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Posts Tagged ‘Goya’

[Y]e walk on My earth complacent and self-satisfied, heedless that My earth is weary of you and everything within it shunneth you.

(Bahá’u’lláh Persian Hidden Words No. 20)

There are four main things I have learnt from mindfulness of the natural world: acceptance, patience, impermanence and interconnectedness.

(Mindfulness and the Natural World by Claire Thompson – page 109)

An Overview

When I was floating on the Mediterranean Sea recently, I read Richard Fortey’s words in his ‘intimate history’ of the earth (page 33): ‘ The floor of the Mediterranean Sea is a collage of tectonic plates. Ultimately, that sea is doomed to obliteration when the main body of Africa ploughs into the European mainland in thirty million years or so.’

My peaceful experience of floating on the barely rippling surface of this ultimately doomed stretch of water served to reinforce, by its gigantic contrast, his later observation about humanity’s predicament as a whole (page 192): ‘Mankind is no more than a parasitic tick gorging himself on temporary plenty while the seas are low and the climate comparatively clement. The present arrangement of land and sea will change, and with it our brief supremacy.’

In a way this captures the whole ambivalent nature of my cruise experience.

I was travelling in a microcosm of our larger world, a mobile self-contained community culture in itself – a massive technological marvel, more like a floating city centre than a boat. As the more than three thousand of us moved across the planet fed, entertained and watered in our apparently innocent pleasures by a crew of more than one thousand, floods killed in Kerala and earthquakes in Indonesia, hurricanes threatened Hawaii and there was talk of impeachment in America. We were not quite emperors fiddling while Rome burned, but certainly we could not unfairly be described as the privileged many indulging ourselves while the Arctic icepack melted in unexpected places.

In a very real sense this was a mind-broadening journey on many levels and across many different kinds of territory. There was the literal journey, which had its peak experience moments, such as the one in the Amphitheatre in Cartegana.

There was the arc of travel via the visual arts, of which our encounter with Goya via Dali in the ship’s Gallery was the best example. These images from the tensions and tragedies of the Spanish past brought us face to face with the ongoing trauma of the Rohingya and the refugees from Syria, forcing us to see that we are still replaying the same heart-rending situations as were enacted in Europe in the 19thand 20thcenturies.

There was my journey to somewhere closer to the centre of the earth via my reading, something already hinted at in my references to Fortey’s book, but which was deeply enriched by my exploration of the poet John Clare’s life, courtesy of Jonathan Bate’s biography, which I read as a kind of sequel to his equally enthralling Song of the Earth.

The ship too had something to offer in that respect with a talk about and a brief glimpse of dolphins, along with, of course, some spectacular sunsets. Watching the wake of the ship one day I also came to realize with what stunning accuracy Hokusai had captured the behavior of deeply disturbed foam. Art and nature are often not very far apart.

I’ll come back to all these later.

Getting used to it

Adapting to the cruise experience was initially quite demanding for this fussy septuagenarian. The cabin was tiny, and the hall of mirrors effect did little to compensate. I never felt like a king of the ‘infinite space’ Hamlet refers to, though the mirrors facing each other created an illusion of infinite regress. I remained very much ‘bounded in a nutshell’ throughout the journey, but that bothered me less as days passed by. In a way it was more like Macbeth than Hamlet, even though I had not ordered anyone to be killed. I was ‘cabined, cribbed, confined’ rather by the doubts that come from possibly contributing to the deaths of others by my life style.

Just as the idea of the ship as a microcosm of our society stuck with me, so was the prison cell aspect of the cabin something I could never quite shake off, partly I think also because the freedom afforded by the decks outside was still constricted, except when we had docked. I was, and am still, very aware that a luxury cruise is about as far from a real prison experience as it’s possible to get, but I am also very aware that if I chafed to this degree over these minor constraints how painful must a real prison be.

This was another way in which the cruise experience deepened my understanding of apparently unrelated things.

Sleep was another unexpected addition to the price tag. I lost quite a lot of sleep as a result of the grumbling engine and other noises at night. As a result I’m now not quite as rested on my return as I had hoped to be, another trigger to deeper insight into how it must feel to be even more sleep deprived in far more testing circumstances, such as the involuntary travel demanded to escape death or persecution.

You may be wondering by now why I ever booked onto a cruise in the first place. I’m shaping up to be the archetypal killjoy and spoilsport. Partly it was in memory of my Aunt Anne, who went on a cruise to ease her grief two years after the relatively early death of her husband. It certainly helped her.

She was someone I felt close to, admired and respected. Somewhere deep down I’ve always had the feeling I should try out the same experience, in spite of my reservations about its being an unnecessary indulgence. So, eventually I bit the bullet with mixed results.

To be completely honest, there was also the need I felt to step off my treadmill of tasks for a short time, and the cruise seemed to offer a good way of doing that.

On the whole though, in spite of these whinges and of the poor quality of the vegetarian food options, I can’t really complain.

We were well looked after, and the ship provided all the customary escapes and distractions we need to keep our trance of materialism deep enough to persuade us we are happy. My disappointment is my fault. How would I realistically expect a holiday cruise to bring me closer to nature in a rapid well-encapsulated sea journey and enrich my understanding of other cultures in a series of one-day exposures on land to basically shiny tourist resorts?

The Upside

I am grateful to the cruise company that we were assisted to arrive where we could enjoy at least two enlightening self-conducted explorations, one in Pisa, where I found treasures I’d missed in a 1978 visit, long before the more recent spate of suicides from the Torre Pendente, and one in Cartagena, which I would never have dreamed of visiting had it not been for this cruise.

I now need to spell out in more detail some of the ways that the literal voyage intertwined with other kinds of journey to expand my understanding and awareness.

I can begin to look at the first kind of voyage straightaway.

Cartagena took us completely by surprise. We never expected to find something as breathtaking as these remnants of the Roman amphitheatre that had been so recently uncovered. Built originally in the last decade BC, it had been lost completely to sight after the 13thcentury cathedral was built over the seating area. In 1988 the first remains of the theatre were discovered during the construction of the Centro regional de artesanía. The archaeological excavations and the restorations were completed in 2003. In 2008 a museum, designed by Rafael Moneo, was opened.

My response was complex.

The size of the intact span of the seating area was stunning. We stepped from the relative darkness of the museum, rich in background tamed by display cabinets, into the full glare of the Amphitheatre’s arc at the level of the very top of the seating.

I gasped.

As we explored the magnificent ruin, in all its damaged glory and pride, my admiration and pleasure began to mingle with a sense of sic transit gloria mundi. As this leached more deeply into my experience of the sunlit stonework, I couldn’t help but apply the same warning to the cruiseship I was travelling on, especially as many places in this part of Spain, not just Cartagena, have a complex history involving fallen civilisations still detectable not just in Roman, but also in Byzantine and Moorish traces. The ship was tempting us all to remain trapped in a glittering simulation of reality, in the same way as the Roman people were placated by that Empire’s bread and circuses. In terms of its purpose, and setting aside gladiators and the perhaps exaggerated connection between Christians and lions, the Amphitheatre was just the Roman equivalent of the Cruise and of all the other trance-inducing trappings of our materialistic civilisation. Its ruins, a symbol of the typical fate of all civilisations no matter how apparently invulnerable, were making it impossible for me to evade the real nature of the journey I had embarked on. 

Why should our cruise and all it stood for be an exception? Why should I not be at risk of the shock of similar losses? After all, the kind and helpful steward who took care of our cabin would soon be distressed about the disappearance of his cousin in the wake of the second earthquake in Indonesia. That was a reminder quite close to home.

Other insights triggered by the cruise will have to wait until next time.

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Lunch in the Country Daumier

Van Gogh, the subject of my main blog sequence at the moment, in his letters frequently mentions Daumier with admiration, so I thought it worth republishing this post from November 2013. I still haven’t seen The Third Class Carriage ‘live.’

Waldemar Januszczak, in the latest issue of the Sunday Times, has just reminded me of the long-forgotten fact that Honoré Daumier was not just a cartoonist. He uses the picture above, which I have scanned in, to prove his point. (I can’t show you more because I buy the hard copy rather than subscribe to their site. The link will take you to the picture and a quote from the article.)

His article got me looking for more. He writes:

While the caricatures and newspaper attacks are merely brilliant, Daumier’s paintings are different to the point of being other-worldly. It’s hard to think of another painter whose work seems as self-evidently progressive and out of step with his times this. Goya, perhaps. Rembrandt, perhaps. Daumier is not quite in either of their leagues – too much of his energy went into churning out everything else on show here – but as a painter he shared their stylistic fearlessness, and their darkness.

Goya and Rembrandt are two of my favourite painters. In search of more Daumier I went to a website I use often to find art work and I was not disappointed. (Don’t be put off by the warning that the website has been changed – this is the valid link.) They have a small selection of his paintings, one of which is mentioned in the article.

Daumier Washer woman

I think I’ve got the right painting here.  Januszczak describes how it achieves its powerful effect through the use of contre-jour, which is painting ‘against the light.’

Daumier kept attempting the strategy, most notably in his famous image of a Parisian washerwoman carrying her laundry up the banks of the Seine while holding a small child by the hand. Without contre-jour this would be a warm piece of social observation. With contre-jour, it enlarges into an image that is almost biblical in its heft. The bold, simple outline of the washerwoman leading her child from light into dark seems somehow to enlarge into an image that spells out humanity’s lot.

Daumier Third CLass CarriageMy particular favourite on the art website is this one – The Third Class CarriageI would really love to see this in its original form, even though the painting is apparently unfinished, an issue not unique to this Daumier, it seems. Reproductions, and those on the site are worth looking at for their clarity, still lose a lot. I gather that even the new 3D reproduction technology, which gives you a sense of the texture of the paint, has too much of a shine to do the subtlety of an original’s colours true justice.

The play of light and shade, both literally and in terms of the range of human character implied in this painting of the passengers, is masterly. The women are foregrounded with the children, while the top hats, the bowler and the bearded males (at least I think there are two of them – a clarity problem!) are relegated to a backdrop, a reversal of what you would expect, and perhaps significantly have their backs to the figures who have so strongly evoked  Daumier’s compassionate interest.

It looks as though I will have a chance to look more closely at this picture.  It seems it is in the exhibition currently taking place at the Royal Academy, ending on 26th January next year. Their website is worth a visit not least for the excellent five minute video about Daumier currently to be found there.

Daumier Don Q & Sancho P

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza

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GuernicaWhen I had just begun this blog in 2009 I was much more tentative about what I wrote and the blog posts were much shorter add a result — sorry, did you say it was a shame that changed? Anyhow, I think there is enough of value in this one to justify republishing it in the light of the current sequence on van Gogh. 

There were three of us working through what is the last book currently in the series of study books I wrote about in a previous post. The facilitator mentioned something completely new to me: a You Tube video he had seen of a very moving sand animation depicting how people had suffered during the German invasion of the Ukraine in World World II. Jeffrey Davis writes:

Kseniya Simonova is a Ukrainian artist who just won Ukraine’s version of “America’s Got Talent.” She uses a giant light box, dramatic music, imagination and “sand painting” skills to interpret Germany’s invasion and occupation of Ukraine during WWII. Her technique and rapid fire impressionism are impressive, and you can see the emotional impact her art had on the audience members.

War time atrocities have often been the spur to great art. The art has taken many different forms: poetry, painting, music, and now even sand art.

It may seem a long way from Guernica to:

But without Guernica‘s revolutionising impulse the moving experience of the Ukrainian sand animation might not have been possible.

And the impact is similar.

In the You Tube video you see members of the audience in tears.

When I went to Madrid two summers ago I stood in front of Guernica in the Reina Sofia National Museum of Art, as I had earlier stood in front of Goya‘s masterpiece The Third of May in the nearby Prado, moved to the core of my being by the power with which they each conveyed in their different ways the enormity of the human suffering involved in each atrocity depicted.

Goya’s ‘The Third of May’

I had always loved the Goya, even in reproduction, but, until I saw its massive scale (it is 25.5 feet wide) and empathic detail ‘live’ as it were, in the gallery, I had totally underestimated the achievement of the Guernica canvas. It is so epic in scale yet so muted in colour as well as so intense in its mute archetypal imagery of pain, that its message cannot fail to penetrate the heart of anyone who stands before it attentively for even a few moments.

Picasso saw his art in moral terms:

Painting is not done to decorate apartments.  It is an instrument of war against brutality and darkness.

His outrage at the atrocity reputedly found an equally courageous expression in Paris when he was visited by the Gestapo.

During one visit a remark from an inquisitive Nazi officer brought a retort from Picasso which has become famous. Seeing a photo of Guernica lying on the table the German asked: ‘Did you do this?’ Answer: ‘No . . . you did.’

(Roland Penrose’s Picasso: page 333)

This remark may of course have been apocryphal, but it’s a good story none the less which illustrates the role of art and the artist at its most heroic and idealistic.

Sometimes when, as was said of Wilfred Owen, the ‘poetry is in the pity,’ it can be the extremity of the subject matter rather than the skill of the artist that creates the impact. I do not think this to be true of Picasso and Goya, or of Owen for that matter. That’s easier to say at this distance in time. It’s what makes the difference between art and propaganda. Art extends beyond the horror to evoke something in the human spirit that transcends it.

It’s harder to say where the impact of such art as recent more transient and fragile creations in sand might lie when they depict comparable atrocities. There is something about the very frailty of the medium that adds to the effect, even when it is not harnessed to the creation of a rapidly changing sequence of images.

By Sudarshan Pattnaik: September 2008

Here the sight of the sea in the background brings out the vulnerability of the protest. The words tend to limit its frame of reference and thereby reduce the power of its art.

Whatever the value of any particular creation, art, at its best and greatest, is a channel for the noblest impulses of the human spirit. It touches deeper levels of our being inaccessible to more ordinary means of communication. Why else would advertisers be so eager to co-opt it to commercial purposes or the power hungry demagogue to prostitute it for his own aggrandisement? That’s why it is so important for us to encourage it as well as protecting and nurturing those who produce it.

Who else is there to remind us as effectively as Owen does that we need to see beneath the romance of combat to those ‘who die like cattle’ under the ‘monstrous anger of the guns?’ Auden‘s words also echo down the years to us with the same seemingly futile but necessary warning:

Far off, no matter what good they intended,
Two armies waited for a verbal error
With well-made implements for causing pain,

And on the issue of their charm depended
A land laid waste with all its young men slain,
Its women weeping, and its towns in terror.

(Sonnets from China: XV)

Bahá’u’lláh‘s words to Professor Edward Browne still have the same haunting potency now as they did when He first uttered them:

Yet so it shall be; these fruitless strifes, these ruinous wars shall pass away, and the ‘Most Great Peace’ shall come.

It needs the concerted action of the vast majority of humanity to bring that about. God willing, we will all rise as best we can before it is too late to play our part in that process with all the courage and creativity at our command. We can’t just sit back and leave it to even the most divinely inspired artists and mystics. This is our job to do.

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Lunch in the Country DaumierWaldemar Januszczak, in the latest issue of the Sunday Times, has just reminded me of the long-forgotten fact that Honoré Daumier was not just a cartoonist. He uses the picture above, which I have scanned in, to prove his point. (I can’t show you more because I buy the hard copy rather than subscribe to their site. The link will take you to the picture and a quote from the article.)

His article got me looking for more. He writes:

While the caricatures and newspaper attacks are merely brilliant, Daumier’s paintings are different to the point of being other-worldly. It’s hard to think of another painter whose work seems as self-evidently progressive and out of step with his times this. Goya, perhaps. Rembrandt, perhaps. Daumier is not quite in either of their leagues – too much of his energy went into churning out everything else on show here – but as a painter he shared their stylistic fearlessness, and their darkness.

Goya and Rembrandt are two of my favourite painters. In search of more Daumier I went to a website I use often to find art work and I was not disappointed. (Don’t be put off by the warning that the website has been changed – this is the valid link.) They have a small selection of his paintings, one of which is mentioned in the article.

Daumier Washer woman

I think I’ve got the right painting here.  Januszczak describes how it achieves its powerful effect through the use of contre-jour, which is painting ‘against the light.’

Daumier kept attempting the strategy, most notably in his famous image of a Parisian washerwoman carrying her laundry up the banks of the Seine while holding a small child by the hand. Without contre-jour this would be a warm piece of social observation. With contre-jour, it enlarges into an image that is almost biblical in its heft. The bold, simple outline of the washerwoman leading her child from light into dark seems somehow to enlarge into an image that spells out humanity’s lot.

Daumier Third CLass CarriageMy particular favourite on the art website is this one – The Third Class CarriageI would really love to see this in its original form, even though the painting is apparently unfinished, an issue not unique to this Daumier, it seems. Reproductions, and those on the site are worth looking at for their clarity, still lose a lot. I gather that even the new 3D reproduction technology, which gives you a sense of the texture of the paint, has too much of a shine to do the subtlety of an original’s colours true justice.

The play of light and shade, both literally and in terms of the range of human character implied in this painting of the passengers, is masterly. The women are foregrounded with the children, while the top hats, the bowler and the bearded males (at least I think there are two of them – a clarity problem!) are relegated to a backdrop, a reversal of what you would expect, and perhaps significantly have their backs to the figures who have so strongly evoked  Daumier’s compassionate interest.

It looks as though I will have a chance to look more closely at this picture.  It seems it is in the exhibition currently taking place at the Royal Academy, ending on 26th January next year. Their website is worth a visit not least for the excellent five minute video about Daumier currently to be found there.

Daumier Don Q & Sancho P

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza

Read Full Post »

GuernicaThere were three of us working through what is the last book currently in the series of study books I wrote about in a previous post. The facilitator mentioned something completely new to me: a You Tube video he had seen of a very moving sand animation depicting how people had suffered during the German invasion of the Ukraine in World World II. Jeffrey Davis writes:

Kseniya Simonova is a Ukrainian artist who just won Ukraine’s version of “America’s Got Talent.” She uses a giant light box, dramatic music, imagination and “sand painting” skills to interpret Germany’s invasion and occupation of Ukraine during WWII. Her technique and rapid fire impressionism are impressive, and you can see the emotional impact her art had on the audience members.

War time atrocities have often been the spur to great art. The art has taken many different forms: poetry, painting, music, and now even sand art.

It may seem a long way from Guernica to:

But without Guernica‘s revolutionising impulse the moving experience of the Ukrainian sand animation might not have been possible.

And the impact is similar.

In the You Tube video you see members of the audience in tears.

When I went to Madrid two summers ago I stood in front of Guernica in the Reina Sofia National Museum of Art, as I had earlier stood in front of Goya‘s masterpiece The Third of May in the nearby Prado, moved to the core of my being by the power with which they each conveyed in their different ways the enormity of the human suffering involved in each atrocity depicted.

Goya’s ‘The Third of May’

I had always loved the Goya, even in reproduction, but, until I saw its massive scale (it is 25.5 feet wide) and empathic detail ‘live’ as it were, in the gallery, I had totally underestimated the achievement of the Guernica canvas. It is so epic in scale yet so muted in colour as well as so intense in its mute archetypal imagery of pain, that its message cannot fail to penetrate the heart of anyone who stands before it attentively for even a few moments.

Picasso saw his art in moral terms:

Painting is not done to decorate apartments.  It is an instrument of war against brutality and darkness.

His outrage at the atrocity reputedly found an equally courageous expression in Paris when he was visited by the Gestapo.

During one visit a remark from an inquisitive Nazi officer brought a retort from Picasso which has become famous. Seeing a photo of Guernica lying on the table the German asked: ‘Did you do this?’ Answer: ‘No . . . you did.’

(Roland Penrose’s Picasso: page 333)

This remark may of course have been apocryphal, but it’s a good story none the less which illustrates the role of art and the artist at its most heroic and idealistic.

Sometimes when, as was said of Wilfred Owen, the ‘poetry is in the pity,’ it can be the extremity of the subject matter rather than the skill of the artist that creates the impact. I do not think this to be true of Picasso and Goya, or of Owen for that matter. That’s easier to say at this distance in time. It’s what makes the difference between art and propaganda. Art extends beyond the horror to evoke something in the human spirit that transcends it.

It’s harder to say where the impact of such art as recent more transient and fragile creations in sand might lie when they depict comparable atrocities. There is something about the very frailty of the medium that adds to the effect, even when it is not harnessed to the creation of a rapidly changing sequence of images.

By Sudarshan Pattnaik: September 2008

Here the sight of the sea in the background brings out the vulnerability of the protest. The words tend to limit its frame of reference and thereby reduce the power of its art.

Whatever the value of any particular creation, art, at its best and greatest, is a channel for the noblest impulses of the human spirit. It touches deeper levels of our being inaccessible to more ordinary means of communication. Why else would advertisers be so eager to co-opt it to commercial purposes or the power hungry demagogue to prostitute it for his own aggrandisement? That’s why it is so important for us to encourage it as well as protecting and nurturing those who produce it.

Who else is there to remind us as effectively as Owen does that we need to see beneath the romance of combat to those ‘who die like cattle’ under the ‘monstrous anger of the guns?’ Auden‘s words also echo down the years to us with the same seemingly futile but necessary warning:

Far off, no matter what good they intended,
Two armies waited for a verbal error
With well-made implements for causing pain,

And on the issue of their charm depended
A land laid waste with all its young men slain,
Its women weeping, and its towns in terror.

(Sonnets from China: XV)

Bahá’u’lláh‘s words to Professor Edward Browne still have the same haunting potency now as they did when He first uttered them:

Yet so it shall be; these fruitless strifes, these ruinous wars shall pass away, and the ‘Most Great Peace’ shall come.

It needs the concerted action of the vast majority of humanity to bring that about. God willing, we will all rise as best we can before it is too late to play our part in that process with all the courage and creativity at our command. We can’t just sit back and leave it to even the most divinely inspired artists and mystics. This is our job to do.

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From Hogarth's 'The Rake's Progress'

What is Freedom?

This is a topic on which Bahá’u’lláh challenges many of our (mostly Western) assumptions. One such challenge is particularly difficult and particularly important.

Say: True liberty consisteth in man’s submission unto My commandments, little as ye know it. . . . The liberty that profiteth you is to be found nowhere except in complete servitude unto God, the Eternal Truth. Whoso hath tasted of its sweetness will refuse to barter it for all the dominion of earth and heaven.

(Bahá’u’lláh: Synopsis & Codification of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas: 123-5)

From His perspective dignity depends upon curtailing our freedom in certain respects. Liberty, in the sense of licence, debases people and they lose their dignity: they need restraints to protect them from their own ignorance. From a spiritual point of view, the best restraints are God’s commandments and obedience to them is true liberty. Licence traps us in the coils of appetite: obedience to God frees us from debasing desires.

Of course, as Eric Reitan makes plain, we must take care that the God that we follow is ‘worthy of worship.’ Other posts on this blog have explored the relationship between our ideas of God and our ideas of good and the implications that relationship has for our conduct. I won’t rehearse them all again here.

Here is one of the paradoxes of spiritual growth. We are prone to licence and cannot transcend this tendency and achieve true freedom except through the power of Divine Assistance which will involve self-restraint.

For far too many of us in the West, for whom dignity has become more or less synonymous with virtually unbridled self-determination, this is an awkward pill to swallow. Depriving ourselves of its medicinal potency will however only make a bad situation worse.

I accept that a significant number of people would not agree that the pill of Divine Assistance, the afterlife and/or a specific religious faith needs  be swallowed at all. We are perfectly capable, many would argue, of improving ourselves and our society without it.

Robert Wright‘s position on this is interesting. He writes:

Some people will take heart from the idea that to seek a personal salvation linked to social salvation is to align yourself with a cosmic purpose manifest in history, and some won’t (either because they don’t agree that the purpose is manifest or because they don’t care). But however you describe the linkage, whatever the nature of the incentive structure, the linkage will have to be made in a fair percentage of human beings around the world for it to work.

(The Evolution of God: page 441)

What should we use this kind of freedom for?

It is not only for our own benefit that we need to exercise restraint and cultivate virtues. We need to do this to improve society as a whole and build a better civilisation.

All men have been created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization. The Almighty beareth Me witness: To act like the beasts of the field is unworthy of man. Those virtues that befit his dignity are forbearance, mercy, compassion and loving-kindness towards all the peoples and kindreds of the earth. Say: O friends! Drink your fill from this crystal stream that floweth through the heavenly grace of Him Who is the Lord of Names.

(Proclamation of Bahá’u’lláh)

Unity underpins all the benefits that accrue including the dignity of all.

The Blessed Beauty said: “All are the fruits of one tree and the leaves of one branch.” He likened the world of existence to one tree and all the souls to leaves, blossoms and fruits.  . . . Thus the friends of God . . . must purify their sight, and look upon mankind as the leaves, blossoms and fruits of the tree of creation, and must always be thinking of doing good to someone, of love, consideration, affection and assistance to somebody.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Bahá’í World Faith)

This degree of unity, respect for the dignity of all human beings and perfect justice are interlinked.

When perfect justice reigns in every country of the Eastern and Western World, then will the earth become a place of beauty. The dignity and equality of every servant of God will be acknowledged; the ideal of the solidarity of the human race, the true brotherhood of man, will be realized; and the glorious light of the Sun of Truth will illumine the souls of all men.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Paris Talks: 7th Principle)

Such a state of affairs will not arise of its own accord:

It is . . .  clear that the emergence of this natural sense of human dignity and honour is the result of education.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: The Secret of Divine Civilisation)

Virtue and the effort it entails need to be taught. A sense of dignity, other people’s and one’s own, is an essential part of what needs to be taught and will not develop without teaching.

Will this take long?

What implications have contemporary Bahá’í thinkers derived from these ideas?

There are many social evils antithetical to human dignity. Racism is one of the most pernicious. Achieving its eradication will not be simple, quick and effortless.

For too much of history, the evil of racism has violated human dignity. Its influence has retarded the development of its victims, corrupted its perpetrators and blighted human progress. Overcoming its devastating effects will thus require conscious, deliberate and sustained effort. Indeed, nothing short of genuine love, extreme patience, true humility and prayerful reflection will succeed in effacing its pernicious stain from human affairs. 

(BIC Document #01-0321, 2002, Page 2: Bahá’í International Community)

This statement could be applied unchanged with equal appropriateness and force to every corrupt attitude inimical to human dignity. It implies that solutions must be capable of crossing generational boundaries as well as those of class, gender and creed.

Education, then, emerges as an indispensable tool – a tool of active moral learning. To accomplish the broad objectives of ensuring the “full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity” and promoting “understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial, ethnic or religious groups,” education must strive to develop an integrated set of human capabilities-intellectual, artistic, social, moral and spiritual.  There is no other way to raise up positive social actors who are builders of amity and agents of service and probity.

(Bahá’í International Community: Belief and Tolerance)

There are also powerful interactions to consider, not least between the individual and the society of which (s)he is a part.

As a consequence of the deep connection between individual and social well-being, programmes of education need to instill in every child a two-fold moral purpose. The first relates to the process of personal transformation – of intellectual, material and spiritual growth. The second concerns the complex challenge of transforming the structures and processes of society itself.

(Ibid.)

The link between these concepts and the idea of World Citizenship is very clear.

Meeting the challenge to the education system to promote responsible global citizenship, the Bahá’í concept of World Citizenship begins with an acceptance of the oneness of the human family and the inter-connectedness of the nations of “the earth, our home.” While it encourages a sane and legitimate patriotism, it also insists upon a wider loyalty, a love of humanity as a whole. It does not, however, imply abandonment of legitimate loyalties, the suppression of cultural diversity, the abolition of national autonomy, or the imposition of uniformity. Its hallmark is “unity in diversity.”

(U.K. Bahá’í Community: Community Cohesion: a Bahá’í Perspective)

True freedom is not the same as individualism

The Prosperity of Human Kind explores these issues deeply and is worth quoting at length though selectively. It begins on this issue by saying:

Justice is the one power that can translate the dawning consciousness of humanity’s oneness into a collective will through which the necessary structures of global community life can be confidently erected.

And develops this further:

At the group level, a concern for justice is the indispensable compass in collective decision making, because it is the only means by which unity of thought and action can be achieved. Far from encouraging the punitive spirit that has often masqueraded under its name in past ages, justice is the practical expression of awareness that, in the achievement of human progress, the interests of the individual and those of society are inextricably linked. (My emphasis)

And culminates in an insight of astonishing reach and of great relevance to the nurturing and protection of human dignity:

At the heart of the discussion of a strategy of social and economic development, therefore, lies the issue of human rights. The shaping of such a strategy calls for the promotion of human rights to be freed from the grip of the false dichotomies that have for so long held it hostage. Concern that each human being should enjoy the freedom of thought and action conducive to his or her personal growth does not justify devotion to the cult of individualism that so deeply corrupts many areas of contemporary life. Nor does concern to ensure the welfare of society as a whole require a deification of the state as the supposed source of humanity’s well-being.

Goya's 'El Tres de Mayo'

In short, the enthronement of either individualism or state supremacy inevitably devalues human rights and thereby human dignity.

Its summarizing sentence at the end of this particular passage is masterly:

Only in a consultative framework made possible by the consciousness of the organic unity of humankind can all aspects of the concern for human rights find legitimate and creative expression.

In other words, the consciousness of the organic unity of humankind makes true consultation possible: such consultation allows us properly and effectively to express a concern for human rights (and dignity).

Trusteeship

The section ends by discussing a central concept in Bahá’í spiritual administration – trusteeship – and extends its necessary application to the world as a whole.

Since the body of humankind is one and indivisible, each member of the race is born into the world as a trust of the whole. This trusteeship constitutes the moral foundation of most of the other rights – principally economic and social – which the instruments of the United Nations are attempting similarly to define. The security of the family and the home, the ownership of property, and the right to privacy are all implied in such a trusteeship. The obligations on the part of the community extend to the provision of employment, mental and physical health care, social security, fair wages, rest and recreation, and a host of other reasonable expectations on the part of the individual members of society.

Humanity dignity would be guaranteed in such a context. It is all but explicit that without it human dignity would not exist.

In Bahá’í discourse certain key concepts are connected and interdependent. These crucially include: unity, justice, submission to the Will of God, trusteeship, education, the individual, society, civilization, love, patience, consultation, human rights and human dignity.

It will be crucial to the well-being of future generations that as many of us as possible start or continue unpacking their implications without further delay and translating them as rapidly as possible into concerted and focused action.

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