Among the many portraits of sagacity is Rouault’s The Old King. The work can be interpreted as appealing to monarchy or rule, but the tragic expression of the face denies this and reveals the paradox of power. Rouault has many portraits of Christ, and The Old King is one of them, next to portraits of clowns. The Old King embodies the paradox of divinity and human fragility. Jesus did not want to be made a king, yet he has been made a god. Further, one can reflect upon the tragic sense of Plato’s dream of a philosopher-king, a dream that has never come to fruition. One thinks of Marcus Aurelius, the closest exemplar, rather than the naive but reckless Christian kings of medieval Europe that might be suggested with this painting. Or we can think of the fabled Yellow Emperor of China so esteemed by later generations as an ideal, because they never knew him as a historical reality.
Hermits are of two types, like ponds.
One type of pond is fed from below, from deep sources of living water constantly refreshing the whole from within. This pond is stable, not changeable. It exists in harmony with its environment, welcomes visitors and vistas of all sorts, alone and in silence at the end of the day.
The second type of pond is fed almost imperceptibly by an upland stream and by rain gentle or strong. The stream and rain mingle with receptive waters that invigorate and bring life and strength. Also almost imperceptibly, a stream trickles away from the pond, downstream, beyond the vision of any pond visitor, which nourishes new ponds and rivulets and streams unseen from the forest clearing, and yet the pond is not diminished thereby. The downstream rivulet joins a brook and then a river, and the river goes on to the sea.
Art invariably falls short of conveying the true content of divinity and sagacity and instead portrays religion. Renaissance cherubs, the severe Velazquez, the romantic Dore and Blake, the naive American Hicks — all fall short of conveying a sense of mystery or other-worldliness. Modern pious art assumes foreknowledge of scripture or doctrine to convey meaning. Eastern depictions of the Buddha try to portray serenity (except the bizarre Hotei) but the deities are not always benign, as in Tibetan and Japanese traditions. Simple but endearing are Hindu portraits of blue-skinned Krishna with Radha in a forest setting (and there are Western counterparts) where the viewer feels like an intruder who has seen god and is embarrassed, like the apostle of Jesus at the Transfiguration who blurts out that it is good to be here and what do I do now.
As soon as we complain about the caprices and hardships of nature, we exchange nature for human compulsion. From tempest, drought, mudslide, flood and extremes of temperature, the complaints accelerate to the unyielding earth, the unproductive, earth, the earth ripe for exploiting. And so follows civilization’s course: mining, logging, draining, filling, dumping, runoff, chemical agriculture, pollution. Because these actions require organization, money, and motive, soon concentration of power and authority are compelling not only nature but people to change, alter, adapt, renounce, resign themselves, give up simpler lives and patterns of living. From a harmonious relationship with nature to an antagonistic one, from a relative individuality for all to a collectivity for most — this is the long-term result of our complaints against nature.
This is the economic and social history of most of the world, the core of what is called “development.” No wonder ancient peoples from Chinese to Native Americans were loath to disturb mountains or change the course of rivers or hew forests when they were believed to be occupied by supernatural beings. No such restraint hinders moderns. From nature and the solitary to domination of both nature and solitaries.
It is not a matter of living in wilderness. Early hermits could afford to; modern hermits are more often urban dwellers. But as the natural world is assaulted mercilessly by moderns, a big piece of that eremitism is assaulted, too, by the arrogance of power and the demand for renouncing values precious to the individual, values not merely symbolized by but actively represented by nature and its cycles. All of us — but especially the solitary — must monitor our relationship to the natural world in order to recover the purest sense of harmony with universe and self.
Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno extends the concept of compassion to all living beings, just as he extends consciousness to all living things. This he links to heightening our sense of imagination, not the capacity for fantasy but for empathy and solidarity with the beings of the universe.
I feel the pain of animals, and the pain of a tree when one of its branches is being cut off, and I feel it most when my imagination is alive, for the imagination is the faculty of intuition, of inward vision.