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.

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.