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Love And Will
Meditation And Recollection
The First Form Of Contemplation
The Mystical Life
The Preparation Of The Mystic
The Second Form Of Contemplation
The Third Form Of Contemplation
The World Of Reality
What Is Mysticism?
Anaximenes And The Air
Animism, Ancient And Modern
Brooks And Streams
Development And Discipline Of Intuition
Earth, Mountains, And Plains
Fire And The Sun
Heracleitus And The Cosmic Fire
Light And Darkness
Man And Nature
Mystic Intuition And Reason
Mystic Receptivity
Nature Mysticism And The Race
Nature Not Symbolic
Nature, And The Absolute
Poetry And Nature Mysticism
Rivers And Death
Rivers And Life
Seasons, Vegetation, Animals
Springs And Wells
Still Waters
The Beautiful And The Ugly
The Charge Of Anthropomorphism
The Expanse Of Heaven--colour
The Immanent Idea
The Moon--a Special Problem
The Ocean
The Waters Under The Earth
Will And Consciousness In Nature
Winds And Clouds

The Beautiful And The Ugly

A charge frequently brought against the nature-mystic is that he
ignores the dark side of nature, and shuts his eyes to the ugly
and repulsive features of the world of external phenomena. If
nature can influence man's spiritual development, what (it is
asked) can be the effect of its forbidding and revolting aspects?
Is the champion of cosmic emotion and of Nature Mysticism
prepared to find a place for the ugly in his general scheme? The
issue is grave and should not be shirked. It is, moreover, of long
standing, having been gripped in its essentials by many thinkers
of the old world, more especially by Plato, Aristotle, and

Let us begin by examining one or two characteristic statements
of the indictment that there are ugly, and even revolting, objects
in a world we would fain think fair. Jefferies says of certain
creatures captured in the sea: "They have no shape, form, grace,
or purpose; they call up a vague sense of chaos which the mind
revolts from. . . . They are not inimical of intent towards man,
not even the shark; but there the shark is, and that is enough.
These miserably hideous things of the sea are not anti-human in
the sense of persecution, they are outside, they are ultra and
beyond. It is like looking into chaos, and it is vivid because
these creatures, interred alive a hundred fathoms deep, are
seldom seen; so that the mind sees them as if only that moment
they had come into existence. Use has not habituated it to them,
so that their anti-human character is at once apparent, and stares
at us with glassy eye."

Kingsley, in his "At Last," asks, "Who will call the Puff Adder
of the Cape, or the Fer-de-lance, anything but horrible and ugly;
not only for the hostility signified, to us at least, by a flat
triangular head and heavy jaw, but by the look of malevolence
and craft signified, to us at least, by the eye and lip?"

Frederic Harrison puts the case from the more general point of
view: "The world is not all radiant and harmonious; it is often
savage and chaotic. In thought we can see only the bright, but in
hard fact we are brought face to face with the dark side. Waste,
ruin, conflict, rot, are about us everywhere. . . . We need as little
think this earth all beauty as think it all horror. It is made up of
loveliness and ghastliness; of harmony and chaos; of agony,
joy, life, death. The nature-worshippers are blind and deaf to the
waste and the shrieks which meet the seeker after truth. . . . The
poets indeed are the true authors of the beauty and order of
nature; for they see it by the eye of genius. And they alone see
it. Coldly, literally examined, beauty and horror, order and
disorder seem to wage an equal and eternal war."

In considering the substance of these strong statements,
characteristic of very different types of mind, we note in the
first place that two different problems are to some extent fused--
that of the ugly, and that of the morally evil. Of course, it is
frequently impossible to separate them; still, for purposes of
analysis, the attempt should be made; especially as our present
quest is aesthetic rather than ethical.

In the second place it must be remembered that the nature-mystic
is by no means a nature-worshipper. His claim of kinship
with nature surely implies the contrary! He knows that
evil and ugliness (however interpreted) are in man, and he
expects therefore to find them permeating the whole.

Confining our attention as far as may be to the aesthetic aspect
of the objections raised, let us at once define and face the
real issue now before us, namely, the significance for the
nature-mystic of what is called "ugliness."

There are certain judgments known as aesthetic--so called
because they determine the aesthetic qualities of objects. And it
is agreed, with practical unanimity, that they rest much more
upon feeling and intuition than upon discursive reason. To this
extent they rank as genuine "mystical" modes of experience,
and from this point of view have bulked largely in the systems
of mystics like Plato and Plotinus. But while claiming them as
mystical, it is necessary to note that they possess a characteristic
which constitutes them a special class. They imply reference to
a standard, or an ideal. The reference need not be made, indeed
seldom is made, with any conscious apprehension of the
standard; but the reference is none the less there, and a
judgment results. The place of reflective reasoning process
which characterises the logical judgment is filled by a peculiar
thrill which accompanies a feeling of congruence or incongruence,
according as the ideal is satisfied or otherwise.

It is in accord with this view of the aesthetic judgment that
while, for reason, the outward form and semblance of the object
is of subsidiary import, save from the point of view of abstract
form and physical quality, for the aesthetic feeling or intuition it
is paramount. For example, a botanist, _qua_ botanist, will reck
little of beauty of colour, or curve, or scent--indeed at times his
interest in a plant may be in inverse ratio to its beauty. But the
lover of flowers, or the poet, or the artist, will fix upon such
aesthetic qualities as determining his mood and judgment. Not
that the reflective and the aesthetic judgments are antagonistic--
they are supplementary, and, when rightly appreciated, they are
interdependent; nevertheless, they must not be confused.

The doctrine of Plotinus, the prince of mystics, is very helpful
when the problem of the ugly is in debate, and fits in admirably
with the considerations just advanced. His theory was that
material objects are beautiful in proportion as they share in
reason and form. The converse of this proposition is, that
objects are ugly in proportion as they lack the capacity for
sharing in reason and form. Passing over certain other phases of
his doctrine, let us see how far this theory will carry us in
answering the question--Is there in nature such a thing as
ugliness, in any absolute sense of the term?

Matter, as known to the modern scientist, is universally
possessed of form of some kind, and is, moreover, found to
share in reason, when tested by its responsiveness, so to speak,
to the processes of human ratiocination--or, in other words, by
its obedience to natural law. It would seem to follow that there
is no object in nature which is absolutely ugly. And the
conclusion surely commends itself to common sense. If, in spite
of this, certain objects are called "ugly," what is intended?
Following up the lead of Plotinus, we seem to be driven to the
conception of "degrees of beauty"--of "higher" and "lower"
forms of beauty. And the moment the existence of such
"degrees" is accepted, the aesthetic horizon is indefinitely
extended. The whole problem assumes larger and more generous
proportions, especially when viewed in the light of the
evolution hypothesis. For where there are degrees, or stages, it
is an easy step to conceive of transition from stage to stage. An
ugly object is only relatively ugly; and by entering into new
relations with its environment may be raised to even higher rank
in the aesthetic scale of values. In brief, true progress becomes
possible for the whole universe. Herbert Spencer stopped short
at progress from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous. It is
more interesting, not to say, inspiring, to postulate increase of
capacity for sharing in reason and form. The vast process of
evolution may then be viewed as an upward sweep into fuller
beauty and into correspondingly fuller life.

Of the fact that there is such an upward process, there is
abundant and accumulating evidence. The struggle upwards of
organic life, culminating so far, in man as we know him--the
increasingly complex beauty of natural forms--the haste of
nature to conceal her scars--all alike speak of a striving upward.
Nay, we are being told that the atoms themselves, so long
regarded as ultimates, have been subjected to the evolutionary
stress and strain, and have advanced from the simplest forms to
higher and more complex symmetries. And in another field, the
arts, more particularly painting and the drama, almost demand
the recognition of some such principle of progress; for they are
constantly and necessarily using elements which in themselves
are accounted ugly, for the production of their supremest

The use of discords in music is singularly suggestive in this
regard. There are combinations of musical sounds which, when
produced as isolated combinations, are harsh, and even painful.
But let them be heralded by other chords, and let them be parted
from by suitable resolutions, and they can charm, or thrill, or
kindle deep emotion. What does this fact imply? That discords
in music, when used with knowledge and mastery, do not take
their places as aliens in musical progressions--as insertions of
ugliness in a texture of surrounding beauty--_but as themselves
beautiful_. Their aesthetic value is gained by their being linked
up in a network of relations which makes them part and parcel
of that which is an ordered and rational whole. In short, discords
are potential beauties; they have capacity for form and reason.

The ugly, then, is not to be opposed to the beautiful as its
contrary, but as standing in the relation to it of the less to the
more perfect. There will thus be grades of beauty as there are
grades of reality. And mystic intuition will have corresponding
grades of dignity and insight. The grand process of evolution is
thus revealed as a many-sided whole--the amount of real
existence increases in proportion to the increase of capacity for
sharing in form and reason; and along with this goes a growth in
power to appreciate the ever higher forms of beauty which
emerge in the upward-striving universe.

A further thought calls for emphasis. For beings like ourselves,
living under conditions which involve so many limitations, a
_purely_ aesthetic judgment is practically out of our reach. And
on this score also we may venture to tone down the strong
expressions used by Jefferies in his estimate of the anti- or
ultra-human character of the strange creatures in the sea. Individual
likings and dislikings are the resultants of an enormously
complex system of impulses, instincts, prejudices, motives,
habits, associations, and the rest. Few of these factors appear
above the threshold of consciousness, though they are
continually and influentially operative. Hence it by no means
follows that because a particular object is displeasing or
disgusting to one individual, or group of individuals, it will be
so to all. So undoubted is the resulting relativity of our aesthetic
judgments that Hegel was inclined to hold that below the level
of man and art there is no real ugliness at all. "Creatures" (he
says) "seem ugly to us whose forms are typical of qualities
opposed to vitality in general, or to what we have learnt to
regard as their own special or typical form of animate existence.
Thus the sloth as wanting in vitality, and the platypus as
seeming to combine irreconcilable types, and crocodiles and
many kinds of insects, simply, it would appear, because we are
not accustomed to consider their forms as adequate expressions
of life, are all ugly."

Just as, in music, discords become beautiful by being brought
into fitting relations with other parts of an ordered whole, so is
it with objects which are usually considered ugly, but which are
capable of aesthetic beauty when treated in pictures by masters
of their craft. To set them in new and fitting relations of light
and shade, of colour and composition, is to transform them.
Schopenhauer lays great stress on the transforming power of art.
He instances many typical paintings of the Dutch school, simple
interiors, homely scenes, fruit, vegetables, the commonest tools
and utensils, even dead flesh--all are taken up into material for
pictures, and, in their special setting, compel our admiration.

We have in these facts concerning pictorial art, a strong
corroboration of the inference from the use of discords in
music--the relativity of ugliness, and the possibility of its
progressive transformation. But there is a further point to be
emphasised, one which music, by reason of its abstractness,
could not well enforce, and one which is of profound
significance for the nature-mystic. Pictorial art is concerned
with the representation of external objects. How explain its
transforming power? Schopenhauer has an excellent answer to
the question. He says that the artist is endowed with an
exceptional measure of intuitive insight. He enjoys a genuine
vision of the Idea immanent in the object he reproduces in his
particular medium--he fixes attention upon this Idea, isolates it,
and reveals much that would otherwise escape notice. The result
is that his skill enables others to slip into his mood and share his

It is on some such lines as those tentatively traced in the last
few paragraphs that the most hopeful solution of the problem of
the ugly must be sought. The heart of the matter is that there is
no object in external nature which is absolutely ugly--no object
which cannot, even as things are, be transformed to some
degree by being set in fitting relation to others--no object which
is not capable of progress in its capacity for sharing and
manifesting the form and reason towards which the universe is
striving. Should there be thinkers who, like Kingsley, cannot
quite rid themselves of the feeling that ugliness is an absolute
reality--a positive mode of existence over against beauty--they
can only take refuge in the wider problem of evil. But care must
be exercised, as before observed, to distinguish between moral
evil and physical ugliness. To what extent the one may be
reflected in the other is a question on which it would not be safe
to dogmatise. The main theory, however, stands out clearly, and
involves a belief that the material phenomena of the universe, as
a grand whole, enjoy a wholesome freedom from positive
ugliness. Tennyson's "Ancient Sage" expresses the nature-mystic's
hopes concerning the fundamental beauty of the world he loves.

"My son, the world is dark with griefs and graves,
So dark, that men cry out against the Heavens,
Who knows but that the darkness is in man?
The doors of Night may be the gates of Light;
For wert thou born or blind or deaf, and then
Suddenly healed, how wouldst thou glory in all
The splendours and the voices of the world!
And we, the poor earth's dying race, and yet
No phantoms, watching from a phantom shore,
Await the last and largest sense to make
The phantom walls of this illusion fade,
And show us that the world is wholly fair."

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