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Common Misconceptions

Root Races
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) [1] . Further, William Judge claimed that he, Sinnett and others had received the same teachings from Blavatsky orally as early as 1875. [2] 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 [3] . 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 [4] . 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. [5] 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 [6] . 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. [7] 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. [8] 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 [9] . Steiner of course admired certain aspects of Blavatsky's character and some of the things she was able to accomplish [10] , 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'. [11]

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. [12]

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. [13] 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. [14] 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. [15] 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).

Works Cited:

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.



[1] The Mahatma Letters have an interesting history. Their purported origins are as follows:

"The Mahatmas were the direct, in-person, instructors of Madame Blavatsky. They 'wrote' letters to A.P. Sinnett by 'precipitating' those letters apparently out of the air and the letters are currently in the British Museum."

Carson, Reed. "Mahatma Letters." Blavatsky.net. 22 Jul. 2005 <http://www.blavatsky.net/theosophy/mahatmas/mahatma-links.htm>.

Critics, both contemporary and modern, have maintained the Blavatsky wrote the letters herself. The letters themselves have been analyzed by numerous methods over the years, yielding conflicting conclusions.

[2] Judge, William Q. "The Earth Chain of Globes". Blavatsky.net. 22 Jul. 2005 <http://www.blavatsky.net/theosophy/judge/articles/earth-chain-of-globes.htm>.

[3] From Encyclopedic Theosophical Glossary: Root-Rz , <www.theosociety.org/pasadena/etgloss/root-rz.htm>
Root-race The main serial divisions of the human life-wave on any globe of a planetary chain; for instance, the root-races on our globe D include the third or Lemurian, the fourth or Atlantean, and the present fifth. Each such root-race contains many and various races as the word is commonly understood. All the human beings alive today are part of the fifth root-race. Each life-wave when it has completed its cycle of seven root-races on one globe, transfers its life-energies to the next globe, whereupon begins the same sequence of seven root-races on that next globe. Thus each globe of a planetary chain has its seven root-races, which together constitute one globe-round, the whole set of seven globe-rounds completing one planetary round.

[4] Often called "Globe D" in Theosophy. Anthroposophy also speaks of a progression of Rounds and Globes. The first Globe is called "Old Saturn" the second "Old Sun" the third "Old Moon". The coming fifth Globe is called simply "Jupiter" (a perfect example of why it is necessary to focus on the concepts rather than the terms – in a one-sentence quote you could easily confuse the physical planet with the future time period) the sixth simply "Venus" and the final "Vulcan". For reference, see Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine and Rudolf Steiner, Occult Science, (Starting with chapter 4) and The Apocalypse of St. John (especially lectures 5 and 6 – June 22nd and 23rd, 1908).

[5] It would go well beyond the scope of this essay to list them all. Blavatsky named the present, 5th 'Sub-Race' the "European" (Secret Doctrine, Vol. 2, Page 446) and the present 5th 'Root Race' the "Aryan".

[6] Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna. The Secret Doctrine. Volume 2, Part 1, Stanza 9 (page 199). In the text Blavatsky is clear that she used the name "Aryan" because of the linguistic characteristics of the leading culture of the new era.

[7] "If I may once again introduce a personal note. I had to find a suitable opportunity on which to build. One could not simply crash in on our civilization with the spiritual world." Rudolf Steiner. The Anthroposophic Movement. Bristol, UK: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1993. Page 22.

"There was now no longer any reason why I should not bring forward this spiritual knowledge in my own way before the theosophical public, which was at first the only audience that entered without restriction into a knowledge of the spirit."

Steiner, Rudolf. The Course of My Life. New York: Anthroposophic Press, 1951. Pages 297-298.

[8] “My first work of lecturing within the circles which grew out of the Theosophical Movement had to he planned according to the temper of mind of the groups. Theosophical literature had been read there, and people were used to certain forms of expression. I had to retain these if I wished to be understood. But with the lapse of time and the progress of the work I was able gradually to pursue my own course, even in the forms of expression used.” Rudolf Steiner. The Story of My Life. London: Anthroposophical Publishing Co., 1928. Page 313.

[9] Rudolf Steiner and Marie Steiner. Correspondence and Documents: 1901-1925. New York: Rudolf Steiner Press 1988. Pages 17-18. He repeated this characterization publicly 20 years later in a lecture on June 10th, 1923:

"In short, Blavatsky's Secret Doctrine is a peculiar book: great truths side by side with terrible rubbish." Rudolf Steiner. The Anthroposophic Movement. Bristol, UK: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1993. Page 23.

[10] For an example of the high regard that Steiner nonetheless had for Blavatsky, see pages 61 to 63 of Rudolf Steiner and Marie Steiner. Correspondence and Documents: 1901-1925. New York: Rudolf Steiner Press 1988.

[11] In 1908 Steiner said:

“When people speak of races today they do so in a way that is no longer quite correct; in theosophical literature, too, great mistakes are made on this subject ... Even in regard to present humanity, for example, it no longer makes sense to speak simply of the development of races. In the true sense of the word this development of the races applies only to the Atlantean epoch ... thus everything that exists today in connection with the [different] races are relics of the differentiation that took place in Atlantean times. We can still speak of races, but only in the sense that the real concept of race is losing its validity."

Steiner, Rudolf. Universe, Earth and Man (GA 105), London 1987, lecture of 16 August 1908.

[12] Steiner:

 “For this reason we speak of ages of culture in contra-distinction to races. All that is connected with the idea of race is still a relic of the epoch preceding our own, namely the Atlantean. We are now living in the period of cultural ages ... Today the idea of culture has superseded the idea of race. Hence we speak of the ancient Indian culture, of which the culture announced to us in the Vedas is only an echo. The ancient and sacred Indian culture was the first dawn of post-Atlantean civilization; it followed immediately upon the Atlantean epoch.”

Steiner, Rudolf. The Apocalypse of St John (GA 104), London 1977, lecture of 20 June 1908.

[13] Explaining the issue at length in 1909, when he was still the General Secretary of the German section of the Theosophical Society in Germany, Steiner said:

”If we go back beyond the Atlantean catastrophe, we see how human races were prepared. In the ancient Atlantean age, human beings were grouped according to external bodily characteristics even more so than in our time. The races we distinguish today are merely vestiges of these significant differences between human beings in ancient Atlantis. The concept of races I only fully applicable to Atlantis. Because we are dealing with the real evolution of humanity, we [theosophists] have therefore never used this concept of race in its original meaning. Thus, we do not speak of an Indian race, a Persian race, and so on, because it is no longer true or proper to do so. Instead, we speak of an Indian, a Persian, and other periods of civilization. And it would make no sense at all to say that in our time a sixth "race" is being prepared. Though remnants of ancient Atlantean differences, of ancient Atlantean group-soulness, still exist and the division into races is still in effect, what is being prepared for the sixth epoch is precisely the stripping away of race. That is essentially what is happening.

Therefore, in its fundamental nature, the anthroposophical movement, which is to prepare the sixth period, must cast aside the division into races. It must seek to unite people of all races and nations, and to bridge the divisions and differences between various groups of people. The old point of view of race has physical character, but what will prevail in the future will have a more spiritual character.

That is why it is absolutely essential to understand that our anthroposophical movement is a spiritual one. It looks to the spirit and overcomes the effects of physical differences through the force of being a spiritual movement. Of course, any movement has its childhood illnesses, so to speak. Consequently, in the beginning of the theosophical movement the earth was divided into seven periods of time, one for each of the seven root races, and each of these root races was divided into seven sub-races. These seven periods were said to repeat in a cycle so that one could always speak of seven races and seven sub-races. However, we must get beyond the illness of childhood and clearly understand that the concept of race has ceased to have any meaning in our time."

Rudolf Steiner. The Universal Human: The Evolution of Individuality. New York: Anthroposophic Press, 1990. Pages 12-13. Lecture of December 4th, 1909.

[14] One prominent example is the book Cosmic Memory, which is a collection of Rudolf Steiner's early writings on Atlantis and Lemuria, initially published in serial form in the periodical "Lucifer". Theosophical terminology, including the term 'Root Race' is present throughout, and Steiner never revised the volume during his lifetime. In fact, it was not published as a book until 10 years after his death.

[15] One website in particular stands out as an example of this: http://www.shoaheducation.com/rootrace.html compiled by Elizabeth Kirkley Best PhD. The page on the dangerous doctrine of Root Races it is the most extreme example I have ever seen of this type of confused thinking. The writing is full of blanket statements that lump together the various understandings held by users of the term.

Copyright © 2004-2005 Daniel Hindes