Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
 
The Æsculapian Theory
By Walter Pater (1839–1894)
 
From Marius the Epicurean

HE caught a lesson from what was then said still somewhat beyond his years, a lesson in the skilled cultivation of life, of experience, of opportunity, which seemed to be the aim of the young priest’s recommendations. The sum of them, through various forgotten intervals of argument, as might really have happened in a dream, was the precept, repeated many times under slightly varied aspects, of a diligent promotion of the capacity of the eye, inasmuch as in the eye would lie for him the determining influence of life: he was of the number of those who, in the words of a poet who came long after, must be “made perfect by the love of visible beauty.” The discourse was conceived from the point of view of a theory Marius found afterwards in Plato’s Phædrus, which supposes men’s spirits susceptible to certain influences, diffused after the manner of streams or currents, by fair things or persons visibly present—green fields, for instance, or children’s faces—into the air around them, acting, in the case of some peculiar natures, like potent material essences, and conforming the seer to themselves as with some cunning physical necessity. This theory, in itself so fantastic, had, however, determined in a range of methodical suggestions, altogether quaint here and there from their circumstantial minuteness. And throughout, the possibility of some vision, as of a new city coming down “like a bride out of heaven,” a vision still indeed, it might seem, a long way off, but to be granted perhaps one day to the eyes thus trained, was presented as the motive of this laboriously practical direction.
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  “If thou wouldst have all about thee like the colours of some fresh picture, in a clear light,” so the discourse recommenced after a pause, “be temperate in thy religious motions, in love, in wine, in all things, and of a peaceful heart with thy fellows.” To keep the eye clear by a sort of exquisite personal alacrity and cleanliness, extending even to his dwelling-place; to discriminate ever more and more fastidiously, select form and colour in things from what was less select; to meditate much on beautiful visible objects, on objects, more especially, connected with the period of youth—on children at play in the morning, the trees in early spring, on young animals, on the fashions and amusements of young men; to keep ever by him if it were but a single choice flower, a graceful animal or sea-shell, as a token and representative of the whole kingdom of such things; to avoid jealously in his way through the world everything repugnant to sight; and should any circumstance tempt him to a general converse in the range of such objects, to disentangle himself from that circumstance at any cost of place, money, or opportunity;—such were in brief outline the duties recognised, the rights demanded, in this new formula of life. And it was delivered with conviction; as if the speaker verily saw into the recesses of the mental and physical being of the listener, while his own expression of perfect temperance had in it a fascinating power—the merely negative element of purity, the mere freedom of taint or flaw, in exercise as a positive influence. Long afterwards, when Marius read the Charmides—that other dialogue of Plato into which he seems to have expressed the very genius of old Greek temperance—the image of this speaker came back vividly before him to take the chief part in the conversation.  2
 
 
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