Effective Approach to Social Change

The Christian News-Letter, Supplement to No. 39 (July 24th 1940)

Dear Dr. Oldham, –

You will easily guess that I have been following the Christian News-Letter with the greatest interest. In case they may be of use to you, I have endeavoured to set down as shortly as I can some of the thoughts which have been passing through my mind in the last few months bearing on subjects with which you and your contributors have dealt. Their sources are various and would in most cases be difficult for me to identify, so I have not attempted to do so. Some of them you will recognise as reflected back from the News-Letter itself. I take it that this does not matter. On the contrary, it may serve to emphasis one of the things I specially like about the News-Letter. I mean the impression it gives of a sober effort to build up and maintain a common stock of thought rather than to startle with a series of sparkling individual contributions – like a commonwealth of the spirit, in which there is no copyright.

POWERLESSNESS OF IDEAS

First, however, let me say what it is more than anything else that dashes my hopes of the effectiveness of this effort, and tends to damp down any rising enthusiasm. I doubt its having any lasting effect, because I am compelled to doubt the effectiveness of any appeal to reason in this present age. Something has happened either to the minds of men or to the thoughts which fill them. These have grown somehow thinner. There is no faith in ideas and in their compelling power comparable to that which ruled in the Nineteenth Century. The controversies between Huxley and Wilberforce, between Newman and Kingsley, were, I am convinced, real destiny-involving issues not only for the protagonists themselves, but for tens of thousands who followed them, in a way which no controversy about ideas ever is to-day. Whether there is simply too much newsprint about, or systematic propaganda has poisoned the wells, or whatever the cause may be, the average man of to-day does not arrive at his convictions dialectically. He has lost faith in ideas. When he has followed some chain of thought to its logical conclusion and given his assent, he will turn to another page of his newspaper and read, without dissent, the exact opposite. The mind of the German nation as it listened to Goebbels and Ribbentrop, first before then after the Russo-German pact, is only an extreme instance of this. It is not the startling exception we should like to think it.

AN ALTERNATIVE METHOD

I start off with this because “if way to a better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst.” And this for me is the worst obstacle to the effectiveness of the Christian News-Letter and indeed to the success of any positive effort to produce something good out of the mental and physical chaos by which we are surrounded and threatened. It is a factor of which I am again and again being made freshly aware and it should, to my mind, be the determining factor to-day in considering the first problem which confronts anyone who seeks to exert a healthful influence on the minds of a large number of people; that is, the problem of a method. I have a suggestion, perhaps rather vague, to make towards the solution of this problem, which I will put as shortly as I can.

I must lead up to it indirectly. If you are convinced that it is well for a man, or it may be a nation, to make something, there are two possible ways of imparting the conviction to him. You may convince him by argument that such a thing, if made, would be a good and useful thing. That is one way. On the other hand you may say: “This thing already exists potentially and is merely waiting to be brought into visible being. Moreover it is your true nature to make it, because its archetype already exists in you. If you fail to make it you will be acting in a way that is fundamentally false: you will be a sort of hypocrite.”

Now I believe that this second method is the only one which has any chance of success to-day. I also believe that it is inherently a better method, because for one thing it is in harmony with religious faith. Ethics are concerned with what ought to be, where religion is concerned solely with what is. It is, for instance, not a religious appeal to say “You ought not to be acquisitive,” whether or no we add “because in that way peace will be secured.” It is a religious appeal to say: “It is the will of God that you should not be acquisitive,” whether or no we add “and you will find that it is really your own will also, the will of that true self of yours for whose salvation Christ died.”

The question is, therefore, is there any chance of producing by this second method a widespread conviction in the minds of English people that it is their urgent business to create a new society? In attempting to answer this question one naturally asks first, whether attempt has ever been made before.

AN EARLIER ATTEMPT

A century ago a great man was writing in this country on social change and political questions with an aim not unlike that of the Christian News-Letter. Coleridge saw that a new society was needed in Europe and that it could only be brought about by a change in people’s ways of thought and feeling. He virtually foresaw, as the inevitable result of habits of thought which were then comparatively new but were rapidly becoming prevalent, the very disintegration which we are now experiencing. I do not wish to expound his doctrine, only to stress the fact that he chose the second method of appeal.

He tried to familiarise English people with the notion that there is what he called the “idea” of a nation, a constitution, a church – that is, not a theory of these things worked out empirically, but something which they are in fact and in the nature of thins striving to be; and that the first problem is to recognise this “idea” in each case. He failed to “get it across” because the terms in which he was obliged to expound his thought do not come easily to English people, being indeed terms for which their very language is ill adapted, compared, for instance, with the German tongue. In order to succeed he would have had first to induce in others his own philosophic intimacy with a world of the unmanifest, of the “becoming.” This was the labour of Hercules which he set himself in “The Friend,” “Church and State,” and others of his prose writings, but it was beyond his, probably beyond any man’s, powers and he never won more than a small audience. The failure was disastrous because for anyone who will first take the trouble to master Coleridge’s system of thought these writings of his contains a depth of Christian political wisdom which I believe to be unsurpassed by any other English, possibly by any other, thinker.

Is there any better prospect of success to-day? I believe there may be. There is one respect in which the mental background of Europe to-day differs quite startlingly from the background of a hundred years ago. Practically everyone has become acquainted with the notion of an “unconscious.” Since the turn of the century people have gradually acquired the habit of referring in the most matter of fact, even glib, way to this particular aspect of the “unmanifest.” To this extent we are all accustomed to “moving about in worlds not realised” without any of those “blank misgivings” which Wordsworth mentioned and Coleridge failed to dispel. This one fact seems to me to create a totally different situation, so that, if Coleridge were here to-day, he would fine exactly what he formerly lacked, a point of contact with the minds of his contemporaries from which at least to make a start.

INDIVIDUALISM OUR HERITAGE

Am I making my suggestion at all clear? What I want to get at is that the true form of the society which Britain ought to create already exists potentially in the nation’s unconscious, and that the appeal which proceeds on that basis, recognising and describing, rather than exhorting, declaring the nature of man rather than exhorting.

For example, most people agree that one of the main issues at stake in the present war is the principle of individualism – of freedom. It is the obscure feeling that this is in jeopardy which has so far united the nation in a practical harmony in spite of all minor discords. Now it is very important, if the discords are not to grow and destroy the harmony, that that obscure feeling should be transformed into a clear consciousness and a firm conviction. But suppose, according to the first method, one merely affirms that man ought to be free, or has a right to be free, or that individualism is the ultimate aim, the discords begin to sound at once. Look what your individualism leads to – the Black Country, south Wales, malnutrition for millions while a few thousands live in comfort! Sir Richard Acland has put it all cogently in his Unser Kampf.

Coleridge would have forestalled such criticism. For he would have begun by looking for the “idea” of individualism embedded in and disguised by its partial and accidental manifestations; he might perhaps have found it in the fact that each individual man is made in the image of God. Is it not possible by a different style of exposition to adapt this method of thought to the consciousness of to-day? Would it be so difficult to bring the English people to see that the impulse to individualism has been throughout their history, and is now, implanted in their unconscious; and that precisely because its true nature has remained hidden from them, the outward expressions which that impulse has found from time to time, the vessels into which it has been poured, have been too much determined by the accidents of its environment? A plant for the same reason may be made to grow into all manner of ugly and stunted shapes; but the fact that it must grow awry rather than cease growing altogether proves nothing about the plant, except that it is strong.

The predominantly economic interests of Britain at the beginning of the present industrial age were the latest environment in which this strong impulse to individualism had to grow as best it could. The misshapen growth is a token of its strength. The significant thing about the Factory Acts is not that wicked men opposed them, but that good men did. So strong and fundamental is this impulse that it has thriven in the most unlikely places rather than in no place at all. If it finds no better environment than the shop, then at least it exerts itself to produce a nation of shopkeepers instead of a national chain store, and it does this in spite of all the advantages which the chain store can show from other points of view.

IMPULSE AND THE FUTURE

It is the peculiarity of our age (the powers of evil know it well) that it is possessed with a desire to become more conscious of the nature of such fundamental and hitherto unconscious impulses. An impulse is the future playing into the present; it is the unmanifest seeking manifestation, the “idea” beginning to realise itself. For every one person who knows what an “entelechy” is, there are a hundred thousand who dimly feel its reality in their own spiritual background. This, I believe, is the principal reason for that thinness of lucid but theoretical thinking which I mentioned earlier. Men feel that the impulses, less conscious as yet, are more real. Hence the popularity of, for instance, D. H. Lawrence.

The thing that operates more powerfully than anything else to begin unconscious impulses up to the level of consciousness is the manifestation of their opposites. And in the last few years the outstanding phenomenon in Europe has been precisely the opposite of individualism. Collectivism abroad, erected into an idol and run mad, has not merely shocked the British people, it has partially stunned them. They are, I believe, almost electrically ready to be made aware of their impulse to individualism, aware of it as never before, not in its too sorry manifestations but in its own true nature as an impulse, in its deep, deep roots.

THE TRUE SPHERE OF INDIVIDUALISM

If this could be brought about, I believe that three-quarters of the battle on this ground would be won. The light would break very quickly as the impulse revealed itself in its true nature. We should see that the economic life of a community is not the part of its life in which individualism can find expression. That part cannot express individualism and remain human. It is essentially collective. The true vehicle for the impulse to individualism is men’s spiritual life. That part cannot fail to express individualism and remain human. We should see that man must be free, not because he is a trader, but because he is a spirit; he must be an individual because God speaks to and through the individual, and for no other reason. “His claim to freedom,” as you yourself wrote on June the 26th, “rests in the last resort on his relation to God.” Nor is such freedom a necessity for his individual moral well-being only. It is also necessary for the growth and development of society. For the forms of society are the products of creative thought and moral imagination; and these are functions of the individual human spirit in its sacramental relation to the Holy Spirit. When St. Joan, in Shaw’s play, retorts to the sceptic who has attributed her voices to her imagination, “Why, of course, that is how the messages of God come to us!” she puts the case for political freedom in a dozen words.

Without a clearer understanding of this case and the conviction that comes of understanding, individualism will not win and will not deserve to. Collectivism will trample it down. The demonic powers which begin to work in collectivism the moment it is mis-transferred from the economic to the spiritual life of mankind, simply laugh at Wellsian claptrap about the sacredness of personality, as the witches laughed at Macbeth while he was still innocent of anything worse than self-centred ambition. They know how hollow it is, and where it leads to, and how perfectly it plays into their hands.

I give this as an example only, and perhaps it is the most important example for us. But the principle applies equally elsewhere. There is also a deep impulse towards collectivism in the British people, the inventors of clubs, trade unions and friendly societies. If they could be brought to recognise this impulse in its own nature, for what it is, they could ride on it towards a new society. Whereas, if you set up any of these things, individualism, collectivism, democracy, as an abstract idea, it becomes, if the impulse is strong enough, an idol, and if it is not, mere talk.

If you ask me for detailed and practical suggestions based on what I have said, I confess I am at a loss. To substitute for argument and exhortation the semi-magical influence of slogans, repetition, and psychological tricks is to exploit the unconscious, not to enlighten it. Possibly the effect of a short and really powerful declaration or manifesto (the product of that “commonwealth of the spirit” which is your vineyard) would lie somewhere between the two extremes of dialectic and suggestion. I do not know. And there is certainly much more than this to be done. But does not the startling success in our time of the divides to which I have just referred well illustrate how much an able adaptation of method to the contemporary mental background can do in one direction – the wrong one? I feel so sure that, if as much is ever done and in as short a time, in the right direction, it will be done by those whose eyes are at least as wide open to the actual nature of that background as are the eyes of the adversary himself.
 

Yours sincerely,

Owen Barfield

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