Walter Pater, in full Walter Horatio Pater, (born August 4, 1839, Shadwell, London, England--died July 30, 1894, Oxford, Oxfordshire), English critic, essayist, and humanist whose advocacy of "art for art's sake" became a cardinal doctrine of the movement known as Aestheticism.
Pater was educated at King's School, Canterbury, and at Queen's College, Oxford, where he studied Greek philosophy under Benjamin Jowett. He then settled in Oxford and read with private pupils. In 1864 he was elected to a fellowship at Brasenose College. Pater's early intention to enter the church gave way at this time to a consuming interest in classical studies. Pater then began to write for the reviews, and his essays on Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, Pico della Mirandola, Michelangelo, and others were collected in 1873 as Studies in the History of the Renaissance (later called simply The Renaissance). His delicate, fastidious style and sensitive appreciation of Renaissance art in these essays made his reputation as a scholar and an aesthete, and he became the centre of a small group of admirers in Oxford. In the concluding essay in The Renaissance, Pater asserted that art exists for the sake of its beauty alone, and that it acknowledges neither moral standards nor utilitarian functions in its reason for being. These views brought Pater into an association with Algernon Charles Swinburne and with the Pre-Raphaelites.
Marius the Epicurean (1885) is his most substantial work. It is a philosophical romance in which Pater's ideal of an aesthetic and religious life is scrupulously and elaborately set forth. The setting is Rome in the time of Marcus Aurelius; but this is a thin disguise for the characteristically late-19th-century spiritual development of its main character. Imaginary Portraits (1887) are shorter pieces of philosophical fiction in the same mode. Appreciations (1889) is a return to the critical essay, this time largely on English subjects. In 1893 came Plato and Platonism, giving an extremely literary view of Plato and neglecting the logical and dialectical side of his philosophy. Pater's Greek Studies (1895), Miscellaneous Studies (1895), and Essays from The Guardian (privately printed, 1896; 1901) were published posthumously. Also published posthumously was his unfinished romance, Gaston de Latour (1896).
The primary influence on Pater's mind was his classical studies, coloured by a highly individual view of Christian devotion and pursued largely as a source of extremely refined artistic sensations. In his later critical writings Pater continued to focus on the innate qualities of works of art, in contrast to the prevailing tendency to evaluate them on the basis of their moral and educational value.
Pater's early influence was confined to a small circle in Oxford, but he came to have a widespread effect on the next literary generation. Oscar Wilde, George Moore, and the aesthetes of the 1890s were among his followers and show obvious and continual traces both of his style and of his ideas.
No account of the Renaissance can be complete without some notice of the attempt made by certain Italian scholars of the fifteenth century to reconcile Christianity with the religion of ancient Greece.
A very intimate sense of the expressiveness of outward things, which ponders, listens, penetrates, where the earlier, less developed consciousness passed lightly by, is an important element in the general temper of our modern poetry.
Such discussions help us very little to enjoy what has been well done in art or poetry, to discriminate between what is more and what is less excellent in them, or to use words like beauty, excellence, art, poetry, with a more precise meaning than they would otherwise have.
What is important, then, is not that the critic should possess a correct abstract definition of beauty for the intellect, but a certain kind of temperament, the power of being deeply moved by the presence of beautiful objects.
Experience, already reduced to a group of impressions, is ringed round for each one of us by that thick wall of personality through which no real voice has ever pierced on its way to us, or from us to that which we can only conjecture to be without.
In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world, and meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes two persons, things, situations, seem alike.
Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening.
With this sense of the splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch, we shall hardly have time to make theories about the things we see and touch.
One of the most beautiful passages of Rousseau is that in the sixth book of Confessions, where he describes the awakening in him of the literary sense. Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most.
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