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Sunday, August 7, 2011

An Eye for Beauty

The centerpiece of Jacques Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism is Chapter V, “Art and Beauty.” It is a profoundly insightful but also very demanding chapter, as it draws on quite a few technical conceptions from the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. It is, however, a chapter well worth wrestling with, as the notion of beauty is one which at best is widely misunderstood, and at worst thought to be totally irrelevant to the modern notion of art. 
So let’s begin this installment of our Virtual Summer Circle of Thomistic Studies with the opening lines of Chapter V, in which Maritain discusses St. Thomas’s definition of beauty:

St. Thomas, who as simple as he was wise, defined the beautiful as that which, being seen, pleases: id quod visum placet. These four words say all that is necessary: a vision, that is to say, an intuitive knowledge, and a delight. The beautiful is that which gives delight—not just any delight, but delight in knowing (p. 23*).

What is beauty? It is that which pleases upon being seen. It may be tempting to conclude from this that what Aquinas is saying is that things are beautiful just because someone finds them pleasing. This would make the beautiful entirely subjective—a mere matter of our feelings, of our reactions to things, rather than a quality of things themselves that inspires pleasure. I don’t think we should understand Aquinas as defending a subjective understanding of beauty. So how should we understand his definition?

The beautiful is something seen. Does this mean something seen by the eyes, or seen metaphorically by the mind? Both, really. The experience of the beautiful begins with the senses, as Maritian affirms later on p. 23. But on p. 25 he elaborates: “Every sensible beauty implies, it is true, a certain delight of the eye itself or of the ear or the imagination: but there is beauty only if the intelligence also takes delight in some way.” Maritain continues:

A beautiful color “washes the eye,” just as a strong scent dilates the nostril; but of these two “forms” or qualities color only is said to be beautiful, because, being received, unlike the perfume, in a sense power capable of disinterested knowledge, it can be, even through its purely sensible brilliance, an object of delight for the intellect.

We saw in the opening chapters of Art and Scholasticism Maritain developing a very intellectual understanding of art. Now we see him following St. Thomas again in developing a very intellectual understanding of beauty. Beauty involves vision, with the eyes and the ears, certainly, but more importantly with the mind. On p. 23 Maritain describes this vision as an intuitive knowledge. What does this mean?

An intuition, in brief, is a reality that is grasped by the mind without mediation of proof. This isn’t as mysterious as it first may sound. There are plenty of realities we grasp without mediation of proof. For example, if you see someone attack an innocent person in the street, the horror of the injustice is grasped by your mind without mediation of proof. Either you see the injustice happening right in front of you, or you don’t (and your moral character is corrupt). Imagine someone, witnessing such an attack, remarking, “Yes, I see what’s happening there; but can you prove to me that it’s unjust?” What would you say to such a person? If you tried to prove that attacks on innocent people are unjust because a well-ordered society depends upon the protection of innocent people, you would find yourself assuming in your “proof” the very thing you were trying to prove—namely, that attacks against the innocent are unjust (or conversely, protection of the innocent is just). This is what philosophers call begging the question. It’s a logical no-no.

The point being: some truths we simply get, without having to follow a series of intellectual steps, i.e., a proof.

But getting back to beauty. Beauty, affirms Maritain, is grasped intuitively by the mind (via either sight or hearing). The mind simply has a vision of the beautiful that requires no mediation of proof. So just as we simply see the injustice when an innocence person is attacked, so too we simply see the beauty when we look, say, at the architecture of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

And along with this vision comes delight—or what St. Thomas calls pleasure. This delight, however, Maritain clarifies, is a delight in knowing, “a delight which superabounds and overflows from this act [i.e., the intuitive vision of the beautiful] because of the object known” (p. 23).

So we’re walking together inside St. Peter’s Basilica. Imagine you’ve never seen it before. Your senses will be pleasantly “washed over” by what you see, and in the midst of that experience your mind also will begin to whirl, and whirl with its own ever-increasing delight. Your mind will begin to “see” things, intuit things, in the sensible feast set before it. These first intuitions will be vague, sketchy, in need of being worked out (perhaps by a docent, or the art historian’s discussion of the Basilica in your guidebook.) No doubt, either you or the docent or the guidebook will start talking about the immensity of the Basilica’s proportions, the majesty of it all, the order, the splendor…

The Basilica is beautiful because, upon being seen by your eyes and by your mind’s eye, it inspires an intellectual delight. And we have already begun to notice that it isn’t our delight that makes the Basilica beautiful. It is the Basilica’s proportions, splendor, and multi-faceted unity that are the cause of the delight we experience.

And so we come to the three prime characteristics of the beautiful (unity, proportion, radiance), which Maritain considers in Chapter V and that we’ll take up next time. So far, we’ve followed Maritain and St. Thomas in delineating an understanding of beauty that, while involving our subjective reactions to things, is nonetheless founded upon the internal, intelligible structure—what St. Thomas calls the form—of things themselves.  

* 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).

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