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

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Florensky and the Aesthetics of Morality: Part V


Florensky saw the creation of a piece of it art is related to it’s creator’s spiritual experience, that is, it is related to the inspiration which guided the artist to create a particular work. True beauty is encountered in art if the artist properly incarnates that spiritual experience; when this happens, that work will necessarily be symbolic, with all kinds of symbols representing to others relating the artist’s personal experiences to everyone else. Beauty motivates us, fills us with vitality; it is capable of taking us back to the simple innocence of childhood, to a time when we were full of life and adventure. Indeed, art should be more than viewed, it should be experienced. This is true with art in all of its manifestations, though perhaps more clearly understood in the dramatic arts. In a short but insightful essay, Florensky explained how a puppeteer is similar to a priest, because they mediate to us a way by which we can bring out from within the lost innocence of our youth:

So, the spiritual harmony, which is suddenly revealed in religious conversion, lies in those same layers of the personality of that the puppet awakens in us. The puppet theatre is the hearth that is nourished by the childhood submerged within us and which in turns awakens within us the slumbering palace of the childhood fairytale.

[...] through the puppet theatre we see once more this lost Eden, even if only dimly, and so we embark upon an intercourse with one another [...] Shining in the rays of the setting sun, the theatre opens like a window onto an eternally living childhood.[1]

For Florensky, beauty inspires and frees us; it frees us from a legalistic approach to life. Creativity in life is related to the spark of the divine within us; it is the work of the Spirit of Life which guarantees true life. It frees us from the slavish, mechanical determinism which would otherwise be imposed upon us. A beautiful life is a good life, for a truly beautiful life imitates the creative, free activity of God, whose image we have, and whose likeness we are meant to posses.

One can see within the writings of Florensky a cry against the two authoritarian regimes he lived within: first, that of the Tsar, and secondly, that of the Communists. As a response to the strangehold he felt imposed upon him, he had a great desire for freedom. His love for creativity and beauty was a manifestation of his desire for goodness and truth – for orthodoxy. In this way, he believed that the ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church proved its truth, because it reflected the vitality and openness of the Spirit of God guiding it:
The indefinability of Orthodox ecclesiology, I repeat, is the best proof of its vitality. Of course, we Orthodox cannot point to any one ecclesial function about which it can be said that it sums up all of ecclesiality, for what would be the sense of all the other functions and activities of the Church?” [...] There is no concept of ecclesiality, but ecclesiality itself is, and for every living member of the Church, the life of the Church is the most definite and tangible thing that he knows.[2]

We should understand and accept this desire for freedom. In the eras that he lived through, we find others engaging these same questions. But he came to it with a specific idea, one which relies upon the unity of the philosophical transcendentals. Recognizing the ingenious greatness behind these ideas, nonetheless we must also acknowledge that his theories are incomplete. He believed that the way we judge the truth (and goodness) of something is through its beauty. On the one hand, this is a good, creative way to examine moral questions, and it certainly suggests an aspect of what we need to answer them. He is right: this aspect of moral theology has been lacking, and its negligence has caused considerable confusion. As such, it is easy to understand the power behind his thought. But a new question emerges: how are we to judge beauty, by what criteria is something said to be “beautiful” and therefore good, or “ugly” and therefore, bad?

Certainly, the spiritual dimension, as he suggests, needs to be included in any answer we might give. When he tells us that any created beauty, to truly be beauty, incarnates the higher, transcendent experiences of life, is valid. However, freedom without any structure or guidance would become chaos, not beauty. Once again, he is right when he says that there has been an over-emphasis on the logos in society, but it seems like there is another danger which he misses, and that is what happens when one makes the kalos an independent criteria without any structure to guide it, so that it becomes a rule without definition.

We can also ask another, important question: in all practicality, how does one act upon his principles? It sounds nice to say, “Go, and be beautiful,” but how is this to be done? What answers does it really provide when we ask concrete questions? What, for example, would theories of beauty have to say about war? How would they deal with the question of an unjust peace? Robert Slesinski succinctly points out this problem in Florensky’s thought when he says:
In their very indeterminateness, in their very transcendentality, these criteria appear almost empty, and indeed, give the impression of being decidedly inoperable. Just to cite them as deciding factors is to beg the question. But to make them work we must enter into matters of proportionality, and determine the proportions of truth, goodness, and beauty at stake in any given case.[3]

Florensky, I think, would grant this criticism, but he would also point out, that his position is that beauty is not to be seen alone, but beauty is truly one with the good and truth; they can’t be “proportioned” out and used as individual criteria; rather, any given situation or factor must be examined by all three perspectives, and when that is done, then and only then is the situation properly judged. Beauty, however, is the principle of freedom and creative participation with the world; it is for him the primary criteria we must use, because it is the principle of love. And this is where we find the strength of his claims. Love unites us, one with another, and this can only be done when the other is accepted as it is, without any demands placed upon them. Beauty through its goodness frees us; sin entraps us. Sin separates us from one another. Sin makes us think we are individuals who can only live and thrive at the expense of others, and generates in us a Satanic rebellion against God, against one another, and against the world we live in. Ugliness is repulsive, and when we act upon it, people want to leave us alone. Beauty brings us together, unites us in a harmonious interdependence with one another. Because of this beauty can be used as the principle by which we judge the goodness of an action: if what is done creates discord, then that perpetrator of that action has committed a sin: people will innately find something in him or her that they consider to be ugly or repulsive. If, on the other hand, what is done creates a true peace and concordance, then people will be attracted to it, and see the beauty of what has been done.

The aesthetic dimension of a moral act is a criteria that needs to be examined when engaging in moral theology. Florensky offers many examples of how an aesthetic criteria could help dictate the kind of action that should be had. However, there is the need for us to go beyond Florensky. He has shown us a part of the path that we must take, but we have been left with the task to develop his thought and refine it. Logos alone, legalism alone, should not be the approach we take to explain morality (even if it seems, de facto, the way we operate); but neither should kalos alone be the judge. Together, not apart, that is the way I believe moral theology needs to go; we need to examine moral questions through both perspectives, realizing, as Florensky did, they are just two aspects of the same ontological reality. The logos should be seen as the backbone or structure of moral theology in that it provides the grounding by which we can live out life in a truly beautiful, spirit-filled fashion; but just as a backbone is not the whole of an organism, so must the logos not be seen as the whole of the moral theology.

[1] Pavel Florensky, “On the Efimov’s Puppet Theatre,” in in Nicoletta Misler, Pavel Florensky: Beyond Vision: Essays on the Perception of Art. Trans. Wendy Salmond (London, England: Reakton Books, 2002), 134 –5.
[2] Pavel Florensky, Pillar and Ground of the Truth, 8.
[3] Robert Slesinski, Metaphysics of Love ,69.

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