Seeing the old in a new way

    I believe in the evolutionary development of consciousness, meaning that human consciousness has changed and evolved over time.  Further, I believe that the proper response to modernity is not to go back to an earlier stage, but to go through modernity by developing new ways of thinking.  But one thing I always try to do is to imagine what this would look like in detail.  How does it work?  

    One big way that I think this has happened through history is that people find new insights and new ways of understanding by looking at what is old through the lens of a new way of thinking.  

    One example is painting.  I believe that the history of painting in the 19th century shows the development of consciousness that Rudolf Steiner says took place in this time.  In the 19th century, there were many painters skilled in realism and detail, exemplified by such paintings as John Constable's 1825 Painting Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Grounds:

    In his lecture, "Materialism and the Task of Anthroposophy," Steiner wrote: "It was in the middle and second half of the nineteenth century that materialism had its period of greatest development."  Whatever one's opinion of Rudolf Steiner, in many ways this was a century where the development of the physical was at a high point.  And we can understand the physical more broadly to mean the objective world, as well as skills in arts and crafts and manufacturing.  This was also the heydey of the naturalistic and realistic novel.  

    Then, with impressionism, we see something change.  The artist now attempts to depict the impression of a scene.  Painting moves inward to show the subjective.  An example is Alfred Sisley's View of the Canal Saint-Martin: 

    This matches the development outlined by Steiner.  After the high point of materialistic consciousness in the 19th century, human beings were supposed to move towards a consciousness that recognized the reality of the spiritual.  But, there are two crucial points.  This new consciousness would not recapitulate the old, where the spiritual was perceived by the senses.  Instead the spiritual would be perceived in consciousness.  Furthermore, this new development must be chosen, it cannot be forced. 

    It is only natural that such a development would be expressed in art.  Another way of development in art is using modern realistic painting techniques to render the legendary or mythical.  If you think about it, this is taking the legendary or mythic and recasting not as foggy or vague, but taking it up with the rational consciousness.  A good example is Frederick Sandys's painting Queen Eleanor

    where a medieval queen is depicted, but in such a detailed way that it is like we are seeing her in person.  Both of the developments in painting were also reflected in novels.  The move towards the subjective is reflected in writers like Dostoevsky with the psychological novel, while the depiction of the legendary in a modern manner by fantasy and other imaginative fiction.     

    Another example is critical history, the view of history as a science.  Yesterday I was reading an encyclopedia article about "Isaac Newton's Occult Studies."  The article discussed how Newton studied Biblical prophecy, ancient chronology, and the sacred geometry of the Temple of Solomon.  The article states: 

    "As a Bible scholar, Newton was initially interested in the sacred geometry of Solomon's Temple, such as golden sections, conic sections, spirals, orthographic projection, and other harmonious constructions, but he also believed that the dimensions and proportions represented more. He noted that the temple's measurements given in the Bible are mathematical problems, related to solutions for \pi and the volume of a hemisphere, V = (2/3)\pi r^3, and in a larger sense that they were references to the size of the Earth and man's place and proportion to it.    

  In all three of these areas, Newton is applying modern critical historical and scientific thinking towards the Bible and other ancient sources.  I am not endorsing any of Newton's conclusions on these matters, but his example shows how what we have here is an attempt to tease out new knowledge from old sources by applying new ways of thinking to them.  As a whole, I think the project of critical, rational history has provided many insights.  One being chronology.  Even as late as Newton's day, the dates of many ancient historical events were not known accurately.  We have been able to order and catalogue the years of many events and so gain new insights into history.  

    Yet another example is Plato and the Neo-Platonists.  Many modern scholars dismiss the Neo-Platonists who added to Plato's teachings.  However, the impression  I get is that some of the Neo-Platonists themselves would say that everything they teach was already in Plato.  And this was characteristic of ancient people.  When something was indeed a new development, they would say that it was contained in the original all along.  

    To stick with the Greeks, the Greek approach to mathematics was truly something new.  They learned mathematics from the Egyptians and Chaldeans, but recast the earlier discoveries in a new light by looking on them not just as facts, but as theorems, statements to be proven.  No doubt the earlier civilizations had reasoning they used to arrive at their conclusions, the Greeks made a study of proof and thereby brought forth a new development in mathematics. 

    One last example is J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.  Both of them wanted to write stories that would incorporate what they loved from mythology.  But they did not simply rewrite myths.  Tom Shippey has written in The Road to Middle Earth that The Lord of the Rings is in some ways very different from an ancient story such as Beowulf.  Frodo's quest to destroy the One Ring forces him to do battle in a subtle manner very different from the out and out confrontation of Beowulf with Grendel.  Tolkien recognized that he could not actually live and think as a man of the past and did not try to.  He took up what was good from the past into his own consciousness and brought forth something completely new but that was still an organic development from what had come before.  

    Likewise, in Lewis's That Hideous Strength, angels and Merlin exist alongside a technocratic organization.  In this book and the others in his Space Trilogy, Lewis gives much thought to how such things might appear in the modern world and how modern people might think of them. 

    One reason why this way of bringing forth something new is is good is because it is development rather than mere change.  When an acorn grows into an oak, this is a dramatic shift, but it follows nature rather than going against it.  An organic development does not destroy the past to bring forth something new.  Thus, this is one way forward for us.  It has been used by ancient and modern people.  If we want to move forwards in consciousness,  is we can take something good from the past and try to develop what is good in it in a new way.


  1. FYI - My previous comment got lost...

    1. This lost comment business is very weird. I wonder if changing from embedded to full page, as Otto suggested would help. I'm going to hold off for a while because it will make previous comment threads would become disjointed. But I'll try that if it becomes too bad.

      On the topic of the post, does what I am trying to write about here at least make sense?

    2. "does what I am trying to write about here at least make sense?"

      Certainly, to me it does. I was trying to amplify the argument (in some lost fashion!)

  2. Also, here is something else about art that I did not put into the post because it didn't fit with the main theme:

    I think the way that began with impressionism went about as far as it could go with Van Gogh. After that, artists would have had to find another path. Van Gogh died in 1890 and (as you have written) it seems like the 1890s were a special time where the world could have gone in a completely different direction.
    As it is, painting degenerated. So did other art. Chesterton saw that up close in art school and spent the rest of his life fighting against those impulses.

    Surrealism is an important bad example. That is what happens when artists misuse imagination. Imagination is used to force something upon the world, often ugly or arbitrary, rather than trying to cooperate with Creation.

    The strange thing is that, it may be that because of the impulse towards originality in the consciousness of artists, art couldn't stay stable as it could have in a previous age. So, it had to become either better or worse.

    1. I agree about surrealism - indeed, I regard it as an example of fake creativity. i.e. Its creativity does not originate from the true (divine) self, but takes already-created ideas and re-combines, extrapolates, inverts them etc; much as advertisers do. Eventually, the explanation of the art makes the work itself superfluous (as will the varieties of conceptual art, that pretty much dominated the galleries last I looked) - Tom Wolfe termed it The Painted Word (but 'it' could equally be sculpted, collaged or whatever).

  3. Two 'replies' lost - wonder whether this will work...

    1. Sorry about that. I was asleep so I hadn't approved your response yet.

  4. First of all, excellent stuff!

    What you have outlined here makes a great deal of sense to me. Your example of the shift from realism to impressionism in painting - great choices to illustrate this, by the way - demonstrates that the impressionists were not only aware of what had come before them (or continued to exist alongside them), but understood and respected it. They understood and respected it because they had "gone through" it. In this sense, their impulse to move beyond realism was positive and creative because it did not seek to obliterate or destroy; nor did it aim to mock or denigrate. Instead, the impulse sought to add a new dimension to the medium. Your examples of novels traces these developments as well.

    I like the digression into the realist depictions of mythical figures; I hadn't thought deeply about that before at all.

    Your observations about the limits impressionism mirror my own thoughts about the subject, but I would apply this to all art, generally speaking. Once we get into the twentieth century, the signs of degeneration are everywhere. Unwilling to make something new from the creativity of the past, art begins to deconstruct and destroy itself under the imperative to be original at all costs and "make it new" (sorry, Ezra Pound). Everything begins to splinter and roll back upon itself - art becomes a destructive feedback loop. The great is considered mundane; the mundane, great. After a while, the kaleidoscopic revelry ends and everything just stagnates.

    And this stagnation is still with us today. University students and artists embrace the idea of scoffing at the past, or take delight in denigrating all past forms and poisoning them with superimposed social ideas and "critical" theories.

    Artists (and people in general) of the past understood that they had to master tradition to some degree before they could innovate or create anything original themselves. Moderns seem to think otherwise. Contemporary writers want to be greater than Shakespeare without having to read Shakespeare.

    In terms of consciousness, I would say the way forward must involve a thorough understanding and appreciation or, at the very least, a sincere awareness (consciousness) of the past. Without it, there doesn't seem to be much of a way forward. Consciousness is caught in a stagnant, meaningless backwater when it needs to find its way back to the great river (where old and new water both flow in the same direction).

    Now it's my turn to ask you - does that make sense?

    1. I completely agree. Liberalism failed because it completely disregarded the past as superstitious nonsense and attempted to create a "new man" without the Holy Spirit. Modern man wants to run before he learns to walk.

    2. Great comment. Yes, what you say makes sense.

      I like your metaphor about us being in a stagnant backwater. As you point out, art as it is now can't be considered a development as much as a form of going off the rails.

      "Once we get into the twentieth century, the signs of degeneration are everywhere. Unwilling to make something new from the creativity of the past, art begins to deconstruct and destroy itself under the imperative to be original at all costs and "make it new" (sorry, Ezra Pound). Everything begins to splinter and roll back upon itself - art becomes a destructive feedback loop. The great is considered mundane; the mundane, great. After a while, the kaleidoscopic revelry ends and everything just stagnates."

      good insight

  5. This is wonderful post in light of Bruce Charlton's recent entry about the impossibility of completely returning to the past. I especially love the last post comparing development to an acorn growing into a tree. I believe that St. John Henry Newman coined a similar term "development of doctrine". His Anglicanism left a mark on Catholicism showing a progression of his faith.

    1. Good comment. The only one of Newman's works that I have read is "Dream of Gerontius," but I find him a sympathetic figure.

  6. I feel this blog is important and very helpful.

  7. The Constable painting equates full grown trees with the spires of the cathedral. I recently read the book Sprout Lands, by arborist William Bryant Logan (you can find a good podcast interview of him on the John Batchelor show). The book is basically about coppice farming of trees. Logan travels the world to discover different cultures and their approach to trees and the way stone-age humans evolved to work with them, generally by cutting them back and using the sprouts, or by pollarding them and harvesting the sprouts to feed to their animals. The resulting landscape of coppices in various stages of regrowth was much more varied, much friendlier to wildlife and resulted in trees which lived a lot longer than the trees we see today. In fact the trees had evolved to survive this way as they were food for browsers like mastodons.
    I see Constable's painting as well into the Romantic tradition of wondering where our place is in the world when even majestic trees topple over in the wind and die. By his time, the commons had been enclosed and trees were primarily seen either as boards-to-be or romanticized as gods.

  8. Here's another though related to Newton's geometry investigations. The irrational numbers such as the golden section, route 2 and route 3 are divisions of rectangles. They can be infinitesimally calculated to divide a rectangle into different smaller dynamic rectangles.
    I see this repetition as a way of forming patterns, and patterns as the primary way art and religion work to lead us out of our left brain analysis and into right-brain where what we know feels ineffable. Everybody seems to be getting to this in different ways, including Iain Mcgilcrist in the Master and his Emissary. The right hemisphere is heavily involved in imitation, and to me imitation is seeing a pattern and conforming yourself to it.
    Dynamic rectangles give you a way of developing an invisible pattern in your painting but hiding it or even receding the pattern into the depth or z-space of the painting.
    Modernism is suspicious about patterns for good reason. Rene Girard pointed out the place of imitation in prompting us all to envy each other, and then pointing us at finding a scapegoat who we can all ritually sacrifice in order to stop wanting each other's stuff for a while. The most obvious way this goes wrong is Hitler, but we now see it operate in plain sight on social media.

  9. Unknown, thanks for your interesting comments. I especially liked what you had to say about coppice farming of trees, which I had never heard about before.


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