Vincent van Gogh, Letters to Theo, October 22, 1882 (Principles)

Please don’t think that I look with contempt on such persons as you describe, just because their lives are not based on serious and well-considered principles. My opinion on the matter is this: what matters is deeds, not some abstract idea. I only approve of principles and think them worth the trouble if they turn into deeds, and I think it is good to reflect and to try to be conscientious, because this concentrates a man’s energies and combines his various actions into a whole. The people you describe would, I believe, be more resolute if they thought more clearly about what they were going to do, but for the rest I greatly prefer the likes of them to people who parade their principles without taking the slightest trouble or even thinking about putting them into practice. For the latter gain nothing from the most beautiful principles and the former are precisely the people who, if they come round to living with resolve and thoughtfulness, might do something great. For great things do not just happen by impulse but are a succession of small things linked together.

What is drawing? How does one come to it? It is working through an invisible iron wall that seems to stand between what one feels and what one can do. How is one to get through that wall – since pounding at it is of no use? In my opinion one has to undermine that wall, filing through it steadily and patiently. And there you are – how can one continue such work assidu (assiduously) without being distracted or diverted, unless one reflects and orders one’s life by principles? And as it is with art so it is with other things. And great things are not something accidental, they must be distinctly willed.

Whether a man’s deeds originate in his principles or his principles in his deeds is something that seems to me as indeterminable (and as little worthy of determination) as the question of which came first, the chicken or the egg. But I consider that trying to develop one’s power of thought and will is something positive and of much moment.

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