Thursday 23 March 2023

Four reasons to read Owen Barfield - even if you already know Rudolf Steiner

It seems to be a fault of Anthroposophists seriously to read only Rudolf Steiner himself, and secondarily those who explain and expound Steiner's own views. 

But if Steiner himself is taken seriously, then he was establishing a 'way' (a Spiritual Science) rather than a body of information:

"Anthroposophy is a path of knowledge, to guide the Spiritual in the human being to the Spiritual in the universe". Anthroposophical Leading Thoughts, Number 1 - my emphasis. 

Therefore it should be expected that those who engage most deeply with Steiner will potentially be able to produce original and valuable work, by going either wider or deeper than the Master - and thus, in principle, be worth reading. 

We can then ask: why read Owen Barfield specifically? 

What does Barfield offer that he does better than Steiner? 

1. Flavour

Barfield's writing has a very different flavour than Steiner, since they have very different personalities. Some who dislike the taste of Steiner will enjoy Barfield. 

2. Prose

For an English speaker, it is relevant that Barfield wrote in English, and in a clean and elegant prose style; whereas Steiner wrote in a 'Victorian' style of German that is (apparently) rather dry and pedantic in the original, and in translation often reads awkwardly. Barfield's prose is always concise and focused; while Steiner (especially in the lectures) is often rambling and discursive.  

3. Quantity and Quality 

Steiner wrote, and had transcribed from lectures, a truly overwhelming quantity of work; of widely variable levels of quality and interest; whereas Barfield published a more manageable body of work. While Steiner at his best is better than even the best of Barfield; Barfield's average level of quality and relevance is significant higher than Steiner's average.    

4. Themes

Barfield wrote in depth and detail about several matters that Steiner covered less well or not at all. For instance, Barfield wrote a lot, and with many example and references, about the development of language and especially of words. 

Barfield discussed the nature of modern (post-Einstein-ian) science and post-genetics Neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory; and the implications for science and society more generally. 

Barfield also rooted his critique in the modern Western condition as it developed after the 1914-18 World War and up to the 1980s; aspects such as alienation, existentialist disaffection, radical politics, and the sexual revolution, and destruction of the environment - especially by buildings, noise and pollution. 

So there are plenty of good reasons to read Owen Barfield, even for someone who is already familiar with Rudolf Steiner.