Amsterdam, 3 April 1878

I’ve been thinking about what we discussed,1 and I couldn’t help thinking of the words ‘we are today what we were yesterday’.2 This isn’t to say that one must stand still and ought not try to develop oneself, on the contrary, there are compelling reasons to do and think so.
But in order to remain faithful to those words one may not retreat and, once one has started to see things with a clear and trusting eye, one ought not to abandon or deviate from that.
They who said ‘we are today what we were yesterday’, those were honnêtes hommes,3 which is apparent from the constitution they drew up,4 which will remain for all time and of which it has rightly been said that it was written with a ray from on high and a finger of fire.5 It is good to be an ‘honnête homme’ and truly to endeavour to become one both almost and altogether,6 and one does well if one believes that being an ‘homme intérieur et spirituel’ is part of it.7
If one only knew for certain that one belonged among them, one would always go one’s way, calmly and collectedly, never doubting that things would turn out well. There was once a man who went into a church one day and asked, can it be that my zeal has deceived me, that I have turned down the wrong path and have gone about things the wrong way, oh, if only I could rid myself of this uncertainty and have the firm conviction that I will eventually overcome and succeed. And then a voice answered him,8 And if you knew that for certain, what would you do? Act now as though you knew it for certain and thou shalt not be ashamed.9 Then the man went on his way, not faithless but believing,10 and returned to his work, no longer doubting or wavering.11
As far as being an homme intérieur et spirituel is concerned, couldn’t one develop that in oneself through knowledge of history in general and of certain people of all eras in particular, from biblical times to the Revolution12 and from The odyssey13 to the books of Dickens and Michelet? And couldn’t one learn something from the work of the likes of Rembrandt or from Weeds by Breton,14 or The four times of the day by Millet,15 or Saying grace by Degroux,16 or Brion,17 or The conscript by Degroux18 (or else by Conscience19), or his Apothecary,20 or The large oaks by Dupré,21 or even the mills and sand flats by Michel?22  1v:2
It’s by persevering in those ideas and things that one at last becomes thoroughly leavened with a good leaven, that of sorrowful yet alway rejoicing,23 and which will become apparent when the time of fruitfulness is come in our lives, the fruitfulness of good works.24
The ray from on high doesn’t always shine on us, and is sometimes behind the clouds, and without that light a person cannot live and is worth nothing and can do nothing good, and anyone who maintains that one can live without faith in that higher light and doesn’t worry about attaining it will end up being disappointed.
We’ve talked quite a lot about what we feel to be our duty and how we should arrive at something good, and we rightly came to the conclusion that first of all our goal must be to find a certain position and a profession to which we can devote ourselves entirely.
And I think that we also agreed on this point, namely that one must pay special attention to the end, and that a victory achieved after lifelong work and effort is better than one achieved more quickly.
He who lives uprightly and experiences true difficulty and disappointment and is nonetheless undefeated by it is worth more than someone who prospers and knows nothing but relative good fortune. For who are they, those in whom one most clearly notices something higher? — it is those to whom the words ‘workers, your life is sad, workers, you suffer in life, workers, you are blessed’ are applicable,25 it is those who show the signs of ‘bearing a whole life of strife and work without giving way’.26 It is good to try and become thus.
So we go on our way ‘undefessi favente Deo’.27
As far as I’m concerned, I must become a good minister, who has something to say that is good and can be useful in the world, and perhaps it’s good after all that I have a relatively long time of preparation and become secure in a firm conviction before I’m called upon to speak about it to others. It is wise, before one begins that work, to gather together a wealth of things that could benefit others.
Do let us go on quietly, examining all things and holding fast to that which is good,28 and trying always to learn more that is useful, and gaining more experience.
Woe-spiritedness is quite a good thing to have, if only one writes it as two words, woe is in all people, everyone has reason enough for it, but one must also have spirit, the more the better, and it is good to be someone who never despairs.29  1v:3
If we but try to live uprightly, then we shall be all right, even though we shall inevitably experience true sorrow and genuine disappointments, and also probably make real mistakes and do wrong things, but it’s certainly true that it is better to be fervent in spirit,30 even if one accordingly makes more mistakes, than narrow-minded and overly cautious. It is good to love as much as one can, for therein lies true strength, and he who loves much does much and is capable of much, and that which is done with love is well done. If one is moved by some book or other, for instance, just to mention something, ‘The swallow, the lark, the nightingale’,31 The longing for autumn, ‘From here I see a lady’,32 ‘Never this unique little village’ by Michelet,33 it’s because it’s written from the heart in simplicity and with poverty of spirit.34
If one were to say but few words, though ones with meaning, one would do better than to say many that were only empty sounds, and just as easy to utter as they were of little use.
Love is the best and most noble thing in the human heart, especially when it has been tried and tested in life like gold in the fire,35 happy is he and strong in himself who has loved much and, even if he has wavered and doubted, has kept that divine fire and has returned to that which was in the beginning36 and shall never die.37 If only one continues to love faithfully that which is verily worthy of love,38 and does not squander his love on truly trivial and insignificant and faint-hearted things, then one will gradually become more enlightened and stronger. The sooner one seeks to become competent in a certain position and in a certain profession, and adopts a fairly independent way of thinking and acting, and the more one observes fixed rules, the stronger one’s character becomes, and yet that doesn’t mean that one has to become narrow-minded.
It is wise to do that, for life is but short and time passes quickly. If one is competent in one thing and understands one thing well, one gains at the same time insight into and knowledge of many other things into the bargain.
It’s sometimes good to go about much in the world and to be among people, and at times one is actually obliged and called upon to do so,39 or it can be one way of ‘throwing oneself into one’s work unreservedly and with all one’s might’,40 but he who actually goes quietly about his work, alone, preferring to have but very few friends, goes the most safely among people and in the world. One should never trust it when one is without difficulties or some worry or obstacle, and one shouldn’t make things too easy for oneself. Even in the most cultured circles and the best surroundings and circumstances, one should retain something of the original nature of a Robinson Crusoe41 or a savage,42 for otherwise one hath not root in himself,43 and never let the fire in his soul go out but keep it going, there will always be a time when it will come in useful. And whosoever continues to hold fast to poverty for himself, and embraces it, possesses a great treasure and will always hear the voice of his conscience speaking clearly. Whosoever hears and follows the voice in his innermost being, which is God’s best gift,44 ultimately finds therein a friend and is never alone.  1r:4
Happy is he who has faith in God, for he shall overcome all of life’s difficulties in the end, though it be not without pain and sorrow. One cannot do better than to hold fast to the thought of God and endeavour to learn more of Him, amidst everything, in all circumstances, in all places and at all times; one can do this with the Bible as with all other things. It is good to go on believing that everything is miraculous, more so than one can comprehend, for that is the truth, it is good to remain sensitive and lowly and meek in heart,45 even though one sometimes has to hide that feeling, because that is often necessary, it is good to be very knowledgeable about the things that are hidden from the wise and prudent of the world but that are revealed as though by nature to the poor and simple, to women and babes.46 For what can one learn that is better than that which God has put by nature into every human soul, that which in the depths of every soul lives and loves, hopes and believes,47 unless one should wilfully destroy it? There, in that, is the need for nothing less than the boundless and miraculous, and a man does well if he is satisfied with nothing less and doesn’t feel at home until he has acquired it.
That is the avowal that all great men have expressed in their works, all who have thought a little more deeply and have sought and worked a little harder and have loved more than others, who have launched out into the deep of the sea of life. Launching out into the deep is what we too must do if we want to catch anything, and if it sometimes happens that we have to work the whole night and catch nothing, then it is good not to give up after all but to let down the nets again at dawn.48
So let us simply go on quietly, each his own way, always following the light ‘sursum corda’,49 and as such who know that we are what others are and that others are what we are, and that it is good to have love one to another50 namely of the best kind, that believeth all things and hopeth all things, endureth all things and never faileth.51
And not troubling ourselves too much if we have shortcomings, for he who has none has a shortcoming nonetheless, namely that he has none, and he who thinks he is perfectly wise would do well to start over from the beginning and become a fool.52
We are today what we were yesterday, namely ‘honnêtes hommes’, but ones who must be tried with the fire of life53 to be innerly strengthened and confirmed in that which they are by nature through the grace of God.
May it be so with us, old boy, and I wish you well on your way, and God be with you in all things, and make you succeed at that, that is what is wished you with a hearty handshake at your departure54 by

Your most loving brother

It’s only a very small light, the one in the room of the Sunday school in Barndesteeg,55 let me keep it burning;56 in any event, if I don’t do it, I don’t think that Adler is the kind of man who would let it go out.


Br. 1990: 142 | CL: 121
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Theo van Gogh
Date: Amsterdam, Wednesday, 3 April 1878

1. From ll. 44-45 it emerges that the brothers discussed their duties and their vocation: Theo was to become acquainted with Goupil in Paris, and Vincent was planning to become a catechist. Mr van Gogh had advised Vincent against this on 16 March 1878 (FR b970), and had complained of it before to Theo: ‘Is it any wonder that we feel pain and sorrow upon discovering that he has absolutely no joy in life? But he continues to plod on, with his head bowed, whereas we did what we could to help him towards an honourable goal! It is as though he deliberately chooses the difficult path’ (FR b968, 2 March 1878).
Theo, now on his sales trip for Goupil, planned his visit to Amsterdam to coincide with Vincent’s birthday on 30 March (FR b973 and b974).
Mr van Gogh asked Theo for his impression of Vincent: ‘We think it strange that we have had no letter from him, not even after his birthday. He doesn’t write as regularly as he used to. I do so fear that he feels very unhappy in himself, but what can one do about it? We encourage him, and give him the opportunity to continue his studies, even though we hardly know how we shall manage. It’s a sickly existence that he has made for himself, I’m afraid, and how much he will still have to struggle, and we with him. Tell us whether you visited him and how you found him’ (FR b973, 1 April 1878).
2. Taken from Jules Michelet, Histoire de la Révolution française. 2 vols. Paris n.d., vol. 1, p. 32. There are various editions of this book. The volumes in which Michelet treated the period from 1789 until the execution of Robespierre in 1794 appeared from 1847 to 1853. He later expanded this already sizeable work by including the history of events up to the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Michelet attributed the most important role in the French Revolution to the people, and based his work on thorough archival research.
3. It is possible that Van Gogh borrowed this common expression, originally stemming from French court culture of the seventeenth century, from Michelet’s L’amour: ‘but the universal, agreeable man, who is well-versed in everything, the kind Louis xiv’s century admired and commended, the kind people called the “decent man”’ (mais l’homme universel et agréable, qui se connait à tout, ce que le siècle de Louis xiv admirait et recommandait, ce qu’on appelait “l’honnête homme”’. Michelet, L’amour, p. 271).
4. The constitution that was drawn up at the time of the French Revolution.
5. Both phrases occur in Victor Hugo, Les contemplations, in book 3, chapter 30 ‘Magnitudo parvi’, and book 6, chapter 23 ‘Les mages’, respectively. Ed. Pierre Albouy. Paris 1990, pp. 204, 374. It is however uncertain whether Van Gogh, who in fact links these phrases to the constitution, actually took them from this work. Cf. letter 309, 388 and the saying ‘a ray from on high’ in letter 368 in a quotation from Michelet. For the related phrase ‘something on high’, see letter 288, n. 15.
7. Van Gogh could have taken this phrase from Taine’s essay on Carlyle in Histoire de la littérature anglaise (see Taine 1874, vol. 5, p. 282 (chapter 4)). That he was familiar with it emerges from letter 133.
11. The source of this anecdote has not been found; Vincent might have been practising his ‘clergyman’s voice’, or he might have heard the story during one of the many sermons he attended in this period. It is also possible, however, that he was painting a picture of his own situation under the guise of a ‘story’.
12. The French Revolution.
13. Homer, The Odyssey, the antique tale of the wanderings of Odysseus.
14. Jules Breton, Mauvaises herbes (Weeds) (present whereabouts unknown), exhibited at the 1869 Salon, was once part of the Wilstach Collection (USA). The work was reproduced in Album Boetzel. Le Salon 1869; the same reproduction appeared in Philippe Burty, ‘L’Album Boetzel. Salon de 1869’, Gazette des Beaux-Arts 11 (1869), 2nd series, pp. 252-263 (ill. on p. 257). Ill. 21 [21].
16. Charles Degroux, Saying grace>, c. 1861 (Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts). Ill. 135 [135]. There were various versions of this painting. See exhib. cat. Ypres 1995, pp. 102-108, cat. no. 97-111.
18. Van Gogh’s mention of Charles Degroux’s The conscript no doubt refers to The conscript’s return (present whereabouts unknown) and not one of the two versions of The conscript’s departure, which Van Gogh says in letter 164 not to have known previously. Ill. 137 [137]. See exhib. cat. Ypres 1995, pp. 97-101, cat. nos. 69-90, esp. no. 78.
20. A work by Degroux titled Apothecary has not been traced. Perhaps Van Gogh is referring to the Study for the doctor’s visit, The doctor’s visit or The quack (present whereabouts of all three paintings unknown). Cf. exhib. cat. Ypres 1995, pp. 88, 135, cat. nos. 42-43, 256.
[142] [143]
22. Georges Michel painted numerous landscapes, a number of which appear in the series of reproductions published by Durand-Ruel; cf. letter 73.
25. Taken from Emile Souvestre, Les derniers bretons. Paris 1858, vol. 2, p. 227: ‘O toilers! You lead a hard life in this world ... O toilers! You suffer in life; toilers, you are truly fortunate! ... brothers, life is sad’. (O laboureurs! vous menez une vie dure dans le monde ... O laboureurs! vous souffrez dans la vie; laboureurs, vous êtes bien heureux! ... frères la vie est triste). Van Gogh copied this passage into one of the poetry albums. See Pabst 1988, p. 29.
26. Stemming from Lamennais’s text Amschaspands et Darvands, quoted in letter 120, n. 24.
27. Read: ‘indefessus (or indefessi)’ – ‘tirelessly with God’s grace’. See also letter 136, n. 28.
a. Lees: ‘good (in the sense of being prudent) that ...’.
29. Mr van Gogh’s expression ‘I never despair’ is frequently quoted; it could have been derived from hymn 56:1 and hymn 56:9.
31. These three references to Jules Michelet were all taken from his L’oiseau. The first refers to a translation of a poem by Rückert which appears in the chapter ‘Suite des migrations. L’hirondelle’. The second is part of the chapter ‘Le chant’. The last was taken from the title of the chapter ‘Le rossignol, l’art en l’infini’ (Michelet 1861, pp. 152-153, 196-204 and 243-253, respectively). Van Gogh copied ‘L’hirondelle’ and ‘Le rossignol’ into one of the poetry albums; see Pabst 1988, pp. 14-16.
32.Les aspirations de l’automne’ is the title of a chapter in Michelet’s L’amour and ‘Je vois d’ici une dame’ the beginning of a passage within that chapter (see letter 14, n. 19). Van Gogh had copied the piece earlier, both for his brother – in letter 14 and in a poetry album – and for Annie Slade-Jones, his former landlady in London; see Pabst 1988, pp. 22, 65.
33. ‘J’aimais cette petite ville singulière’ has been taken from Michelet’s La mer (1861), book 1, ‘Un regard sur les mers’, chapter 2, ‘Plages, grèves et falaises’, which describes the pleasant seaside town of Granville in Normandy. Ed. Paris 1861, pp. 13-20 (quotation on p. 14). This also occurs in a poetry album made for Theo, as well as on a loose sheet containing several texts (see RM5). See Pabst 1988, pp. 13, 87. In La mer, Michelet describes in a lyrical, discursive manner the relationship between man and the sea.
36. Biblical.
39. This conviction was inspired in part by Mr van Gogh, who urged Vincent to seek human society in order to improve his social skills. See letter 141, l. 55.
40. This pronouncement can be traced to a conversation Van Gogh had with the Rev. Gagnebin; see letter 142.
41. Robinson Crusoe is the protagonist of Daniel Defoe’s novel The life and strange surprising adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, mariner (1719), the story of a man who lived for years in isolation on a tropical island. His physical and moral survival is due to his strength of mind and resourceful nature.
42. Van Gogh is perhaps referring to the native Friday, Robinson Crusoe’s companion during his last years on the island.
44. Regarding the conscience as a gift of God, see letter 133, n. 12.
49. ‘(Let us) raise our hearts on high’. An old liturgical exclamation uttered upon the elevation of the Eucharist; cf. Lam. 3:41, ‘Nun levemus corda nostra cum manibus ad Dominum in caelos’. ‘Sursum corda’ was Thomas Moore’s motto. Cf. also hymn 43, ‘Hoog, omhoog, het hart naar boven’ (Raise, on high, our hearts to the heavens) and Pabst 1988, p. 62.
54. Vincent must have sent this letter to Theo’s temporary address. The sales trip lasted for several weeks: Theo had already visited Amsterdam, Utrecht and Rotterdam before 4 April, but by 19 April the trip had evidently come to an end. In this period Theo paid Vincent a second visit (FR b1085, H.G. Tersteeg to Theo, 4 April, and FR b975).
55. See letter 141 with regard to August Carel Adler’s Sunday school in Barndesteeg. Mr van Gogh was not very enthusiastic about Vincent’s attachment to the Sunday school; over a week later he wrote to Theo: ‘I received a detailed letter from Vincent. He wanted so much to continue with that Sunday school, but even though I allowed him not to break it off so abruptly, I seriously advised him yet again to distance himself from it, in view of the great amount of work required by his studies and because of the danger of putting his heart into an activity of secondary importance and neglecting the main issue. Did you visit him? And how did you find him? We heard from the Strickers that they had once again been delighted to have him stay with them’ (FR b974, 12 April 1878).