Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Barfield's understanding of the necessity for the completion of Romanticism

Barfield's understanding of Romanticism as an uncompleted destiny is of primary importance to an integrated view of The Inklings. Barfield articulated this very clearly in Romanticism Comes of Age (1944) as well as subsequent books; but none of the other Inklings seems to have understood or been-persuaded-by the argument.

(Probably they were put-off by the fact that Barfield drew much of his understanding from Rudolf Steiner, and referenced Steiner's work frequently. Because although Steiner was certainly a genius of world historical importance (Barfield seriously and coherently compared him with Aristotle); he was also wrong about most things, most of the time - and in a peculiarly gratuitous and overwhelmingly prolix fashion.)

In a nutshell, Barfield saw Romanticism as a necessary but unfinished, indeed corrupted, development of human consciousness. Therefore, he saw the only viable option for modern Man as the completion of this change.

What happened to Romanticism, according to Barfield, was that it arose in the late 1700s and initially was taken forward very promisingly in practical terms by Wordsworth and Blake in England and Goethe in Germany; and was very fully theorised by Coleridge... but that it was soon diverted into modernism - that is metaphysical materialism/ positivism/ reductionism/ scientism - in the forms of varieties of atheism, political radicalism and sexual revolution. 

By contrast, although both Tolkien and Lewis embodied Romanticism in much of their work, and were anti modernism in all the forms described above - they advocated and adhered a return to pre-modern states: Traditionalism.

In sum, rather than moving-through Romanticism to a new form of consciousness (along the lines theorised by Coleridge); Tolkien and Lewis attempted to fuse Romanticism and Tradition, or perhaps to use Romanticism as a means for returning to Tradition.

The completion of Romanticism is therefore still an uncompleted project! Indeed, the whole issue has proven to be very difficult to discuss at all. Coleridge never succeeded in making himself understood by anybody! - arguably until Barfield himself brought together and interpreted many scattered passages (e.g. especially in What Coleridge Thought, of 1971).

It is no mystery to me why the project of Romanticism remains uncompleted - to complete Romanticism requires:

1.  A rapid (not incremental) and wholesale (not partial) replacement of fundamental metaphysical assumptions concerning the basic nature of reality.  And...

2. This task must be done actively, voluntarily and explicitly by each person as an individual.

By contrast, the modern prevalent perversion of Romanticism (i.e. atheist, materialist, leftism) was introduced incrementally, unconsciously, by mass influences and in a top-down fashion; such that the whole system of modern Western thinking is commonly unrecognised and denied, is incoherent and self-destroying, is dishonest and relativistic.

Could Tolkien and Lewis have followed where Barfield was leading? It is hard to imagine - since they would need to be convinced of the impossibility of Traditionalism and also of the possibility, and goodness, of completing Romanticism. They would need to acknowledge that Romanticism was, in its original impulse, not merely a 'reaction' to industrialism and materialism; but an embryonic new form of consciousness. Romanticism-completed would (even without Steiner) also have struck at the particular self-definitions of Tolkien and Lewis's different, but in this respect similar, definitions of Christianity in terms of creeds, institutions, and authority...

Tolkien and Lewis would therefore surely have found it difficult to distinguish between Barfield's suggestions for a completed-Romanticism and the modernism they opposed root-and-branch. Nonetheless, we can - looking back on the Inklings and perceiving them as a spiritually-coherent group who themselves had a destined role to play in the development of Western consciousness - ourselves do the work that Tolkien and Lewis could not, and would not have done. Which is to complete Romanticism with the help of their imaginative literature.


William Wildblood said...

Just to say , this is what I think too. Traditional Christians need to understand that a developed spiritual consciousness requires full participation of the imagination and is an individual thing, while those wedded to contemporary beliefs about progress have to see that the future must be built on the past, that is to say Christianity. That must be the soil in which any new understanding about life has to grow and is not replaced but deepened.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - It is frustrating to see so many people of great intelligence and spiritual insight who ensure that they will proceed towards a dead-end - a destination inevitable from the outset - by rejecting the divinity of Jesus.

I think that this was what happened historically - first the divinity of Christ was discarded (eg Unitarians, or German 'Biblical Scholarship'), then the person of God was discarded (e.g those interested in Eastern religions, or Platonism) - leaving an abstract deism, which was too feeble and uninvolving to make any significant difference to Life ... and then the divine was denied altogether. Which is (in the majority mainstream) where we are now.

This raises the question of a hidden agenda among the majority of 'Romantics' - why were they so driven to discard (piecemeal - typically) Christianity? Often it was the actuality of the churches - their wrong emphases, their hypocrisy, corruption, narrowness, materialism etc...

But astonishingly few seem to have tried the (surely?) obvious step of leaving the intolerable institution while enhancing their Christianity in the ways that they found necessary? Almost all became more or less apostate... The reason? I think because they were wanting to live in ways that they knew were not compatible with Christianity, and were simply looking for excuses Not to remain (or become) Christian.

This continues - (speaking from my own experience) people have false ideas about Christianity that are taken either from enemies of Christianity, or from Churches who they know-in-advance they regard as wrong - and on the basis of these false ideas Christianity is written-off in ignorance and without any serious attempt to disover its essence.

For example Sufism is embraced, without any serious attempt to explore Christian mysticism.

Hence we get the common 'anything but Christianity' stance that characterises almost all the 'spiritual but not religious' people.

William Wildblood said...

You have it right when you say (or imply) that people wanted the benefits of spiritual consciousness but were not prepared to make the sacrifices that requires.

Anonymous said...

You say, "he was also wrong about most things, most of the time - and in a peculiarly gratuitous and overwhelmingly prolix fashion." Wow! How much of this critique do we find in Barfield's work?

You say, "they advocated and adhered a return to pre-modern states: Traditionalism." I think they are both 'modern' in good ways, with respect to science and scholarship (as I usually gloss 'Wissenschaft') - e.g., where Christian humanistic scholarship with respect to textual scholarship characteristic of Erasmus but refined over the following centuries, and where the development of philology and a lot of ethnology, and where the rejection of 'theocracy' are concerned - not unlike Erich Voegelin or Edith Stein or Josef and Hildegard Pieper and assorted German(-language) scholars younger than Steiner. Christian Platonism is also a part of this - refusing to go back to anything less than Plato, while seeing Plato as praeparatio Evangelica.

They are variously part of a living or recovered tradition of Romanticism from Novalis and Schelling, in Lewis and Tolkien's and Williams's cases through George MacDonald, Coventry Patmore, Francis Thompson, and G.K. Chesterton (among others). This Romantic tradition is itself a serious attempt to recover - and continue to discover - what has been achieved in the Church. A Romanticism that struck at what is achieved in the creeds and living order of the Church would be a Romanticism-deviating, not completed.

But I hope someday to catch up with Romanticism Comes of Age, and any Inkling reviews of it I have missed (I need to reread Lewis's and Williams's, too).

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - There doesn't seem to be any significant 'critique' of Steiner in Barfield - Barfield merely distinguishes between those parts of Steiner he has confirmed by experience, and a large amount which he has not (or not yet).

wrt Inkling reviews of Barfield - of course CS Lewis reading everything by Barfield and mentions his work in letters - but, as Barfield often commented, Lewis never (literally never) engaged with Barfield at the level of fundamental convictions, after Lewis became a Christian. The 'Great War' stuff ceased and never resumed. So while Lewis always enjoyed Barfield's work - and said he re-read World's Apart many times during his last months, for example - there is no evidence of Lewis having accepted any of Barfield's major arguments; he enjoyed, was apparently unconvinced...

You are of course correct about Lewis and Tolkein being modern, for example in terms of scholarship - nonetheless, I think they would both have willingly cast-aside everything modern if it were possible to return to pre-modern conditions. I don't see any evidence of that 'evoutionary' way of thinking which permeates Barfield - except perhaps in the unpublished second prophecy of The Silmarillion... which does imply a qualitatively new final condition: