To understand Waldorf schooling, you need to understand Rudolf Steiner’s body of teachings, which he called Anthroposophy. And to understand Anthroposophy, it is helpful — if not absolutely necessary — to understand Theosophy, the occult system he drew from so heavily.
I am going to attempt an extremely concise summary of Theosophy. It will necessarily overlook a lot. Still, I hope you will find it informative. I will draw from the work of Helena Blavatsky, Annie Besant, Charles Webster Leadbeater, and Rudolf Steiner. [See "Sources," below.] I will also dip into THE ENCYCLOPEDIC THEOSOPHICAL GLOSSARY — an encyclopedia, really — published by the Theosophical University Press. Because these sources are not entirely consistent on various points, some Theosophists here or there will be inclined to challenge at least some parts of my presentation. I will not attempt to sort out differences among branches of Theosophy, nor will I (generally) compare and contrast Theosophy and Anthroposophy. Still, in a generalized sort of way, the following survey should create a frame within which to view Steiner's teachings.
I will withhold my own views, as much as I can bear. Thus, most of what follows — stating Theosophical beliefs without analysis or commentary — may seem to be an affirmation of Theosophy. It is not. I personally do not believe a word of Theosophy; in my view, Theosophy is just as removed from reality as is Anthroposophy. But this page is not meant to present my views; it is meant to present an overview of the teachings Steiner drew from so liberally in devising Anthroposophy. (The other major source he drew from is Gnostic Christianity. [See “Gnosis”.] He was also influenced by numerous other sources, such as Norse mythology. [See “The Gods”.])
Before we get going, an important aside:
One of Rudolf Steiner's key texts is titled THEOSOPHY - An Introduction to the Spiritual Processes in Human Life and in the Cosmos (Anthroposophic Press, 1994). Waldorf teachers-in-training often study this book as part of their coursework, and members of Waldorf faculties frequently review and discuss it as part of their continuing professional development. The book reflects Steiner's own doctrines, not what we might call mainstream Theosophy. Steiner was a schismatic. He served as head of the German branch of Theosophy, but early on he began calling his form of spiritual science "Anthroposophy," and eventually he broke with the Theosophical movement to establish Anthroposophy as a separate movement having its own body of teachings. Studying THEOSOPHY as it exists now is an illuminating guide to the thinking behind Waldorf schools, but it is not the most representative guide to Theosophy per se.
Here is how the publisher describes Steiner's THEOSOPHY:
OK. So. Theosophy per se, taking more from
Blavatsky, Besant, Leadbeater, et al, than from Steiner
(but not leaving Steiner out of the mix altogether):
Theosophy consider itself a philosophy (because it inquires into the meaning of life), a religion (because it shows path toward the spirit realm and spiritual self-betterment), and a science (because it objectively examines the spirit realm, primarily through the use of clairvoyance).
The universe in which we live is superbly ordered, being both the manifestation and the concern of a great number of high spiritual beings, some of whom are so far above us that we can scarcely even begin to understand them. But we belong within this structure, possessing numerous “bodies” (most of them invisible) that connect us directly to various worlds and their spirits.
Although the highest intentions of the highest gods are beyond our comprehension, we can certainly know a great deal about the gods in general and their worlds. Some humans — “Perfected Men” — have climbed ahead of the rest of humanity on the evolutionary ladder that leads from our world up into the high spirit worlds. By following the precepts of Theosophy, we can come to know these perfected men and hear their reports. They tell us that the gods have a wondrous plan whereby all beings can evolve higher and higher toward spiritual perfection. We ourselves may one day climb to the highest level of divinity.
Each solar system in the cosmos is the manifestation of a high Being — a god, logos — a Solar Deity. Each Solar Deity lives both within His solar system and in the higher worlds beyond it where He is part of the company of other gods. We can comprehend, to some degree, the portion of the Solar Deity manifested in our solar system; but we cannot know the life He and his Brethren share beyond the solar systems.
Beneath each Solar Deity are seven ministers or Planetary Spirits who preside over the seven worlds of that solar system. To assist them, there are hosts of devas or angels who carry out the ministers’ will.
Among human beings, working in accord with the devas, are the Adepts — humans who have risen to elevated spiritual consciousness. These form the Brotherhood of Adepts or the Great White Brotherhood.
The Adepts — also called Masters — accept apprentices, humans who are below them in spiritual awareness but who demonstrate unswerving, total devotion to ascending the true path. One such apprentice was the chief founder of Theosophy, Helena Blavatsky.
The Planetary Spirit of a world may assign his assistants to create races, creeds, cultures, nations, etc., to fulfill the needs of creatures such as humans at differing levels of development or differing dispositions. The hierarchical structure of the solar system may thus be reflected in hierarchies of planetary affairs, stretching from low to high, primitive to advanced. But at root all is one. Thus all religions express the same fundamental truths, but these are comprehended only through Theosophy. Theosophists do not seek to turn anyone from any particular religion, but they offer the true understanding of all religions.
Just as the highest reaches of the celestial hierarchy are beyond our comprehension, so is the origin of our universe. All that we can say is that some enormously elevated Being chose to create our universe for reasons of His own. That Being blew his spiritual force into the universal ether, creating bubbles or “atoms.” He drew these bubbles back into himself and then out again, seven times, each time exponentially increasing the sum total of bubbles. At each of seven repetitions of this process, he created a new form of “matter” (although matter does not truly exist, all being ultimately spirit). From these seven types of matter, each denser than the last, were formed seven interpenetrating worlds, concentric spheres that (to our level of comprehension) all occupy the same space. Only the lowest such world — #1, the physical world — is ordinarily perceptible to us. Above it is #2, the astral or emotional world, which is responsive to our emotions. Above that is #3, the mental world, out of which our minds are formed. Above that is #4, the intuitional world or buddhic plane, from which the highest intuitions are received. Above that is #5, the spiritual world, in which our highest spirits (at our current stage of evolution) operate. World #6 is the monadic world, where sparks of divinity (self-enclosed beings, monads) exist — but this world is beyond our clairvoyant observation at present. The highest world, #7, is the divine world, but it is closed to us at present. The various worlds vibrate at different frequencies, and they are all occupied by beings who have senses and organs appropriate to them. Our own world is the densest. The higher worlds — constituted of progressively finer and finer matter — exist here and now, in our present existence, although we are not normally aware of them or of their occupants.
Each planet of the solar system is the physical center of its own concentric set of worlds. These worlds are called “globes.” Thus, Mars, for instance, is a physical globe at the center of a concentric set of finer and finer globes. Each globe extends farther into cosmic space than the globe below it. For example, the astral globe of the Earth extends out far enough to make contact with the astral globe of the Moon. Higher Earth globes extend out far enough to touch the higher globes of other planets. (The logical mind can comprehend many of the elements of such a cosmology, but a different consciousness is needed for true comprehension. Here is the beginning of the definition of the word "globe" in THE ENCYCLOPEDIC THEOSOPHICAL GLOSSARY: "Globe In theosophy, a unit in the constitution of every planet or sun, each of which is composed of several globes, in their entirety referred to as a planetary or solar chain. Furthermore, moons, nebulae, and comets also have a seven or twelvefold constitution, even as has man, who is a copy in the small of the universe. These globes are analogous to the monadic centers in the human constitution. The seven manifested globes on the four lower cosmic planes for purposes of convenience are enumerated as A, B, C, D, E, F, G; but reference is sometimes made more mystically to the globes from "A to Z," plainly hinting at all the globes of the chain. When considering seven cosmic planes, twelve globes are given. These globes are related to the seven (or twelve) sacred planets and to the twelve zodiacal constellations.")
The highest divinity, although essentially unknown to us, is known to be a trinity. The three parts of the Deity are known as Aspects. All three Aspects were involved in the creation of life. The Third Aspect (roughly comparable to the “Father” in Christian teachings) gave the First Outpouring, which produced form from out of chaos. The Second Aspect gave the Second Outpouring that gave rise to the seven “elementary kingdoms.” (Sometimes ten such kingdoms are spoken of.) Sticking with seven, we can say these are realms below the spiritual (they are elemental), running downward from man, to animal, vegetable, and mineral. Below these are three sub-mineral kingdoms that need not concern us much. The occupants of the kingdoms are alive — even rocks are alive — and evolution occurs in each kingdom, with plants, for instance, gradually evolving from the lowest forms to the highest. Evolution is, indeed, the basic process of existence. (There is an exception, however. The elementary kingdoms are also occupied, at deep levels, by beings — known as elementals — that are incapable of evolving and have no true spirits. They have been known from time immemorial as dwarfs, elves, fauns, jinn, satyrs, sylvans, trolls, and so on.)
Once the world and all its kingdoms were populated, the First Aspect gave the Third Outpouring. This was and remains different from the other Outpourings — it concerns individuals, not groups or masses. Each individual human being has an individual soul, but groups and masses possess shared souls — group souls, race souls, nation souls, family souls, and the like. All animals of a particular species, for instance, share a single group soul. Originally, humans too had only group souls. But following the Third Outpouring, humans developed individual souls or egos. Each individual soul is a piece of divinity; it is, in a sense, a fragment of a group soul, but far more precious than a complete group soul. The individual soul is a priceless a gift delivered from above — it is divine individual identity. Man can think “I”; no being below man can do so.
The distinction between man and animal (or between animal and vegetable) is not absolute, however. The Divinity continuously pours out impulses. We humans are surging forward on one wave of evolution, but below us are other such waves. Individuation begins to appear in each wave eventually. Thus, for example, all cats begin by sharing a single group soul. But gradually seven subdivisions of cats emerge (domesticated cats at the highest level), and the group soul begins to subdivide. The overall cat soul separates into numerous feline sub-group souls, and these break down to become more-than-numerous feline sub-sub-group souls. A period may arise in which only a dozen or so similar cats share a single soul. And then a period may arise when only two cats share a soul. And then, wondrously, a period may arise in which a cat has its own soul. The cat will then be human, and the Third Outpouring will reach down to it.
Having a singular soul all his/her own means that a human being is a monad, a self-enclosed individual, and s/he belongs to the monadic world. However, human nature is seen to be highly complex when viewed at levels below the monadic world. We descend to the physical realm for a new birth (we live many lives — reincarnation; we will return to this subject). The monad or the ego (the monad seen in the upper reaches of the mental world) is immortal, passing from life to life. But when the human individual begins a new physical life, s/he takes on multiple new bodies. The physical body is only the most evident of these. A descended human also puts on a mental body, for instance, made of matter from the lower reaches of the mental world. This body enables concrete thoughts (abstract thoughts belong to the upper mental world). There is also an astral body, composed of matter from the astral world, which enables emotions and passions.
After death, the human being reascends, shedding the bodies of life below the monadic world. The physical body goes first, followed by the others in succession. The length of time required to shed a body — and thereby pass through the corresponding world — depends on the accumulated effects of the life just lived. For example, one can shed the astral body and move beyond the astral world only when the effects of the emotions and passions of the recent life have been discharged. This is, in a deep sense, an enactment of karma. You create your fate and indeed your spiritual identity through your actions (which include thoughts and feelings). Each earthly life is really just a day in the overall succession of lives each human passes through, and the succession of these days sees the improvement — or degradation — of the human ego resulting from the accumulations of karma. These effects become evident in the causal body or Karanopadhi, consisting of higher mental matter. Errors committed during a life/day produce falsehoods impressed in the causal body which must be expunged. The goal is liberation from maya (illusion), purification of the ego, and spiritual advancement to divinity.
The “bodies” of man are merely the vehicles one moves around in. The essential nature of man, the divine ego, is untouched by any faults or errors that afflict the vehicles. Only good qualities can become incorporated in the ego. As the ego is perfected, its glory is reflected in the vehicles. “The difference between the causal bodies of the savage and the saint is that the first is empty and colourless, while the second is full of brilliant, coruscating tints.” — Leadbeater. An ascending human rises to the level of sainthood and then beyond, becoming eventually an Adept, and the size and coloration of the vehicles increase accordingly.
Human thoughts create spiritual realities — thoughts create forms that possess real, separate existence. A thought form is an entity, although perhaps only a short-lived one. A thought form approaches its object and enters into it, if possible. If the object is not prepared to receive it, the thought form patiently waits until conditions are such that the object will receive it. The thought form then enters the object and discharges itself there. Thus our thoughts remake reality. If we think Theosophical thoughts, we sensitizes the recipients of such thoughts to Theosophy and thereby we expand the reach and prevalence of Theosophy.
Good thought create sympathetic vibrations in the finer forms of matter; bad thoughts have great effect on the denser forms of matter. Thus, good thoughts make the oval shape of the mental body wider at the top than at the bottom, while bad thoughts have the reverse effect. Good emotions and bad emotions have a similar effect in the astral body. Moreover, the reality of thoughts and emotions communicate themselves as a sort of reverberation: If you love someone, you impart astral force and matter to her/him, which increases his/her love for you, which transmits commensurate force and matter back to you.
The potential shapes of the various vehicles are infinitely varied. The coloration is more limited and hence more readily recognizable. The colors of the higher bodies are found in the higher “octaves” of perceptible vibration; those of lower bodies are in the lower range. The astral body, seat of passions, displays colors that are unknown at higher levels. Black denotes hatred, brown-red denotes sensuality, livid gray reveals fear, dark gray shows depression, scarlet (usually seen as specks) reflects irritation, brownish green shows jealousy. “[I]n the ordinary man [the astral body] is usually clearly marked; but in the case of primitive man it is often exceedingly irregular, and resembles a rolling cloud composed of all the more unpleasant colours.” — Leadbeater.
The physical body has two major components, the material body that is perceptible with our ordinary senses, and the invisible “double” or “etheric body” that holds the same shape and size. The material body would be lifeless if not for the etheric body, which is the conduit for the forces and influences of the living spiritual realm. In particular, the etheric body transmits the vibrations of thought and emotion from the astral body to the physical body. Without this, the ego would have no access to the physical — its finer matter would have no purchase in dense physical matter.
Vitality comes to the etheric body from the Sun. The impulse of living force reaches the etheric body from the Sun and is subdivided into seven forms of vitality. These forms of vitality flow to seven centers of power in the etheric body. These force centers — known as lotuses or chakras — exist in the etheric form of these portions of the human form: 1) at the base of the spine, 2) in the solar plexus, 3) in the spleen, 4) above the heart, 5) in the throat, 6) between the eyebrows, 7) at the top of the head.
Death is a matter of no moment to the human ego. One lays aside the garment or vehicle of physical existence, and a single day of one’s greater life is completed. After the physical body is set aside, one lives in one’s astral body until all the emotions of the last life are exhausted, and then the astral body too is set aside. And so on, through the higher bodies, until each is set aside. The duration of this process depends on the character of one’s race in the recently completed life. “The primitive man lives almost exclusively in the physical world, spending only a few years in the astral at the end of each of his physical lives ... The ordinary man of the civilized races remains longer in the mental world....” — Leadbeater.
The period after death is a form of purgatory, clearing away the accumulated woes of the last life, after which one proceeds to a heavenly existence. “If we take the average man of what is called the lower middle class, the typical specimen of which would be a small shopkeeper or shop-assistant, his average life in the astral world would be perhaps about forty years, and the life in the mental world about two hundred. The man of spirituality and culture, on the other hand, may have perhaps twenty years of life in the astral world and a thousand in the heaven life. One who is specially developed may reduce the astral life to a few days or hours and spend fifteen hundred years in heaven.” — Leadbeater.
Both the duration and the quality of existence in the higher worlds depends on one’s self-created destiny or karma. One develops as one has chosen, on the path toward — or possibly away from — spiritual perfection. We are reborn many times and we die again many times. In death after death (that is, at the end of each successive day of the greater life), a virtuous individual climbs higher, moving progressively beyond the impulses of one’s lower nature. But errors in earthly life can cause imperfections in the life after death, delaying one’s ascent. “[A] man in this condition can see only the undesirable inhabitants of the astral world, and can feel only its unpleasant and vulgar influences.” — Leadbeater. Clarity and purity of intention and action are required to ascend truly and rapidly. One who has resisted temptation perceives the astral world fully and receives the benefits therefrom.
Death is a return to our truer environment, the spirit realm. If one has progressed during earthly life, then each return is more complete and fruitful. The subjective reality of life and death is distinct from (and even antithetical to) the objective cycles of deaths and births. "Death is not a thing in itself, but one of the phases or temporary events in the unending dramas of life, so that the opposite of death is birth rather than life. In other words, the opposite of manifested life is unmanifest life ... The same eternal motion which brings everything into objective existence has thereby caused the death of the same entity on the previous subjective plane of life. Then, when the lifetime of this manifestation ends, the reverse of this rhythmic motion causes the death of the entity from objective existence, and carries it back to be reborn into its subjective life. This law applies universally to solar systems, planets, human beings, atoms, etc. The reincarnating ego is born and dies on each of the successive planes of existence through which it descends from spiritual realms to be reborn again on earth. The same rhythmic motion reversed spells death here, with the same repeated births and deaths on its ascending journey to its spiritual home." — THE ENCYCLOPEDIC THEOSOPHICAL GLOSSARY.
We undergo multiple deaths, both because we are reincarnated so often, and because following each physical death we die again in each world we ascend to. Thus, following death in the physical world, we arrive in the astral world. After remaining there as long as need be, we die to that world and proceed to the mental world, and so on.
The dead may arrive in the astral world without realizing that they are in fact dead. They are, at first, utterly unchanged except for the loss of the physical body. In the astral world, then, they may do all those things they were accustomed to do previously, except for things that require a physical body. Indeed, in the astral world the dead attain the freedom to do precisely as they please, limited only by the absence of a physical body. The resulting condition of joy is sometimes called “summerland.” [“Summerland Sometimes used by Spiritualists for what they hold to be the abode of departed spirits, which actually exist in astral regions, disintegrating before the second death.” THE ENCYCLOPEDIC THEOSOPHICAL GLOSSARY.]
In the astral world, the dead conceive themselves and their dead companions to be unchanged, for their astral forms are consistent with their previous physical forms. Moreover, they may create out of their own thoughts the scenes and landscapes of their previous earthly lives, so that their surroundings seem unchanged. Nor do they feel the loss of their friends or family who remain on the physical plane, for they perceive them as continuing to exist. (The living, of course, feel the dead to be gone, but this is an illusion.) The dead cannot communicate directly with the living, nor can they know the thoughts of the living, but they may read the moods and feelings of the living and thus comprehend their condition. In addition, the dead may populate their world-after-death with the gods and other beings of their earthly religions and beliefs, calling them into existence through the power of their thoughts.
The astral world has seven subdivisions. The dead pass through all seven, gradually shedding low, egoistic emotions — purging themselves of all emotions that cannot be embraced by the pure ego. The illusion that life in the astral world is the same as Earthly life gradually diminishes as the dead ascend through the subdivisions, although some Earthly customs remain. Thus, for instance, people of the same nationality prefer one another's company in the astral world. Reminders of Earthly life are also reinforced by the presence of living humans — people on Earth ascend into the astral world during sleep. Moreover, just as nature spirits (fairies, pixies, and the like — spirits of air, earth, water, and fire) exist in the physical world, they are present in the astral world. Still, as the dead ascend through the levels of the astral world, they become increasingly aware that the views they formed while alive on Earth were deeply flawed.
Human beings are not the only occupants of the solar system, and indeed we are not the most important. Multitudes of other beings are progressing along their own lines of evolution, including some higher than man. The lowest rank of devas (angels) is perceptibly present in the astral world. Contact with them increases comprehension of the Seven Rays, beings Blavatsky describes as the seven angels of wisdom. (On Earth, Leadbeater says, we gain awareness of them through such movements as Freemasonry.)
When we pass out of the astral world, our astral bodies die — we leave them behind. This is our second death. It differs from our physical death in an important way. Whereas we leave our physical corpse entirely behind us, our astral corpses are not so fully relinquished. Some of our substance (the part of ourselves that became completely entangled in astral/emotional reality during Earth life) remains behind at the astral level even as we proceed to the next world — the mental world. The surprising result is that our astral corpses do not fully die, even though we leave them behind. A typical astral corpse remains mobile and, in a sense, alive. This helps explain why during seances the beloved dead whom we contact sometimes seem strangely dull and unresponsive — we have not truly contacted a dead human being, we have contacted an astral corpse, otherwise known as a "shade."
Shades may continue to "live" for some time, but eventually the tiny bit of human essence each contains withers away, and then the "shade" becomes an empty "shell." But even shells sometimes continue to "live," and on occasion nature spirits take possession of them and use them as vehicles or temporary abodes. A shell contacted during a seance will be utterly unresponsive if no nature spirit has possessed it — we will be aware that we have contacted something or other from beyond the grave, but we will receive no communication from it. But if a shell has been taken over by a nature spirit, we may receive totally misleading messages, for the nature spirit has no human essence with which to respond truly to a human medium.
One more unfortunate class must be mentioned. Some of the dead cling to their etheric doubles, even after physical death. They will not release their grip on these remnants of Earthly life, the life that was — they mistakenly believe — the only life they have known. They drift through the astral world lonely and miserable, clinging to the empty tatters of their Earthly life. Sometimes they actually contrive to return to Earth. They may steal physical bodies that have been prepared for human infants or even the physical bodies prepared for animals. They insert themselves into these and then return to physical life as abominations. They are not evil (Theosophy generally denies the existence of evil), but they are ignorant and their future evolution will be much impeded.
Following life in the astral world, we ascend to the mental world. This world, too, is composed of seven subdivisions, but we do not rise through all seven. Instead, each individual rises to the level of the highest forms of thought s/he attained in the most recent Earthly life. So, someone whose highest mentality on Earth consisted of selfless love of family rises to the seventh, lowest mental level. One who, on Earth, was devoted to humanity as a whole will rise to the fourth level, while one whose devotion was still higher will ascend in proportion.
Entry into the mental world — like that into all the higher worlds — is blissful. Having purged oneself of lowly, egoistic passions and tendencies in the astral world, one brings nothing ugly to the mental world. The only limitation to the bliss of life on the mental plane is that our access to that plane is defined by our own thought forms. The thoughts we had on Earth serve as frames or windows, through which we gaze out onto the mental world. That world is infinitely rich and glorious. The unlimited glories of the Divine Mind flash and dance here. But each individual can gaze out at this world only through the windows s/he has created. The great hope is that s/he will create more and larger windows in future Earthly lives, and thus enter more and more fully into the mental world on each return to it. This process may be seen as the gradual development of one's mental body. When one first enters the mental world, this body is very undeveloped. On successive returns to the mental world, the mental body may be more highly structured, and one's view out onto the mental world will be more complete.
During the first few visits to the mental world, an individual will be largely receptive — the forces of the mental world flow into him/her through mental windows. But as an individual climbs to higher thoughts (theology, art, philosophy, and so forth), s/he begins to know the ineffable joy of contributing to the mental world, giving as well as receiving. These gifts may extend to strangers met for the first time in the mental world, but they will also include all of one's loved ones and friends. All people who have been dear to you will be present, spiritually, in the mental world. Thought forms you create will summon them to this level of existence, richer and fuller than at any lower level. Even loved ones who continue to live in the physical world (that is, they have not yet died on Earth) will be present to you in this higher form in the mental world.
There are yet higher levels that one enters after additional, higher deaths. Most of these levels are inaccessible to those who have had only a few Earthly deaths, and most are extremely difficult — if not impossible — for us to discuss in human language or even to picture with human cognition. We can say that above the mental world is the causal world, which is where the Masters dwell. But that world, like Mastership itself, is far beyond most of us at our current stage of development. “What is the causal world, to which reference has been made in various theological writings? It transcends our knowledge so greatly that any definition would be futile and presumptuous. Yet we may think of it as the field of creative powers, beyond and above psychic perturbations, the real home of the Masters.” — Blavatsky.
Those dead individuals who attain the causal world are unrestricted by any windows — their perception is vast and vivid. But an individual's first ascent to this world will be extremely brief. Only gradually, over the course of many, many life/death cycles will one's limitations be reduced sufficiently to allow longer stays in the causal world. Central to this process is the expansion — to an infinitely greater degree — of the selfless giving previously tasted deliciously in the mental world. As one becomes truly selfless, one will become truly fulfilled — one's true "self" will develop out of the abnegation of self.
The entire process of rising into the higher worlds after death is later reversed. Having ascended as high as one can, one descends again and returns to the physical world for another life in a physical body. The entire Theosophical narrative, then, depends on the concept of reincarnation. Put another way, reincarnation is central to the entire evolutionary process. We can change and develop (evolve, if you will) during a single lifetime, but our true evolution occurs over the span of many, many, many lives. We live, die, die again in other ways, ascend into the empyrean, and then descend again and are reborn on Earth. And we do this over and over and over, straining to make at least a little spiritual progress with each new go-around.
The span of human existence — the long trail of the many lives each person leads — is millions of years. Most of this time is spent in the higher worlds, not in the physical world. (The ratio may be 20 years above for each year below.) The ego descends again and again to the physical world in order to learn needed lessons; s/he then takes these back up and incorporates them. S/he gradually moves toward becoming a “Perfected Man.” Some individuals progress faster than others, for their total life span will be shorter than those for slower learners. But the gods are merciful and no individual will fail, no matter how slowly s/he progresses.
One great law that must be learned is the law of evolution. We must understand the need to evolve, and we must work at the task of self-perfection. The person who does so — that is, by attending to his Teachers (human and superhuman) — finds the upward path smooth. But anyone who does not grasp the law of evolution will feel beset by forces and a fate that s/he cannot understand, and life after life will be difficult and slow.
Another great law is that of cause-and-effect. Despite what the recalcitrant, slow learners think, fate is not random or cruel. The condition in which you find yourself during physical life (rich or poor, smart or foolish, healthy or ill) is the result of your own actions in prior lives. “If one man is clever in a certain direction and another is stupid, it is because in a previous life the clever man has devoted much effort to practice in that particular direction, while the stupid man is trying for the first time.” — Leadbeater.
You make your own fate or karma. No god can (or will) undo the law of cause-and-effect to release you from the consequences of your own actions. However, certain devas or angels work to provide whatever slight aid may be permissible. They especially strive to help individuals avoid such monumental blunders as would preclude upward evolution. In your first life, you have very limited free will. If, with the aid of the devas, you use it well, in successive lives you will achieve greater and great degrees of free will so that you may create your own better and better karma. If you do not use your free will properly, you may slide into ignorance and error that may be termed evil. (Theosophy generally denies the existence of evil; but then again, sometimes Theosophical leaders speak of evil as a real phenomenon.) “He [the evolving individual] can progress as rapidly as he will, but he cannot wreck his life in his ignorance. In the earlier stages of the savage life of primitive man it is natural that there should be on the whole more of evil than of good, and if the entire result of his actions came at once upon a man as yet so little developed, it might well crush the newly evolved powers which are still so feeble.” — Leadbeater.
We do not pass through life alone. Each individual incarnates on Earth as a member of a family, a nation, a race. We select these groups through our karma — that is, we join the families, nations, and races that will best enable us to make continued spiritual progress. How we deal with others — within our particular groups and beyond them — is critical to how much progress we make. Morality and selflessness are essential to spiritual advancement. Karma will take you to the society you need, including the people whom you need to compensate for the harm you did to them in past lives.
The largest groups we select for ourselves are the races of which we become members. In your racial identity, you will find the attributes that are proper for you at your current level of development. Having the characteristics of your race, you will be able to work to move beyond that level.
Because race is such a sensitive subject, I will simply quote Leadbeater:
“These then are the principal factors [morality, the repayment of karmic debts] which determine the next birth of the man. First acts the great law of evolution, and its tendency is to press the man into that position in which he can most easily develop the qualities which he most needs. For the purposes of the general scheme, humanity is divided into great races, called root-races, which rule and occupy the world successively. The great Aryan or Indo-Caucasian race, which at the present moment includes the most advanced of Earth's inhabitants, is one of these. That which came before it in the order of evolution was the Mongolian race, usually called in Theosophical books Atlantean because the continent from which it ruled the world lay where now roll the waters of the Atlantic ocean. Before that came the Negroid race, some of whose descendants still exist, though by this time much mingled with offshoots of later races. From each of these great root-races there are many offshoots which we call sub-races — such, for example, as the Roman races or the Teutonic; and each of the sub-races in turn divides itself into branch-races, such as the French and the Italians, the English and the Germans.
“These arrangements are made in order that for each ego there may be a wide choice of varying conditions and surroundings. Each race is especially adapted to develop within its people one or other of the qualities which are needed in the course of evolution. In every nation there exist an almost infinite number of diverse conditions, riches and poverty, a wide field of opportunities or a total lack of them, facilities for development or conditions under which development is difficult or well-nigh impossible. Amidst all these infinite possibilities the pressure of the law of evolution tends to guide the man to precisely those which best suit his needs at the stage at which he happens to be.” — TEXTBOOK OF THEOSOPHY (Forgotten Books, 2008), pp. 87-88.
As should be obvious, becoming a Perfected Man is no easy task. It requires enormous diligence and discipline over a span of many millennia. Yet it can be done and, indeed, it will be done, just as it has already been done. There is a Brotherhood of perfected beings — Masters and Adepts, human and Superhuman — that presides over the world. These beings have done what you and I and all others shall do. They are our fathers, guides, and prototypes. Joining them is the purpose for which we exist.
Perhaps not obviously, joining the Brotherhood means overcoming evil. Theosophists (like Anthroposophists) often say that their worldview is entirely light-filled, finding no evil anywhere. All the apparent "evils" are really just obstacles the gods put in our path for our own good. Yet Theosophical leaders do speak of evil and the need to combat it. “I am not making the [Theosophical] Society responsible for the woes of the world, nor its evil. I am presenting the success of the Movement as responsible for enabling the great Lodge of Masters to do more, than at similar times in the past, to combat that evil.” — Blavatsky.
The ego rises through conscientious attention to its own imperfections and the elimination of them. (And, in a sense, the process entails steadfast opposition to evil.) The process of perfection is a process of self-creation. The ego learns to carefully control its thoughts, so that it creates only virtuous realities. The self-control required is enormous. But when one has attained a certain degree of success, a Master will take notice. A Master will reach down to you. You may then enter a period of probation (seven years, usually) leading to initiation into the mysteries. Your Master and Her/His peers will then begin to use you as an instrument for good. There are several stages of initiation, during which you pass from being a student to become a Son of your Master, and ultimately you will become a Master yourself. The main stages of initiation are usually given as: 1) becoming a man (i.e., rising from subhuman to human status), 2) conversion (i.e., turning all your attention away from the yourself and toward the universal good), and 3) election (i.e., acceptance to the Brotherhood, becoming an Adept, becoming superhuman). Other descriptions speak of additional stages of initiation. Adeptship may await at the fifth stage, for instance. In any case, becoming perfected, becoming a Master, means fulfilling every possibility for moral development.
We do not evolve alone. All other beings are evolving as well. The entire Earth is evolving. Indeed, the evolution of the Earth is but one of ten lines of evolution in our solar system, and many more lines exist beyond our celestial neighborhood. Each line of evolution passes through seven stages. Thus, the Earth was not always the Earth as we comprehend it; it was manifested as different globes previously, passing into other globes, and in the future it will pass into still other globes. The Earth (our present reality) is the fourth of the seven incarnations in our evolutionary chain. Our first planetary incarnation occurred in the mental world, the second in the astral world, and the third exists in the physical world now (we can see it: It is Mars). Our Earth also exists on the physical plane now, obviously, as does the next incarnation (we can see it, too: It is Mercury). The sixth globe of our chain will exist on the astral plane, and the seventh on the mental plane.
The ten chains of evolution in our solar system are these: 1) the Vulcan chain (Vulcan is a planet extremely near the Sun; it was seen in the past but is now invisible because it has passed into its sixth form); 2) the Venus chain, now in its fifth form; 3) Earth-Mars-Mercury, a single globe that has three visible planets because it is in its fourth form; 4) Jupiter, in its third form; 5) Saturn, in its third form; 6) Uranus, in its third form; and 7) Neptune-and-two-unnamed-farther-planets, now in its fourth form.
Ten chains of evolution constitute one solar system. Each chain of evolution has seven chain-periods (extended mega-conditions during which all lesser conditions are laboriously recapitulated and re-recapitulated in turn). Each chain-period consists of seven rounds (extended sub-periods of laborious recapitulation of lesser periods within each chain-period). Each round has seven world-periods (recapitulating periods within the flux of particularized planetary incarnations). Each world-period has seven root-races (see above). Each root-race has seven sub-races. Each sub-race has seven branch-races. We ourselves are currently at precisely the center point of this entire scheme: the fourth root-race of the fourth globe of the fourth round of a fourth chain-period. (Please note: I have greatly oversimplified and even used language that many Theosophists would dispute. None of this is compatible with ordinary human cognition or language.)
There is more to be said about all of this, but I think we can quit here. You've gotten the general lay of the land, I trust. These are the teachings that Rudolf Steiner embraced, and then revised, and then used to formulate Anthroposophy, the philosophy/religion/"science" underlying Waldorf education.
In developing this page, I have made particular use of Charles Webster Leadbeater's work. For a Theosophist, Leadbeater wrote fairly clearly and concisely. My summary generally follows the outline of his TEXTBOOK OF THEOSOPHY (e.g., Forgotten Books, 2008). Readers who want a more complete review of Theosophical doctrines should turn to Helena Blavatsky. Brace yourselves, however. Blavatsky's language deflects rationality far more than even Steiner's, and her magnum opus — THE SECRET DOCTRINE — is immense. The edition put out by the Theosophical University Press (1999) runs to almost 1500 pages. A far more bearable, abridged edition was published by Jeremy P. Tarcher in 2009, and it manages to capture the gist of unabridged version, but of course the abridgment leaves many gaps. Annie Besant's ANCIENT WISDOM (e.g., CreateSpace, 2010) is also a central Theosophical text, but if I were to suggest skipping any of these sources, this would be the one. I have not read A. P. Sinnett's THE OCCULT WORLD, perhaps the first popular exploration of Theosophy. For anyone interested in Waldorf education, Rudolf Steiner's THEOSOPHY (Anthroposophic Press, 1994) is intriguing, at least to the extent that it helps reveal the "wisdom" of the founder of Waldorf education. But that book takes us rather far from the essence of non-Anthroposophical Theosophy. Steiner always presented his own views, freely rejecting anything Blavatsky, Besant, or any other authority put forward, as he saw fit. Steiner's early occult views were different in numerous details from his later, fully Anthroposophical teachings, but on most important points he did not alter his stance. The chief differences in overall design between "mainstream" Theosophy and Anthroposophy lie in 1) the importance accorded to human beings (in Theosophy we are more or less marginal, in Anthroposophy the entire universe was created for us), and 2) the importance ascribed to Christ (in Theosophy generally minimal, in Anthroposophy quite major — although He is a Christ few Christians would recognize: He is the Sun God).
No Theosophical source speaks for all Theosophists, and none is above reproach. • Psychic investigators declared Blavatsky a fraud. • Leadbeater was accused of pederasty — and he resigned from the Theosophical Society rather than defend himself. • From a Theosophical perspective, Steiner was a renegade, a schismatic. Perhaps none of this is relevant. In each case, we rely on the unsupported word of a self-professed "seer" to inform us about invisible conditions in invisible worlds. In this sense, leaning on Leadbeater may be no better or worse than leaning on any of his colleagues/competitors. Leadbeater was eventually readmitted to the Theosophical Society, and he claimed to have proceeded far in occult initiation, having been — he assures us — welcomed into the company of the Masters. In TEXTBOOK OF THEOSOPHY, he states his qualifications in these words: “After some years of work I had the privilege of coming into contact with these great Masters of the Wisdom; from Them I learnt many things — among others, how to verify for myself at first hand most of the teachings which They had given. So that, in this matter, I write of what I know, and what I have seen for myself.” — p. 14.
— Roger Rawlings
BITS OF BLAVATSKY
I have said some rather harsh things about the writing style of Helena Blavatsky, and yet the two quotations I used above weren’t so very awful.
Well, to help explain a bit further why — even though Blavatsky is the key source of Theosophical insight —
I have preferred to bring Leadbeater to the fore, here is a little taste of Blavatsky’s prose when she really gets rolling.
These are passages chosen more or less at random (Scout’s honor!) from the first volume of
THE SECRET DOCTRINE (Theosophical University Press, 1999).
(All the typographic flair you see below comes straight from Blavatsky; I haven't changed a thing.
But of course the true wonders of Blavatsky's style are her peerless vocabulary
and rigorously elegant sentence structure.)
From the doctrine — rather incomprehensible to western minds — which deals with the periodical "obscurations" and successive "Rounds" of the Globes along their circular chains, were born the first perplexities and misconceptions. One of such has reference to the "Fifth-" and even "Sixth-Rounders." Those who knew that a Round was preceded and followed by a long Pralaya, a pause of rest which created an impassable gulf between two Rounds until the time came for a renewed cycle of life, could not understand the "fallacy" of talking about "fifth and sixth Rounders" in our Fourth Round. Gautama Buddha, it was held, was a Sixth-Rounder, Plato and some other great philosophers and minds, "Fifth- Rounders." How could it be? One Master taught and affirmed that there were such "Fifth-Rounders" even now on Earth; and though understood to say that mankind was yet "in the Fourth Round," in another place he seemed to say that we were in the Fifth. To this an "apocalyptic answer" was returned by another Teacher: — "A few drops of rain do not make a Monsoon, though they presage it." . . . "No, we are not in the Fifth Round, but Fifth Round men have been coming in for the last few thousand years." This was worse than the riddle of the Sphinx! Students of Occultism subjected their brains to the wildest work of speculation. For a considerable time they tried to outvie OEdipus and reconcile the two statements. And as the Masters kept as silent as the stony Sphinx herself, they were accused of inconsistency, "contradiction," and "discrepancies." But they were simply allowing the speculations to go on, in order to teach a lesson which the Western mind sorely needs. In their conceit and arrogance, as in their habit of materializing every metaphysical conception and term without allowing any margin for Eastern metaphor and allegory, the Orientalists have made a jumble of the Hindu exoteric philosophy, and the Theosophists were now doing the same with regard to esoteric teachings. To this day it is evident that the latter have utterly failed to understand the meaning of the term "Fifth and Sixth Rounders." But it is simply this: every "Round" brings about a new development and even an entire change in the mental, psychic, spiritual and physical constitution of man, all these principles evoluting on an ever ascending scale. Thence it follows that those persons who, like Confucius and Plato, belonged psychically, mentally and spiritually to the higher planes of evolution, were in our Fourth Round as the average man will be in the Fifth Round, whose mankind is destined to find itself, on this scale of Evolution, immensely higher than is our present humanity. Similarly Gautama Buddha — Wisdom incarnate — was still higher and greater than all the men we have mentioned, who are called Fifth Rounders, while Buddha and Sankaracharya are termed Sixth Rounders, allegorically. Thence again the concealed wisdom of the remark, pronounced at the time "evasive" — that a few drops of rain do not make the Monsoon, though they presage it." — pp. 161-162.
Spirit per se is an unconscious negative ABSTRACTION. Its purity is inherent, not acquired by merit; hence, as already shown, to become the highest Dhyan Chohan it is necessary for each Ego to attain to full self-consciousness as a human, i.e., conscious Being, which is synthesized for us in Man. The Jewish Kabalists arguing that no Spirit could belong to the divine hierarchy unless Ruach (Spirit) was united to Nephesh (living Soul), only repeat the Eastern Esoteric teaching. "A Dhyani has to be an Atma-Buddhi; once the Buddhi-Manas breaks loose from its immortal Atma of which it (Buddhi) is the vehicle, Atman passes into NON-BEING, which is absolute Being." This means that the purely Nirvanic state is a passage of Spirit back to the ideal abstraction of Be-ness which has no relation to the plane on which our Universe is accomplishing its cycle. — p. 193.
Occultism, which knows of the existence and presence in Nature of the One eternal element at the first differentiation of which the roots of the tree of life are periodically struck, needs no scientific proofs. It says: — Ancient Wisdom has solved the problem ages ago. Aye; earnest, as well as mocking reader, Science is slowly but as surely approaching our domains of the Occult. It is forced by its own discoveries to adopt nolens volens our phraseology and symbols. Chemical Science is now compelled, by the very force of things, to accept even our illustration of the evolution of the gods and atoms, so suggestively and undeniably figured in the caduceus of Mercury, the God of Wisdom, and in the allegorical language of the Archaic Sages. Says a commentary in the esoteric doctrine: —
. . . . The trunk of the ASVATTHA (the tree of Life and Being, the ROD of the caduceus) grows from and descends at every Beginning (every new manvantara) from the two dark wings of the Swan (HANSA) of Life. The two Serpents, the ever-living and its illusion (Spirit and matter) whose two heads grow from the one head between the wings, descend along the trunk, interlaced in close embrace. The two tails join on earth (the manifested Universe) into one, and this is the great illusion, O Lanoo!" — p. 549.
They say that what is called collectively Monads by Leibnitz* — roughly viewed, and leaving every subdivision out of calculation, for the present** — may be separated into three distinct Hosts, which, counted from the highest planes, are, firstly, "gods," or conscious, spiritual Egos; the intelligent architects, who work after the plan in the Divine Mind. Then come the Elementals, or Monads, who form collectively and unconsciously the grand Universal Mirrors of everything connected with their respective realms. Lastly, the atoms, or material molecules, which are informed in their turn by their apperceptive monads, just as every cell in a human body is so informed. (See the closing pages of Book I.) There are shoals of such informed atoms which, in their turn, inform the molecules; an infinitude of monads, or Elementals proper, and countless spiritual Forces — Monadless, for they are pure incorporealities,*** except under certain laws, when they assume a form — not necessarily human. Whence the substance that clothes them — the apparent organism they evolve around their centres? The Formless ("Arupa") Radiations, existing in the harmony of Universal Will, and being what we term the collective or the aggregate of Cosmic Will on the plane of the subjective Universe, unite together an infinitude of monads — each the mirror of its own Universe — and thus individualize for the time being an independent mind, omniscient and universal; and by the same process of magnetic aggregation they create for themselves objective, visible bodies, out of the interstellar atoms. For atoms and Monads, associated or dissociated, simple or complex, are, from the moment of the first differentiation, but the principles, corporeal, psychic and Spiritual, of the "Gods," — themselves the Radiations of primordial nature. Thus, to the eye of the Seer, the higher Planetary Powers appear under two aspects: the subjective — as influences, and the objective — as mystic FORMS, which, under Karmic law, become a Presence, Spirit and Matter being One, as repeatedly stated. Spirit is matter on the seventh plane; matter is Spirit — on the lowest point of its cyclic activity; and both — are MAYA. — pp. 632-633.
* Leibnitz, like Aristotle, calls the created or emanated monads (the Elementals issued from Cosmic Spirits or Gods) — Entelechies, [[Entelecheia]] — and "incorporeal automata." (§ 18, Monadologie.)
** These three "rough divisions" correspond to spirit, mind (or soul), and body, in the human constitution.
*** Brother C. H. A. Bjerregaard, in his lecture (already mentioned), warns his audience not to regard the Sephiroth too much as individualities, but to avoid at the same time seeing in them abstractions. "We shall never arrive at the truth," he says, "much less the power of associating with those celestials, until we return to the simplicity and fearlessness of the primitive ages, when men mixed freely with the gods, and the gods descended among men and guided them in truth and holiness" (No. 10, Path) . . . . "There are several designations for 'angels' in the Bible which clearly show that beings like the Elementals of the Kabala and the monads of Leibnitz, must be understood by that term rather than that which is commonly understood. They are called 'morning stars,' 'flaming fires,' 'the mighty ones,' and St. Paul sees them in his cosmogonic vision as 'Principalities and Powers.' Such names as these preclude the idea of personality, and we find ourselves compelled to think of them as impersonal Existences . . . as an influence, a spiritual substance, or conscious Force." (Path, No. 11, p. 322.) — Footnotes by Blavatsky, p. 632.
AND A BESANT BIT
Here is a brief sample of Annie Besant’s prose. This is taken from the 1911 edition of THE ANCIENT WISDOM.
The human Monad is Atma-Buddhi-Manas, or, as sometimes translated, the Spirit, the Spiritual Soul, and Soul, of man. The fact that these three are but aspects of the Self makes possible man’s immortal existence, and though these three aspects are manifested separately and successively, their substantial unity renders it possible for the Soul to merge itself in the spiritual Soul, giving to the latter the precious essence of individuality, and for this individualised Spiritual Soul to merge itself in the Spirit, colouring it — if the phrase may be permitted with the hues due to individuality, while leaving uninjured its essential unity with all other rays of the LOGOS and with the LOGOS Himself.
These three form the seventh, sixth and fifth principles of man, and the materials which limit and encase them, i.e., which make their manifestation and activity possible, are drawn respectively from the fifth (nirvanic), the fourth (buddhic), and the third (mental), planes of our universe. The fifth principle further takes to itself a lower body on the mental plane, in order to come into contact with the phenomenal worlds, and thus intertwines itself with the fourth principle, the desire-nature, or Kama, belonging to the second or astral plane.
Descending to the first, the physical plane, we have the third, second and first principles — the specialised life, or Prana ; the etheric double, its vehicle ; the dense body, which contacts the coarser materials of the physical world. We have already seen that sometimes Prana is not regarded as a “principle,” and then the interwoven desire and mental bodies take rank together as Kama Manas ; the pure intellect is called the Higher Manas, and the mind apart from desire Lower Manas. — p. 83.
Here is a summary of Blavatsky's seminal book, THE SECRET DOCTRINE,
provided by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke:
THE SECRET DOCTRINE claimed to describe the activities of God from the beginning of one period of universal creation until its end, a cyclical process which continues indefinitely over and over again. The story related how the present universe was born, whence it emanated, what powers fashion it, whither it is progressing, and what it all means. The first volume (Cosmogenesis) outlined the scheme according to which the primal unity of an unmanifest divine being differentiates itself into a multiformity of consciously evolving beings that gradually fill the universe. The divine being manifested itself initially through an emanation and three subsequent Logoi: these cosmic phases created time, space, and matter ... All subsequent creation occurred in conformity with the divine plan, passing through seven 'rounds' or evolutionary cycles. In the first round the universe was characterized by the predominance of fire, in the second by air, in the third by water, in the fourth by earth, and in the others by ether. This sequence reflected the cyclical fall of the universe from divine grace over the first four rounds and its following redemption over the next three, before everything contracted once more to the point of primal unity for the start of a new major cycle....
The second volume (Anthropogenesis) attempted to relate man to this grandiose vision of the cosmos. Not only was humanity assigned an age of far greater antiquity than that conceded by science, but it was also integrated into a scheme of cosmic, physical, and spiritual evolution ... Blavatsky adopted a racial theory of human evolution. She extended her cyclical doctrine with the assertion that each round witnessed the rise and fall of seven consecutive root-races, which descended on the scale of spiritual development from the first to the fourth, becoming increasingly enmeshed in the material world...before ascending through progressively superior root-races from the fifth to the seventh. According to Blavatsky, present humanity constituted the fifth root-race upon a planet that was passing through the fourth cosmic round, so that a process of spiritual advance lay before the species. The fifth root-race was called the Aryan race and had been preceded by the fourth root-race of the Atlanteans, which had largely perished in a flood that submerged their mid-Atlantic continent ... The three earlier races of the present planetary round were proto-human, consisting of the first Astral root-race which arose in an invisible, imperishable and sacred land and the second Hyperborean root-race which had dwelt on a vanished polar continent. The third Lemurian root-race flourished on a continent which had lain in the Indian Ocean. It was probably due to this race's position at or near the spiritual nadir of the evolutionary racial cycle that Blavatsky charged the Lemurians with racial miscegenation entailing a kind of Fall and the breeding of monsters.
A further important theosophical tenet was the belief in reincarnation and karma ... Through reincarnation each ego pursued a cosmic iourney through the rounds and the root-races which led it towards eventual reunion with the divine being whence it had originally issued. This path of countless rebirths also recorded a story of cyclical redemption: the initial debasement of the ego was followed by its gradual sublimation to the point of identity with God. The process of reincarnation was fulfilled according to the principle of karma, whereby good acts earned their performer a superior reincarnation and bad acts an inferior reincarnation. This belief not only provided for everyone's participation in the fantastic worlds of remote prehistory in the root-race scheme, but also enabled one to conceive of salvation through reincarnation in the ultimate root-races which represented the supreme state of spiritual evolution: ‘we men shall in the future take our places in the skies as Lords of the planets, Regents of galaxies....'
— Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, THE OCCULT ROOTS OF NAZISM
(New York University Press, 1992), pp. 19-21.