Art and Scholasticism by Jacques Maritain

Chapter IV

Art an Intellectual Virtue

Let us sum up now what the Schoolmen taught about art in general, considered in the artist or artisan and as something of himself.

1. Art, first of all, is of the intellectual order, its action consists in imprinting an idea in some matter: it is therefore in the intelligence of the artifex that it resides, or, as is said, this intelligence is the subject in which it inheres. It is a certain quality of this intelligence.

2. The ancients termed habitus (hexis) qualities of a class apart, qualities which are essentially stable dispositions perfecting in the line of its own nature the subject in which they exist.[6] Health, beauty are habitus of the body; sanctifying grace is a habitus (supernatural) of the soul.[7] Other habitus have for their subject the faculties or powers of the soul, and as the nature of these faculties or powers is to tend to action, the habitus which inhere in them perfect them in their very dynamism, are operative habitus: such are the intellectual virtues and the moral virtues.

We acquire this last kind of habitus through exercise and use;[8] but we must not for this reason confuse habitus with habit in the modern sense of this word, that is to say, with mere mechanical bent and routine; habitus is exactly the contrary of habit in this sense.[9] Habit, which attests the weight of matter, resides in the nerve centers. Operative habitus, which attests the activity of the spirit, resides principally in an immaterial faculty, in the intelligence or the will. When, for example, the intellect, at first indifferent to knowing this rather than that, demonstrates a truth to itself, it disposes its own activity in a certain manner, thus giving birth within itself to a quality which proportions it to, and makes it commensurate with, such or such an object of speculation, a quality which elevates it and fixes it as regards this object; it acquires the habitus of a science. Habitus are intrinsic superelevations of living spontaneity, vital developments which render the soul better in a given order and which fill it with an active sap: turgentia ubera animae, as John of Saint Thomas calls them. And only the living (that is to say, intellectual beings, who alone are perfectly alive) can acquire them, because only they are capable of elevating the level of their being by their very activity: they have thus, in their enriched faculties, secondary principles of action which they use when they wish and which make easy and delightful for them what of itself is difficult.

Habitus are, as it were, metaphysical titles of nobility, and as much as innate gifts they make for inequality among men. The man who possesses a habitus has within him a quality which nothing can pay for or replace; others are naked, he is armed with steel: but it is a case of a living and spiritual armor.

Finally, habitus, properly speaking, is stable and permanent (difficile mobilis) by very reason of the object which specifies it; it is thus to be distinquished from simple disposition, as for example opinion.[10] The object with regard to which it perfects the subject is itself immutable -- such as the infallible truth of demonstration for the habitus of Science -- and it is upon this object that the quality developed in the subject takes hold. Hence the force and the rigidity of habitus; of their object galls them; hence their intransigence -- what concession could they admit of? They are fixed in an absolute; hence their inconvencience in the social order. Men of the world, polished on all sides, do not like the man of habitus, with his asperities.

Art is a habitus of the practical intellect.

3. This habitus is a virtue, that is to say, a quality which, triumphing over the original indetermination of the intellectual faculty, at once sharpening and tempering the point of its activity, draws it, with reference to a definite object, to a certain maximum of perfection and thus of operative efficiency. Every virtue being thus determined to the ultimate of which the power is capable,[11] and every evil being a lack and an infirmity, virtue can tend only to the good: impossible to use a virtue to do evil; it is essentially a habitus operative of good.[12]

The existence of such a virtue in the workman is necessary for the good of the work, for the manner of action follows the disposition of the agent, and, as a man is, so are his works.[13] To the work-to-be-made, if it is to turn out well, there must correspond in the soul of the workman a disposition which creates between the one and the other that kind of conformity and intimate proportion which the Schoolmen called "connaturality"; Logic, Music and Architecture respectively graft the syllogism in the logician, harmony in the musician, equilibrium of masses in the architect. Through the virtue of Art present in them, they in some way are their work before making it; they are conformed to it, so as to be able to form it.

But if art is a virtue of the practical intellect, and if every virtue tends exclusively to the good (that is, to the true in the case of a virtue of the intellect), we must conclude from this that Art as such (I say Art and not the artist, who often acts contrary to his art) is never mistaken, and that it implies an invallible rectitude. Otherwise it would not be a habitus properly speaking, stable of its very nature.

The Schoolmen discussed at length this infallible rectitude of art, and more generally of the virtues of the practical intellect (Prudence in the order of Doing, Art in the order of Making). How can the intellect be rendered infallibly true in the domain of the individual and the contingent? They replied with the fundamental distinction between the truth of the speculative intellect, which consists in knowing, in conformity with what is, and the truth of the practical intellect, which consists in directing, in conformity with what ought to be according to the rule and the measure of the thing to be effected.[14] If there is a science only of the necessary, if there is no infallible truth in knowing in regard to what can be otherwise than it is, there can be infallible truth in directing, there can be art, as there is prudence, in regard to the contingent.

But this infallibility of art concerns only the formal element of the operation, that is to say, the regulation of the work by the mind. Let the hand of the artist falter, let his instrument betray him, let the matter give way, the defect thus introduced into the result, into the eventus, in no way affects the art itself and does not prove that the artist is wanting in his art. From the moment that the artist, in the act of judgment brought by his intellect, imposed the rule and the measure which suited the given case, there was no error in him, that is to say, no false direction. The artist who has the habitus of art and a trembling hand,

C'ha l'habito de l'arte e man che trema,

produces an imperfect work, but retains a faultless virtue. Likewise in the moral order, though the event can fail, the act posited according to the rules of prudence will nonetheless have been infallibly correct. Although extrinsically and on the part of the matter art implies contigency and fallibility, nevertheless art in itself, that is to say, on the part of the form, and of the regulation which comes from the mind, is not fluctuating like opinion, but it is planted in certitude.

It follows from this that manual skill is no part of art; it is but a material and extrinsic condition of it. The labor through which the zither player acquires nimbleness of finger does not increase his art as such nor does it engender any special art; it simply removes a physical impediment to the exercise of the art: non generat novam artem, sed tollit impedimentum exercitii ejus:[15] art stands entirely on the side of the mind.

4. In order to determine more precisely the nature of Art, the ancients compared it with Prudence, which is also a virtue of the practical intellect. In thus distinguishing and contrasting Art and Prudence, they put their finger on a vital point in the psychology of human acts.

Art, we have already said, is in the sphere of Making, Prudence in the sphere of Doing. Prudence discerns and applies the means of arriving at our moral ends, which are themselves subordinate to the ultimate end of the whole of human life, that is to say, to God. Metaphysically, Prudence is, if you will, an art, but it is the art of the totum bene vivere,[16] of the good life absolutely, an art which the Saints alone possess fully,[17] together with supernatural Prudence, and above all with the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, which move them to divine things according to a divine manner, and cause them to act under the very guidance of the Spirit of God and of His loving Art, by giving them eagle wings to help them walk on earth: they shall take wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.[18] Art is not concerned with our life, but only with such or such particular and extra-human ends which are an ultimate end in relation to it.

Prudence works for the good of the one acting, ad bonum operantis; Art works for the good of the work made, ad bonum operis, and all that turns it from this end perverts it and diminishes it. From the moment that the artist works well -- as from the moment that the geometrician demonstrates -- "it matters little whether he be in good humor or angry."[19] If he is angry or jealous, he sins as a man, he does not sin as an artist.[20] Art in no way tends to the artist's being good in his own action as a man; it would tend rather to the work produced -- if that were possible -- itself making in its own line a perfect use of its activity.[21] But human art does not produce works which move to action of themselves: God alone makes works of this kind, and thus the Saints are truly and literally His masterpiece as master-artisan.

Consequently, since the artist is a man before being an artist,[*a] it is easy to see the conflicts which will set at loggerheads within him Art and Prudence, his virtue as Maker and his virtue as man. No doubt Prudence itself, which judges in everything according to the particular cases, will not apply to him the same rules as it will to the farmer or the merchant, and will not ask of a Rembrandt or a Léon Bloy that they make works that pay, so as to ensure the material comforts of their family. But the artist will need a certain heroism in order to keep himself always on the straight path of Doing, and in order not to sacrifice his immortal substance to the devouring idol that he has in his soul. In truth, such conflicts can be abolished only if a profound humility renders the artist, so to speak, unconscious of his art, or if the all-powerful unction of wisdom gives to all that is in him the sleep and the peace of love. Doubtless Fra Angelico did not experience these interior conflicts.

The fact remains that the pure artist abstractly taken as such, reduplicative ut sic, is something entirely amoral.

Prudence perfects the intellect only presupposing that the will is straight in its own line as human appetite, that is to say, with regard to its own proper good, which is the good of the whole man:[22] in reality it concerns itself only with determining the means in relation to such or such concrete human ends already willed, and therefore it presupposes that the appetite is rightly disposed with reference to these ends.

Art, on the contrary, perfects the intellect without presupposing the rectitude of the will in its own line as human appetite, for the ends at which it aims are outside the sphere of the human good. Hence "the movement of the appetite which corrupts the judgment of prudence, does not corrupt the judgment of art, any more than it does that of geometry."[23] Since the act of using our faculties (usus) depends on the will in its proper dynamism as human appetite,[24] one can understand that art gives only the power of making well (facultas boni operis), and not the use itself of making well. The artist may choose not to use his art, or he may use it badly, just as the grammarian, if he wishes, may commit a barbarism, and yet the virtue of art in him is not for all that any the less perfect. According to the celebrated saying of Aristotle,[25] who no doubt would have liked the fantasies[*b] of Erik Satie, the artist who sins against his art is not blamed if he sins willing it as he would be if he sinned without willing it; whereas the man who sins against prudence or against justice is blamed more if he sins willing it than if he sins without willing it. In this connection the ancients observed that both Art and Prudence have first to judge and then to command, but that the principal act of art is merely to judge, whereas the principal act of prudence is to command. Perfectio artis consistit in judicando.[26]

Finally, since Prudence has for its matter, not a thing-to-be-made, an object determined in being, but the pure use that the subject makes of his freedom, it has no certain and determined ways or fixed rules. Its fixed point is the true end to which the moral virtues tend, and in relation to which it has to determine ways or fixed rules. its fixed point is the true end to which the moral virtues tend, and in relation to which it has to determine the just means. But for attaining this end, and for applying the universal principles of oral science, precepts and counsels, to the particular action to be produced, there are no ready-made rules; for this action to be produced, there are no ready-made rules; for this action is clothed in a tissue of circumstances which individualize it and make of it each time a truly new case.[27] In each of these cases[*c] there will be a particular manner of conforming to the end. It is for Prudence to find this manner, using ways or rules subordinated to the will which chooses according to the occurrence of circumstances and occasion -- ways or rules that in themselves are contingent and not pre-determined, that will be fixed with certitude and rendered absolutely determined only by the judgment or the decision of the Prudent man, and which the schoolmen called for this reason regulae arbitrariae. Particular for each particular case, the ruling of Prudence is nonetheless certain and infallible, as I have said before, because the truth of the prudential judgment depends on the right intention (per conformitatem ad appetitum rectum), not on the event. And supposing the return of a second case, or of an infinity of cases, in all points identical with a given case, the very same ruling as as imposed on that one would have to be imposed on all: but there will never be a single moral case which would be entirely identical with another.[28]

It is clear then that no science can replace prudence, for science, no matter how detailed in casuistry it may be, never has anything but general and determined rules.

It is clear also why Prudence, in order to establish its judgment, must absolutely have recourse to that groping and multiple exploration which the ancients called consilium (deliberation, counsel).

Art, on the contrary, which has for its matter a thing-to-be-made, proceeds by certain and determined ways: "Art seems to be nothing other than a certain ordination or reason, by which human acts reach a determined end through determined means."[29] The Schoolmen, following Aristotle, affirm this constantly, and they make of this possession of fixed rules an essential property of art as such. I shall present later some remarks concerning these fixed rules in the case of the fine arts. Let us recall here that the ancients treat of the virtue of Art considered in itself and in all its generality, not in any one of its particular species; so that the simplest example of art thus considered, the one in which the generic concept of art is first realized, must be sought in the mechanical arts. The art of the shipbuilder or of the clockmaker has for its proper end something invariable and universal, determined by reason: to permit man to travel on water or to tell the time -- the thing-to-be-made, ship or clock, being itself but a matter to be formed according to that end. And for that there are fixed rules, likewise determined by reason, in keeping with the end and with a certain set of conditions.

Thus the effect produced is doubtless individual, and in those cases where the matter of the art is particularly contingent and imperfect, as in Medicine, for example, or in Agriculture or in Strategy, Art will find it necessary in order to apply its fixed rules to use contingent rules (regulae arbitrariae) and a kind of prudence, will find it necessary also to have recourse to deliberation, to consilium. It is nonetheless true that of itself Art derives its stability from its rational and universal rules, not from consilium, and that the correctness of its judgment is not derived, as with Prudence, from the circumstances and occurrences, but rather from the certain and determined ways which are proper to it.[30] That is why the arts are at the same time practical sciences, such as Medicine or Surgery (ars chirurgico-barbifica, it was still called in the seventeenth century), and some can even be speculative sciences, like Logic.

5. In summary, Art is thus more exclusively intellectual than Prudence. Whereas Prudence has for subject the practical intellect as presupposing right will and depending on it,[31] Art does not concern itself with the proper good of the will, and with the ends that the will pursues in its own line as human appetite; and if it supposes a certain rectitude of the appetite,[32] this is still with regard to some properly intellectual end. Like Science, it is to an object that Art is riveted (an object to be made, it is true, not an object to be contemplated). It uses the roundabout way of deliberation and counsel only by accident. Although it produces individual acts and effects, it does not, except secondarily, judge according to the contingencies of circumstance; thus it considers less than does Prudence the individuation of actions and the hic et nunc.[33] In short, if by reason of its matter, which is contingent, Art accords more with Prudence than with Science, yet according to its formal reason and as virtue it accords more with Science[34] and the habitus of the speculative intellect than with Prudence: ars magis convenit cum habitibus speculativis in ratione virtutis, quam cum prudentia.[35] The Scientist is an Intellectual who demonstrates, the Artist is an Intellectual who makes, the Prudent Man is an intelligent Man of Will who acts well.

Such, in its principal features, is the conception that the Schoolmen had of art. Not in Phidias and Praxiteles only, but in the village carpenter and blacksmith as well, they acknowledged an intrinsic development of reason, a nobility of the intellect. The virtue of the craftsman was not, in their eyes, strength of muscle and nimbleness of fingers, or the rapidity of the chronometered and tailored gesture; nor was it that mere empirical activity (experimentum) which takes place in the memory and in the animal (cogitative) reason, which imitates art and which art absolutely needs,[36] but which remains of itself extrinsic to art. It was a virtue of the intellect, and endowed the humblest artisan with a certain perfection of the spirit.

The artisan, in the normal type of human development and of truly human civilizations, represents the general run of men. If Christ willed to be an artisan in a little village, it is because He wanted to assume the common condition of humanity.[37]

The Doctors of the Middle Ages did not, like many of our introspecting psychologists, study only city people, library dwellers, or academicians; they were interested in the whole mass of mankind. But even so they still studied their Master. In considering the art or the proper activity of the artifex, they considered the activity that our Lord chose to exercise during all of His hidden life; they considered also, in a way, the very activity of the Father; for they knew that the virtue of Art is predicated pre-eminently of God, as are Goodness and Justice,[38] and that the Son, in plying His poor man's trade, was still the image of the Father and of his never-ceasing action:[39] Philip, he who sees me, sees the Father also.

It is curious to note that in their classifications the ancients did not give a separate place to what we call the fine arts.[40] They divided the arts into servile arts and liberal arts, according as they required or did not require the labor of the body,[41] or rather -- for this division, which goes deeper than one thinks, was taken from the very concept of art, recta ratio factibilium--according as the work to be made was in one case an effect produced in matter (factibile properly speaking), in the other a purely spiritual construction remaining in the soul.[42] In that case, sculpure and painting belonged to the servile arts,[43] and music to the liberal arts, where it was next to arithmetic and logic. For the musician arranges intellectually sounds in his soul, just as the arithmetician arranges numbers there, and the logician, concepts -- the oral or instrumental expression, which causes to pass into the fluid successions of sonorous matter the constructions thus achieved in the spirit, being but an extrinsic consequence and a simple means for these arts.

In the powerfully social structure of mediaeval civilization, the artist had only the rank of artisan, and every kind of anarchical development was forbidden his individualism, because a natural social discipline imposed on him from the outside certain limiting conditions.[44] He did not work for the rich and fashionable and for the merchants, but for the faithful; it was his mission to house their prayers, to instruct their intelligences, to delight their souls and their eyes. Matchless epoch, in which an ingenuous people was formed in beauty without even realizing it, just as the perfect religious ought to pray without knowing that he is praying;[45] in which Doctors and image- makers lovingly taught the poor, and the poor delighted in their teaching, because they were all of the same royal race, born of water and the Spirit!

Man created more beautiful things in those days, and he adored himself less. The blessed humility in which the artist was placed exalted his strength and his freedom. The Renaissance was to drive the artist mad, and to make of him the most miserable of men -- at the very moment when the world was to become less habitable for him -- by revealing to him his own peculiar grandeur, and by letting loose on him the wild beast Beauty which Faith had kept enchanted and led after it, docile.[46]

Chapter V Art and Beauty