“The Crowning Conclusion of the Karma Studies” by Friedrich Hiebel

“Persona” / photo by Bruce Donehower


“The Mystery of Plato & Aristotle”

” . . .the importance of the friendship . . . cannot be overestimated . . . “


— Christoph Lindenberg, from Rudolf Steiner, Eine Biographie, vol. 1, chapter 3

Easter, 2024

Dear Friends,

This article by Friedrich Hiebel appeared as Chapter 27 in the book Time of Decision With Rudolf Steiner (Anthroposophic Press, 1989). Dr. Hiebel, who led the Section for the Literary Arts and Humanities in the years after Albert Steffen, shares in this chapter his impressions of his last encounters with Rudolf Steiner in September 1924. Dr. Hiebel’s book is an important document for those with an interest in the history of the Section for the Literary Arts and Humanities. His discussion also sheds light on Rudolf Steiner’s biography and Rudolf Steiner’s approach to karmic research. 


The crowning conclusion of the karma studies [September 23, 1924] . . . 

coincided with the end of the drama course, which was itself a karma-imbued fact. It helped unveil what karmically had held sway behind the course on drama [September 5 – 23, 1924] and the art of acting. In a marvelously enhanced way, a renewed Mystery art of the stage stood before us that had grown out of the former spirit of Aristotle’s poetics. The result of a lifelong conscious struggle for insight came to expression during a single evening hour in the sentences of this lecture. Is it not possible that the memory image of past karmic connections could have emerged already during the encounter with Schröer on the evening of the catastrophe in Mayerling in 1889? [Footnote 1]

In any case, the connection with Schröer’s entelechy continued and increased after Schröer’s death on December 16, 1900. Rudolf Steiner explicitly pointed out that the dead who had passed away during the last third of the nineteenth century exercised a stronger influence on the living than the dead ever had before. In a striking manner, this became evident when the first lectures dealing with a purely spiritual scientific theme were given in the theosophical library of Count Brockdorff in Berlin at Michaelmas of 1900. This was shortly after Nietzsche and Solovyov had departed this earthly realm. Having presented ideas on the karmic conditions of these two thinkers, Schröer was now given the last eulogy by means of the most moving revelations of his tragic destiny.


Aristotle & the Mystery Drama

In the year 1904, the magazine Luzifer-Gnosis published the only one of Rudolf Steiner ‘s articles that appeared under the pseudonym “Dr. K. Tinter.” It was the essay “Aristotle on the Mystery Drama,” and in the beginning years of the spiritual scientific movement, it appeared prudent to conceal straightforward statements relating so directly to Aristotle under a pen name. According to Aristotle—so one could read in that essay, published exactly twenty years prior to the drama course—drama is:

“. . . truer than a mere historical description. While the latter merely recounts what occurs by chance in the course of time, the former describes human actions the way they should and have to be, based on inner motivations . . . Aristotle depicts tragedy as the representation of a significant action complete in itself, not rendered in the form of a narration but through the direct presentation of the acting persons. He claims that through compassion and fear, catharsis (purification) of such emotions (affections) is brought about in such a representation.”

Having discussed the historical development of this famous sentence from Aristotle’s poetics, Steiner in this early essay then pointed out that Aristotle believed that it was the aim of tragedy “to contribute its share to the evolutionary process of the human soul,” for it has grown out of the Mysteries that depict the destiny of Dionysus.

The description of the cathartic effect of drama in Aristotle’s poetics appears as

“the weak reflection of how a Greek Mystery priest would have explained the original form of drama.”

Six years later, the first performance of the first Mystery Drama took place. In a lecture on October 31, 1910, Rudolf Steiner said that “the figure of Professor Capesius that is so close to my heart” had been taken from real life. [Footnote 2] The same year saw the beginning of the performances of the Christmas plays. On those occasions, Karl Julius Schröer was always most gratefully remembered.


The Riddles of Karma and Personality

In Steiner’s book The Riddle of Man, the chapter entitled “Images from the Austrian Life of Ideas,” starts out with Schröer:

“A spirit spoke out of this man that only wanted to communicate what had become deepest self-experience of his soul through contemplation of the cultural life.”

In contrast to Hegel, who made the well-known remark that philosophy does not evolve until the end of a cultural development by making use of the picture of Minerva’s owl, which flies only at the beginning of dusk, Steiner now added to this in the subjunctive form:

“Schröer [unlike Hegel] would have spoken more readily of a human mind that struggles toward the light — a mind that seeks in the world of Ideas the sun of that kingdom where human reason, directed earthward to the world of materiality, senses the extinction of its own light of knowing. Prior to a performance of a Christmas play in the First Goetheanum building on December 22, 1920, Rudolf Steiner made a significant indication concerning the Dionysus plays. He said they gave birth in Greece to the whole of dramatic art just as the [Oberufer] Christmas plays now could be traced back to their origin in the Christian Mysteries.”

Even on Christmas day of the Laying of the Foundation Stone of the General Anthroposophical Society in 1923, Rudolf Steiner did not fail to remember Schröer prior to the performance of the Nativity Play. Again, reference was made to the fact that the structure of these Christmas plays “recalls the drama of antiquity.” During the performance of the Three Kings’ Play on December 31, 1923, Steiner drew our attention to an “incomprehensible error by my old friend and teacher,” because it had been incorrect to tie the Shepherds’ Play together with the Three Kings’ Play, since the latter had not originated directly from the people but had been created with the help of learned clerics.

Concurrently with the beginning of the karma lectures, the publication of the Leading Thoughts appearing weekly, and the start of the Class lessons of the School for Spiritual Science, Steiner included memories of Schröer week after week in the chapters of The Course of My Life. On February 3, we could read that he had been a spirit “who thought nothing of systematism. He thought and spoke based on a certain intuition.” On February 24, the readers of the weekly were told how Schröer had been able to uplift the souls of his listeners “with his marvelous idealism and his noble enthusiasm.”


“My Dear Friend and Teacher”

On March 9 [1880], the first personal encounter between Schröer and the young student was recounted. Schröer was at that time working on the commentary to the second part of Goethe’s Faust. An important passage that is significant for comprehending the karmic difference was worded like this:

“He [Schröer] referred to ideas as the driving forces in history. He felt life in the existence of ideas. For me, the life of the spirit was behind the ideas, and the latter merely the appearance of the former in the human soul.”

On March 16, the autobiographical description referred affectionately to Schröer’s booklet “Questions on Education,” and in the following issue of the Goetheanum on March 30, Rudolf Steiner went into a detailed report on the agreements that had led to the publication of Goethe’s scientific writings in Kürschner’s Deutsche Nationalliteratur through Schröer’s mediation.

In the preceding karma lectures, there had been frequent references to personalities who had had a certain karmic significance in Rudolf Steiner’s youth. Among others, aside from Vischer, Hartmann, Dühring, Herman Grimm and Nietzsche, we were introduced in these lectures to Steiner’s geometry teacher in Neudörfl, Heinrich Gangl. For that reason, a contemplation of Schröer who without exception was repeatedly remembered as, “my dear friend and teacher,” seemed more than overdue.

I had been happily surprised to see Walter Johannes Stein before this evening lecture for which he had made a special quick trip from Stuttgart. He had probably been excused from teaching for this day upon the request of the head of the Waldorf School, for we noticed him afterwards in front of the entrance to the studio deep in a conversation with Rudolf Steiner.


The Mysteries of Dionysius

In the center of the final karma-perspective stood a personality who had intervened in a most problematic manner in the history of the development of occidental theater. Yet, this connection was not mentioned at all in the lecture itself. In the course addressed to actors, attention was directed specifically to the Mysteries of Dionysus from which drama had later emerged. At the origin of drama stood the impulse-giving figure who was immortalized in the myth of the young Dionysus and his journey to the Orient together with the accompanying choir of Sileni and Satyrs. The mythological bearer of vine-culture became the innovator of individualism because of the gradually awakening intellect. The consumption of wine at that time helped loosen the tightly confining blood forces of tribal groups and family bonds. At the same time, this figure stimulated the trend toward dialogue. Dialectics in philosophy and dialogue in drama descend from the cult of Dionysus.

Plato also stands in this Mystery genealogy. He became the dramatist of dialectics. After having burned his own attempts at drama, written when he was young, Plato recorded his works in the form of philosophical dialogues that focused on the figure of Socrates. Just as the Dionysian Mysteries had developed a teaching that brought the impulse to individualism to germinal awakening, so Plato’s dialogues opened the portal to a method of thinking that led to self-knowledge.

Yet here reigned the ominous obstacle of an epistemological teaching of two worlds, a dualism that declared the sense world, cut off from the domain of Ideas, to be an illusion, and denied the human being the faculty to perceive true reality during life on earth. Of all the dialogues, this dualistic theory comes most clearly to expression in Plato’s Republic and in the famous allegory of the cave in the seventh book. Plato outlined the following picture for the process of human perception. Imagine a cave-like dwelling underground, the entrance of which appears to be open to a source of light. Human beings sit immobilized with chains on their feet and necks; they can look straight ahead but cannot turn their heads left or right. The light comes from a fire that burns behind their backs which they cannot see directly because of their chains. Between the fire and the chained people stands a wall. The chained individuals only see the shadows of figures thrown by the fire against the wall’s surface. They do not perceive anything except the shadows of the figures moving in front of the light source, namely, the fire.

Due to these epistemological premises, the artisan [poet] was to Plato merely the producer of products belonging to the world of semblance, the poet only an imitator of this semblance. The theater as semblance of this world of semblance was therefore banned from the Platonic state. Dramatic choirs aroused emotions of joy and pain. These were not tolerated because they prevented reason from being given sole dominion over the soul. The Mystery element of catharsis to which Aristotle’s Poetics called attention in such a culturally moving way was left out of account in Plato’s work. The purifying effect of drama, appearing in Aristotle as “the reflection of how a Greek Mystery priest would have explained the original form of drama,” had no place in the Platonic state.

Just as the Platonic teaching of Ideas had been characterized in the karma studies dealing with Hölderlin and Hamerling, namely, that “the human being was shortchanged” because “the living Idea must be traced in every human individuality” in the sense of the Aristotelian concept of the entelechy, so Plato completely missed seeing the effect in theater that shapes and develops the human ego. Consistent with Plato’s teaching of ideas, the ideal state that excluded theater was, as is well known, an emphatically one-sided male community of subtle eroticism cultivating a purely masculine ideal of education.


Hrosvitha of Gandersheim / A Closeted Dramatist

The same spiritual essence of this powerful impulse sought to metamorphose itself under the nun’s veil of Hrosvitha of Gandersheim. In the midst of a still completely barbaric Germanic world, she tried to save drama, in the Latin language imbued with Christian ideals, from the decadence of Roman theater. It was an attempt that remained hidden as in a catacomb throughout the centuries until it finally found its rightful place in cultural history during the modem age. The personality on whom the karma lecture focused was Karl Julius Schröer who, inseparably connected with the Christmas plays, had been called by Rudolf Steiner all his life his “dear friend and revered teacher.”

The Oberufer Christmas plays stood at the cradle of modem drama. In addition to his research on German dialects, Schröer’s introduction to Goethe’s dramas in Kürschner’s Deutsche Nationalliteratur and his comprehensive commentary on both parts of Faust, both central to his research efforts, stood in the closest karmic connection to the history of the development of drama. When Steiner as an eighteen-year-old student went to the Technische Hochschule [1879], he found his Goethe teacher in Schröer. Through him Steiner’s attention was for the first time drawn to Goethe’s Fairy Tale, to Schiller’s Letters on Aesthetic Education, and to the second part of Faust. Through Schröer, the publication of Goethe’s scientific writings was arranged according to destiny, and the first spiritual scientific lecture entitled “Goethe as Founder of a New Aesthetics” was held before Vienna’s Goethe Association.

Three times seven years later, all this was to mature In Rudolf Steiner as the form of his own Mystery drama. In the figure of Professor Capesius, Steiner idealized some of Schröer’s characteristic features. It was just this that Steiner called attention to in his lecture immediately preceding the passage that led to probably the innermost essential basis of this karma revelation, where Schröer was described as “a remarkable example of the fact that the spiritual currents of antiquity can only be carried over into the present time under certain conditions.” What are the conditions under which the spiritual currents of antiquity can experience a spiritual resurrection in a changed form in modem cultural life?


The Tragedy of Schröer / A Tragic Farewell

Schröer is a tragic example of how formerly developed spirituality recoils from modem intellectuality instead of being able to penetrate it by uniting with it. Such a penetration cannot be attained by dualistic Platonism; it is achieved only by the Aristotelian soul faculty that allows the ideal world within the entelechy to be experienced m a spiritual monism.
Inasmuch as this was depicted, karma research reached the highest possible degree of self-revelation concerning Rudolf Steiner’s own path of destiny.

In Schröer, the recoil from intellectuality became characteristically evident. Had he attained intellectuality, had he been able to unite it With Plato’s spirituality, anthroposophy would have been there.

The most moving thing of this evening, which shook all of us to the core, was the self-description and the autobiographical element that became evident in a higher vision of destiny. In the framework of his karma studies, Rudolf Steiner spoke of himself with as undisguised a directness as never before. Could a further step even be taken? Did this not signify a final and last expression of leave-taking? If he wished to depart from us, did he have to comply with the powers of destiny to lay down his corporeal instrument on earth? This feeling of unshakable anxiety crept over me at the end of this hour. It arose as suddenly as it had when two weeks before the Christmas Conference I had read the first chapter of Steiner’s autobiography in Vienna. This time, the feeling increased because of the proximity in time of the words I had just heard and my recollection of his difficulty at noontime in stepping up to the lectern during the drama course!

Many cheerful calls of “Auf Wiedersehen!” were heard from the throng of those leaving. See you in Berlin in October! I, too, immediately thought of the planned week of the youth course for us pedagogues. Quickly, I dispelled my earlier foreboding. We were all lifted far beyond ourselves. We felt happy and grateful to be linked inseparably and more closely than in all the previous years with the destiny of the spiritual movement.


Editor’s Footnotes

1  “The catastrophe in Meyerling.”

This interesting and still mysterious historical event is quite provocative from a literary perspective. Friedrich Hiebel refers to an encounter that Rudolf Steiner had with his senior friend and mentor Karl Julius Schröer just shortly after news had broken that Crown Prince Rudolf, sole Hapsburg heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had been found dead with his lover in a royal hunting lodge called Mayerling [or sometimes Meyerling]. Although persons at the time whispered “double-suicide” ala Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde or Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (or some, with more sinister overtone, suggested it was a “murder-suicide” or “assassination”), the affair remained a mystery until 2015 when a safe deposit box in Vienna was opened to reveal private letters apparently written by the seventeen-year-old lover of the Crown Prince. These letters strongly confirmed the theory that the two had conspired to commit suicide as a love pact. The “Meyerling catastrophe” occurred in January 1889.

Crown Prince Rudolf’s death shocked and scandalized citizens of the Austro-Hungarian empire, as well as persons throughout the extended late-nineteenth-century Euro-centric world, a world whose politics were fatally and tragically entwined with the karma of privileged monarchial families. Crown Prince Rudolf’s death disrupted the succession to the Hapsburg throne, as Prince Rudolf was the only male heir to Emperor Franz Josef. Some historians speculate that Prince Rudolf’s death contributed indirectly to events leading to the eruption of World War I, which in turn led to the utter collapse and dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire immediately after the war.

It is important to keep in mind that Rudolf Steiner was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and that his early life circumstances and youthful ambitions pointed him like many of his contemporaries toward the empire’s capital city Vienna. Rudolf Steiner enrolled in the Technical College in Vienna in 1879, and this is where he met Karl Julius Schröer, who played such an important role in his destiny. [For more on the important spiritual friendship between Steiner and Schröer, see the video Spiritual Friendship.]

To understand the implications of the “Meyerling catastrophe,” keep in mind that in a very real historical sense Rudolf Steiner lived to witness the disintegration and utter collapse of his Austro-Hungarian homeland. This collapse occurred because of World War I, a catastrophe for which the Hapsburg monarchy bore much blame. Rudolf Steiner later strenuously criticized the American President Woodrow Wilson for hastening the disaster of the Empire’s collapse due to Wilson’s influence at peace treaty negotiations following World War I; however, the Empire was already a “corpse,” in the opinion of Germany, the empire’s main military ally in World War I. In fact, the German military blamed its Austro-Hungarian ally for fatally retarding Germany’s war effort and efficiency.

Rudolf Steiner referred to the “terrible event” of Crown Prince Rudolf’s death in a lecture in the Karmic Relationships series that occurred on May 27, 1924, where he spoke of the Roman Emperor Nero. Rudolf Steiner had spoken of Nero in previous lectures, describing Nero in one lecture on April 17, 1917 as an “initiate emperor” who wished to set the world on fire “so that he might witness its destruction in person.” In the later lecture from the Karmic Relationships series that Friedrich Hiebel mentioned in his essay, Nero enters the discussion in context of Rudolf Steiner’s consideration of his close friendship with Karl Julius Schröer in Vienna in the nineteenth century and in context of their prior life relationship in ancient Greece [Plato and Aristotle, according to Steiner].

“That this Nero-destiny came vividly before me on one occasion was attributable to what seemed to be chance—but it was only seemingly chance. One day, when a terrible event had occurred, an event of which I shall speak in a moment and which had a shattering effect throughout the region concerned [the suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf], I happened to be visiting a person frequently mentioned in my autobiography: Karl Julius Schröer. When I arrived, I found him profoundly shocked, as many persons were, by what had happened. And the word “Nero” fell from his lips—apparently without reason—as though it burst from dark depths of the spirit.”

In an article that took stock of the Meyerling affair seventy-years after the death of Crown Prince Rudolf, the New York Times summarized the “terrible event” that Steiner mentioned. This decades-later newspaper summary is interesting in respect to the positive gloss that it still gives to Prince Rudolf. The phrase used in the article “last hope for a new and enlightened monarchy” is reflective of nineteenth century attitudes at the time of Prince Rudolf’s death, attitudes that persisted into the twentieth century. Crown Prince Rudolf  was viewed with hope; he was imagined to be a progressive alternative to his father Emperor Franz Josef . . . quixotic and whimsical as that may sound to 21st century sensibilities. The NY Times article from January 26, 1964 includes these words:

“With the death of Rudolf there died the last hope for a new and enlightened monarchy. For more than a quarter of a century the old postmaster-Emperor, Franz Joseph, continued to rule without any knowledge of the real issues at stake. He cared deeply for the formal observance of court etiquette; he seemed to care for nothing else. Once a year, on the anniversary of Rudolf’s death, he would appear briefly besides his son’s tomb, mutter a prayer and then hurry away. At court no one was ever permitted to mention Rudolf’s name. At the age of 84 Franz Joseph, the most unwarlike of emperors, blundered into war with Serbia because Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne, had been murdered by Serbian nationalists. With this war all our troubles began. It might not have happened if Rudolf had been alive.”


“The Significance of the year 1889 in the biogrpahy of Rudolf Steiner.”

1889, the year in which Crown Prince Rudolf died, is significant in several respects for Rudolf Steiner, who was twenty-eight years old in 1889, a Saturn return. For example:

  • Rudolf Steiner had his first experience of a past life recognition following a conversation with a Cistercian priest in 1889.

“To show how karma works I will refer to one event. I had to give a lecture. Now through the afternoon teas at delle Grazie’s I had grown well acquainted with the Cistercian professors of theology who frequented her house. I gave a lecture. A priest of the Cistercian Order was there a remarkable and excellent man. When I had finished my lecture he made a very peculiar remark, the nature of which I will only indicate by saying: he uttered words in which was contained his memory of having been together with me in a former life on earth. Such things do indeed educate us for life. It was in the year 1889.” [From the Karmic Relationships lecture May 27, 1924]

  • 1889 is the year of Rudolf Steiner’s “first anthroposophical lecture:” Goethe as the Father of a New Science of Aesthetics [as noted by Christoph Lindernberg in his biography of Steiner]. This lecture was delivered in Vienna in 1888 and published in 1889. For more information on Rudolf Steiner’s First Address, click this sentence.
  • In 1889, with the help and recommendation of his friend and mentor Karl Julius Schröer, Rudolf Steiner received appointment as editor of Goethe’s scientific works at the Goethe Archives in Weimar.
  • 1889 was the year in which Rudolf Steiner, by his own admission, first perceived the meaning and significance of Goethe’s “Fairy Tale” of the Green Snake and Beautiful Lily, as reported in the May 9, 1924 lecture in the Karmic Relationships series. Rudolf Steiner hailed this text as “the germinal seed” of the anthroposophical movement, and he acknowledged the literary importance of Goethe’s text as inspiration for his first Mystery Drama.

“It was in the year 1889—I tell about this in The Story of my Life—that the inner spiritual construction of Goethe’s The Fairy Tale of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily first came before my mind’s eye. And it was then, for the first time, that the perception as it were of a greater, wider connection than appears in The Fairy Tale itself presented itself to me.”

“. . . then, seven years later, in the year 1896, [Goethe’s The Fairy Tale] welled up again, but still not in such a way that it could be properly shaped; and again, about 1903, seven years later. Even then, although it came with great definition and many connections it could not yet receive its right form. Seven years later again, when I conceived my first Mystery Play, The Portal of Initiation — then only did The Fairy Tale reappear, transformed in such a way that it could be shaped and moulded plastically.” [From the Karmic Relationships lecture May 9, 1924]

1889 has other important but indirect meanings in the biography of Rudolf Steiner. For example, in 1889 Friedrich Nietzsche went mad. In 1889 the theosophist Eduard Schure published his popular and celebrated book The Great Initiates. I mention this because Eduard Schure played a very important “karmic” role in Steiner’s biography by directing Marie von Sivers toward Rudolf Steiner, which in turn made possible Rudolf Steiner’s critical work with Theosophy and in time the split of the anthroposophical movement from Theosophy.


2. “Professor Capesius . . . had been taken from real life.”

Dr. Hiebel refers his reader to the book Three Lectures on the Mystery Dramas published by The Anthroposoophic Press in 1983. David W. Wood (translator of Das Allgemeine Brouillon by Novalis) has written an essay on the character Professor Capesius and the identity of the person behind this character. Dr. Wood’s article Rudolf Steiner and Professor (Josef) Capesius: on the Centenary of the First Mystery Drama in Munich (1910-2010) is available on the internet at Academia.edu. Here is an excerpt:

“In August 2010, while researching the philosophy of Karl Julius Schröer, the author of the present essay came across a passage in Schröer’s writings in which he refers to a certain Professor Capesius from Hermannstadt. Schröer’s remark immediately recalls the existence of another Professor Capesius – that of the like-named character in Rudolf Steiner’s Mystery Dramas. Furthermore, in September 1924 Rudolf Steiner had indicated a connection between K. J. Schröer and the drama figure of Capesius. This gives rise to the question: what is the precise relationship between the real-life Professor Capesius in Hermannstadt, the Goethe scholar Karl Julius Schröer, and the character of Professor Capesius in the Mystery Dramas? The following essay is a contribution towards answering this question.”