Rudolf Steiner, the co-founder of the first Waldorf school and the inspiration for all other Waldorf schools, was born in a village in Croatia in 1861, moving frequently with his father’s work for the railway until settling near Vienna in his late teens. Steiner entered the Technische Hochschule, the most prestigious scientific and technical university in Austria, at the age of eighteen. Enrolled in an advanced course of study of the natural sciences, mathematics, and the physical sciences, Steiner became deeply interested in the scientific writings of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who is known today chiefly as a dramatist and poet. After moving to Weimar, Germany, in 1890, Steiner became the editor of Goethe’s scientific writings at the Goethe-Schiller Archives. During this period, he published his first major work, The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity (also known as The Philosophy of Freedom), on the basis of which he was granted the Ph.D. from the University of Rostock.
In 1907 Steiner moved to Berlin, where he edited a literary magazine and taught at an evening school for working class citizens. Here he agreed to become the head of the Theosophical Society in Germany, with the understanding that he would teach only what he himself experienced and therefore knew to be true. After years of conflict with other Theosophical Society leaders, Steiner resigned from the Society in 1912 and organized the Anthroposophical Society. Moving to Dornach, Switzerland, he and other anthroposophists began construction of a building he named the Goetheanum, which was to be a center for the anthroposophical movement. While World War I consumed Europe, citizens of seventeen nations gathered in Dornach to make this building a reality.
The first Waldorf school opened in 1919 in Stuttgart, Germany. Begun at the request of Emil Molt, the director of the Waldorf-Astoria Cigarette Factory, for the children of his employees, it was what Steiner called a cultural deed that has since spread to about 1,000 schools worldwide.
Steiner continued to travel widely in Europe, teaching, lecturing, and bringing new impulses into education, economics, agriculture, medicine, community life, and religion. Although the first Goetheanum was completely destroyed in a fire on December 31, 1922, Steiner designed a second building that was completed after his death (on March 30, 1925).
As may be apparent from this very brief biography, Steiner’s work was wide-ranging and complex. Everything he did, however, was based in the world view he named “anthroposophy.” In an effort to explain and condense this world view, Ronald Koetzsch, a professor at the Rudolf Steiner College and the editor of the journal, Renewal, describes the following primary tenets of anthroposophy:
The world and everything in it is the consciously wrought product of a benevolent, loving, cosmic intelligence.
Every material phenomenon – everything that can be perceived by the sense organs – is a manifestation of an invisible, spiritual reality, of a being with consciousness, affect, and volition. This includes stars, planets, stones, plants, animals, as well as the human being. The spiritual is primary, dominant, and ongoing. It transcends and survives its material manifestation.
The human being is the highest creation of this conscious cosmos of spiritual beings, the culmination of a purposeful, complex process extending over eons of time. In this creation process, high spiritual beings have given, out of selfless love, their own substance to create the human being according to divine laws. The spiritual, archetypal human being himself is the source of all other, lower forms of life.
Each human being has a spiritual essence that antedates birth into the physical world and continues after death of the physical body. This individual spiritual essence is involved in a process of development and evolution during which it incarnates at different times and places.
The human being is capable of acting in an undetermined way, as a free being.
Every human being has the potential to develop the ability to perceive the invisible world.