We keep murmuring goodness, truth and beauty, as if they formed the motto of a country from which we’ve been exiled, or the three last words of a dialect that we have ceased to speak. Our beauty is accidental, our good is economical, and our truth is superficial.

We don’t want truth but the information that brings power. And we don’t want beauty but the luxury which we use to flaunt our success.

We have lost our capacity for the two best adventures, noble action and noble thought. We gave them up, when we found that they don’t pay.

Every day the world proves how determined it is to spoil any beauty that it finds and to shut its ears to any truth that it is told.

Truth and beauty coexist like man and woman, now in peace and now at strife. They may become one flesh, but they still don’t give up their own selfhood.

Codes of good and evil are concerned with souls and individuals. But what is important is systems and things with no soul, forms, traditions, ecologies, works, ideas and styles.

The cosmos is many not one, dynamic not static, corporeal and not a spirit, contingent not necessary, discontinuous not unitary, amoral and numb to what is just, godless but numinous. The world is ceaselessly becoming. Not one thing stands still. All is flux, change, strife and commotion.

1 Virtue corrupts

By dedicating ourselves to an categorical code of right and wrong, we will debase humanity and despoil the virginal earth. Moral ideals warp the type, but are too weak to rehabilitate the individual. ‘As mankind perfects itself,’ said Flaubert, ‘man degrades himself.’ By struggling to set up a pure justice we will tread down all that is delicate and estimable, yet we still won’t make anyone happier or more virtuous. And then we will tear up the world to bring about not this pinched purity but its shoddy counterfeit of pushing worldwide narcissism and mediocrity.

Ideals of virtue pervert us as much as examples of vice. ‘When the great way degenerated,’ Lao Tzu says, ‘human kindness and morality ensued.’

Some people’s hearts are turned to iron by carrying on a slow struggle for a just cause. ‘That which is crooked cannot be made straight.’

2 Justice is a means, not the meaning

The operations of life may be moral, but its meaning is not. Right and wrong make up a small component of life, of how we ought to live, of how we ought to judge and be judged, of what will pain or please us. The pressing daily question, how am I to live, rarely has a moral answer.

Few of us act for the reason that we want to do good, and yet most of us can’t act without assuming that we are doing good.

Moral laws are regulations which guide how we ought to act. They are not propositions which are true or false. They are like the rules of any game, such as tennis, croquet or cricket, which we must abide by, or there would be no living in society. But they have no existence or validity outside it. The rules of the game are not the purpose of the game. And though all good players must obey them, the best are not the ones who stick to them most conscientiously.

The state was not set up to establish equity. It makes use of it as a mere expedient to preserve its own being. We don’t live in groups so that we can act justly. We act justly so that we can live in groups. Justice is a means, not an end, however much moralists may say otherwise. It serves as traffic control for our wants. It is not the destination that we set out for.

3 Moral amateurs

The first task of the moral law is to fool us that we are moral beings. And so its first article of faith is a lie.

We are moral beings by bare chance. We are intrinsically creatures who will, strive, desire and compete, who crave fulfilment and never find it.

Few of us are devoted either to good or to bad. ‘Great vices and great virtues are exceptions among mankind,’ said Napoleon. We are reluctant conscripts of virtue and cheap amateurs of vice. These are like any one object, and we have ten thousand such objects on which we’ve set our hearts. ‘Most evil,’ Arendt says, ‘is done by those who never make up their minds to be good or evil.’ Specialists in getting on, how could we be more than dilettantes of integrity or iniquity? These are instruments that we use. They are not the end to which we pledge our lives. ‘I for my part,’ Confucius said, ‘have not yet seen one who had a real love of goodness, nor one who abhorred wickedness.’

4 Circumstance is king

My moral nature runs so shallow, that the least churn resulting from a fresh fancy or a change of luck will be enough to muddy it.

We are not simply generous or gentle or honest, we are generous or gentle or honest to this person and not to that, in this way and not in that, at this time but not at that. Our virtues are partial, specialized, arbitrary, conditional, malleable and circumstantial.

Virtue itself must consent to be corrupted before it can do any good in this world. The saints don’t know how much they owe the devil for the completion of their work.

Acute necessity may make an honest man a knave, as Defoe said, but the day to day need to live in peace with others keeps many a knave honest.

We feel so hard pressed by our own compulsions, that we presume we have a right to press hard on everything else in our frenzy to pander to them.

We don’t doubt that we are free yet necessary beings, the controllers of our own desires and self-aware. But we are in fact conditioned, contingent, the dupes of our own compulsions and ignorant of ourselves. We are assortments of contingencies, who are convinced that our path is destined and that our will is free.

5 Moral mediocrities

If a great number of people practise a virtue, we scorn it for its cheapness. And if few do, we scorn humanity for possessing such a paucity of it.

We do such scant mischief and such scant good, and we intend still less, yet we are judged by what we never aimed at. Very few of our acts are done with a moral end in view. And most of our virtue consists in prudently refraining from wrongdoing. It is cautious, parsimonious and negative. We are empty-headed and self-interested, not criminal or saintly. Right and wrong are late-born and sickly.

Ambition and self-interest persevere. Virtue and vice faint and falter. There are far more moral mediocrities than moral monsters. ‘A dwarf in evil, a dwarf in good,’ as Ibsen styled it. Our conduct is couched in a thin and crude ethical idiom.

When I act for my own ends, I project the profit. But when I act for the sake of others, I count the cost. So I’m as brisk and busy in my own interest as I am sluggish in theirs.

If we approve of a trait, we say that it lifts us above the animals or else that it is natural. But if we disapprove of it, we say that not even the animals possess it or else that mere brutes do. ‘When a man is treated like a beast,’ observed Kraus, ‘he says, “After all I’m human.” When he behaves like a beast he says, “After all I’m only human.”’

Our technical expertise has not outrun our moral insight. Knowledge of all kinds has outrun our care. But did it not do that a long time ago?

6 Reluctant virtue

‘Man,’ as Leopardi wrote, ‘is almost always as wicked as he needs to be,’ though most of us act honourably where we must. We are as good as we have to be, and as bad as we can get away with. We have the means to do more good than we wish to, and we wish to do more mischief than we dare to. We’re willing to be as vile as we need to be, but most of the time we need to be less vile than we are willing to be. So expedience reduces us to a reluctant rectitude. We are too timid to dare all the wrong that we would like to do, and we don’t want to do all the pedestrian good that our own advantage might entice us to do.

7 The banality of evil

An evil genius, such as Hitler or Stalin, though quite nondescript himself, may be the cause of stupendous effects.

It is not evil that is banal, but people, the saved no less than the sinful. Evil becomes as banal as the state makes it. The third reich made devilry utterly routine, and so society grew utterly devilish. And a just regime, if it aimed to do as much good as Germany did harm, would need to enlist its Eichmanns of plodding virtue.

A great abomination such as a world war seems to purge the age of its banality like a blood offering. But the crimes against humanity, which we deplore, tempt us to deplore the whole of humanity and deduce that it may deserve the crimes that have been done to it.

We make holocausts, not when a few of us choose to behave with inhuman brutality, but because most of us are humanly unmoved by all but our own advantage.

Those who childishly crave approval cravenly idolize transgressors. Timid and ailing people, like Nietzsche, make fools of themselves by celebrating the crimes of the strong and hearty.

8 The banality of goodness

Good is no less banal than evil. If either of them rises above ordinariness, it is only by engaging in a fight with an overwhelming enemy. It is the struggle and not the cause that lends the lustre.

The saints no less than the sinners are sustained by their slogans and catchphrases, not by the truth. These remind them of their duty, or at least ease their mind when they omit to do it.

There are numberless vain and irritable pedants of virtue, but no geniuses, though there are plenty of adepts of instinctive self-sacrificing affection.

The motives that prompt miscreants to do evil are often as trivial as its effects are prodigious. But both the motives and effects of the good that the just do are equally trivial.

9 Moral conformity

We conform even in our transgressions. ‘Men are as the time is,’ as Shakespeare showed. We covet what our neighbours covet, and lie as they lie. We murder in murderous times. In time of war cowards are the first to take up arms. ‘The virtue in most request,’ as Emerson wrote, ‘is conformity.’ My self-interest and my stupidity lead me to comply in my moral acts as they do in all the rest. Few of us turn out to be much better or much worse than the world that imprisons us. All our traits, both straight and skewed, bend to wheeling chance. ‘Circumstance,’ as Twain notes, ‘is man’s master.’ We are chameleons, who take our moral tinge from our surrounds.

The most refined prescriptions of right and wrong reproduce the first precepts that were implanted in the nursery. Thus, as Dryden wrote, ‘the child imposes on the man.’

10 The sterility of virtue

Morality is a necessary hygiene, a drilling in what is clean and unclean. But this would in its turn grow to be a baleful distemper if we gave it too much leeway. ‘Be not righteous overmuch.’ Everyday virtues are disseminated almost as contagiously as everyday greeds. The air swarms with a horde of righteous viruses of fine feelings and angelic intentions, which your coldness alone can save you from catching.

We are God’s songbirds. He cares nothing for our flat virtues and clanging sorrows, but only for how sweetly we sing.

This magnificent civilization which has been built up by bloodshed and grim exploitation will soon be pulled down by happiness, good works and freedom.

Civilization does not consist, as Baudelaire contended, in the curtailment of the vestiges of original sin, but in their enlargement and upraising into towering arrays of sense and glory.

11 Redeemed by evil

The mischief that we do may not be worth much, but we would be worth nothing at all were it not for the mischief that we do. Why make yourself a eunuch just to be stupidly good? Purify the will, and you sterilize the imagination. But if you can craft a rarity by becoming corrupt, won’t it be worth the cost? In the kingdom of the imagination salvation is through sin. We ought to do as Blake urged, and put off holiness to put on intellect.

It’s hard to know which is Adam’s more precious and fruitful legacy to us, sin or death.

Artists use their pulsing desires as decoys to fix their attentiveness. By making art they don’t sublimate their sexual energy but keep it on the boil, so that they can make more art. ‘The lust of the goat,’ as Blake states, ‘is the bounty of God.’

You discipline your heart by resisting temptation. But you widen your mind by giving way to it.

The stance of the thinker ought to be a decent outward obedience and a licentious inner freedom.

12 Virtue makes us small

To make too much of right and wrong would be to stunt the myriad wondrous achievements that we might excel in. Justice, like money, cuts everything down to barren quantity and measurement. It would dry up all our lusher endowments, and drown our minds in empathic trifles. Seek to be scrupulously just in small things, and you grow unjust to large ones. Purity violates all our more exalted aims. It is the chauvinism of morality.

We don’t turn into devils by straining to act like do-gooding archangels, as Montaigne claimed. We merely grow mediocre in all other spheres.

13 Morality paralyzes thought

We have mandated greed to drive us on to act, and moral preening to fence in how we think. Thought erodes virtue, and virtue arrests thought. ‘Every virtue inclines toward stupidity,’ as Nietzsche wrote, ‘and every stupidity toward virtue.’ The law sows the imagination with salt. Thought liquefies moral codes, and they ossify intelligence. The sole reason to think about them is to prove that they are not worth expending any thought on.

As soon as we start to think morally, we become stupid, commonplace and self-justifying. A sound mind is allergic to moralizing, and yet moral and political gossip are the closest that most people get to thought. Virtue makes living safe but thinking small.

First the gods stupefied us by their limp miracles in a world that was so much more miraculous. Now they do so by their stern and restrictive codes of righteousness in a world where they have let in so much mischief.

Why expel your dark angels? Learn from them. They have more to teach you than your wan rectitude does. ‘The world,’ says William James, ‘is all the richer for having a devil in it.’

Truth lies hidden in the depths of hell. The saints get to keep all their illusions.

14 The rewards of virtue are fixed by the state

People are neither good nor evil. They simply seek their own ends. But the state decrees which kinds of acts they will profit by, and so it’s not nature but social arrangements that make your happiness depend on how just you are. A government can’t make its citizens just. All it can do is bar them from being rewarded when they act unjustly.

The inhabitants of a just state do right from the same motives of habit and self-interest that impel those of an unjust one to do wrong. In order to be virtuous, all they need do is calculate and conform. You can be sure that you have dropped into a fiendish world, if in resolving to act with rightness you have to do more than compute what will best serve your own ends. In a depraved society the just are forced to act like heroes.

When the state turns society to hell, men and women will act like devils to fit in or get on.

15 We don’t love truth

We claim to think so much, we in fact think so little, yet we prize thinking so dear. Why do we shy from what we claim to do so zealously. Why do we set such a high value on what we are so loath to do? And why do we prize so dear what yields us such sparse pay?

We so love truth, as Augustine said, that whatsoever else we love we have to dub it truth.

Speak your truth defiantly, since no one will have ears for it anyway. Their insensibility is what sets you free. Don’t worry that you’ve laid bare to them your inmost self. They’re so caught up in their own cravings, that they won’t have noticed or cared much. They might be willing to give you a hearing, so long as you talk the same amusing gibberish as everyone else.

16 Unthinking reed

If our glory lies in reasoning, as Pascal said, then what is our life but a long disgrace?

For most of us the unexamined life is the sole one worth living, and undoubtedly the sole one worth dying for. Yet philosophers tell us that life bereft of the search for truth does not befit a human being. So who is mad? We unheeding sleepers, deaf to the dignity of truth? Or they who prescribe a duty that most of us shirk, and who do so in order to sponsor the latest daft system of their own, which lands them farther than ever from the truth?

Think for yourself, urge philosophers such as Schopenhauer, since they don’t doubt that the few who dare to do so will no doubt think like them, and that they have thought so well that no one who comes after them should need to think at all.

17 We think only to serve our own advantage

We think only as much as we need to get what we want.

We have no wish to hear the truth, so by what miracle does it so often win out in spite of our unwillingness? Our illusions gain us so much, that it takes some magnanimity to pay truth any mind at all.

We may be willing to hear or tell the truth about the things that matter, since they are the ones that matter least to us.

We can tell the truth about the things that don’t touch us. But we don’t doubt that most things do, and so it’s rare that we are free to tell the truth at all. We circle round the truth, but swoop straight for our gain.

Some of us are not shrewd enough to gauge which lies will best serve our advantage, but none of us is so naive as to think that it will be served by the truth.

The knowledge that adds to our power is now the sole kind of knowledge that we care for.

18 We love amusement not truth

The valiant fight and die so that cowards might live in peace. The wise search for the truth so that dabblers and time-killers might snack on it as a titbit once in a while.

We don’t care for truth. But we do love trivia, news, gossip and useful information.

The most penetrating truths just graze the skin of our shallow souls, whilst the dullest blots and errors sink deep in and dye them.

We tipple such polite sips of truth, but swig down deep draughts of intoxicating lies.

We clutter our hearts with so much other sludge, how could they have room to love the truth?

19 Lies are shameless

The world garlands truth, and then cuts out her tongue. Lies strut up and down in the open, but truth must be smuggled in like contraband. Lies swank and swagger, truth sneaks and scuttles. ‘Superstition, sacrilege and hypocrisy have ample pay,’ Luther wrote, ‘but truth goes a-begging.’ What need have we of truth, when our generous deceits give us all that we want? In this world lies are gold and truth is lead.

Honest people have not learnt the arts of self-deception by which the sincere win everyone’s trust. We are left cold by the truth. And we withhold our loyalty from the few who have had the honesty to doubt themselves.

20 Truth makes us ashamed

Our lies make us loquacious. Truth strikes us dumb. What gives an air of authority is sincerity and certainty, and liars have far more of these than the honest. Shame goads us to seek out the truth, and then truth makes us blush to utter it. It makes us feel unclean and dooms us to isolation. Tell the lies that you need to speak and that your listeners want to hear, and you’ll feel at peace in playing your part and you will win the love and trust of those for whom you play it. ‘Dishonesty,’ wrote Dickens, ‘will stare honesty out of countenance any day of the week.’

Good moralists, such as La Rochefoucauld or Pascal, chill all that they touch. They set off epiphanies of embarrassment and disaffection, to ‘make mad the guilty, and appal the free.’ They hope to freeze the world’s heart with shame as it has frozen theirs with revulsion. But the world is too shameless to be much stung by their acidulous truths. They work with a pitiless lucidity, and would be glad if they could wipe out the whole of reality with a single rigorous book. They would make us more abashed and more worthy of our best selves. So they free us to think, and shame us for failing to. Such an inquirer of desponding honesty would be a jansenist with no faith in God, a doubter with no faith in reason or in doubt, a humanist with no faith in humanity.

21 The world hates the truth

A daring mind can’t hold out against the world’s vast imbecility, and taste and beauty can’t hold back the tide of its vulgarity. Art can’t compete with kitsch, and truth is shoved aside for thrills and distractions. The more delicate goes down to the more coarse and loutish. The essential has no chance in its clash with the urgent and frivolous, the earth has no chance in its duel with the world. ‘Against witlessness,’ Schiller wrote, ‘the veriest gods feud in vain.’

The real world is too brutal to be pierced by the truth. But truth can easily be crushed by brute reality.

One sure way to bore or depress or offend people is to tell them the plain truth. You don’t know the world very well, if you think that you can speak it and get off scot free. Where everything can be spoken, we all grasp that truth is the one thing that no one wants to hear. Those who know how to use their eyes must learn to shut their mouths.

The world gives a home to your duplicitous creed, but will leave you houseless if you dare to stay loyal to your treacherous truths.

22 Truth and conceit

Is it truth that we cherish, or the conviction that we alone have got it in our clasp, and the sweet spectacle of the rest lost in their darkness? ‘No pleasure,’ Bacon says, ‘is comparable to the standing on the vantage ground of truth, and to see the errors and wanderings and mists and tempests in the vale below.’ But we want more than that. We want them to acknowledge that we know more than they.

Would we care for truth itself, if it gave us no outlet to hold forth on it? ‘Wisdom and the good things of the mind,’ Montaigne says, ‘seem of no account to us if they are not paraded before the approving eyes of the world.’ Seneca said that he would give up the grant of good sense if he had to keep it sequestered. ‘Is all your knowledge nothing,’ asked Persius, ‘if someone else does not know that you know it?’

People gird their certitudes not with shaky corroboration but with unconquerable conceit. And they take pride in their illogic, as if they have bent reason to their own strong will. They hold uncompromising ideas on a point, not because they’ve formed their own view of it, but so that they won’t have to.

We prefer evasions which flatter but diminish us to an honesty which would harrow but enrich us. ‘The lie that exalts us,’ Pushkin wrote, ‘is dearer to us than ten thousand truths.’ Truth makes the sores and welts for which our lies must find the cure.

23 The revenge of truth

Those who are cursed to think seek their devious redress by discovering the desolating truth, because they know that no one will pay them the least heed. They scourge them with sharp truths, while exposing how they are too thick-skinned to be touched by it. Cassandras of uncaring, their truths don’t help, since they don’t take the trouble to seek out the truths that might.

If truth has ravaged you, what cruel relief do you have but to infect others with it in turn? A thinker can’t forbear passing on the execrable blight of truth, as parents can’t forbear passing on the heinous contagion of life. ‘I will speak in the bitterness of my soul.’

The one comfort that thinkers have for the hard and dry life that thinking thrusts on them is to think.

24 We love our dogmas, not the truth

We hug our dogmas, not because we long for surety, but because we hate to think. We don’t crave the taxing certitude of proof but the factitious assurance of our own congealed opinions. So we love certainty more than truth, and self-confidence more than certainty.

What I venerate is my own dogmas, and what I abominate are those dogmas that I don’t share. I don’t treasure truth but my truths. I don’t prize wealth but my own wealth. And I don’t love God but my own god. The true God is my god. Others’ gods must be false gods. We don’t love an idea because we know it to be true, we take it to be true because we have made it our own. I care for truth no more than a general cares for the regions that he has crushed.

Like a jealous suitor, each thinker wants to be both the first and last possessor of this adored thought. And a truth that yields to anyone else’s wooing must be a whore.

I prefer my own deviations to others’ truths. And my own truths I prefer because they are mine and not because they are truths. ‘Each theorist,’ Rousseau said, ‘knows that his own scheme of thought rests on no firmer underpinnings than the rest, but he upholds it because it is his. Not one of them would not choose his own lie before the truth that someone else had found.’ They are Pygmalions who, revolted by the fakeries modelled by their rivals, fashion and fall in love with their own.

25 Truth is made by conformity and conflict

Most of us take up our creed out of conformity, and keep it alive by our hostility. It’s only the shared heat of our herd conformity or the factitious heat of a contest that gives ideas any warmth at all for us. Like our sympathies, we suckle them with our animus. ‘When a thing ceases to be a subject of controversy,’ Hazlitt wrote, ‘it ceases to be a subject of interest.’ Extremists would lose half their fervour and stridency, if their foes ceased to assail and deride them. How torpidly we love truth, yet how fanatically we loathe what we class as error. I have my adversary to thank for reassuring me that I have right on my side.

How would we know what verities to love, if our antagonists did not teach us what lies we hate? I know that truth delights me, because I feel that lies disgust me. ‘To be a real philosopher,’ William James tells us, ‘all that is necessary is to hate someone else’s type of thinking.’

All opposition makes us more obstinate in our beliefs by irritating our self-regard to defend them. ‘How seldom is any man convinced by another man’s argument,’ exclaimed Johnson. ‘Passion and pride rise against it.’ We know how fervently we love a cause from how fiercely we hate its opponents.

26 Truth is cruel

Truth is fragile but implacable. Illusion is elastic and forgiving. Truth fractures you. Your pretences make you whole. Truth won’t relent. Death is the sole thing that you can rely on to release you from its grip. ‘Truth has very few friends,’ as Porchia says, ‘and those few friends it has are suicides.’ Like straining eunuchs at the close of a lifetime of arid devotion, they die as unregarded offerings to an indifferent god. Truth cares for us even less than we care for it.

One person may be cheated by a barefaced lie, but we all feel diminished by a bald statement of the truth.

Truth is the most sickening dish that can be served up to a human being.

Truth is salt in the wounds. It may not cure, but it cleans.

27 Truth kills the ones who love it

It’s the deep souls, like strong swimmers, who drown, since they venture out too far. Truth kills the finer specimens, the few who love it. The rest are resistant to it. Its virus has two strains. The prevalent one, our everyday plain-speaking, is harmless and may inoculate you against more hurtful truths, so that you can live and thrive. The second, scarce as leprosy, will cut you off from the living and devour you. In this enlightened age truths still infest us like lice, but we have learnt to tame the insidious germs that they spread.

Truth is a poison, but most of us ingest it in such small doses that it does us no harm.

Truth consumes those who seek it as a flame consumes a candle, leaving nothing but snuff, and then guttering.

We are sure that we know what truth is like long before we have found it. We trust that it will make us free or blest or good, and that if it fails to do so, then it can’t be true. But since we hold this, how could we reach the truth and why would we need to? We feel no impulse to find it, since we’re so sure that we’ve already got it.

28 The exterminating angel

Truth is an exterminating angel. Truth, as Wilde says, ‘is often pitiless to her worshippers.’ It would have wiped out all life long ago, were it not that it visits the earth so sporadically. ‘Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet,’ Emerson warned.

Truth is too insubstantial to touch us. But it is heavy enough to sink us.

If you don’t find the truth, you still have to fight for your illusions. If you do find it, you’ll have to fight for your life. We would do well to take to heart Shelley’s warning not to lift ‘the painted veil which those who live call life.’ The facts of our sad lot are easy to trace but hard to bear. The sole life worth living would be one spent in the hunt for truth. And yet truth, when found, will inform you that life is not worth living. You seek for truth as a refuge from life’s discouragements, and then, if you catch it, you need to seek for a refuge from its desolations.

Truth steals in haggard and unwelcome as death in the midst of the frantic masque of our desires. We avert our gaze and act as if it were invisible. How frightening to look in the hollow eyes of one who has looked on the truth. Thinkers need to put on a visor, to spare the world the sight of the grisly cripples that truth has made of them.

The flash of truth is apt to irradiate what it illuminates.

29 No escape

What could be more awful than to speak and think the ruinous truth for so long, that you at last come to believe it for real? When it has caught up with you, what haven could you hope to find? ‘In much wisdom is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.’

Life is a brute beast that’s devouring you. You can’t stop it, but you can stick in its craw by understanding it.

Truth blinds you, first with its brightness, then with its gloom.

It’s not we who make our way to great truths. They hunt us down and find us out.

Truth doesn’t care for us or wish us well. It scalds and skins us, and strips us of all that we have, and leaves us battered and humiliated.

30 The damage of ideas

The world, though so brute and unreasoning, can be turned on its head by an idea, but only by one like christianity or communism which is as banal and fraudulent as itself. An ideology in the real world spills as much blood as splintered glass in a kindergarten. Ideas are pitiless. Even those who give them no thought may still be snared as their prey and prisoners. Whole countries, such as Russia, while remaining unenlightened, have been brutalized by the most fantastic creeds. ‘Ideas are dangerous,’ Chesterton wrote, ‘but the man to whom they are most dangerous is the man of no ideas.’

31 The truth will not make you free

Honesty follows a devious calling. It is indifferent, but wants to make you different. It holds out to you the promise of freedom, but it binds you to a stern obedience. Honesty tempts you to doubt yourself, and yet stirs you to think for yourself. It lives in answers, but appears in questions. It might make you happy, yet it shames and perplexes you.

The truth won’t make you free. It will only mock your bondage, which your falsehoods alone give you the steadiness to bear. Ideologues, pent in the den of their cooped dogma, don’t doubt that the truth will unshackle you, since they know that it has done so for them. And they deem it their mission to build real gaols for the impious who don’t share in their light.

Zealots are so sure that they hold the inerrant truth in their hands, that they presume they have a mandate to juggle with it. Having brought it down from heaven, they must use all the wiles of the serpent to set it up here on earth. Their faith is the only thing that justifies them, and so they think only so much as might serve to justify their faith.

32 The blessings of form

Art is not beauty. It is the redemption of chance by form and of familiarity by imagination.

‘Poetry,’ wrote Novalis, ‘heals the wounds inflicted by reason.’ Art is an unbearable world of truth made bearable by an unblemished world of form. The bleakest vision projects the brightest style, which is the jubilee of art. The sole benediction that artists have to bestow on the hellish world which they call up is the transfiguration of their style.

‘We have art,’ Nietzsche says, ‘lest we perish from the truth.’ Truth is a gorgon, which won’t hurt you, so long as you eye it sideways through the lens of art.

The artists who seem to belittle life by portraying it so meanly still enlarge you by enlarging your vision. Howsoever sadly they describe the world, their music and mastery still exalts us. The poet may curse the world, but the poem is still a blessing.

Style is half the significance of a work of art. It is the bright ideal that shines through in the most sombre piece. It is the one irreducible value which is left when cold thought has done its work of devaluing.

In a lustrous poem, such as Homer’s, the form fights the content, and moves as sedately as the action seethes with broiling violence. The style rests as crystalline and white as the tale steams with a scarlet grandeur of blood and fire. The highest artists take in the full glare of life’s ghastliness, but have a binocular vision which is able to fix and focus it as a beam of supernal beauty. ‘We stroll on the roof of hell,’ as Issa wrote, ‘gazing at flowers.’

33 Beauty makes us sad

How sad to think of what this unlovely world will make of beauty. Its ‘dearest veriest vein is tears,’ as Hopkins wrote.

How strangely we or the world are made, that even beauty makes us sad. ‘The beautiful,’ Valéry said, ‘is that which fills us with despair.’ Does it pierce us more by its vulnerability or by its self-possession, by how close it comes to our hearts or because it is always already so far out of reach?

Could anything be so desolating as perfection, or so poignant as imperfection? Unable to discharge the overflowing joy that they move you to feel, you feel instead all things dissolving.

Beauty rakes us with a sad rapture and a wounded elation, reminding us of all that we have lost or are soon to lose. It tells us that we are strangers in this world. Rilke described it as ‘onset of terror we still have just the strength to bear.’ The silkiest grace hurts us, and the truth delights us even as its spikes puncture our flesh. How could you relish all the world’s fragility and loveliness, if you have not felt all its damage?

That truth is beauty is one of the beautiful untruths that we love to mouth because we know so little of either.

Beauty demolishes us deliciously on the spot by means of the senses. Truth demolishes us painfully and gradually by means of the intellect.

34 Art will fail us

The cult of beauty, like the cult of truth, is as false as all the rest, not because beauty is an idol, but because it is an idol of which we are not worthy. Life disappoints us because it’s not good enough for us. Art disappoints us because we are not good enough for it. And yet art belongs to the world, and so it too will fail our worldly hearts.

Art won’t save you, but it may be the one divinity that is worth the loss of your soul. It is powerless to help us, which is why it’s so precious, and why it takes such a large heart to love it.

Literature is a wound which has found the words to utter all our wounds. It is Dickinson’s bird, ‘singing unto the stone of which it died.’ It dramatizes the downfall of all the dear things that we shut our hearts to in life. Kierkegaard wrote that the poet’s ‘lips are so formed that when the sigh and cry pass through them, it sounds like sweet music.’

35 Art is not imitation

Art is not imitation but imagination.

Life imitates life, art just pretends to.

A drama is not a representation of an action, as Aristotle claimed. It is a representation of characters thinking and discoursing on it as no one would in life. The one salient action that takes place on stage is speaking. But it is a style of speaking in no way like the one that we use in life. ‘The people in Shakespeare,’ Hardy notes, ‘act as if they were not quite closely thinking of what they were doing, but were great philosophers giving the main of their minds to the general human situation.’ And he contrives the events of the tale just to give them the scope to exercise their imagination. Shakespeare is always generalizing and always metaphoric, greek drama is particularizing and literal.

Life might look like a drama or fiction, were it not that it lacks plot, character, thought and style. These are the flawless circles of art which form no part of our formless existence. Life is made of accident, engagement, affect and ambition. Art is made of choice, detachment, poise and vision. Life is arithmetic, particular and actual. Art is algebra, abstract and illimited. Life is thrust on by desire and regulated by routine. Art is animated by imagination and shaped by order. Life emptily repeats at the behest of its stagnant habits. Art repeats designedly to build up grand signifying patterns. It reclaims repetition by permeating it with shape and meaning.

36 Art is not like real life

Art is more true than life, because it is less real than life. And when it strains to be as real, it becomes as false. Fiction is stranger than reality, because it lays bare more of the truth. The dumb world has no way to reveal to us its own depth. And so artists can do this only by refusing to share the inarticulacy of life. They use the trappings of the day to day life that we lead, to disclose the true life which we don’t lead. Art borrows from life its body, and life steals from art its soul. Life has too coarse a taste to copy art, and art has too fine a taste to copy life.

Life itself is a second-hand fiction. And when art follows it, the best it can make is third-hand melodrama. ‘Art does not imitate life,’ Brodsky wrote, ‘if only for fear of clichés,’ and it does not copy real people for fear of caricature, though most of us are too vapid and forgettable even to be that. And though life may not shadow art, it does arrive later. Picasso was outlining Guernica before a bomb had been dropped.

Artists raid life like buccaneers to plunder it and enrich their visions. Art resembles life as embezzling from a bank resembles negotiating a loan.

Life sprawls like an aggregation of suburbs, cosy though flat and featureless. Art is a methodical yet bewildering city like St Petersburg. Life from afar may look picturesque. But the closer you get, all you see is its dour utility. As Van Gogh found to his dismay, it ‘has the tinge of dishwater.’ Why else would he have had to colour it in such iridescent blues and yellows?

37 Art holds the mirror up to convention

Most people assume that a piece of art must be like life if it is reminiscent of the rest of the works of art that they have seen. They say that a portrait has plumbed the soul if they can read into it their own trite preconceptions of a type of character. So they’re keen to find that a pope or cardinal looks worldly and world-weary, that a baron must be smug and supercilious, fonder of his hounds or horse than of his wife and offspring, that a thinker is voyaging through strange seas of thought alone. They mistake what is natural for the conventional forms that they are most used to seeing.

Most of our so-called instincts about art are little more than learned errors.

Why do we assume that if a canvas or a story seems vivid then it must picture life realistically, and that if it looks more graphic than reality then it must be more real than reality?

Crude books gratify us by holding the mirror up to the pretty lies by which we live.

Literature is our common confession, heartfelt and unsparing. But, like all confessions, it is at the same time artful and self-exculpating. ‘An artist chooses when he confesses,’ as Valéry wrote, ‘perhaps above all when he confesses.’

38 Art is not a human need

‘It needs a complex social machinery,’ Henry James said, ‘to set a writer into motion,’ and it takes an apparatus of class, syllabuses, snobbery and institutes to set a reader on to read great books. But they need no prompt to read bad ones. ‘For even the most trifling revelations of art need preparation and study,’ as Nietzsche points out. ‘There is no immediate effect of art.’

We need forms and institutions, to force us to curb our worst appetites and to aspire to our best achievements.

Real things, such as art or truth, are so foreign to us and unloved, that they need an elaborate scaffolding of snobbery, prestige and institutions to hold them up.

If art couldn’t bank on the good will and patronage of people who don’t much care for it, it wouldn’t last from one year to the next.

If there were no serious readers, there would be no serious writers. And so great authors can write up to the top of their talent only by overestimating their readers.

A book has no hope of lasting through the centuries, till we have been trained to read it as if it will. Had we not been lessoned to revere Shakespeare as the most sublime of poets, we would laugh at him as a pompous windbag. As Thoreau wrote, ‘We do not enjoy poetry unless we know it to be poetry.’

Nature will hatch the egg of genius, but culture must fertilize it. Penury may not keep a Milton mute and inglorious, but it and any number of pitfalls may stall him from becoming a Milton.

39 Art alone gives meaning

Art is one of the few things that is worth living for. But art reveals to us that life is not worth living, and that it gains its value only by being recast as a work of art.

An artist should strive to enrich life without affirming it, to esteem it without falsifying it, not to claim that it’s worth living, but to make it a touch more worth living. Honest art ought to transfigure the instant, but not presume to transfigure the world.

Artists make art, not by culling the fat and waste from life, but by packing it with more marrow. They supply the world with the sense which God forgot to put in. Art distils what life leaves out. It makes it rich and breaks it down. It brings out its significance by paring it to its pith.

40 Meaning is a fiction

A play of three hours gets nearer to the heart of life than life itself does in seventy long years. Don’t you live more significantly in Troy or Elsinore than you do in your real locality on earth?

Life hurtles with a flaring urgency. Art stands still in cool significance. An artist keeps at bay the world’s importunate futility by fashioning works of superfluous lustre.

Art is like neither life, in which everything is real but not one thing is significant, nor religion, in which nothing is real yet all is made to seem significant. Artists make our lives mean by making meaningful lives which are not ours. It’s only by creating fictions that we make life mean anything at all.

The world trades on the accepted coin of illusion. We recognize truth solely in the game of fiction or in the rarefied realm of philosophy. It is only in art, where nothing is at stake, that you can afford to wager and win what’s priceless.

Why do those who are glad to be cheated by life berate art for being mere fiction?

41 Art redeems suffering

What is art but a contrivance for converting misery to meaning? The sorrows of art solace you, since they are not real and yet they still signify. The sorrows of life are so desolating, because for all their deep feeling they mean nothing. Art glows with lambent anguish. Life is fraught with a jaunty dimness. A poet senses the immense sadness behind each joy, and joyfully foresees the fearful loveliness of each heartbreak transfigured by form.

42 We put art to the meanest use

‘The aesthetic,’ as Borges points out, ‘is inaccessible to most people.’ What appeals to them least in a work of art is what is most integral to it, that is, its form and imagination. What captivates them is what is most adventitious, its entertainment and impact, its vividness and verisimilitude, or its platitudinous moralizing. A great work of art is a lightning show put on for the blind. They may feel the house rumble, but they can’t see the brightness.

People treat a fiction as if it were a guide book to another time and place, a historical document or an archaeological artefact. So they deal with it as they would with a record of real acts and persons, on which they’re called to pass moral judgment, and they call it complex if it poses a moral conundrum in which there is some right on each side. They enjoy it as if it were a piece of gossip about neighbours who lead slightly more exciting lives. It’s only those who have no imagination that respond to fictions as if they were recitations of real life.

Just as we dote on a great mind such as Einstein for the quaint traits that denote a trashy celebrity, their peculiarities, dress and gestures, so we applaud the best books for doing what unexceptional books do much better, for contriving suspenseful plots, pronounced effects, characters with whom we identify, a vivid portrayal of a time or place, and slick sermons which confirm our own virtuous prejudices or subvert the herd’s.

43 We want art to flatter us

Life, like Narcissus, gazes into the pool of art in order to admire its own face. Literature is a great glass which shows us more substantial than we are.

What we want from art is flattery and half-lies that we can take for truth. We expect it to tell us that we are ample and anguished, that we are afflicted because we are grand and grand by the grace with which we endure our afflictions.

We want fictions to take us to a threatening place and make us feel safe there, just as we want to go abroad and feel familiarly at home.

44 Nothing matters but style

For true artists there’s nothing serious in mortality but style. ‘To those who are preoccupied with the beauty of form,’ Wilde points out, ‘nothing else seems of so much importance.’ They take such pains to carve out a style, that they grow stone-hearted to all else. A misplaced comma would scandalize them more than an act of cruelty. ‘For God’s sake don’t talk politics,’ Joyce pleaded. ‘The only thing that interests me is style.’

What exhilarating torment writers must feel at the dizzying contingency of every choice of shape or texture, word or phrase, chord or cadence, and at how it will ramify out and out through their work and readjust and reconstitute the whole of it. The drama of moral choice is a trivial analogue for the serious business of aesthetic discrimination.

Good style is a bare cool justice. Fine prose, like Austen’s, works by its own code of right. It is serene, since it wants nothing, cheerful, as it feels no need to impose, and kind, as it doesn’t disdain to please. But only someone who has been seared by the mad vehemence of poetry would trust in the frail justice of prose.

45 Artists love only art

A painter would cordially set the world on fire, to light the least of their daubings more impressively.

Musicians hold that if there is a high way to God it must be through their own music. The deity that they worship must love music more than anything else. And the reverence that they feel for him is a dull after-echo of the awe that they feel at their own art.

Artists are proud souls who would lick the lowest dust in the service of their art.

For true artists, living is a mere sleep which intermits their ardent dreams of creation.

46 Art for the artist’s sake

All that artists love they love for the sake of their art. And they love their art for their own sake. They cherish fame more than art, as capitalists love their merchandise for the financial gain that it yields.

The sole thing that a work of art affirms is the wayward imagination of the artist who made it.

An artist or a god is superabundant but not self-sufficient. Their needs are as extravagant as their capacities.

47 The work is all

You earn perfection extremely cheap, at the mere cost of your life. A choice work is made not by the life but by the days, and not by the days but by the hours. The days and hours make the work. The life is a poor offering that is burnt up in its service.

The artist drifts like a ghost amongst the ghosts of the living, to bring them news of a world more true.

The high things which prove life’s worth were brought forth by the few who were sure that it has none. The makers make life worthwhile, but they place no value on it themselves. To them it is mere tripe and scrapings.

Those who make art are least able to weigh life’s value, but best able to represent it. So it’s a good thing for us that they feel obliged to make it out to be far dearer than they prize it. And it’s a good thing for them that their artists’ instincts make them prize it as dear as they’re obliged to make it out to be. They are spurred to make something worthwhile of life, because they know that life itself is so worthless. ‘They seem to be fighting for the sake of the dignity and significance of mankind,’ Nietzsche says, ‘but in fact they refuse to give up the presuppositions that are most efficacious for their art.’

Some authors use writing as a means to put off dying, and some use it as a means to put off living.

Art is a way of grasping and embracing life, while still holding it at bay.

48 Artists love the world for the sake of their art

Artists care for the world as it gives them the scope to show off their art. And if they wish to save the world it’s only to preserve beholders for their own works. And they think that their own compositions are the one thing that could save it. When they seem to be exalting life, it is their own poetic might and mastery that they are exalting, which brims over and blesses the unhearing world with its bounty. Artists love the world as God does, ‘the glad creator,’ to redeem its unmeaning squalor by their own abounding grace.

Artists don’t paint the world because they love it. They love the world because they paint it.

A writer lives to write, and feels sure that the rest live to read, and that the world is here to be written. ‘Everything in the world,’ Mallarmé said, ‘exists to end up in a book.’ And in our age of hyperreality it all exists to be filmed and photographed. Perhaps the Lord put on the whole show just so that he could dictate his scriptures.

Artists don’t doubt that the world was made for art and not art for the world. They look on the world as mere metaphor or material for their work. If the first, they rejoice to see it seated as an imperishable artefact of shapely calm. And if the second, they love to watch it rock with riotous mischief. ‘All under heaven is in unmitigated disarray,’ Mao said. ‘The situation is excellent.’ The artist must play the world false in order to stay true to the art that lends the world its one frail justification.

49 Art is the meaning of life

Art does not unfold to us the meaning of life. Art is the meaning of life.

What have we to set against life’s infinite littleness but the little infinity of art? It hurls a rapturous vitality in the face of demeaning absurdity or pounding affliction, and so makes them seem worth bearing.

Artists, when asked for a loaf, would not give a real stone. They cheat you, and make good their frauds by conferring untold wealth.

A sickly aesthete, such as Pater, makes a toy of art by treating it as a mere trimming with which to deck life. A strong artist knows that life is a foul dung that must be ploughed to fructify art. To read in order to live, as all bookish advisers tell us to do, seems a poor use of good literature.

50 Live to read

Writer to reader, ‘Why do you bother to live? You are here to read my books. We both live for writing, but you can’t write. What could be more pointless than to be forever reading, never to be read?’ Reader to writer, ‘Why do you bother to live? You are here to make books for me to munch on, as the silk-worm is kept in the dark to spin silk. We both live for reading, but you deem reading vain.’ They form one joint ring of uselessness. Writers live to be read, though they set no value on reading. And they toil to enjoy an afterlife of misquotation, to win the brief continuance of a name.

A writer is a tireless scribe who keeps meticulous records for oblivion.