Babel

Anthroposophical Movement 11.14 (26 July 1934): 111-112

That every question has two sides to it and opinions are liable to depend on points of view is an idea so familiar to most of us as to amount almost to a platitude. But, like many platitudes, its truth may be experienced at different levels of intensity. In the first scene of the “Portal of Initiation” Rudolf Steiner puts into the mouth of one of his characters a speech which suggests that this experience, if it be extended to include an actual sympathetic penetration into the points of view, the varied “Meinungen und Gesinnungen,” from which different personal opinions originate, may be a positively shattering one. And even at lesser levels of intensity the experience may be most heavily oppressive, especially to-day when intellectual antagonists so often lack that modicum of common ground which is necessary before even a decent fight can be arranged.

To approach, for example, the weekly periodicals with a mind undulled by the monotonous excesses of vulgar journalism, to attempt to read these papers in the same way and with the same degree of sympathy which one brings to bear on a good book is to expose oneself to precisely such an oppressive experience. The literary world appears to have banished intolerance, only to replace it by contempt. This indifference and contempt for what the other fellow has to say comes out not so much in what is said as in the way in which it is all expressed.

A good example occurred not long ago. One of the political and literary weeklies took to publishing under the heading “Current Cant” half a column of the more fatuous written and spoken utterances of well-known men or newspapers during the week. No comment was added. It was a good enough joke that such things should have been said at all. Shortly afterwards another well-known weekly adopted the same device (under the heading “This England”), and it was not long before there came a week in which each paper included in its inanity column a quotation from the other! You have two groups perfectly tolerant of each other; only each thinks and feels about the other as if it were composed entirely of flat-earthers. That is all.

Even the correspondence columns catch the infection and I at any rate seem to be constantly running my eye down a letter to the editor which begins:

Sir,

The letter signed “Bona Voluntas” in your issue of the blank day of blank is obviously typical of the mentality of the writer. It has long been well known to psychologists that men of his stamp are utterly incapable of perceiving that white is white and black is black once they have acquired the fixed idea that white is black and I have no doubt that nothing short of an earthquake and two more world wars will suffice to shake your correspondent out of his bland intellectual repose…

And so on.

To-day we allow other people to hold their own opinions, not so much out of charity as because we do not really believe in thought at all. It is one of the commonest modern tricks to reply to an argument by explaining it. He said it because he had a classical education—because he hadn’t—because he was afraid—because he wanted to believe it—because he is a Jew—because he is English—in short, because he was the kind of man who would say it. Therefore we need not bother to think out why it is not true, or whether perhaps after all it is true and we were wrong. We need only look across the North Sea to realise how insecure are the foundations of that freedom of thought which the Western world has built up over so many centuries out of the courage and endurance, often out of the personal agony, of a few steadfast men.

The average man who adopts this device or mental classification does so because he has become inoculated through the press or the stage with diluted psychology, or psycho-analysis, or second-hand racial theory. The Anthroposophist does so because he has spent so much time reading Dr. Steiner’s lectures that he instinctively tries to talk and write like them on every possible occasion. Faced by an opinion with which he disagrees, he says: That is abstract, or that is Ahrimanic. You said that because Ahriman made you say it! It does not seem to have occurred to him that, if Ahriman tells the truth, it is none the less true. Balaam also spoke the truth. But such thinkers have forgotten that climbing a mountain is not the same thing as looking at the view from the top, and requires different methods.

To say the truth Anthroposophists have less excuse than most of the other people who are guilty of this dangerous solecism. For it is the lack of the very thing they do possess which has elsewhere given rise to this babel of voices, uncomprehending and uncomprehended, among which we live.

It is often a curious experience to meet personally the authors of these contemptuous dooms and ipse dixits. Not uncommonly they are the most modest and diffident people in the world. The author of the imaginary “letter to the editor” inserted above would very likely turn out to be a Sixth Form boy bursting with pride at having got his letter printed at all and in private life the opposite of self-assertive. This phenomenon is in some ways reassuring, but in others it is more alarming than if the journalist were personally like his productions. Who that has genuinely tried to write well and remain open-minded has not noticed how suspiciously easy it is to be “trenchant”? In that style the sentences seem to write themselves. Each is rounded, clear and perfect—because it contains one idea that positively excludes all others. It is this exclusiveness, with its underlying hint of contempt, which gives the snap to the style of so many popular favourites to-day. But it is not they who are writing, as you find out when you meet them. It is something unknown writing in and through tem.

This depersonation, or mechanisation of expression, is one of the most disquieting features of modern journalism and literature. We can become insensitive to it only by becoming insensitive to all the fineness of our language, and it is this insensitiveness which the flood of ephemeral print will unwittingly try to force on the children as they grow up into the world of thought, unless they can be strengthened against it.

Classifying instead of answering, calling names (whether scientific or merely objurgatory) is the first stage. Calling names obviates the necessity of thought. Labelling and dressing up are the next. Coloured shirts obviate the necessity even of speech. You bash your man as soon as you see him. At this stage the whole sham edifice of tolerance, based on contempt in lieu of charity, collapses like a house of cards and the old brutality reveals itself as never having really departed. It was merely taking a holiday in the head for a while.

The late Walter Rathenau in one of his books detected this disruptive process of mechanisation in industry and society, and, as a result, in the human mind. He wrote shortly after the War and he perceived as a counter-force in human affairs the principle which he called “solidarity,” meaning thereby that powerful and purely human community which many men, if the War books are to believed, found in the trenches. It is based on the feeling and will as apart from the mind and may exists between people of the most diverse outlook and status. It is, I suppose, in itself wholly good and is probably a foretaste of that distant “philadelphian” future of which Rudolf Steiner spoke. Certainly we get glimpses of it in some Russian literature. It may have been the ultimate motive force underlying the Russian Revolution. The subsequent history of Russia herself reinforces the lesson that the world to-day requires another kind of solidarity, which can only come about if a large number of people will permeate their thoughts with feeling, accepting the pain as the price of the understanding. Such a permeation, such an understanding, such a tolerance not based on ignorance nor on indifference not on contempt is one of the qualities which the laborious pursuit of Spiritual Science will bring in its train.

Owen Barfield

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