JMC : Philosophy of Literature / by Brother Azarias

Part II. Theory.

Chapter I.
The Beautiful in Literature.

HAVING considered literature in its various relations with thought, with language, with such influences, whether of persons or times, as have affected it and given it a value of relation, we now proceed to dwell upon it in its intrinsic nature. It is evidently a power. It is one of the mediums invariably made use of in civilizing a nation. It possesses a formative character that, in the end, triumphs over material force, be its energy what it may. We have, then, to inquire what is the secret of this power.

A classic is the best representative of a people's literature. It lives through the wear and tear of time; it is enshrined in a nation's memories; it is an approved expression of its sentiments. It becomes a standard of excellence; it is admired; it pleases; it is the embodiment of the beautiful or sublime; and the more of one or the other it contains, the more genuine a classic it is. "A thing of beauty is a joy forever." It pleases, delights, touches our humanity according to the beauty of expression with which it clothes a thing of beauty, whether it be of the physical, intellectual, or moral world. So, also, a heroic deed or a magnificent scene is the basis of a sublime work. We must, therefore, as a preliminary inquiry, determine the essence of the beautiful.

All beauty is divided into three kinds. There is intellectual beauty, there is moral beauty, and there is physical beauty. The theories of the beautiful that have come under our notice seem to be constructed for one or other of these, to the exclusion of the rest. Evidently, beauty is not exclusively a material thing, or a moral thing, or an intellectual thing. Its essence is distinct from that of each. Beauty is not truth for truth is reality, and reality is not always beautiful. Neither is it goodness; for each determines different faculties of the soul. Therefore, Cousin errs in saying that moral beauty is "the foundation, the principle, the unity of the beautiful." The moral and the good are identical. That which is formally good is intrinsically moral. Now, the good is necessarily the object of the will, and creates appetition; whereas, the higher the order of beauty is, the less does the soul desire the object in which it resides, and the more content it is to rest in its contemplation. Again it has been asserted that the essence of beauty consists in "proportion and light."{1} The theory errs by saying too much. There is beauty in proportion but there is more. Not a particle of earth, air, or ocean but has its ultimate atoms in proportion. The whole material universe is built upon proportion. Destroy the combining ratio of the elements, and order becomes chaos. It is for this reason that where there is beauty, there may be proportion; but proportion constitutes the essence of beauty only inasmuch as it is a necessary attribute of material existence. But where is the proportion of a moral act, or of a well-put expression, or of a human soul, or of anything without parts? The question is meaningless. Nor is the matter bettered by making the distinction of Jerome Savonarola, who says: "Beauty results from harmony in all the parts and colors. This applies to composite subjects; in simple subjects, beauty is in light."{2} Whether we take light figuratively or literally, we must reject it on the same ground. It says too much. Light is essential to the discernment of deformity as well as of beauty whether we look on the one or the other in the light of day, or in the light of evidence, or in the light of consciousness, or in the light of reason. We are also told that beauty is a "quality or attribute of objects," and something relative.{3} But the relative connotes the absolute; and if there is a relative beauty, there must necessarily be an absolute beauty. Beauty has an absolute existence, as truth has, as morality has; and as we cannot say of these last that they are mere qualities or relative existences, neither can we assert the like of the first Morality is independent of all action, truth of all knowing, and beauty of all existences, even as God, who is the Being infinitely true, moral, and beautiful, is independent of His creation. And as we have a moral sense and a sense of the true, or certitude, so we have a sense of the beautiful, which some call taste, and others, the aesthetic sense. Let us study the nature of this sense.

We perceive a thing of beauty, say an admirably executed picture. A feeling of pleasure possesses our soul, and we forthwith pronounce it beautiful. That feeling has the character of a dim recollection slightly awakened; it is the feeling, more or less intense, that passes over us on recognizing an old friend after a long absence. Plato experienced it in his sensitive nature, and attributed it to a faint reminiscence which the soul possesses of a preexistent state.{4} Wordsworth, who studied every phase of sensation, recognized the feeling, and revived the same doctrine:

"Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
  The soul that rises with us, our life's star
Hath elsewhere had its setting,
  And cometh from afar."{5}

There is in this feeling a recollection and a recognition. We are told that man is made in the image and likeness of his Maker. We know furthermore that all things proceeding from their Divine Author, are made in accordance with their archetypes in His mind; and therefore that they reflect some one or other attribute of His Divinity -- that same Divinity, be it remembered, in the image and likeness whereof we have been created. Therefore, that pleasure experienced on beholding a thing of beauty is due to our recognition of the type of perfect implanted in our natures by the creative act; our power of recognizing being developed in different degrees, as the faculty of knowing or the moral sense is different in each individual. In recognizing, in the object presented to us, a dim reflection of the standard within us, our aesthetic sense is awakened. Therefore, actual beauty does not exist independently of ideal beauty. The former is only the expression, more or less perfect, of the latter, and without it is not known to be beauty. Dr. Brownson has shown, after Kant, that every object, empirically considered, is known only in its relation with the ideal.{6} Each connotes the other.

Turning to the object we call beautiful, we ask What is there in that object that makes it beautiful? In the case of the picture, we must say that it is not the colors; for another might have placed the same colors in the same proportion, and yet not produce the same effect Thus there is a vast difference between a real Raphael and a copy. So, too, with human countenances. One face has all the contour and proportion of parts of another; and still we turn from the one with disgust, and are ravished with feelings of awe and respect on beholding the other. The same difference is found in two poems. One writer describes a landscape in language select, grammatical, appropriate; we read it, and put the book aside with indifference. Another writer paints the same scene in a few happy phrases, apparently thrown together with less care; still the effect is like magic; we read and re-read the piece; we exclaim: "Magnificent! How grand! What a beautiful wordpicture!" Now, in all these instances, one word expresses the whole difference. That one word is EXPRESSION. Its presence gives the beauty; its absence leaves dead colors, dead words, dead features. And it is that expression alone in every beautiful object that has power to awaken the sense of the beautiful in the soul. Hence the success of an artist depends upon his power of infusing expression into his work. And the secret of our pleasure in admiring his production is, that it brings before our consciousness the ideal in our minds.

Here an interesting question arises. In describing the material universe, is all that goes to make up the expression of it, whether on the canvas or in the poem, in nature or in the artist's mind? It is obvious that we are in sympathy with nature. When man fell, nature also was cursed. It is further plain that inert matter does not arouse our sympathy, has for us no expression. A thing is intelligible in proportion as it is intelligent: this is the law of intelligibility; and, as Balmes has shown,{7} we might live forever in presence of the material universe and be no wiser concerning it. if we did not have an idea of it. But the idea of the universe is not its expression as given in its beauties and sublimities. We analyze a piece of granite. It has for us no other expression than the names we impose on its component parts, and the combining force that keeps them together. It seems to us that there is something more significant in the sleep of winter, in the awakening of spring, in the activity of summer, and in the repose of autumn, than is to be found in death and inertness. To say that the expression of these phenomena was God in Nature, would be to make Him an integral part of the universe, the soul of the world; and, with Emerson, we would be obliged to recognize no God who is not "one with the blowing grass and the falling rain." But the Divine Artist that fashioned the universe, also infused therein a trace of His own beauty -- a reflection of Himself, once clear and serene as the undisturbed lake of crystalline waters; but since the fall, it is a mirror that has been cracked, broken, and bedimmed. That which speaks to us in Nature is behind the hill and dale and starry sky, on which we fix our gaze. It is the ideal which the Cosmos actualizes. He who holds in His Divine Essence the types after which the physical world and we are created, has established between us and it this harmony and sympathy. We may then conclude that the expression of Nature is external to the mind of him who contemplates it; he imbibes it by degrees, and reproduces all he has received in his master-piece. Were all that expression in himself primarily its outward embodiment would have been a Divine act. He imitates creation in expressing, according to the strength of his genius, the ideal in his soul; but the expression he gives out has been communicated to him from the ideal in Nature. Therefore, that modern subjectivism which would impose the various moods of an author upon Nature, and interpret its expression as the expression of these moods, is based on a false principle. The prophet imagined God present in the whirlwind; but God was not there: it was under the calming influence of the gentle breeze that He made His presence felt.

To sum up: We speak in sign and symbol. The ideal in our mind is symbolical of Him who created it -- the Beauty ever ancient and ever new -- whom we now see "darkly, as through a glass." Everything perfect in its kind has a beauty of its own; it is the created ideal modelled after the eternal and uncreated ideal in the Divine Mind. When the Supreme Being first called things from nothingness, He created each perfect in its kind. After the fall, every creature of earth became subject to degeneracy; but as in the nobler specimens of animal life there is a reversion to that first model, so that instinctive reversion recalls the type of perfect -- the ideal after which it was fashioned -- and we speak of such specimens as beautiful. The beautiful, then, is the expression of the Word. From one Word are all things, and this one all things speak.{8} The splendor of that Word it is that we admire in the glowing sunset; that steals into our soul in the lovely landscape; that, beaming from the truly beautiful countenance, inspires awe and respect; that elicits the burst of admiration on witnessing the heroic deed.

{1} Hill, Elements of Philosophy, p. 174. This is considered the doctrine of St. Thomas. But St. Thomas in making the statement, is only incidentally speaking of physical beauty. See Summa, Ia, Iae. quaest. vi., art. iv. ad. 1.

{2} Sermon on the Discourse of Jesus with the Woman of Samaria. Therein Savonarola denounces the materialistic notions of the artists of the Renaissance.

{3} Bascom: AEsthetics, or Science of Beauty, lect. i., p. 8.

{4} Phaedrus, cap. xxix, p. 714.

{5} Ode on the Intimations of Immortality.

{6} Works, vol. ii., Refutation of Atheism, ix., pp. 56, et seq.

{7} Fundamental Philosophy, bk. I., ch. xii., which is also the doctrine of St. Thomas. -- Summa, I. 87, 1.

{8} Imitation, bk. i. ch. iii.

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