Poussin’s Spiritual Exercise

I am reading John Armstrong’s inestimable In Search of Civilization. I am reading it slowly. On page 123, Armstrong observes,

It is said of Poussin–one of the most thoughtful of painters–that he owned only nineteen books. Of course this was in the early seventeenth century–an era when personal libraries were much smaller than today and books were luxury items. But still it is a beguiling idea: to have only a few books, but each one to be fine and serious, and to read them again and again–to get to know intimately and deeply what they are about. Rereading allows for the thoughts in them and one’s own thoughts to grow together: for the secrets of the works to be carefully and slowly appraised, for their content to be thought over and thought through.

This image is an antidote to the feeling of dissipation–of intellectual dissipation–which comes from trying to assimilate too much too quickly.

It is also and, no less, an image of love: the love of spiritual exercise.

3 thoughts on “Poussin’s Spiritual Exercise

  1. Nice, I love rereading books. Your post on spiritual exercise reminds me of Franklin’s 13 virtues, his attempt to perfect himself (which he ultimately failed at because the 13th, Humility, actually contradicted the pride he took in perfecting himself–not that you’ll fail. I don’t think failure is possible when you’re just trying to be alive and happy and good to yourself and others). I think about this stuff all the time. There’s a great PBS show that doesn’t seem to be on anymore that I taped a whole bunch of episodes of when it was called Closer to Truth. (Episodes are still available here: http://www.closertotruth.com/). It’s just the host, Robert Lawrence Kuhn, going around asking philosophers and physicists, theists and atheists alike, what they think of all these questions. Great series…

    • Yes, Franklin, in his Autobiography, helped to resuscitate and “transvalue” the ancient (and, later still, the Christian) tradition of askesis. For this, he should be applauded. I write “transvalue” in that Franklin clearly picked out virtues that were amenable to a rising commercial society. This is as it should be.

      Unfortunately, he also, and unwittingly, opened Pandora’s Box to the 10 Steps to X approach to self-improvement now popular. Yet the philosophical soul needs to be worked on slowly, carefully, lovingly, clumsily. Getting more tomatoes in your diet won’t do the trick.

  2. Pingback: Why you should have fewer books and read them several times | maven links

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