Still Life

I encountered Sánchez Cotán (1560-1627) by chance some years ago in an essay by Theodore Dalrymple. The English writer was contrasting the bleak intellectual arrogance of neo-atheism with the humble inspiration found in the still life works of this devout Spanish artist. Though Dalrymple himself is an atheist (I would say a non-theist rather than an anti-theist) he found himself moved by Cotán’s almost reverential depiction of everyday objects.

Willard Spiegelman’s review of a new exhibit featuring Cotán’s paintings offers a similar appreciation. He specifically discusses the “Still Life With Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber” (c. 1602). It sounds more prosaic than profound. But as Spiegelman explains, “The work will surprise a viewer whose experience of still life derives from ostentatious Dutch, Italian, or later French examples. Rather than abundance, we have paucity; rather than a showy display, we have single items held up as under a microscope. These are not life’s riches, they are reminders of it ephemerality.” Such severe naturalism was ahead of its time in an era dominated by grandiose themes and ornamental flourishes.

One appreciates the simplicity, even the starkness of the image: “There is no clutter… The kitchen, not the dining room, provides the setting.” A uniformly dark, plain background offsets the textural detail of the fruit and vegetables. Both are delimited by a rustic window frame. Together these elements make a picture that is more than sentimentality or a piece of trompe l’oeil virtuosity.

As a friend of the brilliant El Greco, and a successful painter in his own right, Cotán brought skill as well as introspection to his craft. One discovers the same meticulous technique found in later still life masters like William Harnett. But beyond that, his visual meditations represent an aesthetic mixed with the ascetic. Spiegelman reminds us that in previous epochs such works of nature morte (literally “dead nature”) were often a memento mori (an allegorical reminder of our mortality). It is no surprise that Cotán eventually chose the austere religious vocation of the Carthusians. One envisions it as a kind of monastic “still life”—a mystical extension of his quietly creative insights.

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The Imaginative Perception of the Universal

“…to get away from what is normal and central [in human experience] is to get away from wisdom.”—Irving Babbitt

The largely forgotten mentor of T. S. Eliot, Irving Babbitt (1865-1933), was a major cultural figure in the “New Humanist” movement a century ago. Some additional background, as provided by Michael Weinstein, is helpful:

There are many ways to re-read a classic. One can go to it to participate again in something permanent. One can use it as a measure of one’s own growth or decline. One can mine from it that which is useful for enlightening the present cultural situation. Irving Babbitt’s Rousseau and Romanticism repays re-reading in all of those ways (“Irving Babbitt and Postmodernity: Amplitude and Intensity,” Humanitas, 1992).

Weinstein contrasts the role of “concentric” and “eccentric” imagination as explored by Babbitt. The former represents a creative and disciplined process; whereas the latter (as Weinstein puts it) gives way to “the madness of the eccentric and externalized imagination” as typified by modern media and entertainment.

Babbitt himself advocated a “complete positivism.” By that he seemed to mean a genuine empiricism which was not reactionary, but clearly respectful of tradition as a vital element in the life of the individual. By contrast, he says of modernism: “Instead of facing honestly the emergency created by its break with the past the leaders of this movement have inclined to deny the duality of human nature, and then sought to dissimulate this mutilation of man under a mass of intellectual and emotional sophistry.”

Babbitt frequently invokes the Greek idea of “imitation” in the arts—referring to things not simply as they are, but as they ought to be. It is this sense of the imagination that motivated the philosophical explorations of Plato and Aristotle. Such insights were akin to the visions that inspire great artists. At the same time, these thinkers understood the need for “universals” to prevent the drift to mere fantasy and self-delusion. According to Babbitt:

The genius of the Greek… was not the man who was in this sense unique, but the man who perceived the universal; and as the universal can be perceived only with the aid of the imagination, it follows that genius may be defined as imaginative perception of the universal. The universal thus conceived not only gives a centre and purpose to the activity of the imagination, but sets bounds to the free expansion of temperament and impulse, to what came to be known in the eighteenth century as nature.

As Samuel Johnson observed: “The most useful truths are always universal, and unconnected with accidents and customs” because they can be shared by all.

For related discussion, see Irving Babbitt and the Origins of the Culture Wars and Fantasy Versus Imagination.

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Novel Insights

I refer not to contemporary observations (which are usually of dubious value), but insights found in some vintage novels. Not long ago I mentioned R. Austin Freeman’s Mystery of 31, New Inn (1912), with its sense of old-fashioned congeniality. In one passage the narrator says that there is “something jovial and roystering about an ancient tavern.” Likewise, there are the diversions of tobacco: “On the evening of the second day Thorndyke [the forensic detective] came home in obviously good spirits…. He went to a cupboard and brought forth a box of Trichinopoly cheroots. Now the Trichinopoly cheroot was Thorndyke’s one dissipation, to be enjoyed only on rare and specially festive occasions.”

Jetting a few decades ahead into the Golden Age of science fiction, I’ve discovered the works of Murray Leinster. These above-average pulp stories are inventive and occasionally thoughtful. In a tale of space castaways battling oversized insects (The Forgotten Planet, 1954) Leinster remarks: “It is not good for human beings to feel secure and experience contentment. Men achieve only by their wants or through their fears.” Of the tendency to complacency: “They were uneasy, but like other humans everywhere they would not believe the worst until the worst arrived.” And with a note of sociological realism, he says that the hero of the story was “moved by such ridiculous motives of pride and vanity as have caused men to achieve greatness throughout all history.” 

Leinster seems to have been an old-school liberal. He criticizes unthinking traditionalism, yet he had no love for the utopian tyrannies of Moscow and Peking.  An example of his libertarian outlook is found in the The Wailing Asteroid (1960). Describing a group of maverick inventors and entrepreneurs (Cold War equivalents of Elon Musk), he writes: “The five in the small spaceship were considered traitors on Earth because they had exercised the traditional right of American citizens to go about their own business unhindered. It happened that their private purposes ran counter to the emotional state of the public.” It is a quip that remains timely.

I will close with some further examples of (increasingly rare) common sense from Freeman’s The Vanishing Man (1911). Ever cynical about journalists, Dr. Thorndyke says, “The newspaper men have a good deal in common with the carrion-birds that hover over a battle-field.” And there is this comment, more profound now than when originally penned: “the love of a serious and honourable man for a woman who is worthy of him is the most momentous of all human affairs. It is the foundation of social life, and its failure is a serious calamity, not only to those whose lives may be thereby spoilt, but to society at large.”

For more on Freeman, see my post A Philosophical Detective.

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Sources of Humanism

When people talk about “humanism” they often mean very different things. I have sometimes referenced “Christian humanism,” insofar as the term invites a qualifier to distinguish it from the “secular” variety. In modern parlance, the concept is usually associated with non-theist or even atheist views, as seen in the famous “Humanist Manifestoes” advanced by prominent twentieth century intellectuals.

The situation is comparable to the bewildering definitions of “liberal.” Originally it referred to generosity or magnanimity. By the eighteenth century it came to describe views at odds with older social systems. There were, for example, “economic liberals” who advanced free market (e.g. “capitalist”) ideas. Ironically, most contemporary liberals favor some variety of state interventionism or socialism opposed to laissez-faire.

Francis McMahon (The Humanism of Irving Babbitt, 1931) observes that “humanism” embraces “a complexity of doctrines, sentiments and ideals.” Historically we associate it with the Renaissance’s emphasis on classical (pre-Christian) texts. Cicero in particular developed the notion of Roman humanitas as the “liberal education” (e.g. of free men) in philosophy, history and literature. For some, the rediscovery of such disciplines marked a reaction against the theocentric Middle Ages. It was a return to Protagoras’ dictum that “man is the measure of all things.”

This is an obvious oversimplification. As McMahon notes, one of the founders of Italian humanism was Petrarch, a devout Catholic. Yet there were subversive neo-pagans like Lorenzo Valla and Boccaccio, who sought emancipation “from all control and authority except the authority of… impulse.”  More generally, classical humanism denotes a disciplined appreciation of creative and rational endeavors, thereby making the student more “fully human.” In other words, such a person is not absorbed in merely utilitarian or hedonistic pursuits.

According to the cultural criticism of Irving Babbitt (1865-1933) the aesthetic rebellion of Romanticism marked a shift in humanist sensibilities. This reaction against the “neo-classicism” of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was to some extent understandable. The Cartesian rationalists had emphasized reason and decorum at the expense of imagination. Unfortunately, the Romanticists overreacted in turn, freeing the imagination from all restraint. “Since nothing is more individual than feeling,” says McMahon, “it was easy for the romanticist to regard feeling as the chief object of cultivation in human nature.” Taken to its logical conclusion, there is a “tendency to find in the bizarre and the abnormal the secrets which artists had formerly tempted to wrest from the typical and the representative.”

Topic continued in The Imaginative Perception of the Universal.

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H. G. Wells: Facts and Fictions

H. G. Wells’ short novel The Time Machine is one of the great stories of all time, and a work that I’ve commented on previously.  Thus I was delighted to listen to a recent lecture on the subject by Theodore Dalrymple arranged by Ralston College.

We are told that Wells “was a man of the most extraordinary brilliance. This is not to say of course that all his books are imperishable masterpieces, or that he was always right or that he always behaved well.” Nevertheless, he was a gifted and complex individual. Dalrymple compares the optimistic socialism of his non-fiction works with his novels. The outlook of the latter was often “deeply pessimistic and indeed misanthropic to a quite extraordinary degree.”

Dalrymple suspects that Wells’ misanthropy “arose from a kind of disappointment at humanity’s weakness and folly by comparison with some kind of ideal vision of what it really ought to have been like.” The novelist was also enough of a realist—as seen in The Island of Doctor Moreau—to acknowledge that the “beast is always lurking not far below the surface” of society.

The ambiguities of Wells’ beliefs are particularly striking in his story of time travel, in which the protagonist is hurled hundreds of thousand of years into the future. He first encounters the childlike Eloi who dwell on the earth’s surface. They are a race of gentle vegans, completely helpless and heedless of anything other than food, sleep and recreation. By contrast, there are the cannibalistic Morlocks. This subterranean race both provides for and preys on the Eloi, much like livestock. The Morlocks are descendants of industrial factory workers who, over the millennia, have remained crude technicians while becoming completely bestial and degraded.

As Dalrymple observes, one would expect Wells “to be sympathetic… towards the Morlocks as descendants of the proletarians.” Yet he is as “appalled and horrified by the Morlocks perhaps as the residents of the gracious squares of London or Belgravia would have been terrified of the [lower class] denizens of White Chapel of the time.”

And while Wells inveighed against what he saw as flagrant inequalities, he was also a furtive aspirant to the upper ranks of society. The son of lower middle-class parents—who undoubtedly endured a degree of real poverty—Wells’ subsequent literary success granted him access to celebrities, politicians and aristocrats. Dalrymple notes that the author’s socialism diverged from that of Marx. He was primarily a technocrat and an advocate of enlightened elitism, which perhaps helps to explain the many contrarities of his character.

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A Theistic Debate

“I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand.”—Anselm of Canterbury

According to traditional theologians, reason cannot beget faith; nevertheless, it can aid in the reception of revealed dogmas or remove intellectual obstacles. By the same token, a robust faith never obviates the need for coherence and analysis.

Etienne Gilson says of natural reason as applied to religion: “We cannot believe something, be it the word of God Himself, unless we find some sense in the formulas which we believe. And it can hardly be expected that we will believe in God’s Revelation, unless we be given good reasons to think that such a Revelation has indeed taken place. As modern theologians would say, there are motives of credibility” (Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages).

Theology employs philosophy (specifically metaphysics) and logic to explain revelation with greater precision. This is the view, for example, of James Dolezal in All That is in God (2017). It is a work that examines the controversy between modernist evangelicals and more traditional Protestants (as well as Catholics) about the nature of divinity. Whereas classical theists—embracing the authority of the Church Fathers and medieval scholastics—see God as perfect and unchanging, the newer school of “theistic mutualists” represents him as adapting his nature through interaction with his creation. God and humanity mutually influence each other, so to speak.

One cause of this misconception is the difficulty that we face, as time-bound creatures, in conceptualizing a timeless divinity. As Dolezal explains: “God does not experience successive states of being.” There is no “past” or “future” with him. By contrast, mutualists refer to the God of Scripture as revealing himself at specific moments, expressing different moods, apparently changing his mind, etc. It is true that “Scripture accommodates itself to the human manner of speaking and thinking, which is entirely temporal.” Due to our intellectual limitations we necessarily employ relative names for an absolute reality, acknowledging that “God alters the revelation of Himself without altering Himself ontologically.”

Orthodox views about “divine simplicity” maintained that God is completely self-sufficient and eternal. But opinions started shifting in the wake of the rationalist challenges of Hume and Kant. It was a time when “many Christian theologians and ministers retreated from the field of metaphysics altogether.” As a result they “retrenched themselves in their Bibles, assuming that the Bible’s teaching could be successfully preserved without committing oneself to a particular understanding of being.”

“The temptation,” according to Dolezal, “is to soften some aspect of the mystery [of divinity] in order to make it more comprehensible.” But if God is less than infallible, and somehow inconsistent in his judgements, then it seems an easy matter of questioning Christianity’s fundamental spiritual and ethical assumptions.  

See related post: Beyond Being Itself

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“True Knowledge and Awareness”

With all that is diverting the world’s attention it is hard to focus on much else. But in this season dedicated to spiritual reflection, I want to share some thoughts from The Cloud of Unknowing.* It is one of the great works of Christian mysticism, written by an unknown English cleric in the fourteenth century.

Penance is an important aspect of traditional Lenten observances, and is not to be lightly dismissed. That said, the medieval author seeks to emphasize the proper spirit of self-denial. A fixation on our ascetic deeds alone would be a manifestation of pride. A person can have many virtues, and yet without love of God and humility they will be “tainted and warped.”

What is humility? According to The Cloud of Unknowing it is “nothing else but a true knowledge and awareness of oneself as one really is. For surely whoever truly saw and felt himself as he is, would truly be humble.” We are told that the first stage of humility is an admission of one’s faults. Yet it is only a starting point. The English parson calls it “imperfect” humility. In the subsequent stage of “perfect” humility, a person “suddenly becomes completely oblivious of himself, not worrying if he is wretched or holy” because one is immersed in God.

The writer also wishes to “refute the error which claims that perfect humility is caused by the remembrance of our wretchedness and past sins.” Such self-knowledge is, of course, necessary, as we see in the example of Mary Magdalene. There are no short-cuts to genuine spirituality. The Christian must spurn what is egotistical and shameful. But rather than merely brood on past faults, God let the famous penitent “know that she could never bring [her love] about this way. It was far more likely that she would begin to sin again if she had done this….”

It is thus important to be conscious of evil without being dragged down by it. “Choose rather to be humbled by the unimaginable greatness and incomparable perfection of God…. In other words, look more to God’s worthiness than your own worthlessness.”

*I recommend the original Penguin edition, translated by Clifton Wolters (available from used book dealers). For related comments, see Medieval Advice on Simplicity.

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Facts and Coincidences

“You should never allow yourself to be bullied and browbeaten by a single fact.”—Dr. Thorndyke

One can appreciate this advice by R. Austin Freeman’s fictional character, whether it refers to criminal detection or other situations. As Dr. Thorndyke says on another occasion: “Coincidences are common enough in real life; but we cannot accept too many at a time.” The lesson seems to be that overly simplistic explanations are unhelpful even where one aspires (like the detective) to principled conduct.

Some things are more predictable than others. Human nature does not change, though human choices may still surprise us. As Cardinal Newman says, “About the future, we have no prospect before our minds whatever, good or bad. Ever since that great luminary, Augustine, proved to be the last bishop of Hippo, Christians have had a lesson against attempting to foretell, how Providence will prosper and bring to an end, what it begins” (Apologia Pro Vita Sua). Newman is referring to the fact that St. Augustine completed his great work The City of God in 426. Just four years later the unthinkable happened. Barbarian Vandals conquered his own city of Hippo, a once secure and civilized metropolis in Roman North Africa.

Newman spent much of his life discussing the concept of tradition as an aid to conviction amid so many conflicting moods and events. It was at the root of his religious journey. A concordant view is expressed by the fantasy writer, Arthur Machen: “When I have to choose between the evidence of tradition and the evidence of a document, I always believe the evidence of tradition. Documents may be falsified, and often are falsified; tradition is never falsified” (The Terror, 1917). It is apt guidance in era of “deep fakes” and highly transitory information.

To quote Machen again: “You can’t believe what you don’t see; rather, you can’t see what you don’t believe.” Mere “facts” don’t exist apart from interpretation. But the latter is only helpful when based on something reliable. It is the synthesis of knowledge and belief that is often precarious, yet necessary, if society is not to avoid new forms of folly and superstition.  

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Christendom’s Precarious Duality

There are plenty of books reviewed that I may never read; not for lack of interest, but often for lack of time. Today I want to comment on The Innocence of Pontius Pilate: How the Roman Trial of Jesus Shaped History by David Lloyd Dusenbury (as examined by Thomas F. Madden in The New Criterion).

Dusenbury bases his premise on Christ’s reply to the Roman procurator: “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). According to Madden that famous utterance, and the subsequent exegesis by Paul and Augustine concerning Jesus’ renunciation of worldly power, “emphasizes the duality of the secular and religious.” It was an ideal particularly realized in the Latin West. “Christians… implicitly denied the union of temple and state that characterized the ancient world.” It was the fertile soil in which the rule of law and individual rights took root. Madden argues that “in the Byzantine and Islamic East,” by contrast, this duality never came to fruition. The former saw the church subordinated to the throne, whereas the latter tended to theocracy.

Although Stoicism in the ancient world made an admirable attempt at a truly universal ethos, its impact was limited. Christianity was more successful in establishing a moral system by which individuals could appeal to transcendent precepts as an effective counter to corruption and injustice. However imperfectly realized it still has a decided advantage over purely secularist attempts to ground political choices in an array of subjective and competing special interests.

Christian society saw an important demarcation between Church and State. Ideally both institutions balanced and assisted the other. Of course the relationship was often precarious. In centuries past it was felt that the Papacy exercised too much temporal power. Such was the view of the devout Catholic poet Dante Aligheiri. And even those critical of the ensuing Protestant Reformation would admit that too many in the clergy had neglected their proper duties.

Yet since the sixteenth century the opposite trend has been at work. From denying the Church’s political authority, intellectuals like Hobbes and Voltaire took the further step of denying its spiritual authority. This has led us full circle to “post-Christian” ideologies that seek to redivinize the civic order—investing it with total dominion, psychological as well as physical. For this reason the decline of a doctrinally confident and influential hierarchy, as a check on the ambitions of the state, is all the more keenly apparent.

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Selfish Idealism

In discussing postmodern activism, Anthony Daniels remarks that for all the advantages to radicals in terms of remuneration, publicity and power, it would be wrong to suppose such people are “purely cynical: it is more that their personal interests happen to coincide with their passionate beliefs” (“Punishment in Search of a Crime,” The European Conservative).

Princeton historian Stephen Kotkin makes a similar point discussing the regime of Xi Jinping. Many people assume that China’s communists are merely opportunists uttering platitudes. However, Kotkin quotes Xi declaring that “there are people who believe that communism is an unattainable hope. But facts have repeatedly told us that Marx and Engel’s analysis is not outdated. Capitalism is bound to die out.” Xi, much like Lenin before him, was opportunistic in his tactics—e.g. opening up certain sectors of the economy to private enterprise. Yet the Communist Party still remains very much in control; hence the current trend of rolling back economic freedom before it gets out of hand.

Daniels notes another utopian paradox—the unacknowledged incentive to feed off crisis indefinitely:

One has the impression… that they do not really want the world to change to meet their requirements, for then they would have no justification for the righteous indignation that gives significance to a life devoid of any other purpose. They are utopians without a real desire for utopia, the achievement of which would at once deprive them of their providential role in society. Furthermore, a belief in the fundamental injustice of the world is a convenient explanation of all their own dissatisfactions, failings and failures.

Revolutionaries never really have to solve anything, be it racism, economic exploitation, political oppression, etc. One can be in charge of others, albeit with the benefit of not having to feel guilty.

Related post: The Virtues of Self-Interest

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