When people say “words shape our consciousness,” we normally think of Whorf-Sapir or some other modern theory designed to eliminate bad words and “hate speech.” But the idea itself comes from long ago, and the esoteric workings of the ancients, which held that the language we used, its rhythms and textures, and structure could effect change in the world through ourselves.
This idea underscores both magical incantations and prayers. When we organize language to express thoughts, and if we do so in the right way, we have access to some part of the world otherwise beyond our grasp. As part of this, ancient thinkers preferred to use either languages designed for magical working, or the oldest ones they could find, like Latin, much as the church once did.
Grammar shapes our thinking and, while more complex societies tend to produce more complex languages, the way thoughts are formed in a language imposes requirements on what is expressed, perpetuating the tendency to be both detail-oriented and to arrange those details in larger patterns that is found in more advanced civilizations.
In the same way, our imaginative thinking is shaped by the constraints we impose upon it. For example, insisting that a story be realistic even in an unreal setting — realistic about how events play out, people act, and the limits of any given power — such as in Tolkien or Faulkner, creates a need for more complex patterns than, say, a cartoon or comic book about superheroes.
Perhaps the revolt against modern “abstraction” can be found in this idea, in that those things which are shaped around reality then fit within an understanding of the world as opposed to an escape from it. Abstraction nominally means the ability to see pattern and structure to the arrangement of material objects, but when uncoupled from reality, becomes conjecture which is enforced with circular reasoning.
Like all things in nature, there are two sides to the coin. What is now bad can be made into the good by redirecting it toward positive goals; much as our language now enforces equality, and our thinking compels conjecture, we can turn those around by refocusing on what is within reality.
What does it mean to be within reality? Any discipline has a surface layer, where we think in terms of categories and appearances, and an underlying structure made of implications, constraints and relationships between its parts. Modernity deals with the surface because this is what a mass of humans can understand; looking into the depths requires intellect, moral character and an application of effort. Modern music for example is based mostly on rhythm and aesthetics such as production, vocals, performance and imagery; melodies however reuse the same dozen notes in interesting ways, and bring out the innate relationships between those notes by creating a type of story, or journey between points where the journey is more important than the ending note, which in turn allows that journey to be a metaphor for reality. The greatest works in music include melodies which evoke an experience with which the audience is familiar and reveal new dimensions within it, much as the greatest books in literature take common struggles and recast them in a broader context, much as transcendentalism does for life itself, showing us the wisdom of nature as a means of inducing our acceptance of it and seeing the potential lurking within. Depth provides comfort; surface provides distraction.
Words, images and visions shape our consciousness by tuning our minds toward the structures of reality and that potential, or ability to make beauty and greatness from the mundane, which we otherwise overlook because so many of our actions — buy this product, sell this service, socialize with that person, or fix yonder gadget — are confined to the surface. When we consciously decide to tune our minds with language and imagination, those can shape our thinking toward the real and also transcendental:
Imagination is not, as some poets thought, simply synonymous with good. It may be either good or evil. But so long as art remained primarily mimetic [i.e. ‘realistic’], the evil which imagination could do was limited by nature.
[But now that the artist has become self-conscious of his ability to create non-natural phenomena; he can create aberrations].
In so far as these aberrations are genuine, they are genuine because the artist has personally experienced the world he represents. In insofar as they are appreciated, they are appreciated by those who are themselves willing to make a move towards seeing the world that way – and ultimately, therefore, seeing that kind of world.
Barfield is saying that imaginings of evil will tend, more and more as they become more popular, to become realised in the actual world as we experience it.
In other words, if we program our brains with that which is against reality, we become shaped by that, but on the flip side, if we choose to program our minds with language, images and visions which are both realistic and show a way to maximize the inner depth of what is real, a qualitative process akin to transcendentalism, we can produce in our thinking a tendency toward realism and good which will then inform our souls.
For restoration of a civilization, virtue is needed, but this must be inner virtue that consists of a connection between the inner state of the individual and the depth not surface of reality. We cannot impose this virtue with outward forces like rules and incentives, but must want it for its own sake, knowing that it then spreads to others who see only the surface attribute that it manifests and desire that type of mental balance, peace and joy in their lives.
As a wise philosopher once said, all of philosophy boils down to cause and effect, and all errors consist of confusion in that relationship. Modern humans see themselves as cause, but in reality, what we know of ourselves is effect, in part informed by how language and imagination shape our thinking. This gives us the power to change our thinking and through that, to change ourselves.