BY: MATTHEW CHIN
At 37, Van Gogh shot himself and died in his brother’s arms, but before his death, he struggled with philosophical concepts of identity, purpose, and searching for a moral compass. His art became his outlet to find peace, although his profoundly unique and controversial artwork was only truly appreciated after his death..
In his lifetime he only sold one painting. He traveled learning new techniques but remained fixated on painting an atmosphere of brooding darkness.
Apart from painting, Van Gogh expressed his thoughts and ideas in letters to his brother encompassing the philosophical concepts tackled by even the most elite philosophers such as the nature of existence and understanding how to live. His revelations and perceptions shed light on how he wanted to lead his life and work towards finding peace.
At 25, his letter to his brother explains eloquently something we all struggle with— working for a lifelong goal rather than becoming successful overnight.
This letter was written in April 1878:
I’ve been thinking about what we discussed, and I couldn’t help thinking of the words ‘we are today what we were yesterday’. This isn’t to say that one must stand still and ought not try to develop oneself, on the contrary, there are compelling reasons to do and think so.
But in order to remain faithful to those words one may not retreat and, once one has started to see things with a clear and trusting eye, one ought not to abandon or deviate from that.
They who said ‘we are today what we were yesterday’, those were honnêtes hommes, which is apparent from the constitution they drew up, which will remain for all time and of which it has rightly been said that it was written with a ray from on high and a finger of fire. It is good to be an ‘honnête homme’ and truly to endeavour to become one both almost and altogether, and one does well if one believes that being an ‘homme intérieur et spirituel’ is part of it.
If one only knew for certain that one belonged among them, one would always go one’s way, calmly and collectedly, never doubting that things would turn out well. There was once a man who went into a church one day and asked, can it be that my zeal has deceived me, that I have turned down the wrong path and have gone about things the wrong way, oh, if only I could rid myself of this uncertainty and have the firm conviction that I will eventually overcome and succeed. And then a voice answered him, “And if you knew that for certain, what would you do? Act now as though you knew it for certain and thou shalt not be ashamed.” Then the man went on his way, not faithless but believing, and returned to his work, no longer doubting or wavering.
As far as being an homme intérieur et spirituel is concerned, couldn’t one develop that in oneself through knowledge of history in general and of certain people of all eras in particular, from biblical times to the Revolution and from The odyssey to the books of Dickens and Michelet? And couldn’t one learn something from the work of the likes of Rembrandt or from Weeds by Breton, or The four times of the day by Millet, or Saying grace by Degroux, or Brion, or The conscript by Degroux (or else by Conscience), or his Apothecary, or The large oaks by Dupré, or even the mills and sand flats by Michel?
It’s by persevering in those ideas and things that one at last becomes thoroughly leavened with a good leaven, that of sorrowful yet always rejoicing, and which will become apparent when the time of fruitfulness is come in our lives, the fruitfulness of good works.
The ray from on high doesn’t always shine on us, and is sometimes behind the clouds, and without that light a person cannot live and is worth nothing and can do nothing good, and anyone who maintains that one can live without faith in that higher light and doesn’t worry about attaining it will end up being disappointed.
We’ve talked quite a lot about what we feel to be our duty and how we should arrive at something good, and we rightly came to the conclusion that first of all our goal must be to find a certain position and a profession to which we can devote ourselves entirely.
And I think that we also agreed on this point, namely that one must pay special attention to the end, and that a victory achieved after lifelong work and effort is better than one achieved more quickly.
He who lives uprightly and experiences true difficulty and disappointment and is nonetheless undefeated by it is worth more than someone who prospers and knows nothing but relative good fortune. For who are they, those in whom one most clearly notices something higher? — it is those to whom the words ‘workers, your life is sad, workers, you suffer in life, workers, you are blessed’ are applicable, it is those who show the signs of ‘bearing a whole life of strife and work without giving way’. It is good to try and become thus.
So we go on our way ‘undefessi favente Deo’.
As far as I’m concerned, I must become a good minister, who has something to say that is good and can be useful in the world, and perhaps it’s good after all that I have a relatively long time of preparation and become secure in a firm conviction before I’m called upon to speak about it to others. It is wise, before one begins that work, to gather together a wealth of things that could benefit others.
Do let us go on quietly, examining all things and holding fast to that which is good, and trying always to learn more that is useful, and gaining more experience.
Woe-spiritedness is quite a good thing to have, if only one writes it as two words, woe is in all people, everyone has reason enough for it, but one must also have spirit, the more the better, and it is good to be someone who never despairs.
If we but try to live uprightly, then we shall be all right, even though we shall inevitably experience true sorrow and genuine disappointments, and also probably make real mistakes and do wrong things, but it’s certainly true that it is better to be fervent in spirit, even if one accordingly makes more mistakes, than narrow-minded and overly cautious. It is good to love as much as one can, for therein lies true strength, and he who loves much does much and is capable of much, and that which is done with love is well done. If one is moved by some book or other, for instance, just to mention something, ‘The swallow, the lark, the nightingale’, The longing for autumn, ‘From here I see a lady’, ‘Never this unique little village’ by Michelet, it’s because it’s written from the heart in simplicity and with poverty of spirit.
If one were to say but few words, though ones with meaning, one would do better than to say many that were only empty sounds, and just as easy to utter as they were of little use.
Love is the best and most noble thing in the human heart, especially when it has been tried and tested in life like gold in the fire, happy is he and strong in himself who has loved much and, even if he has wavered and doubted, has kept that divine fire and has returned to that which was in the beginning and shall never die. If only one continues to love faithfully that which is verily worthy of love, and does not squander his love on truly trivial and insignificant and faint-hearted things, then one will gradually become more enlightened and stronger. The sooner one seeks to become competent in a certain position and in a certain profession, and adopts a fairly independent way of thinking and acting, and the more one observes fixed rules, the stronger one’s character becomes, and yet that doesn’t mean that one has to become narrow-minded.
It is wise to do that, for life is but short and time passes quickly. If one is competent in one thing and understands one thing well, one gains at the same time insight into and knowledge of many other things into the bargain.
It’s sometimes good to go about much in the world and to be among people, and at times one is actually obliged and called upon to do so, or it can be one way of ‘throwing oneself into one’s work unreservedly and with all one’s might’, but he who actually goes quietly about his work, alone, preferring to have but very few friends, goes the most safely among people and in the world. One should never trust it when one is without difficulties or some worry or obstacle, and one shouldn’t make things too easy for oneself. Even in the most cultured circles and the best surroundings and circumstances, one should retain something of the original nature of a Robinson Crusoe or a savage, for otherwise one hath not root in himself, and never let the fire in his soul go out but keep it going, there will always be a time when it will come in useful. And whosoever continues to hold fast to poverty for himself, and embraces it, possesses a great treasure and will always hear the voice of his conscience speaking clearly. Whosoever hears and follows the voice in his innermost being, which is God’s best gift, ultimately finds therein a friend and is never alone.
Happy is he who has faith in God, for he shall overcome all of life’s difficulties in the end, though it be not without pain and sorrow. One cannot do better than to hold fast to the thought of God and endeavour to learn more of Him, amidst everything, in all circumstances, in all places and at all times; one can do this with the Bible as with all other things. It is good to go on believing that everything is miraculous, more so than one can comprehend, for that is the truth, it is good to remain sensitive and lowly and meek in heart, even though one sometimes has to hide that feeling, because that is often necessary, it is good to be very knowledgeable about the things that are hidden from the wise and prudent of the world but that are revealed as though by nature to the poor and simple, to women and babes. For what can one learn that is better than that which God has put by nature into every human soul, that which in the depths of every soul lives and loves, hopes and believes, unless one should wilfully destroy it? There, in that, is the need for nothing less than the boundless and miraculous, and a man does well if he is satisfied with nothing less and doesn’t feel at home until he has acquired it.
That is the avowal that all great men have expressed in their works, all who have thought a little more deeply and have sought and worked a little harder and have loved more than others, who have launched out into the deep of the sea of life. Launching out into the deep is what we too must do if we want to catch anything, and if it sometimes happens that we have to work the whole night and catch nothing, then it is good not to give up after all but to let down the nets again at dawn.
So let us simply go on quietly, each his own way, always following the light ‘sursum corda’, and as such who know that we are what others are and that others are what we are, and that it is good to have love one to another namely of the best kind, that believeth all things and hopeth all things, endureth all things and never faileth.
And not troubling ourselves too much if we have shortcomings, for he who has none has a shortcoming nonetheless, namely that he has none, and he who thinks he is perfectly wise would do well to start over from the beginning and become a fool.
We are today what we were yesterday, namely ‘honnêtes hommes’, but ones who must be tried with the fire of life to be innerly strengthened and confirmed in that which they are by nature through the grace of God.
May it be so with us, old boy, and I wish you well on your way, and God be with you in all things, and make you succeed at that, that is what is wished you with a hearty handshake at your departure.
Your most loving brother,
Ever Yours: The Essential Letter is an anthology containing 265 letters written by of Van Gogh, which contains about a third of all the surviving letters he wrote.