Pater, Walter Horatio (1839–1894)

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Walter Horatio Pater, an English essayist and critic, lived mainly in Oxford, where he read classics at Queens College and later became a fellow of Brasenose. He was a central figure of and inspiration for English fin de siècle art and art criticism and a profound influence on Oscar Wilde. He is of importance in philosophical aesthetics for his association with and championing of the l'art pour l'art doctrine of his age and for his insistence on "aesthetic criticism" of literature and the fine arts, stressing the subjective sensitivity of the critic and his power to paint evocative pictures of moments of intense experience in finely wrought, decorative prose. He is important in general philosophical history for his aphoristic but consistent statements that a relativist position was the only appropriate position for the modern temperament.

In the course of his career he proposed a highly personal conception of Platonism (Plato and Platonism, New York and London, 1893), playing down the immutable aspect of the theory of forms and emphasizing the imaginative sweep of Plato's more informal thinking. Pater maintained that moral values and moral standards were relative to the achievements and conditions of an age. Although he was formerly a Christian, he did not believe that Christian revelation had a privileged status, and he stressed the anthropological interpretation and psychological significance of all religious ritual. His tendency to ethical relativism, his inclination to praise goodness for its beauty, and his attitude toward religion as an aesthetically satisfying experience without final commitment made him many enemies in Oxford. The Paterian temperament was identified with aestheticism, or the hedonistic enjoyment of the intensely lived moment of beauty, the "exquisite passion," regardless of formal and moral standpoints. He was blamed for much of the moral eccentricity and artistic preciousness and pretentiousness of his followers, who deliberately courted decadence. However, he himself led a rather carefully balanced, withdrawn life, to which the famous sentence from the conclusion to The Renaissance, "To live always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life," can be applied only with some difficulty.

In his Imaginary Portraits (London, 1887), Pater developed the genre of imaginative presentation of personalities embodying certain philosophies of life. His novel, Marius the Epicurean (London, 1885), regarded by many as his major work, is one such imaginary portrait on a large scale, picturing the religious development of a highly civilized, aesthetically sensitive agnostic at the time of Marcus Aurelius and probably indicating Pater's own attitude toward religion.

Pater's importance for English letters might be said to lie largely in his having cultivated the essay form to a high level of competence combined with elegance, making a fine art out of deliberate abstention from judgment, out of tentativeness and the impressionistic recording of subjective states of mind. His best criticism occurs in the collection The Renaissance, in his essay on Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Appreciations (London, 1889), and in the essay on style (appended to Appreciations ).

Pater understood the "historical method" to be the attempt to understand artistic phenomena in relation to the conditions that produced them and to commend them to the sympathetic imagination of the reader. Unlike Matthew Arnold, who had contrasted personal and historical assessment with the "real" assessment of art, Pater did not believe in any fully objective standards but only in the completely honest account of personal impressions against the background of historical relativity. While ostensibly agreeing with Arnold that one must see the object "as it really is," he insisted that this can be done only on the basis of knowing one's own impressions "as they really are." The critic needs a certain kind of temperament, the power of being deeply moved by the presence of beautiful objects. Pater acknowledged no distinction here between beautiful things in and apart from art. Yet he offered some fine insights into the autonomy and interdependence of the various arts, especially in the implications of his much-quoted passage from the essay "The School of Giorgione" in The Renaissance : "All art aspires constantly towards the condition of music." In the preceding paragraph of the essay, Pater wrote that each art has "its own specific order of impressions, and an untranslatable charm." Yet each art form, as art, needs the complete fusion of matter and form that music exemplifies in its purity.

See also Aesthetic Judgment; Aesthetic Qualities; Aesthetics, History of; Arnold, Matthew; Coleridge, Samuel Taylor; Marcus Aurelius Antoninus; Plato; Platonism and the Platonic Tradition; Wilde, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills.


principal works by pater

Essays from the "Guardian." London, 1897. Published uniformly, may be regarded as Vol. IX of the works.

Works, 8 vols. London, 19001901.

works on pater

Benson, A. C. Walter Pater. London: Macmillan, 1906.

Cecil, Lord David. Walter Pater. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1955.

Eliot, T. S. "The Place of Pater." In The Eighteen-Eighties, edited by Walter de la Mare. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1930.

Gaunt, William. The Aesthetic Adventure. London: J. Cape, 1945.

Greenslet, Ferris. Walter Pater. London: William Heinemann, 1904.

Hough, Graham. The Last Romantics. London: Duckworth, 1949.

Iser, Wolfgang. Walter Pater. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1960.

Eva Schaper (1967)