The synergy of CS Lewis and Owen Barfield

Article by Professor Bruce G Charlton

It is well known that CS Lewis and Owen Barfield were best friends, from soon after 1919 when they met as undergraduates in Oxford University until Barfield’s death in 1997, some 34 years after Lewis had died.

Because Barfield’s active engagement with Lewis – as man and thinker – continued right throughout his life, as evidenced in the fascinating (and deep) 1989 collection Owen Barfield on CS Lewis.

Most people, until recently, have approached Barfield via his more famous and influential friend; or have tired to tease-out the ‘influence’ one had upon the other. But I have gradually come to realize that there are richer rewards from considering both together as complementary – indeed synergistic – writers. I mean by this that each offers something that the other lacks and needs; and considered together they are greater than their sum.

Starting with Lewis; we can see that he was the more creative and accomplished writer, and that he was able to expresse instinctively more than he could (or would) comprehend explicitly. For example, there are depths, there is heart and resonance in Lewis’s imaginative fiction – especially the Narnia stories but also the Planetary trilogy, and also in his imaginative essays such as The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce – that are absent from, and even contradicted-by, Lewis’s theoretical and explicitly-Christian writings..

Barfield was a deeper, more rigorous and honest theoretician than Lewis.  Indeed, Barfield understood Lewis and Lewis’s writing, better than Lewis understood himself. In this sense, Barfield was ‘larger’ than Lewis – but Barfield could not accomplish what Lewis did – so it could be said that Lewis expressed Barfield better than Barfield expressed himself! This is why they are complementary.

They are also synergistic; because when they are considered together, we can see that the combination of Lewis and Barfield make-up a really tremendous resource with vast potential for exploration and extension: something which has barely yet been begun.

Something that has limited this, so far, is that while the basis for understanding Lewis’s fiction depends on an understanding of his interaction with JRRTolkien and Charles Williams – and these are accessible and comprehensible writers; however, understanding Barfield depends on getting to grips with Rudolf Steiner – and this is a very much larger and more difficult task!

However, over the past several years, this is something I have done – and the rewards are immense. Barfield indeed, made it easier for us by telling us to focus on two of Steiner’s earliest, and most straightforward, writings: The theory of knowledge based on Goethe’s world conception of 1894; and The philosophy of freedom of 1896. Both take careful, prolonged, thought-full reading to understand – but the task is not beyond someone who really wants to do it.

So what might we get from this endeavour of combining Barfield with Lewis?  In brief, we get to understand – both in practice and in theory – exactly what it means that imaginative literature is true. We all sense, as Lewis sensed, that imagination takes us to places beyond and different from what can be stated explicitly in concepts – that indeed imagination is a kind of knowledge. And that fantasy, and invented worlds, provide something more real than real life.

We see all this demonstrated in practice in Lewis’s writing, and we feel it with our hearts. But Lewis himself was confused and contradictory when it came to explaining how this works. Whereas Barfield understood it, in a conceptual and explicit fashion, as well as anybody ever has – but in ways that Lewis himself never really engaged-with.

Barfield often commented that although Lewis claimed to have been influenced by him; Barfield could not really perceive that influence. Barfield also explained that after Lewis became a Christian, Lewis absolutely avoided any deep and focused discussions on fundamental, metaphysical issues. (A fact thatBarfield deeply regretted, although it never threatened their deep affection for one another.)

And although Lewis read, admired and praised Barfield’s writings – for examplemultipy re-reading Worlds Apart during his final months of illness – Lewis did not show any signs of having either understood or accepted the major ideas in Barfield’s writings.

This is not too surprising, because the differences between Barfield and Lewis were very deep; at the very deepest level of metaphysical assumptions. For Lewis to have accepted Barfield would have overthrown several of his most basic Christian theological beliefs – and this was probably why Lewis never engaged with Barfield. Lewis’s main assertion was that all Christians shared a core Mere Christianity – yet Lewis’s description of the content of Mere Christianity was quite different, in many significant respects, from Barfield’s understanding of Christianity.

For instance; Lewis believed that God, and ultimate reality, were outside of Time; while Barfield believed that Time was universal, sequential, linear, irreversible. Linked; Lewis believed that human nature was the same among all people and in all times and places; while Barfield believed that human consciousness unfolded, developed, evolved throughout history. Lewis believed in an infinite gulf between God and Man; Barfield that it was Man’s ultimate destiny to become divine in the same qualitative sense as God. 

This emphasisesthat for the fullness of the complementarity between Lewis and Barfield to be recognised, requires that the reader be prepared to ‘take Barfield’s side’ on these explicit philosophical questions – at least as a starting point (perhaps to be modified later). Whether someone wishes to entertain such a possibility depends on whether he believes that a theoretical understanding of imagination is important and necessary. Lewis was able to avoid engagement with Barfield, because Lewis regarded it as unnecessary and probably undesirable (perhaps lethal to imagination) to analyseand explain the structure and inner nature of imagination.

But Barfield believed that to become conscious of the truth in imagination was simply the most important and urgent task for modern Man. I agree with Barfield. If you also agree, then you simply could not do better than to study Lewis and Barfield together, as complementary, as indeed synergistic writers – as together yielding even more than both added together.

 

More of Professor Charlton’s writings can be found at The Notion Club Papers

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