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Vincent van Gogh on How To Live

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Van Gogh didn’t become popular until shortly after his death. To this day it’s unclear whether his letters drove the initial interest in his art.

The anthology Ever Yours: The Essential Letters, contains 265 of Vincent van Gogh’s letters, which is nearly a third of all the surviving letters he penned.

On the third of April, 1878, in a noteworthy letter to his brother Theo, van Gogh sheds light on his intentions about how to live.

I’ve been thinking about what we discussed, and I couldn’t help thinking of the words ‘we are today what we were yesterday’. This isn’t to say that one must stand still and ought not try to develop oneself, on the contrary, there are compelling reasons to do and think so.

But in order to remain faithful to those words one may not retreat and, once one has started to see things with a clear and trusting eye, one ought not to abandon or deviate from that.

[…]

As far as being an homme intérieur et spirituel is concerned, couldn’t one develop that in oneself through knowledge of history in general and of certain people of all eras in particular, from biblical times to the Revolution and from The Odyssey to the books of Dickens and Michelet? And couldn’t one learn something from the work of the likes of Rembrandt or from Weeds by Breton, or The four times of the day by Millet, or Saying grace by Degroux, or Brion, or The conscript by Degroux (or else by Conscience), or his Apothecary, or The large oaks by Dupré, or even the mills and sand flats by Michel?

It’s by persevering in those ideas and things that one at last becomes thoroughly leavened with a good leaven, that of sorrowful yet always rejoicing, and which will become apparent when the time of fruitfulness is come in our lives, the fruitfulness of good works.

The ray from on high doesn’t always shine on us, and is sometimes behind the clouds, and without that light a person cannot live and is worth nothing and can do nothing good, and anyone who maintains that one can live without faith in that higher light and doesn’t worry about attaining it will end up being disappointed.

Vincent believed that one must pay the price to achieve the kind of success that was deserved — “that a victory achieved after lifelong work and effort is better than one achieved more quickly.”

He who lives uprightly and experiences true difficulty and disappointment and is nonetheless undefeated by it is worth more than someone who prospers and knows nothing but relative good fortune.

[…]

Do let us go on quietly, examining all things and holding fast to that which is good, and trying always to learn more that is useful, and gaining more experience.

Woe-spiritedness is quite a good thing to have, if only one writes it as two words, woe is in all people, everyone has reason enough for it, but one must also have spirit, the more the better, and it is good to be someone who never despairs.

Living means we will inevitably experience sorrow and disappointment.

If we but try to live uprightly, then we shall be all right, even though we shall inevitably experience true sorrow and genuine disappointments, and also probably make real mistakes and do wrong things, but it’s certainly true that it is better to be fervent in spirit, even if one accordingly makes more mistakes, than narrow-minded and overly cautious. It is good to love as much as one can, for therein lies true strength, and he who loves much does much and is capable of much, and that which is done with love is well done.

[…]

If one were to say but few words, though ones with meaning, one would do better than to say many that were only empty sounds, and just as easy to utter as they were of little use.

Love is the best and most noble thing in the human heart, especially when it has been tried and tested in life like gold in the fire, happy is he and strong in himself who has loved much and, even if he has wavered and doubted, has kept that divine fire and has returned to that which was in the beginning and shall never die. If only one continues to love faithfully that which is verily worthy of love, and does not squander his love on truly trivial and insignificant and faint-hearted things, then one will gradually become more enlightened and stronger.

The sooner one seeks to become competent in a certain position and in a certain profession, and adopts a fairly independent way of thinking and acting, and the more one observes fixed rules, the stronger one’s character becomes, and yet that doesn’t mean that one has to become narrow-minded.

It is wise to do that, for life is but short and time passes quickly. If one is competent in one thing and understands one thing well, one gains at the same time insight into and knowledge of many other things into the bargain.

It’s sometimes good to go about much in the world and to be among people, and at times one is actually obliged and called upon to do so, or it can be one way of ‘throwing oneself into one’s work unreservedly and with all one’s might’, but he who actually goes quietly about his work, alone, preferring to have but very few friends, goes the most safely among people and in the world. One should never trust it when one is without difficulties or some worry or obstacle, and one shouldn’t make things too easy for oneself. Even in the most cultured circles and the best surroundings and circumstances, one should retain something of the original nature of a Robinson Crusoe or a savage, for otherwise one hath not root in himself, and never let the fire in his soul go out but keep it going, there will always be a time when it will come in useful.

We must launch out into the great sea of life.

Launching out into the deep is what we too must do if we want to catch anything, and if it sometimes happens that we have to work the whole night and catch nothing, then it is good not to give up after all but to let down the nets again at dawn.

So let us simply go on quietly, each his own way, always following the light ‘sursum corda’, and as such who know that we are what others are and that others are what we are, and that it is good to have love one to another namely of the best kind, that believeth all things and hopeth all things, endureth all things and never faileth.

And not troubling ourselves too much if we have shortcomings, for he who has none has a shortcoming nonetheless, namely that he has none, and he who thinks he is perfectly wise would do well to start over from the beginning and become a fool.

We are today what we were yesterday, namely ‘honnêtes hommes’, but ones who must be tried with the fire of life to be innerly strengthened and confirmed in that which they are by nature through the grace of God.

Ever Yours: The Essential Letters is a collection of some of Vincent van Gogh’s best letters which shed light on a remarkable talent and his artistic notions.