John Cowper Powys

British writer, lecturer and philosopher (1872-1963)

John Cowper Powys (October 8 1872June 17 1963) was a British novelist, poet, essayist, philosopher, literary critic, anarchist, and autobiographer.

We philosophize for the same reason that we move and speak and laugh and eat and love. In other words, we philosophize because man is a philosophical animal


  • Our rulers at the present day, with their machines and their preachers, are all occupied in putting into our heads the preposterous notion that activity rather than contemplation is the object of life.
    • In Defence of Sensuality (1930), p. 136
  • Most of the pathetic scenes in almost everybody's life are scenes unnoted by anyone and totally disregarded by the person in question.
  • Man is the animal who weeps and laughsand writes. If the first Prometheus brought fire from heaven in a fennel-stalk, the last will take it back — in a book.
    • The Pleasures of Literature (1938), p. 17
  • I have been reading of late, most carefully, oh such an exciting mass of Anarchist Literature sent to me by old Emma Goldman who is my Prime Minister & chief Political Philosopher! and every week I get the anarchist paper from Avenue A New York City and also the ‘Bulletin of Information’ from the Anarchists of Barcelona. This latter pamphlet I am carefully keeping; because it is not so much concerned with the war as with their experiment in Catalonia of organizing their life on Anarchist lines and getting rid of all Dictatorship & of the ‘Sovereign State’.
    • Letter to his sister (24 September 1938), published in The Letters of John Cowper Powys to Philippa Powys (1996), edited by Anthony Head p. 106
  • If by the time we're sixty we haven't learned what a knot of paradox and contradiction life is, and how exquisitely the good and the bad are mingled in every action we take, and what a compromising hostess Our Lady of Truth is, we haven't grown old to much purpose.
    • The Art of Growing Old (1944), p. 13

The Complex Vision (1920)

  • My answer to the question "Why do we philosophize?" is as follows. We philosophize for the same reason that we move and speak and laugh and eat and love. In other words, we philosophize because man is a philosophical animal.… We may be as sceptical as we please. Our very scepticism is the confession of an implicit philosophy.
    • Chapter I
  • One of the curious psychological facts, in connection with the various ways in which various minds function, is the fact that when in these days we seek to visualize, in some pictorial manner, our ultimate view of life, the images which are called up are geometrical or chemical rather than anthropomorphic. It is probable that even the most rational and logical among us as soon as he begins to philosophize at all is compelled by the necessity of things to form in the mind some vague pictorial representation answering to his conception of the universe.
    Most minds see the universe of their mental conception as something quite different from the actual stellar universe upon which we all gaze. Even the most purely rational minds who find the universe in "pure thought" are driven against their rational will to visualize this "pure thought" and to give it body and form and shape and movement.
    • Chapter I
  • They are at least proof of the inalienable part played, in the functioning of our complex vision, by sensation as an organ of research. But they have a further interest. They are an illuminating revelation of the inherent character and personal bias of the individual soul who is philosophizing. I suppose to a great many minds what we call "the universe" presents itself as a colossal circle, without any circumference, filled with an innumerable number of material objects floating in some thin attenuated ether. I suppose the centre of this circle with no circumference is generally assumed to be the "self" or "soul" of the person projecting this particular image.
    • Chapter I
  • This swallowing up of life in nothingness, this obliteration of life by nothingness is what the emotion of malice ultimately desires. The eternal conflict between love and malice is the eternal contest between life and death. And this contest is what the complex vision reveals, as it moves from darkness to darkness.
    • Chapter I

The Meaning of Culture (1929)

Quotations are cited from the 1936 Jonathan Cape reprint.
  • One always feels that a merely educated man holds his philosophical views as if they were so many pennies in his pocket. They are separate from his life. Whereas with a cultured man there is no gap or lacuna between his opinions and his life. Both are dominated by the same organic, inevitable fatality. They are what he is.
    • p. 19
  • The permanent mental attitude which the sensitive intelligence derives from philosophy is an attitude that combines extreme reverence with limitless skepticism.
    • pp. 27-28
  • "The meaning of culture" is nothing less than the conduct of life itself, fortified, thickened, made more crafty and subtle, by contact with books and with art.
    • p. 134
  • Every day that we allow ourselves to take things for granted, every day that we allow some little physical infirmity or worldly worry to come between us and our obstinate, indignant, defiant exultation, we are weakening our genius for life.
    • pp. 134
  • Ambition is the grand enemy of all peace.
    • p. 140
  • The influence of friendship upon culture differs from that of love, in that it assumes the basic idiosyncrasies of personal taste to be unalterable. Love, in spite of all rational knowledge to the contrary, is always in the mood of believing in miracles.
    • p. 170
  • No refining of one's taste in matters of art or literature, no sharpening of one's powers of insight in matters of science or psychology, can ever take the place of one's sensitiveness to the life of the earth. This is the beginning and the end of a person's true education.
    • p. 175
  • It is strange how few people make more than a casual cult of enjoying Nature. And yet the earth is actually and literally the mother of us all. One needs no strange spiritual faith to worship the earth.
    • p. 178
  • The love that interferes and knows not how to leave alone is a love alien to Nature's ways.
    • p. 209
  • Not the wretchedest man or woman but has a deep secretive mythology with which to wrestle with the material world and to overcome it and pass beyond it. Not the wretchedest human being but has his share in the creative energy that builds the world. We are all creators. We all create a mythological world of our own out of certain shapeless materials.
    • p. 222

Quotes about Powys

  • The Spanish Civil War shaped the political consciousness of a whole generation, which overwhelmingly saw it as representing heroic resistance to Fascism. Goldman and J.C. Powys did not belong to that generation – they belonged to the generation of its parents or, even, grandparents. And rather than resistance to Fascism, it was the social achievements of the Spanish Revolution that inspired them. In that they stand alone, among figures of the front rank, with Read and Orwell
    • David Goodway, in Anarchist Seeds beneath the Snow (2006), p. 129
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