In The Rediscovery of Meaning Barfield has an essay called “Poetic Diction and Legal Fiction” which contains (how does one talk about it? One reads Barfield slowly and intently because he is never without an insight of the first magnitude. Barfield is very clear, very readable, very demanding, and when does he fail to leave one with a thought that changes everything? Never) an insight about poetry of the first magnitude, but also includes a train of thought at the end of which he casually observes that educated persons used to study jurisprudence. He is for it, he did it and practiced law for years, but the insight he achieves by his reflection on legal fiction is what makes his casual observation compelling.
I’m no fan of lists of reading. It is perhaps a problem to which no practical solution exists other than for the wise to take a few students and nurture them giving them the right books at the right time, but education is too much conducted along generic, mass produced lines. One of the most compelling things I hear about home schooling is that it helps the kids because they don’t all learn at the same pace. I think there is much in this when one considers how crucial the student’s interest in the subject is. Of course that is not to say one should neglect discipline and push, but that the emphasis is all on content and discipline and not on the stage of development at which an individual is (and stage makes it sound like it proceeds a certain way, which is the problem I have with the word pace above). But it seems that we have proclivities and inclinations, that we have desires and that a skillful teacher who is paying attention to his student will take separate students along different roads. For that reason I’m no fan of generic lists which say these are the books you ought to read to be educated. Along these lines is one of the reasons I mistrust people like E.D. Hirsch and his notion of standardized curricula: it just doesn’t seem that there is an inside understanding with him, that he understands that there is a tyrannizing image polarizing a culture, or an organic unity to it that ought to shape the curriculum as it shapes the interests of the people is shapes. It is like he’s trying to fix things at the wrong end. But that’s what I like about Barfield: his sense of interiority, of the real thing being not superficial, but deep and living and his compelling vision of it. Barfield’s sense of what matters doesn’t leave one thinking he’s working at the wrong end of the problem the way Hirsch does. And when he suggests I should understand something of jurisprudence, I feel like going out and finding a book and then I find myself wishing he had provided me a list.
What is it with Owen Barfield? I read him again on a voyage and I found myself renewed in his captivating ideas, reorganized and put back on course. This that was so strange at first, that always comes with an insight of the most passionate interiority now seems to me a returning, a coming home.