Art and Scholasticism by Jacques Maritain

Chapter VI

The Rules of Art

The whole formal element of art consists in the regulation which it imprints on matter. Moreover it is of the essence of art, according to the ancients, to have fixed rules, viae certae et determinatae.

This expression "fixed rules" conjures up some bad memories: we think of the three unities, and of "Aristotle's rules." But it is from the Renaissance with its superstitious reverence for antiquity and its stuffed Aristotle, not from the Christian Aristotle of our Doctors, that the starched rules of the grammarians of the grand siècle derive. The fixed rules of which the Schoolmen spoke are not conventional imperatives imposed on art from without, but the ways of Operation peculiar to art itself, the ways of working reason, ways high and hidden.[79] And every artist knows well that without this intellectual form ruling the matter, his art would be but sensual slush.[80] Some explanations however seem to be necessary at this point.

First, with regard to art in general, the mechanical or servile arts as well as the fine arts and the liberal arts, it is important to understand that the rules in question are nothing, in actual fact, if they are not in a vital and spiritual state, in a habitus or a virtue of the intellect, which is precisely the virtue of art.

Through the habitus or virtue of art superelevating his mind from within, the artist is a ruler who uses rules according to his ends; it is as senseless to conceive of him as the slave of the rules as to consider the worker the slave of his tools. Properly speaking, he possesses them and is not possessed by them: he is not held by them, it is he who holds -- through them -- matter and the real; and sometimes, in those superior moments where the working of genius resembles in art the miracles of God in nature, he will act, not against the rules, but outside of and above them, in conformity with a higher rule and a more hidden order. Let us understand in this manner the words of Pascal: "True eloquence makes fun of eloquence, true morality makes fun of morality, to make fun of philosophy is to philosophize truly," to which the most tyrannical and the most radical of academy heads adds this savory gloss: "Unless you don't care a rap about painting, painting won't care a rap about you."[81]

There is, as I noted earlier, a fundamental incompatibility between habitus and egalitarianism. The modern world has a horror of habitus, whatever ones they may be, and one could write a very strange History of the Progressive Expulsion of Habitus by Modern Civilization. This history would go back quite far into the past. We would see -- "a fish always rots by the head first" -- theologians like Scotus, then Occam, and even Suarez, ill-treat, to begin with, the most aristocratic of these strange beings, namely the gifts of the Holy Spirit -- not to mention the infused moral virtues. Soon the theological virtues and sanctifying grace will be filed and planed away by Luther, then by the Cartesian theologians. Meanwhile, natural habitus have their turn; Descartes, with his passion for levelling, attacks even the genus generalissimum to which the wretches belong, and denies the real existence of qualities and accidents. The whole world at the time is agog with excitement over calculating machines; everybody dreams only of method. And Descartes conceives method as an infallible and easy means of bringing to the truth "those who have not studied" and society people.[82] Leibniz finally invents a logic and a language whose most wonderful characteristic is that it dispenses from thinking.[83] And then comes the taste, the charming curiosity, the spiritual acephaly of the Enlightenment.

Thus method or rules, regarded as an ensemble of formulas and processes that work of themselves and serve the mind as orthopedic and mechanical armature, tend everywhere in the modern world to replace habitus, because method is for all whereas habitus are only for some. Now it cannot be admitted that access to the highest activities depend on a virtue that some possess and others do not; consequently beautiful things must be made easy.


Chalepa ta kala. The ancients thought that truth is difficult, that beauty is difficult, and that the way is narrow; and that to conquer the difficulty and the loftiness of the object, it is absolutely necessary that an intrinsic force and elevation -- that is to say, a habitus -- be developed in the subject. The modern conception of method and rules would therefore have seemed to them a gross absurdity. According to their principles, rules are of the essence of art, but on condition that the habitus, a living rule, be formed; without it, rules are nothing. Plaster the perfect theoretical knowledge of all the rules of an art onto an energetic laureate who works fifteen hours a day but in whom the habitus is not sprouting, and you will never make an artist of him; he will always remain infinitely farther removed from the art than the child or the savage equipped with a simple natural gift: this said by way of excusing the too naive or too subtle adorers of Negro art.

The problem is posed for the modern artist in an insane manner, as a choice between the senility of academic rules and the primitiveness of natural gift: with the latter, art does not yet exist, except in potentiality; with the former, it has ceased to exist at all. Art exists only in the living intellectuality of the habitus.

In our day natural gift is lightly taken for art itself, especially if it is covered over with facile faking and a voluptuous medley of colors. However, natural gift is only a prerequisite condition for art, or again a rough outline (inchoatio naturalis) of the artistic habitus. This inborn disposition is clearly indispensable; but without cultivation and a discipline which the ancients held should be long and patient and honest, it will never develop into art properly speaking. Thus art, like love, proceeds from a spontaneous instinct, and it must be cultivated like friendship; for it is a virtue like friendship.

Saint Thomas points out that the natural dispositions through which one individual differs from another have their root in the physical disposition of the body;[84] they concern our sense faculties, in particular the imagination, the chief purveyor of art -- which thus appears as the gift par excellence by which the artist is born -- and which the poets gladly make their main faculty, because it is so intimately bound up with the activity of the creative intellect that it is difficult in the concrete to distinguish the one from the other. But the virtue of art involves an improvement of the mind; moreover, it imprints on the human being an incomparably deeper quality than do the natural dispositions.

Besides, the manner in which education cultivates the natural dispositions may atrophy the spontaneous gift instead of developing the habitus, especially if this manner is material and rotten with recipes and clever devices -- or again if it is theoretical and speculative instead of being operative, for the practical intellect, on which the rules of the arts depend, proceeds by positing an effect in being, not by proving or demonstrating; and often those who best possess the rules of an art are the least capable of formulating them. From this point of view one must deplore the substitution (begun by Colbert, completed by the Revolution) of the academic teaching of the schools for corporate apprenticeship.[85] By the very fact that art is a virtue of the practical intellect, the mode of teaching that by nature belongs to it is apprenticeship-education, the working-novitiate under a master and in the presence of the real, not lessons distributed by professors; and, to tell the truth, the very notion of a School of Fine Arts, especially in the sense in which the modern body politic understands this phrase, conceals as deep a misunderstanding of things as the notion, for instance, of an Advanced Course in Virtue. Hence the revolts of a Cézanne against the Academy and against the professors, revolts directed, in reality, chiefly against a barbarous conception of artistic education.


The fact remains that art, being an intellectual habitus, presupposes necessarily and always a formation of the mind, which puts the artist in possession of fixed rules of operation. No doubt, in certain exceptional cases, the individual effort of the artist, of a Giotto,[86] for example, or a Moussorgsky, can suffice by itself alone to procure this formation of the mind. And indeed, since what is most spiritual in art -- the synthetic intuition, the conception of the work-to-be-made -- depends on the via inventionis or the effort of discovery, which requires solitude and is not learned from others, it may even be said that the artist, as far as the fine point and the highest life of his art are concerned, forms and elevates himself single-handed. The closer one approaches this spiritual point of the art, the more the viae determinatae with which one will have to deal will be adapted and personal to the artist, and designed to disclose themselves to one man only.[87] In this respect it may be that in our time, when we are experiencing so grievously all the evils of anarchy, we run the risk of deceiving ourselves as to the nature and extent of the results that can be expected from a return to the craft traditions.

Still, for the immense amount of rational and discursive work that art involves, the tradition of a discipline and an education by masters and the continuity in time of human collaboration, in short, the via disciplinae, is absolutely necessary, whether it is a question of technique properly speaking and of material means, or of all the conceptual and rational replenishing which certain arts (above all in classical times) require and carry along -- or, finally, of the indispensable maintenance of a sufficiently high level of culture in the average run of artists and artisans, each one of whom it is absurd to ask to be an "original genius."[88]

Let us add, in order to have the thought of Saint Thomas in its entirety,[89] that in every discipline and in all teaching the master only assists from the outside the principle of immanent activity which is within the pupil. From this point of view, teaching relates to the great notion of ars cooperativa naturae. Whereas certain arts apply themselves to their matter in order to dominate it, and to impose on it a form which it has only to receive -- such as the art of a Michelangelo torturing marble like a tyrant -- others, because they have for matter nature itself, apply themselves to their matter in order to serve it, and to help it to attain a form or a perfection which can be acquired only through the activity of an interior principle; such are the arts which "cooperate with nature," as, for instance, medicine, with corporeal nature, or teaching (as also the art of directing souls), with spiritual nature. These arts operate only by furnishing the interior principle within the subject with the means and the assistance it avails itself of in order to produce its effect. It is the interior principle, the intellectual light present in the pupil, which is, in the acquisition of science and art, the principal cause or principal agent.

If it be a question now of the fine arts in particular, their contact with being and the transcendentals creates for them, as regards the rules of art, an altogether special condition.

And straightway they are subject to a law of renewal, and therefore of change, which the other arts do not acknowledge or at least do not acknowledge for the same reason.

Beauty, like being, has an infinite amplitude. But the work as such, realized in matter, exists in a certain genus, in aliquo genere. And it is impossible for a genus to exhaust a transcendental. Outside the artistic genre to which this work belongs, there is always an infinity of ways of being a beautiful work.

A sort of conflict may therefore be observed between the transcendence of beauty and the material narrowness of the work to be made, between, on the one hand, the formal ratio of beauty, the splendor of being and of all the transcendentals combined, and, on the other hand, the formal ratio of art, undeviating ingenuity in the realm of works-to-be-made. No form of art, however perfect, can encompass beauty within its limits, as the Virgin contained her Creator. The artist is faced with an immense and lonely sea,

. . . sans mâts, sans mâts, ni fertiles îlots,

and the mirror he holds up to it is no bigger than his own heart.

The creator in art is he who discovers a new analogate[90] of the beautiful, a new way in which the radiance of form can shine on matter. The work that he makes, and which as such exists in a certain genus, is from then onwards in a new genus and requires new rules -- I mean a new adaptation of the fundamental and perennial rules,[91] and even the use of viae certae et determinatae not hitherto employed and which at first disconcert people.

At that moment the contemplative activity in contact with the transcendental, which constitutes the proper life of the fine arts and of their rules, is clearly predominant. But almost inevitably talent, cleverness, pure technique, the merely operative activity that pertains to the genus art, will little by little get the upper hand, at the moment when one no longer exerts oneself except to exploit what was once discovered; then the rules formerly living and spiritual become materialized, and this form of art finally exhausts itself. A renewal will be necessary. Please God that a genius be found to bring it about! Even so the change will perhaps lower the general level of art; and yet change is the very condition of art's life and of the flowering of great works.[92] We may believe that from Bach to Beethoven and from Beethoven to Wagner art declined in quality, in spirituality, and in purity. But who would bold enough to say that one of these three men was less necessary than the other? If they load their art with exotic riches too heavy for any but themselves to bear, it happens that the most powerful ones are the most dangerous. Rembrandt is a bad master; but who would refuse him one's affection? Even though painting was to be wounded for it, it is better that he should have played and won, made his miraculous breach in the invisible world. It is indeed true that there is no necessary progress in art, that tradition and discipline are the true nurses of originality; and it is likewise true that the feverish acceleration which modern individualism, with its mania for revolution in mediocrity, imposes on the succession of art forms, abortive schools, and puerile fashions, is the symptom of wide-spread intellectual and social poverty. And yet the fact remains that art has a fundamental need of novelty: like nature, it goes in seasons.


Unlike Prudence, Art does not presuppose straightness of the appetite, that is to say, of the power of willing and loving, in relation to the end of man or in the line of morality.[93] It nevertheless presupposes, as Cajetan explains,[94] that the appetite tend straightly to the proper end of the art, so that the principle: "the truth of the practical intellect does not consist in conformity with the thing, but in conformity with the straight appetite," rules the sphere of Making as well as that of Doing.

In the fine arts the general end of art is beauty. But in their case the work-to-be-made is not a simple matter to be ordered to this end, like a clock one makes for the purpose of telling time or a boat one builds for the purpose of travelling on water. As an individual and original realization of beauty, the work which the artist is about to make is for him an end in itself: not the general end of his art, but the particular end which rules his present activity and in relation to which all the means must be ruled. Now, in order to judge suitably concerning this individual end, that is to say, in order to conceive the work-to-be-made[95] reason alone is not enough, a good disposition of the appetite is necessary, for everyone judges of his own ends in accordance with what he himself actually is: "As everyone is, so does the end appear to him."[96] Let us conclude therefore that in the painter, poet, and musician, the virtue of art, which resides in the intellect, must not only overflow into the sense faculties and the imagination, but it requires also that the whole appetitive power of the artist, his passions and will, tend straightly to the end of his art. If all of the artist's powers of desire and emotion are not fundamentally straight and exalted in the line of beauty, whose transcendence and immateriality are superhuman, then human life and the humdrum of the senses, and the routine of art itself, will degrade his conception. The artist has to love, he has to love what he is making, so that his virtue may truly be, in Saint Augustine's words,[97] ordo amoris, so that beauty may become connatural to him and inviscerate itself in him through affection, and so that his work may come forth from his heart and his bowels as well as from his lucid spirit. This undeviating love is the supreme rule.

But love presupposes intellect; without it love can do nothing, and, in tending to the beautiful, love tends to what can delight the intellect.


Finally, because in the fine arts the work-to-be-made is -- precisely as beautiful -- an end in itself, and because this end is something absolutely individual, something entirely unique, each occasion presents to the artist a new and unique way of striving after the end, and therefore of ruling the matter. Hence there is a remarkable analogy between the fine arts and Prudence.

No doubt art always keeps its viae certae et determinatae, and the proof of this is that the works of the same artist or of the same school are all stamped with the same fixed and determined characteristics. But it is with prudence, eubulia, good sense and perspicacity, circumspection, precaution, deliberation, industry, memory, foresight, intelligence and divination, it is by using prudential rules not fixed beforehand but determined according to the contingency of singular cases, it is in an always new and unforeseeable manner that the artist applies the rules of his art: only on this condition is its ruling infallible. "A painting," said Degas, "is a thing which requires as much cunning, rascality and viciousness as the perpetration of a crime."[98] For different reasons, and because of the transcendence of their object, the fine arts thus partake, like hunting or the military art, in the virtues of government.

In the end, all the rules having become connatural to him, the artist seemingly has no other rule than to espouse at each moment the living contour of a unique and dominating intuitive emotion that will never recur.

This artistic prudence, this kind of spiritual sensibility in contact with matter, corresponds in the operative order to the contemplative activity and the proper life of art in contact with the beautiful. To the extent that the rules of the Academy prevail, the fine arts revert to the generic type of art and to its lower species, the mechanical arts.

Chapter VII The Purity of Art