Gerard Manley Hopkins was a philosopher, and not only a philosopher but a prophet, and not only a prophet but a priest, for he saw the intimate eternal reality of all created things and called us to share the vision and knowledge that the whole world is charged with the grandeur of God…
Believing that Twitter should be a conduit for philosophical riddles instead of cliches, I tweeted last week a thought that came while reading a new book on Gerard Manley Hopkins. The tweet was, “It is through your haecceity that your quiddity will be perfected.”
Edited by Hopkins scholar Margaret R. Ellsbert, The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins is an annotated anthology of the tortured poet’s poems, letters, sermons, and spiritual notes. In the book, I was introduced to the philosophical term haecceity—a concept of Duns Scotus which signifies the quality of a created being that makes it unique. Haecceity might be seen to contrast Aquinas’ term quiddity, which signifies the universal or eternal quality of a created being—quiddity being the “whatness” of a thing, and haecceity being the “thisness” of a thing.
As I am an armchair quarterback, a Sunday painter, and a poetaster, I must also admit to being what might be called a fuzzy philosopher. Scholasticism makes me sleepy. I get drowsy with Descartes, nod off over Nietzsche, and am likely to keel over from Kirkegaard. But the idea of haecceity was exciting. Duns Scotus captured in a philosophical concept what every poet, saint, and child has experienced—that the individuality and uniqueness of a thing is what connects with his own existence. The individual energy of a thing is the connector to its eternal nature. The haecceity is therefore not in competition with the quiddity. Instead the unique life of each created thing is what opens the observer to the apprehension of the eternal.
It is the haecceity that causes a child to gaze in awe at the toiling ant, the tiny bird, the oak, the mountain, or the sea. It is the haecceity of a thing that confounds the mystic, inspires the poet, and motivates the scientist to explore the world with wonder. They do so because they have perceived (even if they are unconscious of it) an eternal dimension to the created object.
The haecceity of the object is what Hopkins termed inscape while his term instress is best described as the connection that is made as the beholder apprehends the inscape.
So he explains in one of his notebooks,
There is one notable dead tree… the inscape markedly holding its most simple and beautiful oneness up from the ground through a graceful swerve below (I think) the spring of the branches up to the tops of the timber. I saw the inscape freshly, as if my mind were still growing, though with a companion the eye and the ear are for the most part shut and instress cannot come.
Beholding the invisible within the visible is the gift of the poet, and Hopkins is one of the mystical masters. So he saw the majesty of his crucified savior in a whirling Windhover, spotted the variegated nature of a fallen world in “skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow; For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim; Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings.” It was this haecceity that caused him to see the grandeur of God swirling and whirling around him with as much vim, verve, and veracity as the whirling wordplay with which he expressed his vision.
This same transaction with the invisible is notable in William Blake, who, in Auguries of Innocence calls us, “To see a World in a Grain of Sand, And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, And Eternity in an hour….” The same ecstatic vision of the invisible radiating through the natural world flickers in the best of the romantics, the metaphysicals, and even in the modernist T.S. Eliot.
Why is this mystical vision important? Because in our modern world we don’t go outside. What I mean is that we are so stuck in our screens that we ignore the natural world. Hopkins was intensely aware of his surroundings and made detailed notes of the sensations, colors, activities, and life of the natural world that surrounded him. If we never observe the natural world, we will never experience the inscape, and we will never know the joy of the instress. If we do not have even the most basic appreciation of nature, we will never experience the inscape of it all.
“But what use is it?” asks the Henry Ford in our midst. We are a utilitarian people. We are interested in the bottom line. Why bother with the mystical musings of a dead Jesuit? What does it matter? Will it help you get a good job?
It matters because poetry—like flowers, dancing, music, sports, laughter, and the liturgy—is a kind of playtime. These things help us understand what matters most in life. Poetry opens the heart to the other dimension of reality. It is the key to the wardrobe into Narnia if you like.
For the Catholic, this poetic vision is linked inextricably with a sacramental vision. If you like, haecceity is also the quality of the bread that becomes the Body of Christ. It is not only bread the universal staple. It is this bread that becomes the Body of Christ. Haecceity therefore also reminds us of the scandal of particularity. The Son of God did not just become any Man. In the fullness of time, he was born of a particular woman. He was not just any man. He was Jesus of Nazareth, the master builder, rabbi, and wandering preacher in Galilee and Judea for thirty-three years during the reign of Caesar Augustus. He walked these roads and got this dust on his feet, and he died on this cross and rose from this tomb.
Haecceity is therefore the foundational philosophical principle not only for poetry but for mathematics, history, and science, for haecceity is the quality of specific reality of a thing. As we endure the dictatorship of relativism in which the reality of everything is questioned, it is all the more important that mathematics, history and science—indeed the study of all things—is based in real, crunchy, reality.
If that is the case, then the dear, unhappy convert priest who died young from typhus because of the bad drains in a dilapidated seminary in Dublin, provides the antidote to the nihilistic despair of our age. He was not only a poet. He was a philosopher, and not only a philosopher but a prophet, and not only a prophet but a priest, for he saw the intimate eternal reality of all created things and called us to share the vision and knowledge that the whole world is charged with the grandeur of God.
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