Art and Beauty Jacques Maritain

June 17, 2011

Detail of a Peacock Feather

 Saint Thomas, who was as simple as he was wise, defined the beautiful as that which, being seen, pleases: id quod visum placet.[Summa Theologica I, 5,4, ad 1] These four words say all that is necessary: a vision, that is to say, an intuitive knowledge, and a delight. The beautiful is what gives delight — not just any delight, but delight in knowing; not the delight peculiar to the act of knowing, but a delight which superabounds and overflows from this act because of the object known. If a thing exalts and delights the soul by the very fact that it is given to the soul’s intuition, it is good to apprehend, it is beautiful.

Beauty is essentially an object of intelligence, for that which knows in the full sense of the word is intelligence, which alone is open to the infinity of being. The natural place of beauty is the intelligible world, it is from there that it descends. But it also, in a way, falls under the grasp of the senses, in so far as in man they serve the intellect and can themselves take delight in knowing: “Among all-the senses, it is to the sense of sight and the sense of hearing only that the beautiful relates, because these two senses are maxime cognoscitivi.”

The part played by the senses in the perception of beauty is even rendered enormous in us, and well-nigh indispensable, by the very fact that our intelligence is not intuitive, as is the intelligence of the angel; it sees, to be sure, but on condition of abstracting and discoursing; only sense knowledge possesses perfectly in man the intuitiveness required for the perception of the beautiful. Thus man can doubtless enjoy purely intelligible beauty, but the beautiful that is connatural to man is the beautiful that delights the intellect through the senses and through their intuition. Such is also the beautiful that is proper to our art, which shapes a sensible matter in order to delight the spirit. It would thus like to believe that paradise is not lost. It has the savor of the terrestrial paradise, because it restores, for a moment, the peace and the simultaneous delight of the intellect and the senses.

If beauty delights the intellect, it is because it is essentially a certain excellence or perfection in the proportion of things to the intellect. Hence the three conditions Saint Thomas assigned to beauty: integrity, because the intellect is pleased in fullness of Being; proportion, because the intellect is pleased in order and unity; finally, and above all, radiance or clarity, because the intellect is pleased in light and intelligibility. A certain splendor is, in fact, according to all the ancients, the essential characteristic of beauty — claritas est de ratione pulchritudinis, lux pulchrificat, quia sine luce omnia suns turpia [Commentary in Psalms, Ps. XXV,5] — but it is a splendor of intelligibility: splendor veri, said the Platonists; splendor ordinis, said Saint Augustine, adding that “unity is the form of all beauty”; splendor formae, said Saint Thomas in his precise metaphysician’s language: for the form, that is to say, the principle which constitutes the proper perfection of all that is, which constitutes and achieves things in their essences and qualities, which is, finally, if one may so put it, the ontological secret that they bear within them, their spiritual being, their operating mystery  — the form, indeed, is above all the proper principle of intelligibility, the proper clarity of every thing.

Besides, every form is a vestige or a ray of the creative Intelligence imprinted at the heart of created being. On the other hand, every order and every proportion is the work of intelligence. And so, to say with the Schoolmen that beauty is the splendor of the form on the proportioned parts of matter, is to say that it is a flashing of intelligence on a matter intelligibly arranged. The intelligence delights in the beautiful because in the beautiful it finds itself again and recognizes itself, and makes contact with its own light. This is so true that those — such as Saint Francis of Assisi — perceive and savor more the beauty of things, who know that things come forth from an intelligence, and who relate them to their author.

Every sensible beauty implies, it is true, a certain delight of the eye itself or of the ear or the imagination: but there is beauty only if the intelligence also takes delight in some way. A beautiful color “washes the eye,” just as a strong scent dilates the nostril; but of these two “forms” or qualities color only is said to be beautiful, because, being received, unlike the perfume, in a sense power capable of disinterested knowledge,”” it can be, even through its purely sensible brilliance, an object of delight for the intellect. Moreover, the higher the level of man’s culture, the more spiritual becomes the brilliance of the form that delights him.

It is important, however, to note that in the beautiful that we have called connatural to man, and which is proper to human art, this brilliance of the form, no matter how purely intelligible it may be in itself, is seized in the sensible and through the sensible, and not separately from it. The intuition of artistic beauty thus stands at the opposite extreme from the abstraction of scientific truth. For with the former it is through the very apprehension of the sense that the light of being penetrates the intelligence.

The intelligence in this case, diverted from all effort of abstraction, rejoices without work and without discourse. It is dispensed from its usual labor; it does not have to disengage an intelligible from the matter in which it is buried, in order to go over its different attributes step by step; like a stag at the gushing spring, intelligence has nothing to do but drink; it drinks the clarity of being. Caught up in the intuition of sense, it is irradiated by an intelligible light that is suddenly given to it, in the very sensible in which it glitters, and which it does not seize sub ratione veri, but rather sub ratione delectabilis, through the happy release procured for the intelligence and through the delight ensuing in the appetite, which leaps at every good of the soul as at its proper object. Only afterwards will it be able to reflect more or less successfully upon the causes of this delight.

Thus, although the beautiful borders on the metaphysical true, in the sense that every splendor of intelligibility in things implies some conformity with the Intelligence that is the cause of things, nevertheless the beautiful is not a kind of truth, but a kind of good; the perception of the beautiful relates to knowledge, but by way of addition, comme a la jeunesse s’ajoute sa leur; it is not so much a kind of knowledge as a kind of delight.

The beautiful is essentially delightful. This is why, of its very nature and precisely as beautiful, it stirs desire and produces love, whereas the true as such only illumines.Omnibus igitur est pulchrum et bonum desiderabile et amabile et diligibile.”  It is for its beauty that Wisdom is loved. And it is for itself that every beauty is first loved, even if afterwards the too weak flesh is caught in the trap. Love in its turn produces ecstasy, that is to say, it puts the lover outside of himself; ecstasy, of which the soul experiences a diminished form when it is seized by the beauty of the work of art, and the fullness when it is absorbed, like the dew, by the beauty of God.

And of God Himself, according to Denis the Areopagite, we must be so bold as to say that He suffers in some way ecstasy of love, because of the abundance of His goodness which leads Him to diffuse in all things a participation of His splendor. But God’s love causes the beauty of what He loves, whereas our love is caused by the beauty of what we love.

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  1. That beauty cannot be ascribed to smell and taste and touch is beyond me. Usually this is indeed so, but I think the blind can attest to “the scent of a woman” and describe it as beautiful. Perhaps those of us with all senses merely have not focused our attention correctly.
    Also, beauty seems culturally defined as well. The phenomenon of Japanese aesthetics upon the notion of beauty as inherent within its own impermanence comes to mind.
    Far from beauty being of knowing, I wonder if it is instead of mystery. Comparing two identical objects, one natural, one artificial, which can be said to inhere beauty? The natural one, I attest. Why? Because we know it not; it is mysterious, it partakes of something–life–which we know nothing of. Yet there are non-living things which we say are beautiful (the night sky, the ocean, a rock scape), yet I wonder if we still believe that creation (life) is somehow involved within these things and so this gives them beauty.

    • Roger Scruton seems to answer your question here: “Tastes and smells are not capable of the kind of systematic organization that turns sounds into words and tones. We can relish them, but only in a sensual way that barely engages our imagination or our thought. They are, so to speak, insufficiently intellectual to prompt the interest in beauty.” See his essay here: http://tiny.cc/v1hqs
      Thanks so much for perceptive your comment

  2. May share this in Facebook?

    • Yes, of course.

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