Three misleading concepts

During the 1930s, 70 years ago, representatives of Nazi Germany leveled strong, well researched accusations against anthroposophy and the Waldorf movement as being anti-racist, anti-Nazi and pro-Jewish.

In ironic contrast to this, the opposite accusations and allegations, namely of anti-Semitism and racism, have been leveled in recent years against Rudolf Steiner and anthroposophy, especially by members of small missionary secular humanist groups.

This criticism to a large extent is connected with the theosophical terms "root race" and "sub races of root races", still used in the theosophical tradition, which Rudolf Steiner also used for a time when he was General Secretary of the German branch of the Theosophical Society between 1902 and 1912, as they were traditional terms of the theosophical tradition.

Today, the theosophical terms that refer to stages in the evolution of humanity frequently are misunderstood as to their actual meaning.

The theosophical -- not anthroposophical -- term "root race", especially in the form "Aryan root race", that in theosophy refers to the development of humanity through a number of phases during post-glacial times, is the first of three misunderstood terms and concepts incorrectly referrred to in allegations of racism in anthroposophy.

The second misunderstood concept is one that is properly related only to the distant past. It is the theosophical concept of the "sub races of Atlantis".

And the third misunderstood concept is the concept of "five main races of humanity" as Steiner viewed it.

For more on the two latter concepts, see here.

In general the term "root race" seems automatically to imply a racist view of the one using it, and the term "Aryan root race" even more strongly hints at and implies an anti-Semitic stance of the one using it.

Neither is the case with Rudolf Steiner. Early on Steiner criticized the use of the concepts of "root races" and "sub races of root races" in the theosophical tradition, and he did not use them as he increasingly developed anthroposophy separate from theosophy.

How do theosophy, and anthroposophy as developed separate from theosophy, differ in relation to the understanding and use of the general term "race", and the understanding of the theosophical terms "root race" and "Aryan root race"?


At the beginning of his time as General Secretary of the Theosophical Society in Germany from 1902, Steiner used the traditional theosophical terms, colored by the pervasive discussions of "races" at the time, when he spoke to theosophical audiences. From about 1906 on, he stopped using the theosophical terminology of "root race", with its racist tinge, in describing the evolution of humanity.

One reason he gave for this was that the term "root race" was an undeveloped, misleading and inaccurate concept compared to the concept of "race" in its general biological sense.

Another reason was that the way the term "root race" was understood in the theosophical tradition seems to imply that human evolution consists in the repeated schematic formation of ever new "races". That is not the view Rudolf Steiner and anthroposophy held, as developed separately from the theosophical tradition.

From an anthroposophical perspective, the theosophical concept "root race" is not a biological concept but rather refers to humanity during the successive stages in the common evolution of our solar system and of humanity. For these epochs, Steiner and anthroposophy use the geocentrically oriented term "Earth epochs". Even "Earth epochs" may be misunderstood by those unfamiliar with anthroposophy.

The picture anthroposophy gives of the evolution of our present solar system corresponds to the currently accepted idea of planetary development from a contracting cosmic "gas cloud".

The theosophical tradition refers to the first stage of our present solar system as "the Polarian root race". This period refers to humanity during the stage when our present solar system was still only in the first stages of its formation, contracting out of a cosmic "gas cloud", up to the forming, or budding off of the present planet Saturn in its first form at the periphery of the further contracting "gas cloud".

In anthroposophy, as developed separately from theosophy, this stage is not referred to in the "racial" terms of the early 20th century and of the theosophical tradition, but as the "Polarian" epoch or the first "Earth epoch". During this stage, the human being according to anthroposophy lived as a soul-spiritual being in the womb of higher spiritual beings, partaking in the development of the contracting cosmic gas cloud, developing as our present solar system.

In the theosophical tradition, the second stage in the evolution of our present solar system is referred to as "the Hyperborean root race". In anthroposophy it is simply called the "Hyperborean" epoch (connecting to one level of what later in mythology was called "Hyperborea") or the second "Earth epoch".

It refers to the stage in the development of our solar system and humanity that took place from the end of the first formation or budding off of Saturn up to the separation of Earth from the further contracting and developing Sun, together with what according to Steiner later was formed as the present Moon, separate from our present Earth.

Only with the formation of the Earth in its first form, separate from the Sun, did life on the Earth start to develop into its present form. This was the third stage.

In the theosophical tradition, this third stage, during which  humanity had not yet fully taken physical form, is called "the Lemurian root race". In anthroposophy, this first stage in the development of the Earth as separate from the present physical Sun is referred to as the Lemurian epoch or the third "Earth epoch".

The name "Lemuria" comes from the name of the mythical continent "Lemuria", which at the end of the 19th century was assumed to have existed as a land mass connected with the continents around the Indian Ocean.

From an anthroposophical perspective, 100 years later now, it would probably be more proper to call this third "Earth epoch", using the terminology of current geological research, the "Pangean" stage of the Earth (including part of the time of the split up Gondwanaland / Laurasia), ending with the extinction of the dinosaurs.

At one point during this period, from the time of the initial formation of the Earth separate from the contracting Sun, up to the end of the Cretaceous period, the Moon, according to anthroposophy, was formed as a separate planetary body from the Earth.

From a systematic anthroposophical perspective, the fourth basic epoch in the common evolution of the Earth and humankind, the fourth "Earth epoch", is the time that is called, in the esoteric tradition, "Atlantis" or the "Atlantean epoch".

From a present perspective, what is referred to, in the esoteric tradition and mythology, as "Atlantis" can be understood to refer to all of the development of humanity as physical beings, parts of which are reflected in the fossil record from the Cenozoic period, that is, the Tertiary and Quaternary up to the end of the Pleistocene, ending some 8,000 years B.C.

This picture of the development of the earth was also indicated by Steiner during conferences with teachers at the first Waldorf school, founded in 1919. He suggested that the new and revolutionary theory of Alfred Wegener from 1912, suggesting that all continents at one time had constituted one large continent, which then had broken into parts which had moved to their present locations, be included in the Waldorf curriculum. Only slowly was Wegener's theory accepted in the scientific community and made the basis of the currently accepted theory of plate tectonics.

Recent radiometric dating indicates that the Tertiary and Quaternary periods up to the end of the Pleistocene, which in Rudolf Steiner's view correspond to the development of the mythological Atlantis, started some 65 million years ago and ended some 10,000 years ago.

In the theosophical tradition, the fifth stage in the evolution of the Earth and humanity in connection with our present solar system is referred to as the "Aryan root race". This period refers to all development of humanity that has taken place since the last glacial age, and which will continue far into the future. The theosophical tradition also describes both the development during the time of "Atlantis" as well as the phases of the development of humanity since the last ice age in terms of "sub races".

This terminology is not used in anthroposophy, as developed by Steiner, who liberated anthroposophy from the theosophical obsession with the concept of "race" and "races". In anthroposophy, the basic fifth stage in the development of our present solar system is called the fifth "Earth epoch", the "post-Atlantean epoch" or the "post-Atlantean cultural epochs".

In contrast to what may generally be thought today, the term "Aryan" or "Aryan root race" in theosophical terminology does not refer to what later was promoted by people in "White Supremacist" and Nazi or neo-Nazi groups as a perverted understanding of history and humanity, namely that "Aryans" as white people of European origin constitute the origin and essence of mankind.

Instead, the term "Aryan" originally had no connotation of superiority, but rather is a descriptive term referring not to white Europeans, but to the original mythical Asian culture which historical research identifies as the origin of the "Indo-European" cultures. The Indo-Euopean cultures are a group of cultures characterized by speaking a language belonging to the Indo-European language family.

One of those who make this clear is Hannah Arendt. In her work The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt describes the origin and meaning of the concept "Aryan", given as name to the mythical culture in question by the orientalist Friedrich von Schlegel in 1808 (in "On the language and wisdom of the Indians") as cultural-linguistic, rather than racial, pointing out:

"... one cannot deduce ... that it constitutes the origin of a racial concept only because racial ideology later was particularly fond of this idea. The actual intentions of the linguists are not only - like the early anthropologists - neutral in this respect, but completely opposite those of racial ideologists in their basic intentions. It was not about separating the nations from each other through an assumption of independent racial origin, but on the contrary of uniting as many as possible with regard to a common origin."


Rudolf Steiner described a group of "original Semites" of "Atlantis" as the origin of the main post-glacial cultures in the development of humanity. According to him, the "original Semites" were the most advanced Atlantean group in that they had lost the instinctive pictorial clairvoyance of other groups of people at the time and had started to develop the faculty of thought in a way not found among the other groups of "Atlantean" (Cenozoic) times. For more on this, see here.

Of the post-glacial cultures, the cultures most well known are those described by classical history as the culture of Ancient India and of Ancient Persia, the cultures of Mesopotamia, Caldea, Babylon and Egypt in the fertile crescent including the Hebrew culture, and the cultures of classical Greece and Rome.

Anthroposophy also points to an original Indian culture, and an original Persian culture, developing as more mythical high cultures from c. 7,000 up to c. 3,000 B.C., before the development of the later more well researched historical cultures of Ancient India and Ancient Persia.

During and after the Middle Ages, the cultural development of humanity has taken on an ever more global character, much influenced both for good and ill through imperial impulses developing out of the cultures of Western Europe: Spain, Portugal, France, Great Britain and the Netherlands.

Far into the future, this cultural development - in the view of Steiner - will be followed by times, when impulses that today are connected with the Western and Eastern Slavic peoples and cultures, and later the American cultures, will be more dominant in human culture in general.

It was to this meaning of the term "Aryan" - being a pattern of a number of sequential cultures, starting with a culture inspired by Noah/Manu, and then developing as ever more global cultures out of a number of nodal areas - that Steiner pointed, even when he still employed the theosophical terminology of "Aryan root race", while he served as General Secretary of the Theosophical Society in Germany.

In the process of developing anthroposophy separate from theosophy, Steiner criticized the extensive and improper use of the concept of "race" in the theosophical tradition, describing it as a childhood illness of theosophy.

He argued that the concept of race in the biological sense started to lose its relevance and meaning with the end of the last glacial age, even though it continues to live on as a fading reality. Steiner stressed that the development of humanity after the last glacial age is instead, in its essence, cultural in character.

Nowhere in the extensive works of Rudolf Steiner is there a racial doctrine asserting the superiority of one "race" at the expense of another. Quite to the contrary, Rudolf Steiner always promoted the value of human beings per se, without regard to their race or any other generic attributes.

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Copyright 2004: Robert Mays and Sune Nordwall