Romanticism Comes of Age: Barfield, Rudolph Steiner & Anthroposophy

This essay is not the product of detailed and extensive reading. It would be better if it were, but that is going to come gradually. The purpose of this essay is to begin to clarify things about which I am thinking so that I can move forward both with the reading and the thinking.

1 The Book: What It Is and Barfield’s Concern
2 Anthroposophy, Christianity and Romanticism
3 Conclusion: Give Me Barfield


1 The Book: What It Is and Barfield’s Concern

The title is what attracted me: Romanticism Comes of Age. The book is a collection of essays by Owen Barfield whose thinking is never easy to follow but always, when followed, rewarding. I borrowed the volume and it traveled with me, proving a every engaging collection of essays. I do not think it is possible to read too much of Owen Barfield.

There are thinkers who attempt to explain something in our day—such as Neil Postman—who do so with satisfaction even if they do not go very deep in tying things together. These are helpful, but you can’t go on a steady diet of those without wanting something more fundamental, unless you are an evangelical or something equivalent. Jacques Barzun, for example, goes a little deeper, there is more history and you begin to see ideas growing over time. Then you get a thinker like Richard Weaver whose burden is to get at a pretty fundamental explanation that deals with the level ideas and ages in the history of mankind—a level at which most people simply operate on assumptions they do not want to have exposed. If I were to put Owen Barfield on this continuum, he would be on a deeper level than Weaver. Owen Barfield is by far the most ambitious and far reaching; his theories try to explain what has been happening to humanity from the beginning until our day. He wants to understand not the consequence of our situation in our times, but the consequence of our present situation as a race; he wants us to own our whole history as significant for our present life.

At the risk of belaboring the point I might say that while people like Richard Weaver want to understand the present crisis facing Western civilization, Barfield wants to understand the present crisis in the context of the entire history of humanity—a trajectory which constitutes the evolution of our race from origin to is glorious apotheosis, according to him. I doubt very much whether Richard Weaver was really interested in anything that far reaching, and for that I say: thank God, because Barfield can be heady and you need to step back once in a while and read Weaver, and read Barzun, and read, of course, Neil Postman carefully.

One of the problems, it seems to me, that might arise for readers of Owen Barfield, and which might explain his frustration that he did not turn more of his readers toward Rudolf Steiner, is the problem of taking him as if he were one who describes a limited and circumscribed problem, and dismissing him when he speaks of cosmic trajectories reaching into the remote past and offering a different future from anything we now conceive. People of a conservative temperament usually want to understand our times and the situations facing us in order to return to the perceived stability of a former age, to acknowledge the unchangeable and stick to it. Barfield is not interested in returning to a pre-modern consciousness or to the antebellum south or to Athenian democracy. He wants to assimilate what we now understand, to get to the deep truth of it rather than the shallow popular understanding of scientists and other modern philosophers (truly) and move forward through this present necessary stage onto something greater.

Think of it this way: in our time one of the shallower forms of disagreement is between those who embrace progress and those who instinctively distrust such persons, believing permanent things more important than change or trajectories (and at that level of disagreement I am firmly in the latter camp). I do not mean shallower condescendingly, but I mean shallower in that there appears to be an explanation that takes both sides of the disagreement into consideration and joins them at a deeper level. “You can’t go back,” it agrees with one side, “and there must be a way forward, but you have needlessly lost valuable things in the assertion of that notion, discarding things that ought to have been kept permanently by failing to understand them.” Or you might say that modernity is true in asserting the subject-object distinction and that the modern condition is the existential apprehension of that distinction, and that the way forward is not by emphasizing it as an intractable dilemma, but by transcending the subject-object distinction in an awareness called final participation—and here I will say you cannot go on without avoiding Barfield who explains final participation very neatly in an entire and entirely brilliant book.

Owen Barfield is always thought-provoking, always knowledgeable, always makes sense if you take the trouble to understand him, always yields up amazing insights, and seems to have achieved an exhaustive level of reading by the age of twenty-six, continuing from there into his nineties. And he is very persuasive. I have never read a book that stood everything on its head for me, the way Saving the Appearances does, and all his books revolve around the same theme, seeking to clarify the human situation with regard to the evolution of consciousness. Persistently, Barfield brings up the name of Rudolph Steiner, a man with a similar cast of mind as Owen Barfield and who elaborated a lot of the ideas that Barfield took up.

Romanticism Comes of Age is Barfield’s great, concerted effort to get people to read Rudolph Steiner, and his lament that Steiner and Anthroposophy as so often dismissed. The book is actually a series of discreet essays collected; there is a logic to them and an impetus he goes to the trouble of pointing out in the preface. If the collection has a message it is that the problem of modern times, and the stage in the evolution of human consciousness at which we find ourselves, is the problem with which the Romantics (Goethe and Coleridge especially) were occupied, a problem of consciousness, of man who has achieved a measure of separation from the world in which he lives and who now seeks a new and higher union that includes both his separation and union. Rudolph Steiner realized it and points the way forward.

There is no straightforward way to put it because it is not a simple concept. It is the concept of final participation achieved by awareness both that we participate in the objective world we perceive, and are perceiving subjects. It is not an attempt to eradicate the subject and object distinction—for that would be to move a step backward—but to transcend it. The subject and object distinction is the dilemma of man in our time, and we need to achieve a consciousness of ourselves as simultaneously both—a sort of hypostatic union of ourselves and reality.

2 Anthroposophy, Christianity and Romanticism

With the emergency of modern consciousness—in which we are aware of our separateness and have forgotten our participation in the world we inhabit—the isolation and despair of modern man makes sense. And modern life slowly, gradually but inevitably, turns toward the problem of separation and alienation, the existential problem of how we can be disconnected. Our disconnection is absurd but felt to be true, and our frantic desire it to forget the most fundamental thing we now feel. If we were not alienated in this way and did not feel it as the most fundamentally true thing about ourselves—that we ought to be part of it and yet do not belong—we would not so frantically seek distraction.

Barfield offers a solution: final participation, but without an order external to ourselves to which we can really be consciously joined, there is no available solution; there is only living with despair: the myth of pointless Sisyphus. Things in that outlook must continue to disintegrate as people without honesty seize on lesser meanings that do not have the power to order all of life (social justice, war on poverty, fighting global warming, etc). They aim at symptoms—or perceived symptoms—with the ignored but growing knowledge the things they seek to fix are only symptoms and their life is one of endless whack-a-mole.

Anthroposophy offers a solution for many, and while it acknowledges the mythic power of Christianity, it also satisfies many in that is leaves Christianity behind as an accomplished stage, a husk that wrapped up the true meaning that we are now prepared to grasp. In a way, Christianity is for anthroposophists what Judaism was for early Christians. It contains, explains and transcends the latter, leaving it behind—to simplify and emphasize an implication. You can see the appeal it makes in our times: it acknowledges that there is something spent in modern Christianity, but it also accepts many things modernity has given us while correcting and transforming modernity in many ways, which is why it takes some understanding.

Anthorposophy, Barfield explains, is a continuation of Romanticism which was an attempt to return to an ampler consciousness without abandoning the separation of the individual from the world in which he lived. Romanticism, as C.S. Lewis has pointed out, has a few varieties, and it is a mistake to treat all the varieties as if they continued along the same trajectory. At its minimum, however, Romanticism is the stubborn notion that the fundamental ordering of the world is a matter of feeling, an order of affection and desire and the impulse of the heart as opposed to a cold, objective imposition of a mechanical and impersonal reason.

The subjectivity of Romanticism is the affirmation of the intuition that at a level deeper than the rationally explainable we have an understanding of the order of all things. The varieties of Romanticism I am dealing with arise from the question of how these deep impulses are put to use. There is a Romanticism that seeks to discipline these impulses and clarify them by the use of reason—and this comes out over and over in the work of C.S. Lewis than which none labored more mightily. But Romanticism is accused of giving blanket endorsement to the uninhibited expression of the disordered impulses of the heart because that variety has been more prominently associated with Romanticism.

The question is a question of order. Can reason order all things? What order is the order of impulses and desires? Is cultivation of intuitions and impulses possible? How can the ordering principle, reason, be subordinated to an anarchic principle? In short, what relationship obtains between reason and desire?

For Barfield, Rudolph Steiner represents Romanticism come of age. He believes the way forward is by way of a proper Romanticism. I agree with Barfield about the way forward because I think the order of all things is felt and not reasoned, and that reason follows and clarifies but has no power to identify. Identification is a matter of love; ends are grasped by desire, and means do not order ends, but help us to them, as reason does. The ordering of reason is a subsidiary ordering to the greater ordering of affection. Reason is not order but a kind of ordering and exhaustible like affection is not. Reason without love is madness, mechanical repetition and rectilinear gardens. Love without reason is dark anarchy and chaos, the wilderness and Mirkwood. Love leading reason is Romanticism, ordered and ordering, the cultivated pleasant land of the Shire, as it were.

3 Conclusion: Give Me Barfield

So I got Steiner and have begun to read him. My hesitation with what Barfield and Steiner urge is that I am convinced that the superceding of Christianity is completely unanticipated and unauthenticated. Christianity superceded Judaism in a way that was evidently anticipated and copiously authenticated. I do not think that one really reaches Anthroposophy when one starts as a committed Christian and continues that trajectory, but once one has left it behind, which is not at all congruent with the teaching of Christianity.

The frustration is, of course, that one has to make of Barfield the best one can without succumbing to all his enjoinments, but once one begins to read Rudolph Steiner it seems evident that what Barfield was doing with him is in some way similar. Anthroposophy is not a cult—it really has no religious aspirations though it uses religious terminology, it is an attempt to combine myth and science, poetry and empiricism, and to do this by blending together the acknowledged wisdom of the human race. The combination is absolutely a strange one no matter which angle you view it from, unless you are an anthroposophist. Now Barfield certainly claimed to be one, and we must say he was one and a paragon of one, perhaps, but reading Owen Barfield is not the same as reading Rudolph Steiner. There is not so much wildness of the gaze, not the same eerie feeling that the chap is dealing in weirdnesses unselfconsciously with the seeming of something of a fanatic. To the extent that Barfield digests and explains Steiner, he waters Steiner down by changing the rhetoric and makes him acceptable. He changes the spiritual atmosphere, as it were, and I find it a distinct relief.

Yes, I am saying Rudolph Steiner is just too weird for me—though I have not read very much—and that I am maxed out at Barfield.

For me the conclusion is to glance at Steiner a bit, but to continue on the Barfield avidly without, alas, going the extra mile of assimilating Steiner too diligently. Sorry Barfield, but you are a much more compelling putter forth of your ideas—with the exception of the one about reading Steiner, though I went for that too. And it is perhaps to Steiner’s credit that he cannot be read as profitably by the unpersuaded, but it is to your credit, old boy, perhaps, that any of these ideas are propagated beyond the realm of Anthroposophy at all.

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6 thoughts on “Romanticism Comes of Age: Barfield, Rudolph Steiner & Anthroposophy

    1. I’m the grandson and literary trustee of Owen Barfield (same name).

      Thanks for your interest in OB’s work, I’m keen to raise further awareness of it.

      Please send me a regular email so that we can be in touch.

      Owen A. Barfield

      and on facebook

  1. Interesting. I think in my email I confused you with the OB Society. I see your link gives me a different page. Not very observant of me. Not very observant to see Owen A. and think A. Owen.

  2. Sorry to but in, but in the new edition are the ‘new’ essays from the ’44 edition the same as material included in ‘the Rediscovery of Meaning’, or previously unavailable material ?

    1. Thanks for your enquiry. The new edition of ‘Romanticism Comes of Age’ will have all the essays from the 1944 and the 1966 editions combined. It will be ready soon.

      There will also be a new edition of ‘Rediscovery of Meaning’ published by mid-year.

      To be kept informed please send me your email, or contact me via ‘facebook’.

      Owen A. Barfield

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