Vision of the Ainur: Integritas, Consonantia, Claritas

Metaphysics of the Music, part 30

Adding to the Vision’s theological and theodical superiority over the Music is its comparative aesthetic excellence, a point brought home in the Vision when Ilúvatar explains to Ulmo, the Ainur who later assumes dominion over the sea, that the “bitter cold immoderate” caused by Melkor has not in fact destroyed “the beauty of [Ulmo’s] fountains, nor of [his] clear pools,” but has instead managed only to contribute to “the height and glory of the clouds,” “the everchanging mists,” and “the fall of rain upon the Earth.” To this disclosure Ulmo responds with appropriate awe: “Truly, Water is become now fairer than my heart imagined, neither had my secret thought conceived the snowflake, nor in all my music was contained the falling of the rain” (Silmarillion 19, emphasis added). To frame the difference in the aesthetic categories of St. Thomas, the essential visual character of the Vision, “giving sight where before was only hearing,” means that to the integrity and proportionality or harmony of the Music, the Vision adds the further aesthetic property of clarity or splendor, the radiance of created form. (For an application, incidentally, of Thomas’s three qualities of beauty of integrity, proportion, and clarity to the art of the Elves, see Alison Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, 23-4.)

The Three Properties of Thomistic Beauty

Metaphysics of the Music, part 20

As to what it is in the beautiful object that is responsible for eliciting the affective response in the individual, Thomas lists the three objective properties of beauty—integrity, proportion, and clarity—touched on at the end of the last chapter.[1] By integrity or perfection, Thomas means something close to what Tolkien has in mind in his requirement that sub-created, secondary world’s exhibit the “inner consistency of reality.” Integrity, in other words, refers to a thing’s completeness, wholeness, or togetherness, its having and displaying the structure and requisite parts proper to a thing of that particular essence or nature. The second aesthetic property of proportion, sometimes referred to as harmony or consonance, is of Pythagorean extraction and designates in Thomas’s usage a sense of qualitative proportion that he calls convenientia, or what Liberato Santoro-Brienza describes as an “intrinsic attunement” or “correspondence between inner and outer reality, appearance and essence, matter and form.”[2] It is the harmony of beauty, in other words, that is especially involved the aforementioned, pleasing correspondence obtaining both between the parts and metaphysical principles within the object and between the object and the sensory faculties of the perceiver.[3] Finally, there is the aesthetic criterion of clarity, or brightness or “splendor,” i.e., the shining forth of form or radiating of intelligible light from the beautiful object, an idea that Robert Wood suggests is further linked to the Greek word doxa or “glory”[4] and which Tolkien gives us an apt image of in the Ainulindalë when the Ainur first glimpse the world, newly created by the Flame Imperishable of Ilúvatar, as “a cloud with a living heart of flame” (S 20).

[1] For an analysis of these properties in light of their development in Western thought prior to Aquinas, see chapter four of Eco, The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquines, “The Formal Criteria of Beauty,”64-121.

[2] Santoro-Brienza, “Art and Beauty,” 72.

[3] Robert Wood, Placing Aesthetics, 109.  

[4] Wood, Placing Aesthetics, 105.

The Epistemology of Beauty

Metaphysics of the Music, part 19

Another debate that has revolved around Thomas’s conception of beauty concerns the exact mental processes that are involved in individual judgments of beauty, or what Delfino refers to as the “epistemology of beauty.” As Delfino summarizes the debate,

[s]ome Thomists, like Jacques Maritain, have held that it [the perception of beauty] is an intuition, a direct, immediate knowledge of an object… [A] person perceives beauty through sense intuition, and that the intellectual act of abstraction is not present in aesthetic experience. Eco disagrees, noting that to know whether or not the things before us (for example, this cat) has clarity, order, and integrity requires us to have conceptual knowledge (in this case, of cat), which the act of abstraction furnishes. But Eco contends that abstraction by itself is not enough. Aesthetic perception occurs at the end of the intellectual act of judgment whereby we say something about the actual existence of the thing before us… [Armand] Maurer’s view overcomes the negative aspects of Eco’s view while remaining faithful to the basic structure of Aquinas’s epistemology. In agreement with Maritain, Maurer holds that our aesthetic perception of physical things is grasped through sense intuition and is non-conceptual, but, in accord with Eco, aesthetic perception is completed in the intellectual act of judgment. However, Maurer disagrees with Eco by contending that, in the aesthetic perception of physical things, the judgment is not the result of a reasoning process involving concepts. Maurer does not deny that the concept of the thing that we experience as beautiful is present in the intellect. The intellect’s nature is to abstract the concept. Still, in aesthetic experience, we do not give primary focus to the concept and rational analyses. Instead, we focus on the beauty of the thing. (Delfino, “The Beauty of Wisdom,” 42-3)

Existential beauty

Metaphysics of the Music, part 18

For all its similarities with Kant’s idealistic aesthetics, there is nonetheless an intractable, objective or mind-independent character to Thomas’s conception of beauty. The more beauty a thing has the more existence or being will be implicated in that beauty. One aspect to this principle for St. Thomas is his definition of beauty as “that which pleases when seen” (ST1.5.4 ad 1).[1] In direct contrast to Kant, therefore, Thomas establishes as one of the defining features of beauty the pleasure or delight the object of beauty is able to bestow on its perceiver through the senses, which makes beauty at some level presuppose the existence of a perceiver-independent object capable of acting on the senses in this aesthetically pleasing manner. For Thomas, human sense faculties have as their proper activity and end the perception of sensible objects, especially beautiful sensible objects, and aesthetic pleasure or delight consists in this activity being brought to completion—that is to say, in the sensible properties of the object of beauty first stimulating and gratifying the senses, and in their turn effecting a corresponding intellectual apprehension of and satisfaction in the form or internal structure of the physical object. In this manner a harmonious, pleasing, and nature-fulfilling correspondence is established between the object and the perceiving subject and between the subject’s own perceptual and intellective faculties.[2]

[1] “[P]ulchra enim dicuntur quae visa placent.” Although Thomas’s definition emphasizes visual beauty, Santoro-Brienza makes the point that “visio is further qualified as apprehensio. Sight stands for all perception in general, but particularly for the perception of sight and hearing, and not for taste, touch, and smell, if reference is to beauty.” Santoro-Brienza, “Art and Beauty,” 69. As for Thomas’s above definition of beauty in terms of “that which pleases when seen,” there has been some discussion whether or not Thomas is here to be understood as stating his own personal view on the matter. Eco, in a lengthy note in the bibliography of his Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, takes Maritain in his Art and Scholasticism to task, lamenting that “[e]xpressions such as pulchrum est id quod placet are accepted as authentic Thomistic formulae by people who do not care, or perhaps are not aware, that this is a definition devised by Maritain himself. What Aquinas actually wrote was pulchrum dicuntur quae visa placent. The difference is considerable. Maritain’s proposition is a dogmatic attempt to define once and for all the ontological character of beauty. Aquinas’s is more like a sociological finding. It means, ‘Things which give pleasure when they are perceived are called beautiful’, and this is to introduce the problem, not solve it.” Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, 128. Murphy, however, has taken Eco to task in his turn: “A grammatical point can be made in defence of Maritain’s interpretation: how does St Thomas use the phrase dicuntur elsewhere? Each of his arguments for the existence of God concludes with a similar phrase, e.g., ‘one is bound to arrive at some first cause… and this is what everybody understands by God.’ Whilst distinguishing finite being from the self-subsistent being of God, St Thomas says: ‘the first cause is above being insofar as it is infinite being; ‘being’ (ens), however is called that which participates in being in a finite way, and this being is proportionate to our intellect.’… One would hesitate to conclude that this is the product of a sociological survey. Eco hangs too much on the use of the present passive plural. St Thomas uses the present passive singular and the gerundive, (dicitur, dicendum) more often. This is because, in the scholastic Quaestio, the master’s reply to the ‘problem’ set quaeritur, ‘it is asked’) usually commences with dicendum, ‘it ought to be said’. But the meaning of the verb appears to be interchangeable. Thus, St Thomas writes elsewhere: ‘let that be called beauty, the very perception of which pleases.’ (‘pulchrum autem dicitur id cuius ipsa apprehensio placet.’ [ST1-2.27.1 ad 3]).” Murphy, Christ the Form of Beauty, 209. G.B. Phelan has also defended the formula “pulchrum est quod visum placet” as a valid though not complete interpretation of Aquinas’s own definition “pulchra dicuntur quae visa placet.” Phelan, “The Concept of Beauty in St. Thomas Aquinas,” 174.  

[2] Santoro-Brienza, “Art and Beauty,” 70.

More similarities between Aquinas and Kant

Metaphysics of the Music, part 17

Although Thomas’s metaphysical realism represents one of the historic antitheses to Kant’s idealism, as was noted in the previous post, at least a couple of scholars have discerned a limited congruity between Thomas’s and Kant’s approach to the question of aesthetic beauty. Umberto Eco, for example, in The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, observes how the “intellectualism” and “purely contemplative attitude” found in the angelic doctor’s account of music “gives a justification to the disinterested contemplation of music independent of music’s effects or its function.”[1] For Thomas, Eco claims,

it is not essential [for beauty] that form should assume a materially concrete existence—and if it did, its beauty would still be like that of a word which is thought or an act which is intended. What is essential to form is rather that it determines organic wholeness in things… [F]orm in its simplest and, it would seem, most worthy aspects is pure organic structure.[2]

This formalism, however, represents only one half of an aporia that Eco locates at the heart of Thomas’s aesthetics, for if the bare “essence” of beauty can indeed be reduced to its mere form, it follows that

[e]verything other than this essential beauty is an extra richness—items arranged proportionately and constituents of the empirical fact of beauty… [I]n the last analysis these extra items increase the beauty and even determine how suitable it is for human experience… This distinction between beauty as a principle and beauty as a fact is found throughout Aquinas and is never completely resolved.[3]

An important consequence of this apparent tension in Thomas’s aesthetics is the debate that has waged over whether Thomas’s aesthetics ultimately stresses the subjective or the objective side of beauty, along with the related debate over whether or not beauty for Thomas technically qualifies as a true, transcendental property of being.[4]

[1] Eco, The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, 134 (emphasis added). See also Ibid., 87. In related fashion, Robert Wood has suggested that, in “Aquinas’s view that sight is the most ‘spiritual’ of the sense because it is filled with the object [ST 1.78.3]… [v]ision thus provides a kind of anticipation of the objectivity of intellect and points in the direction taken by Kant’s emphasis on the ‘disinterested satisfaction’ involved in aesthetic perception.” Wood, Placing Aesthetics, 108.

[2] Eco, The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, 87.

[3] Ibid., 88.

[4] On the question of the subjectivity versus the objectivity of Thomas’s aesthetics, Robert Delfino writes that the issue is “whether or not the perception of beauty is constitutive of beauty: Is beauty objective or subjective? Some scholars, Eco mentions Marc de Munnynck, have opted for the subjective interpretation. Eco and [Armand] Maurer answer that beauty is objective.” Delfino, “The Beauty of Wisdom: A Tribute to Armand Maurer,” 42. Liberato Santoro-Brienza points out that Thomas in fact defines beauty in both ways: when Thomas says in ST1.5.4 ad 1 that “beautiful things are those which please when seen,” “[t]his is an objective definition of beauty. The subject of the sentence is ‘the things’ that give pleasure when seen. The second definition is, in contrast, of a subjective character, focusing on the experiential side of the equation. ‘Let that be called beauty, the very apprehension of which pleases’ [ST1-2.27.1 ad 3]. Here, ‘apprehension’ is the subject of the sentence and is the cause of delight. If we seek the central ingredients of the mentioned definitions, we find that these are sight or vision (visio) and pleasure or delight (complacentia) in the first definition, and apprehension or sense perception (apprehension) and again pleasure or delight (complacentia), in the second definition.” Santoro-Brienza, “Art and Beauty in Antiquity and the Middle Ages,” 69. Rowan Williams, it may also be noted, has identified the same tension in Maritain’s interpretation of Aquinas’s aesthetics. Williams, Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love, 12-13.

Aquinas’s Kantian Music

Metaphysics of the Music, part 16

One of the implications of the abstract formalism of Thomas’s theory of music, and a point that will also have an important application to the Ainur’s Music of Tolkien’s creation-myth, concerns what some scholars have suggested is a kind of proto-Kantian, metaphysical “disinterest” involved in Thomas’s view of music in particular and his aesthetics in general. The concept of disinterest is a central tenet in the idealist aesthetics of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. According to Kant’s “Copernican Revolution” in epistemology, since we can never know things as they exist in themselves and apart from us (the noumena), but only as they appear to us (the phenomena), if true objectivity in knowledge is to be possible, it is to be found not in the mind’s conformity to the objects of its knowledge but in the known object’s conformity to the mind’s particular ways of knowing. Kant was led to a similarly extreme and idealistic theory of beauty, according to which the “pure” aesthetic experience is one that is entirely “disinterested” in the question of the object’s mind-independent existence, which can’t really be known and which therefore must be held to be irrelevant to the question of beauty. In detaching pure aesthetic pleasure from the question of the object’s existence in this way, Kant’s goal was to allow the object’s beauty to be enjoyed for its own sake and without threat of being subsumed within and exploited by what Kant held to be the alien, heteronomous needs or ulterior purposes of the perceiving subject. An example of such an “impure” aesthetic experience for Kant was what he called the “agreeable,” defined as anything that pleases the senses. By referencing the aesthetic experience to the senses, the agreeable causes the subject to take an “interest” in the thing’s existence, inasmuch as a thing must exist for it to have an effect on the senses. The consequence of such interest, however, is that in referencing it to one’s own self via the senses, the aesthetic experience ceases or fails to be something truly universal, autonomous, free, and rational, and becomes instead something narrowly human, subjective, heteronomous, and constrained. In such cases, the aesthetic object is treated not as an end to be contemplated, but as a means to be subordinated to dictates of the human subject’s sub-rational inclinations, with the result being that the independence of the aesthetic object is negated. For Kant, the pure aesthetic experience, by contrast, is one that is concerned only with the sheer structural or formal qualities of the object’s appearances and the state of cognitive free-play or balance these appearances help establish between the mind’s faculties of imagination and understanding.[1] Such objects or appearances are said to be truly “beautiful.” Over against the simply beautiful, however, Kant also distinguished an even more ineffable aesthetic experience which he labeled the “sublime,” in which the imagination is entirely, even violently overwhelmed by the immensity of the aesthetic object, or more accurately, by the immensity of the mind’s capacity to present an appearance in this concept-defying and awe-inspiring way.[2] In both the sublime and the beautiful, therefore, and consistent with Kant’s broader idealist epistemology, yet arguably revealing what we shall see for Tolkien is the metaphysically tragic motive latent within it, pure aesthetic pleasure is a function of the mind alone rather than of any supposed, extraneous and (aesthetically speaking) unnecessary relationship between the mind and an externally existing, mind-independent reality.

[1] On Kant’s aesthetics, see Wood, Placing Aesthetics: Reflections on the Philosophic Tradition, 117-151. As Kant himself explains his concept of disinterest: “But if the question is whether something is beautiful, what we want to know is not whether we or anyone cares, or so much as might care, in any way, about the thing’s existence, but rather how we judge it in our mere contemplation of it (intuition or reflection)…. All he [i.e., the inquirer into things concerning beauty] wants to know is whether my mere presentation of the object is accompanied by a liking, no matter how indifferent I may be about the existence of the object of this presentation. We can easily see that, in order for me to say that an object is beautiful, and to prove that I have taste, what matters is what I do with this presentation within myself, and not the [respect] in which I depend on the object’s existence. Everyone has to admit that if a judgment about beauty is mingled with the least interest then it is very partial and not a pure judgment of taste. In order to play the judge in matters of taste, we must not be in the least biased in favor of the thing’s existence but must be wholly indifferent about it.” Kant, The Critique of Judgment,45-6.

[2] “When we speak of the sublime in nature we speak improperly; properly speaking, sublimity can be attributed merely to our way of thinking, or, rather, to the foundation this has in human nature. What happens is merely that the apprehension of an otherwise formless and unpurposive object prompts us to become conscious of that foundation, so that what is subjectively purposive is the use we make of the object, and it is not the object itself that is judged to be purposive on account of its form.” Ibid., 142.

The Possible is the Beautiful: Tolkienian Fantasy and Thomistic Beauty

Previous posts have made the case that, for Tolkien, sub-creation at a fundamental level is a kind of “interpretation” of the divine mind and hence being. The question remains, however, as to how this theological perspective might practically inform the sub-creative act. One application, touched on already, is that “humility and an awareness of peril is required”: the function of sub-creation is to explore imaginatively the possible, which is to say, that which is creatable by and therefore imitable of God. As Tolkien implies in his letter to Peter Hastings, a “possible” or “efficacious” world is one that is “possibly acceptable to and by Him!” This means that the act of sub-creation is never a merely theoretical enterprise, a theologically neutral or indifferent speculation into the artistically or aesthetically possible. Rather, every sub-created reality is an implicit statement about who the Creator is and what he is like—a “perilous” venture indeed.

In his essay “On Fairy-Stories” Tolkien develops his criteria for distinguishing good from bad sub-creativity in the realm of Fantasy in more immediately aesthetic or artistic terms, yet the above account enables us to appreciate the theological subtext behind his remarks. As I argued in the series of posts on the role of faith and reason in Tolkien’s fiction, while the reader of a fairy-story must exercise the literary virtue of “secondary belief” when he voluntarily submits himself to the world of the author’s imagining, taking it on its own terms, the author at the same time has the responsibility of imbuing his sub-created, secondary worlds with the kind of “inner consistency of reality” that we find in our own world. The example Tolkien gives is that of a “green sun,” which is relatively easy to imagine but exceedingly difficult to render “credible.” In using the consistency of this world as a measure of any possible sub-created world, Tolkien reflects something of his own Thomistic “actualism,” his conviction, that is, that the world in its actuality is the standard for determining what is possible, and not vice-versa.[1]

On the other hand, Tolkien’s requirement that a sub-created world invite and sustain secondary belief by exhibiting the inner consistency of reality may be further appreciated as a literary application of Aquinas’s three conditions of beauty, namely integrity, harmony, and splendor. This parallel is brought out rather precisely in Rowan William’s summary of these three principles: “integrity, the inner ‘logic’ of a product; then ‘proportion’ or consonance, its harmony and adaptation to the observer’s receptive mind; then splendor or claritas, the active drawing-in of the observing mind.”[2] For Aquinas, any hypothesis that God can do something other than what he in fact does do must of necessity presuppose a context, an alternative potentia ordinata, in terms of which the actualization of that hypothesis might be rendered just or wise. In like manner, we find Tolkien here demanding that the fantastical inventions of a sub-creator be situated within a secondary world in which those inventions might be rendered proportionate. As with God’s own creativity, so with the finite maker’s sub-creativity: the possible is one with the beautiful. Similar to Aquinas, then, who essentially maintains that what God can do or make is the beautiful because only the beautiful has the nature of being and hence of possibility, Tolkien maintains that only an internally consistent and hence beautiful world is to be sub-created because only such a world is creatable by and imitable of the Creator himself. For both Thomas and Tolkien, in summary, every possible world is an ordered world, a world arranged and governed according to a rule or law, and so a world reflecting the justice, wisdom, and goodness of its actual or would-be Maker.[3]

[1] As Tolkien puts it in his essay, “[c]reative fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it” (TR 74-5).

[2] Williams, Grace and Necessity, 12.

[3] Randel Helms represents this fact well in an early study of Tolkien: “My point is that fantasy literature is based on an aesthetic as demanding and uncompromising as any realism. The realistic writer must, to maintain his credibility, make clear (however implicitly) how his events could have happened, for realism stands upon an ontology that grants reality only on a basis of cause-and-effect sequences. Fantasy stands upon a different theory of reality, but one demanding with equal rigor that the fantasist keep always in mind his aesthetic principles: that what happens in his world accord not with his daydreams nor with our own world’s laws of common sense, but with the peculiar laws of the sub-created cosmos.” Helms, Tolkien’s World, 77.