Owen Barfield and the Origin of Language

Towards 1.2 (June 1978): 1, 3-7; 1.3 (Dec. 1978): 13-15.

Aristotle once admonished his hearers to “call no man happy until he is dead.” When people hear that I think they generally mean that it was simply a piece of ordinary pessimism, signifying that it is better to be dead than alive. That is not actually what he meant. In the original context he was trying to define the meaning of ‘happiness,’ happiness meaning not just a state of mind which you enjoy for an hour or two, or a day or two, but something that applies to a whole life. Perhaps the word ‘blessedness’ would be more appropriate. Because it applies only to a whole life, you could only really decide whether a man is happy or not after he is dead. Well, I mention that because it occurred to me that, if Aristotle had been asked about the choice of a human subject for a biographical lecture he might very well have laid down the same rule; and I notice that the sponsors of this series, in all the other lectures, have observed that rule inasmuch as all the other subjects have completed their lives. There is another difference, and it is one that involves a certain amount of embarrassment. In every other case the subject of the lecture was one person, the lecturer another. Here they are both one and the same human being. That does arouse a certain element of embarrassment, and I have come to the conclusion that I can mitigate it a little in the practice of referring to the Subject in the third person. I hope you will approve.

It happens that the actual moment when the Subject of this lecture was first made aware that it is possible to enjoy language as such — the very nature of language — can be identified very precisely. The scene is a school-room in the few minutes before the master comes in to take a lesson in Latin syntax, and the textbooks from which the homework has been prepared are lying open on the desks. The practice here was to illustrate the points in syntax by quotations from an actual Latin author. I think, at the risk of overburdening you with detail, I will tell you exactly what it was, even to the extent of using the blackboard. The point was to illustrate the fact that in Latin the accusative case is used to express duration of time. The sentence was: Cato, octoginta annos natus, excessit e vita (Cato died aged 80) and, for the student, the only word in the quotation that really mattered was the word annos. Nevertheless the boy sitting next to him suddenly observed: “Cato, at the age of 80 walked out of life — that’s rather nice!” or words to that effect.

You would be mistaken if you imagined that at the time the Subject was deeply impressed by his friend’s sensitivity, or anything of that sort. If anything he was rather irritated and inclined to think the man must be, in the language of those days ‘rather an ass’. But somehow it stuck. It must have done. Otherwise why has it gone on recurring to his memory at intervals throughout a rather long life? You see, what this friend — by the way the Subject was 11 or 12 years old and so was his friend — what this friend (whose name incidentally was Cecil Harwood) was drawing attention to, because it tickled his fancy, was a metaphor. You can say “Cato died.” You can also say “Cato walked out of life.” Well, of course the Subject himself was familiar with other metaphors, with figurative language, figures of speech; but it had never occurred to him before that it was possible to enjoy them, to relish them, for their own sake. That is the proper moment to identify, if you want to place the origin of the Subject’s interest in, and feeling for, the nature of language.

Some years elapsed before the Subject himself acquired the habit of enjoying metaphors, and when he did, it was of course mainly the kind which form such an important part of lyric poetry. They would bear, not merely reading and enjoying. One could somehow dwell on them. It might be a diffuse, rich metaphor, like Shelley’s calling on the West Wind to “make me thy lyre even as the forest is” or it might be a highly condensed, startling, even paradoxical, brief metaphor like Milton’s description of the venal clergy as “Blind mouths that scarce themselves know how to hold a sheep hook.” He became rather fascinated with them.

The world in which the Subject was growing up was the world of Wells and Shaw. The old Victorian confidence in unlimited progress was still going strong. It was a few years before Wells published his Outline of History. There was a new world in front of us; mankind had begun to move on and on and up and up, and to control the outer world with an ever-increasing multitude of gadgets, and everything was to be wonderful. What was not mentioned so often, although it was regarded as equally certain, was that, at the end of the whole process, the entire universe would crumble or freeze into a mere conglomeration of inanimate matter. It was — for anybody who really took a long view — you could say a pretty hopeless perspective. Well the Subject was somewhere between the ages of 17 and 20, I think, when he definitely concluded that lyric poetry was perhaps one of the best things in life, and certainly the most hopeful thing, in the prevailing materialistic climate of opinion in which he was being brought up; and furthermore that the metaphors in lyric poetry were what constituted the principal substance of it. It was not just a matter moreover of enjoying lyric poetry, the world became a profounder and a more meaningful place when seen through the eyes that had been reading poetry. That was perhaps the most important thing of all. Poetry had the power to change one’s consciousness a little. I will return to that, but first I want to say something about another point of view from which the whole business of metaphor can be approached, on which also began to attract his attention, and that is, the part it seems to have played in the historical development of language.

One thing that is noticeable about metaphors is that, if they are used too often, or if the same one is used too often, it fades away. It fades away as a metaphor and turns into a straightforward meaning. For example, at some time in the past someone wanted to say that he had tried every expedient he could think of, and he thought he would put it in a figurative way, make a little picture of it, say it in images. So he said: “I’ve left no stone unturned.” And no doubt his hearers had the pleasure of forming a little picture to themselves of a man with a hoe or a pickaxe. But the metaphor has been used so often since then that the man with the pickaxe has disappeared; nobody bothers to imagine him any more. The metaphor has turned into what is sometimes called a ‘trope,’ which is a verbal convention rather than a figurative expression; another name for it is cliché. And a second thing about metaphors is that they don’t necessarily need a whole sentence for their embodiment; a single word may be a metaphor. For example, again, to ‘walk out of’ is to depart from; ‘Cato walked out of his life’ or you could say: ‘Cato departed from life’ and then the single word ‘depart’ can be used as a metaphor for ‘to die’. It has been used so very, very often that the word ‘departed’ has become practically a synonym for ‘dead’, perhaps not so much now as 70 years ago. It isn’t quite so common now to refer to the ‘dear departed’ either on tombstones or elsewhere as it was 70 years ago.

A third thing: a metaphor may be a material picture of a material content. A snail ‘carries its house on its back’ is an example of such a metaphor. But it can also be a material picture (after all, all visual imagery is made up of material components) it may be a material image of an immaterial content. When Shelley speaks of the West Wind making him its lyre, he is drawing a material picture of an immaterial relation between himself and the world of nature, a relation of inspiration, as it were. This second kind of metaphor is by far the most important, and it is this kind of figurative language that, as our Subject was now beginning to discover, has played such an enormous part in the whole history of language, and also, as we shall see, in the history of theories about language, including theories about the origin of language.

For some considerable time before the Subject was born a lot of people had been pointing out (John Locke, Emerson, Max Müller, Anatole France, Jeremy Bentham are only a few of them) that not only do a great many of the words in any modern language consist of just such faded, or petrified, or fossilised, metaphors, but that is true of all those words which comprise what Bentham called the ‘immaterial vocabulary.’ Immaterial meanings apparently began their life in that way, that is by having purely material meanings, which were then extended by metaphor. When we speak of ‘grasping an idea,’ is ‘grasp’ a metaphor or is it a literal word? Well, let’s make sure we are not being metaphorical by speaking instead of ‘conceiving’ an idea. All right, but if you look into the word ‘conceive,’ you come on a Latin word which also meant at one time ‘to grasp’ in a bodily sense, ‘to take hold of,’ and so you can go on and very interesting it was, at all events to the Subject.

But there is one point about all this, that it is easy enough to say now, but which it took the Subject a long time to become fully aware of. This conclusion: that all words with an immaterial meaning, however simple or however refined and abstract (and of course there are thousands and thousands of them: ‘mind,’ ‘love,’ ‘hate,’ ‘ugliness,’ ‘obligation,’ ‘analyse,’ ‘progress,’ ‘motivation,’ ‘liberation,’ ‘departmentalisation,’ etc., etc.) this conclusion, that they all arose out of what were originally mere signs for visible objects and events, was based on certain unstated assumptions concerning the nature of primitive man. I mean the view that he had ascended from the condition of a mindless animal. It was a view that had already begun to gain currency in the 18th Century and had later been popularised and riveted on the whole cultural climate of the West by the Darwinian theory of evolution. If Darwin was right (and at the time the Subject was born in 1898 no one dreamed that he might not be right) if he was right, the first words uttered by primitive man must have been mere signs for the physical objects and events by which he was surrounded. And it would follow from this that immaterial meanings could only have been imported by using those simple signs later on as metaphors, as images of the second kind, images where the material picture expressed an immaterial content, a content of which man was somehow, in some mysterious way beginning to become aware. Max Müller in particular talked of a definite stage of evolution or perhaps of pre-history, during which this process was going on. He called it the ‘metaphorical period.’

Now let us go back to what I began with, the experience that can come from reading poetry. For some reason the Subject felt a strong impulse, not merely to go on enjoying the experience, but to examine it. Perhaps it was because, while he felt sure it was one of the best things in life, he was conditioned by the whole intellectual climate in which he was brought up, to suspect that somehow it might all be a subjective illusion. I spoke of that sense of an increase of wisdom or knowledge as an abiding result of the change of consciousness poetry brings. What if it were all just an illusion? Perhaps it was for that reason, or perhaps it was because he just happened to have a poking and prying kind of mind. Whatever it was, in the year 1922 (I think it was) he chose the language of poetry as a subject for a thesis to be submitted for a minor post-graduate degree. Much later, in 1928, this was published as a book under the title Poetic Diction. I’m afraid I must try very briefly to summarize the contents of that book, or perhaps better say its two conclusions. I don’t see any way of getting along without it. They were as follows:

First, that the appreciation of lyric poetry brings about, in however small a degree, a change of consciousness, a change in the direction of a slight increase of knowledge, of wisdom. The pleasure we feel in it is, from the point of view of that book, less important than the change. It lasts while we feel the change is going on. After that the pleasure doesn’t last, but the change does, or it may do so.

The second conclusion was that the same experience, the change of consciousness and the pleasure in the change, can be aroused by other kinds of language than the language of lyric poetry. Almost any kind of language in fact that is expressing a consciousness essentially different from our own. More particularly it can be aroused by a language which is at an earlier stage of development than the one that is our own, because it is the nature of language to grow less figurative, less and less couched in terms of imagery, as it grows older. We notice, we relish figurative quality in older language, and we experience this figurative element in the same way that we experience a metaphor before it has faded or before it has become fossilised. That is also the way in which we experience those new metaphors which poets make for us. But it does not follow from this (and this is where most of the philologists of the 19th Century and the early Twentieth have really made their mistake), it does not follow from this that that figurative element, that presence of living imagery, that we find in earlier language was made, invented, created by the individual genius of a poet. On the contrary, it couldn’t have been. It was simply there in the language as such; it was a ‘given’ kind of meaning, a ‘given’ kind of imagery. I am doing the best I can to epitomise the main argument of the book, and I realise it is not very satisfactory, but perhaps you can see that it entails a kind of critique of that theory of the origin of meanings (especially immaterial meanings) that I’ve just been speaking of, I mean the theory that they originated in the creation of metaphors by some individual person. The book pokes a little fun at Max Müller, pointing out that his notion of ‘metaphorical period’ necessitates the strange hypothesis that at a certain stage in its evolution the human race broke out into a kind of rash of poets. Perhaps I might quote a couple of sentences: “In other words, although when he moves backwards through the history of language, he finds it becoming more and more figurative with every step, yet he has no hesitation in assuming a period — still further back — when it was not figurative at all! To supply, therefore, the missing link in his chain of linguistic evolution, he proceeds to people what he calls the ‘infancy of society’ with an exalted race of amateur poets.”

Does all this indicate fairly clearly what had been happening to the Subject? He started off by trying to examine as objectively as possible a certain change in his own consciousness which could be brought about by reading poetry. In the result he found himself saddled, as it were, with a theory of a long term change in the consciousness of humanity as a whole, a change which can really only be described as an ‘evolution of consciousness.’

So much for the contrast between early language and later language. What about the Origin of Language? It was a subject on which a great many theories had been put forward in the fifty-odd years or so preceding the birth of the Subject. There had been an outburst, a rather wild outburst, of speculation in the latter half of the 19th Century. Most of it had died away by the time he was born and began to look around him, but there were still a few surviving reverberations. All those speculations about the origin of language were based on the assumption to which I have already referred, namely the emergence of human consciousness, from a purely animal one, from a consciousness to which any notion of meaning was inapplicable. The human being, it was assumed, first awoke to self-awareness to find himself surrounded by a world of sharply defined objects; and that self-awareness gradually increased as he learned to control and manipulate these objects in the course of the struggle for existence, struggle for survival. For purposes of that struggle he needed tools of all kinds that he had to invent, and the most useful of all the tools he invented or stumbled on in the course of that struggle was speech. It was also the most effective one in raising him above the level of the animal kingdom. All that part of it was taken for granted and anyone who had anything to say about the origin of language was expected to come up with some new way of explaining how grunts or other animal noises somehow or other developed into words. You probably know something about the kind of theories that were put forward. One theory was that it all arose out of human beings trying to imitate noises made by animals or wind, or water. That was sometimes jocularly called the ‘Bow-wow theory.’ Another one was that he was supposed to have uttered an exclamation at something happening to him. You said ‘Oh’ or ‘Ah’ and so forth: and out of that you gradually formed meaningful words. That was jocularly referred to as the ‘Pooh pooh! theory.’

Well, although it’s very clear to him now, it took the Subject some time to realize how totally incompatible all this was with his own speculative notions about the nature of language in its early stages. If the figurative, or let’s say the imaginal, meaning in the earliest words was really ‘given,’ and was not something added to them by an individual speaker (which is what happens when a metaphor is invented), then there must have been going on, not only a different kind of thinking but a different kind of perceiving. The picture quality, the given meanings must have been present in fact in the world about him. There must have been a kind of participation between perceiver and perceived, between man and nature. That is something we no longer experience, only get an occasional glimpse of its quality through the creative imagination of a modern painter or poet.

If you can grant this, you see language as originating in that participation, so that in the earliest stages of all it would have to be described as nature speaking through man, rather than man speaking about nature; and you see the subsequent development of language as evincing the gradual diminution of that participation as time went on. The early book I have just mentioned, Poetic Diction, went only as far as suggesting this concept of participation between man and nature. It was only much later, after a gap of which I shall say something shortly, that it was developed more fully in a book called Saving the Appearances, where the term ‘original participation’ was used to distinguish it from the kind of participation, similar in quality, though not in immediate origin, of which we get these glimpses in poetry and art. It was possible, accordingly, to include in that book a short chapter on the origin of language as distinct from its historical development. Except that a good many years ago he did give a lecture on the origin of language in this building, of which, of which I can find no record at all. Really only a faithful Darwinian can speculate about the origin of language, because he is convinced that it was added, at some stage of evolution, to a consciousness which was previously altogether inarticulate. It is different when you have become convinced that the human psyche (somewhat like a child, at first in the womb then afterwards at the breast) gradually drew forth its own meaning from the meaning of its environment; that man was, so to say, spoken into being before he himself began to speak. In the chapter of the book, Saving the Appearances, just referred to, the author complained that to ask about the origin of language is “rather like asking about the origin of origin”.

It was in 1922 or possibly the end of 1921, that the Subject first heard of Rudolf Steiner, and began to read some of his books and lectures. He approached them with an attitude of caution, even of suspicion; particularly he was put off by a certain residual aroma of the Theosophical Society, which was rather noticeable in those days. He had recently begun working on the thesis, afterwards published as Poetic Diction, but you would be quite wrong if you imagined him confidently confronting the orthodox picture of an exclusively biological evolution with a totally different picture of his own. The Darwinian story, the Darwinian fantasy as I am now inclined to call it, was about as firmly riveted on his imagination as on everyone else’s; and of course Rudolf Steiner’s picture of evolution is startlingly and, on first acquaintance, disconcertingly different therefrom. So, looking back on that time, he seems to recall that his first really positive, really concrete response to what I would call the ‘content’ of Anthroposophy was rather strangely similar to that older response to poetry, or rather perhaps to language out of which the idea of the book Poetic Diction first arose. That had begun, you may remember, with the discovery that the forms of language created by poets produced a certain change in consciousness, a change that was both pleasurable, and more than pleasurable — followed by the further discovery that older forms of language could produce a similar change, as it were of their own accord, without the help of the poet, without the help of art. He now found, simply as a matter of experience, that there was also a third source from which that sort of change of consciousness could originate.

The often surprising things that Rudolf Steiner reported with such confidence as the findings of his spiritual research, acted on him in the same way as did poetic or figurative language. Whatever else they were, they were (in those memorable words of Cecil Harwood) ‘rather nice.’ Yet in this case it was certainly not a literary or linguistic experience. He was reading Steiner in English translation and in those days many of the translations then available were, to say the least of it, not models of literary excellence. I thought that might raise a laugh! I must pause for a moment to disclaim any intention of ridiculing them. In those early days of the Movement in this country there were two or three people only who somehow kept the translations going and kept us up with what was happening. There was a weekly News Sheet coming out in German, which was reproduced here almost the day after, and all the time the great body of lectures was being steadily translated and the store in the library steadily added to, so as to make it possible for people like myself, who was then no German scholar, to make an acquaintance with the corpus of Anthroposophy. Ours is a tremendous debt. I wouldn’t want to laugh at those translations for a moment. But it was just a fact that it couldn’t be called a literary experience. Yes, in that case, it was the content, irrespective of the language that, so to speak, did the trick. But it was the same trick, the same sort of change of consciousness as in the other two cases. As in the other two cases, so in this, belief or unbelief was irrelevant. The change happened. It was something that was there.

Well, that seems to have been how it began. But of course he couldn’t continue long in that rather dilettante approach to Anthroposophy. What followed then in the relation between the Subject and Anthroposophy, was probably not very different from what has followed in innumerable other cases: first of all of resistance, then gradual acceptance, with the one changing into the other by innumerable gradations of conviction, ending in a firm conviction that the findings of Rudolf Steiner’s spiritual research are far and away our most reliable avenue in the direction of truth.

It would make a long story to go into all that, and it is not quite the story I am here to tell. Perhaps the greatest difficulty was the same one which had led to his original impulse to examine the nature of poetic experience: an ingrained suspicion of self-deception. He had imbibed from the whole of his 20th Century environment a suspicion, almost a conviction, that any theory implying that the world as a whole has any meaning, let alone a spiritual source, must be due to subjective wish-fulfillment. He recalls, in this connection, how very welcome (and for that very reason how suspect) it was to him when he discovered the central piece in Rudolf Steiner’s picture of evolution occupied by the Christian Incarnation. Also how well, you could almost say how precisely, it fitted in with his own halting notion of the development of meaning in language. A good deal later he was to give some account of that in a lecture entitled ‘Philology and the Incarnation’ which has been printed in the Anthroposophical Quarterly among other places.

One might, I suppose, have expected it to be otherwise. One might have expected the Subject to say to himself: “I have been suspecting for some time that there has been something like an evolution of consciousness going on, though nobody else much seems to have tumbled to it. Here is a man who obviously knows exactly what he is talking about and who bases everything he has got to say on precisely such an evolution. This is the man for me.” Actually it wasn’t quite like that. The two processes, acquainting himself with more and more Anthroposophy and trying to develop and to embody his own ideas, went on side by side for quite a long time. Years I should say, rather than months, went by before he clearly and explicitly and intimately connected his own way of putting things with the terminology he found in Steiner. For example, Rudolf Steiner begins many of his lectures on a great variety of subjects by observing that human beings many, many years ago had a kind of consciousness very different from our own. Sometimes he terms it ‘atavistic clairvoyance,’ sometimes he characterizes it in other ways. It strikes me now as odd that the Subject had been studying Anthroposophy fairly intensely and for quite a time before he could say to himself in so many words: “This Atavistic Clairvoyance he speaks of is none other than that figurative consciousness and awareness of meaning in the environment, of meaning entering into man rather than coming out of him, that I have been all along trying to point; the only difference of course, being that I end with it, I have been labouring to establish from very different grounds that there must have been such a consciousness. Steiner simply starts from it, affirms on the basis of his own direct perception that there in fact was such a kind of consciousness, and then he builds on that as his foundation.”

I don’t know if I have done right, or done what was expected of me, in concentrating as heavily as I have done on subjective mental experience. In any case I expect it’s time now to turn rather to externals. What, for instance, was the fate of the two books that I have referred to? Poetic Diction was published at the worst possible moment for a book of that kind, just before the beginning of the 1930s, which saw a quite violent reaction in literary circles against anything in the nature of romanticism, anything of that nature, anything connected with it. So the book was praised here and there, but sales (I speak of sales as a pointer to distribution rather than from the financial aspect) — sales soon fell to a mere trickle. It didn’t do even as well as another book that I haven’t mentioned, published a year or two earlier, History in English Words.

Meanwhile the Subject, for economic and other reasons, entered the profession of the law and virtually ceased pretending to be an author. He did not cease to be an Anthroposophist, and it was during that period that he managed to produce a few lectures and a number of articles for Anthroposophical periodicals, many of which were subsequently collected and published in 1944, in a volume called Romanticism Comes of Age. He was also, still more occasionally, in fact very rarely indeed, being asked to give a talk or read a paper to outside circles. One of these papers, called ‘Poetic Diction and Legal Fiction’ was printed in a volume of Essays Presented to Charles Williams and had rather momentous consequences, which I shall mention in a minute or two.

Meanwhile during this rather lengthy pralaya in the literary life of the Subject changes had naturally been going on outside, changes in the general climate of opinion, one of them being a sort of romantic reaction against anti-romanticism which was a great help. In 1952, at the suggestion of the publishers, a second edition of Poetic Diction was published and the trickle turned into — I won’t say a cataract, but into a recognisable little brooklet, which has continued to flow happily. A year or two later it appeared in paperback in America with a Preface by an American poet, in which he observed, among other things that the select few to whom the book had long been known had always regarded it “not only as a secret book but even as a sacred book.” That was rather gratifying.

The paralaya drew at last towards a close and in its later stages, when other pressures began to lighten a bit, the Subject was at last able to produce, in 1956, the other book which I have referred to, Saving the Appearances. It was a very different book from Poetic Diction, though I believe that the same substance is there in it. I should like to mention at this point that the Subject’s own feelings about all his books is that he has simply gone on saying the same thing over and over again! But whereas Poetic Diction is about the language of poetry, though it ends up, so to speak, by inferring an evolution of consciousness, Saving the Appearances is wholly about the evolution of consciousness, and therefore is also about the evolution of the earth itself. That the two evolutions are really one and the same is part of the argument of the book. Whereas in the earlier book an acknowledgement is made to Steiner in the Introduction, in the later one he is definitely established at a certain point in the text as a key figure in the theory of that evolution, if indeed not in that evolution itself. Nevertheless it is not an exposition of Anthroposophy, and because there is so much of the Subject’s own in it, the full extent of its indebtedness is very likely not apparent. It is possibly something of this sort that the Chairman had in his mind in the beginning in the kind remarks he made. The two are so inextricably linked. But let me now have a shot at it. I can give you one single example. Judging by the letters that the Subject receives and occasional references in other people’s books and articles, and by some other indications, the concepts of ‘original participation’ and ‘final participation’ (or perhaps the choice of that particular terminology) have been of some considerable importance to quite a few people. I don’t think that he would ever have been able to evolve those concepts, or that terminology or however you call it, if the evolutionary relation between macrocosm and microcosm which is the the marrow of Anthroposophy, had not become to him, during the pralaya, something more than an abstract idea, more like an actual experience, though no doubt a very rudimentary one; and I am convinced that that would never have come about except as the result of considerable meditation on the nature of eurhythmy and of a long, long love affair with the little book called the Calendar of the Soul.

It was not only in the narrow world of literary criticism that the intellectual climate had been changing. The word ‘semantic’ had recently come into use, and in its early days it had a much richer and more living significance than it has come to have now that it has been taken over by the analysts. In particular (this applies especially to America) an increasing number of people from a number of different points of view had started to interest themselves rather intensively in that problem of a metaphorical in language, the figurative element in language, especially in its relation to myth, and in the light thrown by all that on the early consciousness of human beings. Arising from that, they were becoming interested aesthetically, philosophically and so on in Symbolism of all sorts. They included, besides philologists, theologians and perhaps an occasional scientist or two. There was even a new name for it: Hermeneutics.

It happened somewhere around 1963 that a graduate student in an American university who was taking part in a seminar, discovered that paper on ‘Poetic Diction and Legal Fiction’ that I referred to earlier and introduced it to the class and his professor. This led to their looking into other books of mine, and a little later (I should have said ‘his’ — the first time I have slipped up!) to the Subject being invited to America as a Visiting Professor. You probably all recall or have heard of how surprised Molière’s Monsieur Jourdain was when he discovered that he had been speaking ‘prose’ all his life without knowing it. The Subject was equally surprised, when he got to America, to find that he was regarded in the appropriate circles, as an expert, even something of an authority, in a department of academic study of which he had never heard!

There was another set of circumstances also in his favour. The teaching staff at a good many universities were beginning to feel that the subjects they taught were too departmentalised, too much divided up into separate watertight compartments. Either you studied philosophy in Room 516 or you studied psychology in Room 990, or you studied literature in Room 1078. Yet the subjects themselves overlapped. There was a growing impulse towards the development of what are called  ‘inter-disciplinary’ programmes. For that purpose the kind of books and articles the Subject had been producing were, I suppose, corn in Egypt. Anyway, during the next ten years he found himself a visiting professor at a number of different American universities, each time with a different title. Here he was a professor of language and philosophy, there of philosophy and religion, there again English and American literature, or it might be simply professor of philosophy. They don’t do things by halves over there. And of course it worked both ways. The books got him the appointments and the appointments reacted on the reputation of the books. They are now certainly ten times better known on the other side of the Atlantic than on this. In saying this I do not forget that ten times nought is nought — and ten times one is still only ten.

What else is there to say? There were three or four later books in addition to those I have mentioned — the last one a fairly lengthy study of the philosophy of S. T. Coleridge, whom I have not previously referred to (you can’t get everything into a lecture), but to whom the Subject owes a very heavy debt indeed. But you don’t want a Bibliography. Let me rather, speaking in this Building,1 say a word or two more about the relation of his books and articles to the Spiritual Science of Rudolf Steiner; I mean the externals — to which I am confining myself in this part of my lecture. Experience seems to indicate that readers react in one of three different ways. One class of them (and of course I am referring to favourably disposed readers) says: “This Barfield is a deep one — says a lot of interesting things — has ‘meaningful insights’ —What a pity he goes and spoils it all by continually dragging in that man Steiner!” The second class (rather more rationally, I consider) says something like: “If anyone as thoughtful and insightful as this man appears to be lays such startling emphasis on Steiner, there is probably something in it. One ought to look into it.” But they don’t. They have got all they want, or all they are prepared to take, from Barfield. And then there is the third class, who argue in the same way as the second class — but who then do go on and take the trouble to encounter Steiner for themselves. A smaller class, I should say, than either of the other two, but not quite negligible. Some of them have become serious students of Anthroposophy in a private way; a few of the younger ones have gone into institutions such as Waldorf schools for a career, and I gather quite a number in the last few years have found their way to Emerson College over here.

Perhaps it is because the books are not specially aimed at the younger generation that it seems to be rather specially the younger generation to whom they appeal most effectively. Children do not like being addressed as children, and the books for the most part take the form of argument between supposedly ‘mature’ minds. Yet more often than not it is the young who respond. Saving the Appearances was, or so I was told, on sale in a Hippy bookshop in San Francisco shortly after the American paperback appeared. In the universities it tends to be the young who introduce them to their teachers rather than the other way round. I can give you two examples. A few years ago the Subject received a letter from a Professor in a well-known Canadian University, introducing himself as a reader, who told him that this habit in the young was sometimes found disconcerting to their teachers. The students would start throwing Barfield at them — and they had never heard of Barfield! It was such a nuisance, he said, that in more than one university the younger members of the Faculty were coaching the older ones in what they called “Barfield-readiness.” Again: at the height of the Student Protest period, when some of the students were insisting on running the whole show themselves (including settling the curriculum), at Berkeley in California they instituted a credit course in Barfield. It lasted for one term.

How important is all this? Many anthroposophists attach little or no importance to the academic milieu. They feel it is too far gone in arid intellectualism. They hold — and I think I agree with them — that, if anything like a break-through occurs in the acceptance of Spiritual Science (and surely there must be such a break-through before long, if our civilization is to survive) it will not be the academic world where it first appears. I think I agree with them. But I think it must be important that the message, and the legacy, of Rudolf Steiner should have its representations, in book or in person in the academic world as well as elsewhere. There is moreover no doubt that this was Dr. Steiner’s own strong desire. For these and other reasons, then, maybe the Subject has not altogether wasted his energies and his time. The time may even come — and is probably not far distant — when Aristotle will feel justified in describing him as “happy.”

Owen Barfield



1 [Transcriber’s footnote: This was delivered as a lecture at the Rudolf Steiner Hall, London, on July 26th, 1977.] Return.

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