Tag Archives: The Art of Travel

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.

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.