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Perspective in the Age of Opinion: Timely Wisdom from a Century Ago

“A small artist is content with art; a great artist is content with nothing except everything.”

Perspective in the Age of Opinion: Timely Wisdom from a Century Ago

I have worried, and continue to worry, that we have relinquished the reflective telescopic perspective for the reactionary microscopic perspective. When we surrender the grandest, often unanswerable questions to the false certitudes of the smallest, we lose something essential of our humanity. When we aim the spears of those certitudes at one another, more interested in being right than in understanding, we lose something essential. How did we get to a place where to have an opinion is more culturally rewarded than to have a question? Hannah Arendt admonished against this dehumanizing loss decades ago in her trailblazing Gifford lecture on the life of the mind: “To lose the appetite for meaning we call thinking and cease to ask unanswerable questions [would be to] lose not only the ability to produce those thought-things that we call works of art but also the capacity to ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded.”

How to guard against the decivilizing tyranny of unthinking opinion over perspectival thought is what the English poet, essayist, philosopher, dramatist, journalist, and art critic G. K. Chesterton (May 29, 1874–June 14, 1936) — an imperfect man, to be sure, but also a brilliant one belonging to that rare species of truth-seers — addressed in the opening chapter of his 1905 essay collection Heretics (free ebook | public library).

G.K. Chesterton

Writing decades before philosopher Simone Weil contemplated the dangers of our self-righteous for and against, Chesterton — who feasted on paradox and employed a style of rhetoric he called “uncommon sense,” subverting popular arguments to reveal their deficiencies — writes:

In former days… the man was proud of being orthodox, was proud of being right… The word “orthodoxy” not only no longer means being right; it practically means being wrong. All this can mean one thing, and one thing only. It means that people care less for whether they are philosophically right.


It is foolish, generally speaking, for a philosopher to set fire to another philosopher in Smithfield Market because they do not agree in their theory of the universe. That was done very frequently in the last decadence of the Middle Ages, and it failed altogether in its object. But there is one thing that is infinitely more absurd and unpractical than burning a man for his philosophy. This is the habit of saying that his philosophy does not matter.

Chesterton laments that in the exponential narrowing of focus toward more and more hard-held opinions about smaller and smaller dimensions of life, we have increasingly lost perspective — that telescopic perspective — of the largest, most enduring, most important questions of existence. He writes:

Atheism itself is too theological for us to-day. Revolution itself is too much of a system; liberty itself is too much of a restraint. We will have no generalizations… A man’s opinion on tramcars matters; his opinion on Botticelli matters; his opinion on all things does not matter. He may turn over and explore a million objects, but he must not find that strange object, the universe; for if he does he will have a religion, and be lost. Everything matters — except everything.

Chesterton — who vehemently and publicly opposed eugenics when Britain was passing the Mental Deficiency Act and considering sterilizing the mentally ill — admonishes against the perils of surrendering the grand perspective. Noting that “the human brain is a machine for coming to conclusions,” he considers the two great and opposite evils of bigotry and fanaticism — “bigotry which is a too great vagueness and fanaticism which is a too great concentration” — and asserts that the only thing worse than both, “more firm than a bigot and more terrible than a fanatic,” is “a man with a definite opinion.” What we lose by electing opinion over perspective, he argues, is cosmic truth:

When the old Liberals removed the gags from all the heresies, their idea was that religious and philosophical discoveries might thus be made. Their view was that cosmic truth was so important that every one ought to bear independent testimony. The modern idea is that cosmic truth is so unimportant that it cannot matter what any one says. The former freed inquiry as men loose a noble hound; the latter frees inquiry as men fling back into the sea a fish unfit for eating.


But there are some people, nevertheless — and I am one of them — who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe.

Art by Ben Newman from A Graphic Cosmogony

In a sentiment of chilling relevance more than a century later, he adds:

This repudiation of big words and big visions has brought forth a race of small men in politics… Our modern politicians claim the colossal license of Caesar and the Superman, claim that they are too practical to be pure and too patriotic to be moral.

This tyranny of definite opinions about the smallest questions, at the expense of broad perspective on the largest, effects a kind of worship of blind practicality over philosophy — the field most directly tasked with the seeing of truth. Chesterton writes:

It may be that there have been many moonstruck and misleading ideals that have from time to time perplexed mankind. But assuredly there has been no ideal in practice so moonstruck and misleading as the ideal of practicality… Nothing in this universe is so unwise as that kind of worship of worldly wisdom. A man who is perpetually thinking of whether this race or that race is strong, of whether this cause or that cause is promising, is the man who will never believe in anything long enough to make it succeed. The opportunist politician is like a man who should abandon billiards because he was beaten at billiards, and abandon golf because he was beaten at golf. There is nothing which is so weak for working purposes as this enormous importance attached to immediate victory. There is nothing that fails like success.

Six decades later, John F. Kennedy would hold up art as the social corrective for politics. But art can only be a corrective, Chesterton argues, if it manages not to succumb to the same opinion-constricted narrowing of view that paralyzes and corrupts politics:

A man cannot be wise enough to be a great artist without being wise enough to wish to be a philosopher. A man cannot have the energy to produce good art without having the energy to wish to pass beyond it. A small artist is content with art; a great artist is content with nothing except everything.

In a sobering allegory, he illustrates this deeply damaging loss of perspective at the altar of opinion and petty practicality:

Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good — ” At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.

Complement this particular portion of Heretics, much of which has stood the test of time and opinion in the century-some since, with René Descartes on opinion vs. reason and the key to a wakeful mind, John Dewey on the art of critical reflection in the age of instant opinions, and Susan Sontag on the danger of opinions and the conscience of words.


Dawn: A Vintage Watercolor Serenade to the World Becoming Conscious of Itself

In praise of the natural optimism of daybreak.

Dawn: A Vintage Watercolor Serenade to the World Becoming Conscious of Itself

“In the name of daybreak / and the eyelids of morning / and the wayfaring moon / and the night when it departs,” Diane Ackerman wrote in her wondrous poem-prayer for presence. There is a singular and deeply assuring beauty to the prayerful optimism that daybreak brings. On the darkest of days, the knowledge that the sun will rise is the sole certainty we can hold on to. And when it does rise, it ignites the splendor of a world becoming conscious of itself — the first birdsong, the first breath, the first catlike stretch, the first cup of tea.

That splendor is what the great Polish-American children’s book author and illustrator Uri Shulevitz (b. February 27, 1935) celebrates with uncommon tenderness of heart and brush in his 1974 masterpiece Dawn (public library) — a watercolor serenade to the world as it becomes conscious of itself.

The book opens with a splash of quiet stillness in the final stretch of night.

Under a tree on the shore of the moonlit lake, an old man and a small boy sleep curled beneath their blankets. In spare words and soft watercolors, Shulevitz unspools the new day across the pages. The mountain stands solemn guard over the lake, its reflection shivering under the gentle touch of the breeze.

We see creatures slowly come awake.

Radiating from Shulevitz’s paintings is the aura of absolute, unassailable presence as the old man wakes his grandson and the two begin the quiet ritual of morning — drawing water from the lake, making fire, rolling up their blankets.

With the landscape still blue under the unrisen sun, they push their boat onto the water and row it to the middle of the lake to witness that magical moment when the first rays turn the sky, the mountain, the lake, the whole world from blue to green — the diurnal ignition spark of aliveness.

Complement Dawn, the analog loveliness of which cannot be even half-conveyed on this screen, with Goodnight Moon author Margaret Wise Brown’s little-known vintage celebration of the coming of the new day, The Quiet Noisy Book, then revisit Ohara Hale’s splendid Be Still, Life.


Margaret Fuller on What Makes a Great Leader: Timeless Political Wisdom from the Founding Mother of American Feminism

In praise of the leader “to whom this world is no mere spectacle or fleeting shadow, but a great, solemn game, to be played with good heed, for its stakes are of eternal value, yet who, if his play be true, heeds not what he loses by the falsehood of others.”

Margaret Fuller on What Makes a Great Leader: Timeless Political Wisdom from the Founding Mother of American Feminism

At six, Margaret Fuller (May 23, 1810–July 19, 1850) was reading in Latin. At twelve, she was conversing with her father in philosophy and pure mathematics. By fifteen, she had mastered French, Italian, and Greek, and was reading two or three lectures in philosophy every morning for mental discipline. In her short life, Fuller — one of the central figures in my book Figuring, and the person whom Emerson considered his greatest influence — would go on to write the foundational treatise of the women’s emancipation movement, author the most trusted literary and art criticism in America, work as the first female editor for a major New York newspaper and the only woman in the newsroom, advocate for prison reform and African American voting rights, and become America’s first foreign war correspondent, trekking through war-torn Rome while seven months pregnant. In her advocacy for African American, Native American, and women’s rights, Fuller would ardently espouse the simple, difficult truth that “while any one is base, none can be entirely free and noble.” All of this she would accomplish while bedeviled by debilitating chronic pain at the base of her neck — the result of a congenital spinal deformity that made it difficult to tilt her head down in order to write and was often accompanied by acute depression.

The only known photograph of Margaret Fuller

In her thirty-third year, in the midst of heartbreak, Fuller left her native New England to journey westward into the largely unfathomed frontiers of the country. She returned home transformed, awakened to new social, political, and existential realities. Eager to supplement her observations with historical research, she persuaded the Harvard library to grant her access to its book collection — the largest in the nation. No woman had previously been admitted for more than a tour. She then set about relaying her impressions and insights, ranging from a stunning portrait of Niagara Falls to a poignant account of the fate of the displaced Native American tribes with whom she sympathized and spent time. This became Fuller’s first book, Summer on the Lakes — part travelogue, part anthropological study, and part political treatise.

At the heart of the book — which greatly inspired the astronomer Maria Mitchell, another key figure in Figuring — was the search for truth of a higher order. Punctuating Fuller’s lyrical prose are sentiments worn all the truer by time. In a passage that should be emblazoned on every voting ballot (and composed before what Ursula K. Le Guin wryly termed “the invention of women,” when every woman was “man”), Fuller observes:

This country… needs… no thin Idealist, no coarse Realist, but a man whose eye reads the heavens, while his feet step firmly on the ground, and his hands are strong and dexterous for the use of human implements… a man of universal sympathies, but self-possessed; a man who knows the region of emotion, though he is not its slave; a man to whom this world is no mere spectacle or fleeting shadow, but a great, solemn game, to be played with good heed, for its stakes are of eternal value, yet who, if his play be true, heeds not what he loses by the falsehood of others; a man who hives from the past, yet knows that its honey can but moderately avail him; whose comprehensive eye scans the present, neither infatuated by its golden lures, nor chilled by its many ventures; who possesses prescience, the gift which discerns tomorrow — when there is such a man for America, the thought which urges her on will be expressed.

Find more of Fuller’s towering, prescient, yet tragically forgotten genius in Figuring, then revisit Walt Whitman, who admired her greatly, on democracy and resistance.


Elizabeth Gilbert Reads “The Early Hours” by Adam Zagajewski

An ode to the unsuspected gifts from the muse of sluggishness.

Elizabeth Gilbert Reads “The Early Hours” by Adam Zagajewski

“The most regretful people on earth,” Mary Oliver wrote in her beautiful reflection on the central commitment of the creative life, “are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.” There is something lovely about this notion of giving time — a generous counterpoint to our culture of taking time, snatching it from the river of being with the fist of disciplined demand, only to see it slip through. The discipline of showing up is an absolutely necessary condition for all creative work, yes, but it is not a sufficient one. Sometimes — often — we show up, only to find nothing happens. Whatever it is we are showing up for — art, love — cannot be willed, cannot be wrested from the hour or the soul. We learn then that the work is the work, but the work is also the waiting — the exasperation, the surrender to despair, and the swell of joy on the other side of the surrender.

That is what the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski explores with great subtlety and great warmth in his poem “The Early Hours,” found in his collection Without End: New & Selected Poems (public library), translated by Clare Cavanagh (also the translator one of my favorite poets, the Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska, who lauded Cavanagh’s work as “that rare miracle when a translation stops being a translation and becomes… a second original.”)

What an honor to have the wonderful Elizabeth Gilbert, masterly serenader of and surrenderer to the muse, read the poem for Brain Pickings:

by Adam Zagajewski

The early hours of morning; you still aren’t writing
(rather you aren’t even trying), you just read lazily.
Everything is idle, quiet, full, as if
it were a gift from the muse of sluggishness,

just as earlier, in childhood, on vacations, when a colored
map was slowly scrutinized before a trip, a map
promising so much, deep ponds in the forest
like glittering butterfly eyes, mountain meadows drowning
     sharp grass;

or the moment before sleep, when no dreams have appeared,
but they whisper their approach from all parts of the world,
their march, their pilgrimage, their vigil at the sickbed
(grown sick of wakefulness), and the quickening among medieval

compressed in endless stasis over the cathedral;
the early hours of morning silence
                                                            — you still aren’t writing,
you still understand so much.
                                        Joy is close.

Complement with Gilbert’s profoundly moving reflection on love and loss, then savor more great artists reading great poems: Amanda Palmer reading “Possibilities” and “Life While-You-Wait” by Wisława Szymborska and “Humanity i love you” by E.E. Cummings, James Gleick reading “At the Fishhouses” by Elizabeth Bishop, Terrance Hayes reading “cutting greens” by Lucille Clifton, Rosanne Cash reading “Power” by Adrienne Rich, and Janna Levin reading “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou, then revisit Rilke on inspiration and the nature of creativity.


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