With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Friday, August 18, 2006

Beauty's Long Road to Calvary

Dostoyevsky believed that beauty would save the world. The poetic richness and intellectual delight of his works are certainly a testament to the initial phases of this aesthetic era of salvation. Heard within our contemporary cultural climate, however, and the great Russian existentialist’s insight only conjures up images of makeover reality shows, bodily worship, dietary fads whose name is legion, liposuction, and pimp-my this or that or the other.

How can the theological relevance of beauty be conveyed in an era where beauty is sacrificed on the cross of mere ornamentalism, cosmetic foundationalism, and bourgeois activism? Whatever the answer to this enigma may be, it must surely involve tracing beauty’s long road to “Calvary.” How have we arrived at a point in history where the metaphysical, anthropological – indeed doctrinal – relevance of beauty has been outcast to the margins where, like a homeless panhandler, its relevance is reluctantly and enigmatically acknowledged but ultimately abandoned for more supposedly worthwhile pursuits? The history is long, very involved, and too complex for a full synopsis here. Still, we might do well to point out in this first installment a major step that carried beauty to its sacrificial mount.

During the Patristic and Medieval periods, beauty was never pursued by a separate scientia called aesthetics. Instead, it was intimately bound up with every pursuit of truth: the world was believed to be everywhere a manifest image of Divine beauty. The world was attractive, a beautiful creature designed to draw desire ever deeper into its hidden realities. Of course, beauty was itself an object of endless contemplation and actively constituted some of the greatest Western thinking still influential today (Gregory of Nyssa, Dionysius, Boethius, Bonaventure, Albertus Magnus, to name only a few). Beauty’s call was equally heard in the Eastern world, as witnessed by the work in optics by Al-Hazen, as well as the appropriation of Aristotle by Arabic philosophers like Averroes, Avicenna and Algazel. The great Thomas Aquinas would synthesize a number of thinkers into a metaphysics that abounds with a beauty too often overlooked by some of his loudest disciples. Indeed, contemplation upon the mystery of ‘being,’ theological or otherwise, was the historical home of beauty – metaphysics and aesthetics were one and the same, as Hans Urs Von Balthasar has recently observed.

So we can discover an initial step of beauty’s decline in the history of metaphysics, if we can be forgiven for the rather generalized nature this observation will entail. It is often (perhaps too often) pointed out that the Franciscan medieval thinker Duns Scotus espoused a teaching that would split the progress of Western thought in two directions. He arrived at the conclusion that if God can be known naturally, then ‘being’ must be the same (univocal was the word he used) for both finite, human being, and infinite, divine being. This had a few varying consequences.

First, and most simply, it made ‘being’ a larger category that now includes God as well as the ‘world’ and all of nature. Why? Because now being is broader and more all-encompassing than even God, who is now thought to be a ‘being among beings’ (a 'super being' perhaps, but a being nonetheless). This is the consequence most influential today evidenced anytime a person measures belief in the divine by the standards of human reason. In such cases, reason is made into an ‘idol’ before which all truth and even God Himself must bow. To a large degree, this is the foundational belief beneath many of the philosophical and theological assertions made by proponents of what is commonly called ‘science’ in any form (natural, social, et al.)

Secondly, and at a bit more complex level, Scotus’s declaration had the effect of elevating ‘being’ to divine status where God is now thought to subsume every created thing into Himself. In such a context, philosophy, which studies ‘being’ as its primary object, could now claim a legitimacy beyond theology – for although the task of theology is to approach God based upon the principles of divine revelation, philosophy could claim jurisdiction over all approaches to God based upon the principles of human reason. The claim often made today that metaphysics is really onto-theology can be traced back to this, and with plausibility: where philosophy of any kind believes that its object is divine being, it is indeed guilty of onto-theology and even idolatry. Further, this separation of philosophy and theology would surreptitiously give rise to a number of prevailing dichotomies that overemphasize distinction at the neglect of unity: faith and reason; science and religion; the private spiritual order and the public secular realm; politics and theology, etc.

These two consequences present ultimately the same direction: the first describes what occurred at the level of a general layman’s knowledge, the second what occurred at the more “sophisticated level” of thought. Together, they constitute the first direction of post-Medieval Western thought, and arguably, its more dominant.

The other direction followed the traditional view that ‘being’ itself is a rich harmony of diversity in unity, the evidence of which manifested itself in beauty. Contrary to Scotus’s assertion, in this view being cannot be spoken or even thought in the same way when considering finite and infinite being. Why? Simply because they are not the same, even though in some mysterious manner, being enables a relation between them. And thus, the doctrine of analogy was implemented to open understanding of this relation (the analogia entis). And therein lies the mystery that is necessary to sustain humanity’s relationship to the Creator. For without mystery, there is no truly ‘other’ – there is only the ‘other’ as the extension of the self; the other that is there to be assimilated into the predetermined structures already in place.

The dominant stream of metaphysics after Scotus would come to see the mystery of being as a problem to be solved - rather than a gift to be celebrated - and no one was more haunted by being's otherness than Descartes. He insisted that ‘being’ could be disciplined by the mind, domesticated by the discovery of that which cannot be doubted. His unchecked assumption? That human reason needs a foothold so as not to drift off into unlimited skepticism, which of course assumes that skepticism itself is more certain than that which it is skeptical about. Hume would intensify the Cartesian project by measuring truth with only that which can be observed in sensible experience. Kant would shortly follow by extending all this: no longer should we look ‘out there’ for what objects give to us, but instead we must determine how we grant ‘knowability’ upon all objects outside of us.

What has all this to do with beauty? It was Kant who would put the finishing touches on the view of beauty that is most dominant today: beauty is a quality determined by the collective agreement of taste. Now, lest we become too anti-modern, it must be stated that Kant offers something very important to the study of beauty. He discovered many previously unrecognized aspects of its subjective dimension, which is necessary for a fuller illumination of beauty, especially when beauty's objective qualities are overemphasized. The problem arises when this subjective dimension is absolutized. When this happens, as is all too often the case today, then even the importance of Kant and the subjective dimension of beauty itself no longer serve their meaningful role.

Thus is a very brief view of the first step beauty would take toward “Calvary” – what we might call the metaphysical step. Perhaps this is why many in the West are turning more and more to the great thinkers in the Eastern tradition for whom such a step never occurred. Such a turning can also serve to give us new eyes through which we can reread our own Western tradition in order to discover that other avenue that still lives today, as made known by some of the great contemporary thinkers like Von Balthasar and De Lubac in theology, and William Desmond in philosophy. For these (and many others) beauty remains a primary constituent of all thought, capable of illuminating theological, anthropological and especially doctrinal concerns.



  • At 8/18/2006 2:49 PM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…

    It is interesting that you post this today. It's a very good summary of one of the problems we face in today's world: the three transcendentals (the good, the truth, and the beautiful) have been separated from each other, and all three of them suffer as a consequence of this.

    Earlier this morning I remembered an essay I wrote several years ago. I am not sure how far I got into it. I think it was an essay I wrote at Xavier, but I could be wrong. I am not sure if it was entirely on the theme of moral aesthetics or if it was a subsection of the essay (I know I have a copy of it somewhere and I need to find it), but I remember writing on the need for a theology of beauty to fully appreciate moral theology.

    Notice how we have gone from making beauty subjective to making the truth subjective to finally making what is good subjective. When the three are united as one, as they should be because they are indeed three aspects of one unity, this problem manifests itself far less frequently. Once you start taking them apart from each other, it is easy to continue the process until you take each of the transcendentals apart and end up with nothing. Sadly, we see the result of this all around us.

  • At 8/27/2006 3:19 PM, Blogger A.K. Schwarz said…

    Well said, Brendan. Certain Scotists might have slightly different thoughts (though not having studied Scotus yet, I really have no idea). In any case, I think you captured much of our contemporary situation and challenge, not only the disconnect among beauty, truth, and goodness, but also the overdrawn subject/object dichotomy. Still, you rightly acknowledge the contributions of the likes of Descartes and Kant insofar as they helped bring about a greater appreciation of the subjective (the "turn to the subject"). The real task of the "transmodern" age lies in the integration of these modern fruits--with their postmodern watering/ trimming/ uprooting!--with the classical fruits of the distant (and yet not so distant) past.

    Henry, good comment. Reminds me of Pope John Paul II's Encyclical "Veritatis Splendor" (The Splendor of Truth). I think one of the brilliant aspects of that enyclical is John Paul's sense for the interconnection of the good, the true, and the beautiful. The good and true are bound tightly together and shine forth radiantly in their beauty. To show forth the beauty of truth is one of the keys of John Paul II's call for a "new evangelization."

  • At 3/07/2007 8:31 AM, Blogger AnGabreel said…

    Hi Brendan, after reading your very accessible post on some of the most important ideas in contemporary theology, I was wondering if you had looked at the defense of Scotus put forward in Modern Theology, October 2005. I've just been working through it myself. Mary Beth Ingham has written a response to Pickstock claiming that she can't "read" Scotus because she is blinded by Aquinas. Ingham claims that Scotus is properly read as a rebuttal of Henri de Ghent, not Aquinas, and that Pickstock doesn't appreciate this. Then Ingham goes on to attempt to redeem most of the things about Scotus that Pickstock damns. I'm becoming quite interested in this redemption/ damning process in theological studies. On one hand I don't think that modernity can be blamed on any one individual, and the importance that RO puts on Scotus approaches this level; on the other hand Ingham's more elaborate description of Scotus doesn't seem to release him from Pickstock's claim that univocity flattens ontology. Anyway, I'm looking to bounce ideas around on Scotus and I thought you might be interested in that issue of Modern Theology.

  • At 3/08/2007 10:13 AM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…

    Hi Angabreel,

    Thanks so much for your fine observation. Indeed, I am aware of the Modern Theology issue on Duns Scotus, though I have yet to read it more fully.

    I too have some reservations about the way that Scotus is treated by many who solely place blame on him for the direction of Modern philosophy, though I think because the endorsement of univocal being is so pronounced in his work, he becomes representative of what is considered (esp. by RO) to be the most pernicious influence on thinkers today.

    As one who has been influenced by the work of William Desmond, I see the need for univocal thought in its proper place, but I concede the dangers of its absolutization, and am grateful to those many thinkers that have brought me to greater understanding of this.

    I myself subscribe to the Thomist narrative of being as analogical both transcendentally and predicamentally - that is, in relation between creatures and Creator (vertically, transcendentally), as well as creature and creature (horizontally, predicamentally); and within the Thomist debate itself, I subscribe to the position that analogia is both real and notional (as defended by, e.g., Bernard Montagnes) rather than merely notional (as defended by McInerney).

    Because I fully endorse the view that only an ontology of analogy can support the weight of human thought and being, I can understand why there has been this reaction to Scotus.

    As I'm in no way an expert on Scotus, I'm not sure if reading Scotus as a reaction to Aquinas or Henri of Ghent renders one's reading more authentic. While I would most certainly concede that in terms of historical context, if the latter is more appropriate, then it is indeed crucial to bear in mind. But there is a sense in which reading one dialectically - that is, in a merely reactional way - can also tend to reduce the integrity of that thinker. After all, Scotus was not merely reacting, but was also constructing.

    Nonetheless, it is a very important observation you raise. Thanks so much.


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