What Sculpture is to a Block of Marble, Education is to the Human Soul

Years ago I went to the local library to ask if they had any books by Joseph Addison. ‘You mean Addison and Steele?’ the librarian said. ‘I don’t know,’ I shrugged.

‘You haven’t heard of Addison and Steele?’ She paused. I hadn’t, but  realised that I was about to get a lecture. For those of you who like me, didn’t know, Joseph Addison was an 18th century essayist, playwright and poet who together with Richard Steele, founded the Spectator. The title of this blog, is Joseph Addison’s.

The idea that education sculptures the human soul is an attractive conceit and reminds me of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s painting of Pygmalion and Galatea in which the figure is emerging from the block of white marble and kisses her creator.

Pygmalion and Galatea by Jean-Léon Gérôme
Pygmalion and Galatea by Jean-Léon Gérôme

For an artist however education is often thought to be a stumbling block to human creativity. The cliched idea of the primitive noble savage creating art instinctively is contrary to Addison’s thoughts on the soul needing to develop through teaching and instruction. Picasso, whose father was an art teacher and had a traditional art education said, ‘every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.’

Some children seem to be naturally gifted in aspects of the arts and have a nack or ability that others will never attain. Likewise in the world of music, musicians are sometimes described as having a ‘ good feel,’ an ability to play their instrument well regardless of what type of music they are performing. The same goes for art, some children are said to be ‘really good at drawing,’ they are born naturals without the help of education.

Does it matter whether you are educated in art or not? I personally think that a basic understanding of perspective is one of the vital building blocks on which to build a firm foundation in art, but I would say that. Others won’t agree.

But in the end whether you aspire to clamber up and be the next Jean-Léon Gérôme or are just content to once be the winner of the school prize for drawing, everyone meets the same end. As Borg said in Star Trek, ‘resistance is futile’.

Addison summed it up best of all in his Reflections in Westminster Abbey:

‘When I look upon the tombs of the great, every emotion of envy dies in me; when I read the epitaphs of the beautiful, every inordinate desire goes out; when I meet with the grief of parents upon a tombstone, my heart melts with compassion; when I see the tomb of the parents themselves,

Westminster Abbey - Canaletto
Westminster Abbey – Canaletto

I consider the vanity of grieving for those whom we must quickly follow. When I see kings lying by those who deposed them, when I consider rival wits placed side by side, or the holy men that divided the world with their contests and disputes, I reflect with sorrow and astonishment on the little competitions, factions, and debates of mankind. When I read the several dates of the tombs, of some that died yesterday, and some six hundred years ago, I consider that great day when we shall all of us be contemporaries, and make our appearance together’.