The Influential Wisdom of Owen Barfield


Educated at Highgate School and Wadham College, Oxford, Owen Barfield was a solicitor in London, from which he retired in 1959 aged 60. However, Barfield published numerous essays, books, and articles to do with what he called the ‘evolution of consciousness,’ and is best known as the author of Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry and as a founding father of Anthroposophy in the English speaking world. He has been known as ‘the first and last Inkling’, had a profound influence on C. S. Lewis, and an effect on J. R. R. Tolkien, persuading both Tolkien and Lewis that myth and metaphor were central to language and literature. Barfield’s idea of a fully conscious participative unity with nature was and is a profound one and his works yield a number of significant quotes:

''When a new thing or a new idea comes into the consciousness of the community, it is described, not by a new word, but by the name of the pre-existing object which most closely resembles it.'

‘The economic and social structure of Switzerland is noticeably affected by its tourist industry, and that is due only in part to increased facilities of travel. It is due not less to the condition that (whatever may be said about their ‘particles’) the mountains which twentieth-century man sees are not the mountains which eighteenth-century man saw.’

'I believe I have already suggested that colour is the most obvious bridge between emotion and perception, that is, between subjective experience of the psyche and quality objective in nature. Both light up only between the extremes of light and darkness, and in their reciprocal interplay. Thus, outward the rainbow--or, if you prefer it, the spectrum--is the bridge between dark and light, but inwardly the rainbow is, what the soul itself is, the bridge between body and spirit, between earth and heaven.'

‘We should remember this, when appraising the aberrations of the formally representational arts. Of course, in so far as these are due to affectation, they are of no importance. But in so far as they are genuine, they are genuine because the artist has in some way or other experienced the world he represents. And in so far as they are appreciated, they are appreciated by those who are themselves willing to make a move towards seeing the world in that way, and, ultimately therefore, seeing that kind of world. We should remember this, when we see pictures of a dog with six legs emerging from a vegetable marrow or a woman with a motorbicycle substituted for her left breast.'

'Therefore it is only people living in the same period and, broadly speaking, in the same community, who inhabit the same world. People living in other periods, or even at the same period but in a totally different community, do not inhabit the same world about which they have different ideas, they inhabit different worlds altogether.’

'The obvious is the hardest thing of all to point out to anyone who has genuinely lost sight of it.'

'If people say the world we perceive is a 'construct' of our brains, they are saying in effect, that it results from an inveterate habit of thought. Why does it never occur to them that a habit is something you can overcome, if you set about it with enough energy?’

'When the velocity of progress increases beyond a certain point, it becomes indistinguishable from crisis.'

'True understanding is unattainable without both love and detachment,'

'All conscious nature has experiences of pleasure and pain. Man alone can deliberately will the repetition of an experience. And repetition, experienced as such, is at the heart, for good and evil, of his faculty of reasoning, and thus makes possible his language, his art, his morality, and indeed his humanity. Yet it is the enemy of life, for repetition is itself the principle, not of life but of mechanism.'

'We can only cope with the dangers of language if we recognize that language is by nature magical and therefore highly dangerous.’

‘…every time a society journalist or a film producer exploits this vast suggestiveness to tickle a vanity or dignify a lust, he is squandering a great pile of spiritual capital which has been laid up by centuries of weary effort.'

'There is no surer or more illuminating way of reading a man's character, and perhaps a little of his past history, than by observing the contexts in which he prefers to use certain words.'

'...library terror - that feeling of being hopelessly overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of available books...'

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