Edward Carpenter





Carpenter's Writings

The Religious Influence of Art


But if those who possess not the cultivation of Art need not envy those who have to steer their way through com­plications arising from this very cultivation, it is none the less true that they cannot escape them ultimately. Through all creation, the same unfailing tendency which spreads the arms of the sea-polyp out and out into newer forms and refines and builds up the lowest creatures onwards and onwards towards the most complicated-that same tendency inevitably, as one should hope, gives birth some time or other, in every human mind, to the appreciation of something which has a beauty beyond the sensual, the appreciation, that is, in however small degree, of the beautiful in Art; and therewith a new delight arises that involves a new respon­sibility, and upon the working out of that responsibility de­pends the continuance of that delight and the growth of Art into a true servant of real religion, or the degradation of that delight again to the dust and ashes of a mere sensu­ality and the weakening of the spirit of man by an unbalanced refinement which makes his last state worse than his first.

So much for the study of Art in general on a religion springing from a naturally good and impulsive heart. But, as I said before, we may also recognise a religion which, for the sake of simplicity, we put in another class; that in which the temptations of sensual motives are very strongly felt, but are conquered by the force of a will whose voli­tions spring from a severe sense of duty (for I must recog­nise the existence of a sense of this kind, differing from ordinary actuating principles or motives in that, by its very nature, the calculation of profit or pleasure is precluded). In this case the motive forces to action are more compli­cated, and a greater struggle is carried on. And here the influence of Art seems to come in, for since it is always presenting us with the strife between the more spiritual and the more material forces and, through the sense of beauty, enlisting our sympathies in the triumph of the former, it does no doubt, even though unconsciously, reinforce by its presence the spiritual will within us to clearer action. But, besides this positive influence, it has also a more negative, power; I mean that it takes away the keenness and edge from many of our more sensual motives and thus gives to the will more chance of victory. In many cases, as we noticed before, pleasures of a sensual or violently exciting tendency become extremely distasteful through the cultiva­tion of Art, or at any rate the interest in them is lost; and in each of such cases so many foes of our higher nature are disarmed. For instance, the refining art may bring be­fore us inclinations to good which we should not otherwise have; it may make a man more inclined to treat his horse kindly, or even to put himself to considerable trouble in order to save it from injury or pain. Or, on the other hand, it may be of service to a sense of duty by weakening op­posing motives, as in the case of a person who should think it inconsistent with his duty to go to a prize-fight; and who, taking great delight in it at first, should afterwards, by the cultivation of true Art, come to feel a distaste for the want of refinement or the cruelty and false excitement that he would meet with there.

In each of these cases Art would be likely to make action on the side of right more habitual. But Schiller, in his Essay on the Moral Use of Aesthetics, only allows that Art furthers morality in those cases, like the latter, in which it gives assistance, as it were, to the moral will, but does not supersede it. In the other cases, where Art supplies a mo­tive of itself and the feeling of duty does not come into play, he maintains that morality is not concerned and the case ceases to be a point in question. He gives the instance of a prisoner who was tempted, when his guard had fallen* asleep, oppressed by the heat of the day, to kill him and so escape; but was withheld from his murderous intent, not by the firmness of a moral will, but by the strong sense of beauty which urged him not to commit so dishonourable and hateful an act. Here, Schiller remarks, the resulting action was only determined by the balance of pain and plea­sure within the man, and no credit can possibly be due to it as good or bad. On the other hand, where the motive of Art is only ancillary to the effort of the will acting under the conviction of duty, the action still remains within the bounds of morality, and Art may be clearly accounted as of service in promoting the momentary victory of the will, as well as in securing its habitual ascendancy.

I do not wish to enter into a discussion which has evi­dently no limits. But I think it is certainly not necessary to confine the importance of Art to the latter case. Good habits are of so much importance that it is well to cultivate them, even when our resulting actions are not consciously prompted by feelings of moral obligation; and besides, the feeling of duty is perhaps after all not so much a distinct sense within us, which throws its light on some of our actions and at other times withholds it, as a pervading consciousness (whose source is hid from us) that some motives, some pains and pleasures, are of a higher class than others, and demand our more unquestioning and uncalculating obedience; so that this sense is urging us always, through every moment of our lives, step by step to cease from following the more sensual and to incline ever to the more far-reaching and spiritual portion of our nature, even though every wrench, thus loosening us from our lower selves, be painful. So, even when the toilsome following of duty is not involved, in an action where the higher motives seem clearly to preponderate, this sense of the superior right of these motives is none the less present, and is perhaps not consciously perceived only because its presence through years of just action has become habitual. I think, indeed, that we recognise a superior goodness in those whose virtue is, like the growth of a flower, joyful and uncon­scious, to what we see in those who build themselves painfully and with effort, as one who would mould the same flower in wax. Love, in fact, does at a single glance from above what the sense of duty does slowly from below; it shews out in the first splendour of its illumination the real relative value of things, it touches the mountain summits with a glory which makes us aspire to reach them, and gently folds away the hollows and vales of life in the deep mist to which we feel we can no more descend:

for that higher vision

Poisons all meaner choice for evermore.

But duty stands at our first starting far below the veil of stretching clouds, and urges us onwards with an unconditional ‘Excelsior,' when we can see neither sky nor peak nor sunlit glow, but only that one step is higher than the last, and cries to us to hold a faith which is the evidence of things not seen, until a new revelation pierce the clouds with a new vision of hope.

Art and Nature stand evermore by our side with a spirit­uality which burns brighter and brighter through the veil of the senses. Evermore they wake in us the consciousness that each step we take is not of importance for itself alone, but because it makes our next step the easier; till at last, we cannot say when, the veil of material things is rent and we stand in the sunlight of God's presence: the vision of a ladder reaching from earth to heaven, on which the angels of light move to and fro with their glad message, till we exclaim, ‘Surely God is in this place, and I knew it not.' If the dream of Jacob tell us nothing else, we cannot doubt that it teaches that any place or action may become to us the revelation of God's eternal presence. Nor can we doubt that all our senses are thus too, if rightly used, fitted to educate us onward from step to step to a greater and greater fulness of spiritual life. They are the outward touch of the Divine hands moulding us from the first dawn of life ever closer to Himself. Through them the infant derives its first consciousness; through them the child learns obedience; the boy, courage and power; the man, thoughtfulness; and the artist, everywhere and at every time, a deep communion with the Spirit of all power and truth, whom to know is eternal life.