Inscape and instress

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Inscape and instress are complementary concepts about individuality and uniqueness derived by Gerard Manley Hopkins from the ideas of the medieval philosopher Duns Scotus.[1]

[Hopkins] felt that everything in the universe was characterized by what he called inscape, the distinctive design that constitutes individual identity. This identity is not static but dynamic. Each being in the universe 'selves,' that is, enacts its identity. And the human being, the most highly selved, the most individually distinctive being in the universe, recognizes the inscape of other beings in an act that Hopkins calls instress, the apprehension of an object in an intense thrust of energy toward it that enables one to realize specific distinctiveness. Ultimately, the instress of inscape leads one to Christ, for the individual identity of any object is the stamp of divine creation on it.[2]

This is related to a logocentric theology and the Imago Dei. A logocentric theology of creation is based on correlation of the Genesis account and John 1. Since all creation is by the Word (divine fiat) human identity in God's image is grounded in God's speech and no two creation words are ever spoken alike.[a] This idea is reflected by J. R. R. Tolkien who compares the Creator to a perfect prism and creation to the refraction of perfect light. Tolkien writes,

'Dear Sir,' I said – 'Although now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed
Dis-grace he may be, yet is not de-throned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned:
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.[3]

The idea is strongly embraced by the Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton who admired both Scotus and Hopkins. In New Seeds of Contemplation Merton equates the unique "thingness" of a thing, its inscape, to sanctity. Merton writes,

"No two created beings are exactly alike. And their individuality is no imperfection. On the contrary, the perfection of each created thing is not merely its conformity to an abstract type but in its own individual identity with itself."[4]

The result is that holiness itself is grounded in God's creation, his call, and not in a Platonic ideal. To the extent that any "thing" (including humans) honors God's unique idea of them they are holy. Holiness thus connects to "vocation" (from the Latin vocare for "voice") in two ways. First, God creates through the word; and second, when being responds rightly to God's speech by expressing his unique word the result is Holiness.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ While it is true that "logos" also means "word" in the conventional sense of "speech", in John it refers. not to the "divine fiat" ("Let there be Light" etc.), but to Christ as the second person of the Trinity. As the first quotation from the Norton Anthology states: "Ultimately, the inscape of instress leads one to Christ".[2]


  1. ^ Chevigny, Bell Gale. Instress and Devotion in the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins Victorian Studies Vol. 9, No. 2 (Dec., 1965), pp. 141-153.
  2. ^ a b Stephen Greenblatt et al., Ed. "Gerard Manley Hopkins." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed. Vol. 2. New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006. pg. 2159
  3. ^ J. R. R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories, in Essays Presented to Charles Williams, CS Lewis Ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978)
  4. ^ Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation New Directions Publishing, 1972. 29.

External links[edit]