Saturday, 23 March 2013

Man is a great and wonderful miracle (...) a seeming interval between time and eternity ...

 - Thomas Traherne

Baruch Spinoza was a lens-grinder and optical instrument-maker, in Holland. He made fine lenses - a brand new technology in his time - which were used for various purposes. These included mirrors, telescopes, and, perhaps more significantly for 17th century science, microscopes. With those optical aides, he and his contemporaries now had visual access not only to the heavens, but also to the world of the infinitely small: the macrocosm and the microcosm. Spinoza was also a philosopher. He envisaged, and worked out, a system that attempted to explain the entire natural universe, and mankind’s place therein. According to Spinoza, everything - both material and immaterial, body and mind, matter and thought - was the extension of what he called “substance”. He stressed the immanence of this ‘substance’, which leaves no room for an external God, or other causal being. He did not deny the existence of God, but said that if such a thing, or being, exists, it is identical to ‘substance’, which is itself both the sole autonomous cause and existence. His views were condemned both by his own Judaic community, and the Catholic church. This was, in part, due to his observation that man is not a free agent, with free will. He considered free will a delusion; all man’s ordinary activities, thoughts and emotions being only the play of ‘substance’ as natural impulses, and over which he has little or no control. Human concepts like ‘good’ and ‘evil‘ are also fluctuating elements of ‘substance’, relative to the particular situation a person may find themselves in. However, man has within him two qualities, or “extensions” of ‘substance’ of special value: reason and intuition - of which intuition ultimately proves the more conducive to knowledge. Through these he can more clearly perceive the workings of ‘substance’ in nature, and in himself. With this more “adequate” insight he gains detachment from, and wiser  participation in, his own life and the life of the world. By accepting the play of ‘substance’, he is able to live within it more fully and consciously, rather than being unconsciously moved by it in all directions while under the delusion of autonomous free will. Separation and ignorance are thus gradually transformed into oneness and knowledge. He is now able to perceive the beauty and elegance of ‘substance’ in everything, and aspires to feel and think as much as possible in accord with it. This is the only real freedom:

(...) those who believe, that they speak or keep silence or act in any way from the free decision of their mind, do but dream with their eyes open.1

Thomas Traherne was a Christian ‘mystic’, writer and poet. He was a contemporary of Spinoza, and lived not too far away, over the North Sea, in England. His work was not properly discovered until the twentieth century. Although a clergyman, Traherne had a very unorthodox view of religion. Somewhat ahead of his time, but in synchrony - although not in contact - with contemporaries such as Spinoza, he had a keen interest in science, and had read Francis Bacon’s works on the microscopic world with great enthusiasm. Theologically and introspectively, he saw the whole of "creation" as a thing of intense delight, and himself as both privileged observer, and joyful participant. From the smallest atom, to the infinity of the stars, all was profound joy to his being - at least in his writing. Sometimes criticised in modern times for naivety, his poetry and discursive prose represent a universe revealed in truth to be full of joy and beauty, and quite devoid of evil; the traits of evil being illusions that exist only in the ignorance of the human mind:

You never enjoy the world aright, till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you (...) the world is a mirror of infinite beauty, yet no man sees it.2

At almost exactly the same time as Spinoza, there lived in his own country, in the city of Delft, a painter of pictures. His name was Jan Vermeer. Strangely, like Traherne, Vermeer too was discovered only much later, in the nineteenth century. His entire output amounted to around thirty paintings, many of them quite small: this is often a surprise, when the paintings are seen in a gallery space, as in reproduction they appear to have the scale, and the impact, of much larger compositions. His pictures are, for the most part, scenes of domestic life - a genre peculiar to his historical time and place. But Vermeer’s scenes in particular are loved and admired by many for two special qualities that they uniquely imbibe: serenity and light. Still daylight infuses the interiors of his house in Delft, inhabited mostly by the women in his life - his wife and daughters. The forms - people, furniture, walls, household items - appear almost as if created out of light, and in places ever-so-slightly out of focus, which paradoxically adds to the immediacy of their reality. Light and colour subtly permeate the forms, and illumine the spaces. You might say that light both causes them to be, and is immanent to them. The viewer is invited to observe intimate scenes, but is curiously distanced by their serenity and calm. Vermeer is thought to have used a ‘camera obscura’ to compose his pictures, and to observe his subjects: this can apparently be traced in painted effects such as tiny globules of light around objects. True or not, he was in the perfect time and place to take advantage of the new science and technology of optics. His paintings seem to transform an everyday, transient and ambivalent world into one infused with timelessness, clarity and peace.                  

Vermeer. Woman in Blue reading a Letter. 1664.

One might also speculate that mankind is in the perfect time and ‘place‘ to observe the universe, and perhaps that was first perceived in the seventeenth century as being both inwardly and outwardly possible. With the aid of technology he can probe its secrets, in microcosm and macrocosm. But even without these, he is in perfect relational proportion to appreciate its beauty and wonder. It’s a question of balance: any larger, and he would not have the company of domestic animals, small flowers, majestic trees, mountains, sky, and clouds. Any smaller, and he would be in terror of the world around him (imagine being six inches high, and encountering a cat as big as a house). By felicitous accident or by natural design - depending on your point of view - this unique position in time and space, in perfect balance between the tiniest particle and the farthest galaxy, between a lived moment and eternity, may uncover a profound and purposeful pattern in the apparent random play of life, and reveal its true meaning to sentient consciousness.


1 Benedict de Spinoza, The Ethics (London: Echo Library, 2006), Prop. VI, p. 61.

2 Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditations (New York: Cosimo, 2010), 1: 29, p. 19.

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