Rock vs. water: Reflections on the sea, life and humanity

by | Nov 25, 2021 | Maritime Art, Culture and History, Philosophy

“I take it that what all men are really after is some form or perhaps only some formula of peace,” wrote Joseph Conrad in his 1911 novel, Under Western Eyes. How true! Yet how difficult to achieve. Like the sea waves crashing against the rocks, life is an unceasing struggle: of man vs. nature; of man vs. man; and sometimes, of man vs. himself.

The whole of human history is a pattern of strifes that resounds with the clashing of opposing ideas and tendencies. “The whole concord of the universe,’ declared the Roman philospher and statesman Seneca, ”is a harmony of discords.”¹ By accepting this fundamental truth, perhaps modern man would be in a better position to attain harmony and balance in life.

¹ Seneca (4 BCE – 65 CE), from “Natural Questions” (Latin: Naturales Quaestiones)

La Vague (The Wave), 1888
Paul Gauguin (French, 1848–1903)
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Yet I know that I dwell in the midst of the roar of the cosmic wheel,
In the hot collision of Forces, and clangor of boundless Strife,
Mid the sound of the speed of the worlds, the rushing worlds, and the peal
Of the thunder of Life.

— Sir William Watson, from “Dawn of the Healand”

High Cliff, Coast of Maine, 1894
Winslow Homer (American, 1836–1910)
Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Men of today seem to feel more acutely than ever the paradox of their condition. They know themselves to be the supreme end to which all action should be subordinated, but the exigencies of action force them to treat one another as instruments or obstacles, as means. The more widespread their mastery of the world, the more they find themselves crushed by uncontrollable forces.

— Simone de Beauvoir, from The Ethics of Ambiguity, Part I (1947)

A Rock in the Sea, c. 1890
Elbridge Kingsley (American, 1842–1918)
Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The victories of Right
Are born of strife.
There were no Day were there no Night,
Nor, without dying, Life.

— Sir Lewis Morris, from The Ode of Evil, reported in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919)

Rocks at Port Coton, the Lion Rock, 1886
Claude Monet (French, 1840–1926)
Courtesy of WikiArt: Visual Art Encyclopedia

What opposes unites, and the finest attunement stems from things bearing in opposite directions, and all things come about by strife.

— Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 535 BC – 475 BC), as quoted in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Folding screen with bald eagle on a rock on the coast, c. 1830–c. 1850
Ganryo (Japanese, 1798–1852)
Courtesy of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Having taken Godlike power, we must seek in ourselves for the responsibility and the wisdom we once prayed some deity might have.

— John Steinbeck, from his speech at the Nobel Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm, 10th December, 1962

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