Satyagraha

Cultural Psychology

Archive for September 2019

John Sullivan Dwight: The Religion of Beauty (1840)

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TRANSCENDENTALISM is notoriously difficult to define. But what it’s really all about is producing certain states of consciousness, including aesthetic, religious and mystical experiences, longer or shorter in duration.

Perhaps no better example of the Transcendentalist approach to beauty exists than an essay John Sullivan Dwight contributed to the first issue of The Dial. Dwight went on to become a prominent music critic. (He’s even better known, though, for supplying the English lyrics to the French carol O Holy Night.) In this essay, Dwight makes three important points: (1) Beauty reveals ones own soul; (2) it improves individuals and has practical social benefits; and (3) it proves the existence of and awakens natural religion. The essay is not especially well written, overdoing (in emulation of German Romantics) the ‘zealous manifesto’ style of prose. Yet individual sentences and paragraphs are brilliant. Here are some of the best.

Beauty reveals ones soul

The outward scenery of our life, when we feel it to be beautiful, is always commensurate with the grandeur of our inward ideal aspiration; it reflects encouragingly the heart’s highest, brightest dreams; it does not contradict the soul’s convictions of a higher life; it tells us that we are safe in believing the thought, which to us seems noblest.

When the skies and woods reveal their loveliness, then nature seems a glorious picture, of which our own inmost soul is the painter, and our own loves and longings the subject.

Beauty is the revelation of the soul to the senses.

We find the soul’s deep inexpressible thoughts written around us in the skies, the far blue hills, and swelling waters.

Beauty improves individuals and has practical social benefits

The instinct of obedience, of conciliation, of decorum, reverence, and harmony, flows into the soul with beauty.

It disposes to order. It gives birth in the mind to an instinct of propriety. It suggests imperceptibly, it inclines gently, but irresistibly, to the fit action, to the word in season. The beauty which we see and feel plants its seeds in us.

Gazing with delight on nature, our will imperceptibly becomes attuned to the same harmony. The sense of beauty is attended with a certain reverence; we dare not mar what looks so perfect.

This sense, too, has a something like conscience contained in it; we feel bound to do and be ourselves something worthy of the beauty we are permitted to admire.

This feeling, while it makes alive and quickens, yet is eminently conservative, in the best sense.

He, who has it, is always interested on the side of order, and of all dear and hallowed associations.

The presence of beauty, like that of nature, as soon as we feel it at all, overcomes us with respect, and a certain sensitive dread of all violence, mischief, or discord.

Again, the love of beauty awakens higher aspirations in us.

Beauty always suggests the thought of the perfect.

He trusts nature; for he has kissed her loveliness; he knows that she smiles encouragement to him.

The greatest blessing, which could be bestowed on the weary multitude, would be to give them the sense of beauty; to open their eyes for them, and let them see how richly we are here surrounded, what a glorious temple we inhabit, how every part of it is eloquent of God.

I hold, then, that without a cultivation of the sense of beauty, chiefly to be drunken from the open fountains of nature, there can be no healthy and sound moral development.

Beauty awakens and proves the existence of natural religion.

The devout mind is a lover of nature.

The love of nature grows with the growth of the soul. Religion makes man sensible to beauty; and beauty in its turn disposes to religion.

The love of nature ends in the love of God.

It is impossible to feel beauty, and not feel that there is a spirit there. The sensualist, the materialist, the worshipper of chance, is cheated of his doubts, the moment this mystery overtakes him in his walks.

This surrounding presence of beautiful nature keeps the soul buoyed up forever into its element of freedom, where its action is cheerful, healthful, and unwearied … and the call to worship, either by prayer or by self-sacrifice, is music to it.

In all this outward beauty, — these soft swells and curves of the landscape, which seems to be the earth’s smile; — this inexhaustible variety of form and colors and motion, not promiscuous, but woven together in as natural a harmony as the thoughts in a poem; this mysterious hieroglyphic of the flowers; this running alphabet of tangled vine and bending grass studded with golden paints; this all-embracing perspective of distance rounding altogether into one rainbow-colored sphere, so perfect that the senses and the soul roam abroad over it unsated, feeling the pesence and perfection of the whole in each part; this perfect accord of sights, sounds, motions, and fragrance, all tuned to one harmony, out of which run melodies inexhaustible of every mood and measure;—in all this, man first feels that God is without him, as well as within him, that nature too is holy; and can he bear to find himself the sole exception?

Does not the soul begin to dream of its own boundless capacities, when it has felt beauty? Does not immortality then, for the first time, cease to be a name, a doctrine, and become a present experience?

The beautiful, then, is the spiritual aspect of nature. By cherishing a delicate sensibility to it, we make nature preach us a constant lesson of faith; we find all around an illustration of the life of the spirit.

Everything beautiful is emblematic of something spiritual.

Is it not God revealed through the senses? Is not every beautiful thing a divine hint thrown out to us?

The close, unseemly school-house, in which our infancy was cramped, — of how much natural faith did it not rob us!

This should be a part of our religious education.

Source: The Dial (July 1840) pp. 17-22. Read the whole essay here.