Art, Joy, and the Eternal Perspective

This essay is part of an ongoing series on Sakura no Uta. It contains spoilers for the content through The Happy Prince and Other Tales.

The transition from What is Mind to the Happy Prince can be outlined in the questions asked by Paul Gaugin and Nagayama Kana, Where do we come from? What are We? Where are we going?. Driving the abstract questions of knowledge and existence is a basic human desire to understand our place in the world. 

Olympia, Epitaphs, and What is Mind each focus on one of the major branches of philosophy, namely Epistemology, Logic, and Metaphysics. Each route explores how these ideas relate to Art, the branch of philosophy known as Aesthetics, and underlying all these conversations are the more human questions of how we should live our lives, the branch of philosophy known as Ethics. Ethics is the primary focus of The Happy Prince, and here as well we see this major branch of philosophy explored in relation to Art.  

What is a fine Lie?

In his essay, The Decay of Lying, Oscar Wilde asks, “What is a fine Lie? Simply that which is its own evidence.” To Wilde, the Lie is Art in its purest form, Art for Art’s sake. This statement is reminiscent of Spinoza’s Ontological Argument, where he argues for the existence of God based on this proposition:  

If there is an idea of God, then the cause thereof must exist formaliter, and contain in itself all that the idea has objective;

Baruch Spinoza1

Just as Wilde claims that the Lie is itself the evidence for the Lie, Spinoza claims that the ideation of God’s existence is itself the proof of God’s existence. The intersection between Wilde’s and Spinoza’s views is illustrated in Rin’s union with Sui.

God lies within Rin, specifically, the god of Beauty (美の神). Because Rin’s art needs no audience to judge it, Beauty here is an unconditional beauty, independent of subjective taste. In a not so subtle re-imagination of Cyril and Vivian’s dialogue in The Decay of Lying, Rin reiterates Wilde’s claim saying that Beauty has value only because it exists to be Beautiful, and that is itself the reason for God’s existence.2 For Rin, the act of drawing, the act of creating Beauty is “God” itself.3

This self-defining aspect of Rin’s Beauty is the same defining feature of Spinoza’s God. Spinoza believed that all things have a direct and definite cause. This implies that there is an infinite sequence of causes and effects that result in the current state of things. Yet we observe in all existence certain immutable attributes, and because these attributes cannot be dependent on some external condition (or else they would be mutable), at the “End” of this infinite sequence of causality, there must be a single essence that is the cause of itself. This essence is a single substance that permeates all things (the proof of which is well out of scope), and Spinoza calls this substance “God”.4

While Wilde is most likely not responding to Spinoza directly, a Spinozistic view of the world would interpret Beauty/Art as its own reason to exist as part of the concept of God. There is, however, a key difference between Wilde’s and Spinoza’s formulation of the Lie/God construct.  

Wilde and Rin believed that Nature imitates Art. They argue that Nature only appears to us the way it does because Art teaches us to see things that way. Looking to Nature for artistic inspiration will always be dated, for Nature can only reflect the views of past artists. Art, and subsequently, God, only has value when it is free from the confines and constructs of Nature. 

While Naoya admires Wilde’s characterization of the Artistic spirit, he also accepts the Aristotelian view that Art imitates Nature (a concept known as mimesis).56 Aristotle believed that Art approaches perfection as it more closely imitates Nature. This is itself an extension of Aristotle’s general philosophy that Happiness is existence in accordance with function, and that the function of Man is an activity of the soul in accordance with reason (Aristotle 24).7

Naoya demonstrates a variation of this idea in his challenge to Sui. Unable to compete directly with Sui’s absolute expression, he instead draws inspiration from her art to create a work that co-existed in harmony. Nature as the source of inspiration is an idea with strong bonds with the core concepts of Spinoza’s philosophy.

Reminiscent of Aristotle, Spinoza believed that the purpose of all life is to achieve perfection, and that Joy is man’s passage from lesser to greater perfection. Reason too plays a role in fulfilling this purpose. In order for us to approach perfection, we need to understand what it means to become more like God, and such understanding is the function of Reason. Reason allows us to identify what will truly bring Joy, breaking us free from the base impulses of our passions.

Unlike Wilde, Spinoza believed that Nature and God were the same substance. Understanding God is equivalent to understanding Nature, which is why the Artist must look to Nature in order to achieve perfection. Rin’s god of Beauty is Spinoza’s God, but it is nonsense to treat this God as separate from Nature.

Sub specie aeternitatis

Naoya’s use of pointillism illustrates the heart of Spinoza’s philosophy. On their own, each individual dot has no meaning or purpose of its own, existing only as a part of the greater whole. We can only see the true beauty of the painting when we see beyond the collection of discrete dots, when we see each of them as a part of each other and all of them as a part of Sui’s creation.

If we follow Spinoza’s line of thinking, because we are all a part of Nature, it follows that God is a part of everything, and everything is a part of God. The famous expression, “Sub specie aeternitatis” (under the aspect of eternity), is a mandate to view all existence in its relation to the greater, infinite whole.8 Joy is achieved not through the satisfaction of our instinctive desires, but by seeing the world through the eternal perspective and living our lives as a part of it.

For just as all exists in everyone inside me, so I exist as all in each and everyone.

There is one single theme that covers the entirety of Sakura no Uta, the intersection between Miyazawa Kenji’s art and philosophy and the art and philosophy of the West. Whether it is the meaning of Zypressen or the relationship between phenomena and Kant’s Transcendental Idealism, Miyazawa uses art to capture the world’s great ideas on how to think and how to live.

In The Happy Prince, Sui invokes the recurring motif of Miyazawa’s karmic alternating current (因果交流) to describe Naoya’s relationship to Kei.9 Kei’s art is part of Naoya’s, and Naoya’s art is part of Kei’s. The karmic alternating current is one more variation of Spinoza’s God in the chain of cause and effect, another way to say that all is in one and one is in all.

Rin’s art is a violation of this chain because it exists isolated from the external world. Yet Naoya still accepts that Rin’s God and his “weak” God are the same. The difference between their gods is captured in the poem by Emily Dickinson where she writes,

The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—

Emily Dickinson10

Like Spinoza, Dickinson also draws an equivalence between the Self (the Brain in particular) and God, the difference between the two like the difference between words and sounds. Objectively speaking, a word is a sound, but words are given meaning by the speaker and the audience.

This recalls the discussion of Wittgenstein’s Language Games that we discussed in Epitaphs, where Rin’s art by virtue of not having an audience cannot be characterized as a Language Game. It is indeed of relevant interest that Wittgenstein himself directly invokes Spinoza’s sub specie aeternitatis in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

The contemplation of the world sub specie aeterni is its contemplation as a limited whole.
The feeling that the world is a limited whole is the mystical feeling.

Ludwig Wittgenstein11

Rin’s art is pure instinct that lacks the eternal perspective. It is a natural phenomenon that lacks the purpose of human communication, and it is not the product of Reason. Because this is ultimately a discussion on ethics, we must eventually return to what makes a human action moral.

Whether you are an Aristotelian, a Kantian, or a Spinozian, an involuntary action made purely on instinct has no moral value, even if the consequences are good. A moral action must be volition as a result of rational thought. Rin’s instinctual art without reason is not the kind of art that a human artist can or ought to create.

Wittgenstein wrote, “The world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man.” This is another variation of the conclusion we reached in What is Mind?, that happiness is a matter of perspective, a matter of how we understand the world. I started this dialogue noting the Aristotelian flavor of Spinoza’s philosophy, but it would be a mistake to call Spinoza Aristotelian. While Aristotle believed that knowledge begins with introspection, the very notion of a separation between the inner and outer world is a fallacy under Spinoza’s eternal perspective. It is all one world, and from there we must begin and with that we will end.


  1. Spinoza, Baruch. Short Treatise on God, Man, and His Well-Being.
  2. 「美は、美として存在するが故に価値がある」
    「そして、それは、神の存在理由でもある」 ↩︎
  3. 「稟は、絵を描く事、美を作り成す事、その行為の背景そのものを“神”と言っているのだから」 ↩︎
  4. Spinoza was writing around the same time that Newton and Leibniz were developing Calculus. It is not an understatement to say that the entire thinking world was fascinated by the emerging concepts of limits and infinitesimals, and Spinoza was no exception. ↩︎
  5. 「いや、そんな事はないさ、芸術の本質を言い当ててると思う」
    「ただし、俺は、やはりその元ネタである“芸術は自然を模倣する”という言葉も好きだ」 ↩︎
  6. The traditional view that Art imitates Nature is known as Mimesis, and was developed by Ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. Wilde’s formulation of Nature imitating Art was a direct inversion of the traditional Greek theory, and became known as anti-mimesis. ↩︎
  7. Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. Prometheus Books, 1987. ↩︎
  8. If you are familiar with the previous work Subarashiki Hibi, 永遠の相 is the Japanese translation of Sub specie aeternitatis. ↩︎
  9. 「草薙さんは本当に因果交流の光の様な画家ですね」
    「圭さんが描く輝きをさらに輝かせるのは草薙さんで、草薙さんの絵をさらに輝かせるのは圭さんなのです」 ↩︎
  10. Dickinson, Emily. The Brain is wider than the Sky. ↩︎
  11. Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. ↩︎

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