~ Pieter Bruegel and the Idea of Human Nature by Elizabeth Alice Honig ~
Is there such a thing as human nature? Are we, on the whole, good or bad? And how far can we trust one another, or trust ourselves? Are there powers, traits, and limits common to all, or does each of us write his own definition? Honig’s book is part of a “Renaissance Lives” series but it’s not a proper biography. Rather, she uses the paintings and prints of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (of whose life little is known anyway) to illustrate the answers to those questions offered by the Christian Humanism of Erasmus and his circle.
The answers aren’t very encouraging: individually and collectively we give ourselves over to folly and wrath, to cruelty and avarice, to pride and perversion; we are bent toward sin and inevitably indulge it. Like the Everyman of Bruegel’s 1558 print, “every man seeks himself” but “nobody knows himself.” That is the curse of our fallen, broken nature. In an era of “progress,” pessimism like that may sound novel or suspicious, but it’s not a judgment that belonged to the sixteenth-century alone; it was the judgment of the whole Christian era, and of the Stoics among others. But the past two hundred years or so have shuffled the moral deck. As Honig writes:
“Pride is a trait we tend to value and even foster today, and its opposites in the modern thesaurus are negatives: shame, self-doubt, humiliation, melancholy. But in the sixteenth century, pride’s opposites were among the most valued human and social goods. Within the canon of virtues and vices, pride’s inverse was faith, because pride was associated with a disdain for God… Other positive oppositions to pride include[d] humility, obedience, wisdom, contentment with one’s lot in life, and care for the common good.”
Sin was never the whole story, because this too belonged to human nature: the image of God within us as a pledge of participation in His divine life through the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ. Our delight in and longing for joy, love, and communion Erasmus (and Bruegel) understood to be a foretaste of that bliss. Whereas Bruegel’s more Boschian paintings depict the dark sides of our nature (Dulle Griet, The Fall of the Rebel Angels, The Triumph of Death), others show us the light (Children’s Games, The Wedding Dance, The Harvesters).
According to her bio, Elizabeth Alice Honig is a professor of art history at UC Berkeley. Her text is well illustrated and she makes a fair tour guide, explaining what’s necessary to know of the historical background and pointing out the hidden details of Bruegel’s frequently unsettling and impossibly intricate pictures. She is writing for a popular audience here, but – I think – with only mixed success. Unfortunately, the brain-muddling jargon of the lecture hall will not be entirely excluded.
For example, in discussing Bruegel’s depictions of lepers, with their “attendant informative signals of deformation,” she unhelpfully explains how “the impaired as spectacle [offers] itself to be read,” and furthermore that “in staging charity around the bodily misshapen, Bruegel poses questions about how non-normative physical bodies can tell us about themselves at moments of social pressure.” I used to find such language vaguely titillating when I was twenty-year-old college boy but at forty-eight I’m pretty sure if you can’t say something more simply than that, it’s not worth saying in the first place.
I don’t want to be too hard on Honig, however. If the bloated code language of academia is another form of peacock pride, well, it’s adopted almost unthinkingly in her profession, and as Erasmus would affirm and Bruegel illustrates again and again (in The Tower of Babel, The Fall of Icarus, The Conversion of Saul, and elsewhere) pride gets each of us one way or another.