Owen Barfield

Some recent comments encouraged me to look up Owen Barfield, a long-standing friend of C.S. Lewis and partly behind Lewis’ conversion from atheism to Christianity. I draw my readers’ attention to Owen Barfield (1898 – 1997).

My swallowing reflex comes into play as Rudolf Steiner and anthroposophy are mentioned. I have not studied Steiner very much, but my attitude in regard to esotericism and New Age ideas as an Anglican Catholic is reserved. However, we should not stop there but rather see the important aspects of Barfield’s thought. I have just ordered Poetic Diction, and will probably then read Saving the Appearances and Romanticism Comes of Age. I will not be an unconditional fan of everyone I read, but this fellow seems to be of high importance in the school of thought I am working on.

On the very first page of this website, we read:

Barfield’s immediate relevance is profound; it is to solve the core problem of modern times – which is ‘alienation’: i.e. the deep sense of meaninglessness, purposelessness, and isolation from people and things.

This would depend on being able to explain theories of knowledge and consciousness in an accessible way. Many try to promote “being connected” and put over the idea that we function only as social beings. Many people need the corporate structure that gives motivation to an individual person’s work. I personally am quite the opposite. I do my best and most creative work alone, but that may be due in part to my Aspergers / autism. Alienation is a serious issue for us all, but we cannot eliminate it by forcing the person to be social and corporate, but rather to give meaning to that alienation. The Romantic’s alienation is such that meaning and purpose are found in the objects of Sehnsucht. In short, the meaning of our alienation from the “world” is found in God. If this meaning is found, then our hearts and minds begin to open up in empathy and mindfulness of other people and their thoughts, feelings and needs.

Post-modern isolation and nihilism go much further, and I find that many I meet just don’t care – Je m’en fous, as they say here in France. At least you can discuss with someone who is against you, engage debate and make progress. With the profoundly indifferent, nothing is possible. They cannot be evangelised or anything.

Back to Barfield, I need to go through this site and read the three books I mentioned. I would like to see the influence of both English and German Romantics on his thought and how he explains his theory of knowledge. I am extremely encouraged by these comments and the discoveries I am making.

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9 Responses to Owen Barfield

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    We were once allowed to have a dramatic reading of a chapter or section of one of his books written in the form of a conversation – Worlds Apart: A Dialogue of the 1960’s. It was interesting and enjoyable (though, crazily, I have yet to read the rest of the book, after such an attractive sample…).

  2. Timothy Graham says:

    Fr A, I am excited to hear what you make of Barfield. One can get through his major works without hearing Steiner mentioned more than once I think, just to reassure you!

  3. Perhaps you might also like to read Charles Williams’ “Descent into Hell?”

  4. Caedmon says:

    If you google ‘lupus occultus – the paganised Christianity of C.S.Lewis’ you’ll find a hostile article about Lewis from an extreme Protestant fundamentalist viewpoint. It makes interesting reading. Lewis wasn’t ‘sound’ on the inerrancy of scripture, for example.

    • I’m sure the same guy would call the Pope the Antichrist. Perhaps he is also one of those who would advocate electrocuting children who answer back at their parents. It’s a weird world!

    • Most Protestant critics of C.S Lewis focus on some themes in Prince Caspian, such as the riotous retinue of Bacchus (or Dionysus); the Greek god of wine and liberty who once promised a man his body in exchange for information about how to get into the underworld. As far as I’m concerned, Lewis’ critics are a bunch of killjoys!

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I had an article published in Dutch in a Dutch Reformed newspaper, nearly 12 years ago, after the movie of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe came out, under a title amounting to ‘Bacchus is not a heathen false god in Narnia’ – perhaps I should translate it into English and try to get it published/posted, somewhere…

        Among other things, I noted Lewis saying in Miracles (1960 revised ed.) of “the conversion of water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana” (ch. 15), “This miracle proclaims that the God of all wine is present. He is the reality behind the false god Bacchus.” And that he had already said (ch. 14), “He may give us wine and fertility, but must not be worshipped with Bacchanalian or aphrodisiac rites.” And that, in “Religion without Dogma?” (1946), having quoted “the song of the Maenad’s” in Euripides’s Bacchae, he says, “If one is forced to such an alternative, it is perhaps better to starve in a wholly secularised and meaningless universe, than to recall the obscenities and cruelties of paganism” (not that he thought we were reduced to such a choice, but putting it that strongly against the attractions of historical paganism). But what I think he imagines in Narnia is Bacchus and Maenads as ‘they were meant to be’/as ‘they really are’, not as behaving badly (to put it mildly) and worshipped improperly despite that as they have been, historically – much as he writes with respect to the planetary intelligence of Jupiter in That Hideous Strength.

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