Mistaking Ignorance for Wisdom

The stock of human knowledge continues to expand. We know more today about virtually every subject than our forebears knew. Indeed, science and scholarship are extending the range and depth of knowledge at an ever-accelerating rate. Thousands of years ago, even the most knowledgeable people knew very little, and the great majority of individuals were — by modern standards — thoroughly uneducated. They may have been good folks, kindly and loving, skilled at the tasks needed for survival in relatively primitive conditions, but they had very little of what we now call information. For most people in most places, there was no formal schooling of any sort. Even for the "educated" elites, there were few ways to attain real information about the workings of the world — no telescopes, no microscopes, generally no scientific equipment of any sort. Even in the most advanced cultures, there were few books or scrolls, few if any libraries, no encyclopedias as we know them, no newspapers, no Google — generally, there was a gaping dearth of written records, reflecting a gaping dearth of real information to inscribe in such records.

The "knowledgeable" people of those societies relied on memorized traditions, superstitions, and folk beliefs — and that was about it. Their "knowledge" was limited and, in most cases, simply wrong. For us today, it seems obvious that if you want to learn about the stars, or animals, or the interior of the earth, you should go to astronomers, biologists, or geologists — not ancient folklore or myths. Almost everyone today understands this. But not absolutely everyone understands it. Some people look backward instead of forward in the quest for knowledge. And among those who looked backward was Rudolf Steiner.

Steiner based many of his teachings on myths, legends, superstitions — even fairy tales and old wives’ tales. In other words, he based many of his teachings on ignorance. The quality of his teachings reflects the sources he relied on. He unwittingly practiced what we, in the 21st century, know as GIGO: garbage in, garbage out. And, most unfortunately, Steiner's unwitting ignorance infests the Waldorf curriculum.

Steiner quite explicitly rejected most of the findings of science while endorsing misinformation gleaned from the ancients. Let’s survey the terrain.

Steiner said that, in his own life, discovering a mystical philosopher marked a great turning point:

“Suddenly, in place of the old rationalistic philosophy there appears in [Friedrich Joseph von] Schelling a real awakening of the ancient philosophy of the gods of mythology, a reawakening of the old gods ... I myself again and again returned to Schelling.” [1]

Steiner boned up on Schelling’s works, and strove to learn whether Schelling was right that one can penetrate to the Eternal. Steiner claimed success:

“I discovered this capacity in myself.” [2]

The Eternal that Schelling led Steiner to is a place of “the gods of mythology...the old gods.” For the rest of his life, Steiner investigated that place (or pretended to). The old gods, and the old myths, legends, and fables that tell of them, became the apples of his eye — his psychic eye, his claimed powers of clairvoyance.

Steiner taught that the ancients had natural clairvoyance — not nearly as good as his own “exact clairvoyance,” but pretty darned good nonetheless. Thanks to their psychic abilities, the ancients had profound spiritual knowledge that modern man has lost. Steiner claimed that he, through Anthroposophy, showed how we can regain clairvoyance — his new, improved version of an ancient delusion.`

Most of us today are “illiterate,” by Steiner’s lights.

“A person who cannot read world phenomena [clairvoyantly] is like a cosmic illiterate where these phenomena are concerned.... In the time of ancient clairvoyance human beings were far less illiterate in the spirit.” [3]

You can immediately see how Steiner turns truth on its head — the illiterates are not the ancients, the vast majority of whom were literally illiterate (that is, unable to read), but we moderns who cannot see the gods of myth peeking through the cosmos at us, we are the illiterates. In Steiner’s usage, words lose their meaning.

Old-timers of all stripes had natural, ancient clairvoyance, and they transmitted the findings of their clairvoyant observations in such narratives as myths, or so Steiner said.

“We must not look merely for astronomical facts in such a myth as the myth of Osiris, but we must see in it the result of the deep clairvoyant insight of the wise priests of ancient Egypt. They embodied in this myth what they knew concerning the evolution of earth and man. [paragraph break] Actual facts concerning the higher Spiritual Worlds lie at the foundation of all myths....” [4]

In the benighted modern world (of which I am a proud and grateful citizen), the word “myth” is often associated with fantasy, illusion, and falsehood. There is, of course, a layer of truth in many myths — a layer reflecting psychological and emotional truths, a layer reflecting human culture and aspiration and desire. But this is not what Steiner meant. He meant that myths convey real information about the spirit realm:

“Myths and sagas are not just 'folk-tales'; they are the memories of the visions people perceived in olden times ... At night they were really surrounded by the world of the Nordic gods of which the legends tell. Odin, Freya, and all the other figures [i.e., Norse gods] in Nordic mythology were not inventions; they were experienced in the spiritual world with as much reality as we experience our fellow human beings around us today.” [5]

Go over this slowly. Steiner was not saying that the ancients, when having visions, were seeing things that were symbolically true, or true in some deep but vague way. No, when the ancients had visions of the ancient gods, “they were really surrounded” by such beings, who are “not inventions” — the ancient gods are as real as the people we meet on the streets today. Steiner says these gods “were experienced” as real. Does this weaken the statement? No, for him psychic experience is the realest reality. Steiner meant that Odin, Freya, Osiris, and all the other ancient gods are real beings. Really. Honest.

What’s more, Steiner didn’t say that just some myths are true. He gave priority to Norse myths (the ones he may have been told when growing up), but he said that all myths convey truth about the hidden spirit realm.

“All myths and sagas are handed down from a time when human beings could still perceive the astral world: when they ascended to spiritual vision they encountered Wotan, Baldur, Thor, Loki [i.e., Norse gods] and other beings who were not physically embodied on earth ... The human being of that ancient epoch descended into his physical body each morning and felt separate and single, but when he returned each night to the world of spirit, he returned also to a unity and wholeness of which he was part, a great company to which he belonged.” [6]

Go over that slowly. “all myths” recount the experiences the ancients had “each night” in the spirit world. After they fell asleep, the ancients floated out of their bodies into the literally real spirit realm, met the gods, and then returned to their bodies in the morning. To describe what they had seen, they told one another stories, which are true. Sure, the myths may color and distort things somewhat — describing the spirit realm is difficult. It is a place of swirling colors and tones, but not clear-cut forms. Finding the right words is tough. But the myths, ALL of them, succeed: They all tell of the “great company” the ancients joined every night, the spiritual band in which we ourselves belong.

Popping over to the spirit world let the ancients perceive all sorts of spirit beings, not just gods.

“Imagine what the people of ancient times perceived, entrancing them, pouring through their heads, till they exclaimed, 'Ah, the nymphs! Ah, the gnomes! How the nymphs whirl in my head, how the gnomes hammer....' That no longer exists for us. Today the hammering, surging, and whirling are eclipsed and overwhelmed by what comes from actual seeing or hearing.” [7]

The nymphs! The gnomes! Nowadays, we understand that people who see and believe in nymphs and gnomes are insane. But Steiner took the opposite view. "Actual" seeing and hearing, you see (hear me out), get in our way. The eyes lie. The ears lie. But myths and clairvoyance convey truth. The nymphs and gnomes are real.

“There are beings that can be seen with clairvoyant vision at many spots in the depths of the earth ... Many names have been given to them, such as goblins, gnomes and so forth ... Their nature prompts them to play all sorts of tricks on man.... ” [8]

Steiner didn’t say that goblins or gnomes may be visualized or imagined. No, he said they really exist, and clairvoyants can see them.

The loony bins are full of people who can see them — but this is me talking, not Steiner. Steiner turned everything on its head. Truth (reality, science, actual seeing and hearing) are false, he said, while myth (fantasy, illusion, fabrication) are true. Remarkably, Steiner extended his claim to other forms of ancient narratives, not just myths. His claim extended to other forms of fantasy:

“Fairy tales are never thought out [i.e., invented]; they are the final remains of ancient clairvoyance, experienced in dreams by human beings who still had the power. What was seen in a dream was told as a story — for instance, 'Puss in Boots' ... All the fairy tales in existence are thus the remnants of the original clairvoyance” [9]

Slowly, now. All fairy tales are essentially true, conveying clairvoyant visions. To repeat, “Fairy tales are...the final remains of ancient clairvoyance ... [F]or instance, 'Puss in Boots.'” Astonishing though it may seem, this is what Steiner and his followers take for wisdom.

For Steiner, the vast bulk of ancient “wisdom” passes muster, even if the ancients involved lived on a nonexistent continent, and even if Steiner himself had to make up what these ancients "knew" through their nonexistent faculty of clairvoyance.

"The sun oracle of ancient Atlantis had already prophesied the coming of the Christ, of the Sun God." [10]

Mixing Christianity with clairvoyance, historical falsehood, and myth might be offensive to some people — such as, for example, Christians. But this didn’t deter Steiner. Thus, he explained the missing years in Jesus’s life (the years between childhood and the beginning of His ministry) by saying that Jesus traveled to the East and picked up ancient mystery wisdom there:

"[T]he words Jesus of Nazareth heard in pagan lands [conveyed] the secret of the earthly human being as it was presented in ancient sacred teachings. They hold deep secrets of human evolution." [11]

So, according to Steiner, Jesus's message to humanity included pagan elements, and — the most important point — it was therefore consistent with Steiner’s own evolutionary theories. You won’t find support for this in the Bible, but Steiner professed to know more than the Bible, and he drew much of his knowledge from "ancient sacred teachings."

Steiner did not embrace every single last ancient teaching, of course. Some ancient peoples had things wrong. (Naturally, these were people whose beliefs were incompatible with Steiner’s own, later teachings.) For instance, Persians were in danger of committing themselves to Lucifer and his minions:

“The ancient Persians...were in danger of merging altogether into the Luciferian beings.” [12]

More importantly, ancient Jews were onto a good thing for a while, but later they failed to become Christians and therefore fell into extreme error. Their childish thinking then turned into the deadly materialistic thinking that is so rampant in the world today.

“[T]he ancient Jewish people...did not wish to learn anything in addition to what the human being brings with him as a capacity because of the fact that he was an embryo ... Old Testament thinking [led to] the atheistic science of the modern age ... Old Testament thinking in human beings today is transformed into naturalism.” [13]

Even the true teachings of the ancients are, in a sense, wrong for us in the modern world, Steiner said. We can’t just take ancient teachings and run with them:

“When the ancient Indians received the teaching of the holy Rishis [i.e., Hindu saints], there was a different way of thinking, a different kind of feeling and willing ... [H]umankind is constantly evolving. People today have an entirely different, finer brain structure, even an entirely different blood formation ... For this reason, today all truths must be formulated differently, and methods of initiation must be designed so that they are appropriate for today's European [i.e., whites].” [14]

Steiner set about to offer the correct form of mystery wisdom for modern humans. Humans once possessed mystery wisdom, then we evolved to possess forces in our souls that required us to put the mysteries aside for a while. But now we are evolving into a new consciousness that must once again incorporate the ancient mysteries, in a new form. That’s what Anthroposophy is all about. Steiner said that forces would flow out of his headquarters, the Goetheanum, all around the world, ushering in the new age.

“[T]he inner spiritual impulse that is intended to flow from the Goetheanum through the anthroposophical movement always contains an aspect that goes far beyond any theoretical understanding, indeed beyond any understanding altogether ... The tasks human beings must undertake today are growing great again. They are growing great because the forces [that were] once available to turn away more or less from the impulses of the ancient Mysteries are now exhausted ... [H]uman evolution cannot proceed further unless forces from the Mysteries enter into evolution once again....” [15]

Since, as we've seen, we now have different blood and brains than the ancients had, the Mysteries must be packaged in a new way to be suitable for us.

Steiner was at least correct when he said that his teachings go “beyond any understanding altogether.” Let’s take a quick glance at two examples of the repackaged, modern mystery wisdom he offers us and our children, especially if we send our kids to Waldorf schools.

“We can show that the British isles have risen and sunk four times and thus follow the path of geology back to the concept of the ancient Atlantis ... [W]e should not be afraid to speak about the Atlantean land with the children. We should not skip that ... The only thing is, you will need to disavow normal geology since the Atlantean catastrophe [i.e., the sinking of Atlantis] occurred in the seventh or eighth millennium.” [16]

Yes, the only problem with Steiner’s teachings is that they are disproved by science (such as "normal geology"). But pressing on:

“[T]he soul of the earth dwells within the earth during the winter, and is out in the cosmic spaces during midsummer time; while in spring it is emerging and ascending towards the cosmos. The Spring festival, the Easter festival, cannot therefore be fixed on a particular day...but must take into account the constellations of the stars. A deep wisdom lies in this, which originated in an age when people were still able to perceive the spiritual nature of the year’s course through an ancient instinctive clairvoyance. We must come to perceive this once more.” [17]

Note that such statements bear directly on Waldorf education. Waldorf teachers "should not be afraid to speak about the Atlantean land with the children." And the seasonal festivals, which are enacted at Waldorf schools, should be understood to involve astrological powers as well as visions such as people once had thanks to "ancient instinctive clairvoyance." Steiner taught that Atlantis really existed, ditto the powers of the stars, ditto clairvoyance. This is the sort of wisdom he offered, and it is the sort of wisdom that undergirds Waldorf education.

We can summarize Steiner’s views by saying that, for him and his followers, ignorance is wisdom and fantasies are truth. Thus, it is only fair to point out that Steiner’s truths are fantasies, and his wisdom is ignorance.

(Oh. I mentioned old wives’ tales when we were getting started. I mustn’t forget. So, I present the following. It is a statement by someone who finds value in Steiner’s biodynamic gardeningprinciples, although not without reservations: “Steiner was indeed a nut, but he didn't dream all this stuff up. He was a reluctant evangelist who condensed whole epochs of old wives’ gardening tales and had the guts to promote them.” [18] Yes, and it takes guts to believe anything Steiner ever said. Bear in mind, Waldorf schools often have biodynamic gardens on their grounds, and students are often required to work in the gardens. Why? Because of the ancient wisdom manifested there — to wit, "whole epochs of old wives’ gardening tales." [See "Biodynamics".])

— Roger Rawlings

The ancients had surprising wisdom, Steiner taught. Consider ancient doctors, for instance. They were right where modern "secular scientists" are wrong.

“[T]hese doctors began to observe the stars and found that at those times when patients recovered from these typhoid-like illnesses, the planet Venus always stood in such a position that it was blocked by the earth ... When Venus was not blocked, however, the typhoid patient was subject to Venus' light in addition to sunlight. Then the prognosis was bad; the head became dizzy, and the typhoid could not be cured. Having learned this, these doctors said that since Venus' shining rays pass through the earth [sic], something must be contained in the earth that alters Venus' rays. Now they began to experiment ... When a typhoid patient was given had a remarkable effect. It offset the dizziness, and the patient began to recover ... They now concluded that Venus is in a certain way connected with copper ... Gradually, based on effects upon the human being, they discovered the correspondence between the planets and the metals contained in the earth. They found that Venus is connected with copper, Jupiter with tin, and Saturn with lead ... Today's secular scientists now condemn such ancient science ... [T]he earth on which we live and that yields its various metals to us crystallized out of the primordial soup ... What the earth once did together with Venus has remained in the metal copper. To heal with copper — that is what is accomplished specifically through Venus."

— Rudolf Steiner,


(Rudolf Steiner Press, 2000),

pp. 293-299.

[R.R. sketch, 2009,

based on image on p. 293.]


For a quick review of mythical beings

that Steiner said really exist,

see "Beings"

For additional information

about "false" thinking,

see "Materialism U."

For information about pagans,

pagan Christianity,

King Arthur, the Grail, and Druids,

see "Pagan"

To consider the use of fairy tales

in Waldorf schools,

see "Fairy Tales"

To look into the Waldorf approach

to Bible stories,

see "Old Testament"

To look into the sorts of myths

that are considered especially i

mportant in Waldorf schools,

Norse myths,

see "The Gods".