Steiner and Wilber

Towards an Occult Interpretation and synthesis

of Steiner’s Cosmology and Wilber’s psychology

If, as is obvious, Rudolph Steiner’s cosmology, when taken literally, is most patently scientific nonsense, where does its validity lie?

There are three possible explanations here:

The Geological – Biological Explanation

The Psychological Explanation

The Occult Explanation


The Geological – Biological Explanation

The first is take the stages at face value and then try to correlate them with what is known of the scientific history of the Earth, adapting the latter, naturallty, to fit the former (in this regard Anthroposophy is no different to Biblical Creationism, both start from an a priori position and modify the empiroical evidence accordingly!).  According top this interpretation, what is being described are the stages of evolution of life and consciousness on Earth, albeit on a subjective rather than a physical objective perspective.  This is indicated by the interesting statemenst of anthroposophical thinkers like Gunther Wachsmuth and Hermann Poppelbaum who applied Steiner’s cosmological mythos to the scientific observations of the evolution of the Earth and life through time.  And whilst they are compelled (through a slavish observance of Steiner’s words) to postulate a timescale that is ridiculously short (almost in the order of “Young Earth” Creationism), nevertheless their paradigm has much of interest to commend it.

Wachsmuth and Poppelbaum combined the Anthroposophical cosmology with the Geological time-scale and equated the different evolutionary stages of life that characterised each geological era with the consciousness of “Man” (the anthroposophical “root races”) in each of Steiner’s eras.  This equivalence is not unreasoinable because the anthroposophical cosmology sees the kingdoms of nature as emanating from the human entity in past eras.  Here is one form of the resulting equation.

state of existence
Poppelbaum –
A New Zoology
Geological period
according to Poppelbaum
unfocused watery consciousness Polarian Polarian
– invertebrates
dream-like watery consciousness – 
Hyperborean Hyperborean
– fish
dream-like astral self
struggle between light and dark
Lemurian Mesozoic as Lemurian
– reptiles
modern world appears Atlantean Cenozoic as Atlantean
– mammals
present consciousness Post-Atlantean Post-Atlantean
– Man

As I have mentioned, Steiner’s elaborate cyclic cosmology, like that of the Theosophists, is a form of emanationism: the materialisation of gross planes or worlds out of subtle ones; the difference being that the Theosophists and Anthroposphists lent a historical slant to their cosmology.  Steiner claims that his worlds are exactly the same as the present physical Earth, but in an earlier stage of evolution. Science however shows that the laws of physics were the same in the past as they are at present.  Hence as a literal explanation the Anthroposphical = Geological eras theory doesnt hold together.  However, this paradigm is still quite useful as a launching point for a sort of Goethian-style paleontology (which seem to be the approach Poppelbaum takes).


The Psychological Explanation

An alternative explanation, one in which, curiously, the Anthroposophists havent looked into, is to equate Steiner’s cosmic stages with psychology, especially the psychogonic stages of Depth Psychology (Freud, Jung, etc etc).  The Transpersonal Psychologist Ken Wilber, a prolific and influential writer in his field, claims in his very well researched book The Atman Project and elsewhere, that all psychologists and mystics are referring to basically the same thing: the development of the human rational ego-consciousness out of the universal unconsciousness of matter, and its subsequent transcendence in the stage of universal consciousness of the Absolute.  The difference is that the psychologists (e.g. Freud, Jung, Piaget, Fromm, and many others) are referring to the development of individual or personal ego-consciousness out of the pre-personal unconsciousness, whereas the mystics are referring to the transcendence of ego-consciousness and the realisation of the Absolute Reality, which is universal consciousness (i.e. the Monistic position of Advaita Vedanta, Mahayana Buddhism, etc).  So it is all a cycle: from universal/prepersonal to individual/personal to universal/transpersonal.

Wilber of course is by no means the first person to suggest such a thing.  The vast cycle of involution and evolution is a central component of the philosophies of Plotinus, Kashmir Shaivism, Hegel, Blavatsky, Sri Aurobindo, Meher Baba, and many many others.  All that Wilber did was provide one more formulation of this idea, using the benefit of his encyclopaedic knowledge of comparitive psychology, and proposing a series of stages influenced in large measure by the modern-day Advaitin-style teacher Da Free John.  Ken Wilber’s ten stages can be represented in terms of a diagram:

(pre-personal)    (trans-personal)
       5. Normality      
     5a. Ego-Persona   5c. Mature Ego    
   4. Membership Self verbal-conceptual realm 6. Bio-social bands  
  3. Body-Ego
self verses non-self 7. Centaur
  2. Uroboros universal-“mystical” 8. Subtle  
    1. Pleroma   9. Causal    
      10. Ultimate (Atman)      

I would refute Ken Wilber’s central methodological assumption: that psychologists and mystics are basically referring to different halves of the same process.  There may indeed be a vast cycle of involution and evolution – indeed, the emanationist standpoint demands it – but that does not mean that what the psychologists are describing (the descending arc) is the same as what the yogis and mystics are describing.  The psychologists are referring to the collective involution of the Psyche through the various Para-physical stages that are quite different to this physical reality.  Whereas the yogis and mystics are describing a different process altogether; the individual transcendence of consciousness in this present physical Earth.  Indeed, one cannot even call what the yogis and mystics are describing “ascent”.  “Ascent”, like “descent”, implies an emanationist sequence of stages and planes of existence.  But the radical monistic conception of things like Nirvana or Paramatman means that they have nothing to do with any planes of existence.  They are something totally beyond all levels, higher as well as lower, heaven as well as hell.

Yet that does not mean that we need reject his map of consciousness altogether.  Far from it.  For of particular significance are the parallels between Wilber’s early (psychological development) stages (1 through to 5) and the cosmic evolution periods and succession of Root Races of Rudolph Steiner.

  • Steiner’s Polarians and the Hyperboreans live in a dim yet spiritual consciousness, like the  oceanic, protoplasmic, archaic, pre-personal consciousness of Ken Wilber’s Pleromatic and Uroboric stages.
  • With the Lemurians the sense of self develops for the first time, just as with Wilber’s “Body-Ego” stage, albeit in both cases in a dream-like clairvoyant (Steiner) or magical (Wilber) mode of comprehension
  • The Atlanteans develop language, but in the form of magical and mantric utterances, just like Ken Wilber’s “Membership Self” stage.

The parallels are just too obvious to ignore.

One could even correlate the stages in a table:

state of existence Anthroposophy 
Transpersonal Psychology (Wilber)
protoplasmic universal consciousness Polarian Pleromatic
dream-like alimentary somatic consciousness Hyperborean Uroboric
dream-like magical self non-self distinction Lemurian Body-ego (early) (late)
clairvoyant magical mantric Atlantean Verbal-Membership
rational verbal Post-Atlantean Mental-egoic

Yet Steiner claims that he is describing objective cycles of past existence and evolution of the Earth, perceived clairvoyantly, whereas Ken Wilber is citing psycho-analysts who claim to be describing the psychological development of the human individual.  What gives?  Was Steiner simply deluding himself, in that his so-called “clairvoyance” was nothing but a regression to his own early subconscious, confusing projected into an external world?  That is certainly what the sceptical person would think, but I do not think it is that easy.

Let us go back to the psycho-analytic model and examine again in a more critical light.  On the surface, what is being described in Ken Wilber’s various stages is the development of consciousmess and the psyche in the infant and child.  Ever since Freud, it has been a common premise of psychologists that infants live in a sort of mystical dream-like haze, unable to think, or distinguish self from not-self.  Yet this whole theory is only based on assumption; because infants cannot yet talk, we don’t know what they experience.  But there is no reason why their thought-processes cannot be quite coherent.  Indeed, young infants are often very intelligent at getting what they want.  Similarily with animals; ever since the Greeks and Medieval Christians there has been the assumption is that because animals cannot talk they are automatically determined by instincts and physiological reactions.  Anyone who has ever observed closley a pet dog or cat knows the fallacy of this theory.

Then there is the theory (espoused even by Jung) that “primitive people” lack rational thought, but instead have a sort of “magical thinking”, or that (according to Julian Jaynes, who Ken Wilber cited in his book Up From Eden) the people of past civilisations – e.g. the Egyptians and the Homeric Greeks – lived in a sort of hallucinatory world because the two halves of their brains weren’t connected.

All this is just nonsense.  The idea that tribal people can’t think straight, or only possess a “child-like” way of thinking (Wilber’s “Membership Self”) is the reflection of the colonialist arrogance of past decades (combined with the assumption that the materialistic attitude of the West is correct and the shamanistic intuition of tribal peoples automatically wrong), as any discussion with any surviving tribal person reveals.  As for ancient civilisations, the Egyptians for example built a mighty civilisation and wrote philosophy in which they pondered existential questions of life and death, hardly possible for someone living a dream-like existence with no sense of self.

So what then are we to make of this elaborate series of stages?  Is it just the nonsense of an arrogant age, that became enshrined as psycho-analytical dogma?

Actually, I don’t think so.  I think that what the psycho-analysts really tapped into was the same thing as what Steiner tapped into, except that the psycho-analysts described it in terms of infantile psychological development and neurosis, whereas Steiner described it in terms of the doctrines of the the Theosophical Society, which he was at the time still trying to find favour with.  Yet to find the real nature of what both camps are referring to, whether through subconscious intuition (psycho-analysis) or conscious clairvoyance (Steiner) it is necessary to go beyond the prejudices of both.


The Occult Explanation

But the psycho-analysts speak of psychological stages of development, which are the same as Steiner’s physical stages.  So maybe his worlds do represent prior worlds, but prior worlds that are not physical in the sense our world is; that have a psychic or a somewhat psychological nature.

The present physical world can thus be seen as having emanated from these previous worlds, which in a sense continue to exist parallel to our own.

In other words, these previous worlds – Atlantean, Lemurian, etc – constitute stages equivalent to what could perhaps be considered Jung’s Collective Unconscious – the ocean or depth from which our consciousness emerges – except that this is not merely a collective, but an actual universal reality.  And it would be wrong to call it “unconscious” at all; it is only “unconscuious” relative to our present physical consciousness.

So we have the higher etheric reality at one end, and the gross physical reality at the other.  Between the two are the intermediate stages Steiner defines as “warmth”, “gaseous” and “liquid”, equivalent of course to the elements fire air and water of the Greeks and medieval Alchemists.  Although Steiner identifies the fourth element, “earth”, and “Life Ether”, with the gross or dense physical reality, I would see it a s adistinct plane, although one very closely connected to the gross physical, being immediately adjacent to it.

Since Jung’s term “Collective Unconscious” hs already been so misused, and is in any case rather inapproppriate to describe these realities, despite certain points of connection, I would rather cast around for an alternative term.  I would suggest calling the four stages between the Physical and the Etheric the Paraphysical.

plane of existence substance Metamorphosis
Psychogenic stage
Beyond time, space, and form pralaya Ultimate
Etheric Plane – Pure formative forcesFour  Para-Physical Planes; 
The four  Elements or  Tanmatras
“Warmth” Ether – “Fire”  Old Saturn Polarian Pleromatic psyche
“Light” Ether  – “Air”  (“Gaseous”) Old Sun Hyperborean Uroboric psyche
“Chemical” Ether “Water” (“Liquid”) Old Moon Lemurian Typhonic psyche
(early) (late)
“Life” (=Form)  Ether  “Earth” (“Solid”) Earth Atlantean Membership psyche
Dense Physical – time,  space, and laws of physics  Physical World Post-Atlantean Mental-egoic psyche

Seen from this perspective, what both Steiner and Wilber are describing is the involution of consciousness.  Only each is using a different mythological framework – Steiner the Theosophical paradiogm and Wilber the psycho-developmental one.  Both paradigms have elements of the truth, but neither conveys the complete picture.


Anthroposophical Cosmology

Rudolph Steiner

Ken Wilber