As far as I’m aware, the exact nature of Rudolf Steiner’s last illness has never been established. He took to his sick bed on September 28th 1924, straight after having had to cut short a lecture in Dornach because of exhaustion and physical weakness. Rather than go to his apartment in Haus Hansi, Steiner opted to be cared for in the primitively equipped studio – not much more than a wooden barracks – where he had worked with Edith Maryon on carving the statue of the Representative of Man. It was here that he had all his working papers, and his library was close at hand; but there was not much else to recommend it as a sick room. The studio had no windows, only a skylight; there was no kitchen and the boards of the wooden walls were thin and the cold of winter came through them – and he was often disturbed by the construction noise from the work on the second Goetheanum nearby. Here he was attended, mainly by Dr. Ita Wegman who stayed in a small side-room off the studio, and on occasions by Dr Ludwig Noll and others.
We know that his digestion was extremely delicate and had been so for some years before this. In the last months of his life, he seems to have been unable to take in anything except the smallest quantities of food. I think we can safely discount the rumour that he had been poisoned at a tea party on January 1st 1924, not least because Steiner himself tried to quash this on three occasions and the physicians attending him all said that this was not the case. I’m also inclined to discount the idea, which Marie Steiner put forward and Sergei Prokofieff subsequently developed, that Steiner had taken on the karma of the members of the Anthroposophical Society but that they had failed to respond to the opportunity given them at the Christmas Foundation Conference and had therefore somehow through the operation of an occult law brought Steiner to a premature end.
Edith Maryon, who had stood with Steiner and watched the burning of the first Goetheanum on New Year’s Eve 1922, died in 1924 after a long and painful illness. Speaking in May 1924 after her death, Steiner said this:
The seed of Miss Maryon’s illness was planted in her during the night in which the Goetheanum burned down. And from what was started with that seed during the night when the Goetheanum burned she could not be healed, not even with the most attentive and skilled care.
Did this also apply to Steiner himself? It seems likely. The signs of his illness had appeared some years previously and were seen by those who worked closely with him but weren’t noticed by more casual observers until the beginning of 1924, that annus mirabilis in which he achieved superhuman feats of work, despite being so ill. Many eye-witnesses attested to the phenomenon of Steiner, who looked ill and exhausted before a lecture, gaining strength and vitality as soon as he began to speak, so much so that people thought he had recovered from whatever was ailing him. Actors who have been ill before a performance often experience this phenomenon of suddenly gaining new life and energy when they go on stage – they call it “Dr Theatre”.
What we do know is that by the last six months of his life, Steiner had lost a lot of weight, did not have the least appetite, his physical strength was so reduced that he had to be supported when he stood up and he suffered from very painful haemorrhoids. An enlarged prostate had caused a urinary tract blockage, which must also have been very painful – particularly as I suspect he did not allow Dr Wegman to catheterise him, and so this had to wait until Dr Noll was able to visit.
But even after he had taken to his sickbed, Steiner worked incessantly. He was writing his biography, The Course of My Life, writing the Letters to Members and the Leading Thoughts, reading the daily newspapers, studying the latest scientific and literary articles, and speed-reading piles of books which his secretary, Guenther Wachsmuth, brought in for him every day. He also dealt with masses of correspondence and all the details of the construction of the second Goetheanum, as well as holding regular conferences with Albert Steffen about editorial matters for two weekly periodicals.
In the draft she prepared for a lecture about Steiner in 1931, Dr Ita Wegman, Steiner’s main physician, said the following:
Through the burning of the Goetheanum, which shattered his physical body – there was a powerful loosening of the etheric body, even a separation of the etheric from the physical – his health became ever more delicate. “In comparison to other people, I have really already died on earth,” was something he often said. “My ego and astral body direct the physical body and supplement the etheric.…”
The question that arises again and again: what are we to understand by illness of an initiate, why speak of an illness in the case of Rudolf Steiner? That is what I want to try to answer here.
Well, why did he get sick? The delicate physical body was left behind too much and for too long by the soul-spiritual which was working in its very own homeland. The physical body was left to its own weight and physical laws, so that it became weaker and the digestion failed.
Steiner seems to have believed (or at least told others) up until very close to the end, that he would prevail over the illness. He died on the morning of March 30th 1925 without having been able to resume any of the lectures or overseas visits he had planned. Two weeks or so before his death, he wrote the following verse:
I want with cosmic spirit
To enthuse each human being
That a flame they may become
And fiery will unfold
The essence of their being.
The other ones, they strive
To take from cosmic waters
What will extinguish flames
And pour paralysis
Into all inner being.
O joy, when human being’s flame
Is blazing, even when at rest.
O bitter pain, when the human thing
Is put in bonds, when it wants to stir.
(Ich möchte jeden Menschen
Aus des Kosmos Geist entzünden
Daß er Flamme werde
Und feurig seines Wesens Wesen
Die Anderen, sie möchten
Aus des Kosmos Wasser nehmen
Was die Flammen verlöscht,
Und wässrig alles Wesen
Im Innern lähmt.
O Freude, wenn die Menschenflamme
Lodert, auch da wo sie ruht.
O Bitternis, wenn das Menschending
Gebunden wird, da wo es regsam sein möchte.)
I find it intensely moving that Steiner’s last year of life was spent in working harder and harder, despite all his physical ailments, to get across to people the magnificence of what it is to be a human being and to help each person to find that spiritual flame of the true self. For those of us who love Steiner, one way we can express that is to try to help others to see the choice they have between unfolding the essence of their true being or becoming the “human thing” chained down by materialistic illusions.
Christian Morgenstern expressed it beautifully:
I have seen THE HUMAN BEING in his deepest aspect,
I know the world, down to its foundation stones.
Its meaning, I have learned is love alone,
And I am here to love, and ever love again.
I spread out my arms, as HE spread HIS,
To embrace the whole wide world as HE has done.