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By way of introduction:

The goal of these writings is both to clarify my thinking on philosophical matters and to relate my thinking on these matters to painting. The reasons for this are as follows.


The first reason is that having spent most of my twenties engaging with philosophy and literature while also attempting to sort my life out, I have become convinced of the existence of the transcendent. We can refer to the transcendent in several other ways such as the unknown, nature, or the cosmos, but the more I consider what I mean by the transcendent the more comfortable I become with words like God or the Logos (the word; the order). It is clear to me that if the transcendent exists, if we are not, as postmodernist thinking would have it (and I am caricaturing here a bit to make a point), condemned to exist in a psychological web of self-referential meaning, but there really is a centre around which meaning accumulates, then it makes sense to me that any activity worth mastering requires thinking about the transcendent if it is to have any grasp on reality at all.


The second reason why I engage with these texts and write about them is because I have an unshakable faith in the greatness of the Western tradition. The poetry and philosophy of the Greeks, for example, is not idiosyncratic or arbitrary, it is not merely a manifestation of the Hellenic zeitgeist. It is the fusion and clarification of traditions reaching back into the abyss of prehistory, and those traditions were born out of vast aeons of experience. It is my position that such a manifestation of human thought is of supreme and objective utility because from it we can learn profound and universal truths about life. We must learn once again to hear the ancient words so that we may perceive clearly and act with virtue; they are as important as any of the findings of science. To disengage from the accumulated wisdom of thousands, even tens of thousands of years is not an option if we are to live up to the destiny of human existence: that is, to face the tragic truth of suffering and yet to justify it with beauty and love.

Yet to learn how to cultivate our world, to create new and beautiful things, we must first learn to be as the farmer who patiently tends his crop to fruition, or as the carpenter carves his wood. Just as the wisdom of tradition is a record of our culture’s grappling with the transcendent, and as the great texts grew out of the soil of that struggle, so craft confronts the craftsman with all the stubbornness of transcendent nature. True painting, which is a craft, is never about my “personal expression” but is rather nourished by and grows out of what encompasses and supports me in my individual existence. That which encompasses is the procreative struggle and unity between culture and the transcendent.


To summarize, I hold that the transcendent is real, that cultural heritage is the record of unfathomable depth of experience in struggling with the transcendent, and that culture is transmitted meaning which grows up within this struggle. I do not think that building up culture is an abstract procedure: culture is the foundation of human consciousness. The wisdom of the ancients is quite clear in stating that the naming power granted to human beings builds up the world, that is there something that might be best called divine in our ability to wield language and thereby to build up and embellish our existence. It is very clear that civilization and consciousness as we know it were built upon poetic meaning, and the accumulated research of over two thousand years of the humanities has done nothing but confirm that nonnegotiable fact.

Painting shares in the naming power of language, which is poetry. True poetry speaks the truth. That is, it confronts the unknown and symbolizes it, gathers and presents it to consciousness. Painting, understood as a poetic craft, connects the viewer to reality by uniting consciousness with the transcendent. Painting makes meaning, as the unity of consciousness and the transcendent, appear in visible form, and that is a profoundly real experience. If cultural tradition is the record of the meaning that human beings have built up, then it is the highest imperative that the painter or anyone who wishes to be, as we say “creative,” should integrate culture into their consciousness. True culture is the basis of human consciousness and meaning, and therefore the basis of all meaningful and impactful making and doing.

Heraclitus on Wisdom

Fire lives in the death of earth, air in the death of fire, water in the death of air, and earth in the death of water. [Fragment 76]


What could sound more strange, more contradictory to what we know today, than this occult declaration salvaged from Heraclitus’ lost book? Surely the bizarre and scientifically inaccurate observations of this ancient mind should be relegated to the category of historical curiosity as an error that was overcome a long time ago. For us, the ways of nature may have a poetic resonance with human matters, but serious scientific thought should never get entangled in poetic metaphors, and thought should certainly not be identified with nature. But for Heraclitus and his age, the world had not yet fallen into the fatal rupture between matter and idea that asserts itself in the modern era, and which has so insinuated itself into our behaviour that the ontological question seems to have been settled. Has it been settled? Or do we have more reason than ever to question the presuppositions of our thinking today? Can the poetic impulse in thought provide us with something useful? Perhaps there is something in Heraclitus for craftsmen who seek the imitation of nature, as it is we who mingle our minds with matter most intimately.


The symbols that Heraclitus uses: gold, wares, sea, earth, the lightning-flash, reach into the mists of prehistory. Their poetic power ripples through tradition, and in them might be contained vast encyclopedias of thought. We must recall that human beings once had to remember everything themselves. The written word was scant and difficult to reproduce if it existed at all. Is it so strange to consider that thought might find its home in a poetic understanding of nature? We know these things still, and they speak to us if we only allow them to.


To be temperate is the greatest virtue. Wisdom consists in speaking and acting the truth, giving heed to the nature of things. [112]


Anything worth mastering is worth thinking about, and Heraclitus might say that we painters should be concerned with wisdom if nature is to be a part of our practice. Wisdom here means the same as temperance – it means aligning oneself in word and deed with what Heraclitus calls the Logos, or the word, in accordance with which all things come to pass. As all things come to pass according to their being the wise man pays due reverence to things, for through them the Logos eternally prevails. The wise man does not merely grasp abstract truths, but by paying attention to things and then speaking and acting the truth he cultivates the presence of truth. Through understanding and cultivation, he finds the ground of his own being, for the same principles prevail in him as do things. Wisdom is the same as cultivation and cultivation requires great wisdom. We need to be able to give heed to things if we are going to build them up.


For Heraclitus, the Logos is common to all things, it is the principle, the Archē, the foundation. Heraclitus compares the Logos to fire. “There is exchange of all things for fire and of fire for all things, as there is of wares for gold and gold for wares” [28] And further, “The transformations of fire: first, sea; and of sea, half becomes earth and half the lightning-flash” [31]. Obviously, any elaborations I might provide are only meager food for thought, but perhaps we can begin to attend to these symbols in an orienting way. Fire is a symbol of devastation but also of profound life-giving and economic value: when man harnesses the thunderbolt, he becomes as the sky god, he nourishes, thrives, and builds worlds – and yet Troy was burnt to the ground at the end of a great war. The sea is lawless chaos and bountiful nourishment and a symbol for unformed potential. Out of chaos are born the earth and all things that grow and walk upon it, as the seas were separated from the earth and creatures crawled out of the depths. And the lightning flash illuminates the earth, terrifies to madness, and scorches. As the earth is consumed by the inevitable conflagration into which all things are thrown, so the world is consumed and transformed into smoke that rises through the air to the frightful heavens, where it joins the heavenly bodies, of which the sun rules the day and nourishes the earth, and the moon and stars the night and nourish the mind. They move in their orbits with order and certainty and bestow their qualities upon us. Here we should turn to Ovid:


Then eyther he that made the worlde, and things in order set,

Of heavenly seede engendred Man: or else the earth as yet

Yong, lustie, fresh, and in his floures, and parted from the skie,

But late before, the seede thereof as yet held inwardlie.

The which Prometheus tempring straight with water of the spring,

Did make in likenesse to the Gods that governe everie thing.

And where all other beasts behold the ground with groveling eie,

He gave to Man a stately looke replete with majestie.

And willde him to behold the Heaven with countenance cast on hie,

To marke and understand what things were in the starrie skie.

And thus the earth which late before had neyther shape nor hew,

Did take the noble shape of man, and was transformed new. [Ovid, Metamorphoses I:91-102]


Here as in Heraclitus, human beings (and the man in true poetry is always the highest potential of man) appear as a unity of elements. “The best and wisest soul is a dry beam of light” [118]. Order and heavenly light are essential for the well-being of the soul. Man is properly man insofar as his soul is orderly and as his consciousness illuminates the nature of things. He turns his gaze up and pays heed. But a fallen man takes pleasure in confounding his vision and succumbing to chaos: “A drunken man has to be led by a boy, whom he follows stumbling and not knowing whither he goes, for his soul is moist” [117]. The intemperate, moist soul, moist in that it embodies the character of the intemperate seas, is likened to one who cannot orient himself, let alone discern the order of the heavens. But a dry soul nourishes and sustains all things as the light. “Soul is the vaporization out of which everything else is composed” [45]. The wise man perceives the essence of things, speaking and acting in accordance with their principle, which is the Logos, and in so doing cultivates life and shares in divinity. Everything stands together in a unified balance in the soul of the wise man: “It is wise to acknowledge that all things are one” [50]. Perceiving, speaking, and acting, the wise man tends the garden of life and everywhere reveals the unity of things.


What can be done with riddles such as these? We must learn how to hear again before we learn to see as the ancients did, let alone to integrate hearing and sight into our actions. This task places a great demand on the modern person, who already sees and hears too much and therefore nothing. For us, a practical effort to seek wisdom must mean to regain our capacity to pay heed to things, to pay attention to nature. But this would mean to disregard the ubiquitous imperative to participate in the society. To be wise means to think, speak, and act according to a different hierarchy than socially ordained hierarchies. “Wisdom stands apart from all else” [108].

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