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Tag: An Experiment in Criticism

Moral Imagination: Beauty, Truth, and Goodness



Recently I wrote about literature
as being capable of conveying, and even discovering, truth,
which can be
called “poetic knowledge.” Both Aristotle
and St Thomas Aquinas upheld a similar view, Aristotle by demonstrating that
poetry is “more philosophical” (i.e., more capable of demonstrating truth) than
history, and St Thomas acknowledging poetry as a kind of “science” (scientia) or knowledge, albeit a lower
form of knowledge than philosophy because it relies more on imagination than intellect.
Today I’d like to consider the value of beauty, an abstract value, but one that
we often associate with poetry, as well as music and the fine arts.
beautiful dew drops on clover leaf

Beauty lifts us up

My thoughts are prompted by this interesting feature article
from the National Catholic Register, “True
Beauty Satisfies the Human Heart,”
an interview by Trent Beattie of
psychologist Margaret Laracy, who identifies beauty as a kind of knowledge.
Laracy has made a study of the healing effects of beauty on those suffering
from mental illness. Since she is one of the few scholars to study seriously
the effects of beauty, she first had to arrive at a satisfactory definition of “beauty”
before she could study it; as a starting point she turns to St Thomas Aquinas,
the great definer of abstract truths. Thomas identified three essential
qualities of beauty: clarity (the luminosity or illumination communicated by the
object of perception), harmony (the right ordering of the parts of the object),
and integrity (the wholeness of the object’s luminosity and harmony which, in
synthesis, elicit repose and contemplation). Through its integrity, beauty calls
us to contemplation, and thereby leads us beyond the beautiful object to the
greater beauty of which it is but one instance. (This reminds me of what
C. S. Lewis said of “good books”
– that they enlarge us.) Dr. Laracy does
not cite St Augustine in her
discussion of beauty, but she well might: Augustine would say that in
contemplating the creature (beautiful object) one is drawn to the Creator
(God). In this way, I would say, beauty can provide not merely mental but
also spiritual healing.

Thinking about Thomas’s three essential marks of beauty, I
was reminded of an experience I once had in an art museum. Many years ago, I
was in the Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art, probably more out of morbid
curiosity than for aesthetic pleasure. In those days (and still) I found most
of what is classified as “modern” art to be incomprehensible and repugnant,
sometimes even laughable. (In fact, I can remember at least one occasion on
which I was all but physically expelled from the Modern by a docent who didn’t
like my jeering commentary on the exhibits.) I guess, in Thomas’s terms, I found
that the “artworks” being exhibited failed on almost every point – for
instance, a pile of stones of nondescript stones did not communicate anything
in particular; patrons were invited to rearrange them as they liked, so there
was no inherent harmony; and there certainly was no integrity, since the
implication was that the “artwork” was always unfinished (although patrons were
exhorted not to take any of the stones away). The only thing it led me to
contemplate was why the heck the museum would present such dreck as “art.”

A visceral reaction

Perhaps the same day I saw the pile of stones at the Modern
(or some other day altogether), I wandered into an open gallery containing
sculpture that immediately arrested my attention. I imagine there were a number
of pieces displayed there, but I remember only one. It was fairly large (say
about the size of a large man sitting with his knees drawn up), and seemed to chrome-plated
(it was probably polished aluminum), abstract in form, a twisted, highly
reflective mass suggesting (to my imagination, anyway) tangled car bumpers, which
I found mesmerizing and repellent. I would stare at it for a few moments and
then rush out of the room, but come back a few minutes later to peer at it in
horrid fascination from a different angle. I felt an incoherent, but insistant,
impulse to find a curator and demand that the sculpture be taken away.
Eventually, I left the museum feeling inexplicably distressed and nauseated.

I remember asking myself what it was about the sculpture
that provoked such a strongly negative response and could not articulate a
reason other than to think, as I looked at the sculpture, “It’s just wrong! It’s
a lie!” Had I been foolhardy enough to say such a thing to a curator, I
undoubtedly would have been told that there is no “right” or “wrong” about art,
that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and what I found repellent someone
else would find enchanting. If anyone had suggested as much, I would have
replied, “Then anyone who likes that thing has something seriously wrong with
Winged Victory of Samothrace
Winged Victory of Samothrace
I can’t remember any other work of art that elicited such a vivid
sense of repulsion, but I have had at least one other encounter with sculpture
that provoked an equally viscerally, but completely opposite, reaction. I was
visiting the Louvre Museum in Paris and, after spending two or three hours
perusing the paintings on the ground floor, realized that the museum would be
closing in less than an hour and I hadn’t even gotten upstairs yet. I was
rushing toward the large double staircase that led to the upper floor when I
was stopped as suddenly as if I had run into an invisible wall. Dazed, I looked
around to see what had stopped me, and found myself gazing at a sculpture that
I had seen many times in photographs without finding it very impressive: the
famous Nike, Winged
Victory of Samothrace
You’re probably familiar with the image: a female torso that
seems to be striding forward, wearing those formless drapey garments often
found on Greek figures, with large, backswept wings sprouting from the shoulder
blades. The statue has been badly battered, with the arms (probably once
outswept like the wings) and the head completely missing. Still, it was, quite
literally, breathtakingly arresting; it had stopped me dead in my tracks, while
my attention was elsewhere. As I looked at it, I felt indescribably
exhilarated: I could feel the wind rushing against Nike’s glorious form,
sweeping back her gown and unfurling her great wings; I even felt I could see
her hair blowing back, her eyes gleaming, her triumphant smile dazzling –
although the statue’s head has never been found. I doubt I even noticed that
she was standing on the prow of a ship, yet I could feel the rush of air
against her body and lifting her wings. She seemed to me to be alive and in
vigorous motion, and yet she was only a broken lump of stone carved by some anonymous
craftsman two thousand years ago.

Beauty and Truth

These two sculptures – the deliberately twisted, highly
polished metal one at the Fort Worth Modern and the badly battered hunk of
marble at the Louvre in Paris –
both evinced from me strong, visceral reactions that I can’t fully explain. The
former, modern work was undoubtedly beautifully crafted according to the
sculptor’s intent, but it struck me as horrifically false and wrong, highly-polished
but somehow ugly and obscene. If we judge it according to St Thomas’s “essential”
criteria of beauty, it has none: it does possess a certain clarity or luminosity
(at least, it is very shiny and smooth), but it is so disharmonious as to
suggest a car crash; the (apparently deliberate) disharmony opposes the clarity
(if that is what we can call its smooth shininess) that the work does not seem
to posses integrity, indeed its clarity seems to belie its disharmony, making
it seem false and wrong, and to evince a feeling of dis-ease, rather than

On the other hand, while the mutilated form of the Rhodian
sculpture might make its maker weep with frustration if he could see it today, it
nonetheless remains incredibly beautiful, radiating life, movement, and exultant
emotion that can quite literally stop a person in her tracks. Its clarity is
such that the sculpture almost seems to be lit from within, not with actual
light but with life itself; even though many portions of the sculpture are
broken off and lost, what remains is unified by a profound harmony, despite its
broken state; the clarity and harmony of the object imbue it with an pervasive
integrity that make the viewer feel as if somehow the essence of Life itself
has been given exuberant form.
By Thomas’s standards then, the modern metal sculpture lacks
the criteria of beauty, and my negative reaction to it suggests that, for all
its careful craftsmanship and smooth surfaces, I was not wrong to find it quite
the opposite of beautiful. The Winged Victory of Samothrace, however, seems to
possess all the hallmarks of beauty, in spades, and certainly it left me
feeling “enlarged,” enriched for having seen it. (Even today, more than thirty
years later, I feel exhilarated as I remember seeing the Winged Victory.) Its
beauty did not depend on “integrity” in the most literal sense, since many
parts of the original are missing, which just goes to show that integrity
itself is something more than material and literal completeness; yet, its
beauty does somehow seem to depend on
direct experience, as no photograph of it that I have seen before or since was
able to do more than hint at the great vitality of the sculpture.
ugly metallic sculpture
The dog seems to have the right idea,
to treat it as a toilet.
All of this serves to show that there does seem to be, despite
what so much modern “culture” insists, that there is a strong identification
between beauty and truth. However, it also seems to be true that our faculties
for perceiving and recognizing both beauty and truth must be honed, so that we
are not led astray by, for example, smooth shiny objects that appeal to our
senses without illuminating our souls. And, if we can recognize the
identification between beauty and truth, it is not difficult to see (as Dr.
Laracy’s study of beauty and mental health suggests) that regular exposure to
beauty can also help us to be whole and healthy, to be good. This in turn suggests
that we should, on principle, avoid spending our time on ugliness, just as we
should avoid lies and wickedness.

Reading and the Moral Imagination: Aristotle and C. S. Lewis

girl reading a book
Doing this in public could earn you funny looks.

If you are a reader of books (not just blogs), these days you are apparently in the minority. Some alarming statistics I’ve run into on various web sites claim that:

  • 1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
  • 42 percent of college graduates never read another book after college.
  • 80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year.
  • 70 percent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.

    Today’s column by Fr. James Schall on The Catholic Thing suggests that one reason young people don’t read much any more is that they are tethered to their cell phones, which constantly demand their attention, making it impossible (unlikely, at least) for them to devote themselves to reading or sustain reflection — these days, college students hit the beach with their “smart phones,” not paperback novels. Fr. Schall goes on to comment that he is not encouraged by the current fad for “electronic books” that can be read off of computer and smartphone screens, a view that I share. I’ll let you read for yourself his reasoning. (What do you mean, you don’t read The Catholic Thing? Why on earth not? They publish a new and thought-provoking essay each day, by an impressive variety of excellent Catholic thinkers.)

    Fiction matters

    Schall mentions all this as a lead-up to his consideration of a question that I think is an important one: Does it matter if we read fiction? (Notice, he does not insist that it be “important literature” or “timeless classics,” just “fiction,” including poetry.) I think the answer is, “Absolutely, yes!” I know plenty of people who think of themselves as “readers,” but proudly proclaim, “Oh, I only read non-fiction,” as if that were a virtue. On the contrary, I can’t help but think of it as a character defect, revealing an undeveloped moral imagination. Why? Well, Aristotle gave an answer that I think is as valid today as it was nearly 2,400 years ago, in his Poetics. Aristotle, of course, was a philosopher, not a poet, but he believed in the ethical value of poetry (by which he meant what we mean by “literature” — in his day, all “fiction” was written in poetic verse). Comparing poetry (“fiction”) to history (“nonfiction”), he says:

    It is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen — what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims … (Poetics IX)

    So it looks like Aristotle would not have been too impressed by those people who proudly proclaim that they read only “nonfiction.” 

    C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, Canto edition

    But, one might ask, was Aristotle right in claiming that “poetry” is a “high and philosophical thing”? And if so, why? I would say yes, if we recognize that, while his use of the term “poetry” would include literary fiction generally, it probably would not extend to pulp fiction (the sort of mass-produced schlock that keeps many booksellers in business, for which there was no analogue in Aristotle’s day). I think that Aristotle had in mind something more like what C. S. Lewis, in his An Experiment in Criticism, classified as “good books.” Lewis proposed that we define “good books” not by something inherent in the book but by what sort of reading it provokes and rewards. A “good” book is the one that allows the reader to find something new with each reading and re-reading, to which the reader returns time and again, a story that provokes reflection, and rewards reflection with discovery, which in turn causes delight. Good books provoke good reading, taking us out of ourselves while we read and returning us to ourselves, at the end of our reading, somehow enlarged:

    One of the things we feel after reading a great work is “I have got out.” Or from another point of view, “I have got in”; pierced the shell of some other monad and discovered what it is like inside. … We therefore delight to enter into other men’s beliefs (those, say, of Lucretius or Lawrence) even though we think them untrue.  And into their passions, though we think them depraved, like those, sometimes, of Marlowe or Carlyle. And also into their imaginations, though they lack all realism of content.

    This is not to say that to say, of course, that a good book cannot be read badly; rather, the important distinction is that good books “permit” a reading that enlarges the reader, whereas bad books make such reading impossible. The good book meets Aristotle’s criterion of being “philosophical”because it allows us to gain new insight into some truth about the human condition, the way of the world, etc.

    People who don’t read suffer from anorexia of the imagination

    Matthias Stom,  Young Man Reading by Candlelight
    With free books and free reading apps for every gadget,
    there’s no excuse not to read.

    None of this is to say, however, that every work of fiction we read should be “good” (using Lewis’s terminology) or “philosophical” (using Aristotle’s), any more than every bite we eat has to be “healthy” or “nutritious.” If we want to carry this food analogy a little further, however, we would have to acknowledge that, much as a complete lack of appetite for food indicates some underlying illness, and prolonged fasting will, in the end, prove deadly, in a similar way, it is not healthy for an otherwise civilized person never to read a book, or to regard reading (as too many students do!) as simply a necessary evil that must be performed to survive, a bitter medicine that must be swallowed. Avid readers are baffled by people who never read, in much the same was as people who delight in healthy, delicious, well-prepared food are baffled by anorexics, or those who never eat anything but tasteless processed junk.

    The fact that even college-educated adults quit reading books as soon as they are able suggests that our schools and colleges do a very poor job of teaching the delight of reading tales well told, and that many parents set a bad example by never reading books themselves. What can or should be done about that is a separate question, and outside the scope of this blog. The delight and benefits of reading, however is a topic that I’d like to pursue further, so I’ll undoubtedly return to the question of why reading fiction is good for you.

    ©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas

    Please leave your thoughts or comments below!