Articles

Editor: Rory O’Connor
Evolution of Consciousness

Published in the New Statesman when Barfield was still an undergraduate, this article is the first hint of the ideas given full expression in Poetic Diction. He later said of it that it argued “the form which a poem created was a form in the consciousness in the poet and his readers, nothing external at all… I suppose really you could say that [of his] “thinking about thinking” — that was the first symptom of it.”

This was originally a radio broadcast for the BBC Third Programme, and it is interesting to see Barfield occasionally dipping into the register of C. S. Lewis’s broadcasts on mere Christianity. Sceptical readers will at least be brought to the realisation that evolution per se is something different than Darwinian natural selection. In this way the essay insists on intellectual clarity.

This piece about the continued relevance of Goethe provides a good opportunity to stress that, as is evident in it, while Barfield is clear-eyed about all human difficulty, his is an essentially optimistic perspective. The article centres on the question of consciousness, self-consciousness, and their place in modern times.

As Barfield summarises it: “I am concerned with Greek thought still traceable in English words, whether or not the word itself is a Greek derivative.” In tracing the shifting meanings of Greek and Latin words and their English derivatives, an evolution of consciousness becomes apparent. The article is of a piece in this respect with History in English Words and Poetic Diction.

This article comes closest to some of the content and concerns of Barfield’s central book, Saving the Appearances; indeed it was delivered as a lecture, in 1955, two years before the publication of the book. It explains part of the contribution of the Jewish people to world history.

The Sleepwalkers, by Arthur Koestler, is still a well-known book for people wishing to make sense of ancient and modern cosmology. Barfield found it wanting, as being an example of what he would elsewhere call “chronological snobbery” and having a “residue” – perhaps more – “of unresolved positivism”.

Barfield lectured on Julian the Apostate, the last pagan to be Roman Emperor, as part of a series called “Leaders of Human Experience.” Some anthroposophical claims are central to the article: that people born in the first three centuries of Christ had a pre-natal recognition of the Sun-Spirit, which was Christ, and that Julian was among the last of these. Julian’s great external achievement of maintaining the Western Empire is mentioned, even as the tragedy of his belated position is highlighted.

Owen Barfield has been called a “learned anti-reductionist writer”. In this essay on nature (the phenomena) and philosophy (spirit) it is suggested how the two form a dialectical unity, and how anti-reductionism works, without obscurantism.

The references to C. S. Lewis in this lecture have a function beyond gaining the attention of the crowd. Here is a specific instance where the argument between Lewis and Barfield about historicism, given in broad outlines in the “Postscript” on Lewis linked to on this page, comes into focus. Barfield links the Renaissance and Romantic “impulses”. There is much secular corroboration of what great events these were: what Barfield calls “history of ideas” (for example The Roots of Romanticism by Isaiah Berlin). Barfield here provides an account of why they may have come about.

Some of Barfield’s work focuses on the loss in the West of the concept of the spirit as a possession of each human. In this short piece, he explains the origins of the loss, and the results of an attempt to get it back. A similar attempt, he believed, is needed today.

Here Barfield reviews a materialist account of the sources of the evolution of consciousness in the brain. Richard Dawkins has said of Julian Jaynes’s book: “It is one of those books that is either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between!” Allowing for Dawkins’ clumsiness of expression, what can be said of such a work is that it must be a work of intelligence, and Barfield responds in kind, suggesting what Prof. Jaynes might be missing.

Anti-reductionism

This engagingly written piece first appeared in T. S. Eliot’s magazine The Criterion. Its appeal to good sense about the continuing importance of the hard use of reason is relevant in the present time when it is surely in danger from many counterfeits. It is empathetic too, in appealing especially to the young who often wonder what the use is.

Published in 1970, this essay brings together, in an intellectually daring way, two separate elements in the intellectual firmament which many people are setting different courses by today – behavioural psychology and an “existential encounter with history”. Contrary to the normal pattern in much of today’s writing, this existential encounter is found to undermine the assumptions of behavioural psychology.

Introducing the philologist Max Müller by means of a review of a biography of him by the exceptional Indian writer Nirad C. Chaudhuri, the greatest value of this piece may be in making clear the element of simple drift and acquiescence in the acceptance of Darwinian natural selection in the nineteenth century, when all along Müller, greatly, though not uncritically, admired and mentioned elsewhere by Barfield, was raising questions about it.

This is a withering attack on the reductionist tendency in the emergent discipline of cognitive science. Readers can judge how fair it is for themselves by listening to the lectures.

Here Owen Barfield reviews the economist E. F. Schumacher’s popular bookAs with C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, mentioned in the text, Barfield regularly praised books that were – so to speak – going in the right direction, against unjustified dogmas.

A short way of expressing Barfield’s concern with science is to say that he wanted readers absolutely to accept the centrality of humans in the production of knowledge; equally the effects of scientific knowledge on them was central, because humans were what mattered. The radicalism of this project should not be underestimated. Any RUP – residue of unresolved positivism – must be abandoned. Readers are forced – as often in reading Rudolf Steiner, the subject of this review essay – to reflect on the contingency of our knowledge; and this is where imagination is necessary.

Literature and Philology

Any regular reader of poetry in English will recognise Barfield’s characterisation of it as deriving its rhythm from the discrepancy between its regular metre and the stresses of speech. The purpose behind the emphasis on poetry as being something other than excited speech is to validate it as a means and mode of thought.

In tendency this article is of a piece with Barfield’s bold declaration to T. S. Eliot, some time after he had published The Waste Land, that,”I am a little tired of literature that can do nothing but point out ironically that there is nothing much going on but disintegration and decay.” It points out that there can be no rigorous separation between literature and life, and finally embodies an attitude to life – an excited attitude. If Barfield’s literary aesthetic was often traditional, it was because he thought that the best vehicle to convey it.

The speculative claims in this article can be tested only according to their internal logic, broad correlation with history, and the sense of their rightness. There is a wealth of literary insight in this summary, rather than review, of Dorothy Faulkner-Jones’ book, The English Spirit. For instance her remark of the storgic, rather than erotic appeal of Jane Austen’s novels. The reference to the the living prototype of Hamlet’s previous incarnation as Troy’s Hector might raise an eyebrow; but the reference to Hamlet’s great capacity for love, equally might cause one to smack one’s face: not obvious, but surely correct.

An occasional piece which nevertheless makes some points about the nature of the creative imagination and the nature of infinity.

Owen Barfield was a friend of the poet Walter de la Mare. This piece was written at the centenary of his birth, when his reputation was wavering. It is also a very clear illustration of what might be called Barfield’s perennialist aesthetic, one not fixated on modernity and modernism.

This essay uses much of the specialised terminology of Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy. It is characteristic of Barfield in its use of philology, his first academic profession, and its commitment to a humanistic psychology.

Although this was first published as a postscript to an article by someone else it is included here as a word to the wise lest anyone be tempted to assimilate Barfield’s concerns to Lewis’s or vice versa, or to study the Inklings as a collective rather than a group of individuals. It may be worth pointing out that many very orthodox theologians, such as N.T. Wright and Douglas Wilson, are these days saying things about history in broad agreement with Barfield rather than Lewis – for reasons both Scriptural and pastoral.

This idiosyncratic lecture makes a speculative but perhaps necessary connection between the Divine Word and human words. As Barfield suggests late in the lecture, it may only be found meaningful by those who allow the legitimacy of such speculation; but much of Barfield’s work is to give grounds for its legitimacy.

Philosophy

Written in 1930, “Death” was not published until 2008, and it appears here as it is in Barfield’s typescript, with some typographical errors. But it was originally conceived, as he wrote to T. S. Eliot, as “one of a series of six or seven essays of predominantly ethical character,” which included “Psychology and Reason,” for Eliot’s magazine The Criterion. The article speaks for itself, and justifies its title, but it may be worth noting in conclusion that C. S. Lewis revealingly misremembered its title many years later as “Immortality.”

As a book-review of J.M. Muirhead’s Coleridge as Philosopher, this was published in the first and third editions of Romanticism Comes of Age. It has two broad themes. Firstly the differences between a participant and an agnostic (or “Modern” as Muirhead calls it) idealism, which also appears in the essay “Hegel and Rudolf Steiner”. Secondly, the theme from which it takes its title, the necessity of another Self in the construction of the Self.

This is a tantalizing review of a book by Rudolf Steiner about Thomas Aquinas, The Redemption of Thinking. What is striking about the review is its emphasis on the conjunctural importance of Aquinas’s thought – its importance in his own time, and in its different significance in ours.

Barfield’s response to the claims of positivism end up by sounding like common sense, in the same way that Chesterton called Thomas Aquinas the philosopher of common sense. His quotes from The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity, in which Rudolf Steiner described the logical underpinnings of anthroposophy remind us that they are essentially non-mystical, even pragmatic, taking as its cue the fact that thinking occurs, not only thought about any particular object.

Coleridge was central to Barfield’s thought: developing the implications of Coleridge’s thought was as much Barfield’s work as it was Rudolf Steiner’s to develop Goethe’s. Coleridge propounded an objective idealism, clear about the danger of abandoning the possibility of access to truth by means of the imagination. This essay serves as a useful introduction to Coleridge’s philosophical work.

Hegel can be seen as the crossroads of modern philosophy, with routes leading to Marxism, postmodernism, and an agnostic, formal, idealism. In this essay Barfield responds to an orthodox Hegelian with whom he corresponded, A. V. Miller. He gives a full-bodied model of what Hegel means to Steiner, modern philosophy, and the world.

Anthroposophy

This is Owen Barfield’s earliest expression of his perception of anthroposophy as “romanticism come of age”. Supplying the “failure of romanticism […] as metaphysic”, anthroposophy offers conceptual clarity, in distinguishing Inspiration from Imagination, which are then illustrated by the poetry of Wordsworth.

A bravura piece of diagnosis and prescription that incidentally shows that Barfield was not always “wise old Dr. Barfield” but a young man with a sharp prose style. Novice readers need not be repulsed by the anthroposophical terminology. They should take, if they can, the broad sense of it, but should seize on what they can surely recognise: the description of the use of irony in modern discourse. The connection of this to the violence mentioned early in the piece might lay Barfield open to the reproach of paranoia, but readers should think of the similar, but different, insights of Freud about the relation of jokes and slips with aggression.

A joyful and intricate piece of writing about the seasons of spring and autumn, the meaning of their great festivals in the Christian calendar, Easter and Michaelmas, and what the individual should draw from them.

This article proposes a means of responding to “panic fears”. Barfield notes that the ideas in the articles had been with him for a number of years. Nevertheless, the article was published in October 1940 and it is tempting to suggest the article was precipitated by the conditions of wartime.

Barfield here unites Eurhythmy, an art originated by Rudolf Steiner, with his own concerns with the origin and evolution of language: a natural unity given what Steiner expressed to be the intention in the art. Though Eurhythmy’s connection with dance is, on this account, tangential, it is nevertheless real. Barfield might have been expected to take an interest in it, both as someone interested in language, and as a talented dancer.

As much a piece of travel literature about a popular destination as anything else, and worth reading on that account, this is also a meditation on the role of feeling, part of the Steinerian triad of thinking, feeling and willing, as part of the human constitution. It is an illustration, in its insistence on the “firmness of will true tenderness” requires, of the occasional toughness of Barfield’s vision.

Originally given as a lecture to the Cambridge Anthroposophical Study-Group, this piece on reincarnation is (at points humorously) self-aware, but unapologetic, about its role in in the cosmology of Rudolf Steiner. Some readers may find the implied conservatism – which is nevertheless not at all reactionary or unfeeling – towards the end of the article unsympathetic. The lecture is nevertheless a search for truth, and the only thing missing, as Barfield himself points out, is a consideration of the conflict of these views with standard Christianity.

In this article a parallel in importance is drawn, for the different cultural epochs in which they lived, between Aristotle and Rudolf Steiner. A further parallel is drawn between the period of Eclecticism – which came after the fertile period during which Aristotle worked and before the period in which the Scholastic philosophers acknowledged his pre-eminence – and our own period. Barfield suggests that Steiner ought justly to come to underwrite science and thought in this epoch, as Aristotle did after a period of intellectual struggle. Barfield’s comments are made by way of clarification and prediction: acknowledging Steiner’s pre-eminence need be no more oppressive than Aristotle’s was. This article was originally a lecture, the last Barfield delivered in the United States, in 1984.

Hermeneutics

This short review of a book by the German theologian Emil Bock makes the point that eschatology matters greatly in judging any number of matters – the whole of the Bible and “our age” are mentioned here.

It can be said that sceptics are wary of the idea of the Bible being “all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” while believers are, equally understandably, wary of treating it as mostly poetry. In great depth, this article cuts across these cavils, giving an account of is meant by revelation from ancient times, right up – by pointing to its actual and possible relation to modern literature – to the presnt day.

Barfield here brings his philological perspective on the evolution of consciousness to the question of the nature of meaning. Without their being named, this draws Barfield into argument against the views of the logical positivists about language. To use Saussure’s term, they treat it as a “synchronic” system of reference. With many examples, Barfield shows the historical dimension is indispensable.

Social Commentary

This is an attempt to reintroduce Coleridge’s philosophical idealism to political thought. Other pieces on this page provide the justification for the mild, meliorist, but utterly uncomplacent tone of the piece. That meliorism is less common now than it was then. It is still true that there is little faith in ideas presently – a dialectical tragedy because it leads to indifference to formal logic itself.

In this essay Barfield tries to provide a modus vivendi between the differing views on abortion. How a founder-member of the SPUC, with a contempt for abortion evident in his novella Night Operation, should come to counsel a relatively liberal regime on abortion is a real question. The answer has to be found in Barfield’s deep understanding of life and death; his sense of, and respect for, the circumstances in which a liberal and democratic society has arisen, which is a function of the evolution of consciousness; and ultimately in the distinction between law and love.

Copyright © 1997 — Owen Barfield Literary Estate.       Return to Top.