Tag Archives: Alain De Botton

The Theology of Beauty

I’m re-posting this part of book review from 2012 as a contribution to the discussion of The Hidden Art of Homemaking on the Ordo Amoris blog.

Possessing Beauty

No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour will make us the one whit stronger, happier, or wiser. There was always more in the world than men could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things  are thought and sight, not pace. It does a bullet no good to go fast, and a man, if he be truly a man, no harm to go slow; for his glory is not at all in going, but in being.

      –John Ruskin, quoted in The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton

John Ruskin

Ruskin is one of the “guides” the author takes as a teacher in his study of this art of travel; this particular guide yearns to give us his students the tools to understand and possess beauty. Ruskin believed that we can only understand beauty by paying close attention to it, and that attempting to describe nature through writing or drawing was the surest way to focus the mind sharply enough.

On the topic of drawing Ruskin published two books in the 1850’s and gave lectures in London, but the point of his instruction was never to produce students who could draw well. He wanted to teach people to notice, and to “direct people’s attention accurately to the beauty of God’s work in the material universe.”

Right here is a good place to propose that we who believe in God the Creator also take as our teacher John Ruskin, rather than Mr. de Botton, because I doubt that we can learn much directly on the subject of beauty, especially on how to possess it, from a man who doesn’t understand that beauty, and in fact all that he possesses, are gifts from his Father God.

De Botton’s most recent book is Religion for Atheists, which he wrote from the conviction that a disbelief in God should not prevent atheists such as himself from making use of various aspects of the major world religions to better their lives. No doubt many professing Christians have a similar pragmatic outlook, and are missing out on the essence of the faith, Who is Christ Himself, the Bread of Life, the Glory of God the Father.

In musing about the beauty of God, I came upon a website with that title, featuring quotes from Jonathan Edwards. Many people have caught a bad impression of Edwards from those who speak of what they know not, but long ago I learned that the most frequent word in the preacher’s sermons was “sweet,” in reference to God and fellowship with Him. It’s not surprising that he had something to say about beauty as well. (The following paragraphs from Edwards were taken from his writings “The Mind” and “True Virtue” and bundled on the webpage with the added headings.)

God is Beautiful: “For as God is infinitely the greatest Being, so he is allowed to be infinitely the most beautiful and excellent; and all the beauty to be found throughout the whole creation, is but the reflection of the diffused beams of that Being who hath an infinite fulness of brightness and glory.”

Jonathan Edwards

Beauty is a kind of consent or harmony: “[Beauty is] a mutual consent and agreement of different things, in form, manner, quantity and visible end or design; called by the various names of regularity, order, uniformity, symmetry, proportion, harmony, &c. . .”

“One alone, without any reference to any more, cannot be excellent; for in such case there can be no manner of relation no way, and therefore no such thing as Consent. Indeed what we call One, may be excellent because of a consent of parts, or some consent of those in that being, that are distinguished into a plurality in some way or other. But in a being that is absolutely without any plurality, there cannot be Excellency, for there can be no such thing as consent or agreement.”

Love is the highest kind of beauty: “The reason, or at least one reason, why God has made this kind of mutual agreement of things beautiful and grateful to those intelligent beings that perceive it, probably is, that there is in it some image of the true, spiritual, original beauty, which has been spoken of; consisting in being’s consent to being, or the union of spiritual beings in a mutual propensity and affection of heart. . . . And so [God] has constituted the external world in analogy to the spiritual world in numberless instances. . . . [He] makes an agreement of different things, in their form, manner, measure, &c. to appear beautiful, because here is some image of an higher kind of agreement and consent of spiritual beings.”

“When we spake of Excellence in Bodies, we were obliged to borrow the word Consent, from Spiritual things; but Excellence in and among Spirits is, in its prime and proper sense, Being’s consent to Being. There is no other proper consent but that of Minds, even of their Will; which, when it is of Minds towards Minds, it is Love, and when of Minds towards other things, it is Choice. Wherefore all the Primary and Original beauty or excellence, that is among Minds, is Love.”

God is beautiful because He is a Trinity: “As to God’s Excellence, it is evident it consists in the Love of himself; for he was as excellent before he created the Universe, as he is now. But if the Excellence of Spirits consists in their disposition and action, God could be excellent no other way at that time; for all the exertions of himself were towards himself. But he exerts himself towards himself, no other way, than in infinitely loving and delighting in himself; in the mutual love of the Father and the Son. This makes the Third, the Personal Holy Spirit, or the Holiness of God, which is his infinite Beauty; and this is God’s Infinite Consent to Being in general. And his love to the creature is his excellence, or the communication of himself, his complacency in them, according as they partake of more or less of Excellence and beauty, that is, of holiness (which consists in love); that is, according as he communicates more or less of his Holy Spirit.”

Jonathan Edwards did not have a perfect understanding of Trinitarian doctrine, but I am still very blessed by his giving glory to the Holy Trinity for Beauty, which of course can have its source and perfect demonstration no where else. For readings on the Holy Trinity I commend to you these pages.

Above a storefront in Carmel, California

Now, back to the subject of travel…I suppose no one wonders what all this beauty-talk has to do with our goings, because don’t we all like to look at beautiful things when we travel? And when we have to move on, we also like to keep something to take home with us. How to not lose everything of the experience of a new place?

De Botton suggests three ways that we often try: 1) Taking pictures with a camera, 2) imprinting ourselves physically, as in carving our names in a tree trunk and thereby leaving a bit of ourselves behind, 3) buying something, “to be reminded of what we have lost.” And none of these actions can have as much effect on the whole person as drawing.

In explaining his love of drawing (it was rare for him to travel anywhere without sketching something), Ruskin once remarked that it arose from a desire, “not for reputation, nor for the good of others, nor for my own advantage, but from a sort of instinct like that of eating or drinking.” What unites the three activities is that they all involve assimilations by the self of desirable elements from the world, a transfer of goodness from without to within. As a child, Ruskin had so loved the look of grass that he had frequently wanted to eat it, he said, but he had gradually discovered that it would be better to try to draw it: “I used to lie down on it and draw the blades as they grew — until every square foot of meadow, or mossy bank, became a possession to me.”

De Botton chronicles his own efforts to follow Ruskin’s advice, and when he attempts to draw a window frame in his hotel he finds that he had never actually looked at one before, in all its complexity of construction.

Many passages in the book also paint exemplary word-pictures, such as a paragraph on olive trees, of which the author at first “dismissed one example as a squat bush-like thing.” On closer consideration, with the help of Van Gogh’s art as well as Ruskin’s tools, he sees the trees in all their magnificence, telling us that “the taut silvery leaves give an impression of alertness and contained energy.”

There is another way that this description by de Botton follows Ruskin: in his anthropomorphizing of natural objects, attributing to them qualities that only humans or at least animals would actually have, and feeling that “they embody a value or mood of importance to us.”

In the Alps, he described pine trees and rocks in similarly psychological terms: “I can never stay long without awe under an Alpine cliff, looking up to its pines, as they stand on the inaccessible juts and perilous ledges of an enormous wall, in quiet multitudes, each like the shadow of the one beside it — upright, fixed, not knowing each other. You cannot reach them, cannot cry to them; — those trees never heard human voice; they are far above all sound but of the winds.”

My two-year-old grandson Scout is already a traveler following in Ruskin’s (and his mother’s) footsteps. He loves to hike and to stop and look at everything. On a recent outing he said, as he wandered off, “I’m going to climb up here, Mama, and the rocks will take care of me…”

That’s what I call the spirit of good old-fashioned traveling. Not the sort that Ruskin himself decried, in the 19th century: “Modern travelling is not travelling at all; it is merely being sent to a place, and very little different from becoming a parcel.” 

When I am loaded on to a jet plane, I confess to feeling a bit like a parcel squeezed into a big crate of parcels. But Ruskin, and yes, even de Botton are helping me to be a more joyful and observant traveler, even if it’s only on a trip down the neighborhood footpath.

Before I had read just the small number of Ruskin’s words that are in The Art of Travel, I didn’t have the nerve to try my patience with drawing anything. But the man who wanted to teach me to notice has given me a vision of myself drawing a flower or a rock or a building. On my last car trip, I was even so bold as to pack into my bag a box of colored pencils.

(This post is part of a series on the book The Art of Travel.)

The Power of a Great Melancholy

“Automat” is a picture of sadness — and yet it is not a sad picture. It has the power of a great melancholy piece of music. Despite the starkness of the furnishings, the location itself does not seem wretched. Others in the room may be on their own as well, men and women drinking coffee by themselves, similarly lost in thought, similarly distanced from society: a common isolation with the beneficial effect of lessening the oppressive sense within any one person that they are alone in being alone. In roadside diners and late-night cafeterias, hotel lobbies and station cafés, we may dilute a feeling of isolation in a lonely public place and hence rediscover a distinctive sense of community. The lack of domesticity, the bright lights and anonymous furniture may come as a relief from what are often the false comforts of home. It may be easier to give way to sadness here than in a living room with wallpaper and framed photos, the décor of a refuge that has let us down.

In this second chapter of his book The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton writes about people who travel more from an unhappiness at being home than from a desire for recreation. He includes reproductions and commentary on other paintings by Edward Hopper (whose “Automat” is the painting at the top of the page): “Gas,” “Compartment C, Car 293,” and “Hotel Room.”

The themes in the paintings here seem primarily to be isolation and loneliness, but to expand the scope of the chapter titled “Travel Places,” the author also introduces the life and writings of Charles Baudelaire, whose work was a significant influence on Hopper, it turns out.

Baudelaire

Baudelaire, who from an early age wanted nothing more than to flee from home, all his life “felt more at home in the transient places of travel than in his own dwelling.” Not that he ever seems to have escaped the restlessness he describes: “Life is a hospital in which every patient is obsessed with changing beds. This one wants to suffer in front of the radiator, and that one thinks he’d get better if he was by the window.”

My own childhood and temperament having made me a perpetual home-lover, I’m unable to fully understand these dissatisfied impulses, but I have done a bit of solitary traveling now and again. I liked it because I like being alone, but I also always had caring people on one or both ends of my journey, and a measure of peace knowing that the One Who loves me most was right with me. 

Otherwise, I might have said with Baudelaire:

Carriage, take me with you! Ship, steal me away from here!
Take me far, far away. Here the mud is made of our tears!

I’ve struggled for weeks to write on this part of de Botton’s book, knowing that the topic is really too difficult for me, but wanting to tackle it because it’s fundamental to our existence. What line divides a peaceful solitude and a painful loneliness? Can any one of us hope to understand another person’s experience of isolation? Is loneliness an essential ingredient of human life, at least a step on our way to maturity?

In this book on travel we can’t expect to find a deep exploration of these ideas. Or even a nod to the question of whether we in the 21st century experience our loneliness any differently from Hopper’s subjects. In the whole book there is not a mention of cell phones or the array of social networking tools that seem to prevent any of us from being part of a scene such as de Botton describes in the paragraph above. Perhaps it’s a deliberate omission, and he hopes to gently propel the reader back to a low-tech experience of being alone.

But being with strangers in an airport or service station nowadays likely means being surrounded by people using electronic devices that exclude them from any here-and-now community, lonely or otherwise. We know that many of them/us are doing this in an effort to have friends, to be in community, all the while missing possible opportunities to connect with people present in the same room. How might this development change the dynamics of a place like the automat?

De Botton writes about his own bad feelings being transformed while sitting in similar place, into a “gentle, even pleasant kind of loneliness,” and he values Hopper’s paintings that “allowed their viewers to witness an echo of their own grief and thereby feel less personally persecuted and beset by it.”

Hopper – Night Shadows

As I pondered the meaning of loneliness, I thought for a long time that de Botton is trivializing it. Along the way I read various writers on the subject in hopes of understanding everything better. Of course de Botton writes from his own experience, and it must be that his own feelings are not on the level of acute alienation, nor is he destitute of support, to use some synonyms. If he had known what some people feel as catastrophic and terrifying, what John O’Donohue, in Anam Cara: The Book of Celtic Wisdom, calls “…the solitude of suffering, when you go through darkness that is lonely, intense, and terrible. Words become powerless to express your pain…” I don’t know that he would make these fairly easy remedies, such as looking at paintings and riding on trains, sound plausible.

De Botton is such a pragmatist, as evidenced by his use of religion, that if he had in fact suffered an agony of soul I would expect him to be one of the many people who tell us that loneliness is the human condition. Get over it, make use of it, learn to live with yourself and with the knowledge that you are completely alone and there is no fixing it.

Even Jesus was lonely, after all. In his darkest hour, when he might have taken some comfort from his friends at least standing by, they fell asleep and left him all alone and feeling forsaken. And this shows that he did take on the whole of the plight of being human.

It’s an aspect of our lives that we in the modern age are especially prone to and sickened by, but it’s not what we were made for. We were made in the image of God, The Holy Trinity, where all Life resides — God in three persons, a unity of Love, as Bishop Timothy Ware explains in his book The Orthodox Church:

Our social programme, said the Russian thinker Fedorov, is the dogma of the Trinity. Orthodoxy believes most passionately that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not a piece of ‘high theology’ reserved for the professional scholar, but something that has a living, practical importance for every Christian. Man, so the Bible teaches, is made in the image of God, and to Christians God means the Trinity: thus it is only in the light of the dogma of the Trinity that man can understand who he is and what God intends him to be.

God is personal, that is to say, Trinitarian. This God who acts is not only a God of energies, but a personal God. When man participates in the divine energies, he is not overwhelmed by some vague and nameless power, but he is brought face to face with a person. Nor is this all: God is not simply a single person confined within his own being, but a Trinity of three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each of whom ‘dwells’ in the other two, by virtue of a perpetual movement of love. God is not only a unity but a union.

If all the humans you know fail in their love toward you — and they likely will — and if you feel alienated from society, from God, even from your true self, your salvation does not lie in accepting this situation as All There Is. As St. Augustine said, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”

In the Church we can be brought into communion with the Holy Trinity and with other people who are learning to participate in that “perpetual movement of love.” This is the opposite of alienation, but we may have to go through the Valley of the Shadow of Death to get there. If that’s what it takes for us to realize our need, and to become desperate enough to cry out to the only One who will never disappoint us or hurt us, we might consider it the power of a great melancholy.

This is the fourth in a series on The Art of Travel. The other posts are
Introduction
Possessing Beauty
What Van Gogh Can Do

The Art of Travel

If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest — in all its ardour and paradoxes — than our travels. They express, however inarticulately, an understanding of what life might be about, outside the constraints of work and the struggle for survival. Yet rarely are they considered to present philosophical problems — that is, issues requiring thought beyond the practical. We are inundated with advice on where to travel to; we hear little of why and how we should go — though the art of travel seems naturally to sustain a number of questions neither so simple nor so trivial and whose study might in modest ways contribute to an understanding of what the Greek philosophers beautifully termed eudaimonia or human flourishing.

This paragraph from the first chapter of Alain de Botton’s book The Art of Travel sums up what it is about. The author likes to think about things, and especially about how to have a good life, which naturally is a concern of my own as well. His conclusions and even many of his presuppositions are different from mine, however, which makes the reading of his books into a stimulating discussion with myself as I also haltingly debate with him.

He provokes me to clarify my thoughts on matters I am already familiar with and introduces me to quite a few people I haven’t known well, in a context that helps me engage with their ideas and principles, too. Flaubert, Baudelaire, Van Gogh, and some non-French and/or lesser known personages both real and fictional such as Edward Hopper, Duc des Esseintes and Alexander von Humboldt make appearances in the pages of this book. Wordsworth gushes over the beauties of the Lake District and John Ruskin gives drawing lessons.

These people are “guides” whom de Botton brings along on his philosophical rambles, and whose travels, writings, and works of art help us to think creatively and usefully about our goings-forth. Parts of the book are given to Anticipation, the Exotic, Curiosity, Possessing Beauty, and Habit.

The fact is, this book has got me pondering and arguing on so many topics that I’m going to need several sittings at the keyboard in order to sift through the potpourri and rearrange it to my liking. In my mind and notebook I’ve been taking parts from one chapter to stick in a different place altogether, and making some new categories of my own.

There are critics at all levels who don’t appreciate de Botton’s style and objectives. For a few, it is because he tells us the obvious. That is a problem some of us have: We speak of what we are thinking about and other people say (hopefully just to themselves), “Well, duh!”

I don’t blame you at all, if you are one of these people. But I count myself among those who enjoy staring back at all of those things that are staring us in the face; we notice how this thing is connected to that one and the other, and the light is bouncing from one facet off the face of another obvious something and caroming all over the place. And we can’t help writing about it.

I consider my difficulties.


My current difficulties stem from these realities:

1) The world is so full of a number of things
    I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.

This rhyme has played in my head a million times since I learned it as a little girl. Maybe even then I suspected in my childish way the layers of truth in the sing-song, the irony of too-muchness.

2) I have been traveling a lot, and that brings me into contact with even more numbers of “things,” like real people, people in books, ideas in books, and new places I’ve visited. This summer, for example, I sat on airplanes for more than ten hours, and many of those hours were spent in the company of Alain de Botton as I read his book The Art of Travel. As I drifted off to sleep at night in a house not my own, I was soaking up the coastal delights of George Howe Colt’s childhood summer place, The Big House.

In the spaces between these literary adventures my more physical self was learning to reach right instead of left for a stirring spoon, and to relax in the hot tub of the Eastern summer atmosphere.

3) I need — o.k., I feel the need! — to write about at least some of the experiences in order to process the information and be restored from the overload/exhaustion of so much excitement. As Alain and I were musing together over the meaning of our travels, I scribbled notes in the margins and made a list in the back of the book of all the blog post ideas that were generated from our “discussion.” Every night for a week or two I have spent at least fifteen minutes writing and rewriting in my mind, in the dark, my review of the Colt book.

Even Archimandrite Sophrony is reported to have said, “Arrange whatever pieces come your way.” I don’t know what the context of this quote was, but the urge is a basic, human, compelling one, and applies to just about everything I know.

The Milky Way

4) When I am on the trip, just returned from a trip, or packing my bags and boxes to set off again, there is less time than ever for this kind of writing, and also less mental energy. When I hear Thomas Mann say, “A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people,” I feel that I am certainly one of those. I could coin my own saying: “A homemaker-writer with a large family is somebody for whom writing is even more more more difficult than it is for other people.”

I hope I am not complaining, by using the word difficulties. I could say challenges, or pieces. Or thoughts, as in “Bring every thought captive to Christ.” In my mind I have more challenging pieces of thoughts and prayers and connections to be made than there are dust bunnies floating up and down the stairs.

This morning it all seemed too much, as I add another item to the list of things that make us happy as kings: We are going to the cabin! There will be stimulating conversation on the way, as our numbers will be doubled by the presence of our dear Art and Herm. (That will add pieces, to be sure.)

Stars will shine crisply in the black sky at night, and in the mornings chipmunks will scurry in the brush below the house. Humans will eat cookies and bacon and drink coffee on the deck while we watch the hummingbirds squabble, and we’ll paddle our canoe quietly over the lake.

(Past posts about our Sierra cabin: 2009  2010  and  2011 )

Though I have picked up only a few pieces here to tie in my bundle, it’s been quite comforting. Now I can face my lists of more practical things like dinner menus, shopping needs, and what to put in my book bag. That won’t be too difficult.