Francis Bacon, Owen Barfield, Ian Dury, ID

It’s just astonishing how things fortuitously/providentially connect together. PNGarrison has kindly sent me a chapter of a difficult (oh dear…) book by Owen Barfield, which he has painstakingly transcribed for me. Thanks Preston. Barfield was C S Lewis’s great mentor – which has to be a recommendation – and the book, Saving the Appearances, is about the development of the way humans have viewed the world across history. The Amazon reviews tend in general to say, “This book has changed my life: I don’t understand much of it, but I keep coming back to it.” Having read one chapter, I see what they mean. It’s on my Amazon wishlist, and I’ll probably be reviewing it in – oh – twenty years time.


Barfield’s basic thesis is about a theme I’ve found useful over the years: the desacralisation of nature, which he describes as a decreasing participation in nature. This, incidentally, presupposes a wider but hugely important idea – that the way people view reality is not fixed, as we tend to suppose, but conditioned by our deeper commitments. Specifically, science is dependent on our underlying worldview. That might mean there is no objective truth, but only human-constructed reality (cf Postmodernism) – or probably more accurately, that how closely our personal reality corresponds to objective truth depends on our underlying worldview – shades of Michael Polanyi there. Already you can see why people’s brains start hurting at this point, but they still come back for a third or fourth reading. As Ian Dury so succinctly put it , “There ain’t ‘arf been some clever bastards.”

To get back to Owen’s main theme, he argues that, in primitive times, people saw very little distinction between themselves, the world and ultimate causes. The world was personal, mystical and magical, and we were related to that reality sacrally. Without pursuing the point too far, you can see a paradigmatic example in the idea of hunting a totem animal in order to eat him and acquire his special power over the world; so to achieve that you dress up in his skin and become him in a ritual trance, whilst representing the hunting act and associated woo in a cave-painting.

Barfield sees progress, or evolution, in human thought as a desacralisation process – or rather, as two rather separate alternatives with rather divergent results. In Greek thought, subsequently culminating in the modern positivistic or scientistic worldview, nature is progressively drained of its magic, and radically separated from the human observer. It becomes, in the end, a collection of unrelated objective phenomena, devoid of any true meaning of its own. Almost unconsciously, the human mind becomes the only arbiter of meaning, through the imposition of theory on these diverse phenomena.

As others have noted, this plays out in the Cartesian radical body-mind dualism, where all the really important aspects of reality – ranging from such prosaic issues as colour or taste to universals like gravity or space-time relationships and, of course, such “subjective” metaphysical issues of “What’s it all for?”- are devolved to the human mind, the sole remaining “magic” component of reality.

This is problematic because it’s intrinsically unstable. Many (including C S Lewis) have pointed out that objectivism always wants to encroach even on the mind, explaining its own “magic” away in terms of mere neurology or chemistry +/- evolution, with the result that in the end even the sacredness of mind disappears in a puff of smoke and the emptying out of nature is complete (perhaps this is a better real example, though even more downbeat, of the trendy theology of “kenosis”!).

The Postmodern (and also, of course, post-Barfield) enterprise is equally destructive of true reality because it relativises that last stronghold of meaning, the mind. Meaning becomes a purely individual reconstruction of the universe, and though the mind itself survives positivist annihilation, it becomes no more in touch with reality – or with others’ reality – than a Boltzmann Brain would.

But meanwhile, back at Owen Barfield, he describes an alternative “desacralisation” that took place uniquely, he says, amongst the Hebrews. With their revelation of a transcendent God, the sole author but not the substance of material reality, nature ceased to be a living set of powers to be manipulated, abstracted, appeased and feared, but simply the ordered reality of the One who made it. The prohibition on images, Barfield argues, prevented God’s being dissolved back into nature, and set Israel’s eyes on the moral and spiritual reality of the God beyond, revealed to them in torah.

In the chapter Preston sent me, this almost comes across as a negative – suggesting the Jews did not care much about nature, diverting their attention on to human and theological matters. If that’s what he means, I’m not sure I agree – there is a stong strand of respect, awe and wonder for the created order in the Bible. But maybe that’s what Barfield is getting at – the change in perspective that comes from knowing God actually transforms ones view of nature, so one sees it as it is, in all its glory and – well, its true, God-given, meaning. I’m encouraged in that assessment of Barfield’s view because he compares this new Jewish concept to that of Thomas Traherne, the metaphysical poet whose love of every detail of nature is amongst the most enraptured in the Christian tradition.

Barfield proceeds to show how it is this view of nature, as the artefact of a transcendent Creator, rather than the dessicated Greek-cum-positivist alternative, which is the true inspiration for science. And here he speaks in harmony with Stanley Jaki, recently cited here, though coming at the matter from a completely different angle.

In fact, it’s a quote from Jaki’s book on which I wish to close, and to draw a specific point, because it adds to the authority of C S Lewis’s mentor that of one of the founders of modern science, Sir Francis Bacon. Although I’ve expressed much support for the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition of philosophy on The Hump, Bacon speaks as a major critic of Aristotle. But he could be fresh from reading Owen Barfield:

[Francis] Bacon pointed to the enormous disparity which the doctrine of Creation introduced between the pagan and the Christian outlook on the world: “For as all works do shew forth the power and skill of the workman, and not his image; so it is of the works of God; which do shew the omnipotency and wisdom of the maker, but not his image; and therefore therein the heathen opinion differeth from the sacred truth; for they supposed the world to be the image of God, and man to be an extract or compendious image of the world.”

Sir Francis Bacon

Sir Francis Bacon

Now I will add a specific application (maybe it’s a footnote, since I think the points made above are alone sufficient food for thought about Life, the Universe and Everything). One of the critiques of the whole divine design approach to nature – whether within ID or more generally – is that it is useless because it doesn’t tell one anything about the designer. Ergo to someone like Thomist Ed Feser it’s misleading theology; whereas for the standard issue Gnubie Web Warrior it’s proof that there is no design, and no designer.

But Bacon’s quotation sums up what is inherent in Barfield’s appraisal of the “true” de-divinisation of nature in the light of God’s reality: by the very nature of that created reality, one would not expect to know the character of God from his works, beyond his “omnipotency and wisdom” (just as Romans 1 affirms). In the positivist worldview, as we have seen, not only design, and Designer, but all meaning whatosever are doomed to disappear. If you wanted to aspire to know God’s character from his works, you’d need to return to the primitive view in which nature itself is divine.

But as Barfield shows, that way you’re doomed to be sucked back into primitive sacral participation rather than rational understanding. Either way, without God there is no objective reality to understand. Stated strongly, you can only know either God or nature on the basis that the latter is analogous to a designer’s artefact. Way to go!

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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9 Responses to Francis Bacon, Owen Barfield, Ian Dury, ID

  1. Bilbo says:

    Hi Jon,

    I read Saving the Appearances back in the 70s or 80s, when I was trying to read anything I could get my hands on by one of the Inklings. I had difficulty understanding Barfield’s point and gave the book to a friend of mine to see if he had better luck. He didn’t. Lewis wrote in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, that Barfield became an Anthroposophist, following the teaching of Rudolf Steiner. And Barfield praises Steiner in his book, so I imagine that he hadn’t given up the “faith” yet. Perhaps if I took the time to try to understand Anthroposophy, perhaps I would understand Barfield’s book. But I’m just not that interested. Lewis praised another Barfield book, Poetic Diction, which I hope to get and read some day before I kick the bucket.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Bilbo.

      Yeah, I saw the Steiner commection on one of the Amazon reviews – having only read the one chapter I’m not sure how that affects the big picture. But I can see, and largely agree with, where he’s coming from in what I’ve read. Lewis obviously felt the pholsophy didn’t totally detract from the worth, either. I suspect it may account for some of the impenetrability.

      My own exposure to Anthroposophy was an invite (when a student) to play a Christian musical at a Steiner School, via one of the girls there. We were treated with polite suspicion by the staff – it turned out the young lady was the rebel of the school (the broken antique leaded window was her doing). I believe she married a Scottish Laird eventually… I wonder how that affects my judgement on Rudolph and his system?

  2. Bilbo says:

    Does Lewis recommend Saving the Appearances somewhere? If so, I didn’t know it. If you read the rest of the book and understand it, feel free to explain it to the rest of us. I know I’ll be grateful.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Dunno, Bilbo – maybe pngarrison knows. I found this passage, though:

      [T]his is the book where he endeavors to show the conclusion that he has drawn: that the relationship between consciousness and nature itself—a correlative relationship—has changed from the most ancient times to our own. Declining to affirm this idea as sober truth, Lewis was, at least, fascinated by it as an imaginative conceit, as suggested above.

      And the idea seems to turn up in Lewis from time to time, eg in the dryads etc appearing in “That Hideous Strength”. Taking that core idea (which is what I posted about) it seems to me the case hinges on decent anthropological studies of “primitive” cultures (but are they primitive or degenerate?) and the evidence from the history of civilizations he cites.

  3. Avatar photo GD says:

    I have found ‘ancient cultures’ and studies of so called primitive communities a fascinating topic. I am a little familiar with the culture of Australian Aborigines, but from what I have had time to read, some aspects are similar to other such natives. Simply stated, these cultures show little change over many thousands years (Australian artefacts point to ~40,000 years), and the physical attributes of these natives seem extraordinarily similar nowadays, to those found in cave drawings going back so many thousands of year. Tools do not appear to have changed, and yet caves that require the skills shown in Stonehenge are displayed; a great deal of information seems to show that little ‘evolution’ has occurred (until the arrival of white man).

    In any event, these so called primitive tribes and cultures have their spiritual and cultural values that appear to define them – it suggests a ‘universal’ awareness of something spiritual amongst all know cultures, recorded over extraordinary periods. We may argue regarding degenerate cultures, or perhaps it may be a ‘lost awareness’ by humans, who nonetheless feel that sense of loss and endeavour to recover what they think spiritually was lost.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      One issue that comes to mind from your post is that, if there isn’t some such process as Barfield describes, what distinguishes the great stasis of hunter-gatherer cultures (in Australia, but also in palaeolithic artifacts) from the great diversity and change (not all “progress”) in the cultures we have today? And what is it that kick starts that process (other than colonisation by the people of the Great White Queen or whoever)?

  4. pngarrison says:

    Human behavior does seem that have changed very slowly until an acceleration in material culture began sometime after the last ice age, with the invention of farming, herding, pottery making – what the archeologists have long called the Neolithic revolution. Curiously, the pop. geneticists also date a shift from polygyny to monogamy at about the same time. There were of course great transitions before then, the departure from Africa 60-70,000 years ago, the cultural flowering in European settings about the time modern humans reached Europe ~42,000 years ago, and of course the development of language, whenever that was, but these earlier “revolutions” seem to have developed over much longer spans of time than the changes that have happened over the last 10-12,000 years. Compared to previous changes, the development of farming, herding, etc. seems pretty abrupt, and things only accelerate further with invention of the wheel, dairy farming, metallurgy and writing.

    It’s also curious that these “late” developments occur relatively close in time in widely different places in the world. Jared Diamond gives a nice account of why things were somewhat delayed in the Americas, Australia, central and southern Africa, and the Pacific islands (in Guns, Germs and Steel – a great read), but the delays were not very long compared to the vast spans of time when our ancestors were hunter-gatherers. It seems that after the last Ice Age the fuse was lit for a cultural big bang that hasn’t stopped even now. The trouble is that the thing that would be most interesting, what they were thinking at any given time, really only becomes accessible with the invention of writing – before that it’s a matter of educated guesswork, and you can’t really be sure – the origins of religion are lost in that (to us) silent age. What can you do but decide whose educated guesses you like best?

    • pngarrison says:

      For a Eurocentric view that includes something near the latest DNA-based perspectives, I recommend Jean Manco’s book Ancestral Journeys – the Peopling of Europe from the First Venturers to the Vikings. It came out last year, and she maintains a nice web site to keep things up to date. Like so many good books, it warrants reading a second time.

  5. Avatar photo GD says:

    While I understand the need to relate specific artefacts and archaeological sites with outlooks regarding humanity (migrations and revolutions are some of the buzz words), I am not entirely convinced by the narratives given to us. I understand that in South America for example, great civilisations arose and built astonishing monuments, and yet they did not have a numbering system as we understand it. Other tribes have continued hunting and using tools to this day, without changes over many thousand of years. The example I quoted include constructions and paintings that would compare to any build and made during the later more ‘advanced’ civilisations. There songs and paintings are used to this day to communicate their history and beliefs. I am more impressed with those scholars who are willing to understand the thinking and culture of such tribes and civilisations (before many were destroyed by white colonialists), then someone who seeks to impose a self-serving narrative over their histories. If the wheel, farming, specific tools, and what have you, were all an integral part of some type of evolving aspect of humanity, we should see this across all cultures and civilisations. Migrations are not confined to some area we like to study, nor are human genes magically associated with the plough and the wheel.

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