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Van Gogh on Principles, Talking vs. Doing, and the Human Pursuit of Greatness

“Principles are good and worth the effort only when they develop into deeds… The great doesn’t happen through impulse alone, and is a succession of little things that are brought together.”

Albert Camus memorably admonished that those who prefer their principles over their happiness remain unhappy, suggesting that such rigid personal dogmas at the expense of actionable happiness are a form of especially dehumanizing self-punishment. Nearly a century earlier, Vincent van Gogh (March 30, 1853–July 29, 1890) explored this disconnect with great wisdom in a letter to his brother Theo, found in the recently released 800-page treasure trove Ever Yours: The Essential Letters (public library) — one of the year’s best biographies, memoirs, and history books, and the source of Van Gogh’s moving account of how he found his purpose.

‘Self-Portrait with Straw Hat’ by Vincent van Gogh

Van Gogh begins the letter by describing some of the watercolors he is working on and includes a sketch of a beach scene before diving into a discussion of what success really means, prompted by Theo’s descriptions of reckless, debauched artists he had met in Paris. A century before Wendell Berry’s wise meditation on pride and despair as the two great enemies of creative work — two sides of the same coin — Van Gogh, only twenty-nine at the time, writes to Theo:

How many have become desperate in Paris — calmly, rationally, logically and rightly desperate? … All the more, all the more, I think every attempt in [the] direction [of success] is worthy of respect. I also believe that it may happen that one succeeds and one mustn’t begin by despairing; even if one loses here and there, and even if one sometimes feels a sort of decline, the point is nevertheless to revive and have courage, even though things don’t turn out as one first thought.

He considers the relationship between abstract principles and concrete actions — the disconnect between the two often produces self-righteous hypocrites who, despite their holier-than-thou air, are no better than those Parisian artists:

Don’t think that I look with contempt on people such as you describe because their life isn’t founded on serious and well-considered principles. My view on this is as follows: the result must be an action, not an abstract idea. I think principles are good and worth the effort only when they develop into deeds, and I think it’s good to reflect and to try to be conscientious, because that makes a person’s will to work more resolute and turns the various actions into a whole. I think that people such as you describe would get more steadiness if they went about what they do more rationally, but otherwise I much prefer them to people who make a great show of their principles without making the slightest effort to put them into practice or even giving that a thought. For the latter have no use for the finest of principles, and the former are precisely the people who, if they ever get round to living with willpower and reflection, will do something great. For the great doesn’t happen through impulse alone, and is a succession of little things that are brought together.

A letter from Vincent to Theo, October 22, 1882

Van Gogh considers how art transmutes that invisible impulse of principles into the bringing together of tangible greatness, a greatness that at once validates the principles and is sustained by them:

What is drawing? How does one get there? It’s working one’s way through an invisible iron wall that seems to stand between what one feels and what one can do. How can one get through that wall? — since hammering on it doesn’t help at all. In my view, one must undermine the wall and grind through it slowly and patiently. And behold, how can one remain dedicated to such a task without allowing oneself to be lured from it or distracted, unless one reflects and organizes one’s life according to principles? And it’s the same with other things as it is with artistic matters. And the great isn’t something accidental; it must be willed. Whether originally deeds lead to principles in a person or principles lead to deeds is something that seems to me as unanswerable and as little worth answering as the question of which came first, the chicken or the egg.

But I believe it’s a positive thing and of great importance that one should try to develop one’s powers of thought and will.

The remainder of Ever Yours offers a revelatory, unprecedented glimpse of one of the most extraordinary minds in history — a man who managed to create, despite an anguishing lifelong struggle with mental illness, some of the greatest art humanity has ever known and even to help explain the scientific mysteries of movement and light through his paintings.

Published December 22, 2014




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