Philosophy of the Bouquet
Here is a bouquet of flowers, made beautiful in its diversity, and in its variety of colours. But also made beautiful in the fast-paced decisions we made as we entered the Meeting House this morning. As we approached the vase, we perhaps unconsciously made some snap decisions about how we would thread our flower into this bouquet; there were choices surrounding the flower we would contribute, where we would position it within the bouquet, and even how we would orientate it in relation to the other flowers already present. Whenever we arrange a bouquet, we’re making a similar set of decisions, and they’re not necessarily calculated decisions (they’re probably not), they’re decisions based on our intuition, and based on our sense of what we feel looks right. An interesting phenomenon for us to consider. We look at a bouquet in progress, and we discern what we need to do to it, the foliage we need to add, the gaps we need to fill, the clusters of sameness here or there that we need to distribute more evenly, the balance we’re trying to achieve, a balance which counter-intuitively arises out of chaos, out of the odd numbers of flowers. We arrange the bouquet much like how we arrange baubles on a Christmas tree. Slowly we add layers to the bouquet, and slowly it takes on a unique character, which nonetheless conforms to an indwelling sense of beauty. An indwelling sense which seems to be, broadly speaking at least, shared, because if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be able to collectively distinguish between what constitutes a good or bad bouquet. And although of course there are varieties of opinion on such matters, there does seem to be a consensus of belief as well, for after all, if there was no consensus then the profession of the florist could not exist.
You’ve all heard the expression, ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, and yet we often act as if that were not the case. We discuss and debate aesthetic taste all the time. And when asked why we think something is beautiful, we don’t just reference our own subjectivity, we give reasons. We look out across a landscape, we look upon a face, we stand in a garden, we look up at a tree, we wait for a sun set, we look at a painting, and we behold beauty. But where is that beauty located? That may seem like a strange question. We know where it’s located, it’s located right there, it’s a property of the bouquet, the bouquet is beautiful. And I’ve already mentioned some of the properties which make the bouquet beautiful: the colours, the balance, and we could also include the juxtapositions between the flowers, the bouquet’s fragrance, and also our tactile relationship to the bouquet - after all, we have all touched an aspect of it this morning.
So, if we were to all leave the Meeting House, momentarily, leaving our bouquet here on our table, as we’re standing outside, would our bouquet still be beautiful? If the bouquet was not being perceived, not being looked at, would it retain its property of beauty? And it is not at all clear that it would. It depends on if we’re going to regard beauty as an objective reality which actually exists in the real world. But not only would we have to assume that beauty exists in the real world, that it is an objective reality, we would also have to trust that we are having the same direct experience of that real world. And that does not seem to be the case. Our senses do not seem to relay the world to us as it actually is. And so, this causes an interesting conflict. On one hand we seem to be able to reach a consensus on what constitutes beauty, we seem to be able to agree on the beauty of the sunset, the flowers, and the rolling landscape, and yet, at the same time, that beauty does not seem to be located within objective reality. It does not seem to exist as a thing in and of itself outside of us. And that seems like a strange paradox. How can we have a shared experience of something, beauty, and it not be an objective reality?
Immanuel Kant was an 18th Century German philosopher, and very influential to several of the thinkers I am interested in, such as Jung, Steiner, Barfield (who we talked about last week), Coleridge, and Emerson, to name some key players. And a big part of his philosophical system had to do with beauty, that branch of philosophy called ‘Aesthetics’, which is the branch we need to use if we’re to consider our bouquet of flowers this morning. In the rest of this address then, I’m not going to say Kant ‘said this’, or Kant ‘said that’ (I’m not going to refer to Kant again), but just so you know, here on out I am either explaining how I understand an aspect of Kant’s work, or I’m using his ideas as a jumping off point to illustrate a broader point.
Okay, so back to ‘Beauty’. Beauty is a subjective appreciation (meaning our appreciation is based upon our own personal beliefs and feelings). But it’s also strangely universal. When we see a sunset, we do not say “that sunset is beautiful to me.” We say, “that sunset is beautiful.” So often in ordinary speech we find it necessary to qualify when we are giving a personal/subjective opinion on something, but not however when it comes to beauty, unless we’re being asked specifically for our own individual opinion. Beauty is subjective, but universally so. So, we might consider the universal dimension to beauty: what is it? One possibility that I’ve already dismissed is this idea that beauty is something outside of us, an objective reality. And that cannot possibly be the case. After all, it is not possible to measure beauty, beauty emerges generally not as a specific thing in the world. Rather it emerges and pervades a confluence of things. We could think of lots of examples to illustrate this: a singular noise is not beautiful, but when it is strung together into a concerto, it is. Or we could think of Emerson’s example that he gives in the beginning of his book ‘Nature’ - the farmer’s individual plot of land is not beautiful, but the vista, the landscape, not owned by anyone, is beautiful. Or we could think of our bouquet. A stem is not beautiful, but when beheld as part of a flower, it is, and when brought together with others, juxtaposed, and arrayed in such a fashion, even more so.
Okay, so beauty is a sense which we can discern, which pervades through things. We know it when we see it. But it’s not something in the world, rather it is something in us, it is in our psyches, in our minds. And in our minds, beauty also serves a purpose which goes beyond merely evaluating things in the world, such as our bouquet. Beauty serves as a governing principle within the mind. Beauty arbitrates between ideas in the mind, as we encounter them, consider them, and ruminate upon them. And in this respect, our sense of what is beautiful, and our intuition, is very closely related. And it’s in that relationship between our interior sense of beauty, and our intuition, that we discover the seat of our soul, our spirit, our character. There is an interior architecture of the psyche, which is our interior sense of beauty/intuition, and as we encounter ideas/concepts/phraseologies/rhythms, we weigh them in our minds, we weigh them against this interior architecture, against our spirit, our character. And as such we believe only those things which appear to us inwardly as true, which resonate with us as beautiful. This is what constitutes our individual search for meaning and purpose. This is our spiritual journey.
Our spiritual journey is almost like a process of play with the nature of beauty. So that in the same way that we might play with the bouquet before us, and experiment with moving flowers, adding or subtracting foliage, moving towards a greater balance, intuiting as we go the extent to which the bouquet before us is conforming to our own interior sense of beauty, so likewise, we freely curate, shape, and add to our own world of meaning. And in this way we bring into ever increasing alignment our own interior sense of beauty/intuition/character with our exterior expression of beliefs/actions, and personality. But when that process is impeded, we naturally find that deeply frustrating. We could imagine, hypothetically, being in a flower arranging class, and the teacher giving us a set of rules, the dos and don’ts of flower arranging, and we could imagine that teacher giving us a particular rule, that when applied in practice, just seems wrong to us - it seems to conflict with our own interior sense of beauty. Even if we followed the teacher’s line of reasoning, and understood her/his rationale for said rule, it would make no difference, it would still jar with our aesthetic sensibility. We would then have to determine the kind of person we were, one who followed, or one that takes the narrow way of nonconformity, and of course to go that way would be, as Emerson put it, to endure the “world whip[ing] you with its displeasure…” The scorn of a florist, I think the least of us could endure; the scorn of a community, or worse still a religion, now, that is a real test for our characters.
William Blake captures this well in his poem: “I went to the Garden of Love, and saw what [I’d] never seen…” But then… “The priests in black gowns, [that] were walking their rounds, [bound] with briars, my joys & desires.” The impulse being frustrated here, is the search for beauty, which is the search for God, which is the search for the Self, which are all one and the same. The search for God begins with looking deeply into ourselves, by recognising the small voice within, recognising the architecture of our psyche, which speaks to us, through our internal sense of beauty and intuition. And in the same way that beauty is subjective, but universally so, so is our spirit, so is our character, so is our intuition. We have our Spirit, which is in relationship to ‘the Spirit’, we have our soul, which is in relationship to ‘the over-Soul’ (to use Emerson’s terminology), and we have the God within, which in the same way, has a universal dimension to it. There is a great correspondence. This process of play then, this shaping and intuiting after our own world of meaning, represents the spiritual voyage before us, a voyage which is profoundly open, and liberating. Because unlike the art of flower arranging, in which we are somewhat limited by the constraints of the medium, within our own psychical world, within our own imagination, there are no such limitations. Our communing with God therein, within the recesses of the Self, are limited only by the scope of our own imagination.
One of the ways that our imaginal world is more liberated than our perception of things as they are upon the material plane, relates to our conception of time and space. The bouquet is bounded by both time and space. By space, in that it can only be perceived here, not anywhere else in the world, and by time, in that it will be dismantled at the end of the service. But even if it wasn’t dismantled, it is still bounded by time - every moment that passes its constitution would change, it would wilt, and ultimately it would break down entirely, and no longer resemble what it is now. But in our souls, in our hearts, the bouquet could exist indefinitely. Christianity talks about this a lot. The things which are seen are temporal, the things which are unseen are eternal. The world is ephemeral, dust to dust, but that which inhabits the spiritual realm, the imaginal realm, is everlasting. In saying that I’m obviously assuming that my imaginal realm is not bound by the material, not bound within the biological constraints of my brain, which it obviously could be, but I would tentatively suggest otherwise. In the same manner that my conception of beauty is subjective, but universally so, it supersedes me. And likewise, my intuition, character, and spirit, all supersede me. The creative possibilities then within our own world, within our own imaginal realm, are unlimited, as I’ve said, not bound by space and time, but also not limited in the way that artistic mediums are limited, nor even limited by the rules of logic, for does not our intuition supersede logic?
As we delve deeper and deeper into these, our palaces of devotion within the depths of the Self, as we curate that space, that is worship. As Emerson expressed it, “thought is devout, and devotion is thought. Deep calls unto deep.” Therein we contend with ideas, and those ideas invoke from us feelings, aesthetic appreciations, which texture the landscape of this, our interior realm, and in turn, imbue aspects of it with an elevated sense of meaning. Which is a strange thing to consider - to voyage within these interior realms, and find therein meaning, and a world of possibility. What therein might we hope for, look for, what might we discover? This voyage of beauty appreciation which we can undertake within the imaginal realm, of course corresponds with the voyage of beauty appreciation that we can choose to go on here upon the material plane, but it is by nature bounded here. But nevertheless, our aesthetic encounter with beauty on the material plane is delightful to us, it invokes wonder from us, a sense of how extraordinary the world is, and as we move through the world, and see things of such profundity, such ingenious beauty, it is as we glimpse the very horizons of that which we can become, that it awakens in us the to the greatest possibility. And though here it is bounded by space and time, beyond here, within the depths of our interior infinitudes, it is boundless. That is us, that is God, that is the everlasting voyage before us.