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

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Stylistic Finesse

Beauty herself had taken possession of me as of late, and reading Balthasar and Hart has inspired me to reflect a bit on some of the elements of theological style that they share. Theirs is a certain style of categorical flexibility, of conceptual finesse, that many Thomists find discomforting or even downright irresponsible. Many have warned that such a style is extremely difficult to pass on. while the often despised seminary textbooks in the pre-Vatican II days were arid and lacked narrative color, one of their great virtues was their tradition-friendly quality: they could easily be "traditioned" and form a quasi-universal foundation for theologians (which in fact they did for all the giants of la nouvelle theologie). Balthasar's and certainly Hart's style is more elusive, more playful. But even Thomists- among whose number I am undoubtedly counted- cannot aford to be all analysis and no synthesis. The real passion and creative power in thought- its originality- lies with synthesis (as Thomas exemplified).

What's characteristic of much modern theology is the more adventurous attempt to wed foreign words and traverse remote categories. But what seems unique about thinkers like Balthasar and Hart is that they display a thorough understanding of those distinctions and, in a sense, of precisely what they are not doing (and should not do). They compose a kind of symphony of "voices" (a favorite image of Balthasar's), playing different formal aspects of revelation off of each other: they sing the ontological, the epistemological, the aesthetic, the psychic, the mystical, etc. Though they are not always correct and not always precise, they are nonetheless deeply aware of the hermeneutic precision required to play on all these different instruments at once. They are aware that each formality is to treat the being of their object as "being as__" rather than to drown out all others with a single voice (uni-vocal). And what music they make! By linking Christology (sub ratione dei) with the analogia entis (ontology, qua being), or by linking analogy with beauty (qua delectatione), etc., they attempt, in different ways, to plumb the depths of the analogical resonances across these lenses of reality, across the various "qua"s.

One need only read a bit of popular theology today (popular, that is, in academia) to see just how easy it is to do this badly. Such a style will always tend toward the confusion of categories and the collapsing of distinctions. Catholic and Protestant thinkers alike seem all too willing to engage in such cacophony, perhaps because the distinction-making art of the Scholastics is so often frowned upon and dismissed as extra-biblical; or because concern over "mediation" has tended to shift conceptual burdens to Christ and His categories in ways that don't even make categorical sense. I am reminded of a number of responses evoked in a class I took on late medieval and early modern theology: the kinds of quaestiones the Scholastics addressed, with a great deal of dialectic rigor, were answered with a few trite maxims designed to make Christ do all the argumentative work and thereby pay little respect to the way the mind functions. "Christ is the question and consequently the answer as well"; "Christ is the only freedom we have"; "Christ is the only revelation of God"; "Christology contains everything needed for a doctrine of God"; etc. Is that it? Can this be anything but an exercise in obscurantism, taking advantage of sermonically imprecise rhetoric to generate the illusion of profundity?

The point is not that these statements are incapable of redeeming interpretations. Indeed, there is a sense in which they are quite orthodox and rhetorically rich. But to act as though such statements are their own proper interpretations-or better yet, are the proper interpretations of more precise claims- is to creatively oppress clarity. To put it another way, it is to act as though one formal aspect of the object of faith (in this case, Christology) is the only legitimate one and all others are absorbed by it. It can then allegedly supply insight across a wide categorical range without having to address the complexity of mediation. It acts as though the how is addressed by the what. But how exactly can Christ be a question? Does he have three natures now: God, man, and interrogative expression? How is He an answer? What kind of thing would that make Him? How does Christ reveal God in such a way that nothing else can be said to reveal Him? How can one begin with Christology for a doctrine of God when one still has no idea what could even qualify as "God?" How am I to know that Christ is revealing divinity, what should I look for? How could the hypostatic union make sense if I have no clear sense of how divinity and humanity differ? In short, such rhetoric posing as adequate theology fails utterly to intimate as well as to respect the analogical import of the categories in their differences (in their respective "qua"s). It therefore does violence to human thought; and all theology is, after all, human thought.

Then again, the temptation at the other extreme is a kind of Scholastic caricature: to reduce all thought to categorical parsing, making distinctions into barriers by simply stopping at those distinctions. All the king's horses and all the king's men such thinkers are. They dare not even attempt the venture that the obfuscaters are bold enough to take up. In contrast to the latter, Balthasar and Hart seem to shine. They walk the thin line, cling to the golden mean. They seem to possess (no doubt imperfectly) the sense of precision and hermeneutical sensativity needed for truly creative synthetic thought: thought that blends and mixes but in ways that do not easily dismiss the arguments of tradition.

All this is to say that such a finesse is an appealing ideal to me. In particular the potential to bring beauty into closer proximity with all of the other "qua"s that I routinely think through. For instance, beauty for Thomas is (at first glance) relatively restricted in meaning (Brendan can correct me on this). It is, I believe, entirely relative: not a transcendental in itself but the relation of a transcendental (the Good) to vision (sensible primarily but, more perfectly, intellectual). For Balthasar and Hart, beauty is a transcendental and encompasses so much of what pertains to the Good for Thomas or more generally to basic ontological structures intrinsic to being (analogia or transcendence, and all of the basic harmonies they entail). Clearly, beauty's thematic range is much wider and its import much weightier for these thinkers. And yet when one makes the necessary translation across conceptual languages, to see how their use of beauty incorporates various formalities rather than one, the different approaches to beauty's range are rather paled by all the work that beauty does so conceived. It gives us an idiom, one might say to the Thomist, to think and speak the Good with a particular depth and emphasis, a new twist or intonation. It is to speak of the Good in its primary ontological sense and not simply within the confines of a strictly ethical science. It is the desirability of being , its glory, splendor, and depth; the joy of the primal "it is good." Here Desmond speaks volumes and I dare say his philosophical oeuvre will be the guiding light for the future of this way of interpreting beauty.

Given this stylistic approach to beauty, new and creative approaches to long-standing conceptual problems suddenly open themselves up for experiment. It becomes possible, for instance, (as both Balthasar and Hart do in different ways) to posit the aesthetic as the key to modernity's deepest ontological sins. For the disenchantment of the world, the denial of all transcendence, the "death of God," the myth of "metaphysical violence," and the all-around blindness to the sacramental cosmos are rooted in the forgetfulness not just of being but of beauty. They mark the failure to think being analogously but more so beautifully, with the intrinsic charge of goodness that analogy should entail. I can imagine convincing a modern of the certain basic facts about natural law, the arguments for God's existence, even the structure of reality as such. Still, he could find nihilism in its face. He could still fail to perceive being's primal value, to desire being or God or his fellow creatures; and see only vanity. What he must learn to see is the beauty of being, and we must consign all conceptual barriers to such seeing to the flames. For only this can show him the intrinsic goodness and weight (kabod) of the real. That would be to see being as worthy of desire and awe, with the eyes of "agapeic astonishment" (ala Desmond). In short, being must shine as well as be.

Pax Christi,


  • At 7/20/2010 4:49 AM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…

    Pat -

    Just back from Spoletto, where happily in some way there is no internet access.
    Anyway, I loved the post, and of course am encouraged to see you venturing more deeply into the mystery of beauty.

    Just a quick response to your claim about Thomas (with a few different points):
    1) As I'm sure you are aware, the confusion that surrounds the transcendental status (or not) of beauty in Thomas derives from what appears on the surface to be conflicting statements on the matter. For instance, in the SCG (I can't recall precisely where, but I think it is somewhere late in the third book), Thomas claims that the beauty of the world arises from a harmonizing of good and evil. Such a claim of course appears to endorse the idea that beauty is not in fact a transcendental since it is in some way dependent upon evil.
    Then, in his commentary on the Divine Names, he clearly and definitively asserts that the Good is convertible with Beauty and vice versa - and he states this not as an observance of what Dionysius says, but as an affirmation of this throughout the ancient tradition. This is just a small example of a much larger conflict in his thought.

    2) My own work has slowly made me aware that so much of the work on Thomas's 'aesthetics' suffers under the almost inescapable sway of Kantian/Baumgartenian 'beauty'. What I mean is that even the most well intentioned thinkers who aspire to clarify beauty in Thomas still seem to subscribe in one way or another to the idea that beauty is still a judgment that issues almost exclusively from the notional (or logical) order. Even those who seek to break out of this hold seem to falter, (in a way akin to how Cajetan faltered in univocalizing analogy): acknowledging the metaphysical content of beauty, these thinkers still - almost unconsciously - bring this within the supposed priority of beauty as a judgment upon the thing rather than a principle in the thing itself.

    3) My own diagnosis for this situation is that most thinkers today assume there is little need to trace any historical genealogy of beauty. Most believe that their rejection of the Kantian/Baumgartenian views are enough to get past the problem. But, what seems to be the case is something that also happened with 'being' in the modern period: in rejecting the Kantian/Baumgartenian views, they remain within the metaphysical structure demanded by the rejection. They aren't (ugh..) 'radical' enough - that is to say, they are not aware of the fact that what is required is an entire overhaul of the metaphysical structure (which, thankfully, Desmond provides) that includes an entirely new reading of the whole of western thought on beauty. Even Kovach, whose work I am now engaging, is guilty of this on some level. So what I hope to achieve in my diss is at least in some way to bring this problem to light, and gesture toward the way forward (Desmond).

    So - I'd say that when it comes to any Thomist on the subject of beauty: caveat lector!

    Still, what a great post.

  • At 7/24/2010 2:45 PM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…


    Thanks for your insight. I figured the sway of Kant is pretty widespread, and I think you're right that the metaphysical overhaul is essential. I was aware of what Thomas says in the commentary on the divine names, but I hadn't seen that passage from SCG.

    I see now how insufficient my statements are in the post. I was trying to unpack two maxims I vaguely remembered from an old Thomistic textbook I found in a used book store back in the Ignatius days. One was that beauty is the "good of the intellect" (bonum intellectus) and the other was that the ratio of beauty is what, being seen, pleases (quae visa placent). The idea was that beauty was somehow reducible to the good and the true and was entirely dependent upon vision.

    Well I dug up that book and found that its more nuanced than that. It not only affirms beauty as a transcendental but stresses its ontological density (noting the Dionysian heritage) AND opposes Thomas's treatment to Kant's. The original point was that beauty was not an independent transcendental: it partakes of both the good and the true. But "nothing is that does not participate the beautiful."

    I may do a short post on what's in this old thing (sadly its only a five page appendix in a 270 page book). But I'll try to make sure the lector caveats...

    Pax Christi,

  • At 7/26/2010 4:02 PM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…

    PAt -

    There was nothing insufficient in what you originally wrote because you wrote it in a very honest way. That you want to revise your own views is a testament to the high level of scholarship that you promote.

    Anyway, if you haven't gotten ahold of it already, I would highly, highly recommend Gilby's Poetic Experience - it's a very short, though very, very profound, look at aesthetics in Thomas's theory of knowledge (which is really nothing other than his metaphysics).


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