Pater's Religion of Sanity

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  • 8/8/2019 Pater's Religion of Sanity


    Pater's Religion of Sanity: "Plato and Platonism" as a Document of Victorian UnbeliefAuthor(s): U. C. KnoepflmacherSource: Victorian Studies, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Dec., 1962), pp. 151-168Published by: Indiana University PressStable URL: 13/06/2010 14:37

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  • 8/8/2019 Pater's Religion of Sanity


    U. C. Knoepflmacher


    In later years he came upon philosophieswhich occupied him much in the estimateof the proportionof the sensuous and the ideal elements in human knowledge, therelative parts they bear in it; and, in his intellectual scheme, was led to assign verylittle to the abstractthought,and much to the sensiblevehicle or occasion ... and herememberedgratefullyhow the Christianreligion, hardlyless than the religion of theancient Greeks, translatingso much of its spiritual verity into things that may beseen, condescends n partto sanction this infirmity, f so it be, of our humanexistence,wherein the world of sense is so much with us, and welcomed this thoughtas a kindof keeperand sentinel over his soul therein.

    WALTER PATER, "The Child in the House" (1878)1

    l UBLISHED in the year prior to his death, Plato and Platonism', 1 (1893), is unquestionably the most public piece of criticism byv' WalterPater,an ambitioussynthesisof all the assumptionshatunderliehis scatteredessaysand worksof fiction.Originallydeliveredasa series of lectures at Oxford,carefullyplannedand modulated,Platoand Platonismavowedlycontainsa recreationand re-assessment f the"environment" hich producedthe dialoguesof Plato (P&P, p. 10).2

    1 Miscellaneous Studies: A Series of Essays, Library Edition (London, 1910), pp. 186-187. Subsequent references are to this edition of Pater's works.2 Just as Pater's Proustian essay, "The Child in the House," tries to recover a childhoodatmosphere from the vantage point of the matured adulthood which is a direct out-growth of this atmosphere, so do Plato and Platonism and Marius try to isolate theoriginal "environment" of a tradition from the vantage point of its later developments."Environment" (which for Pater is almost synonymous with "atmosphere," another of

    DECEMBER 1962

  • 8/8/2019 Pater's Religion of Sanity


    1U.C. Knoepflmacher

    Judged by the strictures of modern historical scholarship, Pater's re-production of this Hellenic "environment"seems highly fanciful. It con-sists of an arbitraryfusion of the doctrines of Plato and of certain of hispredecessors (as "interpreted"by Pater) with the "visible" religion ofthe ancient Spartans. Judged by Pater's own standards, however, hisloose application of Hegel's "historicmethod" is necessitated and sanc-tioned by his own painful awareness of the "ever-changing 'Time-Spirit'or Zeit-geist," the perennial fluxwhich renders all things relative (p. 9) .3Pater's fabrication of a new Platonism wholly "independent of, yet truein spirit to, the Platonism of the Platonic dialogues" (p. 269), is thusconditioned by the demands of his own age, an age he describes as oneof "decadence,""rich and various in special apprehensions of truth"but"tentative and dubious in its sense of their ensemble" (pp. 282, 174).Plato and Platonism, then, like Marius the Epicurean, is to pro-vide a new "ensemble." As in the novel, Pater'spatient reshufflingof thePagan philosophies of the past is conducted, with an eye fixed on thepresent, through a system of oblique allusions and cross-references.Plato and Platonism is the last expression of Walter Pater's life-longsearch for a religious kernel to be found within the development ofGreek thought, Greek art, and Greek mythology: a quasi-Christian"essence"contained within the Hellenic ideal. It is the final, most elab-

    his most recurrent terms) thus becomes an indispensable source for the physical andintellectual "influences" which it yields. "Environment" or "atmosphere" determinesthe man, who like Marius the Epicurean or the personae of Pater's Imaginary Portraits,is merely the product of its "influences": "In the intellectual as in the organic world thegiven product, its normal or abnormalcharacteristics, are determined, as people say, bythe 'environment' " (P&P, p. 10). In Marius, for instance, the physical "atmospheres"of "White-Nights," the young Roman's ancestral villa, or of the "church in the houseof Cecilia," provide sensory influences which are as important as the intellectual influ-ences which affect "the house of [Marius'] thoughts" (Marius, II, 63). As Miss JeanSudrannhas convincingly demonstrated, in "VictorianCompromiseand Modern Revolu-tion," ELH, XXVI (1959), 425-444, the search for an "environment,"a "house," or a"city," is one of the prime metaphorswhich pattern Pater's novel.

    3 Pater's acute awareness of historical development, of an inflexible, quasi-Marxian"prin-ciple of flamboyancy or fluidity in all things" (P&P, p. 235), underlies all of his work.It is, as Philip Appleman has pointed out, in "Darwin, Pater, and a Crisis in Criticism,"1859: Entering an Age of Crisis (Bloomington, 1959), pp. 81-95, the stimulus for acritical relativism or impressionismto which it is essentially opposed. To Pater, the fluxobstructs the aims of the idealist eager for stasis and permanence, but aids the criticalrelativist who regards the evolution of myths, ideas, or events of the past "with a viewrather to a total impression than to the debate of particular points" (Greek Studies, p.82). By recovering the impressions of past "environments,"the relativist can test theirpresent validity and applicability in an imaginative "interpretation." As Ernest LeeTuveson shows, in The Imagination as a Means of Grace (Berkeley, 1960), p. 87,Pater's impressionism is a lineal "descendant of Lockian philosophy." But it is aboveall an impressionism sharpened by Pater's acceptance and revulsion over the mechanicsof the Zeitgeist. See also Milton Millhauser, "Walter Pater and the Flux," Journal ofAesthetics and Art Criticism, XI (1952), 214-223, and the present writer's "Historicismas Fiction: Motion and Rest in the Stories of Walter Pater," scheduled to appear inModern Fiction Studies.



  • 8/8/2019 Pater's Religion of Sanity



    orate, but still characteristically hesitant and irresolute, iteration of aquestion treated imperfectly twenty years earlier in Studies in the His-tory of the Renaissance (1873), "thisvery question of the reconciliationof the religion of antiquity with the religion of Christ" (p. 33).

    IIn "Winckelmann,"the essay which had formed the core of The

    Renaissance, Pater had written an eloquent defense of the immutabilityand universality of those feelings produced by the visual impressions ofart and ritual. Abruptly, and without much logic, Pater had then identi-fied these feelings with a permanent aesthetic religion available to all.Ritual, the "religious observance,"he argued, was a "fixed element" andconsequently of enduring value in its adaptability to the motions of theZeitgeist; ritual's abstract content, on the other hand, "myth"or dogma,was variable, ethereal, and therefore negligible (Renaissance, p. 203).Borrowing a simile made famous by Marx and Kingsley, Pater con-tinued: "SuchPagan worship, in spite of local variations, essentially one,is an element in all religions. It is the anodyne which the religiousprinciple, like one administering opiates to the incurable, has added tothe law which makes life sombre for the vast majority of mankind"(Renaissance, p. 202, my italics).Pater was to change the tone of this passage. Increasingly awareof the necessity for moral "law," he sought, in the years after TheRenaissance, to speak to those concerned with the visible world of per-ception who, like the artist and the natural scientist, were (as he be-lieved) inclined to accept only the laws of their senses. He regarded thepainstaking composition of Marius as nothing less than "asort of duty."4Pater excised the offending "Conclusion"from the second edition of TheRenaissance (1877), and did not dare to reintro