Did Aquinas have an Aesthetic?

In the previous post I cited Leo Spitzer’s comment that Aquinas does not seem to have had “the Augustinian ear for world harmony, ascribing to music a holy character only insofar as it was an element of the liturgy; as an Aristotelian he ‘reflects’ the world as it is, rather than attempting to re-create it by forging it together into a unit.” If so, the alleged tone-deafness of St. Thomas in matters of metaphysics might be related to the general absence of an explicit aesthetics in Thomas’s thought. John Milbank, for example, observes on the one hand that “[j]ust because there was no aesthetics in Aquinas’s theological philosophy, the aesthetic is therein everywhere present,” while on the other hand suggesting that “the latency of fundamental beauty in Aquinas meant that it was also for him a blind spot: one could even say that Aquinas probably supposed his own theology to have more to do with abstract reason than was really the case. This blindness invited a later rationalistic reduction by nominalism and neo-scholasticism of the Patristic legacy in which he stood, and to resist this one indeed requires a more explicit aesthetics, conjoined to a more explicit poetics…” (Milbank, “Scholasticism, Modernism, and Modernity,” 670). Related to this is Francesca Aran Murphy’s observation that, unlike Franciscans such as St. Bonaventure, none of the Dominican scholastics, including Albert the Great and St. Thomas, ever explicitly listed beauty as a transcendental and therefore convertible property of being. On the other hand, Murphy points out that, “whilst both Albert and Thomas say little of beauty in the main body of their writings, they both succumb to its lure in their respective Commentaries on The Divine Names of Pseudo-Dionysus. In these texts, each of these writers speaks of the universal extent of beauty, and names God as its first cause. In The Divine Names, Dionysius defines the beautiful as one of the sources of being” (Murphy, Christ the Form of Beauty: A Study in Theology and Literature, 213). Also, as Milbank is concerned to show, Thomas’s aesthetic vision, however blurred by his intellectualism, was to his credit at least sufficiently clear to inspire, through the work of Jacques Maritain, the “more explicit poetics” of twentieth-century Catholic artists and writers such as David Jones, G.K. Chesterton, Flannery O’Connor, and J.R.R. Tolkien.

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Aquinas’s “Tin Ear” for the Music of the Spheres

Metaphysics of the Music, part 14

Against the metaphysically tragic interpretation of Tolkien’s creation-myth—according to which, first, it is the Ainur’s Music that creates the rest of the world and, second, the Music therefore represents an authentic form of being in comparison to which all later permutations of creation are so many disparagable accretions—my claim is that Tolkien’s music imagery both presupposes and self-consciously portrays the kind of Christian, creational, and consequently much more positive metaphysics he shares, for example, with St. Thomas Aquinas. To this end, there are three aspects of Thomas’s thought I want to develop in the posts to follow: the first is Thomas’s own occasional remarks on the nature of music; the second consists in select elements of Thomas’s theory of beauty or aesthetics in general; and the third concerns the broader metaphysical “existentialism” and realism involved in Thomas’s aesthetics. At each of these three levels, as I hope to show, Thomas has an important contribution to make where the proper interpretation of the metaphysics of Tolkien’s music imagery is concerned.

Unlike Tolkien, the music imagery of Augustine, Boethius, and the whole musica universalis tradition actually seems to have made very little impression on St. Thomas’s metaphysical imagination: fire and light we certainly find in his philosophy of being (examples of Pseudo-Dionysius’s influence), but there is very little music. Commenting on this lacuna, Leo Spitzer remarks how Thomas does not seem to have had “the Augustinian ear for world harmony, ascribing to music a holy character only insofar as it was an element of the liturgy; as an Aristotelian he ‘reflects’ the world as it is, rather than attempting to re-create it by forging it together into a unit” (Spitzer, Classical and Christian Ideas of World Harmony, 74). As we shall see, accordingly, Thomas’s ultimate significance for understanding the metaphysics of Tolkien’s musical imagery will lie in quite a different direction. Thomas’s personal interest in music, such as it was, was informed by his direct experience with sacred music as part of his religious devotion and duties as a priest, a subject he addresses in ST 2-2.91, “Of taking the divine name for the purpose of invoking by means of praise” (on this passage, see Eco, The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, 131-2). More than this, Thomas’s education and general cultural milieu would have required of him a particular familiarity with Boethius’s De Institutione and Augustine’s De Musica (Eco 131). His command of some of the more technical and mathematical details of the latter work in particular, for example, are on display in his commentary on Aristotle’s De anima (Bullough, “St. Thomas and Music,” 14, 19-21). (Thomas F. O’Meara, incidentally, has also made the observation in his study of Aquinas’s “cultural milieu” of thirteenth-century Paris that it was only the century prior that polyphony had been introduced and developed in Gothic music, whose “rhythmical motion of independent parts,” together with the Gothic illustrated window and the Scholastic Summa, constitutes a third example of the period’s “love of plurality ordered.” O’Meara, “Paris as a Cultural Milieu of Thomas Aquinas’s Thought,” 709.) And while Thomas does not seem to have had much use in his cosmology or metaphysics for the Pythagorean notion of a musical world harmony, as his treatment of divine power in the Summa indicates, neither was he completely insensible to the notion’s explanatory force. While expanding on how the universe cannot be improved given the order already bestowed upon it by God, Thomas gives the following argument strongly reminiscent of what I pointed out in Augustine earlier: “For if any one thing were bettered, the proportion of order would be destroyed, just as if one string were stretched more than it ought to be, the melody of the harp would be destroyed” (ST 1.25.6 ad 3).

Scripture’s Music of Creation

The metaphysics of the Music, part 2

As I noted in the first post in this series, discussions of Tolkien’s cosmic-music imagery have frequently drawn attention to its classical antecedents. Thus, before we consider how Tolkien essentially synthesizes this tradition with his Thomistic metaphysics of creation, we may wish to review some of the more noteworthy of these classical sources, along with what his commentators have had to say about them. I have noted before the tendency, among some Tolkien readers, to draw contrasts between the Ainulindalë and the biblical creation-account, and Tolkien’s conceit of angelic beings helping to fashion the world through their celestial music—an idea foreign to Genesis—might seem to be a case in point. The idea itself, however, is not entirely without biblical precedent, as may be seen in the book of Job, for example, which describes the heavenly host accompanying the creation of the world with their singing: “Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? Or who laid the corner stone thereof; When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:6-7). In the Book of Chronicles, moreover, King David enjoins the entirety of creation to lift up its praises to God: “Sing unto the Lord, all the earth; shew forth from day to day his salvation… Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice… Let the sea roar, and the fullness thereof: let the fields rejoice, and all that is therein. Then shall the trees of the wood sing out at the presence of the Lord…” (1 Chron. 17:23, 31-33; see also Ps. 96:11-12 and 98:4-8). The Book of Revelation, finally, depicts in similar fashion the angels singing and praising God in the company of his martyred saints (Rev. 5:8-12). As David Bentley Hart summarizes the scriptural data on the subject, “[t]here are abundant biblical reasons, quite apart from the influence of pagan philosophy, for Christians to speak of the harmonia mundi: in Scripture creation rejoices in God, proclaims his glory, sings before him; the pleasing conceits of pagan cosmology aside, theology has all the warrant it needs for speaking of creation as a divine composition, a magnificent music, whose measures and refrains rise up to the pleasure and the glory of God” (The Beauty of the Infinite, 275). In the sixth century, accordingly, Pope Gregory the Great, based on his reading of Scripture and Pseudo-Dionysius’s treatise on The Celestial Hierarchy, propounded the influential medieval idea that the redeemed human race, in the final consummation of all things, would constitute with the angels a tenth choir and so make up for the loss suffered from the rebellion of Satan and his company (Forty Homilies on the Gospels, Homily 34). Tolkien would seem to echo this idea in the opening page of the Ainulindalë,where it is already anticipated that “a greater [music] still shall be made before Ilúvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar after the end of days” (Silmarillion 15).

The Possible is the Good: Pseudo-Dionysius and Aquinas

In his Summa Contra Gentiles Aquinas quotes a passage from Pseudo-Dionysius’s Divine Names revealing the possibilism latent in their shared Platonism:

though anything is good in so far as it is a being… being is a term used absolutely, while good also includes a relation… provided it be ordered to the end, it may be called good because of this relation… It is apparent in this conclusion that good is, in a way, of wider scope than being. For this reason, Dionysius says, in the fourth chapter of On the Divine Names: “the good extends to existent beings and also to non-existent ones.” (SCG 3.20.5)

On the one hand, for Aquinas and Pseudo-Dionysius, there is clearly a sense in which the possible “extends” beyond the merely actual, inasmuch as there are beings, namely “non-existent ones,” that do not exist and yet which are good (i.e., they have an order towards an end, namely the Good). This is Aquinas’s and Pseudo-Dionysius’s “possibilism.” On the other hand, for them the possible is entirely determined and exhausted by the good: to be possible is to be a good, that is, to have an intrinsic order towards the good.

Masticating Angels

In a chapter on images for representing angels, Pseudo-Dionysius makes the case that “each of the many parts of the human body can provide us with images which are quite appropriate to the powers of heaven.” One such bodily image is that of teeth, which he allegorizes as as “hav[ing] to do with the skill which produces divisions in the intake of nourishing perfection, for it is a fact that every intelligent being, having received from one which is more divine the gift of a unified conception, proceeds to divide it and to make provision for its diffusion in order that an inferior may be lifted up as far as possible” (The Celestial Hierarchy, ch. 15, trans. Luibheid). In other words, the higher angels “chew” up more difficult, unified knowledge (the “bread of angels”), making it more digestible for the lower. While it’s not technically an example of mastication, thanks to Pseudo-D, here’s my new mental image for one angel “instructing” another: