Monday 31 July 2017

Owen Barfield and Rudolf Steiner - the nature of the relationship

Owen Barfield regarded Rudolf Steiner as his master, as indeed one of the great thinkers of human history (of a stature comparable to Aristotle); and devoted much of his life to working for the Steiner's cause.

Nonetheless, in terms of Steiner's own writings for the public, Barfield's direct advocacy of Steiner was selective:

1. Christian Framework

Barfield shared Steiner's Christian Framework - although he wrote about it less often than did Steiner. Barfield regarded the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ as the central and dividing event in cosmic history.

(Barfield, also shared Steiner's unorthodox - but Gospel-based - explanation of the dual God-Man nature of Jesus Christ as having been some kind of combination of two persons.)

2. Steiner's Philosophy.

My impression is that Barfield especially valued Steiner's philosophical works: that is his three early books - the first one sometimes translated as the Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception (1886) was one that Barfield sometimes described as Steiner's least read but most important book; the other two are Steiner's PhD thesis Truth and Knowledge (1892) and the Philosophy of Freedom/ Spiritual Activity (1896).

Steiner's ideas are usually described as setting-out an Epistemology (that is, a theory of knowing and valid knowledge) but I personally regard them as being more fundamental than that, and instead describing a metaphysics (that is setting-out the fundamental nature of reality).

For example; Steiner regarded the activity of Thinking as a the primary reality, and attempted to argue and prove this 'epistemologically' by evidence and reason and without discussion first assumptions. However, I would suggest that this is actually a metaphysical assumption, not an obvious conclusion - especially since this view about the primacy of Thinking seems to have been unique to Steiner at the time it was made.

(I should point-out that I personally accept this assumption of the primacy of thinking - which I regard as a major and essential breakthrough in human self-understanding; but I accept it on intuitive grounds, and not because of the 'evidence' for it.) 

3. What Barfield does not mention (much)

Beyond Steiner's basic philosophy; Barfield accepted and advocated Steiner's vision of world history as an evolution of consciousness - through different stages, starting with an un-free, disembodied state of total consciousness with no discrete 'self'; and incrementally moving through incarnation towards modern Man's state of alienated freedom, without consciousness of anything outside The Self.

Barfield's future destination of Final Participation corresponds to Steiner's Spiritual Soul - as being a state which combines freedom and consciousness for the first time. However, Steiner mapped-out a timetable for the evolution of consciousness, projected hundreds, even thousands, of years into the future; and Barfield did not seem to endorse this in his writings.

Nor did Barfield say much about the vast body of highly detailed and specific Spiritual Science (in agriculture, education, medicine, politics etc. etc.) which Steiner gave in the lectures of his last couple of decades. My impression is that Barfield was broadly in agreement with Steiner on these matters (eg in education Barfield supported Waldorf schools, and in politics the 'threefold' analysis ad recommendations); but Barfield could not confirm all of the many specifics of Steiner's output from his personal knowledge, and so said little about is.

The reason for this differential emphasis is probably that Barfield distinguished between those aspects of Steiner which he had personally validated and those aspects which he had not. Indeed, since Steiner was astonishingly productive of ideas and assertions (having given some hundreds of transcribed lectures per annum in his later years); so it would probably not be possible (even in principle, and even in so long as life as Barfield enjoyed) to check and validate everything that Steiner said.

On top of this; Steiner said at times (although he rather contradicted by his practice) that his intuitive and meditational methods of deriving Spiritual Science data were prone to error, and that therefore not everything he stated was expected to be correct; but that all should be testable by all properly-motivated people who were able to practice the Anthroposophical method, and who made the effort.

(Not many seem to have done this - Valentin Tomberg was an example of someone who, after Steiner's death, extended and re-worked Steiner's statements in a Platonic direction; and he was made to resign from the Anthroposophical Society as a result!)

In sum, I think that Barfield wholly endorsed Steiner's philosophy and his method ie. his Anthroposophy; however, while not explicitly rejecting it, he was somewhat partial in his endorsement of the many details of Steiner's findings ie. his Spiritual Science.

I would indeed put it more strongly: Steiner's basic analysis and the method of Anthroposophy is of vital importance to everybody; but the many thousands of stated findings of specific assertions of Spiritual Science are not essential, and indeed are mostly wrong.

In a nutshell: Barfield contains the necessary essence of Steiner. Most people will therefore want to approach Steiner via Barfield; turning to Steiner himself mainly for another perspective, and a different mode of explanation.

Note: I personally believe that the above is the best way for most people to approach the work of Rudolf Steiner; certainly it is what I do. Most of the vast body of purported fact that Steiner generated I ignore - furthermore I do not believe that human destiny unrolls according to a calendar projected millenia into the future. 

For this reason, for most people, it is probably best to approach Steiner via Barfield; since Barfield includes the best of Steiner and leaves-out the parts that are generally regarded (or at least I regard!) as unacceptable. 

Nonetheless, it is well worth reading the three early books of Steiner's at least - because these are potentially life-changing works of genius; and reading Steiner more widely but more selectively for the many insights scattered elsewhere. For example, my favourite thing of his is the 1918 lecture The work of the angel/ in Man's Astral Body. With Steiner - starting from the 1886 book on Goethe, by and large - the earlier the work, the better it is, and the later the more compromised.


Keri Ford said...

I discovered Steiner long before Barfield, but for the most part I had put his work aside, rather than rejected it, as I didn't know what to do with it. The idea of an evolution of consciousness did stay with me.
I first came to know of Barfield only early last year from reading the Fellowship by Philip & Carol Zaleski, I thought this an excellent book and was inspired by it to investigate Barfield. Upon reading Barfield I started to get a little more clarity regarding Steiner. Although even Steiner's early work is difficult. One thing I was surprised by upon reading Barfield's novel "English People" which I assume gives a fictionalised account of Barfield's own discovery of Steiner is that the discovery was largely through the later Anthroposophic works. From comments that Barfield has made regarding imagination I get the impression that Barfield does think that engaging with Steiner's cosmological works imaginatively is a worthwhile activity. I suspect I may read some of them again as imaginative exercises. But these are perhaps the peaks of Steiner and it is better to become familiar with the foothills which we can more immediately relate to. Barfield's work strikes me as building a bridge to Steiner and for the most part people need bridges built to Barfield's thought.

Bruce Charlton said...


I also needed a bridge to Barfield - and I also found it in the Zaleskis' book

The Zaleskis' reference RJ Reilly's Romantic Religion, which contains a very detailed and insightful exposition of most of Barfield's work - my guess is that the Zaleskis were able to get to the heart of Barfield in a way that previous Inklings biographers had not, at least substantially from them having studied Reilly.

(Humphrey Carpenter does not reference Reilly, and does not get to the heart of Barfield.)

I am myself engaged in trying to re-explain Barfield to make his work more comprehensible - my main idea is to treat Barfield as suggesting a different metaphysics - ie a different set of fundamental assumptions about the ultimate nature of reality.

This is in contrast to Barfield's own approach, which is to try and prove-with-evidence (mostly philological/ linguistic evidence) that consciousness has evolved etc. Barfield's approach seems to lead most people to a kind of postmodernism - ie. assuming all knowledge as 'relative' to time and place; which is not at all what Barfield intended.

(Barfield is often presented as having demonstrated that the evolution of consciousness is real - but the reason he did this is usually missed.)

Another problem with Barfield's explanations is that he does not put them into a Christian framework, but instead tends to tag-on the Christianity at a later stage in the exposition (e.g. in Saving the Appearances).

Yet, in fact the whole scheme of evolution of consciousness is supposed to be God's Plan for mankind - it is God's Plan for educating mankind, through stages, to a fully divine mode of consciousness.

So, (for Barfield) the evolution of consciousness is not something that 'just happens' (like natural selection) but something which is driven by divinity, across thousands of years - with a particular aim in view.

And this is why Final Participation is called 'Final' - because it is the participation characteristic of full divinity, of God. After achieving FP there is nowhere else to go, the plan has been fulfilled - man is fully-divine in his mode of consciousness (albeit on a smaller scale).

Keri Ford said...

"I am myself engaged in trying to re-explain Barfield to make his work more comprehensible" and thank you very much, Barfield lives in your writing, I am certainly finding it valuable. On your recommendation I have just bought the Reilly book, and have just started reading it.

Here's a little section from English People, upon discovering Steiner (Brockmann), the phrase "Brockmann’s system seemed thus to build itself haphazard in your imagination" stood out for me. Here's the section:

"He read on, therefore, and began to come somewhat under the spell of the symmetry and completeness of Brockmann’s system — if system it could be called — for his method was, not so much to outline a scheme in abstract as to discuss some particular fact or problem, sub specie aeternitatis, in such a way that the system slowly revealed itself. It revealed itself slowly, part at a time, and one was always being surprised and gratified at the way in which one revelation (which seemed so ingenious that it must have been invented especially for that particular context) would fit in later on with another on quite a different subject. Brockmann’s system seemed thus to build itself haphazard in your imagination, now a few bricks on the ground floor, now a corner of the roof, now a panel in the front door, and now a fireplace in the attic. It was something like the method of construction depicted by the comic artist, Heath Robinson, in which the first day’s work is to get the grand piano in to an upper-storey room through a window that isn’t there. Not knowing the architect’s plan, or even whether he had one, you were constantly expecting the measurements to be hopelessly out — and yet they never were."

Bruce Charlton said...

@Keri - I haven't yet read English People, so its good to see this excerpt.

I have been grappling with Steiner, and written many posts about him on my main blog:

If you look at these, you need to keep an eye on the date they were published, since my opinions have changed somewhat - but I do think there are serious problems with the way that Steiner worked (e.g his numerology and predictive schemes), and also his legacy of the Anthroposophical Society and the various technologies in education, medicine, agriculture etc.

I try to focus on the early philosophical work and especially his wonderfully inspiring (and essential) ideas about Thinking. I have also become absolutely fascinated by his 1918 prophecy:

BTW (in case you don't already know it) I listen a lot to Rudolf Steiner Audio

Keri Ford said...

I have read RJ Reilly's section on Barfield and at this stage I feel like someone who has run too hard. A good survey though, I don't think i can say much more about it at present. As a sideline I would say that actually Barfield is a bit more of an imaginative writer than is shown here as none of his fiction is dealt with, some where published after this Eager Spring and Night Operation but This Ever Diverse Pair & The Silver Trumpet had been released I think. English People was never published. I admit I haven't read Orpheus his poetic drama. All these are overshadowed by his theoretical works but I do think they are a welcome addition.

I think it well worth read chapter 34 of English People which focuses on discovering Steiner. The novel as a whole is not very plot driven so I don't think reading this would spoil anything if you came to read it later:

It's a long novel and does kind of feel like a first (unpublished) novel, yet for all that I quite enjoyed it, although it lacks narrative flow, the characters lived for me a lot more than many of Lewis' and i read it to the end without difficulty.

Yes, I had come across the Steiner audio, he's got a great voice and it's a good way to experience Steiner.

Just one more thing I'll say about Steiner and imagination. H G Wells wrote Outline of History and the Time Machine, imaginative works that conceive the history of the world in terms of modern idolatry, a similar thing needs to be done with a viewpoint of the evolution of Consciousness, as i said previously Steiner's cosmology could be seen as a very ungainly presented work. Maybe Tolkien's & Lewis work has something of that, possibly Colin Wilson's Spider world and Jonathan Black's The Secret History of the World, yet these seem more to prefigure something than to achieve it.

Bruce Charlton said...

I agree that imaginative works are of great value in understanding a world view. They are also extremely rare and difficult to achieve - and seem to arise by inspiration rather than intention.

Barfield's imaginative works - for example his use of allegorical fairy stories in English People (I have read that part of the novel), and in Eager Spring - I find ineffective (incomprehensible and unenjoyable), but I am very 'picky' about fiction, or idiosyncratic at least. I don't find Barfield to be a natural, spontaneous writer of imaginative fiction (neither was CS Lewis, in my opinion) - when reading, I am aware of the author.

One way of putting across ideas that can be effective, is autobiography - especially a fictionalised type. To mention another author we both enjoy - JC Powys does this in his autobiography. His world view becomes vivid. Another example is Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Another is Thoreau's Walden. All of these superb books are autobiographical but highly selective, and the 'facts' and plots are contrived to serve the demands of fiction and ideas both.

I hadn't come across 'Jonathan Black''s books, but on looking at the material, I suspect they are not for me: he doesn't seem fully sincere and committed to his ideas (too much compromise with the mainstream, in order to become 'best sellers'), in the way that seems essential here-and-now.

Keri Ford said...

H G Wells works colonise the past with modern alienated consciousness and it seems most modern writers and artists are doing the same. Films set in the past may have period costumes but for the most part they take the poverty of their current sensibilities with them. Wells imaginings don't seem very great achievements because they are soaked in the orthodoxies of his day and ours, whereas an imaginative work exploring the past from the perspective of evolving consciousness would be a supreme imaginative accomplishment.

I think I saw you mention MacDonald's Phantastes on your blog in relation to Lewis and you didn't seem that impressed with it and while it hasn't done much for me, i think I am getting to like it better. But MacDonald's novel "Lilith" had a similar effect upon me that Phantastes had on Lewis. I think it far more successful than any of Lewis novels, the authors imagination and devotional nature are fully engaged. He prefaces the novel with a section of Thoreau.

I don't recommend Jonathan Black, I mentioned him as he consciously set out to write a history of world based on the supposition of the primacy of consciousness. However, I agree that he comes across as detached from his creation and it devolves into conspiracy theories.

Funny, I haven't yet read the fairy story from English People, I have got it so I will before too long. I really liked Eager Spring and Night Operation, but have only read them once so it'll be interesting to see how they fare over time. Barfield is a significant author who is worth spending time with and I see these works as shinning an additional light on his work as a whole, I also like the way they achieve what they do with brevity. I am never swept up into Barfield's work though.

I think Barfield has helped express the problems of modern consciousness and culture, that has invaded both the religious and the secular.

The Pirsig book made an impression on me, I read it a long time ago, I liked the reflections on servicing motorcycles, the use of patience and the surprise of discovering the character he had been talking about had lived in that same body. Was he the same person? It seemed like at the end they were starting to merge.

I liked Powys autobiography and am surprised to find you like him too, but I feel that he put just as much of himself into his novels. I sometimes feel annoyed with his brother Llewelyn for convincing him there was no life after death, yet for all that the world he experienced around him and expressed in his works was soaked in consciousness.