Walter Pater

Watching a documentary last night, where someone quoted Walter Pater. I was intrigued, and did some research. He was a Victorian academic and essayist, flourishing from the mid 1860s till his death in 1894, influencing people like Oscar Wilde, who was fifteen years younger than him. He was an expert on the Renaissance, and seems to have been a key figure in making the world aware of the works of Botticelli. As you can see from the picture, he also sported a rather over-the-top moustache.

His initial view of life seems to be that it was for the pursuit of pleasure – of a high, sophisticated sort, of course. Hence his famous quote: “To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.”

He got into a certain amount of hot water for this, including from George Eliot, who said this was just shallow hedonism dressed up in academic garb. He later refined his position, sniping at his former disciple Wilde: “A true Epicureanism aims at a complete though harmonious development of man’s entire organism. To lose the moral sense therefore, for instance, the sense of sin and righteousness, as [does] Mr. Wilde’s hero—his heroes are bent on doing as speedily, as completely as they can—is to lose, or lower, organisation, to become less complex, to pass from a higher to a lower degree of development.” Ouch!

Pater reckoned that great art lifted us up to a plane of understanding that would make immoral acts senseless. He described art as “A magic web… that penetrat[es] us with a network, subtler than our subtlest nerves, yet bearing in it the central forces of the world.” Great art somehow shows us what really matters, even if we’re not quite sure how it does it.

Another source of beauty / wisdom is landscape. He advised us to be perpetually on the lookout for magical moments. "A sudden light transfigures a trivial thing, a weathervane, a windmill, a winnowing flail, the dust in the barn door; a moment." He had a kind of Daoist view of reality as something in perpetual flux, and saw the sensitive viewer as seizing the best bits of that flux.

In both cases, we can get better at appreciating both art and momentary beauty: he’s an optimist at heart, I feel.

Politicos won’t like his ideas. Conservatives dislike his disdain for duty. The left (and the populist right) will see him as an elitist – which he clearly was, of course. Life wasn’t about any old pleasure that came to hand, but ones that came via a scrupulously nurtured sensibility, this perpetual learning to spot and cherish beauty.

Was he right? Like most thinkers, he stands out because he put his case strongly. Given the complexity of human nature, I don’t see why one can’t follow him most of the way down his path, learning a lot about how to maximise both pleasure and what it teaches us, then pause before the end. Ethics and aesthetics don’t clash most of the time. The philosopher, of course, replies, ‘OK, but what happens when they do?’


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