Rudolf Steiner was born two years after the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. Science could now see the human being as a higher animal evolved merely through the stress of survival.
Religion’s ancient claim to know a divine origin of the human being began to lose conviction. Nietzsche would soon assert that “God is dead and we have killed him.” Morality—any morality—began to be questioned as a mere means of control. And by the time of Steiner’s death in 1925, the senseless violence of the First World War had destroyed European confidence in human goodness or perfectibility.
Steiner worked on the question of the human makeup and nature throughout his life. As a foundation he researched the being of thinking and the unification of sense perceptions with concepts to form “reality.” He worked with Goethe’s method of receptive observation, letting carefully observed phenomena speak for themselves.
After the turn of the 20th century, he put forward a series of “basic books” which detailed the raising of consciousness (How to Know Higher Worlds), the nature of the soul and its world (Theosophy), and human cosmic origins (An Outline of Esoteric Science, fifty years after Darwin’s revelations).
The human being is mineral, in the corpse we leave behind. We are living, like plants, sentient like animals, and—uniquely—the bearer of an ego, the self, the “I Am.” We have evolutionary potential beyond that, out of our own nature. We are evolving humanly on the plane of consciousness, not physical survival. In the 1960s, from the practical perspective of a “hierarchy of needs” that are required for “self-actualization,” or healthy humanness, the American psychologist Abraham Maslow reached similar insights, including an ultimate potential for going further: for “self-transcendence.” Steiner’s term for that is “spirit self.”
Steiner’s holistic understanding of human nature and being has immense usefulness for both individual and community life. As we approach a dramatic encounter with artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics as a collaborator or competitor or replacement, Steiner’s view of our nature and potential is enormously timely.