IT IS NOT very common that a work of philosophy that deals with beauty is itself beautifully written. David E. Cooper’s Sunlight on the Sea: Reflecting on Reflections is one such work. The author’s clear and engaging style contributes much to the book’s value, as does its theme, which he argues to be of universal philosophical significance. The book appeals to the judgement and experience of the educated, yet non-specialist reader, and not just to professional colleagues. This gives the work its unique candor.
As most philosophers since Wittgenstein agree, meaning can never be a solo endeavor. As such, if the experience of delighting in sunlight on the sea has any meaning, it must be a shared one, however difficult this may be to explicate. Cooper explains his task: “I would like to communicate why this sight [of sunlight on the sea] matters to me, and in a way that does not render my experience eccentric, but of a kind that has a significant place in the lives of many readers.”
Cooper’s method consists in a blend of phenomenological description and analysis of what these appearances symbolize; he thus borrows from Gaston Bachelard’s philosophical, yet widely accessible “poetics of experience.” His treatment of sunlight on the sea is a form of phenomenology that doesn’t develop from a specific theory, but from his systematic program of “reflecting on reflections.” He brings into the light of reasoned discourse experiences that most of us may have had, always careful not to let them “evaporate.” He sees his role in this book as being that to “salvage the experience from the realm of the inexplicable,” and reminds the reader how close philosophy can be to poetry. The poetic philosopher “engages in what T.S. Eliot took the aim of poems to be — ‘a raid on the inarticulate,’ a riposte to ‘undisciplined squads of emotion.’”
Although Cooper does not mention S. T. Coleridge, his reminder of the epiphanic in the everyday recalls the Romantic poet-philosopher’s observations on the deep significance of sensory phenomena. Such symbolism operates beyond mere metaphor because that which expresses the meaning (that is, the symbol) participates itself in that which is being symbolized. Similarly, Cooper seeks to find out what it is that sunlight on the sea symbolizes, and why it affects us as powerfully as it does. Sunlight on the sea can even be taken as a symbol for symbolism itself, insofar as the light, ordinarily unnoticed, becomes visible when it meets the sea’s surface. The sea allows sunlight to be seen and valued for what it is. In the same way, the elusive, yet universal meaning that is Cooper’s quarry requires physical, sensual symbols to find articulation. Sunlight, then, is most beautiful when refracted as rainbows, held in a crystal, diffused through mist or clouds, or reflected, as Cooper explores, by the surface of the sea.
Sunlight on the Sea draws examples from the history of philosophy, yet always retaining the aesthetic idea as its central concern. Cooper’s focus is on the attractive force that visions of beauty have over us. Chapters six, seven, and eight are the book’s central pieces; “Happiness,” “Spontaneity”, and “Convergence with Nature” are these chapters’ titles, but also virtuous states of mind brought about by a meaningful engagement with the sunlight on the sea.
Yet how can these three states of mind be considered “virtuous”? The fortunate souls that experience epiphanic moments of convergence with nature can be called “lucky” or even “blessed,” but to say they are “virtuous” seems a stretch. Cooper does not argue that this Romantic trio of states are virtues of action (like kindness, steadfastness, or courage), but rather theoretical virtues: they connect elemental phenomena with intellectual significance. He reaches this position via an approach that is novel and ancient at the same time, having roots in both Daoism and Platonism. These virtues are excellences of perspective that transform seeing into vision, sight into insight.
The language of seeing is pertinent here. Cooper uses it to describe a sense of wisdom or inner vision. Sunlight on the sea is something “seen,” but also beheld. He talks of glimpses of sunlight on the sea as following one through life, staying with one as nourishing, meaningful symbols.
These three virtues recall influential images from philosophy and literature, on which the author draws to help illustrate his theory. Here Cooper points to Camus’ natural heroes of simple, honest virtue “‘coming alive again’ in the ‘homeland’ — a place of sun, sea, and warm beaches.” He further illustrates his theory with D. H. Lawrence’s vitalist imagery of sun-warmed, Mediterranean bodies. Thus stimulated, everybody feels the meaning of life enriched by sunlight on the sea. While valuing this, Cooper urges us to move beyond feeling, and to examine its philosophical significance.
And so he discusses the importance of appreciating vital values (happiness, spontaneity, convergence with nature) in the convergence of the world’s elements themselves, where fire, air, and water meet. Here the symbol (sunlight on the sea) is itself part of what it helps to express in sensible form (the convergence of vital elements), rather than standing for it as happens in metaphor. (Rain in a desert, for example, symbolizes a life-restoring quality not through arbitrary convention, but by participating in the more general thing or quality being symbolized.) The elements of sun, sky, and sea converge on the water’s surface off a sun-kissed shore, or on shimmering lakes, or dappled lagoons. Here we perceive a convergence as a meaningful phenomenon, in which goodness and beauty are recognized and appreciated.
Only the very surface of the sea reflects the sun, blending patterns of dazzling light with swatches of darkness so that the glare can nevertheless hold our gaze. This coming together of complementarities on the sea’s surface could be an apt metaphor for philosophical and poetic attempts to penetrate and elucidate regions of mysterious and undiscerned being. At its very best, however, the splendour and dazzle serves, so far as the unseen depths are concerned, to convey our ignorance, returning our own obscure reflection to stare dully back from these unseen but intimated depths. As light and darkness on the sea’s surface ceaselessly change places, Cooper finds comparison with the Daoist symbol of generative interdependence, the yin-yang that turns in the balance of light and shade.
Thus concludes a chapter (“In Praise of Shadows”) comparing what one might assume to be two contradictory aesthetics: the Japanese taste for the shadowy, crepuscular, and weathered, and the European desire for clarity and brilliance. Cooper illustrates the former with erudite discussion of Japanese poets Issa, Fujiwara no Teika, and Kamo no Chomei, and focuses especially on Junichiro Tanizaki’s essay In Praise of Shadows. For the European aesthetic of brightness, think of Plato’s sun, which Cooper discusses, alongside Aquinas’s claritas, and Nietzsche’s Apollonian clarity. He ends his meditation on these divergent aesthetic ideals not with a verdict of mutual exclusivity, but with an appeal to his virtue of convergence to suggest a roundedness that is best seen in the chiaroscuro light and shadow in which each sets off the other’s fullness.
As a philosopher, Cooper seeks both clarity and depth of understanding in his presentation of how happiness, spontaneity, and convergence with nature combine in our experience of sunlight on the sea, and of why this is beneficial to us. He shows an instinct for distinctions, yet he is far from remaining content only to splash in the shallows. He brings his reading in the ancient Greek, European, Indian, Chinese, and Japanese classics to illuminate his topic.
This slim volume will reward readers wishing to avoid or take a break from typical scholarly monographs or textbooks. While some might find Cooper’s style airy or generalizing, they can still appreciate his attempt to articulate a sense of why sunlight on the sea should be a phenomenon of universal philosophical significance.
Author’s note: An essay that David E. Cooper adapted from a chapter of Sunlight on the Sea: Reflecting on Reflections can be found here.