A first reading: Main points of Barfield’s “Saving the Appearances”, as I understand them

  • Barfield takes the true nature of things as they are in themselves (as opposed to things as sensed and conceptualized by us) to be what is revealed by physics. The precise nature of this revelation of “the particles”/”the unrepresented” does not matter much for the argument, only that the world thus revealed is quite alien to our ordinary way of thinking and speaking about the world.
  • Therefore, phenomenal objects like rainbows and trees are actually a combination of sense data stimulated by the objects themselves and a layer of ordering and interpretation imposed unconsciously by the mind.
  • The distinction between this unconscious “figuration” and conscious thought about the resulting phenomena (“alpha thinking”) is crucial. E.g. the experience hearing a dog barking seems to be unitary. I don’t (consciously) first experience sound from acoustic waves stimulating my ear, then think to myself “What is that noise?”, then compare with all the sounds I remember, and conclude that the sound is a dog. All that must be going on in the background, but I don’t consciously think through each step. Therefore, the raw material of all my alpha thinking has already gone through a level of mental processing.
  • Unlike Kant, but like Spengler, Barfield thinks these “figurations”/”representations” are not fixed structures of the human mind, but are at least partly social constructs, which have varied among peoples and among times. As will be seen below, he differs from Spengler in that he thinks it possible for people to creatively alter their representations.
  • We can also think about how we think. This he calls “beta thinking”. The entire investigation of figuration, alpha thinking, and beta thinking is itself an exercise in beta thinking.
  • Primitive peoples don’t do beta thinking, but they are aware of being involved in their figurations in the following indirect sense. They imagine that the phenomena are manifestations of things like themselves, e.g. animist spirits. This identification is said to be at the level of figuration rather than as a conscious (alpha thinking) inference. This outlook is called “original participation”, presumably because we can share the same states/actions as these beings behind the phenomena. “Participation” is a crucial concept in the book, and I think I still don’t really understand all that Barfield means by it.
  • We are apt to deeply misunderstand Greek and medieval thought because we impose our own representational world onto them, so that even individual words take on rather different meanings from what they originally had.
  • At the current level of spiritual evolution, we can only recognize our role in creating our phenomenal worlds by beta thinking. We also tend to forget our role in this process and think of the representations as being entirely objective. Thus, the “representations” become “idols”. The accusation seems unfair, since people of the scientific revolution and after, when original participation is supposed to have totally died, were obsessed with beta thinking.
  • An example of “idolatry” is using our representations to talk about the Earth before the arrival of humans, and other inaccessible regions like the bottom of the sea, the interior of the Earth, and outer space. At most, we should say that if beings with senses like ours and representations like those of 20th-century Europeans were in such places, this is what they would observe. Barfield objects even to this, saying that for such talk about the pre-human past to be meaningful, a “collective unconscious” must have existed even then. I don’t understand this objection at all.
  • Today, participation has died more or less completely. Our idols are completely unlike us, and we mistake them for the objective world. This is spiritually unhealthy and dangerous for reasons I didn’t really follow.
  • The solution is a new state called “final participation”. I’m not quite sure what this means, but I think it involves people becoming more consciously aware of our representation-forming (and not only when we turn aside from the phenomena to do beta thinking) and even achieving some freedom to alter the process. Some experimentation toward this happened in English and German Romanticism.
  • Why is final participation a desirable state? Not being sure what it is, I can’t really say. By and large, the realization that the human senses and mind contribute to phenomenal experience was met by Europeans as bad news, as constituting a sort of barrier between the knower and things as they are “in themselves”, an argument for skepticism and alienation from the world. Wouldn’t final participation be an intensification of this? I suppose one might use one’s freedom over the representations of one’s imagination to make them better resemble objective reality, “the unrepresented”, e.g. quantum fields. However, the reason we don’t do this already is that objective reality as revealed by high-energy physics is not very serviceable for practical life. Alternatively, one might choose to accept the collective representations of one’s people, as past generations have done, but as a free and deliberate act of solidarity. Barfield himself thinks it will give us a better sense of God’s immanence in the world and in particular His likeness to us (since we too would be consciously taking on a sort of co-creator role of our phenomenal worlds).

I’m not sure that the main ideas are the main point of the book, which contains many wonderful digressions on the history of Western thought. The proposal that I (and many others) have been systematically misreading ancient and medieval thinkers is intriguing and quite plausible.

No one really believes that slavery is intrinsically immoral

The arguments that slavery per se is immoral are very weak, something one doesn’t notice only because no one is allowed to challenge them. They usually either prove too much and would condemn any authority or social organization (e.g. complaints about one person’s will being allowed to override another’s) or they object only to potential abuses of a slaveholder’s power, which were in fact illegal in many slave societies, and in any case are insufficient to demonstrate the immorality of the institution itself. Some arguments confuse the morality of holding slaves with that of enslaving free persons without cause (as if there is no moral distinction between stealing someone’s property and that person being poor). The most popular one simply asserts that slaveowners don’t “recognize the full humanity” of their slaves, whatever that means. It might be more convincing if the abolitionists could show us where slaveowning societies (Roman, Arab, South American, whatever) explicitly claimed that their slaves were not human, but some other nonsentient species.

Of all these arguments, the argument from abuse carries the most weight with me, even though logically it cannot be used to condemn slavery per se. It does put together a good case that slavery is morally hazardous and so other arrangements of social organization are usually to be preferred.

You could say that my skepticism makes me a moral monster, but in fact no one really believes slavery is always immoral. Consider that it has been practiced in most times in most places. Africans have held Africans as slaves. Arabs have held Africans and Whites as slaves. Whites have held Whites and Africans as slaves. (Jared Taylor has a nice post on the permutations.) And yet no one–not one of our most fervid abolitionists–ever, ever, ever objects in the slightest way to any of these except the White-African one. Thus, people’s objection is clearly not to slavery per se, but to Whites holding Blacks as slaves in particular. (Even Blacks selling Blacks to Whites is only immoral at the buyer’s end.) Whites are not held to be morally inferior to Blacks because of American slavery; rather, American slavery is objected to because of the logically prior moral inferiority of Whites to Blacks! Consider a comparison. When Pope Gregory the Great forbid Jews from owning Christian slaves, was that an anti-slavery measure, or an anti-Jewish measure?

So, really, when I say that the arguments that slavery is intrinsically immoral are weak, I’m not challenging a position everybody else believes; I’m attacking a position nobody else believes.

The Romance of the Middle Ages

Political reactionaries and orthodox Catholics are often accused of engaging in nostalgia for the Middle Ages. The accusation is peculiar, for similar reasons as the accusation that American conservatives are nostalgic for the 1950s. Insofar as the Catholic prefers the Middle Ages for its religion, or the monarchist and neofeudalist prefer it for its social organization, or the European (French, English, etc) nationalist honors it for giving birth to his country, such a person is not indulging in nostalgia, but acting on loyalty to a universal principle or a living people. What’s more, genuine nostalgia for the Middle Ages, just like nostalgia for the 1950’s, is quite widespread, and not only among Catholics or on the Right. This manifests itself in popular culture as a fascination with fantasy and fairy tales, of knights, castles, witches, wizards, fire-breathing dragons, palace intrigue, beautiful princesses in distress, jolly friars, peasant simplicity, King Arthur, Merlin, Robin Hood, Rapunzel, and Briar Rose. Of course, such reveries are hardly a faithful picture of the Middle Ages, but they are imagined in at least vaguely medieval settings. It is this medieval nostalgia, that of popular fantasy, and not the principled approval of Catholic monarchists, that I wish to consider.

There is no shortage of people who regard any positive sentiment toward the Middle Ages as foolishness. The main criticisms of medieval times are that 1) it was an awful time to be alive, a time of violence, poverty, and injustice, and 2) it was a culturally sterile time, making no significant contribution to literature, art, or science. The criticisms are independent, and there are historians who dispute one or both of them. However, even if it were true that the Middle Ages were a millennium of time wasted on violence and superstition, acknowledging this would not dampen their hold on our imagination, which was never drawn to this time by the thought of cultural achievement or admirable economic arrangements to begin with.

Americans in particular can understand the romance of the Middle Ages, because it is like our own romantic attachment to the Wild West. The Middle Ages was the Wild West of Europe, a time of weak central government, in which resulting anarchy great acts of heroism and villainy were possible, and the safety of the innocent might depend on the courage and martial prowess of one man. Nostalgia for the Middle Ages, if that’s what it is, certainly doesn’t idealize the Middle Ages. If anything, it would prefer to exaggerate how violent and chaotic they were, just as Western movies no doubt exaggerate how violent day-to-day life was during the early settlement of western America.

Drama and excitement are part of the appeal of Wild Wests, but there is another part, which is the real reason for hostility to the Middle Ages. Each people particularly cherishes the memory of its own Wild West, far more even than the memory of its own Lost Golden Age. (Does Western Civilization even have a Lost Golden Age? There are ages we admire for their accomplishments or heroism, but is there any time during which we like to imagine all was basically right under heaven?) A people sees the characters of its Wild West as revelations of that people’s character. Americans are still cowboys at heart, underneath the constraints of civilization, or at least so we like to imagine. Medieval kings, princesses, and wizards have a special appeal to Europeans and the European diaspora as revelations of the European spirit, still living underneath our science and ubiquitous social control. The things we are supposed to approve–science, democracy, bureaucracy–are forms that can be adapted by any people; the stories of how we were before we had those forms are stories of us in ourselves.

Thus the hostility to any fond remembrance of the Middle Ages, and the desire to destroy or de-Europeanize fantasy and fairy tales. They are a sign that we Europeans don’t yet entirely hate ourselves.

What it means to be against reform

I oppose reform, not just this or that ill-considered reform, but reform in general. I’ve brought this up before with regard to the Catholic Church, a much reform-ridden entity, but reform is poison for any group.

To understand this, one must be clear about what “reform” is. Not all changes tend to be described as reforms. It would sound strange to hear that Beethoven “reformed” music, or that Einstein “reformed” physics, or that Cooley and Tukey “reformed” the discrete Fourier transform. New styles, innovations, and improvements are usually not considered reforms; I am entirely in favor of creativity in the fine arts, improvement of the practical arts, and advancement of the sciences.

Reform requires moral condemnation of previous practice. It always involves two roles. First, there is the reformer, the prophet (always a prophet), who announces the immorality of past ways, thereby gaining power and status for himself. Second, there is the discredited representative of the old order, who must be held in scorn. It would be absurd to think that the theory of relativity disgraced physicists who had been using Newtonian theory. Music, science, mathematics, and engineering are progressive disciplines; they advance by building upon the past rather than by tearing it down. Thus, they have no use for reform.

One might say that arts and sciences do not need reform because they are amoral. However, friendship and marriage are generally not considered to be progressive, and wounds to friendships and marriages often result from moral lapses of at least one partner. Yet it would sound strange to say that a couple “reformed” their marriage or friendship. This is because no friend would want to assert moral superiority over his friend by playing the role of prophet. Such a thing would be inimical to the spirit of friendship. To “reform” a friendship would be to end it. Marriage also is a form of friendship, and who but a narcissist would want to seize power and status over a spouse in this way? Friendships and marriages are not reformed, but healed, the difference being a spirit of forgiveness.

Suppose the reforming prophet is one who already holds power? Suppose a king decides that the ways of his people are wicked, so that rather than the upholder of their traditions, he makes himself their enemy. See what at once happens. The king suddenly claims a much greater power for himself than a traditionalist king would. The latter was only the servant of an inherited order, not the legislator of a new one. At the same time, the king alienates himself from the existing order, makes his government a revolutionary one, so that any imperfections of his kingdom are blamed on persistence of the old order with which he does not associate. A reforming ruler at once aggrandizes power and abdicates responsibility, regardless of the nature of his reform. And, of course, most reforms are evil even in intent, driven by the Satanic principles of freedom and equality.

The only benevolent case of reform is the reform of oneself. We do hear that an alcoholic or a gambler took it upon himself to reform his life, which is all to the good, because there is only one subject. The same man who stands condemned by the reform stands vindicated by it.

The Catholic Church is said to be always in need of reform, which is to acknowledge that all the prior centuries of self-recrimination and demoralization have bought us nothing. Indeed, one notices that all the great reforming ages of the Church end in catastrophe–the Gregorian reform in the Great Schism and Reformation, the Tridentine reform in the Enlightenment and Revolution. There seems to be no graceful exit from reforming zeal. Suppose instead of reforming the Church we were to improve her? Catholics will rightly be suspicious of the idea of such “improvement”. It seems to presume a fixity only of ends, with the means entirely unconstrained. The Mass cannot be improved (or–God forbid!–reformed) because it is a treasure in itself, apart from any purely extrinsic consequence of its performance. (The glorification of God is an intrinsic consequence.) Any change to improve some “outcome” could never give more than what it takes away–the great solace of worshipping God with the same forms and words as our ancestors. However, as inadequate as it is, an attitude of improvement is less damaging than one of reform. One can imagine listing the actions of the Church and their desired outcomes–catechesis and retention of our children, evangelization to non-Catholics, care for the poor and suffering–and ask how these could be done more effectively. It would actually be nice if someone were thinking about these things! Instead, they are all ignored or damaged by the constant futile effort to gain status by denouncing our fellow Catholics.

The rise in exclusionary rhetoric

By this I mean a marked increase in statements like “X is not who we are” or “there is no place in this city/state/country/organization for people who believe/practice X”. Such statements are not necessarily bad. For some values of X, such exclusion is appropriate. However, for values of X that impugn a large fraction of the population, or beliefs or practices that until recently were uncontroversial, it is remarkably aggressive.

About the time I was leaving New York, the governor (I think it was) made some statement to the effect that those who disapprove of homosexual sodomy have no place in his state and should leave. As it turns out, I was going anyway, but it was disturbing nonetheless, because there was no acknowledgement of any place in particular where people of my religious and philosophical persuasion do belong.

Compare to an immigration restrictionist who yells at immigrants to “go back where you came from.” Don’t do this, it’s rude, but even this is less menacing than what non-Leftists are hearing. The restrictionist might think that Mexicans don’t belong in the U.S., but he presumably acknowledges that they do belong in Mexico. At least, he doesn’t particularly object to them being there.

Compare, if I were to make a statement like “In an ideal Catholic state, there would be no place for atheists.” Would it not be natural for people to ask me what I proposed to do with atheists? Indeed, the question is much more appropriate for our exclusionary Leftists. My “ideal Catholic state” is the hypothetical musing of a powerless man; an actual Catholic state might differ from the ideal in numerous ways, and how they are to be accommodated will depend on the details of the case. (One might wish to treat atheists who have lived in the area for generations and are not making trouble differently from foreign atheist missionaries, for instance.)

By contrast, exclusion by the Leftist power is happening right now, and the questions are pressing. People who profess Christian sexual ethics and whites who feel toward their own race in the way other races feel toward themselves are not to be allowed to work in this and that profession. What exactly are they going to be allowed to do for a living? If they’re not “who we are”, i.e. not Americans, what are they, and where do they belong?

Sometimes we will hear things like “racism has no place anywhere”, but do those who say it appreciate the genocidal logic of the statement? Apparently, whites who do not hate their own people shall not be allowed to exist.

If only someone were negotiating on whites’ behalf

If we were allowed to speak on our own behalf, we would prefer to have non-white quotas than diversity thought policing at work (including “diversity statements” from applicants and humiliating diversity training of employees). We’d rather the salaries of the diversity and inclusion commissars who torment us went to hiring non-white regular employees instead.

We would rather just have a law removing all statues of whites and names of whites on public buildings than have a racial reckoning. That lady who objected to the Father Damian statue because he was white was being nice. At least she didn’t feel the need to destroy his reputation first, like they have done to the other canceled Catholic saints. I honestly think a law of this sort would reduce racial tensions. If we must lose the public honor of our heroes, at least spare us the lectures on how they are symbols of “hate”.

Similarly, we’d rather have a law against giving any awards to whites than force private organizations to undergo yearly racial reckonings and vilification of their white members. We would enjoy everyone knowing that the awards had thereafter become jokes but no one being allowed to say so.

Schopenhauer on death

Arthur Schopenhauer is much given to refutation by insult, a practice that irritates me. Thus, he says many times that only fools could believe in the existence of the soul after death without also believing in its existence before birth, but we are never given an argument why the idea is incoherent, just that some arguments for post-existence are unavailable to one who won’t embrace pre-existence (i.e. that the soul is atemporal, which no one who believes in an afterlife believes anyway). Personality tics like that make me warm to Schopenhauer less than I do to Montaigne. Let me now try to set that aside.

According to Kant, all we know about things are how they fit into categories that we already have in our minds. (You can’t get an answer to a question that you can’t think to ask.) There may be more to objects than this, but we’d never know it; thus the claim that the thing “in itself” is unknowable. Schopenhauer, like Descartes before and C. S. Lewis after, claimed we have unique access to one object, ourselves, toward whom our relationship is not just that of a subject knowing an object, and from this he thought he had caught a glimpse of the thing-in-itself: will. Now, the thing-in-itself is, by definition, outside our ordinary categories of thought–space and time (and hence, he infers, individuation), substance and causality. Thus, temporal properties do not apply to our innermost essence, which is the thing-in-itself, which is will, but belong only to our “representation” (the world as ordered by our mental categories). So this essence doesn’t cease to exist at death. Now, if we are to deny temporal categories, neither should we say that it persists after death, but having made this point Schopenhauer soon puts it aside in his enthusiasm for what he takes to be the wisdom of the ages (all peoples who weren’t screwed up by those dumb Abrahamic religions): the transmigration of souls. As he pithily puts it, men fear that death means themselves terminating while the world continues, but in fact it’s the opposite: our innermost essence (unindividualized will) is beyond termination, while the world (our representation of it) ends.

This German idealist reasoning is remarkable. I’d like to try it. I have a red rubber ball. “Red” is an a priori category I have imposed on the ball–just an arbitrary range of EM radiation when my ball has so many other properties that are not captured by this designator. Because there is more to the ball than its color, let us speak of the ball in its other aspects, abstracting from color. Call this “the-ball-apart-from-its-color”. Now, by definition, the-ball-apart-from-its-color does not include color descriptions. One might say that the the-ball-apart-from-its-color is not red. It is not any color. The-ball-apart-from-its-color is invisible! Warming up to my though of the-ball-apart-from-its-color not being red, I shall even see wisdom in calling it that quality which is the opposite of red, namely blue.

The lesson of this rather silly example is clear. If your post-mortem hope is in your noumenal self being atemporal, you’d better find something else to help you sleep at night. That you-apart-from-temporality can’t be said to cease to exist (because of arbitrary restrictions on what aspects of you we’re talking about) doesn’t mean that you won’t cease to exist.

I’m a fan of philosophical writings about death, but they usually strike me as dishonest. The problem is framed that each of us knows that he is going to die someday, and we must find some reason why we shouldn’t be freaking out about this. But that is starting with a desired conclusion and reasoning backwards, an invitation to sophistry. We should start our investigation open to the possibility that maybe it is rational to be inconsolably horrified by the prospect of our own mortality. Of course, practically speaking, such horror would not help anything and would make us miserable, so we would like to avoid it. But that’s not a rational justification.

Speaking even more practically, regardless of whether or not the knowledge of our own mortality should fill us with crippling terror, mankind never seems to have had this problem and doesn’t seem to have it today. Here I think Schopenhauer is right, and it’s a point I’ve made myself–Christianity has made men less able to accept death than they were without it. And this is a good thing, because the heathen acceptance of death is founded on forgetting the distinctiveness of each person and is therefore metaphysically deficient and morally suspect.

A corollary to “things coming to a point”

If things are coming to a point–less ambiguity, with fewer and fewer aspects of life or culture free from a stark choice between Christianity and atheism, then things were less pointy in the past, and we can afford to be more generous toward ambiguous figures in the past than we can be toward prevaricators in the present.

As an example from the last post, I am less hostile toward Renaissance humanism than most traditionalists are. Yes, one can find elements in it that contributed to the West’s later embrace of evil, and these elements do indicate defects in the humanist program, but that doesn’t mean that these defects are the essence of the program, or that humanists like Petrarch were less than sincere in their belief that they were doing the Church a favor.

As another example, growing up in an ultramontanist Church, it was once natural for me to see advocates of imperial or royal power in ecclesial organization as enemies of the Church, antecedents of a later age’s anticlerical totalitarian revolutionaries, while advocates for the autonomy of national Churches against the Papacy remind us in retrospect of post-Vatican II liberal, heresy-infested local Churches. And it is true that support of the temporal power did evolve into the atheist subjugation of the Church, and resentment of papal authority brought much ruin to the Church during Vatican II and afterward. But when judging past figures, we must remember how differently things not only seemed but were when the temporal power in question was a Christian kingdom, and the national Church in question was robustly illiberal. Plenty of Gallicans and Josephists were sincere Catholics. In the light of Vatican I, we can definitely say that their positions were defective, but during their time it was still possible to have such defects without having a fundamentally anti-Christian orientation. Today, those who support secular states or local synods against the universal Church are open in their hatred of the historic Faith. Things have come to a point.

Postscript on Renaissance Philosophy

Over Christmas break I read most of The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Philosophy to see if my inferences from Cassirer’s book held up to subsequent scholarship. In fact, the claim that Renaissance humanism and the resurgence of Platonism were primarily reactions against Averroism’s supposed threat to the Faith seems to be so well supported that it would probably not even be considered remarkable to Renaissance historians. I’ll next want to see what support (or disconfirmation) I can find for my guess about the role of revived Platonism in the scientific revolution. One interesting thing I learned in my book was that the resurgence of skepticism, which we have seen being the Catholic apologetic weapon of choice in counter-reformation France, also seems to have had its origins in these same worries about the danger to belief in personal immortality from an unreliable unaided reason (a position ironically similar to that of their Averroist opponents). Nevertheless, the argument that we should prefer revelation to fallible private reasoning works better against Averroists than against Calvinists, i.e. when the content of revelation is not itself in dispute.


There is much, much less intellectual diversity now than there was one hundred years ago. It is impossible to imagine someone like Oswald Spengler arising in the intellectual world of today, much less his becoming a cultural sensation. The Overton window has not merely shifted Left but drastically narrowed. Even Leftists were much more interesting and diverse one hundred years ago–one cannot imagine a character like Georges Sorel in today’s world either. One hundred years ago, the ideological landscape was a dizzying array of communists, Fabian socialists, anarcho-syndicalists, guild socialists, laissez faire classical liberals, nationalist liberals, distributists, agrarians, and Carlists. And when I say that these groups existed, I mean not as a couple of isolated dissidents unable to propagate their doctrines, the way dissidents exist today, but rather that they had significant followings and were able to participate in the great debate about how society should be organized. The metaphysical debate, too, was much more open, as it was an age of positivist, but also of spiritualism, Bergsonianism, and the neo-scholastic revival. Today, we have a consensus with enthusiastic support from nearly all writers, and the few whose support is less that enthusiastic know that it is professional suicide to openly question it.

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