The English Spirit

Anthroposophical Movement 12.5 (May 1935): 76-79; 12.6 (June 1935): 94-98.

I.

There are two qualities common to most of the many books and articles which are written about England and the English. Firstly, they are not written by English people, and secondly, they are superficial and all very much alike. We know beforehand what they will say. The stock properties (hypocrisy, compromise, philistinism, good-nature, humour, subtle pride, etc.), will be taken out, dusted, exhibited in various lights and returned to the box, and the English reader according to his temperament will go away happy either because he is an Englishman or because, although he is an Englishman, he is intelligent enough to read books about them and laugh at them.

The book before me1 has nothing in common with this sort of journalistic chit-chat. It is not much concerned with externals. The range and depth of its thought lift it high above the level of national feeling of any sort and it ought to be judged not as a contribution to the literature about England, but as a contribution to English literature. The author herself in her introductory pages defines the scope of the book as follows:

The aim of the following studies is limited and comparatively simple: the writer has taken from Steiner’s work certain definite ideas and has sought to illustrate them, to give them a richer perceptual content, by showing how they fit in with certain facts well-known to English people. The last two chapters are based on ideas which have arisen out of a study of Steiner’s interpretation of Christianity; the remaining five are concerned almost entirely with one particular Concept or Idea: that of the Spiritual Soul; and in dealing with this Concept the writer has limited herself mainly to its expression in and though English literature, referring in some detail to certain outstanding works, which are representative of the whole and familiar to all English people. Readers will thus be able to judge for themselves whether, within this limited sphere, Steiner’s thought can throw new light on the problems of modern life.

The first chapter goes on to give a very brief account of the Sentient Soul (with an interesting illustration from the story of Esther) the Intellectual Soul and the Spiritual Soul, stating the epochs to which they correspond. The literature of the Intellectual Soul is, characteristically, an analysis of feeling by thought. Such is the literature of France. “There is,” says the author, “no finer school for self-comprehension than the literature of France: from Phèdre to La Cousine Bette and Emma Bovary, from Alceste to Julien Sorel – every man and woman owes it to himself and herself to make at least once this pilgrimage of mind and soul.”

In the Spiritual Soul on the other hand, feeling is actually permeated by thought and, so to speak, controlled by it at every point. It is the soul-principle whose evolution is the concern of the present epoch. It finds expression in and through the physical body. England is its representative. As such England was regarded by Steiner as the true source of the materialism which has half-destroyed Europe and is now attacking the East. Yet he also said that the English people themselves have somehow escaped the worst consequences of the materialism they have generated. They have poisoned others, while themselves remaining comparatively uninjured. This is because they have possessed an antidote in the shape of their own soul. A poisoned world needs this antidote. The world, says Miss Jones, needs England’s soul as well as her materialism. Not only so, but England herself is just now in danger of losing her soul, and it is out of this strong conviction that Miss Jones has taken courage to write her book as a contribution towards its rescue.

Actually there has hitherto been very little understanding and appreciation of English culture on the Continent. The works of Byron, whose continental reputation stands highest after Shakespeare, are quite untypical of the English genius and of a comparatively low order of merit. Miss Jones devotes part of her first chapter to an interesting explanation of this. The interpenetration of thought and feeling in the Spiritual Soul gives rise above all things to individuality and that is the keynote of our literature. The literature of the Continent carries the reader away with it, expanding his inner consciousness towards the transcendental ego. The reader naturally and easily identifies himself with the archetypal characters of Molière for instance. Whereas the characters of Shakespeare and Dickens are not types but individual beings. To enter into their lives demands the same self-suppression and outward-going devotion as is required in order to enter into the life of a living friend. English literature sacrifices ecstasy for devotion, and so the foreigner finds it tamest precisely where it is at its best.

It is not only factitious characters that English literature individualises in this way. The face of nature is loved in the same intimate and particular way and the writer points out how, as a result of this, people have even come to speak of “Wordsworth’s Daisy,” “Shelley’s Skylark,” “Hardy’s Wessex,” and so forth. “The peculiar quality of the English writers is their power not only to call up the images of the external world, but to invest them with personality.”

This is the result of a complete and devoted turning of the self outward to the world of sensibilia, or percepts, which is both the natural psychic counterpart and a necessary antidote to the Baconian scientific attitude. One might call it a loving materialism.

In the second chapter (The Perceiving of Earth) this idea is carried a good deal further and leads to an interesting treatment of the progressive development during his life of Wordsworth’s attitude to Nature. The individual recapitulates in his biography the successive evolution of the three souls, and Miss Jones finds in Tintern Abbey, for instance, a record of the poet’s transition from a Sentient Soul relationship to nature (— the sounding cataract Haunted me like a passion) to an Intellectual Soul relationship, the

Sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns

out of which the poem was written. Later in poems written like Peele Castle and the Ode on Immortality, after his thirty-fifth year, we find expressed the true Spiritual Soul relationship to nature. The Soul realises with sorrow and humility that it must itself impart the spirituality which it hopes to find in Nature.

The clouds that gather round the setting sun,
Do take a sober colouring from an eye
That hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality.

The author’s treatment and choice of quotation bring out admirably this change in Wordsworth and his awareness of it, though it is perhaps slightly overstating the case to say (as she does) that Wordsworth actually conceived of man as “redeeming” nature. Novalis used this expression, but I think that Wordsworth, however clearly we may now see that it was in fact has task as a poet, would have found the doctrine stated in these terms irreverent and jacobinical – especially in the later part of his life.

In her third chapter, which she calls “The Perceiving of the Ego,” Miss Jones passes finally from nature to humanity. Contrasting Goethe with Shakespeare, she finds most characteristic of the latter the power to experience in himself other human individualities. Self-expression by way of self-abnegation is the proper path of the Ego as it unfolds within the Spiritual Soul. This idea is one which frequently recurs and in a sense underlies the whole structure. It is (though perhaps not sufficiently emphasised as such) the link between the quietly literary beginning of the book and what some readers are sure to criticise as its almost apocalyptic close. But before coming on to that, it must be noticed that precisely this chapter contains some of the finest and most penetrating pure criticism in the book. Of blank verse, Miss Jones says that “more than any other known metre, it allows free expression of the individuality of the writer.” This it does not directly, but through the way of self-abnegation, that is, through complete devotion to the subject. And one of the nicest observations in the book, though it will be of interest only the definitely and incurably literary, is her analysis of the effect (for this reason) of the introduction and development of blank verse on the parallel development of rhymed verse in England.

The chapter closes with a lengthy critique of Tennyson’s In Memoriam, to which Miss Jones gives a high place in our literature. A shrewd and original observation on the manner in which the peculiar stanza form of this poem reflects the intimate interplay of thought and feeling in the last piece of specifically literary criticism in the book, which launches forth with the close of this chapter on to a much wider area.

In In Memoriam Miss Jones finds in some ways the most perfect expression of the central tragic experience of the Spiritual Soul – that is, the apparently complete interruption of love by death, even where the love is purely spiritual – even where it is the selfless love of one ego for another. It has been a historical necessity that the Spiritual Soul should in certain human beings experience this to the full. And Tennyson was one of these human beings, as Emily Bronté was another.

This leads in the fourth chapter to a consideration of the nature of love – in particular that specifically human love, which can only subsist between two equal beings whole in themselves, and separate from one another. It can only be developed, says Miss Jones, through incarnation in a distinct physical body. It involves temperance and devotion, the two virtues characteristic of the Spiritual Soul, and is quite as much an act or series of acts of will as a passion of feeling. To illustrate this, there is a delightful analysis of the scene between Portia and Bassanio immediately after the latter’s choice of the leaden casket and again of the atmosphere of Jane Austen’s novels. It is particularly refreshing to find so deeply based and so well expressed an appreciation of that element in Jane Austen’s novels which plays a greater part in their magnetic attraction than their most enthusiastic admirers to-day are likely to admit to themselves. I mean the faithful presentation of that constant and domestic sort of affection which the Greeks called storgē, limited by its very nature to a small circle, but within that circle perhaps the most perfect thing which human beings have yet created.

The first part of the book was mainly occupied with the endeavour to build up in the reader’s mind the concept of the Spiritual Soul and the literary criticism introduced was incidental to this purpose. From now on the balance changes. The reader is assumed to possess the concept, and it is itself used to elucidate historical events and contemporary conditions. Illustrations are still drawn from literature, but they are illustrations primarily of these events and conditions themselves and consequently it is with the matter rather than with the form of the literary works from which the illustrations are drawn that we are henceforth concerned.

The author takes Hamlet as a typical example of a temperate nature in an intemperate environment, and after referring to Rudolf Steiner’s attribution to his living prototype of a previous incarnation as the Trojan Hector, she develops the whole theme of the experiences undergone by souls in their first (or first significant) post-Christian incarnation. It is clear that this subject is closely connected in her mind with the present stage of evolution of the Spiritual Soul. “Hamlet,” she writes, “stands out as a man in the vanguard of time, centuries ahead of his fellows, having achieved in great measure that harmony of thought, feeling and will which alone can give freedom to the Ego. More than any other character in Shakespeare he seems formed to radiate the purest, highest human love. But, though he himself is unaware of the fact, the profound impression stamped in him by earlier incarnations makes him unable to free his mind from the trammels of passionate feeling in all that concerns those bound to him by ties of blood. Government and leadership, in very ancient times, was bound up with the tribal, patriarchal system, in which the ruler or leader was felt as the father of his people, and in many cases was actually related to them by blood. Hamlet, having lived as a pre-eminent example of the Folk-Leader, had become deeply conscious of this patriarchal relationship to his family and to his whole people: a dim shadow of it still survived, as a strong sub-conscious, protective feeling for all those bound to him by blood, and a sub-conscious tendency to regard the Kingly office as very sacred – both these feelings, though sub-conscious, were far more deeply-rooted and far more noble than the rather superficial sense of family union and family honour, typical of his own day and exemplified in the elder Hamlet as well as in Laertes.” (Reviewer’s italics.)

This problem of transition from a state of feeling and a Kingly certainty of action based on the spiritual support of the blood to a state of feeling and a different inward “Kingship” based on love is the inner aspect of the transition from the fourth to the fifth epoch – in the throes of which we are still struggling to-day. It is most fully and perfectly exemplified in Shakespeare’s tragedy of King Lear, to the analysis of which from this point of view the author devotes the whole of her fifth chapter. The issues raised are far-reaching and are related in certain respects to the articles which Miss Jones has recently contributed to this periodical. Moreover, the argument requires following at certain points with especial closeness in order to avoid confusion. For these reasons I propose to defer dealing with the remaining chapters of her book to another article.

II.

The Spiritual Soul is the principle of the individualised ego. In the 4th epoch the Ego was not yet individualised, had not yet come fully to earth. Men lived in family groups, of which they felt themselves to be limbs only. The Ego was the Ego of the race; it was carried down on the stream of the blood, and only in the patriarch, the “Father” did a condition at all resembling that of a modern self-conscious individual arise. Moreover the patriarch’s own ego-experience depended on this very “fatherhood,” it depended on his experiencing himself in his seed and he would accordingly regard his children as mere parts of himself rather than as independent beings. As such it was both more and less divine than modern self-consciousness. It was inspired – for the Father felt the divine guidance working through him – but it was also “natural” rather than human, as we mean the word. The “love” of such a patriarch for his children would not be the distinctively human love of one equal being for another. There would be an unfree element in it. It would be essentially possessive.

The heart of tragedy is perhaps the inevitable conflict of two forces, both of them great and both of them good. This is what makes the difference between “King Lear” and the “Barretts of Wimpole Street.” Miss Jones takes Lear as the type of a soul which had lived most fully as a “Father” in the pre-christian age, experiencing all the glory and support and divinity of the blood. It comes trailing these clouds of glory into the post-christian period, and now they are its undoing. The heart of the tragedy of King Lear is the conflict of Lear, not with Edmund and Goneril and Regan, but with Cordelia. For Cordelia has the individualised Ego and the unpretentious unexacting, free human love of which it is capable. It is very new and naked and weak in the face of Lear’s puissant passion, it is even a little gauche, but it is itself and unbreakable. Consequently it is Lear who is broken. Goneril and Regan are but the instruments of his self-destruction. He sought instinctively to rely on nature, on blood, on race, and in giving away his kingdom had merely intended to give it to other parts of himself. But “nature” is something very different since the coming of Christ from what it had been in the ancient days. Bewildered by the impact of an unfamiliar ego in his youngest daughter, Lear turns to those whom he rightly believes to be still egoless. He finds them possessed by demons.

Thus, one, who had lived so to speak out of nature, had been supported by her as by a throne, is suddenly set over against her, even in her physical aspect, and has to cower before the hostile fury of the storm. Moreover in the naked Edgar Lear sees placed before him an objective imagination of the weakness and helplessness of the new individualised man. Eventually, though broken as far as this life is concerned, he finds the spiritual soul in all its forlorn weakness, as he becomes reunited for a moment with Cordelia. He has accomplished the transition from the 4th to the 5th Epoch, before he dies.

As a defined achievement – capable of recognition not only by Anthroposophists but also by the outside world – the chapter on Lear is probably the most perfect thing in this book. The criticism in it, like Coleridge’s Shakespearian criticism, is made a vehicle of psychological insight and therefore, like Coleridge’s, it does not merely analyse the beauties of the play but discovers new ones which we should not otherwise have perceived. One of Coleridge’s favourite illustrations of imagination in literature was Lear’s exclamation when he catches sight of the naked Edgar.

“What! have his daughters brought him to this pass!” Nothing could bring home to us (said Coleridge) the state of Lear’s mind so vividly as this expressed tendency to identify the cause of all suffering with the cause of his own. Miss Jones, to whose definite conception of the significance of Edgar I have already referred, is able to take us a little deeper than this. Lear’s mind, she says, “dwells on the thought of how weak and pitiable a creature man is, when reduced to his essence, deprived of all that he borrows from the World of Nature.” Under the influence of this obsession he even begins to tear off his own clothes, (“Off, off, you lendings—Come; unbutton here!”).

This image of Man (continues Miss Jones) naked and helpless, he connects with the thought of his daughters; that man should be so reduced, so stripped of dignity, can only come from the denial of the great natural bond between father and child: only the cruelty of his daughters can account for Edgar’s state.

This observation, torn from its context, may sound commonplace. In its place in the book it is most impressive. It derives its effect from the way in which the author has presented Lear in the preceding paragraphs, making us feel how to a man with the patriarchal outlook, so to speak, in his blood the revolt of his daughters must really be a shattering, because it must be a spiritually denuding experience.

This brings me to one of the difficulties which hamper understanding of the latter part of the book. I mean the obscure and insufficiently defined use of certain words such as “nature,” “race” and “blood.” As an example, at the beginning of the chapter which succeeds the one of King Lear, Nature (with a capital N) appears to be used in quite a different sense from that which it has had throughout the chapter on Lear. There it was identified with the divine father-principle which was Lear’s ancient spiritual support. Now it has suddenly become the antithesis to “Spirit.” In the ancient world, we are told, as a reflection on the characters of Goneril and Regan:

In the male the wild passions and animal-like cunning of the “natural” human being were to some extent held in subordination, not by his own merit or power, but by the divine guidance working into his will. In the female Nature reigned supreme, except when checked by obedience to some external command, and she expressed not only its tenderness and beauty, but its cruelty, its manifold instincts of self-preservation.

And what will the ordinary reader make of it when he is told that, by contrast to all the hereditary elements that are transmitted through the mother the blood is “passed on” through the father?

It is to be feared that difficulties of this kind are inevitable and to some extent insuperable when the attempt is made to write or speak the truths made accessible by Anthroposophy in terms which all will immediately recognise and understand. Thus, to avoid wholly an ambivalent use of the word “Nature” it would probably have been necessary to enter in detail into the differentiae of those “less exalted divine beings” referred to on page 168. And as to “blood” the author herself  gives us an indication of what she means by stating immediately after the words quoted above that the blood “as part of the physical body is spiritually (reviewer’s italics) predominant” in the male, not in the female. At the same time a more careful use – even if precision be impossible – of key words of this kind would have helped much in the exposition of ideas which in themselves appear to me to be shapely and consistent enough. The consistency is there, but it has to be reconstructed by the reader himself from the unsystematic sequence of the subject matter. Yet this, which is an adverse criticism of the book as a book and will count against its success outside the Movement, is to my mind rather favourable than otherwise to the authenticity of the subject matter. Mere brain-spun theories, one feels, would have been, by a writer of Miss Jones’s capacity, spun much better.

We have seen something of the difference between the 4th and 5th epochs. In the last two chapters an attempt is made to trace out in much greater detail and to draw certain conclusions for our own time. I propose to summarise the argument as I understand it after a good deal of reflection, a good deal of looking before and after through the pages of the book to pick up dropped threads.

The spiritual or divine can only penetrate with its impulses into the human will by way of an “Ego.” Down to the 4th epoch such penetration took place by way of a group or racial Ego, of which the blood (then normally more or less unmixed racially) was the physical expression. This Ego was transmitted with the blood down the stream of heredity but was in a sense confined to males, females standing at an altogether lower level of development. Race was then a vehicle of divine guidance and was transmitted through the male.

To-day, however, in the 5th Epoch the Ego has become individualised. The blood is still its physical expression, but it is not the racially mixed blood which has characterised Europe since the great migrations. An Ego incarnates in each individual and is no longer passed down by way of heredity. The racial principle is no longer a vehicle of divine guidance, but rather of possession by sub-natural forces and passions. It is now passed on through the mother, though this, as will appear in a moment, would not now disqualify it any way from being a vehicle of the divine. Furthermore the individualised Ego has been hitherto, in the very process of its individuation, cut off in a sense from the divine spiritual world. The present stage of the 5th Epoch of Spiritual Soul age is thus confronted by a problem; how shall the human will become once again filled with divine impulse: with the Christ impulse?

The striking distinction between the 4th and 5th Epochs is due to the fact of the Incarnation having occurred during the former. This event, unique in the history of the Earth, has brought about other important changes in the constitution of the human being and his relation to the divine. Before the coming of the Christ the Spiritual world worked through the (group) Ego directly into the physical (blood). Actually the human being has two intermediate principles, the astral and the etheric; but in pre-christian times these were not yet spiritualised; they were on a “natural” plane. Nevertheless the course taken by the Christ being in his incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth was not the old one, direct from Ego to physical. He passed through and filled the astral and etheric bodies first. Consequently the path of the divine impulse, and indeed of every concept, on its way down into the human will now lies from the Ego through the astral and etheric into the physical, the will-element in man.

This fact has completely altered the social significance of woman. Ego and physical are predominantly masculine principles, whereas astral and etheric (the “soul” element) are feminine. Thus there is a sense in which the women of any community are the soul of that community. A new social idea must pass through them before it can be realised properly in action. A new spiritual impulse would thus be grasped or conceived in the first place mainly by the men of a nation, it would then be welcomed by the “creative receptivity” of the women, entering in this way into the life of feeling (astral) and of habitual everyday thought (etheric) of the nation. Finally the nation’s will (expressed again mainly through its men) would seize on the impulse as elaborated and carry it into action. A terrible example of the disaster which is now inevitable if the intermediate stage is omitted, industrial England was built by the new ideas of mechanism and individualism before they had had time to be modified, corrected, humanised by the sense and sensibility of women. The idea was applied with fanatical enthusiasm regardless of its practical consequences and their resultant misery – which women would have been wise enough to foresee.

These ideas are applied by the author mainly to England for the English Spirit is her subject. As she told us in the first chapter that the world needs the Soul of England no less than her materialism, so now from the social point of view, in considering the possibility of a renewal of the Christ impulse in the external forms of Society, she appeals to the women of England, as being in a special sense guardians of that soul, to cast off intellectual laziness and make straight (or, to be more precise, not too straight) the path from the thought to the will.

Even this, however, does not exhaust the packed contents of these last two chapters. It is true, that the spiritual can now only approach the human will through an individualised Ego, but there are still two alternative possibilities for beings incarnated in a physical body. The Ego may take hold of the impulse or concept and transmit it, as mentioned, to the will. On the other hand the body may by special sacrifice become a vehicle for another and higher Ego. The difference between these two ways is closely associated in the author’s mind with the difference between Saxon and Celt and her treatment of this subject is developed quite organically, though perhaps a little spasmodically, from the chapter on the Celtic King Lear. The Celts are in a sense 4th Epoch men surviving on into our own time. They tend rather to retain the unmixed blood which was once the vehicle of immediate divine guidance before the Ego was individualised. For this reason they are to-day exposed to moral and spiritual dangers from which the ordinary Saxon is shielded by his innate “Spiritual Soul” development and the support which he as an individual derives from his mixed modern blood. They are easily possessed by debased racial passion. Unconsciously they tend, like Lear, to revere as holy per se what was once so but is so no longer – the blood of the race and the passions associated with it and with the blood generally. On the other hand they may rise to greater heights of spirituality and self-sacrifice. For their bodies are by their blood, if it be kept pure of racial taint, peculiarly adapted to become the bearers of higher beings. Such a self-sacrifice in the literal sense would appear to be the culmination of that “self-expression by way of self-abnegation” the idea of which, as we saw, is in a sense the underlying inspiration of the book. The last two (6th and 7th) chapters of which I have just been writing, are entitled respectively “The Holy Grail” and “King Arthur” from which it will be inferred that the “argument” which I have endeavoured to expound is in fact woven upon a framework of the Celtic Myths themselves. Both the Holy Grail and the taking by Arthur of sword Excalibur are symbols for the author he the descent of a higher Ego into a purified ego-less blood. But such things become too glib in the repetition of them. They should be read – and this applies especially to the future possibility which is envisaged on the last two pages – in their place in the book.

I have purposely made this more of a summary than a review. The book is in many ways difficult to grasp as a whole, though the straightforward and often highly felicitous style in which it is written makes it easy enough to read. I feel that it is in the first place interpretation that is needed rather than criticism and indeed that the second is impossible until some interval has elapsed after the first. The book is undoubtedly one to be reckoned with and it is in my view of considerable importance that its contents should be understood as clearly as possible before they become the subject of feeling whether favourable or unfavourable.

One thing more: the fact that the book is about this country and about the age in which we now live lays it open to a certain misconception, which I think should be cleared away. And this is all the more desirable inasmuch as the articles which Miss Jones has been contributing to this periodical appear to be open to the same misconception. When writing about any past period, let us say the age of the Intellectual Soul, there is no danger that description will be mistaken for exhortation. The experience of the Intellectual Soul undergone by persons seriously endeavouring to acquire self-knowledge must necessarily be intenser and quite different in many ways from the experiences undergone during that past period in some degree by every Western human being. Yet a description of the latter is powerful to illumine and evoke the former and was often used by Rudolf Steiner for that purpose.

The same is true of the Spiritual Soul experience, and the experience of the individualised ego, the experience of freedom. There is an intenser experience of these things which comes on the path of self-knowledge, but there is also a sense in which or a level at which they are to be experienced by all human beings incarnated during the Spiritual Soul age. To hold otherwise is tantamount to denying that there is such an age. To describe the ordinary experience is not to propose it as a substitute for the intenser one.

Quite apart from this, it will be a pity if this book is read in the wrong way either by Anthroposophists or by those who are not Anthroposophists. It is not an “official” exposition of spiritual science (if there is such a thing) and should not be judged or accepted as such. It is not simply a rearrangement by a shake of the kaleidoscope, of ideas already expressed by Rudolf Steiner. The author has been scrupulous to distinguish her own affirmations from his and to take full personal responsibility for all she says. The judicious reader will accordingly estimate the book’s worth by considering dispassionately how far its observations confirm his own and how far they afford him a new and deeper insight. Such readers are in a minority in any given time, but their opinion tells in the end because it is an opinion and not the breath of prejudice or fashion or the war-cry of personal loyalty. Ultimately all books are submitted to this test and those which do not pass it may be relied on to perish without assistance. It is a test to which The English Spirit will in my opinion stand up very well.

Owen Barfield


1 The English Spirit (A new approach through the World Conception of Rudolf Steiner) by D. E. Faulkner Jones, B.A. (Lond.). London: The Anthroposophical Publishing Company, 1935. Return.

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