Mysticism on Mondays—The mystical virtues

“The thesis then is that a living experience of the graces of meekness, poverty of spirit, and temperance is necessary for the quickening of a sense of beauty.”  —Carl Schmitt, 1922

As we have seen, Carl Schmitt saw the mystical life as a direct parallel to the aesthetic life.  As a kind of “natural religion,” artistic creation demands “virtue.”  “Art is natural religion and its ‘mysticism,’ while paralleling true mysticism, is natural and created.”  As with the religious mystic, the “natural mystic” must cultivate in his own way what Schmitt called the “mystical virtues” of temperance, poverty of spirit, and meekness—also referred to as purity, poverty, and humility—if he is to realize his full creative potential. 

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St. Paul the Hermit (Purity and Poverty), oil on canvas,1922, 25 x 30 in.

Purity, Poverty, and Humility are a triad of virtues with deep roots in the mystical tradition.  They are the basis of the “evangelical counsels” of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience, most familiar to us as the vows of monastic life.  They in turn counter the vices of avarice, lust, and pride—the principal temptations of the world, flesh, and the devil as given in Scripture.  Schmitt sometimes called these by more contemporary names: pleasure, money, and power; Comfort, Wealth, and Success.

Just as art is not an ethical exercise, Schmitt is very clear that the aesthetic virtues, while finding a parallel in the moral life, are not moral in themselves: they do not perfect man as man.  They in no way take the place of the moral life, and in fact are subordinated to it.  As Schmitt wrote in 1924, “A life toward humility, poverty, and purity is worth much more than one devoted to form and space and quality.”

Nevertheless, these virtues are not divorced from the aesthetic life; indeed, they are essential to it.  Schmitt saw “humility, poverty, and purity” as directly linked with “form, space and quality,” these last three delineating the dramatic, epic, and lyric stages of the imagination, respectively.

From seeing merely the appearances or the “quality” of things (the lyric stage), the artist must move on to beholding them in “space” (the epic), all the way to the perception of their full reality, their “form” (the dramatic vision).

As in the mystical life, the first virtue to be cultivated is purity of heart, corresponding in the life of the artist to the lyric stage of the imagination.  It is the cultivation of that vision which sees things in their full outward “quality”; as Schmitt puts it: “purity of heart is especially necessary to quality.”


Untitled, pastel on paper, 14 x 16 in.

The artist, however, cannot avoid grappling with what Schmitt called “status”: his relation to the world and its standards—security, influence, fame— which can be boiled down to one thing: money.  In the present world Schmitt saw the pursuit of money (and all that goes with it) as the greatest threat to the integrity of the artist.

It was not a matter of the artist chasing after celebrity or a life of luxury, nor of living “in poverty” with no means at his disposal.  As Schmitt put it simply: “artists are often heard to say that they will do pot-boilers until they have accumulated sufficient money to enable them to paint ‘as they want to.’  Well, they never do.”  The artist must choose first to paint as he wants to—to “paint as he loves, as he knows, as he understands, as he desires, as he imagines, as he sees.”  The vision of the artist, to paint “as he sees,” depends on the purification of all the other powers of his soul.


Café Cetinje, oil on canvas, c. 1931, 30 x 25 in.

The artist then realizes that the struggle does not deal so much with things outside of himself, but is one within.  He must develop his own personality to full maturity.  He comes to the realization that the art he creates is only as great as his struggle to achieve this “personality,” which he called “the potential of form.”

Schmitt sketched the panorama of this journey to “personality” in terms of man’s threefold life as family, society, and person.  “Most men must belong to, identify themselves with, either the collectivity of the family (or an ethnic group) or with the mass of individualist, economic-limited people.  This is invariably in order to acquire the confidence necessary to perseverance in life.  Very few identify with themselves.  For that way leads to complete subjection to God or the devil.”


Self-portrait, oil on hardboard, c. 1960, 18 x 15 in.

It is in this arena of “subjection”or “servitude” to God or the devil—pride or humility—that the true battle lies.  “The truth is that the issue between wealth and poverty can never be resolved in this world (any more than any moral issue can be resolved here),” Schmitt wrote in 1938.  “They must both be swept aside when they have played themselves out in favor of the new order—they must give way for the new act with a new hero: Humility, and a new villain: Pride.”

Although Schmitt was writing in the context of a decisive moment in the history of the last century, the phenomenon he describes applies first of all to the individual person.  Schmitt wrote eloquently of the battle to subject himself to God, going so far as to say, “I am happy only in this servitude.”

The role of the artist in this struggle, however, is not principally on the moral level, as it is with the saint.  Not that the artist himself is not called to virtue, indeed to sainthood.  It is only that his witness, unlike that of the saint, lies in the realm of the symbol.

In an essay from 1935, “Hope for the Future of Art,” Schmitt outlined the artist’s task in this “symbolic story“: “I make bold to say that the reality (on which the symbolic art feeds) is simply the pageant of the struggle between the virtues and the vices individual or collective of man historical.  The artistic vocation in the painter lies essentially in the faculty of standing aside and, as objectively as possible, setting in symbols the high intensity of this very real war.”

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Adam and Eve, oil on board, c. 1931, 38½ x 33¼ in.

Where does beauty come into this “war”?  “Peace, like Beauty, cannot be the principal aim—cannot be directly striven for,” he wrote in the early 1930s. “Such neutralities are the result of safeguarding activities, beauty being a by-product of life.”  While beauty, and indeed the creative powers of the artist, remain “neutralities” in this conflict, they are nonetheless caught up in “the pageant of the struggle between the virtues and the vices.”  Schmitt vividly portrays this “pageant” in a poem from 1925:

I dream of a world magnificent
Teeming with realities:
Reality of virtue, Reality of vice,
And Reality of Beauty:
God, the Devil and Beauty.
I remember and hope for such a world. . . .


Mysticism on Mondays—“Everyone is a mystic”

“Mysticism is of no value if it is an escape into unreality.  It is unfortunate that the word mystic suggests mist. Mysticism should be a vision of something more real, more subjective and objective than the natural senses have experienced.”  —Carl Schmitt, c. 1931

For Carl Schmitt, mysticism was not a daydream, an ineffable reaching for a spiritual unknown.  He saw this kind of quest as a hallmark of the philosophies of the East.  “The Eastern Nations have stressed the dream, desired too much, and have tended to eliminate the active. The desire is an opiate and is mistaken constantly for mysticism.”

Far from being an attempt to escape reality, mysticism is an active search for the real.  Indeed, “mysticism begins with the desire to experience reality.” In this sense, “everyone is a mystic,” as everyone seeks to experience reality.  This search is not limited to our sense experience, and in fact, must go beyond it if it is to get at the deepest reality of things.  “Mysticism should be a vision of something more real, more subjective and objective than the natural senses have experienced.”

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Eggs and Copper, oil on hardboard, 12 x 15 in.

We tend to think of mysticism as a religious phenomenon, and Schmitt certainly acknowledged this side of it.  But as an artist he also recognized an “aesthetic” mysticism—one of the imagination—which paralleled the more familiar “spiritual” mysticism. This was based on his insight that “materiality or art or imagination is the exact symbol of spirituality.”


Untitled, conte crayon on paper

Seeing this parallel between religious mysticism and aesthetic mysticism, Schmitt made an intensive study of the former as the basis for his thought on the latter.  The path taken by the religious mystics, one based on what Schmitt called the “mystical virtues” of poverty, purity, and humility, finds a close correspondence in the journey of the artist along the path to full aesthetic vision.  From seeing merely the appearances of things (what he called the “lyric” stage), the artist must move on to beholding them in time and space (the “epic”), all the way to the perception of their full reality, their form (the “dramatic” vision).


Tagliacozzo, pen and ink on paper, 1939, 20 x 15 in., signed “Carl Schmitt”, lower right.
Schmitt stayed in this town in the Abruzzo region of central Italy while recovering from tuberculosis in the late 1930s, capturing its beauty in a series of memorable drawings and paintings.

We have seen that this development must be complemented by the maturation of the artist himself, in his capacity to “see” more and more deeply into the things he depicted in his art.  Schmitt called this full development “personality,” the “potential of form.” In the coming weeks we will trace this development, which, as we have written in previous posts, is based upon Schmitt’s own account of the “three realities of the imagination,” the lyric, epic, and dramatic.  As with all of Schmitt’s thought, the material and the spiritual, the senses and the soul, sight and vision, art and religion, while not interchangeable, closely parallel each other and must be understood together if one is to grasp the full truth of things.


Eggs and Copper, detail

Thinking in threes: Criticism

In the context of artistic creation, the means spoken of last week—catastrophe, humiliation, poverty—take on a particular hue. In the life of an artist these realities need not reveal themselves in a sudden or dramatic way.  Indeed in Schmitt’s view an artist aiming above the mediocre will consciously choose these as the necessary conditions for the creation of significant and mature works of art.

Schmitt develops this idea in his essay “The Critic,” written in 1943.  Although Schmitt, like most artists, was impatient with professional art critics, he nevertheless saw a valuable role for criticism in the arts, provided the concept was properly understood.

Criticism or “destruction” has an indispensable role in the process of artistic creation, or as Schmitt would put it, the revealing or discovery of form.   “It must be recalled to mind, especially today when Form is almost unknown (Form in its metaphysical—Form in its aesthetic sense) that true Form cannot be rediscovered except by means of destruction.  There is absolutely no Form (in the purest sense of the word) possible unless it is discovered by sacrifice and death.”

Schmitt points to the art of sculpture as the most perfect analogue of this process of criticism.  “In sculpture this is so obvious that one would think that the symbolism of Redemption would escape no one—a lump of stone, a chisel, and a hammer (in the hands of a critic).  Those are the materials necessary for creation.”  In sculpture the form is produced precisely through destruction, that is, through the chiseling away of all excess material to reveal the work of art.


Carl Schmitt, Head, marble, c. 1924

Before the sculptor can work at the marble, however, he must first turn the chisel on himself: the sculptor will only tear away and reveal as much in the marble as he has done so in himself, in his own personality.  What makes the sculpture of a great artist like Michelangelo so great?  “Something intangible which lives in every atom of the marble: the personality of the master.  For personality is the result of honest self-criticism.  We feel that Michelangelo had already laid the chisel to his own soul before attacking the marble.”

Thus the artist will embrace his personal “catastrophe,” the self-criticism necessary to reveal the form of what he is depicting in his art.  “As far as the world is concerned a Christian artist should know that his work must be only one-half successful,” Schmitt wrote in 1930. “As for his life—that should, of course, be a total failure to be perfect.”

Schmitt’s essay “The Critic” can be found on the Carl Schmitt Foundation website.

Thinking in threes: “Third-plane thinking”

In our last post we discussed Carl Schmitt’s fondness for “threes” and how this was rooted in his deep conviction that the Holy Trinity permeates all things.  More practically, this way of thinking also springs from a realization that dualistic thinking—considering a question in terms of only two sides—is finally self-defeating. The full truth, Schmitt insisted, lies not in pitting one side against another, but in that he calls “trinal” or “third-plane” thinking.

Thus, Schmitt did not see life as a conflict between youth and old age, between innocence and experience.  Rather, the full development of a person was an integration of the innocence of youth with the wisdom of maturity: “Middle-age must both return to innocence and must go forward to it through wisdom.”


Gertrude, pastel on paper, c. 1918

How do these lofty ideas work out in practice?

Schmitt spelled this out in his own ironic way in an essay entitled “And/Or.”  As an example of “two-way” thinking Schmitt quotes from a phrase he had read recently “which started me thinking. . . . The phrase was ‘We need a religion of life instead of definitions.’”  Schmitt goes on to make an obvious point: “Now anyone would have thought that a normal man in possession of his faculties could accommodate both ‘life’ and ‘definitions’ in his religion. But no, it is our symptom today that we must have one extreme theory “instead” of another extreme theory. . . . in art we must  amorphous expressionists or admire Raphael . . . we must either ‘take vitamins’ or perish without them . . . sweetness and light or else bitterness and darkness.” He concludes wryly, “Nothing will satisfy us today but doing exclusively one or the other—or rather fighting over the theory.”

The dualisms we cling to in political and social life, and even in our personal decisions, are so natural to us that we may not even notice them.  But why does it have to be only one way or the other?  Why not “both / and”?  This simple but fundamental insight is Schmitt’s way of getting us to start “thinking in threes” beyond the dichotomies of the left / right, black / white, good / bad we find ourselves trapped in so often.

Schmitt called this trap “second-plane thinking.”  But for him the answer does not lie in a “third way” between extremes, a supposed synthesis of the best of each side.  Still less is the truth to be found in a compromise taken for sake of avoiding conflict.  Schmitt believed that since reality itself is a reflection of the Trinity, its very structure reveals that the full truth lies in “three planes”: origins, means, and ends; goodness, truth, and beauty.


Gertrude Knitting, oil on canvas, c. 1970

How are we to be led to this full perception of reality?  Schmitt offers a surprising answer which we will explore in our next post.

The complete text of the essay “And/Or” can be found at the Carl Schmitt Foundation website.