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The Dance of Life

Havelock Ellis


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Tags: Essays » Philosophy

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Description

The Dance of Life was Havelock Ellis' best selling book, first published in 1923. Here, in a series of essays, he promotes a philosophy of development of the self via the Art of Dancing, the Art of Thinking, the Art of Writing, the Art of Religion, and the Art of Morals. With many unique viewpoints and insights into literature and the creative process.

This book has 144 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1923.

Production notes: This ebook of The Dance of Life was published by Global Grey on the 19th July 2021. The artwork used for the cover is 'Spring Dance' by Arthur F. Mathews.

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Excerpt from 'The Dance of Life'

It has always been difficult for Man to realise that his life is all an art. It has been more difficult to conceive it so than to act it so. For that is always how he has more or less acted it. At the beginning, indeed, the primitive philosopher whose business it was to account for the origin of things usually came to the conclusion that the whole universe was a work of art, created by some Supreme Artist, in the way of artists, out of material that was practically nothing, even out of his own excretions, a method which, as children sometimes instinctively feel, is a kind of creative art. The most familiar to us of these primitive philosophical statements—and really a statement that is as typical as any—is that of the Hebrews in the first chapter of their Book of Genesis. We read there how the whole cosmos was fashioned out of nothing, in a measurable period of time by the art of one Jehovah, who proceeded methodically by first forming it in the rough, and gradually working in the details, the finest and most delicate last, just as a sculptor might fashion a statue. We may find many statements of the like kind even as far away as the Pacific. And—also even at the same distance—the artist and the craftsman, who resembled the divine creator of the world by making the most beautiful and useful things for Mankind, himself also partook of the same divine nature. Thus, in Samoa, as also in Tonga, the carpenter, who built canoes, occupied a high and almost sacred position, approaching that of the priest. Even among ourselves, with our Roman traditions, the name Pontiff, or Bridge-Builder, remains that of an imposing and hieratic personage.

But that is only the primitive view of the world. When Man developed, when he became more scientific and more moralistic, however much his practice remained essentially that of the artist, his conception became much less so. He was learning to discover the mystery of measurement; he was approaching the beginnings of geometry and mathematics; he was at the same time becoming warlike. So he saw things in straight lines, more rigidly; he formulated laws and commandments. It was, Einstein assures us, the right way. But it was, at all events in the first place, most unfavourable to the view of life as an art. It remains so even to-day.

Yet there are always some who, deliberately or by instinct, have perceived the immense significance in life of the conception of art. That is especially so as regards the finest thinkers of the two countries which, so far as we may divine,—however difficult it may here be to speak positively and by demonstration,—have had the finest civilisations, China and Greece. The wisest and most recognisably greatest practical philosophers of both these lands have believed that the whole of life, even government, is an art of definitely like kind with the other arts, such as that of music or the dance. We may, for instance, recall to memory one of the most typical of Greeks. Of Protagoras, calumniated by Plato,—though, it is interesting to observe that Plato’s own transcendental doctrine of Ideas has been regarded as an effort to escape from the solvent influence of Protagoras’ logic,—it is possible for the modern historian of philosophy to say that “the greatness of this man can scarcely be measured.” It was with measurement that his most famous saying was concerned: “Man is the measure of all things, of those which exist and of those which have no existence.” It was by his insistence on Man as the active creator of life and knowledge, the artist of the world, moulding it to his own measure, that Protagoras is interesting to us to-day. He recognised that there are no absolute criteria by which to judge actions. He was the father of relativism and of phenomenalism, probably the initiator of the modern doctrine that the definitions of geometry are only approximately true abstractions from empirical experiences. We need not, and probably should not, suppose that in undermining dogmatism he was setting up an individual subjectivism. It was the function of Man in the world, rather than of the individual, that he had in mind when he enunciated his great principle, and it was with the reduction of human activity and conduct to art that he was mainly concerned. His projects for the art of living began with speech, and he was a pioneer in the arts of language, the initiator of modern grammar. He wrote treatises on many special arts, as well as the general treatise “On the Art” among the pseudo-Hippocratic writings,—if we may with Gomperz attribute it to him,—which embodies the spirit of modern positive science.

Hippias, the philosopher of Elis, a contemporary of Protagoras, and like him commonly classed among the “Sophists,” cultivated the largest ideal of life as an art which embraced all arts, common to all mankind as a fellowship of brothers, and at one with natural law which transcends the convention of human laws. Plato made fun of him, and that was not hard to do, for a philosopher who conceived the art of living as so large could not possibly at every point adequately play at it. But at this distance it is his ideal that mainly concerns us, and he really was highly accomplished, even a pioneer, in many of the multifarious activities he undertook. He was a remarkable mathematician; he was an astronomer and geometer; he was a copious poet in the most diverse modes, and, moreover, wrote on phonetics, rhythm, music, and mnemonics; he discussed the theories of sculpture and painting; he was both mythologist and ethnologist, as well as a student of chronology; he had mastered many of the artistic crafts. On one occasion, it is said, he appeared at the Olympic gathering in garments which, from the sandals on his feet to the girdle round his waist and the rings on his fingers, had been made by his own hands. Such a being of kaleidoscopic versatility, Gomperz remarks, we call contemptuously a Jack-of-all-trades. We believe in subordinating a man to his work. But other ages have judged differently. The fellow citizens of Hippias thought him worthy to be their ambassador to the Peloponnesus. In another age of immense human activity, the Renaissance, the vast-ranging energies of Leo Alberti were honoured, and in yet a later like age, Diderot—Pantophile as Voltaire called him—displayed a like fiery energy of wide-ranging interests, although it was no longer possible to attain the same level of wide-ranging accomplishment. Of course the work of Hippias was of unequal value, but some of it was of firm quality and he shrank from no labour. He seems to have possessed a gracious modesty, quite unlike the conceited pomposity Plato was pleased to attribute to him. He attached more importance than was common among the Greeks to devotion to truth, and he was cosmopolitan in spirit. He was famous for his distinction between Convention and Nature, and Plato put into his mouth the words: “All of you who are here present I reckon to be kinsmen and friends and fellow citizens, and by nature, not by law; for by nature like is akin to like, whereas law is the tyrant of mankind, and often compels us to do many things that are against nature.” Hippias was in the line of those whose supreme ideal is totality of existence. Ulysses, as Benn remarks, was in Greek myth the representative of the ideal, and its supreme representative in real life has in modern times been Goethe.

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