At first glance, there seems to be very little of the divine in Cole’s Course of an Empire. The story follows the path of civilization primarily from the perspective of human agency. Even in Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which served as an inspiration for the series, we are told that “the moral of all human tales” (emphasis added) is “the same rehearsal of the past”; Byron compares history to a theatrical production, in which the brutal end is foreshadowed in the faltering beginning. The cruel necessity of an empire’s decline is presaged in human nature itself.
To quote again the section of the poem with which we began this series, Byron observes:
First Freedom, and then Glory—when that fails,
Wealth, vice, corruption—barbarism at last.
And History, with all her volumes vast,
Hath but ONE page,—'tis better written here,
Where gorgeous Tyranny hath thus amassed
All treasures, all delights, that eye or ear,
Heart, soul could seek, tongue ask—Away with words! draw near,
Admire, exult—despise—laugh, weep—for here
There is such matter for all feeling:—Man!
Thou pendulum betwixt a smile and tear,
Ages and realms are crowded in this span,
This mountain, whose obliterated plan
The pyramid of empires pinnacled,
Of Glory's gewgaws shining in the van
Till the sun's rays with added flame were filled!
Where are its golden roofs? where those who dared to build?
Freedom, which is most prominently found in democratic governments, gives way to the glory of the aristocracy, which slowly decays into the excesses of tyranny and the chaos of rebellion, only to begin again. This traditional, Platonic cycle of government is so self-evident in The Course of an Empire that it risks obscuring Cole’s deeper considerations of the distinct causes of this empire’s rise and fall.
We have already discussed the role of politics as a root cause of the empire’s destruction, as well as nature’s simultaneous impact on and vulnerability to the empire; however, the role of philosophy and metaphysics in the empire’s fate is somewhat more subtle — just as it is in real civilizations. Ideas are detectable mainly in their effects. In Cole’s paintings, there are only hints of the people’s beliefs, observable in the temples that grow ever larger and more ornate, only to fall into ruin; in the statue of Athena in the Consummation and that of the headless hero in Destruction; in the pinprick of light piercing the angry sky in Destruction. Quite literally above all, there is the carefully balanced boulder, which rests almost imperceptibly on the mountaintop. To a devout nineteenth-century Protestant, this odd natural formation may have been taken as an allusion to the “high places” of the Old Testament — consistently scorned by the prophets as places for idol worship.
Yet what, if anything, can we learn about Cole’s own metaphysics from these disjointed allusions? It is here that the role of the divine becomes especially striking.
Cole himself was a passionate Episcopalian, who desired his paintings to be read within the context of American Protestantism. In keeping with nineteenth-century America’s fascination with the pastoral, Cole seems bent on avoiding on one hand the Scylla of “savage” paganism, which he perceived as leading to moral collapse and destruction, and on the other the Charybdis of empiric excess … which amounted to the same thing.
While initially it is easy to assume that Cole admires the Consummation’s civilization, which draws its imagery from the glorious peaks of the Greek and Roman empires, in Destruction he strongly condemns this model. It is so laden with earthly wealth that it becomes top-heavy and brings about its own collapse — taking the rest of society with it. Destruction’s allusion to the sacking of Rome, in particular, smacks of the rise of the Catholic Church, which would come to rival the Roman Empire’s wealth and influence throughout the medieval period. As a Protestant, Cole would naturally have been inclined to reject Catholicism as a different kind of idol worship, one elevating a spiritual sort of “high place” that would invariably lead to its own destruction— by contrast with the apparently more idyllic, stable, and natural world of the pastoral.
And it would certainly be simple to leave the matter there, leaving Cole to his faith in the pastoral as an ideal society, one that escapes all kinds of organized religion in favor of simplicity and fraternal harmony. Abandon idols, he seems to say, be they found in nature or human heroes, and draw near to the divine purity of Love itself. This is certainly consistent with what we have seen of Cole thus far, but it is not quite far enough.
What is most indicative, rather, of Cole’s true perspective is the contrast between the changeability of the empire and the seemingly eternal posture of the mountain and its “high place”. The one rises, falls, rises again, churning restlessly with each passing minute. The other stays always the same. In the former, men and women grasp higher and higher until they fall through their own hubris; in the latter, they find their whole world unmoveable, unchangeable.
It is not simply a question of the Scylla and Charybdis of the Savage State and the Consummation, but the difficult balance that arises when the immovable realities of natural law meet the unstoppable force of human determination. To reject one or both is to deny that we are dependent on nature, or that we can enact any real change in the world. Like for Odysseus, there is no way to navigate these waters safely. To maintain a healthy and happy society, Cole seems to say, one must accept both the natural allure of the “high place” and the intoxicating logic of human wisdom. One must accept them, then transcend them. These things are good, but not enough. What, then, is a people to do?
This is where Cole’s own religious and cultural context step in to provide at least some form of an answer, and it comes in an element on which we have hardly touched until now: the sea. In the first half of the nineteenth century, especially, the sea was often used as an image for the transcendent, infinite, all-encompassing experience of the divine. And, while it is almost completely obscured in the first painting, as time progresses it slowly enters more and more into view.
True to Old-Testament accounts of God’s hidden role in the rise and fall of the ancient empires, Cole has subtly revealed that God — or at least some deistic adaptation of him — has been present from the beginning. Immediately, one senses that Cole sees this as a different kind of force from either nature or civilization. Unlike the stagnant boulder, the ocean seems to move, even feel with the people: it provides fish for the pastoral state; it beams with the reflected marble of the empire. It thrashes with the empire’s destruction and rests subdued by its desolation, magnifying the silent twilight moon. Meanwhile, unlike human society, the sea absorbs each change: the water is not degraded by being funneled into a fountain, nor is it destroyed by the carnage of the sacking. It accepts both, allows for both, but it remains what it is.
The sea, then, may provide a hint into how Cole’s believes the pastoral may be made more accessible. Far from a pessimistic vision of human progress, in which the pastoral is an untenable step on the path to obliteration, at last The Course of Empire may be so alluring even today because it offers a way to truly learn from history — all of history, both those societies made brittle by rigidity and those made weak by excess. To correct the errors of the past, Cole seems to say, one must learn not to focus on nature or on empire alone, but instead to embrace both as one reaches on towards those things that transcend both of them. Only then may the course of the empire at last be corrected, and sustainable peace achieved once for all.
Originally published in MutualArt Magazine on August 5, 2022.