Owen Barfield called upon the men of the Western world to form themselves into a “commonwealth of the spirit” in which there is no copyright. To create a commonwealth of the soul, we need to know the limits and range of individualism as well as the limits and range of national character.
Shortly after Great Britain declared war on Nazi Germany for its atrocious invasion of Poland in 1939, one of the lesser-known Inklings, Owen Barfield (1898-1997; yes, Barfield lived to just short of his 100th birthday) offered a profound analysis on the way community works and on the way it should work. All of society, he noted with no small amount of poetic insight, arises from our associations and friendships and communities that bridge our individuality with our nationality. Being too much of an individual leads to the tyranny of the self, and being too much of a nationalist leads to a tyranny of others. Instead, the human person must find his or her context and serve within the bounds of overlapping and competing communities, friendships, and associations. Or, as Barfield so eloquently put it, we must “build up and maintain a common stock of thought rather than… startle with a series of sparkling individual contributions—like a commonwealth of the spirit, in which there is no copyright.”
Yet, to create a commonwealth of the soul, or, more directly, a republic of letters, we do need to know the limits and range of individualism as well as the limits and range of national character. As Barfield understood creation, there is nothing wrong with individuals bringing their unique and particular talents to the community. Indeed, to bring one’s excellences to the community is vital to the health of all involved. In so doing, not only do individual persons contribute to the common good, but they themselves discover through free will the virtues, especially that of charity, in dealing with others. Like all things, though, individuality can become perverted, a sort of self-absorption that demands that our fellow members of the community reflect us rather than reflect what they are meant to be (by God or nature). As such, we would become sons of pride rather than of humility.
Additionally, Barfield claimed, there is nothing wrong with expressing one’s national character. People—understood at a macro level—reflect their own religion, ethnicity, habits, mores, and norms, thus distinguishing them from others. Hence, an American is not an Englishman, but neither is a Kentuckian a Texan. Our communities—to which we belong—overlap and compete with one another. Yet, as with individuality, one can readily employ his national habits not as a point of identification but as a signal to oppress. As such, ideas become ideologies, and habits become propaganda in our perversions of the good. Such, Barfield lamented, was the case with Nazi Germany, which took what should be a healthy part of the Germanic character and twisted and distorted such ideas, making them—at least in the minds of the Nazis—superior to all others and, consequently, making all others merely material to be used, abused, and destroyed. This was, Barfield lamented, nothing less than “collectivism” that had been “erected as an idol and run mad.” Powers such as Germany’s in 1940 were, Barfield noted, “demonic.”
For an aid to explain his arguments, Barfield turned to one of the greatest of the Romantics, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who “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,” and by re-integrating man and technology and culture and nature. “He tried,” Barfield continued, “to familiarize 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 things striving to be.” Coleridge, Barfield claimed, had offered “a depth of Christian political wisdom which I believe to be unsurpassed by any other English, possibly by any other, thinker.”
Coleridge (and Barfield) believed that the British national character already existed, but that it could only slowly be revealed by participating in the everyday activities of life. “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 most likely to succeed is an appeal which proceeds on that basis, recognizing and describing rather than exhorting, declaring the nature of man.” Society itself and its many habits, properly understood, “are the products of creative thought and moral imagination.”
That nature of the British, it turns out, is highly individualistic, but, as a people, rarely to the point of absurdity and egoism. “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,” Barfield feared. Instead, the British character reveals something deeper about the nature of the human person and about the nature of freedom. “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.” After all, Barfield concluded, “the true vehicle for the impulse to individualism is man’s spiritual life.”
Though not an orthodox Christian for much of his life (he was an anthroposophist, but he formally joined the Church of England through the influence of his orthodox wife, in the late 1950s), Barfield here is referring to the radical necessity of the Incarnate Word, as St. John put it, as “the light that lighteth up every man.” Whatever Barfield’s heterodoxies, he cherished, admired, and worshiped the Logos as that which gives each person his due (justice) and yet redeems our sin and corruption (mercy). Only through the Incarnation can man call himself (and recognize himself) as a unique person, endowed in a certain time and place with a will free to make moral and ethical decisions.
Thus, Barfield ended as he began, calling upon the men of the Western world to form themselves into a “commonwealth of the spirit” in which there is no copyright. Only, then, he believed, could Britain successfully wage war against the demonic collectivism of the Nazis.
Author’s note: this essay is taken from a talk delivered to the students of University of Louisville’s Gary Gregg’s McConnell Center, March 8, 2021.
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The featured image is “Hip, Hip, Hurrah!” (1888) by Peder Severin Krøyer (1851–1909) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.