Durer’s “Melancholia”

The solitary personality ought not to tend to depression, since on the scale of functionality its opposite is schizoid symptoms, not depression. We can generalize and say that the extrovert will suffer depression more than the introvert in that the extrovert seeks meaning from without, and gets feedback from people and events. The solitary goes within for both meaning and feedback, and hence depends upon imagination and introspection for a self-image.

But the creative person, the artist or writer, may spend considerable hours alone, yet many have exhibited classic symptoms of depression. Is this not because they are not true solitaries and are not therefore passing their creative time away from their sources of inspiration, which is in fact external? Creativity is labor, and most intellectual labor, whether it invokes a spatial or interpersonal intelligence, must be accomplished or birthed alone. Hence the enormous burden upon creative persons who are not by nature an introvert or solitary, for they cannot be still and settled when the muse of creativity befalls them, but if they are not apt to the necessary journey or energy or insight, they lapse into melancholy.

In the Renaissance, this duality of creativity and depression, of external and internal, was wisely noted and accounted for, even though imagination was the lowest virtue, third to spirit and reason. And though the exhilaration of reason as science was sweeping Renaissance intellectual circles, perhaps its creative beings realized its shortcoming as a technical expression without passion. The highest virtue was considered the spiritual, which, however, presents itself as a lofty detachment to the urgency of creativity. Hence the collapse of the imaginative muse is a hard fall, afflicting many with vices that only harden their melancholy. Could the whole era perceive this potential?

Albrecht Durer’s Melancholia comes close to projecting this paradox of an era on the brink of discovery and collapse. The late Middle Ages was an era of devolution and social chaos, and the emergence of science and reason offered the possibility of bypassing the old without transcending it, of elevating reason without dethroning spirituality. And the third virtue — imagination or creativity — might have this very charge. It must combine the competing elements and present a new synthesis. Durer saw these hopes in mathematics but also a kind of numerology, in chemistry while consulting alchemy, in the confidence of progress but also the melancholy of the angels.

Albrecht Durer: Melancholia

The painting contains a now-famous mathematical “magic square” in the upper right of the engraving (to view it, click the image for larger version). The magic square has the date of the work’s execution in the middle two bottom squares: 1514. The outer bottom squares have the artist’s initials in alphabetical translation: 1 and 4 = A and D. The four numbers up or down or diagonally add up to 34. The two numbers in the middle square 10 + 7 and 6 + 11 also add up to 34. I suppose 3 + 4 = 7 is another way to get at trying to exhaust the numerical symbolism. (There are plenty of other symbols in the engraving.) The number 34 has no obvious relation to Durer’s life.

None of this numerical magic, along with the strange geometric slab, seems the point of the work, however. The details are so deliberate as to be intentionally ironic in a display of melancholy and loss that takes no heed of details or rationalistic comforts. Thus a later generation, represented by the Victorian writer Edward Dowden (1843-1913) in his poem “Durer’s Melancholia,” would inevitably see only Durer’s ultimate despair of reason in the exhausted muse. For is it a temporary melancholy of spent creativity or is it an indefinite one built into the artist’s perception of life and truth? Is the presentation therefore closer to a psychological type or to an expression of the era’s loss of creativity?

The bow of promise, this lost flaring star,
Terror and hope are in mid-heaven; but She,
The mighty-wing’d crown’d Lady Melancholy,
Heeds not. O to what vision’d goal afar
Does her thought bear those steadfast eyes which are
A torch in darkness? There nor shore nor sea,
Nor ebbing Time vexes Eternity,
Where that lone thought outsoars the mortal bar.
Tools of the brain–the globe, the cube–no more
She deals with; in her hand the compass stays;
Nor those, industrious genius, of her lore
Student and scribe, thou gravest of the fays,
Expect this secret to enlarge thy store;
She moves through incommunicable ways.


When psychology looks at morality, it enters the tenuous realm of philosophy on the one hand and religion on the other — plus sociology and conceivably other disciplines. The edges of morality are blurred, or rather the attempt to control or define morality to one circumscribed sphere escapes science and psychology.

This condundrum goes back to at least Aristotle, whose Nichomachean Ethics grapples with behavior and motive behind ethics or morality. Although much of the work dwells on happiness (eudemonia) or pleasure as a motive for moral behavior, the ultimate guarantor, he concludes, must be law:

And surely he who wants to make men, whether many or few, better by his care must try to become capable of legislating, if it is through laws that we can become good. For to get any one whatever — any one who is put before us — into the right condition is not for the chance newcomer; if any one can do it, it is the man who knows, just as in medicine and all other matters which give scope for care and prudence.

The premise here is that institutions must regulate individuals into a consensus of behavior, but to call this morality is to identify morals as a common denominator of social order and control, what are better called “norms,” not morals. Nor can people be motivated by pleasure indefinitely. There being no trace of a supernatural element in Aristotle, the only recourse to motive when the carrot is consumed is the stick. This shell of ethics is the philosophical buttress of power and authority. Only the authorities “know,” says Aristotle. How this is true is not shown, only stated.

Thus, psychology’s interest in the nature of morality indirectly undermines power, which by now is shrouded in tradition and convention, and can use the perceived consensus of what is moral as a wedge between common people and their values on the one hand and getting at what is true on the other. This was Nietzsche’s great quest in pursuing the genealogy of morals. We see now that Aristotle’s deliverance of morals to the control of law and power played directly into the hands of authorities and control, for they monopolized morality and used it against common people’s aspiration for justice and equity. A challenge to authority became a challenge to morals. Dismissing the requirements of justice was easy to do by calling its advocates immoral, decadent, or libertine.

Only with the momentum of science and psychology has a mature concept of morality emerged. But even so it is limited to a chronology of consciousness in the average person. That, however, is sufficient, for psychology has (or ought to have) no pretense to moralizing, only to description. Despite the perennial charges that Freud (and psychology) was prescriptive, Freud himself revised the dominance of a pleasure principle into the recognition of a reality principle of stasis. Aristotle did no less, after all. But who can refrain from commenting on the ways of humanity?

The most popular configuration of morality by a modern psychologist is probably Lawrence Kohlberg’s celebrated stages.

Pre-conventional Morality Stage 1. Obedience and Punishment Orientation.
Stage 2. Individualism and Exchange.
Conventional Morality Stage 3. Good Interpersonal Relationships.
Stage 4. Maintaining the Social Order.
Post-conventional Morality Stage 5. Social Contract and Individual Rights.
Stage 6. Universal Principles.

Kohlberg denied that the stages were dependent on age or maturation or even on moral thinking as opposed to action. But the configuration descends from Piaget and is neatly correlated with stages of development, at least the pre-conventional (childhood) and conventional (adolescent and beyond).

Thus pre-conventional morality easily corresponds to what children do. A child is moral because of the fear of punishment, and later because he or she gets something out of behaving well. But many adults remain at that stage, too. In conventional morality, the adolescent seeks social relationships, and peers define morality. Consensus as a social mechanism thus defines the social order, and is applying unreflectively to larger issues of order. Again, such is the behavior of most adults. Morality does not actually enter into social behavior for most people, only convention and the consensus. Adults transforms morality into a working notion of society — and stage 5. becomes the terminus of moral thinking for the average person.

But post-conventional stage 5 is also the highest form of state and authority-coordinated morals. The social contract assures that the individual maturation of the previous stages is consciously transferred, even renounced, to those in power. At this point, the instincts that linger in the psyche of the individual can be played out by authorities using the dispensation provided by the social contract. For example, war and aggression become moral if sanctioned at the fifth stage, but not when exercised at earlier stages by individuals — unless socially sanctioned.

This pragmatic notion of justice will be reminiscent of Aristotle’s, wherein justice and order are safeguarded not by a community in a natural cultural setting but by the state and its powers. Justice blurs with war, punishment, and vengeance. A story by Kahlil Gibran illustrates the absurdity of this notion.

One night a feast was held in the palace, and there came a man and prostrated himself before the prince, and all the feasters looked upon him; and they saw that one of his eyes was out and that the empty socket bled. And the prince inquired of him, “What has befallen you?” And the man replied, “O prince, I am by profession a thief, and this night, because there was no moon, I went to rob the money-changer’s shop, and as I climbed in through the window I made a mistake and entered the weaver’s shop, and in the dark I ran into the weaver’s loom and my eye was plucked out. And now, O prince, I ask for justice upon the weaver.”

Then the prince sent for the weaver and he came, and it was decreed that one of his eyes should be plucked out.

“O prince,” said the weaver, “the decree is just. It is right that one of my eyes be taken. And yet, alas! both are necessary to me in order that I may see the two sides of the cloth that I weave. But I have a neighbor, a cobbler, who has also two eyes, and in his trade both eyes are not necessary.”

Then the prince sent for the cobbler. And he came. And they took out one of the cobbler’s two eyes.

And justice was satisfied.

The story is aptly titled “War.” It could just as well have been title “Justice.”

Kohlberg’s moral stages conflict with philosophical and spiritual concepts of morals or ethics, especially indigenous and Eastern thought, where law and power are not seen as guarantors of morality, not seen as the natural outcome of stages proposed by Western thinking and Western historical experience.

Kohlberg’s stage 6 attempts to transcend this bottleneck by providing an outlet for ethical thinking that is not derived from socialization or institutions or sources of power. But that stage is almost a mystical stage, gratuitously offered and improbable to attain by the average person, that stage where the individual will no longer be making reference to society, that stage sages describe as did Rumi:

Out there
beyond good and evil
is a field.
I’ll meet you there.

The last stage is also the hermit’s provenance.

We need an understanding of the course of Western thought on ethics in order to open an avenue behind and above preoccupations with social expression and empowerment.


“Woe to the nation that departs from religion into belief,” Kahlil Gibran has written. By this he refers to the ossification that creeds bring, the assumption that a new authority has defined the ineffable and determined its limits on earth. Religion is more than belief.

Elsewhere, Gibran writes that civilization begins when human beings sow seeds, and religion begins when they witness the growth of those seeds. Religion has best been understood as an expression of wonder and an attempt to articulate wonder at the mechanisms and processes of the universe. It is the birth of art and creativity in response, imitation, celebration, synchronicity. For Gibran, art is the appreciation of the mystery of life, of the sun and the seed and the sower. Finally, in typical ironic humor, he concludes: “Philosophy is when men eat of the sown and get indigestion.”

The transformation of religion into belief dominates the Western scriptural religions, especially with the passage of centuries. Dogma and doctrine replace ethics and life, commandments replace beatitudes, hell replaces heaven, and heaven replaces life.

A great historical tragedy was the shortness of Jesus’ life. A clear trajectory of the teachings of Jesus signaled a new religion, a renewed religion, a new wonder, based on principles far more mature than what he had inherited. Assuming that the strands of what was interpolated are teased out of the inherited canonical gospels, we can recompose and — with the help of gospels recovered in the 20th century, plus a fresh understanding of the nature of religion — we can see a living historical personality engaging a living historical tradition, a young person with enormous potential for bringing about the maturation of an entire religious system. If anything characterizes the Abrahamic religions, as Robert Wright says in his The Evolution of God, it is the potential of God to mature morally.

Such is part of the project of veteran author Karen Armstrong in her latest book, The Case for God. Armstrong has fully plumbed the history of God in Western tradition in her many books, and has lately informed her views with a look at Eastern thought. She makes the important distinction between religion and belief by reintroducing the concept of myth.

The concept of myth is familiar; from Rudolf Otto to Carl Jung to popularizer Joseph Campbell, the fundamental expression of religion in archetypes — and later in creative narratives such as epics and tales — defines myth as a container of expression, a vessel of symbols and rituals and inklings, flexible, universal, vital. Myth presents actions of heroes that represent the obscure workings of the psyche. Freud and Jung early used myth to identify that which influences thought, behavior, feelings and actions. Archetypal myths transcend cultures, or rather are the same fertile soil for each culture’s expressions.

The most important observation to be made of myth is that, as Armstrong puts it,

A myth was never intended as an accurate account of a historical event; it was something that had in some sense happened once but that also happens all the time [emphasis hers]. … Religion was, therefore, not primarily something that people thought but something they did. Its truth was acquired by practical action.

It is no use reducing the self to the abstract logos or reason that governs sequences and processes like mathematics or alphabets or musical notation or mercantile affairs. We will learn less about ourselves or the universe with such reductionism. Rather, we must enter the processes to see the workings of spheres and dramas and music, enter so deeply that it shakes our behavior, shapes our behavior, makes an impact that touches us more profoundly than any literalism of reason.

Armstrong identifies this deep sense, this profound and ineffable resonance with the self, as the Greek ekstasis. The word is not quite “ecstasy” as we understand it; literally it means “stepping outside” of oneself, outside of the norm. It is not our modern swooning with pleasure but a sense of identifying a hidden flow in the nature of things. The early Taoists considered this “outsideness” as a preliminary to returning “inside” of the flow but with a new awareness, even a new skill, a self-forgetfulness that lets the self accomplish and realize things that plain reasoning cannot do.

The necessity to actually do it, to practice, is inherent in Eastern thought. The Zen master does not begin by teaching philosophy (“indigestion”?) but by having his students sit and practice meditation. Only then will they be ready to comprehend. Practice is a skill in the mundane sense but, more importantly, it is the breakdown of thought, of deliberative reasoning or abstraction, of the ego’s chatter and judgment and criticism and fear-mongering. The self can engage in contemplation, meditation, or selfless service (like the Zen master who went to live under a bridge with the poor and homeless in order to better understand the world).

At a social level, practice is symbol and ritual. The Dalai Lama disdains popular religion and will avoid attending ceremonies and rites whenever possible or for just a few minutes’ appearance at the outset, but concedes that because of his station he must make an appearance. He understands, with empathy, the need for the average person to engage in outward forms, in the same way that one with a higher consciousness enters practice.

Practice brings transcendence. Ironically, transcendence has a practical angle that belief, with its inflexible dogmas, lacks. For while the Taoist Chuang-tzu, for example, offers mundane examples of “getting into” something like working a wheel or chopping wood, we can see that creative expression such as literature and music have a greater dimension for lifting us into a transcendent state — by which we mean transcendent from the literalism that is merely the words and sounds. What is it about a poem or a piece of music that can evoke feeling without reference to a specific event? Is that not exactly what myth intends?

The rise of science and rationalism reduced religion to the modern extremes of fundamentalism and atheism, notes Armstrong — forms of literalism that cannot comprehend mythos and the subtle functions of the psyche, especially in a social context. In that sense, the two extremes need one another desperately. They cannot generate or even countenance a larger net for the inclusion of a mature understanding of God, an understanding of the ineffable, an understanding of not belief but symbol and ritual.

In his late writings (1950’s), Bertand Russell tempered his rejection of Christianity (or, perhaps more appropriately, what today would be called fundamentalism) by shifting his concern to the more general issue of active versus contemplative, of the issue of trying to reform the world versus reforming the self and acting in grace and charity towards others in the present. This shift anticipated the social implications of the teachings of an historical Jesus, which have been developed especially only in the last few decades. Armstrong’s work helps develop the groundwork for this deeper understanding of the social context of religion.

Engagement, whether of self in contemplation or self in charity towards immediate others — approaches the notion of meaning or meaningfulness. Anything else, a too big “target” as in the work of the reformer, leaves the individual open to worldly ambition, the plaudits of ambition, greed, consumption, and power. Engagement of the sage heals self and neighbor. The engagement of the sage is disengagement from the world. The insight of myth will make the sage’s work all that matters, for myth contains the inexpressible, like a healing herb contains needed vitality for well-being.


Wandering has often been ascribed an exhilarating, adventurous feeling, a romp and a lark. From the curiosity-seeking Odysseus to the coolness of Jack Kerouac’s dharma bums, the essence of wandering has been the sense that there is no home on earth, no place to go, that the journey is the purpose and the present is the only time. Not the teleology of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, for wandering does not gather and return, despite the protests that travel is a grand learning experience. Wandering is presented ambiguously. It has no goal but the accumulation of sensory stimuli or the gathering of wisdom — the wide range, indeed.

There are variations of wandering — distinct from historical nomadic peoples. Wandering is deliberate, and the variations based on how circumscribed the wanderings are and how they are justified. Pilgrims from Egeria to Basho pursued a circumscribed mission to visit shrines. Jesus went up and down a circumscribed land with an intention to do so indefinitely, as did the Buddha, sharing wisdom. Even the dharma bums wanted to reach the West Coast, and the Hindu sadhus have their prescribed cycles. Sailors like the narrator of poet John Masefield’s famous “Sea Fever” want to be someplace (however indefinite) when the “long trick is over.”

And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

Wandering is what Whitman calls rebellion, wherein the wanderer will discover “spare diet, poverty, angry enemies, desertions.” Being in place can do the same thing, of course, depending on who and where you are. Wandering is a rebellion against civilization and settling down, emphasizing the individual and that one’s responsibility is to no one in particular. The only motive for the open road is freedom, and having a personality that will not abide structure.

These are romantic views of wandering, but they fit the personas of those who pursue them. Wandering is a solitary profession, for while a ship gathers barnacles regardless of its voyage-places, the wanderer cannot gather objects or possessions, not valuables that must be buried, hoarded away, or consumed with slow and selfish pleasure. The wanderer hearkens to the primitive hunter, not the gatherer who returns to the camp or village with sharings. The wanderer throws away something never had, not being afflicted by insecurity or self-image.

But the wanderer is not always a merry dreamer like the Fool of the Tarot. Over countless centuries, peoples have migrated to other lands in hopes of a better life. Old colonial powers in their dotage worry about the influx of former conquered peoples, the fault of the their own past rapacity. For the present powerful were once wanderers themselves and became conquerors in need of what they lacked in their homelands. Mark a spot on a world map and consider the many peoples gone by whose restlessness overlays one people after another. Historians rightly reckon that migrations have covered the earth with foot and hoof, with blood and iron, and so one might suspect that wandering has a desperate side and a selfish one, a wanting and a taking, but only a giving when the migrant peoples have forgotten their origin and now love their new land. Or love it too much to remember that they were once conquerors.

Thus wandering can be the root of suffering. The narrator of the Old English elegy aptly called “The Wanderer” was one of those Anglo-Saxon souls made exile by war and butchery, sensitive enough to perceive the loss of peoples, but luckless enough to have nothing to hope for in his futile wanderings. “No abode but a house of sorrow,” he laments of a world of chaos and decline.

What we have to share with one another cannot be the fruit of what we have stolen from others or forgotten of our own heritage. To renew the sense of place, for those who do not wander, one must go to nature — neither what we have nor what we have taken — and give to it what we can.

Ultimately we formulate and apply the Taoist notion of non-action, of wu-wei, not as a philosophical abstraction but as a way of relating to the world, to others, and to nature. Non-action is the root of simplicity, and simplicity is the application of thought to how our relationship to nature can be made with the least action, the least intervention and contrivance (for example, the principles of Masanobu Fukuoka in farming).

The seasons give and take but without doing; the sun, moon, and stars rise and fall but without acting. Only our perception joins us with the seasons, with the sun, moon, and stars. Like the koan of the flag moving in the wind: is it the flag, the wind, or our minds that move? What difference, if we are really part of the same thing? Going or coming, a hut or the road, what difference?