Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

The Philosophy of History,

 c. 1831

The sea gives us the idea of the indefinite, the unlimited, and infinite; and in feeling his own infinite in that Infinite, man is stimulated and emboldened to stretch beyond the limited: the sea invites man to conquest, and to piratical plunder, but also to honest gain and to commerce. The land, the mere valley plain attaches him to the soil; it involves him in an infinite multitude of dependencies, but the sea carries him out beyond these limited circles of thought and action. Those who navigate the sea have indeed gain for their object, but the means are in this respect paradoxical, inasmuch as they hazard both property and life to attain it. The means therefore are the very opposite to that which they aim at. This is what exalts their gain and occupation above itself, and makes it something brave and noble. Courage is necessarily introduced into trade, daring is joined with wisdom. For the daring which encounters the sea must at the same time embrace wariness—cunning—since it has to do with the treacherous, the most unreliable and deceitful element. This boundless plain is absolutely yielding—withstanding no pressure, not even a breath of wind. It looks boundlessly innocent, submissive, friendly, and insinuating; and it is exactly this submissiveness which changes the sea into the most dangerous and violent element. To this deceitfulness and violence man opposes merely a simple piece of wood, confides entirely in his courage and presence of mind; and thus passes from a firm ground to an unstable support, taking his artificial ground with him. The ship—that swan of the sea, which cuts the watery plain in agile and arching movements or describes circles upon it—is a machine whose invention does the greatest honor to the boldness of man as well as to his understanding.

John Fowles



No other element has such accreted levels of significance for us, such complex archetypal meaning. The sea’s uses and moods sex it. It is the great creatrix, feeder, womb, and vagina, place of pleasure; the gentlest thing on earth, the most maternal; the most seductive whore, and handsomely the most faithless. It has the attributes of all women, and men, too. It can be subtle and noble, brave and energetic; and far crueler than the meanest, most sadistic human king who ever ruled. (“I believe in the Bible,” an old sailor once told Lord Fisher, “because it don’t mention no sea in Paradise.”) I happen to live over the sea myself—I watch it every day, I hear it every night. I do not like it angry, but I’ve noticed that most urban and inland people adore it so. Storms and gales seem to awaken something joyous and excited in them: the thunder on the shingle, the spray and spume, the rut and rage.

The other great nexus of metaphors and feeling is the ship itself. No human invention, with all its associated crafts in building and handling, has an older history—or received more love. That is why we have sexed it without ambiguity, at least in the West; which in this context casts the sea, the domain of Neptune, as raper, berserker, Bluebeard. Even our judgment of a ship’s beauty has tended to be that of the male upon the female—that is, we put a greater value on outward line than on soul or utility, and nowhere more than with the last of the sailing ships, that splendid and sharply individualized zenith of five thousand years of hard-earned knowledge and aesthetic instinct. The vocabulary of the airplane seduced us for a while, but I think it is interesting that we have come back to star- and spaceships. Jet will do for a transport shorthand, yet when man really reaches across the vast seas of space, he still reaches in ships.

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