Friday, March 13, 2015

Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry by Owen Barfield

In the early 1920s, Owen Barfield published two books, History in English Words (1926) and Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning (1928), which provided significant insights into the way humans think. Enthusiasts of his work include T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, and later Saul Bellow, Howard Nemerov, James Hillman, and Harold Bloom, to name some of the more prominent. These early publications could have foretold a successful academic career, but Barfield was called instead to participate in the family of legal business in London. Accordingly, from 1934 until 1959, Barfield lived and worked in London as a solicitor while continuing his literary and cultural studies on the side (including his participation in "The Inklings"). During this period, he continued to publish journal articles and a collection of those articles were published as Romanticism Comes of Age (1944), but otherwise Barfield was not a position to turn out a full work developing his ideas. Happily, shortly before his retirement from the law practice, his hiatus came to an end in 1957 when Barfield published Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry. The reward was worth the wait.

Saving the Appearances is a work that ranges across a variety of disciplines: anthropology, philosophy, literary criticism, science, and religion. Barfield's overall aim is to explore and understand what he terms “the evolution of consciousness”, which it goes beyond the history of ideas, to understand the ways in which humanity has changed the way we experience the world. Early in the book, drawing especially on anthropology and the work of Levy-Bruhl, Barfield posits that early humans engaged in the world by “original participation". In this period of human culture, the division between subject and object is blurred, and spirits, sprites, and gods animate the natural world. This way of seeing the world continued more or less intact up until the Scientific Revolution— with one significant exception. Barfield notes that the Hebrew Bible reflects a significant withdrawal away from ideas of “original participation” to draw a sharp line between humanity and the natural world. Of course, this cultural tradition mixes with the Greco-Roman and eventually Christian tradition and on into the Scientific Revolution.

With the advent of the Scientific Revolution, humankind began to disengage its consciousness from the natural world. This became the age of increasing abstraction and alienation from the natural world. It became a world of “idolatry”; that is, of giving precedence to empty images and abstractions. Barfield is quick to identify the many benefits that this new form of scientific knowledge bestowed on humankind. Scientific and technological advances have improved the well-being of humanity immensely. But this new knowledge and attendant power came at a cost. Barfield hopes that the disengagement from nature and the attendant idolatry reached its zenith in the 19th century and that we can move on to something new that he deems “final participation", which incorporates the role of human consciousness in forming the natural world. Barfield acknowledges we can't return to Eden, but he believes that we can combine both a scientific and a participatory perspective into our consciousness.

Owen Barfield 1898-1997
Barfield's ideas are certainly his own, although he placed himself within a tradition established by Rudolf Steiner (labeled by Steiner as “Anthroposophy”). Barfield came to his ideas independently of any knowledge of Steiner, but after encountering Steiner in the 1924, Barfield aligned himself with the Anthroposophy movement. Steiner is one of those persons from the esoteric tradition who can seem from one perspective brilliant and insightful and from another perspective outright crazy. But whatever the merits or demerits of Steiner, Barfield's arguments can sail or sink on their own.

A short review like this can't begin to do justice to the depth and complexity Barfield's work. Barfield erudition across disciplines of knowledge and across history is staggering and makes significant demands on the reader. However, it's worth the effort. Understanding how humans have changed over the course of time is no small undertaking. We all sense how differently we perceive the world today then did our forebears of even 100 years ago, not to mention 500, 1,000, or 5000 years ago. To understand this change is to understand a great deal of what it means to be human. Barfield’s project is to understand and further grasp the evolution of consciousness as a movement from original participation to final participation.

Barfield project is encompassing, and he’s one of those thinkers that can’t be grasped in a single are reading or a single work. In some writers, the perplexity left after a single reading of a single work reflects the confusion of the author and a dead-end for the reader. But in some, like Barfield, it marks a profound journey of insight into humanity and how we can better understand ourselves.

Words of Wisdom from Dante

And let this weigh as lead to slow your steps, 
to make you move as would a weary man
to yes or no when you do not see clearly:

whether he would affirm or would deny,
he who decides without distinguishing
must be among the most obtuse of men;

opinion—hasty—often can incline
to the wrong side, and then affection for
one’s own opinion binds, confines the mind.

Far worse than uselessly he leaves the shore
(more full of error than he was before)
who fishes for the truth but lacks the art.

. . . .
So, too, let men not be too confident
in judging—witness those who, in the field,
would count the ears before the corn is ripe;

for I have seen, all winter through, the brier
display itself as stiff and obstinate,
and later, on its summit, bear the rose;

and once I saw a ship sail straight and swift
through all its voyaging across the sea,
then perish at the end, at harbor entry.

Let not Dame Bertha or Master Martin think
that they have shared God’s Counsel when they see
one rob and see another who donates:

the last may fall, the other may be saved.

Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, Canto XIII (Mandelbaum translation)