John Cowper Powys (1872-1963) was a novelist, poet and philosopher who called on humans to reconnect with nature in the face of the machine-world of industrial capitalism.
A convert to anarchism, he strongly supported the anarchist side in the Spanish Revolution and corresponded with Emma Goldman, whom he referred to as his “chief Political Philosopher”. (1)
Powys often expressed his disdain for what he termed “the various mechanical inventions of our western world”. (2)
He wrote: “There is no escape from machinery and modern inventions; no escape from city-vulgarity and money-power, no escape from the dictatorship of the uncultured. (3)
“Money and machines between them dominate the civilized world. Between them, the power of money and the power of the machine have distracted the minds of our western nations from those eternal aspects of life and nature the contemplation of which engenders all noble and subtle thoughts”. (4)
His critique of modernity went further than a dislike for the physical mechanisms of its society, but embraced its cultural essence.
In common with other organic radicals such as John Ruskin, William Morris, Herbert Read and Henry Miller, Powys felt a profound aesthetic loathing for the base culture of contemporary commercial society and the “crudest superficiality” (5) which prevailed there.
He wrote in The Meaning of Culture, first published in 1929, that if you looked and listened for a moment in the modern world you would be sure to find something “that is so repulsive to you, so poisonous to your nature, so contrary to all your ideas of what beauty is, and what truth is, and what noble simplicity is, that it will scarcely bear thinking about”. (6)
In the face of all the “vulgar sensationalism” (7) and “commercialized opinion” (8) with which we were continually besieged, Powys said we had to create our own personal philosophy, build our own individual culture to uphold the values which were important to us.
And from where could we source this philosophy? Ultimately it had to come from within each one of us.
When you considered a cultured person’s personal philosophy “you feel that this is what he has secretly and profoundly lived by for many a long year”, (9) said Powys. “That this personal philosophy already exists before it is brought into conscious articulation cannot be doubted”. (10)
This authentic personal philosophy was not some kind of intellectual accessory that could be worn in public on special occasions and then discarded for the rest of the time.
It had to be embedded within one’s very personality and existence. “To philosophize is not to read philosophy, it is to feel philosophy”, (11) insisted Powys. “With a cultured man there is no gap or lacuna between his opinion and his life. Both are dominated by the same organic, inevitable fatality. They are what he is”. (12)
Powys stressed that happiness and self-fulfilment could be drawn from the pure physical joy of existing.
We should draw inspiration from “simply the fact of being alive, of being able to go walking about, touching things with our hands, blinking into the sun, feeling the wind on our face, the ground under our feet!” (13)
Powys added: “Quite apart from idealism, quite apart from virtue, it is the merest life-wisdom, drawn from the ancient earth, to place one’s pride, one’s self-valuing, one’s life-illusion, where it cannot be knocked over – in other words, sturdily, simply, childishly, on the ground! Here lies the whole secret of being happy. Ambition is the grand enemy of all peace”. (14)
Thus instead of allowing our souls to be stifled and moulded by the fads and dogmas of contemporary civilization, we should be guided and inspired by “earth wisdom”. (15)
This knowledge did not come simply from the reality of our own physical existences, but arose from the wider whole of which we had always been part, “grounding itself upon the eternal elements of Nature and human nature”. (16)
Powys wrote: “Birth and death, food and fire, sleep and waking, the motions of the winds, the cycles of the stars, the budding and falling of the leaves, the ebbing and flowing of the tides – all these things have, for thousands of years, created an accumulated tradition of human feeling”. (17)
It was the poetry of the real and the living, “the whole turbid stream of Nature, in its wild oceanic ensemble” (18) that was the authentic source of our spiritual well-being and which had always informed what Powys termed “Natural religion”.
He explained: “By Natural religion I mean that spiritual legacy of pantheistic feelings which runs like an underground river – every now and then spouting forth in an up-welling spring. (19)
“This great tradition of natural religion is very old. Probably in its origin it was associated with the Orphic and Eleusinian Mysteries”. (20)
Powys refered to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s view “that the meaning of culture is nothing less than to restore, by means of our imaginative reason, that secret harmony with Nature which beasts and birds possess, but which our civilization has done so much to eradicate from human feeling”. (21)
He continued: “As a matter of fact there are many points of striking resemblance between the undertones of Rousseau’s culture and those of Goethe’s. From the writings of these Nature-lovers the position could be defended that the beginning of all real self-development lies in a certain magical rapport, bringing indescribable happiness, between the solitary ego and ‘all that we behold from this green earth'”. (22)
Powys suggested that, in order to bypass the falsity of society, we needed to directly and deliberately reconnect with nature whenever we could.
He wrote: “By concentrating on the purer elements of this environment, upon the earth, the sky and the sun, and upon such stray presence of earth-life as fortune may have offered; by surrounding these things with the vague atmosphere of former magical sensations which they can be compelled to restore, the mind can purge itself of the troublesome pressure of litter and debris, purge itself of the evil taste of anxiety”. (23)
We should approach nature with the holistic eye of Goethe rather than the merely scientific eye of Newton, he said. We should not try to analyse or explain nature, but to feel it. (24)
There are echoes of the nature mysticism of Richard Jefferies in the way he suggested bonding with the natural world at hand and, through that, with the eternity of the universe.
Powys wrote: “What matters is that with the calmest and most earth-bound manner you should concentrate your thought upon the whole rondure of the turning globe as it transports all its living burden through measureless space-time, of which burden, just now, this thistle-head, these ash-roots, this tarnished dock-leaf, together with your own flesh-covered human skeleton, are transitory fragments…
“What you will come to feel is a singular identity between your own inner being and the inner being of these things… There is indeed a strange and profound satisfaction in feeling this consciousness of identity between your own transitory life and the transitory life of other earth-products, whether organic or inorganic.
“Concentrating upon such identity, there may even sometimes steal over the mind a ‘sense of something far more deeply infused’, the idea of a lastingness in fact of some essence in them and in yourself, independent of the annihilation to which all alike are moving”. (25)
The vital energy of nature which lay behind this gnosis was also the vital energy which led human beings to express and insist upon their own feelings, to uphold their own nature-sourced values in the face of hostility or indifference.
Like Otto Gross, Powys thought that simply adapting to the society around us, accepting its morals and standards, amounted to existential failure.
He wrote: “That tender compromise called resignation is only an eloquent name for the dying down, the wearing thin, of the vital impulse in us”. (26)
With his belief in the vitality of the individual will, necessarily sourced from a collective whole, Powys was clearly closer to anarchism than to the state communism with which he initially sympathised.
In 1939 he wrote to the poet Huw Menai: “I’ve long been a convert to Anarchism as the only real liberty, & without question the system of the Future”. (27)
This political affiliation had been strengthened by his support for the anarchists in the Spanish Revolution and several years of correspondence with Goldman.
In the late 1930s Powys contributed, alongside the likes of Read, to the anarchist journals Spain and the World and Revolt. (28)
David Goodway explains that his anarchism shines clearly throughout Powys’ writing: “‘Anarchy, ‘anarchist’, ‘anarchical’, ‘anarchistic’ become for Powys terms of overwhelming approbation – in striking contrast to their conventional pejorative usages.
“For example: ‘the divine anarchy of the soul’; ‘the power of the lonely, equal, anarchistic individual’; ‘the real, living, mysterious, anarchical Multiverse’; ‘the chaotic, pluralistic, anarchistic Shakespeare’: ‘beautiful Chance and beautiful Chaos and beautiful Anarchy'”. (29)
In his 1951 work Porius: A Romance of the Dark Ages, described by Goodway as “his most anarchist novel”, Powys writes of a Golden Age which could be seen as “the consummation of, as the ideal embedded within, his philosophical anarchism”. (30)
Powysland, a website devoted to Powys, describes him as “English literature’s most enthralling, addictive and infuriating writer – the best novelist that many readers have never heard of”.
It adds that, more than 50 years after his death, “his philosophy of defiance of the pressures of the modern world is more important than ever”. (31)
1. David Goodway, Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow: Left-libertarian Thought and British Writers from William Morris to Colin Ward (Oakland: PM Press, 2012), p. 152.
2. John Cowper Powys, The Meaning of Culture (London: Jonathan Cape, 1930), p. 297.
3. Powys, p. 290.
4. Powys, p. 300.
5. Powys, p. 230-31.
6. Powys, p. 310.
7. Powys p. 149.
8. Powys p. 150.
9. Powys p. 18.
10. Powys, p. 20.
11. Powys, p. 22.
12. Powys, p. 19.
13. Powys, p. 139.
14. Powys, p. 140.
15. Powys, p. 286.
16. Powys, p. 317.
17. Powys, p. 73.
18. Powys, p. 72.
19. Powys, p. 102.
20. Powys, p. 103.
21. Powys, p. 130.
23. Powys, p. 131.
24. Powys, p. 194.
25. Powys, pp. 185-86.
26. Powys, p. 27.
27. Goodway, p. 153.
28. George Woodcock, Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979) p. 428.
29. Goodway, p. 156.
30. Goodway, p. 173.