A religious philosophy, or a “spiritual science” (Romanticism Comes of Age 7)—its central belief the assumption “that nature has indeed a spiritual life, a spiritual substance of her own, which she preserves quite independently of man” (Romanticism Comes of Age 275)—to which Barfield was an adherent since the late 1920s, Anthroposophy was founded by the German occult philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) after (because of) his break with Theosophy. Anthroposophy teaches that human kind’s evolving consciousness is the result of—inextricable from—cosmic, extra-personal processes; that man evolves from original participation, to the age of the intellectual soul, to the age of the consciousness soul (the present), to final participation and the imaginative soul.
Barfield heard Steiner speak only once, in his twenties, and from that time on was greatly influenced by his prolific writings, becoming a well known proselytizer for Anthroposophy and an adherent of his teachings and of the faith that “through Rudolf Steiner there was revealed the gradual entrusting of the Cosmic Intelligence to man, of which the Incarnation of the Word was the central event, and which is the meaning of history” (Romanticism Comes of Age 237). Prior to his first encounter with Steiner, however, Barfield had already discovered many of the central tenets of Anthroposophy independently.
“From one point of view,” Barfield notes, “Anthroposophy is a new and startling phenomenon in the history of the mind. From another it can be seen as the natural and inevitable development of intellectual and philosophical impulses which had begun to manifest before Steiner was born.” As Barfield observes in Romanticism Comes of Age, “[Anthroposophy] begins to look much more like a coming-to-the-surface at last, and out of the clear light of day, of something that has long been at work in the dark—or nearly in the dark . . . half-hidden, always trying to reach the surface, and occasionally succeeding in doing so-for a brief period, and perhaps in an unexpected form . . . then vanishing again into obscurity”(300).
Barfield’s (and Steiner’s) Romantic precursors had also anticipated Anthroposophy’s key ideas.
“The thinking of others, such as Hegel and the Nature-Philosophers in Germany and Coleridge in England, had taken the same direction, but none of them had achieved their aim so authoritatively or so completely. Coleridge could write, rather vaguely, of “organs of spirit,” with a latent function analogous to that of our more readily available organs of sense, and Goethe could apply his “objective thinking” to supplement causality with metamorphosis. But neither of them could carry cognition of spirit beyond spirit-as-phenomenally-apparent in external nature. It was in Steiner that Western mind and western method first achieved cognition of pure spirit. The others were all apostles of Imagination in its best sense, Steiner alone of those profounder levels which he himself termed Inspiration and Intuition, but which may together be conceived of as Revelation in the form appropriate to this age—as a mode of cognition to which the noumenal ground of existence is accessible directly, and not only through its phenomenal manifestation; to which therefore even the remote past can become an open book.”
If Anthroposophy had early 19th century antecedents, it resonates as well with developments in 20th century thought.
Much influenced by developments in modern science, especially 20th century physics’ discovery of the participatory nature of reality,[i] Barfield finds surprising similarities in its discoveries and the teachings of Anthroposophy: “That it is an illusion to imagine nature unperceived as being or remaining ‘the same thing’ as nature perceived is a truth about which Anthroposophy and modern Physics agree.” But there is, of course, a different—a qualitative difference:
“Modern Physics assumes for its purposes that Nature unperceived consists of some kind of network of waves or particles. What does Anthroposophy assume? That Nature unperceived is the unconscious, sleeping being of humanity; just as Nature perceived is the self-reflection of waking humanity.”
It is this belief, of course, which makes Anthroposophy, and the thought of Owen Barfield as well, heretical.
In an essay on “Listening to Steiner,” Barfield succinctly summarizes Anthroposophy’s “basic principles” in the following way:
- The evolution of the world is, and always has been, essentially an evolution of consciousness; and the material and biological evolution, which is its outward expression, will never be known, though it may be tinkered with, until that is fully realized.
- In the course of that evolution matter has emerged from mind and not mind from matter. Spirit must first take on the form of a material brain in order to lead in this form the life of the conceptual world, which can bestow upon man in his earthly life freely acting self-consciousness. To be sure, in the brain spirit mounts upward out of matter, but only after the material brain has arisen out of spirit.
- In its later stages evolution is coterminous with the evolution of human perceiving and thinking. That does not mean a “history of ideas” refracted from particular heads, but a progressive development of the whole relation between the inner and the outer world.
- The verb “to evolve” requires a single subject if it is not to be meaningless. The age-long evolution of individuality—that is, of individual selves or egos—out of a general and participating consciousness, is accordingly not conceivable except in terms of repeated earth lives (reincarnation), just as the evolution of a natural species is inconceivable without repeated individual embodiments in the course of which it acquires its special form.
- The central form in evolution, that is, of the painful emergence of a subjective and specifically “human” consciousness out of that original participation in the phenomenal world which the myths reflect, and its advance to man’s final participation in that world as an individual free spirit, was the historical life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
- That stage in the evolution of consciousness which gave rise to, and has been urged forward by, the scientific revolution in the West is, on the one hand, responsible for the prevailing materialism of the present age. On the other hand it is that which has made possible exact knowledge both of nature and of spirit. Up to now this has only been realized in relation to knowledge of nature, and there only in a very limited (predominately mineral) sphere. Correlatively, however, it has made possible exact knowledge of man’s own spirit and of the spiritual world of which he is a part. Organs of perception giving rise to such knowledge are latent in all human beings, but can only be developed and brought into activity by arduous and persevering endeavor.
- Steiner himself developed these organs to an extraordinary degree and applied them to many, or nearly all, realms of knowledge. His books and lectures consist in the main of the findings of his spiritual research in those different realms. (“Listening to Steiner” 98-99)
In its simplest terms, Anthroposophy, then, should be thought of as “a path of knowledge to guide the Spiritual in the Human Being to the Spiritual in the Universe” (Romanticism Comes of Age 302: Barfield is quoting Steiner). “Men have called me also Sophia,” the Meggid explains in Unancestral Voice‘s peroration, Barfield’s most concise exposition of Anthroposophy’s central teachings:
“ Once I was the ancestral voice of the Father-wisdom, the theosophia that spoke inarticulately through blood and instinct, but articulately through the sibyls, the prophets, the masters. But at the turning-point of time, by that central death and rebirth which was the transformation of transformations, by the open mystery of Golgotha, I was myself transformed. I am that anthroposophia who . . . is the voice of each one’s mind speaking from the depths within himself.”
[i] “Nothing is more important about the quantum principle than this,” the noted physicist John Wheeler has shown, “that it destroys the concept of the world as ‘sitting out there,’ with the observer safely separated from it by a 20-centimeter slab of plate glass. Even to observe so minuscule an object as an electron, he must shatter the glass. He must reach in. he must install his chosen measuring equipment. It is up to him to decide whether he shall measure position or momentum. . . . . the measurement changes the state of the electron. The universe will never be the same. To describe what has happened, one has to cross out the old word ‘observer’ and put in its place the new word ‘participator.’ In some strange sense, the universe is a participatory universe” (Capra 127-28).