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Inklings Odd-ballery:
A Review of Worlds Apart.





Paul Gosselin

Over the years I have read pretty much everything C. S. Lewis has published, even his academic works and generally I find there's always something to take away from reading a something by Lewis even though I don't always agree with him about everything. Admittedly, I haven't read his published letters or any of his pre-conversion poetry, but pretty much everything else. I have also read quite a bit of the works of another Inkling, JRR Tolkien along with one novel by Charles Williams (wasn't impressed...) but one Inkling I hadn't read anything up until now was Owen Barfield, so recently I picked up a used copy of his book Worlds Apart (WA). The blurb on the cover from T. S. Eliot reads: "A journey into seas of thought very far from ordinary routes of intellectual shipping" and is a rather apt nutshell view of Barfield's book. WA contains a fair amount of whimsy, but also much serious thinking about perspectives and ideas that were dominant in the early 60s. There's some serious philosophy mixed in. I'm about 3/4 of the way through at this point.

That said, I suspect I would reject much of Barfield's theology, as he was what is called an "anthroposophist"[1]. In his own time he may have been viewed as a bit of a crank (at a time when materialism was hugely dominant among the elite), someone “open to the spiritual”, but in our postmodern times Barfield would fit in just fine. When CS Lewis wrote these words, he may have had his friend Barfield in mind (1947: 99-100):

That said, Barfield did serve a useful purpose as he did help Lewis break out of his early atheism/materialism and later go on to become a Christian.

So what does all this have to do with origins?? Yes, thank you for your patience; I'm getting there...

Well, Barfield's book Worlds Apart sets up a fictional (somewhat Socratic) dialogue between a physicist, a biologist, a psychiatrist, a lawyer-philologist, a linguistic analyst, a theologian, a retired Waldorf School teacher, and a young man employed at a rocket research station. During a period of three days, the characters discuss and debate first principles. The primary objective being to throw a diverse group of individuals together and get them to break out of their professional cubby-holes and reflect on fundamental issues. As I suspect would have been the case at a meeting of the Inklings (especially after a pint or two), there's plenty of odd-ballery in this book. The biologist and psychiatrist are evolutionists and the rocket scientist is deeply into scientism[2].

Now one issue that Barfield is constantly bumping into in the course of the discussions is evolution. He clearly understands it to be a problem, a serious problem, and often comes back to it, but as he was writing BEFORE the creationist movement (as we know it) got started[3], he had next to no material on the scientific side to question evolution. So for the most part the criticisms draw on logic and intuition. Rather than looking to science, he looks back to his knowledge of the Classics.

Note that Barfield's book was first published in 1963. Morris and Whitcomb's Genesis Flood was published in 1961, but it is VERY unlikely Barfield or any of the other Inklings had even heard of it. And even if a copy had been placed in their hands I wonder if British snobbery might have come into play as Morris was not from a prestigious university and, besides, was an American and an Evangelical (who, due to pietistic influence, were generally quite anti-intellectual at the time). It is true that Lewis had some contact by mail with Bernard Ackworth, an early British creationist and founder of the Evolution Protest Movement. I suspect that Lewis was comfortable with a polite exchange of letters with Ackworth, but chances are he would have never thought to invite him to a meeting of the Inklings. At one point Ackworth asked Lewis for an endorsement for an anti-evolution book he was writing. Here is Lewis' response:

The bold text above does highlight the real fear of being associated with creationists (“heretics” in the view of the modern elite) existed even back then... despite evolution being by that time TOTALLY dominant in science and education. But in a subsequent letter to Ackworth (September 13, 1951) Lewis seems to have come to a more radical conclusion regarding evolution:

Hard to tell if any other Inklings would have gone so far as Lewis here, but as I read through Worlds Apart I got the impression Barfield was quite close to this view. For example WA contains rather original discussions on the incoherence of determinism (Barfield uses the term “reductionism”) along with its intellectual consequences. Basically what Barfield is saying is that Darwin was genetically/materially determined to write the Origin, Marx, Das Kapital and so on... On this basis one could disregard any arguments put forward by Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion as “of course” he was biologically determined to make these arguments. And because the arguments have been produced by genetics/social conditioning/hormones rather than logical thinking, there is no reason for anyone to take them seriously. Barfield makes some very pointed and valid comments about sexual/psychological determinism in psychoanalysis. Regarding philosophy (particularly positivism), on page 105 Barfield is relentless about the importance of metaphysics and presuppositions, even when they are unconscious/unrecognized/unadmitted. He rejects the positivist idea of a purely empirical knowledge. Barfield also has one of his characters allude (p. 164) to the fact that science is commonly limited to experience/observation[5], this then casts some doubt on evolution's scientific or truly empirical status. On pages 94-100, there is an interesting discussion on language and meaning.

On pages 144-45 of WA, one of Barfield's characters quotes Darwin's Bulldog, T.H. Huxley, who once wrote:

Yes this was a world when scientists looked into their microscopes and chortled: “Ah yes! What do we have here? A simple cell of course.” Well now we know better[6]... Barfield goes on to (politely) point out Huxley's hypocrisy in pointing out DESIGN in the biological world, but rejecting/ignoring the DESIGNER... I DO wonder if any of the Inklings had ever read Douglas Dewar's Difficulties of the Evolution Theory (1931) or Dewar's Is Evolution a Myth?: A debate between Douglas Dewar, L. Merson Davies and J.B.S. Haldane (1949). British academics in the early sixties would certainly have had access to these books if they wanted to...

On page 30, an evolutionist character alludes to attempts to link evolution to Nazism or communism, but flippantly adds “this reaction is out of date by now...” I wonder if, just after WWII, evolutionists may have been rather nervous that someone might have VERY explicitly connected the dots between evolution and Darwinism... This would have led to a HUGE marketing crisis for evolutionists... One exception was Sir Arthur Keith, an evolutionist, who writing shortly after World War II, did connect the dots (1947: 27-28):

But it appears Keith was just a lonely voice in the desert, a voice that perhaps only a handful of historians briefly heard... Yes, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to observe it, does it make any noise? Shortly afterwards, the evolutionary propaganda machine went full throttle, spewing out high school textbooks and TV documentaries and all was forgotten. And all those late 19th and early 20th century social scientists that previously had been radical pro-eugenics and scientific racists, suddenly (and conveniently) became champions of universal rights... And all was well...


 

Afterthoughts on Worlds Apart
Previous comments were written having only read part of Barfield's World's Apart. After finishing WA, I came to realize this work comes in two parts, though this is not something Barfield himself makes explicit. The first part of WA is a reaction to Enlightenment ideas, particularly the militant materialism/atheism of the mid-twentieth century. Barfield clearly rejects this view and has interesting critiques to make. That said, the second part of the book goes on and takes us into Barfield's own ideologico-religious views.

This unfortunately is where I part ways with Barfield. Amongst other things to take into consideration is the fact that Barfield was a follower and promoter of the German philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), the founder of anthroposophism and a known Freemason. Barfield was of course an old friend of C.S. Lewis as they'd met when they were teenagers. At the time Lewis was a materialist/atheist and Barfield and Lewis had a rather intense exchange, including disagreements about Steiner, which later became know as the “Great War” and as a result Lewis began to break out of his materialism.

But, that said, as to Lewis' becoming a Christian, Barfield had little input[7]. Taking into consideration Barfield's attachment to Steiner and promotion of anthroposophism, it is entirely quite possible that Barfield himself may have been a Freemason. While at times Freemasons may go public about their beliefs (when they find it useful to do so), living Freemasons will most often conceal their true beliefs as this helps them gain access to circles of power or influence and circumvents close scrutiny of their views or motivations. Claiming as Freemasons famous dead individuals is an amusing game Freemasons like to play, but living Freemasons are generally more coy. There are of course different flavours of freemasonry. Some are/were deists (such as Voltaire or Benjamin Franklin). In the English-speaking world, most Freemasons are of this variety. Among the French, most Freemasons tend to be atheists/materialists rejecting both gods and the supernatural. Then there is a spiritualist variety of freemasonry that is open to the “supernatural" in any form (including the occult) and certainly Steiner would be part of this current.

But getting back to WA, after an involved discussion about what thinking is, one of the characters portrayed by Barfield begins to alluding to out of body experiences (p. 176-177) as well as reincarnation (p. 185-186). Unsurprisingly, this is couched in rather vague terms as of course such ideas would have been considered unmentionable heresy in most intellectual circles of the mid-twentieth century West.

Barfield may well be considered as a precursor to postmodern thought, though he never uses the term himself[8]. One thing worth thinking about is that while Barfield makes much about “the spiritual dimension”, he rarely brings up the question of Truth and whether there is some standard for Truth, such as the Bible let's say, that would allow one to discern between true or false “spiritual” manifestations. Regarding Truth, the closest Barfield comes to discussing this plainly is:

In the course of a discussion on the “spiritual”, the matter of accessing the “spiritual” comes up and one of the characters has this to say:

This would apply in the case of a shaman or medium for example... Barfield goes on to note:

Whatever Barfield's true beliefs, the views expressed above are quite compatible both with occultism as well as Freemasonry which is a very hierarchical religion where access to higher levels of “knowledge” restricted to the few deemed worthy of further initiation. In Surprised by Joy C.S. Lewis describes his immediate reaction to Barfield's conversion to Anthroposophism. At the time Lewis was still an atheist. He wrote (1955: 206):

First Harwood (still without changing his expression), and then Barfield, embraced the doctrines of Steiner and became anthroposophists . I was hideously shocked. Everything I had labored so hard to expel from my own life seemed to have flared up and met me in my best friends. Not only my best friends but those whom I would have thought safest; the one so immovable, the other brought up in a free-thinking family and so immune from all "superstition" that he had hardly heard of Christianity itself until he went to school. (The gospel first broke on Barfield in the form of a dictated list of Parables Peculiar to St. Matthew.) Not only in my seeming-safest friends but at a moment when we all had most need to stand together. And as I came to learn (so far as I ever have learned) what Steiner thought, my horror turned into disgust and resentment. For here, apparently, were all the abominations; none more abominable than those which had once attracted me. Here were gods, spirits, afterlife and pre-existence, initiates, occult knowledge, meditation. "Why–damn it–it's medieval," I exclaimed; for I still had all the chronological snobbery of my period and used the names of the earlier periods as terms of abuse.

Lewis goes on to point out the few positive results (1955: 207-208)

Barfield never made me an Anthroposophist, but his counterattacks destroyed forever two elements in my own thought. In the first place he made short work of what I have called my “chronological snobbery,” the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.

In conclusion I would state that while Barfield certainly was an intelligent man and gifted philosopher, but given his beliefs, sad to say but it may not be a bad thing after all that he has been largely forgotten.


References



BARFIELD, Owen (1963/1971) Worlds Apart : A Dialogue of the 1960s." Wesleyan University Press Middleton, CN (coll. Philosophy 617) 211 p.

CWS (2009) The Great War (CS Lewis, Owen Barfield, and—Anthroposophy).

DEWAR, Douglas (1931) Difficulties of the Evolution Theory. E. Arnold & Co. London 

DEWAR, Douglas (1949) Is Evolution a Myth?: A debate between Douglas Dewar, L. Merson Davies and J.B.S. Haldane. C.A. Watts/Paternoster Press London

FERNGREN, Gary B. (1996) C. S. Lewis on Creation and Evolution: The Acworth Letters, 1944-1960. PSCF 48 March pp. 28-33.

HUXLEY, T.H. (1860) The Origin of the Species. [review article] Collected Essays

KEITH, Sir Arthur (1947) Evolution and Ethics. G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York

LEWIS, C. S. (1945) The Funeral of a Great Myth. pp.82-93 published in a collection of Lewis essays entitled: Christian Reflections William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Grand Rapids MI [1967]

LEWIS, C. S. (1947/1990) Miracles: A Preliminary Study. Fount Publications London

LEWIS, C. S. (1955) Surprised by Joy. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich New York 238 p.



Notes

[1] - There's a dark side to Owen Barfield. Seeing Anthroposophy was founded by Rudolf Steiner who was a Rosicrucian and had links with Freemasonry, this may well have been the case with Barfield as well... cf : Rudolf Steiner & Freemasonry.

[2] - Somewhat along the lines of the worldview of the character Weston in Lewis' Space Trilogy. That said, as an afterthought, it has occurred to me that the conversation between Weston and Ransom we find in chapter 7 of Perelandra may in fact have been inspired by the "Great War" between Lewis and Barfield...

[3] - And of course long before the Intelligent Design movement was even thought of...

[4] - That said, when Lewis put his own knowledge in literature and mythology to use, he could make very pointed and valid criticisms of evolution. See for example his essay : The Funeral of a Great Myth.

[5] - See also a discussion on page 25 about the limits of perception/observation and, logically, about the limits of science.

[6] - And we are now aware that the “simplest” single-celled organism is capable of doing something that even the most advanced super-computer can not, that is, make functional, self-replicating copies of itself...

[7] - Many Christians may be tempted to view the Inklings as an informal Christian association, but when the views of Barfield are taken into consideration, this must be revised. It would appear that anyone reacting to or rejecting the materialism that so dominated the twentieth century would have been candidate for admission...

[8] - That I am aware of.

[9] - Since the Reformation ??

[10] - This is what most Christians would call a conversion. And if Barfield is talking about conversion, then this raises the question : To what religion ??