The Stages of Higher Knowledge

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Stages of Higher Knowledge by Rudolf Steiner.

Steiner The States of Higher Knowledge

This small book contains a series of essays first published in the German-language Theosophical organ Lucifer-Gnosis during the first decade of the twentieth century. According to the preface by Steiner’s widow, the series, which took as its point of departure the text of Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and Its Attainment, was aborted by the cessation of Lucifer-Gnosis and the transfer of Steiner’s organizing efforts to his new vehicle Anthroposophy.

The stages invoked in the title are Imagination, Inspiration, and Intuition, corresponding in Theosophical jargon (not much used here) to the Astral, Etheric, and Causal planes. This sequence involves increasing abstraction from the empirical world of matter, along with a refinement of psychic processes and a turning-inward of the senses. A certain amount of implied standardization in this account may be misplaced. For example, Steiner writes that “Astral beings can also be ‘tasted’ or ‘smelled.’–Only what constitutes in the actual sense the physical element of tone and sound is almost wholly lacking in the real imaginative world” (51). Yet in one of the most significant visionary accounts from Steiner’s own period, it is written: “And there cometh an interior voice, which sayeth to the seer that he hath trained his eyes well and can see much; and he hath trained his ears a little, and can hear a little; but his other senses hath he trained scarcely at all, and therefore the Aethyrs are almost silent to him on those planes” (Liber CDXVIII, 4th Aethyr).

Both the preface by Marie Steiner and a supplementary piece of front matter by Rudolf Steiner–the latter copied from the preface of the 1914 reissue of Knowledge of the Higher Worlds–are concerned to mitigate and downplay these articles’ emphasis on the importance of firsthand instruction from an accomplished occult practitioner. Even in the body of the original text, this issue is raised with some sense of tension:

“As has been frequently mentioned, it is owing to the special conditions of our time that these things are and must be published. But also, on the other hand, it must be ever again emphasized that while it has thus been made easier to acquire occult knowledge, sure guidance through an experienced occult teacher is not yet to be dispensed with.” (46)

That “yet” suggests that Steiner was already looking forward to the position taken in the later writings of the front matter, where he hopes that an occult mentor “will assume the same position in spiritual schooling as a teacher occupies, in conformity with modern views, in any other field of knowledge” (xiv). Still, if my experience is any guide, the autodidact in occultism is at a great disadvantage compared to those with personal instruction and proper initiation. The traditional emphasis on a preceptor is understandable, even if it carries its own hazards in a secular world where authentication of such figures is bound to be dubious. [via]