Friday 8 November 2019

What should we do when beauty, truth and virtue become separated? The example of Owen Barfield

When beauty, truth and virtue become separated, they pretty soon die.

Indeed (as I have implied before, in my books on the corruption of science, and the decline of genius) - when there is a move from the unity of the traditional Christian religiousness (with residues of Original Participation) to a concentration of life-energies upon just-beauty (artistic romanticism), just-truth (science and the Wissenschaftlich factual-systematic academic subjects) or just-virtue (some types of Protestant) - then there is at first an enhanced achievement in that specialised field.

The exceptional productivity of first generation atheists (i.e. childhood traditional Christians, who become atheist and then channel their religious energies into 'their subject') provides a misleading, ultimately false, impression of a wonderful future of enhanced attainment from rejecting religion and specialising in some narrower aspect of Culture. 

Thus, first-generation atheists who become commited artists, scientists and ethicists (such as 'fundamentalist' Protestants, or the existentialists) may achieve genius-level work, when they have been brought-up as traditionalists, and assimilated and retained a unified thought structure from that.

But with the next generation, brought-up as atheists, and without any coherent unity of world-view, the specialised art, science and religion withers and begins to die - because separate organs cannot live independently of the whole organism.

Art for arts sake, science-as-religion, purely ethical philosophy (or Christianity indifferent to beauty and truth) are all non-viable; and will sustain in-name-only, only by assimilating to mainstream secularity - bureaucracy and the mass media...

OK, but what then? Above all others, Owen Barfield pointed the way forward; perhaps because he was born in 1897; yet (ahead of his time, in this respect) he was brought-up in a thoroughly secular fashion - as an atheist, in an atheistic leftist radical household. Therefore Barfield could not revert to a childhood Original Participation religiousness; but in seeking to overcome the fragmentation and death of Life, he could only move forward.

Barfield was able to move forward, because he had extreme appreciation and ability in all three of the main specialised capacities (art, science, ethics). He had an intense appreciation of poetry and music and great ability as a writer; a brilliantly philosophical rigour; and an two-sided sensitivity to contemporary ethical collapse (he saw both the profound faults of the past, and the utter inadequacy of contemporary 'solutions').

Then, Barfield had the intellectual honesty to recognise that the prevalent situation was unacceptable and non-viable - it was, in a word, evil. The only possible answer to this gathering, unavoidable crisis and denied-decline into damnation, was that the separation of life into 'watertight compartments' must be overcome. A new synthesis was required.

Barfield had also the rare insight that going-back was simply not an option. Barfield argued that a reversion to earlier forms was undesirable, because it was precisely analogous to an adult trying to become a child; and for the same reason it was anyway impossible.

Since an atavistic reversion to past unity was not going to happen, and the present disunity was evil and unsustainable; we simply must move forward to a new kind of unity. 

Barfield saw that the broken threads of Culture must be rewoven, if we personally and socially were to avoid an incremental descent into hell-on-earth; but rewoven in a new and unprecedented way. Specifically, re-woven in full consciousness and with full choice.

Past unity was essentially traditional, hence unconscious and unexamined; the future unity could only be freely chosen, and as such conscious.

Future unity - which he called Final Participation - was not something that would happen-to us, but something we must each make-happen. So, if we did not make that choice and effort, it will not happen. We must know what we are doing, and then do it.

Moving on to a new unity and synthesis of Good is - unavoidably - up to each of us, personally: starting now.   

References: Owen Barfield's main books on this theme are are probably Romanticism Comes of Age, Saving the Appearances, World's Apart, and Unancestral Voice. All are equally good, although all take sustained effort to understand - each has a different character. 


William Wildblood said...

The point you make about how the 1st generation after religion is abandoned plough their religious impulse into their work and produce great things but thereafter the work suffers from the disconnect from the sense of absolutes, which you also made in your interview with Ed Dutton, is a great insight that explains much. You can see how that worked out in every field and how the second phase has been working out since at least the 1960s. It's like a huge release of energy which initially fuels creativity but the energy soon dissipates and there is nothing left.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - Yes, I feel the need to repeat this, because it doesn't fit either the mainstream atheist or mainstream religious agenda; but it was (at the time) an important factor in enhancing the prestige and credibility of the 'apostate' in the science, arts, philosophy etc.

There are important exceptions and counterexamples, but most of the major high status intellectuals of the twentieth century has taken this trajectory - most from Christianity (across the denominations from Catholic to low church Protestant), a fair number from orthodox types of Judaism.

It reinforced the powerful idea that religion was childish, and something that intelligent and creative people grew-out-of.

What has been very rare indeed, unfortunately, has been the idea that such people could and should put their intelligence and creativity into Christianity. Of course this activity is resisted by traditionalist Christians, and faked by 'liberal Christians' (the give away is that 'liberals' are Always in favour of the sexual revolution and other currently fashionable themes from leftist politics - and in practice their intelligence and creativity are being put into adjusting Christianity around leftism).

But it is still surprising how few serious Christians have really put their best efforts into clarifying, understanding, developing Christianity as the single deepest and most important thing in life - such that politics and sex must be fitted around Christianity and not the other way about.