Friday 6 January 2017

Owen Barfield on the spiritual future of Albion - 1940

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 the 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 solely 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 English people that it is their urgent business to create a new society? In attempting to answer this question one naturally asks first, whether attempt has ever been made before.

A century ago a great man was writing in this country on social change and political questions... Coleridge saw that a new society was needed in Europe and that it could only be brought about by a change in people’s ways of thought and feeling. He virtually foresaw, as the inevitable result of habits of thought which were then comparatively new but were rapidly becoming prevalent, the very disintegration which we are now experiencing. He chose the second method of appeal.

Coleridge tried to familiarise English people with the notion that there is what he called the “idea” of a nation, a constitution, a church – that is, not a theory of these things worked out empirically, but something which they are in fact and in the nature of things striving to be; and that the first problem is to recognise this “idea” in each case.

He failed to “get it across” -- it was beyond his, probably beyond any man’s, powers and he never won more than a small audience. The failure was disastrous because for anyone who will first take the trouble to master Coleridge’s system of thought these writings of his contains a depth of Christian political wisdom which I believe to be unsurpassed by any other English, possibly by any other, thinker.

Is there any better prospect of success to-day? I believe there may be... People have gradually acquired the habit of referring in the most matter of fact, even glib, way to this particular aspect of the “unmanifest.” To this extent we are all accustomed to “moving about in worlds not realised”.

This fact seems to me to create a totally different situation; so that, if Coleridge were here to-day, he would find exactly what he formerly lacked, a point of contact with the minds of his contemporaries from which at least to make a start.

Am I making my suggestion at all clear? What I want to get at is that the true form of the society which Britain ought to create already exists potentially in the nation’s unconscious; and that an appeal which proceeds on that basis stands the best chance of success.

Edited from Effective Approach to Social Change - Owen Barfield - 1940


Note: This seems an inspiring and energising insight into the nature of desirable social change; and how we ought to set about inducing it.

(And also - very helpfully - what not to do!)

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