In Theosophy and in Anthroposophy
(revised July 22nd, 2005)
The essence of the main case for considering racism to be present in Anthroposophy is the use of the term 'Root Race' in some of Rudolf Steiner's early Anthroposophical work. What is a 'Root Race' and why did Rudolf Steiner use the term? What did Steiner mean when he used the term? Is Steiner's usage identical to other Theosophical authors?
Origin of the term 'Root Race'
The term 'Root Race' goes back to Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. The first published use was in A.P. Sinnett's book Esoteric Buddhism of 1883. However, Sinnett had encountered the term the year before in the Mahatma Letter XV of July 10th, 1882 (first published for the public in 1923). Further, William Judge claimed that he, Sinnett and others had received the same teachings from Blavatsky orally as early as 1875. Blavatsky later published her monumental work The Secret Doctrine - one of the essential texts of the Theosophical movement - in 1888. In this book she detailed a cosmogony with similarities to Sinnett's, but far more comprehensively detailed, as well as differing in some details. So while Sinnett has primacy of publishing, the term and concept are clearly Blavatsky's, as everyone in the early Theosophical movement acknowledged.
In Blavatsky's cosmology 'Root Races' were a division of time. The history of the planet Earth and its inhabitants as well as the future of the same was on a course through seven Globes, of which our present is the fourth. The future was to contain three more such Globes. Each Globe was divided into seven Rounds, and each Round into seven 'Root Races'. Each 'Root Race' in turn was divided into seven 'Sub-Races'. In the current Globe the present to age lies in the fifth 'Sub-Race' of the fifth 'Root Race'. Blavatsky gave every 'Root Race' in every 'Sub-Race' a name. Of greatest interest are the ages closest to our present time. Blavatsky had named the Rounds of the current Globe first the Polarian, followed by the Hyperborian, then the Lemurian, then the Atlantean and finally the present 'Root Race' Blavatsky named the Aryan. Each of these was divided into seven Sub-Races. In the present 'Root Race' the first Sub-Race was the ancient Indian, followed by the ancient Persian, then the Egypto-Chaldean followed by the Greco-Roman and then the present Anglo-Germanic. This was the scheme in Blavatsky's cosmology, and Rudolf Steiner followed the sequence closely.
Steiner's use of the term 'Root Race'
When the Rudolf Steiner was searching for an audience around turn of the century the only group he found that was in any way interested in hearing in depth about the spirit and about spiritual matters was members of the Theosophical Society. As a consequence, when speaking to these Theosophists, Rudolf Steiner would employ terms familiar to them in order to convey the results of his own spiritual research. Rudolf Steiner, who was an eminent scholar and thoroughly familiar with many different areas of inquiry, including esoteric traditions, also read Blavatsky, and was quite familiar with her work. His was not an uncritical take, and he once wrote privately that Blavatsky's work contained the highest spiritual truths mixed with the greatest nonsense. Steiner of course admired certain aspects of Blavatsky's character and some of the things she was able to accomplish, but his was not an uncritical admiration nor was he in complete agreement with all of her thoughts and views. But Steiner did use the terminology that Blavatsky had established in his early esoteric works. As his own work matured Rudolf Steiner moved away from more and more of Blavatsky's terminology, preferring to coin his own terms in German. The very first term that Steiner decided was inappropriate was the term 'Root Race'.
Rudolf Steiner's conception of human evolution differed from Blavatsky in a number of important ways, particularly concerning of the nature of the time period that comprises the present 'Root Race' and its constituent 'Sub-Races'. Whereas Blavatsky really did consider the racial aspects of the time-division to be of importance, Steiner saw the defining characteristics of these time periods of time to be the cultural phenomenon that occurred and the cultural achievements of the people's living in them. Thus to Steiner calling the time periods and their cultural achievements 'Root Races' and 'Sub-Races' appeared to be mistaken.
Already as early as 1906, just four years after starting his work as an independent teacher in the context of the Theosophical Society, Rudolf Steiner stated publicly the term 'Root Race' was a misnomer. By the time he made this decision, Steiner had already written a number of articles and given numerous lectures employing the term, and to this day they are republished with the term 'Root Race' unaltered. Most editions have an introductory note about the possibly confusing issue of inconsistent terminology. Steiner did rework some of his earlier texts and changed the terms, but he did not update all his writing this way. Most scholars of Steiner consider his thought and the development of his concepts to be consistent even as the terminology changed. In fact Steiner deliberately and continually employed varying terms in order to force his listeners to focus on his concepts rather than his words.
So although Rudolf Steiner did, in a few of his earlier works, employ the term ‘Root Race’ as a technical designation for periods of time well know to Theosophical audiences, Steiner did not share the Theosophical understanding of the meaning of that term, and specifically rejected it. To signify this break, he replace the term 'Root Race' explaining that 'Cultural Epoch' was more appropriate.
Other aspects in considering 'Root Races'
Many other spiritual streams besides anthroposophy owe some debt to Blavatsky and The Secret Doctrine. This is also true of a number of highly degenerate pseudo-spiritual racist doctrines as well. Because these authors also employ the term 'Root Race', though in a very different way, the coincidence of terminology has led some researchers who are unfamiliar with the history of the field to jump to the conclusion that any use of the term 'Root Race' must somehow be related to the pseudo-spiritual racist ramblings of authors such as Guido von List. After all, since it is the same term, it must signify the same concept. However, such an oversimplification merely shows that such authors have only a limited exposure to the history of spiritualistic ideas, and are not aware that writers such as von List are borrowing from Blavatsky only in limited measure, and are adding such significant twists as to make neutral concepts truly racist. A coincidence of terminology does not automatically equate to a coincidence of worldview. Of course such authors also mistake the use of the term in writings by Steiner as an indication of racism when, in fact, Rudolf Steiner was opposed to racism in all its forms, and was working actively to overcome it.
Appendix: Lengthier Quotes
A description of the use of the term 'Root Race' in secondary Theosophical literature.
From Encyclopedic Theosophical Glossary: Root-Rz , at www.theosociety.org/pasadena/etgloss/root-rz.htm.
Root-race, Fifth The human race at present on earth; the fifth root-race on this globe D in the fourth round originated from the seed-race of the middle fourth root-race and as the ages passed began to occupy the lands which have since gradually taken form in our present continental distribution. It is subdivided, like all other root-races, into seven subraces, and these again each into smaller divisions. The present predominant sub-subrace is the fifth of its fourth primary subrace, only a little beyond the point of greatest materiality of this root-race.
In one general sense, the fifth root-race actually comprises the many and extremely varied stocks which exist on the earth today, simply because they all live in the time period of the fifth root-race, although many of the stocks are lineal descendants of the last subrace of the fourth root-race more or less intermixed with what can be described as more characteristic fifth root-race stock. The Chinese, for example, although descended from the latest subrace of the fourth root-race, yet because of living in fifth root-race times are to be reckoned among fifth root-race peoples, of which indeed they are among the very oldest. The Semites in all their divisions are to be considered as an early offshoot of the fifth root-race, and not as a race essentially or radically distinct.
The fifth root-race is sometimes spoken of as the Aryan race, merely because the Aryans of India are an existing example of the earliest branches of the fifth, though the term Aryan is not in accordance with the various ethnological and linguistic distinction to which that name is commonly applied. The characteristic language of this root-race is inflectional, such as Sanskrit or Greek. The symbol of the fifth or Aryan race is "that which is its most sacred symbol to this day, the bull (and the cow)" (SD 2:533).
One selected quote that shows just how broad even Blavatsky’s definition of “Aryan” was is the following:
"The Aryan races, for instance, now varying from dark brown, almost black, red-brown-yellow, down to the whitest creamy colour, are yet all of one and the same stock -- the Fifth Root-Race" (Blavatsky 249).
Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna. The Secret Doctrine. Theosophical University Press. 1888. 30 Apr. 2004 <http://www.theosociety.org/pasadena/sd/sd-hp.htm>.
Steiner, Rudolf. The Anthroposophic Movement. Bristol, UK: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1993
---. The Apocalypse of John: Lectures on the Book of Revelation. London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1977.
---. An Outline of Occult Science. New York: Anthroposophic Press, 1972.
---. Cosmic Memory.
---. The Course of My Life. New York: Anthroposophic Press, 1951
---. Universe, Earth and Man (GA 105), London 1987
---.The Universal Human: The Evolution of Individuality. New York: Anthroposophic Press, 1990.
Steiner, Rudolf and Marie Steiner. Correspondence and Documents: 1901-1925. New York: Rudolf Steiner Press 1988.