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.

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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.