Few conservatives–with the notable exception of John Lukacs–remember or cite Owen Barfield any longer. This is a shame, and Barfield should really stand with the great Christian Humanists of the previous century.
Perhaps his best work is his first, Poetic Diction, originally his undergraduate thesis at Oxford (1922). Published commercially in 1928, it has never gone out of print.
A sometime member of the Inklings, Barfield significantly influenced C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien; he also belonged to a group of Christians (ecumenical) called “The Moot.” Other members included T.S. Eliot, Christopher Dawson, and Reinhold Niebuhr. The following piece comes from The Moot’s The Christian News-Letter, now rather difficult to find.
I came across this piece while researching Dawson, and I’ve used it in class. My favorite idea of the whole piece is at the end of the first paragraph–looking toward “a commonwealth of the spirit, in which there is no copyright.”
What a beautiful idea, and an idea that helped inspire the creation of The Imaginative Conservative.
As with other pieces, I will input the rest as soon as possible. For now, enjoy.
The following is from: Owen Barfield, “Effective Approach to Social Change,” The Christian News-Letter (July 24, 1940).
You will easily guess that I have been following the Christian News-Letter with the greatest interest. In case they may be of use to you, I have endeavoured to set down as shortly as I can some of the thoughts which have been passing through my mind in the last few months bearing on subjects with which you and your contributors have dealt. Their sources are various and would in most cases be difficult for me to identify, so I have not attempted to do so. Some of them you will recognise as reflected from from the News-Letter itself. I take it that this does not matter. On the contrary, it may serve to emphasize one of the things I specially like about the News-Letter. It mean the impression it gives of a sober effort to build up and maintain a common stock of thought rather than to startle with a series of sparkling individual contributions–like a commonwealth of the spirit, in which there is no copyright.
Powerlessness of Ideas
First, however, let me say what it is more than anything else that dashes my hopes of the effectiveness of this effort, and tends to damp down any rising enthusiasm. I doubt its having any lasting effect, because I am compelled to doubt the effectiveness of any appeal to reason in this present age. Something has happened either to the minds of men or the thoughts which fill them. These have grown somehow thinner. There is no faith in ideas and in their compelling power comparable to that which ruled in the Nineteenth Century. The controversies between Huxley and Wilburforce, between Newman and Kingsley, were, I am convinced, real destiny-involving issues not only for protagonists themselves, but for tens of thousands who followed them, in a way which no controversy about ideas ever is to-day. Whether there is simply too much newsprint about, or systematic propaganda has poisoned the wells, or whatever the cause may be, the average man of to-day does not arrive at his convictions dialectically. He has lost faith in ideas. When he has followed some chain of thought to its logical conclusion and given his assent, he will turn to another paper of the newspaper and read, without dissent, the exact opposite. The mind of the German nation as it listened to Goebbels and Ribbentrop, first before and then after the Russo-German Pact, is only an extreme instance of this. It is not the startling exception we should like to think it.
An Alternative Method
I start off with this because ‘if way to a better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst.’ And this for me is the worst obstacle to the effectiveness of the Christian News-Letter and indeed to the success of any positive effort to produce something good out of the mental and physical chaos by which we are surrounded and threatened. It is a factor of which I am again and again being made freshly aware and it should, to my mind, be the determining factor to-day in considering the first problem which confronts anyone who seeks to exert a healthful influence on the minds of a large number of people: that is, the problem of a method. I have a suggestion, perhaps rather vague, to make towards the solution of this problem, which I will put as shortly as I can. I must lead up to it indirectly. If you are convinced that it is well for a man, or it may be a nation, to make something, there are two possible ways of imparting that conviction to him. You may convince him by argument that such a thing, if made would be a good and useful thing. That is one way. On the other hand you may say: ‘This thing already exists potentially and is merely waiting to be brought into visible being. Moreover it is your true nature to make it, because its archetype already exists in you. If you fail to make it you will be acting in a way that is fundamentally false: you will be a sort of hypocrite.’ Now I believe that this second method is the only one which has any chance of success to-day. I also believe that it is inherently a better method, because for one thing it is in harmony with religious faith. Ethics are concerned with what ought to be, where religion is concerned sole with what is. It is, for instance, not a religious appeal to say ‘You ought not to be acquisitive,’ whether or no we add ‘because in that way peace will be secured.’ It is a religious appeal to say: ‘It is the will of God that you should not be acquisitive,’ whether or no we add ‘and you will find that it is really your own will also, the will of that true self of yours for whose salvation Christ died.’ The question is, therefore, is there any chance of producing by this second method a widespread conviction in the minds of the English people that it is their urgent business to create a new society? In attempting to answer this question one naturally asks first, whether the attempt has ever been made before.
End part I.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.