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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.

Blinding Polyphemus Gently

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Arnold Böcklin (Swiss), Odysseus and Polyphemus, 1896

ODYSSEUS’ problems, you’ll recall, began in earnest after he blinded the cyclops, Polyphemus. He might have proceeded straight home without incident, but instead gloated as he sailed away, revealing his name and identity.  It was then that Polyphemus, armed with that information,  asked his father, Poseidon to take revenge — setting the stage for many perils Odysseus faced.

A common view since antiquity is that the Odyssey has an allegorical and philosophical meaning: a return of the mind to its natural homeland of peace, clarity, right reason and wisdom.  The ancient Greeks summed all these things up in one word: sophrosyne, meaning soundness of mind. The events of Odysseus’ journey home symbolize the hazards and milestones in our own psychological process of return — a journey we make daily.  As often as we become disturbed and upset, losing composure and mental clarity, we are like Odysseus, cast into a churning sea and must make our way back.

In Polyphemus — an oafish, anti-social giant, concerned with nothing beyond eating, drinking, sleeping and satisfying primitive biological instincts — we easily see a symbol of our most base nature, more or less corresponding to the Freudian id. Polyphemus’ having only one eye means he sees only the realm of sense perception, oblivious to all that’s spiritual, ideal and eternal.

Despite some of his crew being devoured (symbolizing a disruption of our clear rational consciousness by intrusive thoughts and mental agitation caused by ungratified appetites), Odysseus escapes by using his intelligence.  Some commentators see in the sharpened, fire-hardened pole with which he blinds Polyphemus a symbol for dialectic — e.g., analyzing urges with sharp, incisive reasoning, instead of instantly giving in to them.

But, as we’ve said, Odysseus pays a price, because Poseidon makes his subsequent journey very difficult. [1] This suggests a rather grim picture of life. Is our only choice to either gratify every appetite, or else suffer for not doing so?

Porphyry, the disciple of Plotinus (the first Neoplatonist), thought otherwise.  In his short essay, On the Cave of the Nymphs — a landmark in the allegorical interpretation of Homer — he considers a later episode of the Odyssey that, like the Polyphemus story, involves a cave.  When Odysseus, with the help of Athena and the splendid Phaecians, arrives at Ithaca, he lands at the Cave of the Nymphs.  Homer describes the cave in a few lines (Od. XIII 102–112) densely packed with imagery.  Porphyry sees a parallelism between this cave and that of Polyphemus:  once again Odysseus leaves a cave, but this time more fortunately.  Following earlier advice given by the prophet Tiresias in the underworld, Odysseus walks inland until he finds a “land that knows nothing of the sea,” where he plants an oar from his ship and offers appeasing sacrifice to Poseidon.

Porphyry interprets this to mean that, while we should oppose our base nature (Polyphemus), we should do so wisely, and, one might say, with diplomacy. We don’t want an outright confrontation that will elicit Poseidon’s wrath.

Porphyry explains it thus at the end of Cave of the Nymphs:

16. In this cave [of the Nymphs], therefore, says Homer, all external possessions must be deposited. Here, naked, and assuming a suppliant habit, afflicted in body, casting aside everything superfluous, and being averse to the energies of sense, it is requisite to sit at the foot of the olive and consult with Minerva [Athena] by what means we may most effectually destroy that hostile rout of passions which insidiously lurk in the secret recesses of the soul. (tr. Taylor)

He means that the cave is like the haven of our mind which we return to in contemplation, withdrawing our attention from the world of sense.

Indeed, as it appears to me, it was not without reason that Numenius and his followers thought the person of Ulysses in the Odyssey represented to us a man who passes in a regular manner over the dark and stormy sea of generation [genesis = becoming, a Platonic term for the sensory world] and thus at length arrives at that region where tempests and seas are unknown, and finds a nation

“Who ne’er knew salt, or heard the billows roar.” (Ibid.)

Above Porphyry is explaining the allegorical meaning of the Odyssey as a mental journey, attributing this approach to the earlier Platonist philosopher, Numenius.

17. Again, according to Plato, the deep, the sea, and a tempest are images of a material nature [i.e., our biological nature]. (…) But from Thoosa the Cyclops was born, whom Ulysses deprived of sight. And this deed of Ulysses became the occasion of reminding him of his errors, till he was safely landed in his native country. On this account, too, a seat under the olive is proper to Ulysses, as to one who implores divinity and would appease his natal daemon [the id] with a suppliant branch. For it will not be simply, and in a concise way, possible for anyone to be liberated from this sensible life, who blinds this daemon, and renders his energies inefficacious; but he who dares to do this, will be pursued by the anger of the marine and material gods [gods = inner energies and/or archetypal complexes?], whom it is first requisite to appease by sacrifices, labours, and patient endurance; at one time, indeed, contending with the passions, and at another employing enchantments and deceptions, and by these, transforming himself in an all-various manner; in order that, being at length divested of the torn garments (by which his true person was concealed) he may recover the ruined empire of his soul.

Nor will he even then be liberated from labours; but this will be effected when he has entirely passed over the raging sea, and, though still living, becomes so ignorant of marine and material works (through deep attention to intelligible concerns) as to mistake an oar for a corn-van [or winnowing fan — i.e., to be so far inland that people there don’t know what an oar is]. (Ibid.)

Porphyry explains this principle of intelligent resistance to our ‘inner Polyphemus’ more directly in his book advocating vegetarianism for spiritual aspirants, On Abstinence from Animal Food.

32. But this departure [from sense, imagination, and irrationality] may be effected by violence, and also by persuasion and by reason, through the wasting away, and, as it may be said, oblivion and death of the passions; which, indeed, is the best kind of departure, since it is accomplished without oppressing that from which we are divulsed. (…) And this negligence is produced by an abstinence from those sensible perceptions which excite the passions, and by a persevering attention to intelligibles. And among these passions or perturbations, those which arise from food are to be enumerated. (tr. Taylor)

So he’s recommending a moderate, reasoned approach to handling troublesome appetites and passions, instead of a direct confrontation. To put this in practical terms, instead of going on a crash diet, it’s better to wean oneself gradually from over-eating — by, for example, phasing out delicacies that keep us constantly thinking about the next meal.  Have tofu for dinner once in a while, or enjoy a meatless Friday.  Let Polyphemus go gradually to sleep, instead of waging war.

A more general lesson from this is how, allegorically understood, the Odyssey is concerned with practical psychological issues in life.  The same is, of course, also true with the Iliad — and with Greek myths generally (see, e.g., my page here).

Notes

  1. A further issue here is the problem of hubris. At first Odysseus is content to call himself “nobody.” Only while sailing off does he tempt the gods by revealing his name and identity. Psychologically, calling himself nobody corresponds to ones ego acting, as it should, on behalf of the entire Self, and exerting a healthy and natural control over the appetites.  The latter situation occurs when the ego becomes too strongly identified with opposing appetites.

Bibliography

Clark, Gillian. Porphyry: On Abstinence from Killing Animals. London: Duckworth, 2000. Reprinted: London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Lamberton, Robert. Porphyry: On the Cave of the Nymphs. Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 1983

Taylor, Thomas (tr.). On Abstinence from Animal Food . In: Thomas Taylor (tr.), Select Works of Porphyry, London: Rodd, 1823, (pp. 1−170).

Taylor, Thomas (tr.). On the Cave of the Nymphs in the Thirteenth Book of the Odyssey. In: Thomas Taylor (tr.), Select Works of Porphyry, London: Rodd, 1823, (pp. 171−200). Reprinted: London, John M. Watkins, 1917.

 

Aristotle: Contemplative Life is Divine and Happiest

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Leo von Klenze (1784-1864), The Acropolis at Athens

ARISTOTLE wrote two works on ethics (that we know of).  The greater of these has come down to us with the name Nicomachean Ethics — evidently either because he wrote it for his son, Nicomachus, or the latter edited the work.  In the Books 7 and 8, Aristotle explains the benefits of the Contemplative Life.  Book 7 gives several specific reasons why Contemplation (θεωρεία; theoreia) contributes uniquely to human happiness.

Perfect Happiness is that activity which most fully exercises the virtue of our best part. Our best part is Intellect, and its most virtuous exercise is Contemplation.

7. 1. [1177a11] But if happiness [εὐδαιμονία] consists in activity in accordance with virtue, it is reasonable that it should be activity in accordance with the highest virtue; and this will be the virtue of the best part of us. Whether then this be the Intellect [νοῦς], or whatever else it be that is thought to rule and lead us by nature, and to have cognizance of what is noble and divine, either as being itself also actually divine, or as being relatively the divinest part of us, it is the activity of this part of us in accordance with the virtue proper to it that will constitute perfect happiness; and it has been stated already* that this activity is the activity of contemplation [θεωρητική].

Εἰ δ᾽ ἐστὶν ἡ εὐδαιμονία κατ᾽ ἀρετὴν ἐνέργεια, εὔλογον κατὰ τὴν κρατίστην· αὕτη δ᾽ ἂν εἴη τοῦ ἀρίστου. εἴτε δὴ νοῦς τοῦτο εἴτε ἄλλο τι, ὃ δὴ κατὰ φύσιν δοκεῖ ἄρχειν καὶ ἡγεῖσθαι καὶ ἔννοιαν ἔχειν περὶ καλῶν καὶ θείων, εἴτε θεῖον ὂν καὶ αὐτὸ εἴτε τῶν ἐν ἡμῖν τὸ θειότατον, ἡ τούτου ἐνέργεια κατὰ τὴν οἰκείαν ἀρετὴν εἴη ἂν ἡ τελεία εὐδαιμονία. ὅτι δ᾽ ἐστὶ θεωρητική, εἴρηται.

*Aristotle never stated this exactly, but in 6.7.2-3 said that Wisdom [σοφία] is the most perfect mode of knowledge. A wise person must have a true conception of unproven first principles and also know the conclusions that follow from them. “Hence Wisdom must be a combination of Intelligence [Intellect; νοῦς] and Scientific Knowledge [ἐπιστήμη]: it must be a consummated knowledge of the most exalted objects.”  Contemplation is that activity in which ones νοῦς intuits and delights in first principles.

Reasons why the Life of Contemplation is happiest: (1) contemplation is the activity of our highest part; (2) it is the most potentially continuous of our activities;

2. And that happiness consists in contemplation may be accepted as agreeing both with the results already reached and with the truth. For contemplation is at once the highest form of activity (since the intellect is the highest thing in us, and the objects with which the intellect deals are the highest things that can be known), and also it is the most continuous, for we can reflect more continuously than we can carry on any form of action.

ὁμολογούμενον δὲ τοῦτ᾽ ἂν δόξειεν εἶναι καὶ τοῖς πρότερον καὶ τῷ ἀληθεῖ. κρατίστη τε γὰρ αὕτη ἐστὶν ἡ ἐνέργεια (καὶ γὰρ ὁ νοῦς τῶν ἐν ἡμῖν, καὶ τῶν γνωστῶν, περὶ ἃ ὁ νοῦς)· ἔτι δὲ συνεχεστάτη· θεωρεῖν [τε] γὰρ δυνάμεθα συνεχῶς μᾶλλον ἢ πράττειν ὁτιοῦν.

(3) it is our most pleasant activity;

3. And again we suppose that happiness must contain an element of pleasure; now activity in accordance with wisdom is admittedly the most pleasant of the activities in accordance with virtue: at all events it is held that philosophy or the pursuit of wisdom contains pleasures of marvellous purity and permanence, and it is reasonable to suppose that the enjoyment of knowledge is a still pleasanter occupation than the pursuit of it.

οἰόμεθά τε δεῖν ἡδονὴν παραμεμῖχθαι τῇ εὐδαιμονίᾳ, ἡδίστη δὲ τῶν κατ᾽ ἀρετὴν ἐνεργειῶν ἡ κατὰ τὴν σοφίαν ὁμολογουμένως ἐστίν· δοκεῖ γοῦν ἡ φιλοσοφία θαυμαστὰς ἡδονὰς ἔχειν καθαρειότητι καὶ τῷ βεβαίῳ, εὔλογον δὲ τοῖς εἰδόσι τῶν ζητούντων ἡδίω τὴν διαγωγὴν εἶναι.

(4) it requires only oneself;

4. Also the activity of contemplation will be found to possess in the highest degree the quality that is termed self-sufficiency [αὐτάρκεια]; for while it is true that the wise man equally with the just man and the rest requires the necessaries of life, yet, these being adequately supplied, whereas the just man needs other persons towards whom or with whose aid he may act justly, and so likewise do the temperate man and the brave man and the others, the wise man on the contrary can also contemplate by himself, and the more so the wiser he is; no doubt he will study better with the aid of fellow-workers, but still he is the most self-sufficient of men.

ἥ τε λεγομένη αὐτάρκεια περὶ τὴν θεωρητικὴν μάλιστ᾽ ἂν εἴη· τῶν μὲν γὰρ πρὸς τὸ ζῆν ἀναγκαίων καὶ σοφὸς καὶ δίκαιος καὶ οἱ λοιποὶ δέονται, τοῖς δὲ τοιούτοις ἱκανῶς κεχορηγημένων ὁ μὲν δίκαιος δεῖται πρὸς οὓς δικαιοπραγήσει καὶ μεθ᾽ ὧν, ὁμοίως δὲ καὶ ὁ σώφρων καὶ ὁ ἀνδρεῖος καὶ τῶν ἄλλων ἕκαστος, ὁ δὲ σοφὸς καὶ καθ᾽ αὑτὸν ὢν δύναται θεωρεῖν, καὶ ὅσῳ ἂν σοφώτερος ᾖ, μᾶλλον· βέλτιον δ᾽ ἴσως συνεργοὺς ἔχων, ἀλλ᾽ ὅμως

(5) it is an end in itself;

5. [1177b1] Also the activity of contemplation may be held to be the only activity that is loved for its own sake: it produces no result beyond the actual act of contemplation, whereas from practical pursuits we look to secure some advantage, greater or smaller, beyond the action itself.

δόξαι τ᾽ ἂν αὐτὴ μόνη δι᾽ αὑτὴν ἀγαπᾶσθαι· οὐδὲν γὰρ ἀπ᾽ αὐτῆς γίνεται παρὰ τὸ θεωρῆσαι, ἀπὸ δὲ τῶν πρακτικῶν ἢ πλεῖον ἢ ἔλαττον περιποιούμεθα παρὰ τὴν πρᾶξιν.

(6) it is the most leisured activity;

6. Also happiness is thought to involve leisure; for we do business in order that we may have leisure, and carry on war in order that we may have peace. Now the practical virtues are exercised in politics or in warfare; but the pursuits of politics and war seem to be unleisured — those of war indeed entirely so, for no one desires to be at war for the sake of being at war, nor deliberately takes steps to cause a war: a man would be thought an utterly bloodthirsty character if he declared war on a friendly state for the sake of causing battles and massacres. But the activity of the politician also is unleisured, and aims at securing something beyond the mere participation in politics — positions of authority and honor, or, if the happiness of the politician himself and of his fellow-citizens, this happiness conceived as something distinct from political activity (indeed we are clearly investigating it as so distinct).

δοκεῖ τε ἡ εὐδαιμονία ἐν τῇ σχολῇ εἶναι· ἀσχολούμεθα γὰρ ἵνα σχολάζωμεν, καὶ πολεμοῦμεν ἵν᾽ εἰρήνην ἄγωμεν. τῶν μὲν οὖν πρακτικῶν ἀρετῶν ἐν τοῖς πολιτικοῖς ἢ ἐν τοῖς πολεμικοῖς ἡ ἐνέργεια, αἱ δὲ περὶ ταῦτα πράξεις δοκοῦσιν ἄσχολοι εἶναι, αἱ μὲν πολεμικαὶ καὶ παντελῶς (οὐδεὶς γὰρ αἱρεῖται τὸ πολεμεῖν τοῦ πολεμεῖν ἕνεκα, οὐδὲ παρασκευάζει πόλεμον· δόξαι γὰρ ἂν παντελῶς μιαιφόνος τις εἶναι, εἰ τοὺς φίλους πολεμίους ποιοῖτο, ἵνα μάχαι καὶ φόνοι γίνοιντο)· ἔστι δὲ καὶ ἡ τοῦ πολιτικοῦ ἄσχολος, καὶ παρ᾽ αὐτὸ τὸ πολιτεύεσθαι περιποιουμένη δυναστείας καὶ τιμὰς ἢ τήν γε εὐδαιμονίαν αὑτῷ καὶ τοῖς πολίταις, ἑτέραν οὖσαν τῆς πολιτικῆς, ἣν καὶ ζητοῦμεν δῆλον ὡς ἑτέραν οὖσαν.

7. If then among practical pursuits displaying the virtues, politics and war stand out preeminent in nobility and grandeur, and yet they are unleisured, and directed to some further end, not chosen for their own sakes: whereas the activity of the intellect is felt to excel in serious worth, consisting as it does in contemplation, [1177b20] and to aim at no end beyond itself, and also to contain a pleasure peculiar to itself, and therefore augmenting its activity: and if accordingly the attributes of this activity are found to be self-sufficiency, leisuredness, such freedom from fatigue as is possible for man, and all the other attributes of blessedness: it follows that it is the activity of the intellect that constitutes complete human happiness—provided it be granted a complete span of life, for nothing that belongs to happiness can be incomplete.

εἰ δὴ τῶν μὲν κατὰ τὰς ἀρετὰς πράξεων αἱ πολιτικαὶ καὶ πολεμικαὶ κάλλει καὶ μεγέθει προέχουσιν, αὗται δ᾽ ἄσχολοι καὶ τέλους τινὸς ἐφίενται καὶ οὐ δι᾽ αὑτὰς αἱρεταί εἰσιν, ἡ δὲ τοῦ νοῦ ἐνέργεια σπουδῇ τε διαφέρειν δοκεῖ θεωρητικὴ οὖσα, καὶ παρ᾽ αὑτὴν οὐδενὸς ἐφίεσθαι τέλους, καὶ ἔχειν τὴν ἡδονὴν οἰκείαν (αὕτη δὲ συναύξει τὴν ἐνέργειαν), καὶ τὸ αὔταρκες δὴ καὶ σχολαστικὸν καὶ ἄτρυτον ὡς ἀνθρώπῳ, καὶ ὅσα ἄλλα τῷ μακαρίῳ ἀπονέμεται, τὰ κατὰ ταύτην τὴν ἐνέργειαν φαίνεται ὄντα· ἡ τελεία δὴ εὐδαιμονία αὕτη ἂν εἴη ἀνθρώπου, λαβοῦσα μῆκος βίου τέλειον· οὐδὲν γὰρ ἀτελές ἐστι τῶν τῆς εὐδαιμονίας.

(7) and it is the activity of the divine in human beings;

8. Such a life as this however will be higher than the human level: not in virtue of his humanity will a man achieve it, but in virtue of something within him that is divine; and by as much as this something is superior to his composite nature, by so much is its activity superior to the exercise of the other forms of virtue. If then the intellect is something divine in comparison with man, so is the life of the intellect divine in comparison with human life. Nor ought we to obey those who enjoin that a man should have man’s thoughts and a mortal the thoughts of mortality, but we ought so far as possible to achieve immortality, and do all that man may to live in accordance with the highest thing in him;* for though this be small in bulk, [1178a1] in power and value it far surpasses all the rest.

* see Plato Timaeus 90b-c; cf. Theaetetus 176a-b.

ὁ δὲ τοιοῦτος ἂν εἴη βίος κρείττων ἢ κατ᾽ ἄνθρωπον· οὐ γὰρ ᾗ ἄνθρωπός ἐστιν οὕτω βιώσεται, ἀλλ᾽ ᾗ θεῖόν τι ἐν αὐτῷ ὑπάρχει· ὅσον δὲ διαφέρει τοῦτο τοῦ συνθέτου, τοσοῦτον καὶ ἡ ἐνέργεια τῆς κατὰ τὴν ἄλλην ἀρετήν. εἰ δὴ θεῖον ὁ νοῦς πρὸς τὸν ἄνθρωπον, καὶ ὁ κατὰ τοῦτον βίος θεῖος πρὸς τὸν ἀνθρώπινον βίον. οὐ χρὴ δὲ κατὰ τοὺς παραινοῦντας ἀνθρώπινα φρονεῖν ἄνθρωπον ὄντα οὐδὲ θνητὰ τὸν θνητόν, ἀλλ᾽ ἐφ᾽ ὅσον ἐνδέχεται ἀθανατίζειν καὶ πάντα ποιεῖν πρὸς τὸ ζῆν κατὰ τὸ κράτιστον τῶν ἐν αὑτῷ· εἰ γὰρ καὶ τῷ ὄγκῳ μικρόν ἐστι, δυνάμει καὶ τιμιότητι πολὺ μᾶλλον πάντων ὑπερέχει.

(8) which is the true self. Therefore the Life of the Intellect is the happiest.

9. It may even be held that this is the true self of each, inasmuch as it is the dominant and better part; and therefore it would be a strange thing if a man should choose to live not his own life but the life of some other than himself.

Moreover what was said before will apply here also: that which is best and most pleasant for each creature is that which is proper to the nature of each; accordingly the life of the intellect is the best and the pleasantest life for man, inasmuch as the intellect more than anything else is man; therefore this life will be the happiest.

δόξειε δ᾽ ἂν καὶ εἶναι ἕκαστος τοῦτο, εἴπερ τὸ κύριον καὶ ἄμεινον. ἄτοπον οὖν γίνοιτ᾽ ἄν, εἰ μὴ τὸν αὑτοῦ βίον αἱροῖτο ἀλλά τινος ἄλλου.

τὸ λεχθέν τε πρότερον ἁρμόσει καὶ νῦν· τὸ γὰρ οἰκεῖον ἑκάστῳ τῇ φύσει κράτιστον καὶ ἥδιστόν ἐστιν ἑκάστῳ· καὶ τῷ ἀνθρώπῳ δὴ ὁ κατὰ τὸν νοῦν βίος, εἴπερ τοῦτο μάλιστα ἄνθρωπος. οὗτος ἄρα καὶ εὐδαιμονέστατος.

So the Life of Contemplation is the happiest.  In 8.1-12, Aristotle gives further reasons we should prefer it.  These include that it needs little wealth and few external goods, animals don’t engage in Contemplation, and divine beings do. For the last reason he concludes in 8.13 that the person who lives for the Intellect must be dearest to the gods, and is therefore happiest.

8. 13. [1179a25] And it seems likely that the man who pursues intellectual activity, and who cultivates his intellect and keeps that in the best condition, is also the man most beloved of the gods. For if, as is generally believed, the gods exercise some superintendence over human affairs, then it will be reasonable to suppose that they take pleasure in that part of man which is best and most akin to themselves, namely the intellect, and that they recompense with their favors those men who esteem and honor this most, because these care for the things dear to themselves, and act rightly and nobly. Now it is clear that all these attributes belong most of all to the wise man. He therefore is most beloved by the gods; and if so, he is naturally most happy. Here is another proof that the wise man is the happiest.

ὁ δὲ κατὰ νοῦν ἐνεργῶν καὶ τοῦτον θεραπεύων καὶ διακείμενος ἄριστα καὶ θεοφιλέστατος ἔοικεν. εἰ γάρ τις ἐπιμέλεια τῶν ἀνθρωπίνων ὑπὸ θεῶν γίνεται, ὥσπερ δοκεῖ, καὶ εἴη ἂν εὔλογον χαίρειν τε αὐτοὺς τῷ ἀρίστῳ καὶ συγγενεστάτῳ (τοῦτο δ᾽ ἂν εἴη ὁ νοῦς) καὶ τοὺς ἀγαπῶντας μάλιστα τοῦτο καὶ τιμῶντας ἀντευποιεῖν ὡς τῶν φίλων αὐτοῖς ἐπιμελουμένους καὶ ὀρθῶς τε καὶ καλῶς πράττοντας. ὅτι δὲ πάντα ταῦτα τῷ σοφῷ μάλισθ᾽ ὑπάρχει, οὐκ ἄδηλον. θεοφιλέστατος ἄρα. τὸν αὐτὸν δ᾽ εἰκὸς καὶ εὐδαιμονέστατον· ὥστε κἂν οὕτως εἴη ὁ σοφὸς μάλιστ᾽ εὐδαίμων.

Sources

English: Rackham, H. (tr.). Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics. Rev. ed.  Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1934.

Greek: Bywater, J. (ed.) Aristotle’s Ethica Nicomachea. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1894.

first draft: 15 Oct 2018

Transcendentalism as Spiritual Consciousness

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AMERICAN Transcendentalism (i.e., the movement associated with Ralph Waldo Emerson) is notoriously hard to define.  Perhaps the best way to understand the movement is that it centers on recognition of a certain dimension of experience — transcendent awareness — which is very real, but distinctly different from waking consciousness. In Platonic terms, it amounts to an elevation of the mind and awakening of what we might call the higher intelligence.

This shift in consciousness sometimes comes spontaneously; but more often it’s the result of a deliberate choice.  It is a skill that can be practiced and improved.  We could perhaps develop specific exercises to produce and develop it.

Thomas Starr King here supplies as fine a description of this higher consciousness as perhaps has ever been written.  (Note, incidentally, that this is not a cloistered mystic writing, but someone involved in public affairs.)

Several ‘dimensions’ of transcendent cognitive experience are mentioned, including recognition of deeper meanings, appreciation of beauty, and awareness of God’s goodness.

* * *

True Spiritual Communications

EVERY flower, every tree, every plant, every star, exists because it is a receptacle of the Divine vitality. It was organized and is sustained by his thought and his goodness, and we comprehend it, we really see it, when it is translucent with the rays of the Infinite life, and brings us into fellowship of mind or heart with God. The visible material world is the shell of which the spiritual world is the soul. It is the series of printed signs of which the spiritual world constitutes the sense.

When you read the sentences which Burke or Bacon have written, you do not stop to study the letters or shape of the types that cover their pages. The substance you are after is the wisdom and eloquence which they poured from their minds, and which the types record. You get into communion with the spiritual world, to which those inky paragraphs are the portals, as you feel your intellect penetrated, and your passions stirred, with the light and heat that streamed, in their creative mood, from their genius. And the visible universe is the vast array of types, not simply once set up, but continually created and composed by the Infinite Mind, to convey his wisdom and love.

We have the privilege, therefore, of living in the spiritual world now. We need not wait to get into the next stage of existence to begin to enter it. […] We live in the spiritual world, if our souls are awake, precisely as they do, though possibly we may be one remove farther off, by our bodily organization, from the waves of light and love that flow out from heaven.

And we ought to hold firmly to the principle that the spiritual faculty in us is the real organ of communion with the spiritual sphere. The organ through which we know and receive light is the eye. The ear enables us to hold intercourse with music, eloquence, and all uttered thought. The lungs are the channel of our reception from the atmosphere. And the soul, the power by which we become acquainted with Divine truth and respond to the breath of the Infinite Life, is the channel or medium, and the only channel of reception from the spiritual world.

There is hardly any limit to be assigned to the intercourse we can hold with everlasting truth, which is the substance of heaven, even in this world, by the soul.

When you look at a landscape in summer, if you see simply so many trees, acres, cattle, stones, you are wholly in the natural world. You see the outside shapes and colors, just as a sheep or a deer does, when the scene is painted on its eye.

If you study the soil and rocks so as to learn the geological truth of the region, how it was put together through ages of elaboration, by the power of God, and prepared for human habitation, the outside facts are at once a medium of Divine truth to you. A wave of God’s life, an influence from the spiritual world, rolls out of the scene into your intellect, and to that extent you come into communion with the Divine sphere by your mind.

If you see the beauty of the landscape, if the charm and harmony of the colors and the grouping of grove, meadow, hill, and stream, and the blaze of the overhanging blue, flecked with clouds that shed sailing shadows to cool the grass, waken in you a joy that springs from perception of the ineffable art of God, a richer wave from the spiritual world breaks through the scene upon your nature.

If, beyond these two experiences, you see in the same landscape a mystic expression of the Divine goodness, — if the beauty glows with an exhalation of love, “like a finer light in light,” — so that you look on the budding corn and the grazing life, and the peaceful ministry of a thousand forces to human happiness, as Jesus looked upon the bounteous hills that sloped from the shores of Gennesaret, and if, through all the processes which publish that goodness, you see the working of laws that tell you how God’s laws and life play in the experience of the human spirit, as Jesus plucked part of his gospel — the parable of the sower — from the various fortunes of the scattered grain, a still finer surge from the everlasting world floods you from that vision, and though you stand under the visible sun, and are in the body, and within the conditions of mortality, your soul is in communion with God; you look upon one district of this world as an angel looks upon it; your feet are in matter, your soul is in the spiritual sphere.

You will see, too, how this principle applies to all productions of genius. When you read a book, look at a statue, examine a painting, you are on the natural plane, if you simply see the material which the creative mind used to convey its thought and sentiment. You pass up into spiritual reception in proportion as, through the printed eloquence, the imprisoned meaning, the glowing character and imagination, you rise into sympathy with the genius of the writer or artist, and lie open with him to the inspiration that streams out of heaven into the human soul.

The soul is the organ of reception from the substantial world. Spiritual communications appeal to, and are verified by, no other faculties, any more than light can be perceived by the ear or flavors by the eye. It is impossible to obtain communion with the essential quality of the spiritual world in external ways. You can only be carried to the outside of the world of spirits in such ways. It is by something told to the interior faculties, something superior in its grade to anything we can learn by logic and by sight, some thing that makes us more wise in everlasting truth for which the world was made, more spiritual in feeling, that is, more pure, reverent, devout, and joyful, that we verify a message from the heavenly world. (pp. 73−77)

Source: Thomas Starr King, Christianity and Humanity: A Series of Sermons. Edwin P. Whipple (ed.). Boston: Osgood, 1877.  True Spiritual Communications (pp. 71− 89).

Related Articles

Frederic Henry Hedge, The Transfiguration: A Sermon (1838).

Uebersax, John.  What is Transcendentalism? Satyagraha.

A Beautiful Mind: Addison’s Religious Essays

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fancy_dropcase_READERS of this blog may download a free copy of my new book, a collection of religious and metaphysical essays by Joseph Addison which appeared in the The Spectator in 1711 and 1712. These are certain to delight and edify.  Addison is well known as one of the most skilled prose stylists in the English language; but few today are aware of the sublime quality of his religious essays.

Addison’s influence on both the English and American minds is considerable, yet largely unacknowledged today.

Download the ebook in pdf format here.

addison-book-cover

MR 01

The Tale of Marraton

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weatherindian

Another delightful story from the pen of Addison.

The Tale of Marraton

Felices errore suo. (Happy in their mistake.)  —LUCAN i. 454.

THE Americans believe that all creatures have souls, not only men and women, but brutes, vegetables, nay even the most inanimate things, as stocks and stones. They believe the same of all the works of art, as of knives, boats, looking-glasses: and that as any of these things perish, their souls go into another world, which is inhabited by the ghosts of men and women. For this reason they always place by the corpse of their dead friend a bow and arrows, that he may make use of the souls of them in the other world, as he did of their wooden bodies in this. How absurd soever such an opinion as this may appear, our European philosophers have maintained several notions altogether as improbable. Some of Plato’s followers in particular, when they talk of the world of ideas, entertain us with substances and beings no less extravagant and chimerical. Many Aristotelians have likewise spoken as unintelligibly of their substantial forms. I shall only instance Albertus Magnus, who in his dissertation upon the loadstone, observing that fire will destroy its magnetic virtues, tells us that he took particular notice of one as it lay glowing amidst an heap of burning coals, and that he perceived a certain blue vapour to arise from it, which he believed might be the substantial form, that is, in our West Indian phrase, the soul of the loadstone.

There is a tradition among the Americans, that one of their countrymen descended in a vision to the great repository of souls, or, as we call it here, to the other world; and that upon his return he gave his friends a distinct account of everything he saw among those regions of the dead. A friend of mine, whom I have formerly mentioned, [Note: The Spectator, No. 50] prevailed upon one of the interpreters of the Indian kings to inquire of them, if possible, what tradition they have among them of this matter: which, as well as he could learn by those many questions which he asked them at several times, was in substance as follows.

The visionary, whose name was Marraton, after having travelled for a long space under an hollow mountain, arrived at length on the confines of this world of spirits; but could not enter it by reason of a thick forest made up of bushes, brambles, and pointed thorns, so perplexed and interwoven with one another that it was impossible to find a passage through it. Whilst he was looking about for some track or pathway that might be worn in any part of it, he saw an huge lion couched under the side of it, who kept his eye upon him in the same posture as when he watches for his prey. The Indian immediately started back, whilst the lion rose with a spring, and leaped towards him. Being wholly destitute of all other weapons, he stooped down to take up an huge stone in his hand; but to his infinite surprise grasped nothing, and found the supposed stone to be only the apparition of one. If he was disappointed on this side, he was as much pleased on the other, when he found the lion, which had seized on his left shoulder, had no power to hurt him, and was only the ghost of that ravenous creature which it appeared to be. He no sooner got rid of his impotent enemy, but he marched up to the wood, and after having surveyed it for some time, endeavoured to press into one part of it that was a little thinner than the rest; when again, to his great surprise, he found the bushes made no resistance, but that he walked through briars and brambles with the same ease as through the open air; and, in short, that the whole wood was nothing else but a wood of shades. He immediately concluded, that this huge thicket of thorns and brakes was designed as a kind of fence or quickset hedge to the ghosts it enclosed; and that probably their soft substances might be torn by these subtle points and prickles, which were too weak to make any impressions in flesh and blood. With this thought he resolved to travel through this intricate wood; when by degrees he felt a gale of perfumes breathing upon him, that grew stronger and sweeter in proportion as he advanced. He had not proceeded much farther when he observed the thorns and briars to end, and give place to a thousand beautiful green trees covered with blossoms of the finest scents and colours, that formed a wilderness of sweets, and were a kind of lining to those ragged scenes which he had before passed through. As he was coming out of this delightful part of the wood, and entering upon the plains it enclosed, he saw several horsemen rushing by him, and a little while after heard the cry of a pack of dogs. He had not listened long before he saw the apparition of a milk-white steed, with a young man on the back of it, advancing upon full stretch after the souls of about an hundred beagles that were hunting down the ghost of an hare, which ran away before them with an unspeakable swiftness. As the man on the milk-white steed came by him, he looked upon him very attentively, and found him to be the young Prince Nicharagua, who died about half a year before, and by reason of his great virtues, was at that time lamented over all the western parts of America.

He had no sooner got out of the wood, but he was entertained with such a landscape of flowery plains, green meadows, running streams, sunny hills, and shady vales, as were not to be represented by his own expressions, nor, as he said, by the conceptions of others. This happy region was peopled with innumerable swarms of spirits, who applied themselves to exercises and diversions according as their fancies led them. Some of them were tossing the figure of a quoit; others were pitching the shadow of a bar; others were breaking the apparition of a horse; and multitudes employing themselves upon ingenious handicrafts with the souls of departed utensils; for that is the name which in the Indian language they give their tools when they are burnt or broken. As he travelled through this delightful scene, he was very often tempted to pluck the flowers that rose everywhere about him in the greatest variety and profusion, having never seen several of them in his own country. But he quickly found that though they were objects of his sight, they were not liable to his touch. He at length came to the side of a great river, and being a good fisherman himself, stood upon the banks of it some time to look upon an angler that had taken a great many shapes of fishes, which lay flouncing up and down by him.

I should have told my reader that this Indian had been formerly married to one of the greatest beauties of his country, by whom he had several children. This couple were so famous for their love and constancy to one another, that the Indians to this day, when they give a married man joy of his wife, wish that they may live together like Marraton and Yaratilda. Marraton had not stood long by the fisherman when he saw the shadow of his beloved Yaratilda, who had for some time fixed her eye upon him before he discovered her. Her arms were stretched out towards him, floods of tears ran down her eyes; her looks, her hands, her voice called him over to her ; and at the same time seemed to tell him that the river was impassable. Who can describe the passion made up of joy, sorrow, love, desire, astonishment, that rose in the Indian upon the sight of his dear Yaratilda ? He could express it by nothing but his tears, which ran like a river down his cheeks as he looked upon her. He had not stood in this posture long before he plunged into the stream that lay before him, and finding it to be nothing but the phantom of a river, walked on the bottom of it till he arose on the other side. At his approach Yaratilda flew into his arms, whilst Marraton wished himself disencumbered of that body which kept her from his embraces. After many questions and endearments on both sides, she conducted him to a bower which she had dressed with her own hands, with all the ornaments that could be met with in those blooming regions. She had made it gay beyond imagination, and was every day adding something new to it. As Marraton stood astonished at the unspeakable beauty of her habitation, and ravished with the fragrancy that came from every part of it, Yaratilda told him that she was preparing this bower for his reception, as well knowing that his piety to his God, and his faithful dealing towards men, would certainly bring him to that happy place whenever his life should be at an end. She then brought two of her children to him, who died some years before, and resided with her in the same delightful bower; advising him to breed up those others which were still with him in such a manner that they might hereafter all of them meet together in this happy place.

The tradition tells us further that he had afterwards a sight of those dismal habitations which are the portion of ill men after death, and mentions several molten seas of gold in which were plunged the souls of barbarous Europeans, who put to the sword so many thousands of poor Indians for the sake of that precious metal. But having already touched upon the chief points of this tradition, and exceeded the measure of my paper, I shall not give any further account of it.

~ Joseph Addison, The Spectator, No. 56 (Friday, May 4, 1711)

 

Written by John Uebersax

August 25, 2015 at 4:10 am

The Emersonian ‘Universal Mind’ and Its Vital Importance

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Emerson_older

IT SEEMS I’m always trying to get people to read Emerson. Why? Because I’m convinced his writings contain solutions to many of today’s urgent social problems.

Perhaps Emerson’s most important contribution is a concept that he refers to throughout his works, calling various names, but most often Universal Mind. This term invites a number of unintended meanings, tending to obscure Emerson’s important message.

Universal Mind may at first glance seem a vague, new-agey reference to some cosmic super-intelligence, but that’s not what Emerson means.. The concept is more commonplace, down-to-earth and practical. It could perhaps better be called the Human Nature, Universal Human Nature, or Man. For now, though, I’ll stick with Emerson’s term, but put it in italics instead of capital letters to demystify it. What, then, does Emerson mean by the universal mind of humanity?

It is, basically, all human beings share a common repertoire of mental abilities. Just as insects or lizards of a particular species share a common natural endowment of behavioral instincts, so all humans have a common natural set of mental skills, aptitudes, and concepts. (In fact, sometimes uses the word Instinct instead of universal mind.)

For example, consider a basic axiom of plane geometry: that two parallel lines never intersect. Once this was explained to you in high school, at which point you said, “Oh, I see that. It’s common sense.” This is the Emersonian universal mind in action. Every other geometry student has the same response. The ability to ‘see’ this is or ‘get it’ part of our common mental ability as human beings.

And the same can be said of hundreds, thousands, or more particular elements of human knowledge. These cover many different domains, including basic principles of mathematics and logic, artistic and aesthetic judgments (all human beings admire a beautiful sunset, all see the Taj Mahal as sublime and beautiful), moral principles (what is just or fair?), and religion (e.g., that God exists and deserves our thanks and praise.)

By the universal mind, then, Emerson merely means that plain fact that all or virtually all members of the human race share a vast repertoire of common mental abilities, concepts, judgments, and so on. This is not wild metaphysical speculation. It is an empirically obvious fact. Without this implied assumption of universal mind, for example, criminal laws and courts would be pointless. The mere fact that we hold people accountable for criminal misdeeds implies a shared set of assumptions about right and wrong, accountability for ones actions, etc.

Now it is true that one may, if one wants, elaborate the principle of a universal human mind and add all sorts of metaphysical speculations. Some do. They see this universal mind as deriving from the principle of all men being made in God’s image and likeness. These are important considerations, but they are, in a sense, secondary ones. More important is that is, it is important that all people — theists and atheists, metaphysicians and empiricists alike — can agree on the existence of the universal human character. Said another way, it is vital that we not let disagreements over metaphysics obscure or distract us from this more important consensus that there is a universal man or universal mind.

Why? Because this concept — something we all assume implicitly — has been insufficiently examined and developed at a collective level. It needs to become a topic of public discourse and scientific study, because its implications are enormous. We’ve only just begun this work as a species, as evidenced by the fact that we as yet haven’t even agreed even on a term! It’s always been with us, but only lately have be become fully aware of it. This realization is a milestone in the evolution of human consciousness and society.

Maybe I’ll write a followup that discusses the specific ways in which this concept, fully developed, may advantageously affect our current social conditions. For now I’ll simply list a few relevant categories where it applies:

Human Dignity. Each person has vast potential and therefore vast dignity. Each carries, as it were, the wisdom and the sum of potential scientific, artistic, moral, and religious capabilities of the entire species. Any person has the innate hardware, and with just a little training could learn to discern the technical and aesthetic difference between a Botticelli painting from a Raphael, a Rembrandt from a Rubens. Each human being is sensitive to the difference between a Mozart piano sonata and one by Beethoven. And so in Science. Any person could understand the Theory of Relativity suitably explained. Or differential equations. Or the physics of black holes.

Consider this thought experiment. If the human race made itself extinct, but aliens rescued one survivor, that one person could be taught, almost by reading alone, to recover the sum of all scientific, moral, and artistic insights of the species! The entirety of our collective abilities would live on in one person. And, more, that would be true regardless of which person were the survivor. So much is the vast ability and dignity of each human being.

Education. It exceeds what we currently know to assert that all possible concepts already exist fully developed, though latent, in each person. But we can assert that all human beings are hard-wired in certain ways to enable to form these concepts when supplied with suitable data. In either case, the implication is that education does not instill knowledge, so much as elicits the pre-existing aptitudes. Further, in keeping with the preceding point, the universal mind means that no person is limited in their ability to learn. Each person is a Genius. We should do our utmost to make this potentiality a fact for as many as possible. Education should be lifelong, not something relegated to the first 18 years of life.

Arts are not the peculiar luxury of the elite upper class. Shakespeare, Mozart, and Raphael are the common heritage of all. We need to take much more seriously the basic human right to have each ones divine artistic nature flower.

Economics. Today economics has become the main frame of reference for conceptualizing all human progress. We must rethink this, and give greater allowance for seeing the flourishing of the universal man as our goal. Nobody can be happy with vast potentials unfulfilled. It is not the way of nature. We must get it clear in our thinking, individually and collectively, that the business of society is to empower the individual.

Social discourse. All solutions to social ills already exist latent in Man’s heart. The phrase ‘common dreams’ is more than a euphemism. We do have common ideals, great ones. Our social discourse should aim for mutual insight and self-discovery. Answers are within: one’s within oneself; but also, because of the universal mind, ones within the other as well.  Instead of argument and debate we should aim for dialectic: a joint uncovering of ideals and guiding principles and raising of consciousness.

Government. To much of modern political philosophy assumes the principle of nanny government. People are wiser than governments. We should insist that the first priority of government is to make itself unnecessary. Liberate the universal man — the ultimate moral force on earth — and see how much things improve without government intervention!

Foreign policy. All men are at the core alike. All respond to the same appeals to Reason and Morals. All have equal worth and dignity. All are designed for cooperation, friendship, and love. Any foreign policy which denies these realities does not conform with nature and cannot succeed.

As noted, Emerson’s discussion of the universal mind is found scattered throughout his works. Emerson was not systematic, but nevertheless his message comes across very clear. Some of his works most relevant this theme are Self Reliance, Intellect and Art (Essays, First Series), The Poet and Politics (Essays, Second Series), and Genius and Religion (Early Lectures).

First draft

References

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Centenary Edition. Ed. Edward Waldo Emerson. Boston, 1903–1904.
Online edition (UMich): http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/emerson/

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume 2. Ed. Stephen E. Whicher and Robert E. Spiller. Cambridge, MA, 1964.
http://books.google.com/books?id=F4Xfp8HbfxIC<a?