Philosopher Jules Evans introduces his talk on the great English mystic Thomas Traherne, to take place at the Idler Academy on Thursday 23rd October
THOMAS Traherne was a 17th century Anglican parson, who lived in Hereford. He wrote some poetry and some religious prose. He was never famous or well-connected, like John Donne or George Herbert. He was not some radical outsider, like William Blake. He was uncelebrated in his lifetime, and remained almost completely unknown until 1896, when some of his manuscripts were discovered in a wheelbarrow outside a London antiques bookstore, including a book called Centuries of Meditation, which is a contemplative guide made up of 400 brief meditations.
Since then, Centuries has been recognized by a handful of people as a classic. C. S. Lewis called it “almost the most beautiful book in the English language”. Aldous Huxley quotes from it liberally in his Perennial Philosophy. Northrop Frye thought it one of the great works of western literature. Traherne is loved by some of the best minds in contemporary Christianity — N. T. Wright, David Ford, David Bentley Hart. Last week, the Centuries was voted by the Church Times as the 15th greatest Christian book ever!
Yet he’s still largely unknown, even among Christians, even among Anglicans. There is no major edition of Centuries available, none by a major publisher. It’s bizarre. In rock terms, it’s like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon not being on general release.
I suspect (hope, pray) that Traherne’s Centuries is going to become much better known and loved, and not just by Christians. I think it’s a book of great beauty, and profound wisdom about human consciousness, how it can get stuck in suffering, and how it can come back to itself and remember its essential richness and blessedness.
Reading Traherne is a mind-expanding experience. He draws deeply on the wisdom of ancient Greek philosophy, and its understanding of how our thoughts and cognitive habits can cause us suffering. But he goes deeper than that, to talk about the ground of our being, our consciousness, its expanse, its luminosity, its bliss. In this, it reminds me of some Hindu mysticism, like the Upanishads.
On October 23, we’re going to discover Traherne together, through readings from the Centuries, through his poetry, through music inspired by his work, and through discussion. You don’t have to be Christian by any means – if you like the poetry of Blake or Herbert, for example, you will love Traherne.
Here’s a taster from the Centuries, which I recently read at a god-daughter’s christening. He’s talking about how the world appeared to him when he was a child:
The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold: the gates were at first the end of the world. The green trees when I saw them first through one of the gates transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things: The Men! O what venerable and reverend creatures did the aged seem! Immortal Cherubims! And young men glittering and sparkling Angels, and maids strange seraphic pieces of life and beauty! Boys and girls tumbling in the street, and playing, were moving jewels. I knew not that they were born or should die; But all things abided eternally as they were in their proper places. Eternity was manifest in the Light of the Day, and something infinite behind everything appeared which talked with my expectation and moved my desire. The city seemed to stand in Eden, or to be built in Heaven. The streets were mine, the temple was mine, the people were mine, their clothes and gold and silver were mine, as much as their sparkling eyes, fair skins and ruddy faces. The skies were mine, and so were the sun and moon and stars, and all the World was mine; and I the only spectator and enjoyer of it. I knew no churlish proprieties, nor bounds, nor divisions: but all proprieties and divisions were mine: all treasures and the possessors of them. So that with much ado I was corrupted, and made to learn the dirty devices of this world. Which now I unlearn, and become, as it were, a little child again that I may enter into the Kingdom of God.
I hope you can make it on the 23rd to join the Traherne Revolution!
Jules Evans is the author of Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations (Ebury Press). He is also Policy Director at the Centre for History of Emotions.