beauty

The Beautiful and the Very Beautiful

In the course of arguing in favor of the belief that God created the universe ex nihilo, the third century church father St. Methodius of Olympus asserts that “we must say that it is in the nature of things for arts to be produced in men out of what has no existence.” While the intent of Methodius’s treatise is not to discuss the nature of art nor of human creativity more generally, the assumption underlying his argument is nonetheless a worthy starting place for a discussion of these subjects within a Christian paradigm. Methodius is arguing, in short, that just as human beings create works of art, seemingly, from nothing, so did God create the world from nothing. If man is capable of such a thing, Methodius asks his opponents, then is not God as well capable and to an even greater degree? From this can readily be extrapolated the underlying assumption that this creativity inherent in human nature is an aspect of the likeness of man to God. One can argue from human creativity to divine creativity precisely because human creativity is derived from and is, in a manner of speaking, an imitation of divine creativity. Furthermore, it is in the application of this creative faculty that the difference between the artist, strictly speaking, and the artisan—or, to use terminology of a more recent innovation, the difference between the fine arts and the arts more generally—is to be discerned.

The Genesis account of the creation of the cosmos and man provides scriptural substantiation for these extrapolations from Methodius’s statement. The opening of the book, of course, proclaims, “In the beginning God created . . .” (Gen 1:1). And this is all that the reader approaching the Bible for the first time knows about God by the end of the first chapter: he creates. He creates “the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1); light (1:3); the firmament (1:6); land (1:9); plants and trees (1:11); the sun, the moon, and the stars (1:16); fish and birds (1:20); land animals (1:24); and, at last, human beings (1:26). He is, in addition, a creator who admires his own work a great deal. As he creates, the reader finds that God stops occasionally to observe and proclaim of what he has created that “it was good” (Gen 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, and 25) and, at last, following the creation of man, “very good” (Gen 1:31). It is not too much to imagine God as an artist at work, after each addition putting down his brush for a moment, stepping back from the easel, and commenting in approval at what he has accomplished so far: it is good.

The choice of wording in the Septuagint, the popular Greek translation from the original Hebrew of Genesis used by many early Greek-speaking Christians, Methodius included, is indicative of the general orientation of the passage as a whole. The Septuagint records God’s proclamation that his work is καλόν and, in the final emphatic iteration of Genesis 1:31, καλὰ λίαν. The word καλόν carries with it the meaning of “good,” as is expressed in most English translations and in the original Hebrew, but with the additional meanings of “noble” and, perhaps most importantly for the connotations of this passage, “beautiful.” And, following the creation of man, the creation is very good, very noble and very beautiful.

The reader approaching Genesis for the first time, then, will find that God is a creator and an admirer of what is beautiful. At the apex of his creation is the thing that makes it in the end not only “beautiful” but “very beautiful,” namely, a creature “in our image, after our likeness” (Gen 1:26). The obvious implication is that these beings whom “God created . . . in his own image, / in the image of God he created him; / male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27) must, given that they are indeed like him, also be creators and admirers of the good and the beautiful. Further infused into their nature—and it may be assumed by the reader of this account that this too derives from their likeness to God—is the attribute of rulership. God proclaims just before (Gen 1:26) and just after (Gen 1:28) creating man that they will “have dominion” over the earth and over its sundry other inhabitants.

These two characteristics of man as derived from his likeness to God, his creativity and his dominion, are brought together in the vocation assigned to the first man by God, that of gardner. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it,” says Genesis 2:15. Similarly, the primeval man is called upon by God to exercise both dominion and creativity in his naming of the animals. “Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them,” says Genesis 2:19. “And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.” The man, through the exercise of his own creative faculty, adds to and, in a sense, completes the work of God. While “God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens,” it is man who decides “what he would call them.” While it was God who “planted a garden in Eden” (Gen 2:8), it is man who is called upon “to work it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). And even God waits to “see what” he will do (Gen 2:18). While the cosmos is καλόν—good and beautiful—from the moment of its creation by God, it is only καλὰ λίαν—very good and very beautiful—following the creation of man.

While he does not seem to have had the biblical story of creation in mind in this instance, T. S. Eliot’s comments on the creative activity of the poet in his essay on “The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism” serve as a useful commentary on the creativity inherent in man’s nature as it appears in Genesis. Poetry, he says, is able to “make people see the world afresh, or some new part of it. It may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves, and an evasion of the visible and sensible world.”

More true, perhaps, in the postlapsarian world than in the world of the primeval garden, what Eliot draws attention to here is the ability of the poet—and of the artist more generally—to participate in the divine creative activity by constantly renewing and revealing the world. The gardner participates in the creative activity of the divine by assisting in the yearly process of the apparent death and rebirth of nature. The poet does the same by revealing and identifying the world of the subconscious, thereby allowing man to make sense of the world of experience, both inner and outer. The painter reveals and renews the world on his canvass by allowing the mind to focus on the beauty of the singular phenomenon he has taken as his subject. In this “evasion of ourselves” and “of the visible and sensible world” we behave destructively; through the renewal and revelation made possible in and through our artistic faculties, we participate in creation.

In his Critique of Judgement, Immanuel Kant reasons in a similar direction when attempting to define the sublime. According to Kant, “it comes that the sublime is not to be looked for in the things of nature, but only in our own ideas.” There is, after all, he continues, “nothing . . . in nature, no matter how great we may judge it to be, which, regarded in some other relation, may not be degraded to the level of the infinitely little, and nothing so small which in comparison with some still smaller standard may not for our imagination be enlarged to the greatness of the world.”

Man’s imagination so far surpasses nature, then, that it is not in nature itself, but in this activity of man upon the world that one finds the truly sublime. “Sublimity, therefore,” he writes a bit later, “does not reside in any of the things of nature, but only in our own mind, in so far as we may become conscious of our superiority over nature within, and thus also over nature without us (as exerting influence upon us).” And it is the artist who allows us to realize and to exercise our dominion over nature through his creative endeavors. Yet again, we see that creation is  καλόν before man’s creative cooperation with God and dominion over the world, but can only be καλὰ λίαν—to be identified with the sublime—with man’s active, imaginative participation.

What Kant refers to as the sublime, Richard Wagner describes as “Das Wunder,” or wonder, in his Opera and Drama. “The poet,” he writes, “must . . . take the phenomena of Life and compress them from their viewless many-member-edness into a compact, easily surveyable shape.” Each facet of the cosmos is, after all, individually καλόν, but only collectively, only when viewed as a whole, and only when viewed after the introduction of the human element, καλὰ λίαν. The poet or the artist must take up the various individually καλόν elements and bring them into such an intelligible and orderly unity that they become καλὰ λίαν as a complete composite. “In virtue of this Wonder,” says Wagner, “the poet is able to display the most measureless conjunctures in an all-intelligible unity.” Like the primeval gardner, the poet makes sense of the created order by endowing it with a humanly orderliness. “The poetic daring,” he continues, “which gathers Nature’s utterances into such an image, can first for us be crowned with due success, precisely because through Experience we have gained a clear insight into Nature’s essence.”

Wagner is quick to point out, however, that this “insight into Nature’s essence” gained through poetry is not the mere building up of systems of doctrine and dogma. “Now, for the operation of its message, the poetising intellect has absolutely no concern with Faith, but only with an understanding through the Feeling,” he writes. Writing of T. S. Eliot, Russell Kirk offers an assessment of the relationship between Eliot’s poetry and Eliot’s faith that provides illumination for Wagner’s claim. “One does not look to Eliot—or to Dante, or to Shakespeare—for irrefragable demonstration of dogma or for an ingenious philosophical system,” writes Kirk. He concludes, “All that poetry of Eliot’s kind can attain is to express one man’s understanding through emotion.” The poet is able to distill and to crystallize experience and emotion. The poet and the artist do not concoct grand theories to explain phenomena; rather, they are able to bring the shared phenomena of human existence to greater clarity and depth.

W. F. Hegel, in his Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, similarly finds that “the universal need for expression in art lies . . . in man’s rational impulse to exalt the inner and outer world into a spiritual consciousness for himself, as an object in which he recognizes his own self.” It is the task of the artist, then, to take up the material provided by nature, both the nature internal to man and the nature external to man, and to transform this nature into something intelligible by man because it is, in part, a product of man. The first man’s act of naming the animals, for example, allowed him to make these animals into something intelligible to him by creatively endowing them with some piece of himself through the names by which he calls them. He did not, notably, create a system of classification for the animal world as a whole. Rather, he knew them each individually and experientially rather than systematically and theoretically.

This provides a line of demarcation by which the artist may be measured against the artisan, or, for that matter, the scientist. While the artisan and the scientist deal in similar matter, they do so for quite different purposes. It is not the prerogative of the artist to systematically explore and classify the material world, as it is for the scientist, for example; the prerogative of the artist, instead, is to reveal and renew that material world. The job of the scientist, in short, is to explain, while the job of the artist is to appreciate. Each of these methods leads to understanding, though of different sorts.

The artisan is closer to the artist in that he works to shape the materials of the natural world into an aesthetically pleasing shape. What is lacking, however, is the component of creativity. The difference here is like the difference between the first, prelapsarian vocation of the primeval man and the second, given as part of the curse following the Fall. While he was at first a gardner, placed in “Eden to work it and keep it” (Gen 2:15), he became a farmer. “Cursed is the ground because of you,” says God to Adam, “in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread” (Gen 3:17–19). While the gardner and the farmer both work in the same material of soil, water, plants, and sunshine, the two perform their respective works for divergent reasons. The gardner will “work” and “keep” the earth; he performs his work as a creative participation with nature. By bringing into it human orderliness, he beautifies the natural landscape, and through human creativity he assists the natural process. The farmer, on the other hand, toils that “by the sweat of [his] face [he] shall eat bread.” While he must cooperate with nature, he does so in order to grow the food necessary to survival. Farming, like the work of the artisan, is a necessity. It is what must be done for survival. Gardening, like the work of the artist, is a superfluity performed out of an innate need in man to bring order and to create, but not out of material necessity. It is always one feature of any garden that it is beautiful. It is possible for a garden to consistent entirely of flowers and other plants that will never be eaten but only gazed upon with an admiring eye. The same is not true of the farmer’s field. The field is rarely beautiful and, when it is, the beauty is at best an incidental byproduct of the similarity of the farmer’s vocation to that of the gardner. The intent of great stretches of straight rows of cornstalks is always that they be harvested and consumed, never that they be gazed upon, never that they be admired. The farmer and the artisan may occasionally, and typically accidently, make something καλόν, but only the work of the gardner and the work of the artist can be declared in truth καλὰ λίαν.

Only two arguments for Christianity

The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb. Better witness is borne to the Lord by the splendor of holiness and art which have arisen in the community of believers than by the clever excuses which apologetics has come up with to justify the dark sides, which, sadly, are so frequent in the Church’s human history. If the Church is to continue to transform and humanize the world, how can she dispense with beauty in her liturgies, that beauty which is so closely linked with love and with the radiance of the Resurrection? No, Christians must not be too easily satisfied. They must make their Church into a place in which beauty — and truth — is at home. Without this the world will become the first circle of hell. . . . A theologian who does not love art, poetry, music and nature can be dangerous. Blindness and deafness toward the beautiful are not incidental: they necessarily are reflected in his theology.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)

Beauty and the stockbroker

The rawness and ugliness of modern European life is the sign of biological inferiority, of an insufficient or false relation to environment, which produces strain, wasted effort, revolt or failure. Just as a mechanical, industrial civilization will week to eliminate all waste movements in work, so as to make the operative the perfect complement of his machine, so a vital civilization will cause every function and every act to partake of vital grace and beauty. To a great extent this is entirely instinctive, as in the grace of the old agricultural operations, ploughing, sowing, and reaping, but it is also the goal of conscious effort in the great Oriental cultures — as in the calligraphy of the Moslem scribe, and the elaboration of Oriental social etiquette. Why is a stockbroker less beautiful than a Homeric warrior or an Egyptian priest? Because he is less incorporated with life; he is not inevitable, but accidental, almost parasitic. When a culture has proved its real needs and organized its vital functions, every office becomes beautiful. So, too, with dress, the full Victorian panoply of top hat and frock coat undoubtedly expressed something essential in the 19th century culture, and hence it has spread with that culture all over the world as no fashion of clothing has ever done before. It is possible that our descendants will recognize in it a kind of grim and Assyrian beauty, fit emblem of the ruthless and great age that created it; but, however that may be, it misses the direct and inevitable beauty that all clothing should have, because, like its parent-culture, it was out of touch with the life of nature and of human nature as well.

Christopher Dawson, Progress and Religion, pp. 61-62

Review: Collected Poems, 1943-2004

Collected Poems, 1943-2004
Collected Poems, 1943-2004 by Richard Wilbur

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Richard Wilbur’s poetry is a breath of fresh air in a wasteland of postmodernism and neo-gnosticism. Wilbur rejects the modern movements which depreciate man, the cosmos and the creator of both. He turns instead to and continues within the tradition of the great poets of the past, clinging to traditional modes and themes of poetic expression.

Wilbur’s great ability is to draw out of even the most seemingly mundane and simple experiences, from clanging elevators in modern cities to flowers in lonely rural settings, a metaphor for the greater themes of life: love, truth, time, eternity and so on. Each moment, no matter how seemingly insignificant, is redeemed in Wilbur’s poetic vision of the world. Each moment becomes significant in its ability to direct us to the transcendent and permanent.

I recommend this collection of Wilbur’s poetry for anyone who loves poetry, truth or beauty. The perfect place to read it: in a city park, surrounded by the beauties of nature, of our fellow man and of our urban constructs, all at once — the way Wilbur presents it to you.

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Man: Minimum and Maximum

We are all driven by a need for maximum beauty and insight, and at the same time we wish for a habitation in the inescapable minima of human life. Yet we cannot tolerate a permanent dissociation between the two. We wish on the one hand to grasp “meaning” to the full, so that there is no pain of questioning left; on the other hand we have an equal longing for pure, unalloyed, concrete objects, and for not having to go beyond them to get at meaning, joy, or illumination. This double longing exists in all of us. We want the unlimited and the dream, and we also want the earth.

Fr. William F. Lynch, Christ and Apollo, p. 25

Biblical Art of Rembrandt

I featured a few of these in my video on the Advent of Monotheism and have not been able to stop staring at them since. Rembrandt’s paintings, I think, capture and convey the incredible grandeur, terror, and wonder evoked by the biblical stories better than almost any other artist whose work I have seen.

Sacrifice of Isaac (1635)

Moses with the Tables of the Law (1659)
Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem (1630)
Saint Peter in Prison (1631)
The Raising of Lazarus (1630-32)
Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple (1626)