Eternity was Manifest in the Light of Day, and Something Infinite behind Everything Appeared

‘Will you see the infancy of this sublime and celestial greatness? Those pure and virgin apprehensions I had from the womb, and that divine light wherewith I was born are the best unto this day, wherein I can see the Universe. By the Gift of God they attended me into the world, and by His special favour I remember them till now…Certainly Adam in Paradise had not more sweet and curious apprehensions of the world, than I when I was a child.

– – –

All appeared new, and strange at first, inexpressibly rare and delightful and beautiful. I was a little stranger, which at my entrance into the world was saluted and surrounded with innumerable joys…

– – –

The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold: the gates were at first the end of the world. The green trees when I saw them first through one of the gates transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things: The Men! O what venerable and reverend creatures did the aged seem! Immortable Cherubims! And young men glittering and sparkling angels, and maids strange seraphic pieces of life and beauty! Boys and girls tumbling in the street, and playing, were moving jewels. I knew not that they were born or should die; but all things abided eternally as they were in their proper places. Eternity was manifest in the Light of Day, and something infinite behind everything appeared: which talked with my expectation and moved my desire. The city seemed to stand in Eden, or to be built in Heaven. The streets were mine, the temple was mine, the people were mine, their clothes and gold and silver were mine,  as much as their sparkling eyes, fair skins and ruddy faces. The skies were mine, and so were the sun and moon and stars, and all the World was mine; and I the only spectator and enjoyer of it. I knew no churlish proprieties, nor bounds, nor divisions: but all proprieties and divisions were mine: all treasures and the possessors of them. So that with much ado I was corrupted, and made to learn the dirty devices of this world. Which now I unlearn, and become, as it were, a little child again that I may enter into the Kingdom of God.’

Thomas Traherne, from the Third Century, Centuries of Mediations.

‘The reason the impressions we receive in youth are so significant, the reason why in the dawn of life everything appears to us in so ideal and transfigured a light, is that we then first become acquainted with the genus, which is still new to us, through the individual, so that every individual thing stands as a representative of its genus: we grasp therein the (Platonic) Idea of this genus, which is essentially what constitutes beauty.’

Arthur Schopenhauer, On Aesthetics, translated by R. J. Hollingdale.

Vanitas

1: The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
2: Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
3: What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?
4: One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
5: The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.
6: The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.
7: All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.
8: All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
9: The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
10: Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.
11: There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.
12: I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem.
13: And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith.
14: I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.
15: That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered.
16: I communed with mine own heart, saying, Lo, I am come to great estate, and have gotten more wisdom than all they that have been before me in Jerusalem: yea, my heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.
17: And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit.
18: For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.

From the Book of Ecclesiastes.

Realizing the Futility of Life

(written on the wall of a priest’s cell, circa 828)

Ever since the time I was a lusty boy

Down till now when I am ill and old,

The things I have cared for have been different at different times,

But my being busy, that has never changed.

Then on the shore – building sand-pagodas.

Now, at the court, covered with tinkling jade.

This and that – equally childish games,

Things whose substance passes in a moment of time!

While the hands are busy, the heart cannot understand;

When there is no attachment, doctrine is sound

Even should one jealously strive to learn the way,

That very striving will make one’s error more.

Translated from the Chinese by Arthur Waley.

Mortality

Grass of levity,

Span in brevity,

flowers’ felicity,

fire of misery

Wind’s stability

Is mortality.

Inscription in St Mary Magdalene Church, Milk Street, London, c. 1609.

Man is a glas; life is

A water that’s weakly

walled about; sinne bring

es death; death breakes

the glas; so runnes

the water out

finis.

Inscription in Osmington Church, Dorset, c. 1609.

This wretched life, the trust and confidence

of whose continuance maketh us bold to sin

Thou perceivest well by experience

Since that hour in which it did begin

It holdeth course and shall not lin

But fast in runneth on and passen shall

As doth a dream, or shadow on the wall.

Thomas More.

Foliage without Fruit

‘Erudition can produce foliage without bearing fruit.’

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Notebook C.

‘Reading is merely a surrogate for yourself; it means letting someone else direct your thoughts. Many books, moreover, serve merely to show you how many ways there are of being wrong, and how far astray you yourself would go if you followed their guidance. You should read only when your ow thoughts dry up which will of course happen frequently enough even to the best heads; but to banish your own thoughts so as to take up a book is a sin against the holy ghost; it is like deserting a untrammeled nature to look at a herbarium or engravings of landscapes…If anyone spends almost the whole day reading…he gradually loses the capacity for thinking…This is the case with many learned persons; they have read themselves stupid.’

Arthur Schopenhauer, On Thinking for Yourself.

‘To read is to let someone else work for you – the most delicate form of exploitation.’

Emil Cioran, Anathemas and Admirations.

A Contrast of Attitude

‘Suppose a curious and fair woman. Some have seen the beauties of Heaven in such a person. It is a vain thing to say they loved too much. I dare say there are ten thousand beauties in that creature which they have not seen: They loved it not too much, but upon false causes. Nor so much upon false ones, as only upon some little ones. They love a creature for sparkling eyes and curled hair, lily breasts and ruddy cheeks which they should love moreover for being God’s Image, Queen of the Universe, beloved by Angels, redeemed by Jesus Christ, an heiress of Heaven, and temple of the Holy Ghost: a mine and fountain of all virtues, a treasury of graces, and a child of God. But these excellencies are unknown. They love her perhaps, but do not love God more: nor men as much: nor Heaven and Earth at all. And so, being defective to other things, perish by a seeming excess to that. We should be all Life and Mettle and Vigour and Love to everything; and that would poise us. I dare confidently say that every person in the whole world ought to be beloved as much as this.’

Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditations. 

‘The beauty of the body stops at the skin. If men could see what is beneath the skin, as with the lynx of Boeotia, they would shudder at the sight of a woman. All that grace consists of mucus and blood, humors and gall. Think of what is hidden in the nostrils, in the throat, and in the belly: only filth. And if it revolts you to touch mucus or dung with your fingertips, how could we desire to embrace the sack of that filth?’

Odo of Cluny.

Some Strange Region of the Universe

‘Thus, when –out of my delight in the beauty of the house of God– the loveliness of the many-colored gems has called me away from external cares, and worthy meditation has induced me to reflect, transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial, on the diversity of the sacred virtues: then it seems to me that I see myself dwelling, as it were, in some strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of the earth nor entirely in the purity of Heaven; and that, by the grace of God, I can be transported from this inferior to that higher world in an anagogical manner.’

Abbot Suger’s description of the interior of the Basilica of Saint-Denis, from De Administratione.

‘It is one of the absurdities of DANTE, who… like Gothic architecture itself, has many things which “lead to nothing” amidst their massive greatness.’

Isaac d’Israeli, ‘The Origin of Dante’s Inferno’, Curiosities of Literature.

Strange Hues

‘In the Middle Ages both sides of human consciousness—that which was turned within as that which was turned without—lay dreaming or half awake beneath a common veil. The veil was woven of faith, illusion, and childish prepossession, through which the world and history were seen clad in strange hues.’

Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy.

‘In the eyes of all who were capable of reflection the material world was little more than a mask, behind which took place all the important things; it seemed to them also a language, intended to express by signs a more profound reality. Since a tissue of appearances can offer but little interest in itself, the result of this view was that observation was neglected in favour of interpretation. In a little treatise on the universe, which was written in the ninth century and enjoyed a very long popularity, Rabanus Maurus explained how he followed his plan: ‘I conceived the idea of composing a little work…which should treat not only the nature of things and the property of words…but still more on their mystical meanings.’

Further, this discredited nature could scarcely have seemed fitted to provide its own interpretation, for in the infinite detail of its illusory manifestation it was conceived above all as the work of hidden wills – wills in the plural, in the opinion of simple folk and even many of the learned. Below the One God and subordinated to his almighty power – though the exact significance of this subjection was not as a rule, very clearly pictured – the generality of mankind imagined the opposing wills of a host of beings good and bad in  a state of perpetual strife; saints, angels and especially devils.’

Marc Bloch, Feudal Society.

‘In God nothing is empty of sense; nihil vacuum neque sine signo apud Deum, said Saint Irenaeus. So the conviction of a transcendental meaning in all things seeks to formulate itself. About the figure of the Divinity a majestic system of correlated figures crystallizes, which all have reference to Him, because all things derive their meaning from Him. The world unfolds itself like a vast whole of symbols, like a cathedral of ideas. It is the most richly rhythmical conception of the world, a polyphonous expression of eternal harmony.

The ethical and aesthetic value of the symbolical interpretation of the world was inestimable. Embracing all nature and all history, symbolism gave a conception of the world, of a still more vigorous unity than that which modern science can offer. Symbolism’s image of the world is distinguished by impeccable order, architectonic structure, hierarchic subordination. For each symbolic connexion implies a difference of rank or sanctity: two things of equal value are hardly capable of a symbolic relationship with each other, unless they are both connected with some third thing of a higher order.

The world, objectionable in itself, became acceptable by its symbolic purport. For every object, each common trade had a mystical relationship with the most holy, which ennobled it.’

Johan Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages. 

Ugly Truths and How to Deal With Them

‘Ugly men are, and ought to be, ashamed of their existence.’

Walter Bagehot, Milton.

‘A certain samadhi monk of the lotus hall at Retired Emperor Takakura’s tomb one day picked up a mirror and took a good look at his face. The shocking ugliness of his own visage filled him with such despair that he found the very mirror repulsive; for a long time afterwards  he continued to fear mirrors so much that he wouldn’t even touch one, and he avoided the society of others. He secluded himself away, only emerging to take part in the temple’s devotions. I was very struck to hear this story.’

Yoshida Kenko, Essays in Idleness.

‘Since our persons are not of our own making, when they are such as appear defective or uncomely, it is, methinks, an honest and laudable fortitude to dare to be ugly; at least to keep our selves from being abashed with a consciousness of imperfections which we cannot help, and in which there is no guilt. I would not defend a haggard beau, for passing away much time at a glass, and giving softnesses and languishing graces to deformity. All I intend is, that we ought to be contented with our countenance and shape, so far, as never to give our selves an uneasy reflection on that subject. It is to the ordinary people, who are not accustomed to make very proper remarks on any occasion, matter of great jest, if a man enters with a prominent pair of shoulders into an assembly, or is distinguished by an expansion of mouth, or obliquity of aspect. It is happy for a man, that has any of these oddnesses about him, if he can be as merry upon himself, as others are apt to be upon that occasion: When he can possess himself with such a cheerfulness, women and children, who were at first frighted at him, will afterwards be as much pleased with him. As it is barbarous in others to railly him for natural defects, it is extremely agreeable when he can jest upon himself for them. Madame Maintenon’s first husband was a hero in this kind, and has drawn many pleasantries from the irregularity of his shape, which he describes as very much resembling the Letter Z. He diverts himself likewise by representing to his reader the make of an engine and pully, with which he used to take off his hat. When there happens to be any thing ridiculous in a visage, and the owner of it thinks it an aspect of dignity, he must be of very great quality to be exempt from raillery: The best expedient therefore is to be pleasant upon himself.’

Richard Steele, The Spectator, 20 March 1711.

‘Beauty is a thing of great recommendation in the correspondence amongst
men; ’tis the first means of acquiring the favour and good liking of one
another, and no man is so barbarous and morose as not to perceive himself
in some sort struck with its attraction. The body has a great share in
our being, has an eminent place there, and therefore its structure and
composition are of very just consideration. They who go about to
disunite and separate our two principal parts from one another are to
blame; we must, on the contrary, reunite and rejoin them. We must
command the soul not to withdraw and entertain itself apart, not to
despise and abandon the body (neither can she do it but by some apish
counterfeit), but to unite herself close to it, to embrace, cherish,
assist, govern, and advise it, and to bring it back and set it into the
true way when it wanders; in sum, to espouse and be a husband to it, so
that their effects may not appear to be diverse and contrary, but uniform
and concurring. Christians have a particular instruction concerning this
connection, for they know that the Divine justice embraces this society
and juncture of body and soul, even to the making the body capable of
eternal rewards; and that God has an eye to the whole man’s ways, and
wills that he receive entire chastisement or reward according to his
demerits or merits. The sect of the Peripatetics, of all sects the most
sociable, attribute to wisdom this sole care equally to provide for the
good of these two associate parts: and the other sects, in not
sufficiently applying themselves to the consideration of this mixture,
show themselves to be divided, one for the body and the other for the
soul, with equal error, and to have lost sight of their subject, which is
Man, and their guide, which they generally confess to be Nature. The
first distinction that ever was amongst men, and the first consideration
that gave some pre-eminence over others, ’tis likely was the advantage of
beauty.

Now I am of something lower than the middle stature, a defect that not
only borders upon deformity, but carries withal a great deal of
inconvenience along with it, especially for those who are in office and
command; for the authority which a graceful presence and a majestic mien
beget is wanting. C. Marius did not willingly enlist any soldiers who
were not six feet high. The Courtier has, indeed, reason to desire a
moderate stature in the gentlemen he is setting forth, rather than any
other, and to reject all strangeness that should make him be pointed at.
But if I were to choose whether this medium must be rather below than
above the common standard, I would not have it so in a soldier. Little
men, says Aristotle, are pretty, but not handsome; and greatness of soul
is discovered in a great body, as beauty is in a conspicuous stature: the
Ethiopians and Indians, says he, in choosing their kings and magistrates,
had regard to the beauty and stature of their persons. They had reason;
for it creates respect in those who follow them, and is a terror to the
enemy, to see a leader of a brave and goodly stature march at the head of
a battalion.

And Plato, together with temperance and fortitude, requires beauty in the
conservators of his republic. It would vex you that a man should apply
himself to you amongst your servants to inquire where Monsieur is, and
that you should only have the remainder of the compliment of the hat that
is made to your barber or your secretary; as it happened to poor
Philopoemen, who arriving the first of all his company at an inn where he
was expected, the hostess, who knew him not, and saw him an unsightly
fellow, employed him to go help her maids a little to draw water, and
make a fire against Philopoemen’s coming; the gentlemen of his train
arriving presently after, and surprised to see him busy in this fine
employment, for he failed not to obey his landlady’s command, asked him
what he was doing there: “I am,” said he, “paying the penalty of my
ugliness.” The other beauties belong to women; the beauty of stature is
the only beauty of men. Where there is a contemptible stature, neither
the largeness and roundness of the forehead, nor the whiteness and
sweetness of the eyes, nor the moderate proportion of the nose, nor the
littleness of the ears and mouth, nor the evenness and whiteness of the
teeth, nor the thickness of a well-set brown beard, shining like the husk
of a chestnut, nor curled hair, nor the just proportion of the head, nor
a fresh complexion, nor a pleasing air of a face, nor a body without any
offensive scent, nor the just proportion of limbs, can make a handsome
man.’

Montaigne, On Presumption, translated by Charles Cotton.

The Test of Necessity

‘When, in such a quantity of words, some of the writings of the saints seem not only to differ from, but even to contradict, each other, one should not rashly pass judgement concerning those by whom the world itself is to be judged, as it is written: “The saints shall judge nations” (Wisdom 3: 7-8), and again “You also shall sit as judging” (cf. Matthew 19:28). Let us not presume to declare them liars or condemn them as mistaken – those people of whom the Lord said “He who hears you, hears me; and he who rejects you, rejects me” (Luke 10:16). Thus with our weakness in mind, let us believe that we lack felicity in understanding rather than that they lack felicity in writing –- those of whom the Truth Himself said: “For it is not you who are speaking, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks through you” (Matthew 10:20). So, since the Spirit through which these things were written and spoken and revealed to the writers is itself absent from us, why should it be surprising if we should also lack an understanding of these same things?’

Pierre Abelard, Prologue to Sic et Non.

‘The contradictions the mind comes up against – these are the only realities; they are the criterion of the real. There is no contradiction in what is imaginary. Contradiction is the test of necessity. Contradiction experienced to the very depth of the being tears us heart and soul; it is the cross.

The demonstrable correlation of opposites is an image of the transcendental correlation of contradictories.

Contradiction is the point of the pyramid.

Simultaneous existence of incompatible things in the soul’s bearing; balance which leans both ways at once: that is saintliness, the actual realization of the microcosm, the imitation of the order of the world. The simultaneous existence of opposite virtues in the soul – like pincers to catch hold of God.’

Simone Weil, An Anthology, translated by Sian Miles.

‘Is it not as clear as day that man’s condition is dual?…These fundamental facts, solidly established on the inviolable authority of religion, teach us that there are in faith two equally constant truths. One is that man in the state of his creation, or in the state of grace, is exalted above the whole of nature, made like unto God and sharing in his divinity. The other is that in the state of corruption and sin he has fallen from that first state and has become like the beasts. These two propositions are equally firm and certain.

All is one, all is diversity. How many natures lie in human nature!”

Blaise Pacal, Pensées, Series VII, translated by A. J. Krailsheimer.

Compare

‘Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large — I contain multitudes.’

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself.

The whole man is to move together... and that the general tendency of our indifferent actions ought to be agreeable to the dictates of reason, of religion, of good breeding; without this… a man is hopping instead of walking, he is not in his entire and proper motion.’

Richard Steele, The Spectator, March 7 1711.