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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Art as a Living and Spiritual Armor

Here in the fourth installment of our Virtual Summer Circle of Thomistic Studies, I want to take up one of the chief themes in Chapter IV of Jacques Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism—the idea that art is, as St. Thomas Aquinas and other medieval scholars put it, a habitus of the practical intellect.

In our previous discussions we’ve defined art as an activity of the mind in its practical mode, concerned with making something rather than with doing something in the moral sense. In Chapter IV Maritain adds another layer to this definition: art is a virtue of the practical intellect. And what is a virtue? Generally speaking, it is a habitus.   

Bringing in Latin doesn’t seem to help much. But it wouldn’t help, either, to try the most obvious translation of habitus: the English word “habit.” And that is because, as Maritain says, the word “habit” has to do with “mechanical bent and routine,” with activity that “resides in the nerve centers” (p. 11*). But habitus is anything but mechanical bent and routine. It is free, intelligent activity that resides in the spirit rather than the nervous system, springing as it does from the intellect or the will.

So with Maritain we’ll stick with the untranslated word habitus. In defining habitus (the plural in Latin is spelled the same), Maritain says that they are “essentially stable dispositions perfecting in the line of its own nature the subject in which they exist” (p. 10).

Or, more simply, a habitus is a perfection of a power of the soul.

Even now we are in the midst of trying to acquire a certain habitus—a habitus of the speculative mind (see our first session). We are each of us exercising, as it were, the power of our speculative mind, giving it a work-out, so that we might bring that power to perfection in the achievement of philosophical wisdom. The achievement of that perfection just is a habitus. There are physical habitus that we might be born with—beauty and strength, for example—but an intellectual habitus, whether of the speculative or practical mind, is an acquired achievement, presupposing strenuous effort and great application.

“The man who possesses a habitus, Maritain writes, “has within him a quality which nothing can pay for or replace; others are naked, he is armed with steel: but it is a case of a living and spiritual armor” (p. 11).

Art is thus a habitus, or virtue, of the practical mind. It is our mind being brought to perfection in the making of certain sorts of artifacts. Maritain likens the habitus of art to armor because a habitus is something stable and permanent. Interestingly, what makes the habitus of art so stable and permanent are the requirements of the art in practice—“the object” of the artistic activity, as Maritain puts it at the bottom of p. 11. What does this mean?

Think about learning how to draw. In that activity you put your practical mind to work, seeking to achieve a perfection of its power. But in any quest for perfection there are demands to be met. One doesn’t just take out one’s pencil and produce masterpieces. There are rules to be learned—or if not hard-and-fast rules, at least principles, as well as techniques to be trained in by masters, as well as “tricks of the trade” and “secrets” that can only be learned through much trial and error. In other words, the art of drawing has certain stable requirements—requirements that must be learned, as Picasso learned them, before one can start playing with and even breaking them.

So what happens as we learn how to draw is that the power of our practical mind is shaped (“specified” as Maritain puts it) by the requirements of the art. And because these requirements are stable and permanent, so is the resultant habitus of art stable and permanent.

In elaborating upon this point Maritain says rather forcefully, “Hence the force and rigidity of habitus; hence their irritability—all that deviates from the straight line of their object [the requirements of the art] galls them; hence their intransigence—what concession could they admit of? They are fixed in an absolute; hence their inconvenience in the social order. Men of the world, polished on all sides, do not like the man of habitus, with his asperities.”

Yet—how are we to square these thoughts about the rigidity of art as habitus with the inventive, playful side of art—and of the artist like Picasso who seems to want to destroy all “requirements”? 

* Page numbers refer to Art and Scholasticism and The Frontiers of Poetry, trans Joseph W. Evans (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1974).


  1. A fascinating question that - I'm a neophyte to Maritain and Thomism in general, but my first instinct was to call back the Chesterton quote you referenced in a previous post, about art consisting of limitations. But this seems inappropriate, as the limiting rigidity of "rules" and techniques of the habitus can ostensibly be unfulfilled/broken and still result in great art, as in the case of Picasso. Might perfection of the artist's powers (the habitus) consist of acquiring a degree of playfulness with certain rules but not others (think of "forced playtime" like recess in grade school), or the willingness to go there, the knowledge of the possibility of playfulness? Or, at the very least, might it consist of the a priori practical achievement of technique and rules ("strenuous effort and great application") before setting them aside, as in the case of Picasso? My hunch is no for both - it doesn't seem as if Maritain's definition of art as habitus leaves that much room. Then again, we are talking about perfection when talking about the habitus - my guess is that to tolerate any deviation from rules and requirements is to be imperfect - to still have work to do to achieve the habitus. But can't very few artists be said to be perfect then? I guess I'll have to wait for your next post!

    First heard of Art and Scholasticism in Merton's Seven Storey Mountain. You've motivated me now to find it and study it!

  2. Matthew, your thoughts inspired my blog post tonight. Thanks so much for your contribution! I think you'll enjoy Art and Scholasticism--I hope my response to your questions is helpful.