To Unite the Qualities of Each

Thus conducting himself, Antony was beloved by all. He subjected himself in sincerity to the good men whom he visited, and learned thoroughly where each surpassed him in zeal and discipline. He observed the graciousness of one; the unceasing prayer of another; he took knowledge of another’s freedom from anger and another’s loving-kindness; he gave heed to one as he watched, to another as he studied; one he admired for his endurance, another for his fasting and sleeping on the ground; the meekness of one and the long-suffering of another he watched with care, while he took note of the piety towards Christ and the mutual love which animated all. Thus filled, he returned to his own place of discipline, and henceforth would strive to unite the qualities of each, and was eager to show in himself the virtues of all. With others of the same age he had no rivalry; save this only, that he should not be second to them in higher things. And this he did so as to hurt the feelings of nobody, but made them rejoice over him. So all they of that village and the good men in whose intimacy he was, when they saw that he was a man of this sort, used to call him God-beloved. And some welcomed him as a son, others as a brother.

Athanasius, Life of Saint Anthony, translated by H. Ellershaw.

 

In all things by which praise is won, Leon Battista was from his childhood the first. Under the pressure of poverty, he studied both civil and canonical law for many years, till exhaustion brought on a severe illness. In his twenty-fourth year, finding his memory for words weakened, but his sense of facts unimpaired, he set to work at physics and mathematics. And all the while he acquired every sort of accomplishment and dexterity, cross-examining artists, scholars and artisans of all descriptions, down to the cobblers, about the secrets and peculiarities of their craft. Painting and modelling he practiced by the way, and especially excelled in admirable likenesses from memory. Great admiration was excited by his mysterious ‘camera obscura,’ in which he showed at one time the stars and the moon rising over rocky hills, at another wide landscapes with mountains and gulfs receding into dim perspective, and with fleets advancing on the waters in shade or sunshine. And that which others created he welcomed joyfully, and held every human achievement which followed the laws of beauty for something almost divine. To all this must be added his literary works, first of all those on art, which are landmarks and authorities of the first order for the Renaissance of Form, especially in architecture; then his Latin prose writings — novels and other works — of which some have been taken for productions of antiquity; his elegies, eclogues, and humorous dinner-speeches. He also wrote an Italian treatise on domestic life in four books; and even a funeral oration on his dog. His serious and witty sayings were thought worth collecting, and specimens of them, many columns long, are quoted in his biography. And all that he had and knew he imparted, as rich natures always do, without the least reserve, giving away his chief discoveries for nothing.

Jacob Burckhardt on Leon Battista Alberti, in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, translated by S. G. C. Middlemore.

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On One Study Alone

‘Apart from what is technical, method is only the reduplication of common sense, and is best acquired by observing its use by the ablest men and in every variety of intellectual employment. Bentham acknowledged that he learned less from his own profession than from writers like Linnaeus and Cullen; and Brougham advised the student of law to begin with Dante. Liebig described his Organic Chemistry as an application of ideas found in Mills’ Logic, and a distinguished physician, not to be named lest he should overhear me, read three books to enlarge his medical mind; and they were Gibbon, Grote and Mill. He goes on to say, “An educated man cannot become so on one study alone, but must be brought under the influence of natural, civil, and moral modes of thought.”‘

Lord Acton, ‘Inaugural Lecture on the Study of History, Cambridge, June 1895’, Lectures on Modern History. 

‘The word amateur owes its evil reputation to the arts. An artist must be prepared to be a master or nothing, and must dedicate his life to his art, for the arts, of their very nature, demand perfection. In scholarship, on the other hand, a man can only be a master in one  particular field, namely as a specialist, and in some field he should be a specialist. But if he is not to forfeit his capacity as for taking a general view, he should be an amateur in as many points as possible, privately at any rate, for the increase of his own knowledge and the enrichment of his possible standpoints. Otherwise he will remain ignorant in any field lying outside of his own speciality, and perhaps, as a man, a barbarian. But the amateur, because he loves things, may, in the course of his life, find points at which to dig deep.’

Jacob Burckhardt, Reflections on History.

A Pattern of the Best and Honourablest Things

‘Ever since the French Revolution there has developed a vicious, cretinizing tendency to consider genius (apart from his work) as a human, more or less the same as other humans. This is wrong. The daily life of a genius, his sleep, his digestion, his ecstasies…his blood, his life and death are essentially different from the rest of mankind.’

Salvador Dali, Diary of a Genius.

‘…he who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things, ought himself to be a true poem, that is, a composition, and a pattern of the best and honourablest things, not presuming to sing high praises of heroic men, or famous cities, unless he has himself the experience and the practice of all that is praiseworthy.’

John Milton, An Apology for Smectymnuus.

‘In all things by which praise is won, Leon Battista was from his childhood the first. Of his various gymnastic feats and exercises we read with astonishment how, with his feet together, he could spring over a man’s head; how, in the cathedral, he threw a coin in the air till it was heard to ring against a different roof; how the wildest horses trembled under him. In three things he desired to appear faultless to others: in walking, in riding, and in speaking. He learned music without a master, and yet his compositions were admired by professional judges. Under the pressure of poverty, he studied both civil and canonical law for many years, till exhaustion brought a severe illness… And all the while he acquired every sort of accomplishment and dexterity, cross-examining artists, scholars and artisans of all descriptions, down to the cobblers, about the peculiarities of their craft. Painting and modelling he practised by the way, and especially excelled in admirable likeness from memory… And that which others created he welcomed joyfully, and held every human achievement which followed the laws of beauty to be almost divine… But the deepest spring of his nature has yet to be spoken of – the sympathetic intensity with which he entered into the whole life around him. At the sight of noble trees and waving cornfileds he shed tears; handsome and dignified old men he honoured as a delight of nature and never look at them enough. Perfectly formed animals won his goodwill as being specially favoured by nature; and more than once, when he was ill, the sight of a beautiful landscape cured him. No wonder that those who saw him in this close and mysterious communion with the world ascribed to him the gift of prophecy. It need not be added that an iron will pervaded and sustained his whole personality; like all the great men of the Renaissance, he said; Men can do all things if they will.’

Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, translated by S. G. C. Middlemore.

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. 

Associations

‘Try to attend steadfastly to a dot on the paper or on the wall. You presently find that one or the other of two things has happened: either your field of vision has become blurred, so that you now see nothing distinct at all, or else you have involuntarily ceased to look at the dot in question, and are looking at something else. But, if you ask yourself successive questions about the dot,—how big it is, how far, of what shape, what shade of color, etc.; in other words, if you turn it over, if you think of it in various ways, and along with various kinds of associates,—you can keep your mind on it for a comparatively long time. This is what the genius does, in whose hands a given topic coruscates and grows.’

William James, ‘Attention’, Talks to Teachers.