“All natural arts and human wisdom are given by the stars”: On Creativity
The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Sophia in Exile.
Because human creativity, as ubiquitous as it is, defies explanation, recourse to religious language offers what may be the only rhetorical ecosystem up to the task. This is most obvious with the fine arts, of course, but the innovative dimensions of the practical arts likewise trespass into the numinous precincts of the hallows. It is worth noting, then, that the language we use for the creative individual often mimics our language for divinity: “maker” and “creator.” The classical understanding of the poet as both poeta (maker, i.e., “craftsman”) and vates (prophet or seer) is emblematic of the challenge in discernment when the question of creativity arises, providing what Slavoj Žižek calls a “parallax view.” Without a doubt, there are elements of training and natural ability involved. For example, I’m a decent musician and poet and know what creativity is in those domains, but while I can handle the tools of the carpenter reasonably well, my skills in that realm are far from anything resembling creativity. And it should be obvious that many “professional poets,” for example, are essentially craftsmen or wordsmiths whose work never intrudes into the templum, whereas carpenters, glaziers, and stonemasons (think of the great churches of the Middles Ages and Renaissance) not only enter the temple, but make it present to the senses. Creation is nothing if not incarnational.
It is interesting, however, that after the classical era, at least in the West, precious little was said about the role of human creativity until the rise of Romanticism in the late-eighteenth century and through the first half of the nineteenth, though currents of it have persisted, often underground or in the shadows.
The reason for this silence about the role of the maker in the post-classical West is not hard to figure out. Nikolai Berdyaev gets directly to the problem: “There is not one word in the Gospel about creativeness.” And not only is the Gospel silent regarding human creation: “We have precepts from the Holy Fathers on fasting and prayer. But we have not, and there could not be, precepts of the Fathers about creativity.”  This didn’t keep Christians from creating, of course, as the marvels of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance attest, but at the very least no one was that concerned with understanding the metaphysics of human creation. One exception may be Paracelsus, that eternal outlier, who claimed, “All natural arts and human wisdom are given by the stars, we are pupils of the stars, and they our teacher. God has ordered everything in the light of Nature that we may learn from it.”  With the arrival of the Protestant Reformation, however, a palpable anxiety about human creativity and the allure of the beautiful crept into the Christian psyche—an anxiety that extended also to the Creation as such, let alone the stars that so inspired Paracelsus— which resulted, among other things, in virulent attacks on the Mass as nothing but a performance piece, a falsely pious form of theater. As Eamon Duffy astutely observes, “Iconoclasm was the central sacrament of the reform.” This anxiety, habitually erupting into psychosis, pervades the early modern period and is found to a profound degree in even some of the finest poets of the age, particularly Edmund Spenser, John Milton, and even George Herbert. More recently, it haunts the philosophy of Jacques Ellul, which renders his thought austere and off-putting for all his cogent insights into the problems of modernity. Reform achieved its telos in the Enlightenment, and then it was left to the Romantics to reimagine the role of the maker in human societies.
The Romantics rejected the sterile self-assurance of the modern subject and upheld a vision of being human that both looked back to an integral imagination of medieval Christendom (as in Novalis’s Christianity, or Europe?) and forward to a transfigured human society. Much of this, as in Wordsworth and above all Goethe, had to do with finding a new way of seeing the world. For Wordsworth, the goal was to reenter the garden from which we were expelled and become like children again, as he writes in “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” its language resonant with the theological aesthetic of Thomas Traherne:
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
For Goethe, this project even sought to reform the “gloomy empirical-mechanical-dogmatic torture chamber” (his words) that science had become in the wake of Bacon, Descartes, and Newton.  For Shelley, like Goethe, the poetic is not restricted to the crafting of verse so much as to the making implied in the Greek term poiesis, “the activity in which a person brings something into being that did not exist before.”  This kind of making, then, is potential in every domain of human experience, from the fine and practical arts to philosophy to economics to politics to domestic life. As Shelley writes in The Defence of Poetry, “Poetry is indeed something divine. It is at once the centre and circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends all science, the root and blossom of all other systems of thought.”  But as Keats reminds us, the action of this making influences not only external productions, but is essential to his understanding of Creation as “The vale of Soul-making” and the development of the Self. 
The Romantic sensibility, though it fell from favor, never really vanished but persisted in subterranean streams as a companionate “alternative modernity.” Often, it intersected with occultism and various forms of mysticism, both orthodox (as in the case of Paul Claudel) as well as heterodox (as in William Butler Yeats). Romanticism is intuitively if not institutionally religious, concerned with what is sacred, with the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, so it is no surprise that a movement or aesthetic so concerned with transcendence should find comrades-at-arms in other movements exiled from the power structures of the Master Culture. My claim is that the souls who have felt such a profound attraction to the Occult Revival of the nineteenth century, to Blavatskian Theosophy and Anthroposophy, to Guenonian metaphysics, to the New Age, neo-paganism, and other such movements are driven by a desire for the sacred they find unavailable in mainstream forums of religious expression, which are all too often compromised by worldly concerns and politics, if not stomach-turning scandal. Who wouldn’t take a chance on Romanticism when the institutional is so compromised? It is not for nothing that Owen Barfield named his book on the contributions of Rudolf Steiner Romanticism Comes of Age.
This idea of this kind of making has been all but forgotten in the age of prefabrication and mechanical reproduction, a point made long ago by Walter Benjamin. In the fine arts, for example, performances are so often duplicated, whether by analog or digitally, that their splendor becomes dissipated in modernity’s ocean of white noise. We treat them as wallpaper. But even wallpaper, William Morris would have argued, should not be treated as wallpaper! For Morris, the common things of our homes were not meant to be common things and the mechanization and banality of even our environments he viewed as a “desecration” that led ultimately exploitation and war.  He lived in an awareness that “the adventure of freedom is also always a realisation of beauty and a communion with the earth.”  Who hasn’t recognized the charm, the individuality, of even a dilapidated barn, exuding a presence that far surpasses that of even the most expensive prefabricated McMansion? What have we lost in the migration from wood, plaster, stone, and brick to Styrofoam, pressed board, PVC pipe, and vinyl siding? I remember as a boy going to visit friends in the newly minted subdivisions outside of my hometown of Detroit. All the houses looked alike. It was easy to get lost, a fitting metaphor for our environments and, indeed, for our times.
Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses.
1. Nicolas Berdyaev, The Meaning of the Creative Act, trans. Donald A. Lowrie (New York: Collier Books, 1962), 91.
2. Paracelsus, Astronomia Magna in Paracelsus: Essential Readings, selected and trans. Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke (Wellingborough, UK: Crucible, 1990), 110.
Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992), 480.
3. Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992), 480.
4. Maxim 430, from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Maxims and Reflections, trans. Elizabeth Stopp, ed. Peter Hutchinson (London: Penguin Books, 1998), 55.
5. Donald E. Polkinghorne, Practice and the Human Sciences: The Case for a Judgment-Based Practice of Care (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2004), 115
6. Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Defence of Poetry in Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, ed. Donald h. Reiman and Neil Fraistat, Norton Critical Editions (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 202), 531.
7. John Keats, “Letter to George and Georgiana Keats, 14 February...3 May, 1819” in John Keats, Selected Letters, ed. Robert Giddings, rev. Jon Mee (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 232.
8. Jack Lindsay, William Morris: His Life and Work (New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1979), 217.
9. Ibid., 378.