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.”

Adam and Eve

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. . . .


Carl Schmitt: peasant

“Many of our enemies and most of our friends seem to think that a peasant is a man whose end in life is to raise vegetables. That is the definition of a truck gardener.  A peasant is a man whose end in life is to raise a family, and to do that, it is usually necessary to raise vegetables, or hell, or both.”  —Carl Schmitt, 1932

Carl Schmitt was a family man. He was also an artist.  But first of all Carl Schmitt considered himself a peasant.

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Carl Schmitt raising vegetables, c. 1920

Schmitt readily admitted that the word ‘peasant’ is troublesome—even offensive—to our modern egalitarian sensibilities. “The trouble seems to lie in the word itself,” he writes, “deliberately corrupted by the crowd who wrote our school-books.”

Schmitt’s remedy was to understand this word not primarily in social or economic terms—as a class of men doomed to hopeless slavery to their greedy masters—but in  a different way altogether, as “those whose destiny it is to make.”

In Schmitt’s triune hierarchy, a man is either prince, middle class, or peasant.  The prince concerns himself with ends. His function is to “be wise, judge, decide” (toward what is this society ordered? What is our best good?)  The middle class occupies himself with the means.  He must “understand, exchange, produce” (what things are necessary to accomplish those goals? How do we get from here to there?)  But it is the special province of the peasant to occupy himself with the origins of things.  In Schmitt’s vision, the peasant’s role is ever to “intuitively envision, act, create.”

Along with the “fine-artist” like himself, he counted among peasants “the individual farmer, the mother of children,” the last with the conviction that “only family life can produce people.”  Peasants, then, do not rule or set policy as does the prince,  nor do they manufacture things to trade or sell, or provide services, as do the middle-class.  Peasants cooperate with nature to create something entirely new—a work of art, a field of wheat, a child.

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Carl Schmitt raising children, early 1920s

If, as we have seen, Schmitt saw his calling as an artist to be strictly subordinate to his role as father, at a more fundamental level they were expressions of the same impulse, to “originate,” to cultivate.

Paradoxically, he considered his role as originator to be a “high fatherhood which makes an aristocracy,” where “priority of birth, a long memory and experience of the place” form “the base of culture and religion. It is the point where body and soul become one.”   We will cultivate this thought in our next post.


Carl Schmitt raising hell, Self-portrait, c. 1965

My refreshment in servitude

We have seen that for Carl Schmitt, an artist will produce great and lasting work only in so far as he himself has been “worked on” by One higher than himself.  “It is the instinct of the artist to make, that is, to operate on some material vastly inferior—less willful—than himself,” he wrote in 1933. “The artist knows that he cannot operate successfully upon such matter unless he has previously been operated on as a vastly inferior being.

In a paradoxical way, this “being operated upon” finds a necessary complement in the artist’s self-criticism and self-discipline: God and man work together to form a mature artist.  As he wrote in 1922, “The perfect attitude for the artist is the continual companionship of God and unceasing toil.  To dream of Eden before the Fall: to work in the world by the sweat of his brow.”

Adam and Eve

Adam and Eve, oil on canvas, 1931

In Schmitt’s life this “attitude” expressed itself in a conscious effort to realize the graces offered to him in his vocation as an artist.  “All art, like spiritual progress, is dependent upon grace: ‘Artist by the grace of God,’ as my father used to say.”  His ideas linking the channels of grace, the sacraments, to the various fine arts were not just theories, but attempts to penetrate the reality he lived in his own life as an artist.

In another paradox, Schmitt refers to the state of the artist as “servitude” —to reality, and ultimately, to God.  He did not see this as an enforced or bitter slavery but rather a free subordination of one’s life to higher realities.  And, as he reflected in the early 1930s, it was not without its own rewards: “The natural condition of Artistic Creation is servitude—but servitude voluntary, supported by charity, surrounded by leisure!”


Black Bottle and Two Eggs, oil on hardboard, c. 1935

Schmitt conveyed all this in a striking way in a poem dating from 1925, where “mastery” (of oneself) and “servitude” (to God) are inexorably joined in a complete personality.

By virtue of the Dear God Which is within me,
I will master my body in its every function.
As much as I master my body so much will my God master me.
And I am happy only in this servitude.
My labor is in mastery.
My refreshment in servitude
Without mastery, I am without servitude.
Without servitude:
I am a coward, hopeless, without joy.
Restless, without the peace of faith,
Sorrowful, without happiness.
With mastery, by virtue of my God within me,
I am a slave to my God above.
My slavery opens my soul at the top,
Admitting my Infinite God as a sharp wedge driven through ice.


Back Bottle and Two Eggs, detail