to loneliness; for people around him were unable to understand him even when he was a boy, and he passed his youth in endeavouring to seek in the spiritual life of his time the language in which he could speak to his fellow-men about his experiences in the spiritual world. In mathematics with its training of pure thinking, he found the first points of contact; but from the philosophers, especially Kant, he sought in vain, and his enquiries into modern natural science were equally fruitless. At last he found in Goethe the first sounds of a spiritual language, and not in him as a poet, but in his works of natural science, to which he then devoted many years of study. Here he found a method of natural science which opens the door to the spiritual world. It had become his deep conviction that the possibility must be found there of developing the methods of natural science in such a way that they may include the spiritual essentials of the world of facts. On such paths he gathered all contemporary knowledge. Against the hardest resistance — the materialism and agnosticism of our days — he forged the instrument with which he created his anthroposophical spiritual science. It is called quite rightly a science, for it contains the best scientific impulse of modern time.


Thus he spoke to his contemporaries in the most different domains of knowledge as a real expert; but they did not understand what was the chief point, namely a Goetheanism developed in a modern way, to which he devoted his high school, the Goetheanum. But in each one of his works, till the turn of the psychic configuration of contemporary man. He searched in his clairvoyance those points of the soul where the spiritual consciousness of modern man slumbers, in order to awaken it. Till the turn of the century, the totality of Rudolf Steiner's works contains for modern humanity everything necessary to obtain earnest spiritual views. But his work became effective only after he had had an opportunity of speaking to men who, ignorant of science, wished to hear directly about the spiritual worlds, At that time, anyone privileged to enter this circle, might really have the impression that every kind of person was there, although there were only forty to fifty; everyone entered as a mere human being, leaving outside every other attribute: the professor and the student, the housewife and the proletarian. Thus was opened a new epoch in the history of the human consciousness; for, never before, had anyone spoken to all men in perfect candor and liberty about the spiritual world. The roads to spiritual knowledge, formerly hidden in the secret of old mystery tradition now became accessible to everybody. The first real understanding of anthroposophy will be obtained by those who take it up without prejudice and then call up all forces of knowledge in order to substantiate it in themselves. It is in this way that anthroposophy can fulfill its mission in the soul of the individual.


Now it must be of greatest importance to obtain a view into the manner by which Rudolf Steiner has described the necessary link between natural science and spiritual science. And here we must pay him a debt of honour; for he has made in this sphere a discovery as important as Harvey's discovery of the circulation of the blood. It is the discovery of the threefold nature of the human being. Concerning this we read in the “Story of My Life”, page 67, “I found out the sensible-supersensible form mentioned by Goethe which, both for a true natural vision and for a spiritual vision, thrusts itself between what the senses grasp and what the spirit perceives”. “Anatomy and physiology struggled through, step by step, to the sensible-supersensible form. And in this struggle my attention has turned, at first in a very imperfect way, on the threefold organisation of the human being, about which I began to speak publicly in my book ‘Riddles of the Soul’ only after having studied the subject in silence for thirty years”. In this quotation we find a significant testimony of Rudolf Steiner's method of investigation; especially of his scientific scrupulousness. Always starting with spiritual vision the results of it are worked up until the facts can be stated in terms of sense-perception. We can say, as a rule, that he did not communicate any spiritual discovery until he was convinced that it could be understood by means of the ordinary consciousness. Thus he exercised his reticence and power of renunciation in keeping his discovery secret for thirty years, until he was certain that it could be proved by means of physiological and biological facts. In the above-mentioned book “Riddles of the Soul” he super scribes chapter IV, 6: “The physical and the spiritual interdependences of the human being”. He himself calls his representation a sketchy one because circumstances did not allow him to write a comprehensive book which, with the actual scientific means now at hand, would establish the results of his discovery and his thirty years' investigation of it.


The discovery of the human being's threefold organisation, according to the above-mentioned book, may be understood as follows: “The bodily counterparts to the psychic process of mental conception are to be found in the process of the nervous system and its development in the organs of the senses on one side and in the inner bodily organisation on the other”. Feeling is to be related “to that vital rhythm which is centralised in and connected with the processes of respiration” pursued “as far as the periphery of the organisation”. And, concerning the Will, we find that it is, in a similar manner, supported by processes of metabolism. And we must here take into consideration all the branches and ramifications of the processes of metabolism in the whole organism.


Thus, first of all, there is the proof of the physical interdependences of the human being. The first part of his discovery has, today, already been explored to a large extent; one knows the dependence of our conceptions upon the nervous organisation. But just because one does not know the other dependences, the supposed scope and region of the nerves is pushed too far. The consequence is that one ascribes to the nerves an essential influence on the genesis of movements. This is not right according to Rudolf Steiner's investigations, which can be thoroughly substantiated by modern science; the so-called motor nerves must be considered as bearers of a perception, a perception of the movements themselves. The exaggeration of the influence of the nerves in its psychological explanation, leads to the opinion that of the whole psychic life only the conceptions are to be recognised. Theodor Ziehen says about them that they can not have more than a certain “tone” of feeling, and he absolutely denies an independent will in the soul. It is here a fact that the conceptions of feeling and will are confused with their own psychic manifestations. We must, therefore, consider the nervous system as a comprehensive whole which, with a few exceptions, penetrates the body everywhere and bears the life of conceptions from the action of the senses up to the manifestations of thinking.


In the same manner, one must understand the corporeal basis of feeling. The rhythmic system is also a self-contained and independent whole; it contains especially the circulation of respiration and blood. These effects also run through the whole body; both belong together, for the respiration penetrates the whole blood system. Psychologically, it is not difficult to detect the feeling in connection with these effects when we see how the rhythm of respiration and blood changes according to the movement of the feelings. In the same way, the processes of metabolism bear the will element of the soul; but we must pursue the processes of metabolism through the whole body, especially in the muscular system, for processes of metabolism are going on there; psychologically, they can easily be connected with the manifestations of the will.


To psychology belongs, also, the degree of consciousness which, according to Rudolf Steiner's investigations must be added to these psychic processes. He says that “a fully waking consciousness exists only in the mental conceptions mediated by the nervous system”; that in all feeling there only exists the degree of consciousness “of dream conceptions"” and that in the will there exists only the dull degree of consciousness which we have when we are asleep. The fact that wakefulness depends upon the nervous system can easily be understood. But, generally, one does not sufficiently take into consideration that ordinary wakefulness is constantly mingled with semi-consciousness. Even the conceptions, with their certain “tone” of feeling, resemble a dreaming that is going on simultaneously with wakefulness, and the feelings themselves are a hovering world of pictures waving up and down, and absolutely resembling dreaming. But all that belongs to the sphere of will is slept away. We have, for instance, the conception of the bent arm and the further conception that the arm, in the next moment, will be stretched; but we are unconscious how these conceptions are changed into the movements themselves. Only after the movement, which we thus sleep through, has been carried out, we have again a conception, namely that the arm has indeed been stretched.


All this concerns only one side of Rudolf Steiner's discovery. If only this side existed, the discovery would, of course, be a significant one, but it would, undoubtedly, produce the worst effects. Certainly, it is necessary that the inter-dependences of the psychic phenomena upon the body, which we have here only sketched, should be explored down to the minutest detail; but the result would be that the knowledge of these dependencies would be misused in a certain direction. There are efforts made already today with the object of leading to the result that the psychic life can be influenced by inducing certain substances into our corporeal system. But, if this were attainable — and, undoubtedly one day it will become attainable — human liberty has come to an end. Here an immense danger is impending which we cannot take earnestly enough into consideration. Let us imagine how the psychic functions can be regulated or even normalized, and let us think of the psycho-technical experiments practised in Western countries or of the almost biological experiments in Western countries or of the almost biological experiments of the Bolshevists, and we shall understand that we never ought to represent only this side of Rudolf Steiner's discovery; otherwise we should sin against his work.


The other side concerns the spiritual subordination of the human being and contains, in a distinct way, the means of avoiding such unlawful interference with the life of the soul. In his book “Riddles of the Soul” Rudolf Steiner has enumerated the subordinate conditions existing, in ordinary consciousness, between “the psychic and the spiritual life”; we can sum them up as follows: That which exists only in a spiritual fashion and is the basis for ordinary consciousness can be experienced only by spiritual vision. It reveals itself in “Imaginations”. Feeling is streaming, from the spiritual point of view, out of that spiritual sphere which anthroposophical investigation finds by a method characterised in his writings as that of “Inspirations”. The will streams, for spiritual vision, out of the spiritual sphere by the aid of that which he has called true “Intuition”.


This subordination of the psychic phenomena to the spiritual world is the centre of anthroposophy. When we, for instance, read again in Rudolf Steiner's book “Knowledge of Higher Worlds and its Attainment,” the exercises leading to “Imagination” — the first degree of higher knowledge — we can find that the task is to strengthen thinking in itself so that it becomes free from its connection with the bodily basis. And this deliverance will protect the soul against improper interference. Now, we must admit that modern thinking has already obtained a high degree of purity. Unselfishness of scientific thinking is already strongly tending towards the side of “Imaginations”. But this development must grow and pass into the sphere of feeling so that people may know the corresponding exercises before the dangers arise which are hidden in deeper-lying realms of the soul. To obtain unselfishness of feeling is much more difficult, but by appropriate psychic exercises feeling can also be freed from its connection with the body. The result of such transformation of feeling is “Inspiration”, a kind of higher knowledge, revealed by Rudolf Steiner.


Already, the word Inspiration shows the connection of this kind of knowledge with respiration, and old oriental schooling has striven to obtain inspiration by respiration exercises. But the most difficult thing is to obtain unselfishness of will, a process which changes this psychic element into “Intuition”, the next higher degree of knowledge. Also here it is the aim that by an inner strengthening of the life of the soul the latter becomes protected against improper interference from the corporeal side. By such exercises forming the soul, that which may be called the spiritual subordination of the soul becomes spiritual activity.


Now we have the whole aspect of Rudolf Steiner's discovery giving us the necessary link between natural science and spiritual science. It is easy to realise how the soul of modern man notices in itself the beginning of such transformation and, therefore, strives to become conscious of the life of the soul. The soul feels that modern materialistic science is menacing its existence with real bondage, viz: with complete dependence upon the body. Therefore, we may describe anthroposophy as a road to knowledge that is sought by the soul of modern man.


It is of primary importance to recognise, in considering this example of the threefold organisation of the human being, Rudolf Steiner's method of investigation and to see the road by which the ordinary consciousness of the man of today is able to obtain access to his supersensible investigations. Rudolf Steiner always departs from the higher kinds of knowledge. Imagination, Inspiration and Intuition, and then continues his studies as far as the respective sensible facts. Afterwards, when he describes the results in order to make them comprehensible to ordinary consciousness, he takes the opposite way showing how we may start from certain experiences of everyday consciousness in order to recognise the spiritual elements of the world. It may be considered as Rudolf Steiner's first great message to modern humanity that he has shown us how to obtain such a view of our being that makes perceptible the spiritual foundations of the world and our own spiritual existence.


Having considered the threefold organisation of the human being, we may pass to Rudolf Steiner's other anthroposophical investigations. But we must bear in mind that now-a-days man could not recognise anything spiritual if he had to abandon the methods of investigation used in natural science; but, as we have seen, this method can be continued till he passes into the spiritual realms. The above-mentioned structure of the human being shows already, from the standpoint of natural science, that we are constituted as body, soul and spirit — a constitution which we, formerly, could discuss only in a philosophical sense. From this structure Rudolf Steiner starts in his book “Theosophy”. Calling “philosophical” that part of the spiritual sphere which ordinary consciousness is able to understand, we may say that Rudolf Steiner in this book has created the philosophical forms of anthroposophy. Beginning with our threefold constitution, as body, soul and spirit, and taking the investigations of spiritual science as a continuation of those of natural science, we obtain a further structure of our being which crosses the above mentioned; which is given in the book “Theosophy”.


In the aforesaid threefold system, ordinary consciousness recognises only the mineral world and the mineral part of the human being. But just those three systems lead us to understand that the mineral part is unthinkable without life and consciousness. Rudolf Steiner shows us that we can, in a scientific sense, state the reality of life by employing the method of “Imagination” in studying the nature of the human being; and he shows how even ordinary consciousness is able to understand this. He describes as the “etheric world” that which Imagination beholds in the body, and he calls our part in it the “etheric body”. Animals and plants also possess an etheric body. Thus, the reality of life becomes accessible to investigation. In a similar way all consciousness is explored by “Inspiration”. Hereby again a new world is opened, which Rudolf Steiner calls the astral world. Our part in it is the astral body which the animals also possess. Thus a trinity of our bodily being results: the physical body, etheric body and astral body. Thereto we must add the kind of knowledge called “Intuition”; the latter brings to perception the being which we experience directly as our ego. This limb of our being elevates mankind over the other realms of nature.


The ego as a being penetrates the threefold body and lives therein as a threefold psychic being accessible to supersensible investigation in the same way as the view of the three realms of nature is open to ordinary investigation. Now, experiencing inwardly this threefold psychic being, we are able to understand out of our own psychic life, viz: out of supersensible experience that which Rudolf Steiner calls the sentient soul, the mind-soul and the consciousness soul. Thus, meditating on spiritual investigations, we pass already from the consciousness of ordinary existence into our own inner experience and, through the latter, into a development of faculties as yet slumbering. Further on, by forming the conception that the three members which, however, in ordinary consciousness are still asleep. These are described as Spirit-Self, Life-spirit and Spirit-man.


We live each as an ego and as such differentiate between ourselves and the outer world which we try to recognise. This ego consciousness is aroused when the physical body comes in contact with the outer world. When the ego develops to higher knowledge, it frees itself from the connection with the physical body, and then, when acting in the etheric body, it may become aroused to Imaginations. After some further degrees of development, when acting in the astral body, the ego becomes aroused to Inspirations and, at last, when acting in itself, to Intuitions. This development of the higher forces of knowledge may also be taken in the following sense: wakefulness penetrates into the realms where formerly we only slept and dreamt; to arouse the ego consciousness, when the ego is acting in the higher parts of our being, is a continuous process of awakening.


Thus the road has been indicated on which it is possible to explore the further states into which we enter after the physical death. Rudolf Steiner describes the wandering of the human soul and spirit after death through the realms of the higher worlds and makes these states comprehensible through the understanding of the human being itself; during this wandering through the higher worlds the real and spiritual entity of our ego retires step by step from the frames which had connected it with the earth. In representing these states, Rudolf Steiner often uses the comparison of sleep and death: this comparison is for him not at all a trivial one, taken from antiquity, but it is a parallel that can be investigated (see “An Outline of Occult Science.”). With regard to consciousness, sleep has a double significance; we are able to observe not only the falling asleep, but also the awakening; there is, consequently, a complete circular course. In his investigations Rudolf Steiner has not only found out the post-mortem states in the spiritual worlds, but also the spiritual pre-natal states, and the union of all these states forms the circular course of the repeated lives on earth.


This leads us to Rudolf Steiner's second great spiritual message to present mankind — the prolongation of human life beyond birth and death up to the beholding of succeeding lives and their connection through fate. Only through these ideas can our life on earth obtain a concrete sense. Rudolf Steiner repeatedly gives examples of the relationship between succeeding lives which have become significant in history. The reincarnation of the soul and the law of destiny are the subjects of the central chapter in his book “Theosophy”. This chapter is an example of how difficult spiritual facts can be presented by a sensible rendering of the views of natural science. Here the chief point is to explain the idea of development in a spiritual way, which hitherto has been done materialistically. By Rudolf Steiner's explanation the idea of development obtains not only a bio-genetic, but also a psycho-genetic content; only thus can the idea of development become absolutely justified. He is of opinion that “reincarnation and karma, from the modern view of nature, are necessary conceptions”. This is the title of a special article published by him many years ago. This great message of Rudolf Steiner can only be adopted when our psychic life takes the most fervent interest in physical and spiritual development, and when all forces of the soul are called up in order to experience these facts not as abstract theories, but as events happening in the soul itself.


When we thus learn to understand ourselves as world wanderers passing through the realms of nature and of spirit, we become able to gain access to Rudolf Steiner's third great spiritual message to mankind of today. Through our participation in cosmic events we obtain a new knowledge not only of our own being, but also of the cosmic being. The genesis of the earth and of humanity out of a common spiritual origin, a cosmology which is simultaneously an anthropogeny — this is the third group of investigation in Rudolf Steiner's anthroposophy. Immense rhythms of development have created the cosmos; in succeeding cycles the different elemental states of the earth appear, becoming more and more physical and the states of human consciousness becoming more and more individual. When there was not yet a physical world, human consciousness was absolutely connected with the divine spirit. Into this stupendous picture of evolution Rudolf Steiner places our experiences with the world's creating beings, who surround us in the spiritual world in the same way as the realms of nature do in the physical world. These circular courses contract by constant repetitions and become denser and closer till that state which, finally, represents the world's and humanity's history in a narrower sense. Thus we get a new view of history which is now connected with the growth of the soul by the fact that the human individuals themselves, in their succeeding lives, are forming history.


Mankind's individual growth reveals its alienation from God; out of what remains of the old spirituality there is only left the longing of the soul. The cosmic-human development leads us also to understand that historical event through which the divine spiritual world desires to come again into touch with the human history, “the mystery of Golgotha”. Through our inner participation in these worldwide events Christianity becomes comprehensible simultaneously as a cosmic event and as a mystic fact (See Rudolf Steiner's book “Christianity as Mystical Fact”). In Rudolf Steiner's anthroposophy the cognition of Christ does not stand at the beginning as a dogma, but at the end as humanity's goal of development. This is the apocalyptic nature of anthroposophy, which is looking into the future when mankind will free itself from the bondage of physical consciousness and ascend to higher degrees of existence which have been passed through by the Initiate of our own days.


The three great spiritual messages to present humanity are combined by the fact that Rudolf Steiner permeates his investigations with concrete methods by means of which the knowledge of the higher worlds is obtainable. The germs of this knowledge lies hidden in man's soul waiting for development. These germs are productive of all sorts of “movements” in which the longing of men is concealed. But the more we take an interest in the aims revealed by Rudolf Steiner, the more we shall become his followers. Then the question “what is anthroposophy?” will no longer demand the answer: anthroposophy is a road to knowledge for which the soul is longing, but the other answer which Rudolf Steiner has given to his pupils: anthroposophy is a road to knowledge to guide the spiritual part of the human being to the cosmic spirit of the Universe.

Philosophishe Anthroposophischer Verlag, AM Goetheanum / Dornach (Schweiz) 1929 

“Anthroposophie, eine Einfuhrung ...” Von Rudolf Steiner. Philosophisch-Anthroposophischer Verlag, Dornach, Goetheanum (Schweiz), 1927.

Dr. Rudolf Steiner, “Story of My Life” with an afterword by Marie Steiner. London, Anthroposophical Publishing Co. 1928.

“Von Seelenratseln” von Rudolf Steiner, 1917 (1921), Philosophisch-Anthroposophischer Verlag am Goetheanum, Dornach (Schweis).

Dr. Rudolf Steiner, “Knowledge of Higher Worlds and its Attainment,”, London, Anthroposophical Publishing Co.

Dr. Rudolf Steiner, “An Outline of Occult Science.”, London, Anthroposophical Publishing Co.

Dr. Rudolf Steiner, “Christianity as Mystical Fact, and the Mysteries of Antiquity”), London, Anthroposophical Publishing Co.


Preface to above by Marie Steiner


The task of Rudolf Steiner of giving his enlightening lectures in Germany was forcibly suppressed by mysterious intrigues. Up to that moment the hearts of many people, even outside the Anthroposophical Society, went out to him and many souls recognised in him the man who, during period of revolution and collapse, was able to show new ways and new aims. In the Eve of the New Year of 1923 the Jura Mountains of Switzerland were illuminated with blood-red reflections from the fire set to the Goetheanum; and in a few hours this miracle of architecture in the sense of a spiritual art bearing the future — his creation — was wantonly destroyed.


Rudolf Steiner, pioneer of the human spirit's lofty flight had transformed his art into a work of a never-imagined force of the Word. But his health — and he never before had been sickly — suddenly broke down, and he died.


In pain and tribulation his truest and most active disciple, Carl Unger, now ripened to an astonishing clearness of spirit with ever-increasing knowledge. Fortified with moral integrity his words, always so lucid, began to glow with spiritual warmth; his strong reasoning powers formed pillars to support the arches of an artistic dome. By slow but steady steps, he had been developing until the death of his master and then, having ripened, he was enabled to step on to the path of his predecessor and to continue with dignity his work, keeping it on that level only on which Rudolf Steiner wished his work to be continued. But the murderous bullets struck him at the moment when, in Nurnberg, he approached the desk to give that lecture which, now printed, is lying before us.


In Rudolf Steiner's writings we find a character of this man who was his most capable collaborator. We add it to this booklet, uniting thus, in their post-mortem activity, the memory of these two men who, whilst living, were united in a true friendship for a sacrificing service to humanity.




“Dr. Carl Unger, for many years past, has always been the most industrious and devoted callaborator in the anthroposophical movement. At the Hague he spoke as a technician and philosopher on: ‘The social task of technics and technicians’ and ‘For the philosophical foundation of Anthroposophy’. At an early date, Dr. Unger saw that anthroposophy, before all, needs a strong foundation of the theory of knowledge. With a deep understanding he took up what I myself, many years ago, was able to give in my books ‘Theory of Knowledge’, ‘Truth and Science’, and ‘Philosophy of Spiritual Activity’. In an independent fashion he developed what I had intimated. To see through the nature of the human process of knowledge in a clear analysis, and to form from it its real picture, was his aim supported by mental discrimination. Unger is not a dialectician, but an observer of the empiric facts. And this is the reason why, in the course of years, he has been able to give results of highest value showing how the process of knowledge in ordinary consciousness produces, throughout and everywhere, out of itself, the impulses to anthroposophical investigation. Moreover, Unger's method of thinking, having been trained by technical problems, is free from any subjective vagueness, and therefore his scientific collaboration in anthroposophy is the most important that we can have. In the course of years his thinking, investigations and technical as well as anthroposophical work have constantly grown. In his two lectures given at the Hague he has presented ripe fruits of this growth. In his first lecture he showed that in our day it is just the technician that has been called up to social understanding; in the second lecture, that in our time philosophy, out of its own historical development, must flow into anthroposophy.”


Other Works by Dr. Unger:
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