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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.

Van Gogh: Christ – “an artist greater than all artists”

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Vincent Van Gogh, Sower with Setting Sun, June 1888

“Christ — alone — among all the philosophers, magicians, &c. declared eternal life – the endlessness of time, the non-existence of death – to be the principal certainty. The necessity and the raison d’être of serenity and devotion.

“Lived serenely as an artist greater than all artists — disdaining marble and clay and paint — working in living flesh. I.e. — this extraordinary artist, hardly conceivable with the obtuse instrument of our nervous and stupefied modern brains, made neither statues nor paintings nor even books….. he states it loud and clear.. he made.. living men, immortals.

“That’s serious, you know, especially because it’s the truth.

“That great artist didn’t make books, either — Christian literature as a whole would certainly infuriate him, and its literary products that could find favour beside Luke’s Gospel, Paul’s epistles — so simple in their hard or warlike form — are few and far between. This great artist — Christ — although he disdained writing books on ideas and feelings — was certainly much less disdainful of the spoken word — the parable above all. (What a sower, what a harvest, what a fig tree, &c.)

“And who would dare tell us that he lied, the day when, scornfully predicting the fall of the buildings of the Romans, he stated, ‘heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.’

“Those spoken words, which as a prodigal, great lord he didn’t even deign to write down, are one of the highest, the highest summit attained by art, which in them becomes a creative force, a pure creative power.”

Source: Vincent van Gogh, To: Emile Bernard, Arles; Tuesday, 26 June 1888

http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let632/letter.html#translation

Written by John Uebersax

January 30, 2018 at 5:39 pm

Posted in Art, Christianity, Idealism

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Van Gogh: “We take death to go to a star”

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Starry Night over the Rhône (September 1888)

My dear Theo, […]

It’s certainly a strange phenomenon that all artists, poets, musicians, painters are unfortunate in the material sense — even the happy ones — what you were saying recently about Guy de Maupassant proves it once again. That rakes up the eternal question: is life visible to us in its entirety, or before we die do we know of only one hemisphere?

Painters — to speak only of them — being dead and buried, speak to a following generation or to several following generations through their works. Is that all, or is there more, even? In the life of the painter, death may perhaps not be the most difficult thing.

For myself, I declare I don’t know anything about it. But the sight of the stars always makes me dream in as simple a way as the black spots on the map, representing towns and villages, make me dream.

Why, I say to myself, should the spots of light in the firmament be less accessible to us than the black spots on the map of France.

Just as we take the train to go to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to go to a star. What’s certainly true in this argument is that while alive, we cannot go to a star, any more than once dead we’d be able to take the train. So it seems to me not impossible that cholera, the stone, consumption, cancer are celestial means of locomotion, just as steamboats, omnibuses and the railway are terrestrial ones.

To die peacefully of old age would be to go there on foot.

For the moment I’m going to go to bed because it’s late, and I wish you good-night and good luck.

Handshake.

Ever yours,

Vincent

Source: Vincent Van Gogh (1853–1890), Letter to brother, Theo van Gogh. 10 July 1888.

 

Written by John Uebersax

January 29, 2018 at 7:56 pm

Posted in Art, Idealism

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Hesiod’s Ages of Man Myth as Psychological Allegory

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Dance of the Muses at Mount Helicon by Bertel Thorvaldsen (1807)

MY HYPOTHESIS is that Hesiod’s Works and Days is not a “glorified farmer’s almanac,” but an example of ancient wisdom literature meant to convey the perennial philosophy. Its purpose is to advise readers on how to operate the human mind and soul and to find happiness in life via the same philosophical principles expressed by the Delphic religion (and, for that matter, also the Old Testament, the wisdom tradition of ancient Egypt, etc.). For this it uses, as befits poetry, figures and metaphors drawn from history and daily life; but the meanings are parabolic, and it is the reader’s task To understand a proverb, and the interpretation; the words of the wise, and their dark sayings. (Prov.1:6)

I leave this experiment of interpretation to individual readers.  But for this experiment it will help to have an artistic translation which potentially highlights the interior, psychological meanings — and at least one that does not obscure poetic meanings, which can easily (if not inevitably) happen in translations that are extremely literal and technical, which is the modern trend.

Therefore for your enjoyment and edification I have placed online a copy of Thomas Cooke’s inspired 1743 verse translation, and also for ease of reading an 1822 reprint with modern spelling.

Part of my hypothesis is that the Ages of Man is myth of moral fall (Uebersax, 2014), and symbolizes stages in our periodic descent from a state of grace (understood in either a religious sense, or alternatively in a psychological sense as a condition of greater unity and mental ability) into its opposite mundane and debased condition, through successive cognitive stages, with parallels to Plato’s Tyrant’s Progress in the Republic (Uebersax, 2015). Here is Cooke’s translation of Hesiod’s Ages of Man myth, illustrated with engravings designed by John Flaxman and executed by William Blake.

Bibliography

The Genius of Christianity

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From time to time I experience the temptation to write something countering the many atheist invectives against religion that appear in print.  For the most part I’m able to resist,  reasoning that no argument will convince the atheists, and none is needed for theists.

This probably deserves  a little elaboration, however. It seems to me that religion is basically something natural to human beings. It is as much a natural mode of knowing certain things as vision is a natural sense, or humor is a natural emotional experience.  Someone who is blessed with sight, yet has shut their eyes and insists that vision is a superstition, hardly wants a serious reply; or, at least, not a reply that takes at face value their objection.  Rather, the real questions are what the motives are of such people, and whether they are being honest with themselves and their readers.

Perhaps the real concern here is a third category of persons besides atheists and theists:  namely people who do not currently practice any religion, but who are sympathetic to the message and principles of religion, and who will, eventually, either discover or rediscover it.  The danger, then, is that atheist writers may discourage the authentic religious investigations of people in this third group.  If an apology for Christianity is to be written, then, it should be for the sake of this ‘in between’ group.

Such considerations have often led me to imagine writing a book titled, “The Grandeur of Christianity“, which would enumerate  the many excellencies and benefits of Christianity.  Now it seems that Providence has supplied such a book ready-made — written in the 19th century by François-René de Chateaubriand (1768 – 1848).

Chateaubriand was a noted French novelist, part of the Romantic movement, and an influence on Victor Hugo, among others.  Living through the French Revolution, Chateaubriand experienced more than the usual amount of adventure and personal tragedy.   His most famous novels include Atala (1801) and René (1802).  (And yes, it is after him that Chateaubriand steak is named — his hobby was gourmet cooking.)

But another great production from the pen of this literary master is The Genius of Christianity (Génie du christianisme; 1802).  In beautiful prose, speaking from the heart to the heart, Chateaubriand explains to the rationalists of his day why Christianity is important and necessary.


Briefly we should note the historical context of the book, which parallels in important respects the situation today.  Chateaubriand was writing at the close of two centuries in which rationalist philosophy had dominated the intellectual scene.  Faced with the ponderous edifice of empiricism, rationalism, and skepticism – which left little room for traditional faith –  Romantic writers (e.g., Goethe, Coleridge, Wordsworth — and Chateaubriand), artists (e.g., William Blake), essayists (Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson) and philosophers (e.g., Kant, Hegel) mounted a response.  The Romantics, in short, pointed out that there are other forms of valid knowledge beyond that which is supplied by sense data, or by rational inferences made from sense data.  Aesthetic and moral experiences, in particular, are real – just as real to the awareness as sense data – and must be fully accounted for in any satisfactory model of the human being.

These writers, artists and philosophers were not mere fuzzy-headed dreamers, but extremely intelligent and incisive thinkers.  It’s no small matter that the atheists of today have neglected to counter, or even acknowledge the arguments of the Romantics.

In any case, I shall say no more – for, as already noted, good fortune has placed this brilliant work by Chateaubriand before us.  The work remains fresh and readable today.  Links are supplied below.  If there were one stylistic detail which modern readers might take slight exception to, it would perhaps be the author’s tendency to minimize the value of other religions – Judaism, Islam, Eastern religions, etc.  However this is easily overlooked, and in no way detracts from the principal arguments.

Links

For English-speakers, Stork (1858) is a small volume of selections, containing many choice excerpts from the full work:

de Chateaubriand, François-René; Emma Β. Stork (tr.). The Spirit and Beauty of the Christian Religion. (Selections from Chateaubriand’s Genius Of Christianity). Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1858.

A full English translation is also online:

de Chateaubriand, François-René; White, Charles I. (Charles Ignatius; tr.). The Genius Of Christianity; or, The Spirit and Beauty of the Christian Religion. Baltimore: Murphy, 1856.

Numerous editions in French are also online.

Chapters in Stork’s ‘Selections’  edition of 1858:

  • The Bible
  • The Existence of God
  • The Character of the True God
  • General Spectacle of the Universe
  • Mystery
  • Paradise
  • Physical Man
  • Adam and Eve
  • Marriage
  • The Father — Priam
  • The Mother — Andromache
  • The Son — Gusman
  • The Daughter — Iphigenia
  • “Virtues and Moral Laws
  • Our Saviour
  • The Passions
  • Dido, or Passionate Love
  • The Christian Religion as a Passion
  • Undisciplined Passions
  • Faith
  • Hope and Charity
  • Desire of Happiness
  • Redemption
  • Christianity a great Blessing to Mankind — Services rendered to Society by the Clergy, and the Christian
  • Religion in general
  • Missions—General Idea of Missions
  • Defence of Christianity
  • The Sabbath
  • Singing and Prayer
  • Christian Festivals
  • Christian Tombs
  • Country Churchyards
  • The Influence of Christianity upon History
  • Beauties of History
  • Christian Eloquence
  • Moral Harmonies
  • The Influence of Christianity upon Music
  • The Influence of Christianity upon Painting
  • Songs of Birds — For Man they are Created
  • Language of Animals — Laws appertaining thereto
  • Birds’ Nests
  • The Infidel and Christian Mother
  • Remorse of Conscience..
  • The Christian’s Death-bed
  • Two Views of Nature — Ocean; Niagara Falls
  • Youth and Old Age of the Earth
  • The World without Christianity — Conjectures

Related:  Christianity for Agnostics — my own brief apologia for Christianity, written just before reading Chateaubriand’s work.

Written by John Uebersax

February 7, 2012 at 2:59 am