Now that fifteen years have elapsed since this book first appeared in print, I may well be permitted to say something in public about the state of mind that gave rise to it.
My original plan was to make the essential content of this book into the final chapter of Theosophy1, another book of mine which was published much earlier. This did not work. When Theosophy was going to press, the subject matter of this current book had not achieved closure in me as was the case with that of Theosophy. In my imaginations, the spiritual being of the individual stood before my soul and I was able to describe it, but this was not yet true of the cosmic relationships that were to be presented in Esoteric Science. Individual details were there, but not the total picture. So I decided to have Theosophy published in its present form, containing what I had seen as the essential spiritual being in the life of the human individual, and to complete Esoteric Science in the near future at my own pace.
In keeping with my mental attitude at that time, the content of this book had to be presented in the form of thoughts that were further elaborations of thoughts applied in the natural sciences, adapted for presenting what is spiritual. You will note in the introduction to the first edition, reprinted here, that I felt a strong responsibility toward the natural sciences in everything I wrote about spiritual cognition at that time.
However, the spiritual world as it reveals itself to spiritual sight cannot be presented exclusively in thoughts of this sort, since this revelation does not conform to a mere thought content. Anyone who has directly experienced the nature of such revelations knows that the thoughts of our ordinary consciousness are suitable only for expressing sensory perceptions, but not for spiritual perceptions. The content of spiritual perception can only be conveyed in images (imaginations) through which inspirations speak, while these inspirations in turn stem from a spiritual entity perceived intuitively. (Necessary information on the nature of imagination, inspiration, and intuition can be found here in Esoteric Science and also in my book How to Know Higher Worlds2.)
At present, however, those who describe imaginations from the spiritual world cannot present only these imaginations. Doing so would be to present the contents of a completely different consciousness, something that would stand alongside contemporary knowledge without relating to it at all. People who have such imaginations must fill our present-day consciousness with what can be seen by a different consciousness that looks into the world of the spirit. The content of what they present will be the spiritual world, but in order to become fully comprehensible to our ordinary consciousness, which thinks in modern terms and does not yet see into the world of the spirit, this spiritual world must flow into our thoughts and appear in thought form. It will remain incomprehensible only if we ourselves place obstacles in its path; that is, if we subscribe to contemporary prejudices about “the limits of knowledge” that result from an incorrectly conceived view of nature.
In spiritual cognition everything is immersed in subtle soul experience—not only spiritual perception itself, but also the type of understanding that ordinary unseeing consciousness brings to it. If people of superficial knowledge claim that others who believe they understand are merely talking themselves into it, this demonstrates that they themselves do not have the faintest idea of this subtle experience. But the fact of the matter is that the merely conceptual expression of truth or error in our understanding of the physical world becomes an actual experience for us when we face the spiritual world.
If we allow our opinion to be even ever so slightly influenced by the assertion that the limitations of an ordinary consciousness that does not yet perceive prevent this consciousness from understanding spiritual perceptions, then this judgment, this feeling, blankets our comprehension like a dark cloud, and we really cannot understand. But to an unperceiving but unbiased consciousness, spiritual perceptions are fully comprehensible if seers cast them in the form of thoughts. They are comprehensible in the same way that a painter’s finished picture is comprehensible to a non-painter. However, understanding the spiritual world is not an artistic, feeling process like understanding a work of art, but a thinking process like that of science. But in order to make this understanding really possible, those who present spiritual perceptions must be able to cast them in the form of thoughts without having them lose their imaginative character.
All this stood before my soul as I drew up my Esoteric Science.
In 1909 I then felt that the prerequisites were in place for me to be able to produce a book that 1) cast the content of my spiritual vision in the form of thoughts to a certain provisionally adequate extent, and 2) could be understood by any thinking people who placed no obstacles in the way of their own understanding. I say this today and state at the same time that in 1909 I thought I was taking a risk in publishing this book. I knew that professional scientists were incapable of mustering the necessary impartiality, as were numerous others who depended on science for their judgment. But the fact that stood before my soul most clearly was that in an age when humanity’s consciousness was furthest removed from the spiritual world, there was an urgent need for communications from this world. I counted on the fact that there were also people who experienced being distanced from all spirituality as such an impediment to life that they were grasping at communications from the spiritual world with inner longing.
The years that followed confirmed this completely. Theosophy and Esoteric Science, books that require the goodwill of the reader in dealing with a difficult style of writing, have both enjoyed wide circulation. I tried very consciously not to supply a “popular” exposition of these themes, but one that requires the reader to exert a good deal of thought in approaching the content. Because of the character I imprinted on my books, merely reading them is already the beginning of spiritual training. Exerting one’s thinking in the calm and collected way that this reading requires strengthens the reader’s soul forces and makes these forces capable of approaching the spiritual world.
Calling the book Esoteric Science caused immediate misunderstandings. I was informed from all different directions that something that intends to be a “science” must not be esoteric or secret.3 How thoughtless such objections were! As if anyone who actually publishes a content wants to be secretive with it! The whole book shows that nothing was meant to be labeled “secret”; it was meant to be cast in a form that made it as understandable as any “science.” When we use the term “natural sciences,” don’t we mean to indicate that we are dealing with the knowledge of “nature?” “Esoteric science” is the science of what takes place “esoterically” in the sense that it is perceived, not outside in nature, but where one’s soul turns when it directs its inner being toward the spirit. “Esoteric science” is the opposite and the counterpart of “natural science.”
My perceptions of the spiritual world repeatedly met with the objection that they were reproductions and transformations of concepts about the spiritual world that came to the fore in ancient times. It was said that I had read many of these things, absorbed them into my subconscious, and then presented them in the belief that they sprang from my own perceptions. I was said to have derived my reports from Gnostic teachings, the poetic wisdom of the Orient, and so on.
The thought that went into these claims is very superficial. I am fully conscious of the fact that my knowledge of spiritual things is the result of my own perception. Whether with regard to details or in the broader surveys, I subjected myself to strict tests to make sure that each step in the progress of my perception was made in full and deliberate consciousness. I told myself that just as a mathematician proceeds from one thought to another without autosuggestion or the unconscious playing any role in the process, spiritual perception must proceed from one objective imagination to another, without anything being active in the soul except the spiritual content of clear and collected consciousness.
Knowing an imagination to be not merely a subjective image but a reproduction in image form of an objective spiritual content is an achievement of healthy inner experience. It is achieved on the level of the soul and spirit in the same way that a healthy person distinguishes between fantasy and objective perception in the realm of sensory observation.
So there I stood with the results of my perception before me. To begin with, they were perceptions without names. Later, I needed words in order to describe and communicate them, so I then went looking in older accounts of spiritual matters for ways to express these still nameless things in words. I made free use of the terms I found, so my usage almost never coincides with the ancient meaning. However, in every case, I went looking for such possibilities of expression only after the content had become apparent in my own perception. I was able to eliminate what I had previously read from my own perception and research by means of the state of consciousness that I have just described.
It was also claimed that the terms I used were reminiscent of ancient ideas. People fixed their attention on the expressions themselves without going into the content. If I spoke of “lotus flowers” in the human astral body, that was proof that I was repeating ancient Indian teachings in which that term is found. If I used the terms “angeloi,” “archangeloi,” and so on, then I was simply reviving concepts of Gnostic Christianity. I was constantly confronted with the objections of entirely superficial thinking of this sort. I wanted to point to this fact too, now that a new edition of Esoteric Science is being published. This book, since it contains the outline of anthroposophy as a whole, is especially susceptible to all the misunderstandings anthroposophy is exposed to.
Since the time when the imaginations presented in this book first merged into a complete picture in my soul, I have constantly been developing my ability to perceive the human being, the historical development of humanity, and the cosmos. But the outline I offered in Esoteric Science fifteen years ago remains unshaken as far as I am concerned. Everything I have been able to say since then, if inserted into this book in the right place, seems only to elaborate on that outline.4
January 10, 1925
- Theosophy: An Introduction to the Spiritual Processes in Human Life and in the Cosmos, Anthroposophic Press, Hudson, NY, 1994.
- How to Know Higher Worlds: A Modern Path of Initiation, Anthroposophic Press, Hudson, NY, 1994.
- For instance, the early review by Wincenty Lutoslawski, “Rudolf Steiners sogen. ‘Geheimwissenschaft’” (“Rudolf Steiner’s So-called ‘Esoteric Science’”) in the magazine Hochland, vol. 1910/11, no. 1, Munich, October 1910, pp. 45–58. Its opening paragraph immediately presents this objection: “The expression esoteric science contains a contradiction just like dry wetness or light darkness. Science and esotericism, science and petty secrecy, are as far apart as day and night.”
- This preface was written for the sixteenth through twentieth editions of An Outline of Esoteric Science.