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Five Karmas, or Anthroposophy in Great Britain - Geoffrey Ahern

“Consider well the symbol of the serpent that forms a circle and bites its own tail.”(1) That invitation by a leader of the Rudolf Steiner movement, or Anthroposophy, takes us straight to the heart of its esoteric identity. My purpose here is to describe that identity, focusing particularly on the membership in Great Britain.

Steiner’s cosmos, for all its complexity and obscurity, follows the way of the serpent. Just as the allegorical serpent circles round to bite its own tail, everything that is now material was once spirit--”etheric,” “astral,” and other essences--and will return to itself, becoming spirit again. In that cycle, spirit hardens into matter, becomes differentiated, and then becomes conscious of itself. In the ascent, consciousness is deified in a victorious rhythmic evolution. Man is central to that evolution and, apart from his individuality, is a microcosm. In ancient gnostic belief, the material is an absolute evil, but in Steiner’s thought, matter is a necessary evil, for, without “descent” or “condensation” into matter, spirit could not evolve and become individuated.

Onto that basic structure is added a profusion of doctrines.(2) For instance, the second coming of Christ is perceived as the turning point when the cosmos respiritualizes out of matter (analogous to the point when the serpent begins to circle back onto its own tail). At that coming, when essence is most trapped in matter, Christ, who is the archetype of spiritual individuality, inaugurates the turning motion towards spiritual evolution. That evolution is a gradual progress of karma which takes place through countless reincarnations. Within that Western esoteric framework, Anthroposophy syncretizes Christian doctrines with Hinduism and other cultural traditions.

Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian scientist with a Ph.D. in philosophy, became General Secretary of the German Section of the Theosophical Society (T.S.) in 1902. The T.S. was, by that time, well established upon the revelation of the extraordinary Madame Helen Blavatsky and was entering a second phase of growth through involvement in social and political issues. Its impact, however, was largely in English-speaking cultures. From 1902 onward, Steiner increased the relatively small following in Germany, but it was only ostensibly “Theosophical.” He himself was a charismatic seer but differed from Mme. Blavatsky on several important issues. His esoteric system of Anthroposophy, or “wisdom concerning man,” formally separated from Theosophy just before the First World War. He was much more Western, systematic, and philosophical than the relatively uneducated Mme. Blavatsky.

The Rudolf Steiner movement has developed many applications, including education for adults and the well-known Waldorf Schools for children, “bio-dynamic,” or magical, agriculture and horticulture, spiritual dance, speech formation, and Goethean, or spiritual, science. Based on Steiner’s clairvoyance, those applications themselves are esoteric. They have probably been very influential factors in the gradual but steady growth of the movement in both German-speaking and English-speaking cultures. Whereas Theosophy still has a large following in India, it is otherwise being outstripped numerically by its organizational offspring, Anthroposophy. The group’s secretiveness makes it difficult to assess membership figures, but the number of those in the General Anthroposophical Society is between 20,000 and 25,000. Over 8,000 members live in West Germany. Great Britain and the United States each have approximately 2,400 members, and both Holland and Switzerland have well over 2,000 members.

The School of Spiritual Science and other main institutions are understood to have special karmas since karma, in Steiner’s view, is not confined to individuals. Hence, the “five karmas,” or most important aspects of Anthroposophy, will be considered here. The Anthroposophical Society in Great Britain seems to have a reputation among other members for being pragmatic and idiosyncratic. It is also, of necessity, “impure” because it depends on translations of Steiner’s original Hochdeutsch publications. Although my focus is on Great Britain, much of what follows applies nonetheless to the movement as a whole.

The School of Spiritual Science

The School of Spiritual Science at the Goetheanum, near Basel, Switzerland, is often referred to by members as the “First Class.” It is the center of organized Anthroposophical identity and has spiritual authority over the various national Schools, such as those in Great Britain. Admission to the School is possible only after two years’ membership in the General Anthroposophical Society. (It is necessary only to believe that “objective spiritual research” is justifiable in order to be a Society member.) But the “Readers,” the leaders who conduct the “classes,” by no means open the door to all who knock, and it is membership in the School, rather than in the Society, which signifies a full commitment to Anthroposophy.

About 20 percent of the members of the British Society are members of the School of Spiritual Science. Meeting times and places, as well as which of the 19 “lessons” will be given, are made public, for the practical reason of informing School members. The content of those sessions is not revealed to outsiders, however.

In Occult Science(3) and elsewhere, Steiner made much of the Anthroposophical path of knowledge widely available. (Around the turn of the century, he was accused of betraying esoteric secrets. Steiner replied that the age required that those secrets be made available. He later demanded secrecy in his own esoteric circle, however.) I have been told that the School of Spiritual Science conducts group spiritual research into areas of collective importance, especially the Anthroposophical activities. It is less concerned with the three ascending stages--Imagination, Inspiration, and Intuition--of the individual path of knowledge. Those stages mark the extent to which the soul has been “freed” from the body and has identified “correctly” with spirit.

A thought picture seems to be used for meditation in the first stage, Imagination. The main example in Occult Science is a black cross with seven “resplendent” red roses forming a circle where the beams meet. Steiner suggests that the roses are passions and impulses that have been purified. By concentrating on that cross, the meditator perceives spiritual “beings” which cannot be known by the senses. Those images are left behind in the second stage, Inspiration. The Inspiration exercises are designed to wipe out the Imaginative thought pictures and help the meditator feel what the soul was doing to produce them. The third stage, Intuition, causes even those progressive activities of the soul that led from Imagination to Inspiration to disappear from consciousness.

It seems that most Anthroposophists feel they have not proceeded much beyond the first stage of Imagination. The School is called the “First Class” because Steiner, before his unexpected death in 1925, intended to establish a second and third class. Anthroposophists tend to regard Steiner, who had reached Intuition, as a spiritual giant and themselves as dwarves.

Because the School is secretive, it is not in a position to refute allegations that its private traditions reflect a strong Eastern influence. But in my considered opinion, that is unlikely. (I have never been a member of the School because I do not consider it ethical to avow beliefs one doesn’t have in order to gain information. My assessment is based on evidence of a different kind.) Despite its doctrines of reincarnation and karma, Steiner saw Anthroposophy as Western. He was greatly influenced by Rosicrucianism and German idealists, especially Goethe. In his Autobiography,(4) he deplored the Theosophical Society’s esoteric school and stated that he joined it solely to inform himself of what was taking place. He thought that Mme. Blavatsky’s clairvoyance was atavistic and negative because she did not undertake it in full consciousness. He also disapproved of the Raja Yoga the reforming Theosophist Mrs. Annie Besant had adopted.

Anthroposophy as a revelation, even in the lectures on the “Spiritual Hierarchies” and other topics fully available only to members, does not ultimately seek a cosmic nothingness akin to the writings of Theravada Buddhism. Rather, it reaches for positive, but ineffable, spiritual essences: the Christian Trinity is the ultimate reality and then come the Spiritual Hierarchies who emanate qualities such as courage and will. Anthroposophists think their Western Christocentrism was the fundamental cause of their breach with Theosophy in 1912. All that circumstantial yet powerful evidence suggests that the School of Spiritual Science is not a mask for the clandestine pursuit of Eastern nothingness or Tantric yoga. Because the latter has been alleged, I have suggested its existence to longstanding members who then strongly denied the presence of such practices in Anthroposophy.

The Christian Community

Orthodox ritual tends to be associated by Western esotericists with the “dead” sacraments of the Christian churches. New sacraments revealed by Steiner are part of Christian Community (the Anthroposophical church) worship. It sees itself as combining Protestant freedom of thought with Catholic sacraments and ritual in spiritual rebirth.

Its extensive rituals have an esoteric rather than orthodox feel. For example, the powers of the spiritual heights and material depths are acknowledged through holding the right hand up and putting the left hand out. The priests’ chasubles have figures of eight on them to represent the infinite. Colors, such as the prevalent purple, relate to Steiner’s spiritual science, especially his revelations about the human aura.

Steiner founded the Christian Community as a church in 1922 in conjunction with Dr. Rittelmeyer, a Lutheran pastor from Berlin. Its biggest membership, as with the General Anthroposophical Society, is in West Germany. Its 300 priests are primarily in Europe and the United States. Organizationally it is separate from both the General Society and the School of Spiritual Science. Many Anthroposophists ignore the church because they consider it a mere external, “exoteric” expression of the spiritual. Nonetheless, within the Christian Community itself the conscious spiritual awareness of the congregation seems to be thought the most vital factor.

Approximately one-third of the Christian Community’s 600 British members belong to the General Anthroposophical Society. Britain has 30 priests, ten of whom are women. That is the highest ratio of men to women within any of the worldwide Christian Communities where women have been priests since the church’s foundation. Roughly two-thirds of the priests in Great Britain are also members of the School of Spiritual Science.

The Camphill Communities

The Camphill movement provides village communities and some urban houses for mentally handicapped people who need special care. It was founded at Camphill on the east coast of Scotland by Dr. Konig, a charismatic follower of Rudolf Steiner. By 1980, just 14 years after Dr. Konig’s death, 56 communities had been established in Great Britain, Ireland, West Germany, Switzerland, the United States, Finland, France, and South Africa.

On at least two occasions, the reputation of the British Camphill communities has been officially reinforced. One leading member was awarded the honor of membership in the Order of the British Empire, and it is a matter of pride that patrons of Camphill include H.R.H. the Duchess of Kent. The non-handicapped adults, who are known as “co-workers,” often know little about Anthroposophy. About half of them are transient, unaware of Steiner’s revelation. Many 19 and 20 year olds apply simply for the practical experience of community work. Most of the remaining co-workers are a committed core whose overriding interest is likely to be esoteric: many belong to the General Anthroposophical Society and the School of Spiritual Science.

Anthroposophy’s metaphysical teachings encourage that core group to transcend the models of conventional, secular social work. It is that commitment that gives Camphill its reputation for success in healing in its widest sense.

As one of the leaders told me, “The moment you let in the therapeutic point of view, they (those being cared for) become patients.” Anthroposophy’s teachings stress that individuals who become closely involved with each other have karmic ties that reach back into past incarnations and will be part of a future pattern of interaction. The “villager,” as the handicapped person is called, is karmically inseparable from the co-worker. The bond felt by the co-workers, therefore, is very deep even though they themselves are not handicapped. The value of each human life is not limited to incarnation on earth. Thus, as one co-worker told me, he dreamed that a very difficult epileptic boy in his care had been a genius in a past incarnation. Because of the Anthroposophical perspective he had accepted, that co-worker was inclined to interpret his dream literally.

More than other Anthroposophists, it seems that many co-workers do not have a strong sense of individuality. The social reality structured by Anthroposophical architecture, education, art, agriculture, and medical arrangements renders the outside world superfluous. That insulated “normality” is their everyday reality and encourages a “participation mystique” or unconscious identity between members. The absorbing sense of community is legitimized not only through Steiner’s ideas but also through Dr. Konig’s theology which grafted ideas from Comenius, Count Zinzendorf, and Robert Owen onto the Anthroposophical cosmology.

Camphill life is based on family units. Sometimes as many as six co-workers and eight villagers live together. The woman of the house is the central figure of the extended family, though she has others, including her husband, to help her. Family life is said to prevent the villagers from diverting their energies into sexual channels.

The Camphill communities’ stable rhythm of life is marked by an almost medieval sense of the seasons. Christian saints’ days, as well as pagan festivals such as May Day, are celebrated. The Christian Community also plays an important part through its sacraments, especially for villagers and co-workers’ children. Each day except Sunday is structured around work: Camphill villagers and co-workers alike operate the community farms or light industries such as making ashtrays. The profit from those, plus state subsidies (granted because the handicapped are being helped) have been the financial underpinning of Camphill’s rapid expansion.

Despite the highly regulated lifestyle within the communities, the Camphill movement in Great Britain may have as many as 1,000 members, most of whom are co-workers. Younger British Anthroposophists tend to regard Camphill leaders as more charismatic than the leaders of the Anthroposophical Society in Great Britain.

The Anthroposophical Society in Great Britain

The most inclusive Anthroposophical institution is the General Anthroposophical Society which is based at the Goetheanum. Affiliated with the General Society are national societies, such as the Anthroposophical Society in Great Britain.

Of its registered 2,400 members, only four live in central London and 169 in London postal districts, even though the headquarters--Rudolf Steiner House--is in the central Baker Street area. Here lies the clue to many current Anthroposophical tensions in Britain. During the past 50 years, there has been an absolute as well as proportionate decline in London membership, but decisions still emanate from the metropolis. Voting is not conducted through the “unspiritual” mechanism of the mails; instead, personal attendance at Rudolf Steiner House is mandatory. (General Society members must vote at the Goetheanum.) As a result, the provinces are alienated, and Scotland is virtually disenfranchised. The members of the Chairmanship Committee and Council--the elected and co-opted people who govern the British society--themselves travel into London to deliberate at Rudolf Steiner House. In response to those circumstances, an Assembly is being set up to give members a sense of greater participation, and a few people are suggesting that maintaining their headquarters in London is no longer appropriate.

Over half of the members live either in loose community--especially in Gloucestershire, western England or Forest Row, Sussex, southern England--or in closer groups such as the Camphill communities. Their employment is very likely to be connected with Anthroposophical institutions; for example, education or caring for the elderly. The other half seem to live non-communally; indeed, many members may have very little contact with other Anthroposophists. There also seem to be quite a large number of people who are committed to Steiner yet have not registered as members.

The Old and New Goetheanums

No mere literary metaphor is intended in referring to the foregoing identities of Anthroposophy--the School of Spiritual Science, the Christian Community, the Camphill Communities, and the Anthroposophical Society in Great Britain--as karmas. That is a literal idea for Steiner’s followers themselves.

The fifth karma for Anthroposophists in Great Britain is the Goetheanum in Switzerland. The first Goetheanum was destroyed by an unknown arsonist on New Year’s Eve, 1922. A new Goetheanum was completed on the same site in the 1950s. Both were designed by Steiner and are sacred to Anthroposophists: in their metaphysical view, the buildings are matter uniquely made spiritual. Despite its location in Switzerland, the Goetheanum features constantly in the imaginations of British followers, who occasionally attend special events there. The Old Goetheanum, known through models, photographs, paintings, oral descriptions, and meditative Imaginations, had a primeval, mushroom-like wooden dome. Some people, it is said, “experience” that building before their rebirth on earth. The New Goetheanum is made of concrete and is strangely many faceted. As one British member described it, “We regard the Goetheanum as the center of the twentieth-century mysteries.”



1. Albert Steffen, Meetings with Rudolf Steiner (Dornach, Switzerland: Verlag für Schönewissenschaften, 1926), p. 65.

2. The distinction between “structure” and “doctrines” is not Anthroposophical. I’ve made that distinction for analytical purposes.

3. Rudolf Steiner, Occult Science: An Outline, G. and M. Adams, translators (London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1972).

4. P. Allen, editor, Rudolf Steiner: An Autobiography, R. Stebbing, translator (New York: Rudolf Steiner Publications, 1977).


Dr. Ahern has published articles and written an interdisciplinary Ph.D. on the Rudolf Steiner movement and the Western esoteric tradition. His book on the same subject is to be published by Thorsons (the Aquarian Press) in late 1983.