Vague collective guilt leads to societal disorder and societal evils greater than the ones that originally caused the problems. Owen Barfield suggests that by re-imagining not only the glorious dignity of each individual person but also by recognizing the sin of which the person is capable, we can move out of the deadly cycle of guilt and conformity.

Despite having built up a North American following in the 1960s and 1970s, Owen Barfield (1898-1997) could find almost no publication, periodical, or serial to review his 1979 book, History, Guilt, and Habit. Only one academic journal, the Virginia Quarterly Review, even deigned to acknowledge it, and, in one swift paragraph, the journal dismissed the book’s author as “cranky” and the book as meaningful only to right-wing Hegelians.

Based on a set of three lectures delivered in British Columbia in October 1978, History, Guilt, and Habit does the difficult work of attempting to understand the deepest meanings of history and its relation to the human person. Throughout the lectures, Barfield very capably—indeed, with uncanny precision and a seemingly never-ending bulwark of contexts—defines terms such as history, evolution, consciousness, perception, thinking, and, most importantly, imagination. History, Barfield contends, is something quite different from evolution as it is a “consciously directed process,” as opposed to the mere passive accumulation of change and events. Through his definitions, Barfield is especially interested in identifying those things that allow us to make free decisions and act rather than being merely acted upon. “Perception,” for example, “is essentially a passive experience, something that happens to us; thinking is an active one, something we do.” Yet, Barfield cautions, one should never fall into the Manichaean habit of dividing all things into opposites. Some of the most interesting aspects in humanity and in human society come from the overlapping—or interpenetration—of opposites.

One of the most valuable lessons I learned from Coleridge was to detect that terribly obsessive, and terribly contemporary fallacy which supposes that we must only distinguish things that we are also able to divide. It is closely allied to an obsession with space as the criterion of reality. When we divide things, we set them, either in fact or in imagination, side by side in space. But space is not the be-all and end-all, and there are many things that, by reason of their interpenetration—I repeat, because of their interpenetration—cannot be divided, though they are easily distinguished: acquaintance and friendship, for example, or envy and hatred.

As an obvious example in the natural world, there is night and there is day, but there is also dusk and twilight.

A second problem with the modern world, Barfield laments, is what he calls the “atomic obsession,” our scientific desire not only to find the smallest thing possible within nature, but to compartmentalize all such small things. There is “the whole direction taken by natural science since the Scientific Revolution; I mean the concentration of attention always on smaller and smaller units—molecules, atoms, neurons, genes, hormones, etc.—as the only direction in which advancing knowledge can proceed.” Clearly, Barfield understood, this runs counter to the entire humanist project to find integration and bring the universal and the particular into a fine relationship. Such integration can never happen without that active and rational employment and exercise of the imagination. “In the language of imagination at its most powerful we are made to feel a kind of Union between the observer and what he is observing,” Barfield explained. “Charles Lamb, for instance, could speak of a level of writing which ‘the imagination seems to resolve itself into the element it contemplates.’”

With the whole movement of science since the Scientific Revolution heading toward the inhumane, as it divides and categorizes, the humanists have lost the fight and have, for the most part, surrendered their understanding of the “imagination” as the ability to see the connections and the unities between things. Further, and equally dangerous, we moderns have lost the ability to understand that the image represents something much deeper than the surface view provided by the image. Thus, we look at a human being—who, by traditional faith and philosophy, is made in the image of God, is a bearer of the Imago Dei, is a temple of the Holy Spirit, and is a reflection of the Logos—but we see only the surface and, therefore, fail to see the actual person. Strangely, Barfield continues, our seeing the surface of the thing and not what the thing truly is has led to a modern form of Idolatry, as we see the accidents but not the essence.

As an example of where society has gone terribly wrong, Barfield considers the issue of race, racism, and racialism. Because we have lost the humane, we see not the person (essence) but the color (the accidents) and, because we have lost the notion of sin, redemption, and forgiveness, we—as a society—feel varying degrees of guilt. Indeed, Barfield notes, “People seem almost to go out of their way to find things to feel guilty about, or to encourage others to feel guilty about.”

In a traditional understanding, we would recognize racism as an individual sin. We would confess it, we would accept our penance, and we would move on from it.

But, today, with the much more vague and secular form of guilt, we have no idea how to solve the problem of racism. “Mistakenly guilty, for after all I am not personally accountable for wrongs perpetrated years before I was born, though I may choose to shoulder a personal responsibility for helping to set them right,” Barfield writes. Two terrible consequences follow. First, “such confused feelings of guilt tend to beget paralysis rather than energy.” Second, and even more dangerous, “when they do not beget paralysis, feelings of guilt tend to turn rather easily into feelings of hatred and contempt. We may feel a bit guilty ourselves, but we are very sure that a whole lot of other people are much more guilty, and probably ought to be destroyed.” In the end, as Barfield fears, vague collective guilt leads to societal disorder and societal evils greater than the ones that originally caused the problems. “It is the irritation of guilt that turns it into the impulse to compel, into a determination to use every kind of violence, every device of indoctrination, in order to enforce on all a systematic equality that must entail a mechanical and inhuman uniformity.”

Only by re-imagining not only the glorious dignity of each individual person but also by recognizing the sin of which the person is capable can we move beyond the racism of the past. If the present course continues, Barfield suggests, we will sink only further into a deadly cycle of guilt and conformity.

This is worth restating: Barfield calls for a re-humanizing of the world, a return to the humanism that allows us to see the complexity of the human person, the free will of the human person, and the duties and responsibilities of the human person. He calls for us to “re-member,” that is, to reform human communities based not on collectivism, but based on a personalism that recognizes the universal. Whereas the scientist will understandably want to tinker with the human genome, Barfield says the humanist must make a plea for changing the soul.

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