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

Monday, May 21, 2007

Florensky and the Aesthetics of Morality: Part III

Florensky’s Aesthetics: The Pillar and Ground of the Truth[1]

It is from the the wide variety of interests he held and and the many unique experiences had had during his life that Florensky developed his theories on aesthetics. In his writings, he tied them together, using his multi-disciplinary perspective as a way to respond to the relevant issues and questions of those living in his day. His inquisitive, scientific background suggested to him an experimental appraoch for his theological studies. He tried to incorporate the philosophical sophistication of Kant (he held a tremendous appreciation for Kant’s antinomies), the higher logical sciences (especially those developed from modern mathematical theory), and marginalized spirituality (where he was able to apply, while still being critical, thoughts from late nineteenth century spiritualists, including, but not limited to, Madame Blavatsky and Rudolf Steiner), with traditional Orthodox theology. He believed theology, out of necessity, must be more than theory, but lived experience (and this was not just from the practical standpoint of a scientist, but also that of a devoted man of spirituality who understood the fact that theology without the spirit is meaningless).[2] Like Roger Bacon before him, he was willing to search the gauntlet of human knowledge, experience and test what he found, and leave no stone left unturned.

Looking at the lives and deeds of the saints, he pondered the diverse reactions people had towards them – some were drawn to them, some were fearful and resentful of them. As a part of his opening to The Pillar and Ground of the Truth he examines these responses to the saints, and he asks, why? Why do we find these two contradictory responses to them? He believed that the answser was a matter of aesthetics. The saints are beautiful, but this beauty is terror for some, but for others, like the common peasant, it is a joy which foreshadows the joy of heaven:
The ascetic saints of the Church are alive for the living and dead for the dead. For a soul that has become dark, the faces of the saints become dark; for a soul that has become paralyzed, the bodies of the saints are frozen in terrible fixity. [...] And are not those who sin against the Church forced to look away in fear? But unclouded eyes see as always the faces of the saints as radiant, ‘as the faces of angels.’ For a purified heart, these faces are, as always, inviting [...] I ask myself, Why are the common folk, in their pure immediacy, involuntarily drawn to the saints? Why in their mute sorrow do the common folk find comfort in these saints as well as the joy of forgiveness and the beauty of the heavenly celebration?[3]

The saints, in their sublime beauty, represent to him the masters of the spiritual life. Yet, it is their beauty which shines through and is seen by all, it is their beauty which attracts us to them. Why? Because they have lived life to the fullest, because they have become sanctified and holy; they show to us the new life, the true life, the life filled by the Spirit. Truth is not some dogmatic formulation, but a life in this new spirit; truth is felt, experienced, not proved. Truth compels by attraction, by its radiant beauty, and not by some logical, theoretical calculation. The fullness of this truth is experienced and found in ecclesiastical life, where the Church is, as Scripture suggests : the Church is the pillar which holds up truth and allows us to experience it in its fullness (1 Tim. 3:15). “What is ecclesiality? It is a new life, life in the Spirit. What is the criterion of the rightness of this life? Beauty. Yes, there is a special beauty of the spirit, and, ungraspable by logical formulas, it is at the same time the only true path to the definition of what is orthodox and what is not orthodox.”[4]

When looking for truth, we must realize that truth transcends the rational, philosophical approach we use to find it. This means, when left to our own rational mind, we might doubt its existence, we might be confused, but truth remains despite our dubt, we are still drawn to it, and it is this attraction, this love we feel for truth, which tells us to put aside our doubt, to renounce ourselves, for the sake of experiencing the glory of this truth.[5] “True knowledge, knowledge of the Truth, is possible only through the transubstantiation of man, through his deification, through the acquisition of love as the Divine essence [....] In love and only in love is real knowledge of the Truth conceivable.”[6]

Love brings us into communion with the Truth, and through this Truth reveals itself in its fullness. In doing so, it reveals itself not different from, but one with, beauty. “For the ‘I’, our entering into communion with truth is knowledge; for the ‘thou’, for another, this communion is love; for the ‘me’ which is “objectified and objective, (i.e., according to the mode ‘He’), it is beauty.”[7] Thus, Florensky added, “What for the subject of knowledge is truth is love of this subject on the part of the object of knowledge, while for the one who contemplate knowledge (knowledge of the object by its subject) it is beauty.”[8] Truth is experienced by us in three different ways: as knowledge, as love, and as beauty. We know truth when we are the subject, we love truth when it is the object, and from a contemplative distance, it is beauty.

From this follows his belief that Truth, Goodness, and Beauty act as one principle. “It is one and the same spiritual life, but seen from different points of view. Spiritual life as emanating from ‘I,’ as having its center in ‘I,’ is the Truth. Perceived as the immediate action of another, it is Good. Objectively contemplated by a third, as radiating outward, it is Beauty.”[9] In this way, he believed that manifested truth is love, and realized love is beauty.[10]

We try to form universal laws which tell us how to live out our life. Even with those empiricists who follow the sciences, but reject the Christian faith, we find this to be the case. Florensky believed that the same Logos which Christians follow is to be understood as being the Logos which is behind all scientific laws. But this Logos is only understood improperly by the empiricist, because they extract it from its unity with Goodness and Beauty, from its divinity; their distorted vision creates a fatalistic, life-destroying legalism. “We conceive everything under this category of the law, the measure of harmony. This idea of logism, an idea that is often distorted to the point of unrecognizability, is the basic nerve of everything that is alive and genuine in our mental, moral, and aesthetic life.”[11] Science establishes the cosmic pattern and order found within creation, but on its own, left to its own, it unable to experience the fullness of life, the fullness of creativity, for the creative life in the Spirit is not the subject of rational, logical science:
Inspiration, creativity, freedom, ascesis, beauty, the value of the flesh, religion, and much else – all this is felt only indistinctly, is described only rarely, is established as being present, but stands outside the methods and means of scientific research, for the fundamental presupposition of such methods and means is, of course, the presupposition of correctedness, the presupposition of continuity, of gradualness. In its existing form, the idea of lawfulness is completely inapplicable to this. There is discontinuity here, and discontinuity goes beyond the limits of our science, does not jibe with the fundamental ideas of the contemporary worldview but destroys this worldview.[12]

What we need, he believed, is the experience of the Spirit, who as the Comforter and the Spirit of Truth, is also the Spirit of Life; the Spirit frees us from a strict, legalistic approach to life; it breaks apart the cold-hearted dogmatic calculations of rationalistic philosophy and science. It is the Spirit of Beauty, for it attracts and glorifies those who come into its presence; it sanctifies its recipients, bringing them the joys of the Kingdom of Heaven. “Finally, the free striving towards beauty, the love of the Goal – these are the deviations from scientism that typologically predict an immortal life and a holy, resurrected flesh.” [13] While we use reason to try to understand the world around us, all it does is provide for a deterministic, legalistic approach to life – and with it, we can write down what we consider the correct conduct and mode of living. But what we write can never express the fullness of life, the fullness of the free-flowing creative spirit which we have, and the manifold, unique experiences and conditions we find ourselves in. The proper mode of conduct can be legally debated, but never fully illuminated. It is only with the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, and its compelling, attractive joy and beauty that the disputed questions can be answered.[14]

[1] Because of the wide variety of texts Florensky wrote upon aesthetic themes, I have tried to limit my focus in this presentation to his major theological work, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, and some of his major writings on art ( with a special interest in his book Iconostasis, and his long essay “Reverse Perspective.”) In bringing these texts together I have only touched upon some of of his more important themes, so that this should be seen more as a primer to his thought than as an exhaustive analysis of his aesthetics.
[2] “Living religious experience as the sole legitimate way to gain knowledge of the dogmas – that is how I would like to express the general theme of my book, or rather, my jottings which have been written at different times and in different moods. Only by relying on immediate experience can one survey the spiritual treasures of the Church and come to see their value.” Pavel Florenseky, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth: An Essay in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters. Trans. Boris Jakim (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1997), 5.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid., 8.
[5] Ibid., Letter Two, “Doubt” shows his understanding of doubt. He admits we all face it, and we often doubt truth itself even exists. But, for the love of truth, even if we do not know it, we transcend that doubt; we act like it is there, and open ourselves up. Doubt keeps us to the self, love opens us up to overcome the individualized doubt. In our love, with truth as the object, we are willing to ignore our doubts about our beloved for the sake of the beloved. Love requires us to act for the sake of the other, and not for ourselves.
[6] Ibid., 56.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid., 93.
[12] Ibid., 94.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid., 104.

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home