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Anthroposophical Medicine

by Donald Watson(more info)

listed in alternative medicine, originally published in issue 14 - August 1996

Anthroposophical medicine is a philosophy of health and medicine developed by Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) in accordance with the principles of anthroposophy as a response to questions brought to him by doctors. Steiner started delivering lectures to medical audiences in 1920 but had already formulated ideas and given advice on cures, as reported by Kafka in a diary entry as early as 1911. As a belief system anthroposophy was based primarily on the ideas of Theosophy, but Steiner adopted a fundamentally Christian view (as opposed to the Hindu-cum-Buddhist worldview of the Theosophists) and his whole approach was more human. The name ‘anthroposophy’ is derived from the Greek anthropos, ‘man’, and sophia, ‘wisdom’, and Steiner said that the aim in studying anthroposophy is to become fully aware of what it means to be human. According to this interpretation anthroposophy means ‘awareness of one’s humanity’.

Only medically qualified doctors are allowed to train and practice in anthroposophical medicine. Although this might suggest that anthroposophical medicine can be regarded as complementary to mainstream medicine (anthroposophists claim that it is an extension of orthodox medical practice rather than an alternative), the materialism and mechanistic reductionism of mainstream medicine has meant that the two have become increasingly incompatible and represent totally different ways of looking at the human organism. Their attitudes towards illness, for example, are almost diametrically opposed. As with many alternative systems of medicine, anthroposophists regard illnesses not so much as conditions to be eradicated as processes to be helped along so that balance is restored and a greater wholeness achieved. In contrast to the reductionist view that a living organism is no more than an aggregation of cells and that to understand the body it is sufficient to understand the mechanism and pathology of its basic units, i.e. the cell, Steiner stressed the importance of unquantifiable qualities of life such as the processes of growth and healing, which follow different laws from those that govern the behaviour of inert matter and which are not susceptible to chemical analysis.

In any living organism there are two invisible forces at work – one for growth and expansion, the other limiting and organizing such growth. If these two forces are in harmony the body is healthy. If the organizing force is weak, cancer can result (cells growing out of control). The organizing force is linked to a sense of individuality and personal uniqueness, so something of what was to be understood much later as the ‘cancer personality’ was foreshadowed in Steiner’s teachings.

A fundamental premise of anthroposophy and of anthroposophical medicine is the existence of three ‘worlds’, three levels or modes of existence and consciousness beyond that of inanimate matter: they are – in ascending order from the physical – the etheric, the astral and the spiritual. Etheric forces are the formative forces that underlie and shape all animate matter. Astral bodies underlie the etheric bodies in animals and human beings, and spiritual bodies underlie the astral in humans only. These ‘bodies’ develop at different rates in early life: at the end of each of the first three seven-year periods of life there is according to Steiner a new ‘birth’. At the age of seven, coinciding roughly with the loss of the milk teeth, there is the etheric birth, when the etheric body finally detaches itself completely from the mother; at the age of fourteen the astral body is born, accompanied by the onset of much emotional confusion; and at twenty-one, the traditional age of majority, the ego is born.

Disease results when a person’s four ‘bodies’ malfunction in some way. This allows for a wide range of causative and contributory factors, since food and the environment can directly affect both the physical and the etheric levels of the organism, whilst the astral is affected by the inner life of emotions and drives, and the spiritual by a sense of conscious identity and the will. The interrelationship of these four levels is reflected in the anthroposophical belief that psychosomatic processes work both ways: the mind can produce physical disorders and bodily malfunctions can result in psychological disturbances (e.g. liver disorders can cause depression). Steiner never recognized the validity of talking about the unconscious mind; no such separate entity could exist in his scheme, although his ‘physical psychotherapy’ might deal with the same basic issues. For these reasons Steiner always recommended that any physical treatment should be supported by treatment for the mind in the form of art therapy or eurhythmy.

According to Steiner the human organism has a triune structure consisting of two ‘poles’ and a system which links and harmonizes them. The upper ‘thinking’ or ‘nerve-sense’ pole, also referred to as the cephalic pole, includes the brain, nerves and sense organs and is associated with thinking, consciousness, perception and the means by which the individual absorbs the outside world. The lower pole, also called the metabolic pole, deals with food conversion and energy transformation and is associated with locomotion and the means by which the individual influences the outside world through action. The third part of the human organism is the rhythmic system, centred in the chest and consisting of the heart, lungs and blood vessels; it is concerned with breathing and the circulation of the blood, harmonizing and balancing out the centripetal (cephalic) and centrifugal (metabolic) aspects of the two poles. These three aspects of the human organism parallel the three basic faculties – thinking, the will and the emotions.

The principle of polarity is reflected in specific types of illness: over-activity of the metabolic pole tends to result in inflammatory conditions, whilst a lack of control in the nerve-sense pole leads to degenerative conditions and tumours. But whatever the immediate causes of a disease the ultimate causes arise from imbalances between the forces of the ego (spirit), the astral body and the etheric body, and the activities of the cephalic, metabolic and rhythmic systems. For example, anything that causes an excessive reduction in astral and spiritual activity at the cephalic (nerve-sense) pole can result in an attack of migraine. This can happen through stress, overwork, or by too much sense data being received too quickly. Excessive demands on the nerve-sense system result in inadequate transference of astral energies to the digestive system to strip food of its etheric forces. This means that more energy is taken from the cephalic pole to restore balance, and migraine results.

Steiner also linked the traditional (western) temperaments – or HUMOURS – and the four elements to the four ‘bodies’. So, for example, someone with a nervous temperament, susceptible to quick changes, just as the wind changes, has therefore an affinity with the element Air; the emotions are controlled by the astral body, which is said to be dominant in such people. The anthroposophical correlations for all four humours, elements and bodies are as follows.


From an anthroposophical viewpoint, illness is not an evil to be eliminated so much as an opportunity to achieve greater freedom and wholeness. This is similar to the concept of disease in many traditional alternative systems of medicine, but at the same time it goes further than most. For example, it is common to most alternative systems to regard inflammation not as a symptom to be eradicated but as an integral part of the healing process, so to reduce it artificially does not help the underlying condition. Anthroposophical medicine goes further than most other schools of thought in suggesting that the root causes of disease are mental, emotional and, most essentially of all, spiritual. The illness should therefore be worked with constructively, since it is often a means of overcoming the spiritual imbalance. Many of today’s illnesses in the West, for example, result from overstimulation and a failure of will – a loss of the ‘will-to-life’.

The anthroposophical physician has to work with the patient to find what lies behind an illness, a task which requires spiritual awareness to a degree which few if any other systems of medicine demand of their practitioners. Remedies are, of course, also administered, for all such substances act on more than just the physical level. Anthroposophical medicine recognizes the value of Homoeopathy, and Hahnemann, the creator of homoeopathy, referred to the ‘spirit-like medicinal powers’ of potentized medicines – a clear reference to the ‘energies’ attributed to all natural substances by anthroposophical medicine. (The equivalent term in anthroposophy for potentization in homoeopathy is dynamization.)

In anthroposophical medicine plants are thought to be a way of directing particular metals to particular organs in the body. In Biodynamic Agriculture plants are grown in a systematic way so that they absorb the required metals. Animals as well as minerals and plants are used as medication, often derived from the whole creature (spiders and bees) or from a mammalian organ, which is often used homologically (i.e. to treat the same organ in the human). Subcutaneous injection is often preferred to taking medicine orally, especially if the rhythmic system is to be influenced. Oral intake may be more common when the metabolic system is targeted, and external applications – oils, ointments, lotions and baths – are more effective when treating the nerve-sense system.

In continental Europe, especially Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands, there are many more anthroposophical physicians and surgeons than in Britain or America. There are also at least ten anthroposophical hospitals in Europe, and in the Netherlands anthroposophical medicine is increasingly popular: its principles are used by teachers in primary schools and by those who care for the mentally handicapped, and many general practitioners are also qualified in anthroposophical medicine.

Extract from A Dictionary of MIND and BODY by Donald Watson. Published by Andre Deutsch 106 Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3LJ. 1995.

Picture of Rudolf Steiner supplied by Mary Evans Picture Library.


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