Keats on the Three Layers of Reality and What Gives Meaning to Human Existence
By Maria Popova
“Reality is what we take to be true,” pioneering physicist David Bohm asserted in 1977. “What we take to be true is what we believe… What we believe determines what we take to be true. What we take to be true is our reality.”
A quarter millennium earlier, a pioneer of a very different kind — the great Romantic poet John Keats (October 31, 1795–February 23, 1821) — turned his uncommon genius toward this question of what gives shape and meaning to our reality in a letter to a friend from March of 1818, found in Selected Letters (public library) — which also gave us Keats on how solitude opens up our channels to truth and beauty and his exquisite love letter to Fanny Brawne.
21-year-old Keats writes:
Poetry itself a mere Jack a lanthern to amuse whoever may chance to be struck with its brilliance — As Tradesmen say every thing is worth what it will fetch, so probably every mental pursuit takes its reality and worth from the ardour of the pursuer — being in itself a nothing — Ethereal thing[s] may at least be thus real, divided under three heads — Things real — things semireal — and no things — Things real — such as existences of Sun Moon & Stars and passages of Shakspeare — Things semireal such as Love, the Clouds &c which require a greeting of the Spirit to make them wholly exist — and Nothings which are made Great and dignified by an ardent pursuit — Which by the by stamps the burgundy mark on the bottles of our Minds, insomuch as they are able to “consec[r]ate whate’er they look upon.” [ed: A reference to Shelley’s “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”, published the previous year: “Spirit of BEAUTY, that doth consecrate / With thine own hues all thou dost shine upon”]
In what is essentially an homage to science, Keats considers how we our intellectual evolution moves us up the layers of reality:
Eve[r]y point of thought is the centre of an intellectual world — the two uppermost thoughts in a Man’s mind are the two poles of his World he revolves on them and every thing is southward or northward to him through their means — We take but three steps from feathers to iron.
More than two centuries before Bertrand Russell asserted that “the good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge,” Keats, the high priest of love, embraces this intellectual curiosity and the hunger for knowledge as the greatest source of meaning in his life. In a letter to another friend penned the following month, he writes:
I find that I can have no enjoyment in the World but continual drinking of Knowledge — I find there is no worthy pursuit but the idea of doing some good for the world — some do it with their society — some with their wit — some with their benevolence — some with a sort of power of conferring pleasure and good humour on all they meet and in a thousand ways all equally dutiful to the command of Great Nature — there is but one way for me — the road lies through application study and thought.
And yet Keats, too, contained multitudes — he also ardently believed in the power of what he called “negative capability,” that willingness to embrace uncertainty and fully inhabit a state of doubt “without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” But, then again, doubt is how we acquire knowledge, so Keats’s two dispositions are complementary rather than contradictory after all.
Complement this particular portion of Keats’s thoroughly enthralling Selected Letters with Kafka on the nature of reality and the truth of human life and Hegel on knowledge and the ultimate task of the human mind.
Published October 31, 2016