Owen Barfield argued that the modern world must readopt the truths of the Logos, should Western Civilization move beyond its current selfish and totalitarian phase. And this rediscovered love of the Logos must express itself throughout culture and the arts.
In 1944, over a decade after Lewis’s conversion to Christianity, half a decade after Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and a decade and a half after his own Poetic Diction, Owen Barfield published his summation and critique of Romanticism in his powerful Romanticism Comes of Age (1944). His own conversation to Romanticism, he revealed, came sometime while he was in college, preparing for his senior thesis, which would become Poetic Diction (1928). First, he had come to love lyric poetry at the age of 21, but, second, he came to love the way in which words could be brought and strung together. “Thus, without any particular exertion or theorizing on my part I had had two things strongly impressed on me, firstly that the poetic or imaginative use of words enhances their meanings and secondly that those enhanced meanings may reveal hitherto unapprehended parts of reality.” In other words, Barfield came to believe that imagination was a faculty of knowing, equal to the rationality of the mind and the passions of the stomach and the five senses. Then, in examining the great poets of world history, he found the Romantics of the early nineteenth century as especially important in their understanding of imagination. It was they “who supplied in richest measure the kind of imaginative treatment of language and life in which I had become interested.” While exploring the Romantics in his new-found admiration, he applied to them the critical philosophy of the Platonic dialogues and the works—especially De Anima—of Aristotle. Bringing all this together, Barfield discovered, he had also become fascinated with psychology, especially its more humane understandings of the psyche. All of this allowed him to formulate and write Poetic Diction, he believed.
Frustratingly to Barfield, it was just as he was formulating his own theories on a rather Platonic Stoic understanding of the eternal and common Logos that his closest friend and ally, Lewis, moved toward orthodox Christianity. “The comrade whom it grieved me most to lose was busy moving back all his formidable artillery into the ancient citadel of naïve realism and patriarchal theology,” Barfield lamented, “where, by the way, his arrival has since been made known to the enemy by a series of revealing explosions near the latter’s Base.” Feeling abandoned at the moment of his victory, Barfield discovered—through a lecture by and then vast reading of—Steiner. “It was a matter of stray remarks and casual allusions which showed that some of my most daring and (as I thought) original conclusions were his premises,” Barfield wrote.[*] To his amazement and joy, Barfield concluded that all of Steiner’s philosophy, Anthroposophy, “was nothing less than Romanticism grown up.”
For Barfield, Steiner became—and remained for the rest of his long life—“the master of those who know.” Following the work of the German Romantics—especially that of Goethe—Steiner had identified the true German spirit. Not the nihilistic spirit of Nietzsche or the totalitarian spirit of the National Socialists (the “septic disease of Europe,” Barfield noted), but rather a humane spirit that gave to the German people a dramatic and assured purpose within existence itself. Through its efforts, it came to provide a sort of “spiritual voluptuousness” that the English missed. To defeat the Nazis, Barfield wrote in 1944, the English must not only regain such a spirit, but they must pursue it throughout the post-war period of reconstruction. “I firmly believe that the question whether our own Commonwealth is to stand for something more in the history of human consciousness or is to become a hollow political shell and go the way of Nineveh and Tyre, will depend largely on the candour with which the spirit of this Island learns to open its arms to that spirit and its gifts,” Barfield warned.
What then, one must naturally ask, went wrong with English Romanticism? That is, why did it need to be finished and fulfilled by the example of German Romanticism? English Romanticism, according to Barfield, did two things very well. First, it recognized not only an objective existence of beauty, but, equally importantly, it proclaimed “beauty for its own sake [as] a new object of human devotion.” Second, it understood human freedom—that is, the free will of the ethical choice, moment by moment—as existentially connected and vital to an understanding of goodness. The English Romantics, Barfield claimed, new that man—individually—carries with him immense power, the power to make destiny, past and present. Yet, while English Romanticism had properly identified the critical necessity of both beauty and freedom, it never took its own philosophy further. That is, it failed to proclaim itself in the nature of truth and ground itself “satisfactory in reality.” It stopped just short of these things, however, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge admitted as much in the thirteenth chapter of his otherwise magisterial Biographia Literaria. Just as Coleridge was on the verge of discussing truth, an unidentified friend cautioned him against it, and he accepted the advice. This one moment, Barfield argued, changed the entire course of English Romanticism, impoverishing it for well over a century. “The question he should have asked when he saw the Holy Grail was ‘Of what is it served?’” Barfield wrote, referencing legend of Parsifal. “The same question should have been asked by the Romantic Movement, when it saw the visionary Grail of the human imagination,” but it failed to do so. Coleridge, though beloved by Barfield, failed to do so, and without any grounding in reality “the charm faded. The mirror cracked from side to side” and Romanticism splintered and disintegrated as a cohesive movement in England.
The Germanic spirit of Romanticism, though, through Goethe and Steiner, accepted a necessary form of mysticism as truth and reality. “The truth of imagination is apodeictic, not empirical, and he [Steiner] makes accordingly no less a claim for the results of his spiritual investigation,” Barfield explained. “For imagination is not a reasoning about, it is a Schauung, a seeing, and indeed a being, the object. Systematic imagination is, in fact, clairvoyance.” As such, Steiner’s philosophy culminates in a philosophy of free will, allowing the imagination to serve as an objective guide to beauty and thus to truth. “It leads in every department of life to a fuller and richer conception of the human being,” Barfield asserted. Imagination, therefore, “is not content with merely looking-on at the world,” but rather “seeks to sink itself entirely in the thing perceived.” Though Barfield came at the question philosophically, linguistically, and psychologically rather than theologically, he arrived at a rather orthodox understanding of the Christian Logos. “I mean the fact that, through the incarnation of Christ in a human body, there was born into the world, not for the West or for one section of humanity only, but for all men, what one can only call a legitimate self-consciousness,” he wrote. Further, “had Christ not come to earth, individual human beings would never have been able to utter the word ‘I’ at all,” Barfield continued. Because of his identification—again, it must be remembered, a relatively orthodox position arrived at by and through heterodoxy—of the Logos and the imagination, the light that lighteth every man, “imagination is the most precious of all our possessions—the chosen one of all our faculties to be our saviour.” One must recognize that words are reflections of the Word, and in our attempt to unify and understand words, we must unify with the Word, but only through a humble and alive imagination. Man will never be truly free unless his ethics reside in this humble imagination of the Word.
To comprehend these truths, Barfield concluded, meant a greater understanding not only of the self and free will, but of the community of all men, united in one body and one soul, offering us “the ability and the will, not merely to say sentimentally ‘we are all brothers,’ but to explain just how we are brothers and exactly what it is in our history, in our nature, and in our destinies that makes us so.” The Logos makes us more human, it must be remembered, not less human, and it reminds us that others share in that same humanity of the Logos.
The modern world, Barfield argued, must readopt these truths of the Logos, should Western Civilization move beyond its current selfish and totalitarian phase in its western and eastern parts, respectively. And this re-found love of the Logos must express itself throughout culture and the arts. “Science must itself become an art, and art a science; either they must mingle, or room for one that may have spirit enough to learn how to know God’s earth as He actually made it,” Barfield wrote. Then, he stated, one will also realize, rather Stoically, that “the truth does not consist of a collection of isolated facts; it is all woven together into a single fabric.”
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* Barfield, Romanticism Comes of Age, 7.
The featured image is “Cross and Cathedral in the Mountains” (1812) by Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened slightly for clarity.