Archive for the ‘Aesthetics’ Category


The God of Beauty 2 – Paul Johnson

March 4, 2014
There is, indeed, a certain holiness about the body, in both its male and its female varieties, and it is with some reverence that we should approach it -- there is a connection with the divine. That was the spirit in which William Etty, an artist I much admire, approached the nude. He worked on it all his life and, though he attained remarkable proficiency in both drawing and painting human flesh -- no English artist ever did it better -- he was never content. He continued to attend life-classes at the Royal Academy right to the end of his life, sitting among the students and not too proud to receive their critical comments on his work, or to listen to the presiding master. I possess some of the results of his dedicated industry and value them as evidence not just of his skill, but of his determination to improve it. There is no better way to serve God.

There is, indeed, a certain holiness about the body, in both its male and its female varieties, and it is with some reverence that we should approach it — there is a connection with the divine. That was the spirit in which William Etty, an artist I much admire, approached the nude. He worked on it all his life and, though he attained remarkable proficiency in both drawing and painting human flesh — no English artist ever did it better — he was never content. He continued to attend life-classes at the Royal Academy right to the end of his life, sitting among the students and not too proud to receive their critical comments on his work, or to listen to the presiding master. I possess some of the results of his dedicated industry and value them as evidence not just of his skill, but of his determination to improve it. There is no better way to serve God.


It was Wordsworth who pointed out that a poor man is just as capable of enjoying beauty, and putting it high in his scale of values, as a rich man. The poor of West Africa, who have little but their native pride, may well be happy to observe that their small country is capable of creating a cathedral on the scale of Europe’s largest, and that the black African can pay his or her tribute to Almighty God just as munificently as the white Westerner.

The 8,000 medieval parish churches which we still possess in England — the greatest single item in our national dowry of art – were built and paid for by a society most of whose members had few material possessions. They now constitute a monument to their generosity and magnanimity, which we will continue to use and enjoy so long as we have the sense to preserve them. They give us as much satisfaction as they give to God, for whose glory they were erected. And do not the souls of those medieval men and women, now in Heaven, rejoice that their churches, created with so much sacrifice, still sound forth God’s praises?

Early in the century, both the Protestant and the Catholic communities of Liverpool, a city then famous for its religious fervor, decided to build new cathedrals. Paradoxically, the Protestants chose a gifted young Catholic architect, Giles Gilbert Scott, and he produced for them the design of a masterpiece in Edwardian Gothic. With prodigies of effort, the work was financed and built, and finally completed in the 1980s, long after sponsors and architect were in their graves — as usually happens in the case of cathedrals.

But this marvelous building, the finest erected in Europe this century, survives to do them honor, and to honor too the resolution and faith of the Anglican Church in Liverpool. The Catholics of the Edwardian age also chose a fine architect: the great Sir Edwin Lutyens, an Anglican by conviction but a Catholic by artistic sentiment. He designed a glorious church, on the scale of St Peter’s, in the most sumptuous Baroque, to be built of marble. This was an even greater labor and expense than the Anglican cathedral, but the immense crypt was in due course completed. Then came the war, which halted construction.

Some time after the war, Archbishop Heenan — later cardinal — estimating that the cost of completing the project was more than the Catholics of Liverpool could bear, decided not to complete it. Instead he commissioned and built a much cheaper thing, by a meretricious Modern Movement architect, with a peculiar tent-like roof, which has led the jeering Protestants of the city to christen it ‘Paddy’s Wigwam’.

The Catholics, who were barely consulted by Heenan in making his decision, now hang their heads in shame that they must worship in such a hovel, already showing signs of decay. They are indeed poor, but they would have found the money for Lutyens’ magnificent basilica. I reproached Heenan at the time, as being a man of little faith.

I told him about the church which our parish priest had insisted on building, against much advice, when I was a child, and how the money had been found to complete it. He expressed contrition, and maybe it is still not too late to resurrect Lutyens’ ambitious scheme, for the glory of God in the dawning twenty-first century. We shall see.

In the meantime, there can be little doubt that among the most privileged of human beings are those who have the honor to erect a great church to God. They must be considered the most fortunate of artists, and dearest to their maker. Most, as I say, do not live to see their work finished, Michelangelo and Brunelleschi being among their number. But there are exceptions. Sir Christopher Wren designed the new St Paul’s, supervised its main construction, and lived to see it completed.

This immense work brought him little material reward, caused him endless heartache and anxiety, brought him opprobrium and eventually dismissal, and received surprisingly little recognition in his lifetime. But at least he saw it finished, and thereafter he came once a year, to sit under its dome, to pray, to meditate and to rejoice. Those must have been cherished moments – both to him and to God.

However, no good purpose is served by designating a hierarchy of God’s favor for creative geniuses. All artists endear themselves to him by depicting his creations to the best of their ability. Painters are often genuinely pious men and women, despite their wild notions about the Deity. It is common among them to kneel down and pray in dedication before beginning a canvas, and kneel down in gratitude when they have completed it. Sometimes they have misgivings about their failure to use their talents exclusively to praise and explain God’s works – thus Botticelli, one of the purest and most gifted of them all, came bitterly to regret his secular works, with their voluptuousness and riot. He is even said to have destroyed some.

But that was foolish – as foolish as the iconoclasts who, in most faiths, Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Islamic, have gone around destroying works of art in churches, as vain, idolatrous and blasphemous. It is not for any one or any group of us to decide that people have been wrong to worship God in their chosen fashion.

Far more likely it is that God takes particular pleasure in seeing our attempts to use our skills to replicate the beauty he has created. God is the greatest of all connoisseurs. All my life I have been a landscape painter, after a fashion, as my father was before me. I now regret not having painted more, but I chose to earn my living by writing and the demands of that trade are exigent and for many years I painted little. During the last decade I have tried to make up for lost opportunities by painting what I see wherever I go in the world, even if I only have a few snatched minutes for a quick sketch. The results have been rewarding far in excess of my expectations.

Not only have I accumulated a large stock of sketches and finished paintings, from all continents, but the quality of the rendering has improved. I feel, increasingly, that I am painting for God, as much as for myself and my friends. God gave me this certain, limited talent, and I am serving him by seeking to improve it while making a record of what he has created in the world. To me at any rate, painting is prayerful. It is also one of the most innocent of enjoyments. And it instructs. There is no doubt that painting forces us to look very closely at what God has done and so to grasp the design of nature, just as painting a building gives us a marvelous insight into the intentions of the architect.

Hills and mountains, rivers and waterfalls and lakes do not just come into existence haphazardly. They are formed over long periods by powerful natural forces, and studying them closely while painting enables one to understand these processes and so paint better. No one who spends long hours and days painting landscapes can be without considerable knowledge of the way God has made the world, and of the relationships between beauty and purpose in natural forms.

For a long time I was singularly inept in drawing, and still more painting, trees, so that I almost despaired of them. But they are among the finest of God’s creations – noble things, so full of majesty and honor, and so varied. So I persevered and made a special, painstaking study of their structure, and at long last I began to understand how God designed them, and how it was their functional efficiency which made them works of natural art. So I improved and now take enormous pleasure in painting trees, albeit with occasional failures still.

What I have undoubtedly neglected is the human form. I like to put figures in my landscapes, as my father taught me, just to indicate scale, and I am often ashamed at how poor they are. So I often tell myself that I must go back to life-class and really master the human form by drawing it patiently and industriously. So far this has not happened, and the months and years go by, and I realize yet again the importance of resolution and persistence and will-power in all schemes of human improvement. I say to myself now: ‘I will find time to carry out this resolve, as soon as I have finished this book.’ For who can deny that the human form is in many ways the finest of God’s works of art?

The scriptures tell us that God created man in his own image. We do not know exactly what this means, and it certainly cannot mean that God looks like a man in an ordinary visual sense. We are left with a mystery, but perhaps we can begin to solve it by studying and painting the human form with the diligence its radiant beauties merit. There is, indeed, a certain holiness about the body, in both its male and its female varieties, and it is with some reverence that we should approach it — there is a connection with the divine.

That was the spirit in which William Etty, an artist I much admire, approached the nude. He worked on it all his life and, though he attained remarkable proficiency in both drawing and painting human flesh — no English artist ever did it better — he was never content. He continued to attend life-classes at the Royal Academy right to the end of his life, sitting among the students and not too proud to receive their critical comments on his work, or to listen to the presiding master. I possess some of the results of his dedicated industry and value them as evidence not just of his skill, but of his determination to improve it. There is no better way to serve God.

Studying the works of God and trying to reproduce them visually brings us close to our creator. It is one way to know him. But it may be that the musician gets even closer. The universe is an exercise in harmony as much as in shape and colour and texture, and none can doubt that there are celestial sounds as well as visions. Then again, all creation is a series of abstractions as muchas a series of material realities, and these abstractions can be expressed musically as well as mathematically and algebraically.

Composing, reproducing and hearing sounds of exquisite beauty and profundity can give us extraordinary insights not just into beauty, but into goodness itself. After hearing a great symphony, telling us, but entirely in abstract terms, of truth and justice and heroism, we arise better men and women. The musicians in the orchestra feel it, the conductor feels it, the listeners feel it. The mood may not last, but it is much to have felt it at all. It is akin to the lifting of the heart and spirit we experience at a religious ceremony when we have concentrated our thoughts well and meditated deeply. So music works on our minds, and God listens too.

It must be a fine thing to have composed the music which has so held players and audience and so raised their minds to God. That is why, I think, Jean Sibelius told me, in the summer of 1949, ‘to compose is often an agony but it is the quintessence of privilege too’. Many composers have been deeply religious people, humbly rejoicing in this privilege — none more so than Joseph Haydn, whose long, industrious and painstaking life, so modestly conducted amid so many difficulties and setbacks, is a model of artistic integrity in God’s service.

Or there is the case of Anton Bruckner, childlike and wholly innocent in his devotion to God, who spent so many hours seated at the organ, alone with his music and his maker, and then poured forth his prayers in vast symphonies, few of which he ever heard performed. His ninth, last and greatest he dedicated, quite simply: ‘To Almighty God’.

In contrast to architects, painters and composers, writers have a mixed record in God’s service. They are so numerous and varied that it is risky to generalize in any way, but it is remarkable how many writers, in all civilisations, have tended to take a critical view of established order and sought to subvert it. It is probably the single most striking characteristic of the mind which wishes to express itself through the written word.

Now, of course, in subverting order they may be carrying out God’s purpose, and there are plenty of instances in the Old Testament where that is exactly what its more passionate writers are doing. But I have spent my entire working life among writers and I know very well that the cast of mind which they habitually possess, and which harbors huge resentments of the world as it exists, is not necessarily motivated by selfless altruism. To praise God is not usually the writer’s intention in picking up a pen or sitting down in front of a word-processor. More likely it is to express a grievance or work off a resentment or articulate a personal longing or simply to rage — in addition to making money, of course. Writers are sinful and fallen and unsatisfactory man writ large.

It will be, for me at least, one of the great points of interest of the next world to see how God, in his justice, sorts out all the giants and pygmies of the pen. How will Voltaire fare? Some Christian polemicists write as if he were already in Hell, but I am not so sure. A man’s writings have to be judged in their effects, if any, over many generations, and these may be contradictory and, in aggregate, difficult to assess. We may be sure God will do them justice, however, and this may often in the end surprise us.

Where will he place Tolstoy, that astonishing combination of humility and arrogance, wisdom and madness, piety and destruction? He will have difficulty with Milton, too, who sought — so he said — to justify the ways of God to men and ended by writing a masterpiece whose hero was Satan. I do not know how Shelley will fare, he who professed atheism and practised a kind of exalted pantheism, who preached socialism and was a monster of personal selfishness. The fact is, nevertheless, that men and women have been uplifted and inspired by Shelley’s poetry and become better people in consequence.

How will God reward or punish, sanctify or damn the immense mass of gifted men and women who have given contradictory messages to the modern world? All will come up for judgment – the Baudelaires and the Hugos, the Hemingways and the Joyces, a mad genius like Ezra Pound and a calculating operator like Zola, the reckless like Rimbaud and the thoughtful like Emerson, the sinners like Byron and the saints like Chesterton.

I cannot imagine how God will arrange Sartre and Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein and Rilke, Yeats and Lorca in any order of sanctification or devilry which makes sense. But it will undoubtedly be carried out: therein lie the fascinating things to come. What evil have their writings done — then and since? What good — in their lifetimes and thereafter? The heavenly computers will whirr and deliver and the notices of judgment will be posted, and the writers, disheveled, apprehensive, ashamed or defiant, struggling or abject, will be brought out to be given their laurels or punished, in front of all the watching world.

But there are also those writers who have not sought to tell the world what to do, to create Utopias out of their own unaided intellects and incited people into trying to bring them about, but instead have simply set themselves to portray God’s universe and his people in loving words. They will have a smooth passage through the storms of that tremendous judgment day. There are writers who, by their modest genius, or even merely by their carefully husbanded and honed talents, have sought chiefly to enable their readers to see God’s creation with fresh eyes — have taught us to look, again and again, at the world around us and the way humans behave.

To teach us about the universe, to encourage us to explore and value and treat tenderly all its manifestations and inhabitants, is a salient work of art in itself and an act of worship. Such writers are dear to God, and they are valuable to us too: for the understanding and reverence we bring to the world around us is a salient part of our duty, as we are beginning to discover.


The God of Beauty 1 – Paul Johnson

March 3, 2014
The Catholic ruler of a West African state has been much abused for building in his capital a huge cathedral only slightly smaller in size than St Peter's itself. He should, it is argued, have spent the money on the poor, with whom his country is plentifully provided. But it may be that the poor in West Africa rejoice in this immense creation. In my observation and reading of history, the poor love cathedrals and always have done and will continue to do so. A cathedral is something a poor man or woman can visit and share with God.

The Catholic ruler of a West African state has been much abused for building in his capital a huge cathedral only slightly smaller in size than St Peter’s itself. He should, it is argued, have spent the money on the poor, with whom his country is plentifully provided. But it may be that the poor in West Africa rejoice in this immense creation. In my observation and reading of history, the poor love cathedrals and always have done and will continue to do so. A cathedral is something a poor man or woman can visit and share with God.

Jesuit educated (at the Jesuit independent school Stonyhurst College, and at Magdalen College, Oxford ) Paul Bede Johnson is an English journalist, historian, speechwriter and author. He was educated. Johnson first came to prominence in the 1950s as a journalist writing for, and later editing, the New Statesman magazine. I’ve enjoyed several of his more than 40 books (Intellectuals, Modern Times, The Birth of the Modern). This is a chapter from a little gem of a book, The Quest for God.


When I was a child, I always associated the notion of God with beauty. There were several reasons for this. The first was that, in our house, the only things which seemed to matter, which were treated as important, were religion, education and art. My father was headmaster of an art school, and a practicing painter. He produced watercolors mainly, but also etchings, drypoints, lithographs and other kinds of prints, and at his schools the pupils were instructed in sculpture and pottery as well. In our house was an art room (it was always called that, not a studio, regarded as an un-English expression), where my father worked.

Art and education were intermingled and both were sacrosanct. My father’s very limited resources were primarily devoted to the education of his children, and great significance was attached to our schooling, and our performance at school. But even more important was religion: that is, attending church, prayers, holy pictures and statues, fasting and abstinence, keeping the commandments and pious practices. I became aware of this order of priorities at a very early age.

The second reason I associated God with beauty was our local church. Shortly before I was born, our parish priest, an ambitious and energetic man, decided to build a new church and bought a virgin site, not far from our house. He consulted my father at every stage of this undertaking, from the original design, throughout the construction, and during the completion and decoration of the building. The church was conceived on the largest possible scale. No architect was employed, but our priest, sometimes accompanied by my father, travelled in Europe to look for models, and eventually hit on a compromise between two which had taken his fancy.

So the church had a large Gothic tower joined to a series of Romanesque domes, and three-and-one-half in number, the half-dome covering the high altar, and the other three the nave. The edifice was built of stone and in order to carry its immense weight, in a part of Staffordshire riddled with old mine-workings and liable to subsidence, a thick raft of concrete was placed under the foundations.

Most local Catholics did not believe in the ability of the parish to carry through and finance this immense undertaking — and non-Catholics were scandalized by our audacity and pride. Even my father was worried by the responsibility of it all, and by many other aspects of the design and construction. But our priest was a man possessed by a vision and he was determined to carry it through, no matter what.

And he did carry it through, at remarkable speed. The main construction period coincided with the Great Depression, when there were thousands out of work in the neighborhood and the evidence of dire poverty was everywhere. This made it more difficult to borrow money or to raise funds to finance what was known as ‘the Debt’. On the other hand, it may be that it was easier and cheaper to get labor at this time, and to spur it to exceptional efforts, and this explains why the church was so soon completed.

At all events, by the time I came to consciousness the church was nearly finished, and the internal decoration was proceeding. My father was much involved in this, and so was I as a small, wondering and rapt spectator. It was as though, in a modest way, I was a witness to the topping-out and the embellishment of the great basilica of St Peter’s in Rome. As the church was so near, I was in and out of it many times a week. It was not so much that I was fond of it as completely dominated and overawed by it. It was, physically and in every other way, a huge presence in my life.

My father often drew and painted it and so, in due course, did I. It did not occur to me, in my childhood, that God and art had separate existences, since both were so intimately united in the church itself. Only later did I perceive there was such a thing as secular art, and even then it seemed to be more a tributary of religious art rather than an autonomous entity.

God presided over everything, it appeared, but he had a particularly close connection with any artistic endeavor — architecture, of course, painting, sculpture, but also brass- and ironwork for the church fittings, stained glass for the windows, needlework for the vestments and altarcloths, and various kinds of precious metalwork for the holy vessels. God was also somehow involved in the casting of the massive bronze bells, and the elaborate process whereby they were hoisted to the top of the great tower, so that they could ring out over the surrounding countryside, proclaiming triumphantly that the magnificent church had, indeed, been finished.

The association between God on the one hand, and art and beauty on the other, was thus impressed upon me from the earliest age, so that I took it quite for granted. Hence, when I studied theology at school, what attracted me most among St Thomas Aquinas’s various proofs of God was the fourth one, from beauty.

St Thomas argued, as I recall, that we were aware, through our senses, not just of beauty but of degrees of beauty. It follows from this that there is an absolute beauty, and that thing or being is God himself. We love God, in this life, as the very epitome of goodness, which we perceive from his works and from the love for us which radiates from him. But we cannot — yet — see God and we thus have no conception of the absolute beauty which is him. That, I imagine, will be among the chief delights of Paradise, the contemplation of an effulgent and myriad-natured beauty, which is perpetually changing and modulating, yet permanent in its serenity and power.

I suppose we shall all — if we get there! – be beautiful then, and one of the characteristics of salvation will be the acquisition of power to enjoy beauty in ways we cannot now even imagine. Heaven will be a celestial academy and gallery of living art, whose beauties will penetrate and envelop our very souls. We will walk among and converse with those Raphael madonnas and Botticelli angels and Michelangelo and Donatello Davids. But it is the beauty of God himself which will most entrance us.

God, it is clear, gives us a foretaste of his beauty in the universe he has created. Its beauty, like its energizing forces, radiates from him. Indeed, the fact that God rejoices in beauty is one reason why he created the universe in the first place. The universe, like God himself, is living beauty, constantly changing its form with fresh delights. It creates beauty by its motions. The starry heavens were the first intimations of beauty which penetrated the minds of primitive men and women, who had no possessions and hadnot yet taught themselves to make things, but already possessed the power of ecstasy.

During those long nights of distant antiquity, they lay on the ground and contemplated with wonder and satisfaction the movements of the stars. It was almost certainly then that they grasped what beauty is about — an intimation of God. The stars taught them that God was there, and that he was even greater than the stars because he had made and arranged them and set them in motion. So beauty did indeed lead men to God, as St Thomas later argued.

The universe, from its inception — from that first Big Bang — has had an awesome beauty but, as it expands and develops, its beauties multiply and intensify. We can see this ourselves, as the number and variety of flowers increases, and we and nature together produce finer specimens. Human beings, always beautiful, become more so as new and healthier generations succeed each other. The girls are prettier than ever before, and there are more of them to catch the eye. The young men are taller, stronger, more handsome.

The universe is so full of beauty that it is difficult for one limited human being to take it all in. We travel more than ever, and have far easier access to the splendors of the world than any of our forebears, but it is beyond our power, even in a lifetime, to absorb more than a fraction of what God has provided for our delectation. God is, if anything, too generous, as Martin Luther is recorded as observing in his Table Talk: ‘Dr Luther, holding a rose in his hand, said: “Tis a magnificent work of God: could a man make but one such rose as this, he would be thought worthy of all honor, but the gifts of God lose their value in our eyes from their very infinity.”

God provides us, then, with countless models of beauty, and it seems to me manifestly part of his purpose for us that we should learn to reciprocate, by producing beauty ourselves. It is one important way in which we return God’s love for us. We cannot give him power or possessions, for he has everything of that kind already, but we can give him beauty of our invention, and he rejoices in it, however inferior it may be to his own inventions, just as fond parents enjoy the drawings of their tiny children.

Artists of all kinds are dear to God. He endows them with their skills and, in rare cases, their genius, and delights in the way they make use of them. Woe betide an idle artist, neglecting God’s gifts! — a point Milton makes in one of his greatest sonnets when he writes of ‘talent which is death to hide’.

Some visitors to Rome, seeing the marvelous works of art created there under papal patronage, especially from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, deplore the expenditure of so much time and money and energy on mere artifice. They see the glories of papal Rome as materialism triumphant, sanctified secularity, paganism enthroned. That is an arguable point of view and throughout the millenniums of belief austere souls have sought to praise God without any aids of beauty.

But to my mind, and I think to most people’s, to create beauty is one way in which we respond to God and praise him. To erect buildings and to adorn them with art specifically so that God may be worshipped in them is a worthy occupation for a pope and his cardinals. And it is no bad thing, incidentally, for an ecclesiastical ruler to have the physical means to overawe his secular rivals. Not long ago I was in Rome with Margaret Thatcher on a private visit, and Pope John Paul II kindly arranged for her and one or two of her friends to be shown the Sistine Chapel, reopened after the most extensive restoration in its history.

It was a rare privilege to see Michelangelo’s frescos without the perpetually milling crowd which fills the chapel throughout its official opening hours. It was a still rarer experience to see Margaret Thatcher, this Queen of Politics, this outstanding exponent of the art of ruling, quite overcome — rendered speechless, in fact — by the splendor of beauty brought into being by a genius under ecclesiastical patronage. She saw that the church can command, as well as the state!

No pope or archbishop should be deterred from erecting monuments to Almighty God by mere difficulty or expense. We have to think of future generations, as well as our own. And we have to think what God himself wishes. The catholic ruler of a West African state has been much abused for building in his capital a huge cathedral only slightly smaller in size than St Peter’s itself. He should, it is argued, have spent the money on the poor, with whom his country is plentifully provided. But it may be that the poor in West Africa rejoice in this immense creation. In my observation and reading of history, the poor love cathedrals and always have done and will continue to do so. A cathedral is something a poor man or woman can visit and share with God.


Balthasar and the Beautiful 4 –Aidan Nichols, OP

February 6, 2014
The Trinity 1635, Jusepe de Ribera. Beauty…dances as an uncontained splendour around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face like a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man. We no longer dare believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order to more easily dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past – whether he admits it or not – can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.

The Trinity 1635, Jusepe de Ribera. Beauty…dances as an uncontained splendour around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face like a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man. We no longer dare believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order to more easily dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past – whether he admits it or not – can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.

We continue exploring the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar with Fr. Aidan Nichols. See previous post, Balthasar and the Beautiful 1 for full intro.


The Relation Of Apologetics To Dogmatics
One important corollary of Balthasar’s estimate of the respective roles of the subjective and objective evidence for Christian revelation is a shift — for those inclined to accept his approach – in the relation of apologetics to dogmatic theology. These are two of the most important branches of Christian thought, so this is no bagatelle. Through his theological aesthetics, Balthasar seeks to modify the currently understood picture of apologetics by presenting apologetics as incipient dogmatics. For Balthasar, investigating the motives of credibility — the ways in which revelation commends itself to us on the ordinary rational level – is constantly on the point of trembling into loving prostration before the figure of the Word incarnate.

Here a bit of background may be useful. There were Christian apologists from the first generations of the Church after the apostles. But the first Catholic theologian to treat the issue of apologetics in a fully systematic fashion is usually reckoned to be the thirteenth-century German Dominican St Albert the Great. His `antecedents of the act of faith’, antecedentia fidei, include the most important theses of what we now call fundamental theology.

They concern especially the metaphysical presuppositions of divine revelation, the fact of such divine revelation in Christ, and the character of Scripture as the witness to that revelation. One question Albert did not settle clearly was the relation of these `antecedents’ to the certainty aspect of faith. The problem of the kind of certainty produced by apologetic argumentation and its relation to the free and supernatural character of the act of faith was one that long troubled the Schoolmen.

Some masters of the early High Scholastic period — such as William of Auxerre, William of Auvergne, and Philip the Chancellor — admitted two sorts of faith. The motives of credibility were said to produce `intellectual faith’ (other terms were also in use), which, said these thinkers, should be distinguished from faith in the full theological sense of the word.

Merely intellectual faith, precisely because it rested on the rational force of arguments, had neither the religious nor the moral value of the virtue of theological faith — properly Christian faith — in the strict sense. That virtue is virtuous precisely because it has the character of an unconditional response to God as the `First Truth’, Prima Veritas, made possible by sharing in a more than natural light — by sharing a light, in fact, that is the light of supernatural faith proper, called by the Scholastics the lumen fidei.

It is noteworthy that both Albert and Thomas are disinclined to give what the cathedral masters called `intellectual faith’ or some synonym thereof the title of `faith’ at all. The motives of credibility — such considerations as the Savior’s miracles and his fulfillment of prophecy, the sublimity of his teaching and his ethical perfection — may make people certain in some kind of adhering to the bearer of revelation (such adhering was sometimes known as certitude adhaesionis, `certainty of adhesion’). But this is not as yet the recognition of Jesus Christ as the very Word of the Father.

Over against, in particular, early Deist thinkers, Catholic writers from the sixteenth century onwards stressed the importance of the rational motives of credibility. Though in the later part of that century, owing to the challenge of Protestantism, a section `on the Church’, de Ecclesia, was customarily added to Catholic treatises on apologetics, the main content of Catholic apologetics for divine revelation did not differ greatly from that treated by their Protestant counterparts.

The classic Catholic representatives of this stream undertook to prove the principles of both natural and revealed religion, moving through an account of natural theology and natural law to treatment of the possibility, utility and necessity of supernatural revelation, and the features of miracle and fulfilled prophecy which (especially) enable one to recognize a divine mission in act, the whole thing ending up with a discussion of the claims of the Church and the principles of Catholic faith. From the mid-eighteenth century on, this structure remains largely constant up until the manuals in use in the 1920s and beyond.13

This was so even if in another way these treatises were always being modified, pouring into the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century mould discussions with such thinkers as Kant, Hegel, Schelling, Darwin, the history-of-religions school of empirical scholarship, Liberal Protestantism and Modernism. But by the time Balthasar was setting out to begin his lifelong study of Christian thought, in the 1920s and 1930s, some Catholic philosophers and theologians were declaring a degree of dissatisfaction with the entire approach.

Why might that be? The main criticism, and one Balthasar largely shared, was that such treatises claimed to establish the fact of divine revelation without ever envisaging the meaning of its content. Painting with broad brush-strokes: in these works the relation of supernatural truth to human realities was not manifest. And while that relation wholly exceeds what human beings could ever expect, so Balthasar would want to add, the wonderful character of that excess was not brought home.

Presumably the Gospel offers an intelligible message — something we are meant to understand, even if this `something’, by its grandeur, also stretches our powers to a point where only the gracious enhancement of our capacities can serve our turn. (Where the appropriate paradigm of knowledge is love, then understanding and mystery will develop together, in direct proportion to each other.)

But such was the emphasis on the proof of revelation by arguments external to itself that this intelligibility (even if it were an intelligibility with a depth of mystery to it) failed to make a proper appearance in justifying revelation’s claims. Hence the critical epithet ‘extrinsicist’ applied to these schemes: the supernatural order seemed to be externally added on to the natural as an autonomous supplement, rather than fully integrated with the natural and suitably interiorized there.

Where Catholic apologetics was concerned, the single most influential dissentient voice was the French philosopher and lay theologian Maurice Blondel.  Without disputing that some place should be given to the considerations adduced in early modern apologetics, Blondel proposed to give the lion’s share, in any commendation of revealed religion, to an account of how the internal logic of the act of faith corresponds to the `logic’ of the highest kind of human activity we know: namely, when we set out to discern meaning — and (especially) the fullness of meaning — in human life at large.

It is not enough to adduce arguments to show the fact of divine attestation to Jesus. The mystery of Christ must be presented as throwing light on the whole human condition. The question is not so much to prove by miraculous facts the rights of Jesus as divine legate (though this is certainly not illegitimate, and can even be called necessary), but, in Balthasarian terms, to discern in the `figure’ of Jesus, his acts and destiny, a divine-human presence penetrating and transforming our sense of relation with God, with the world, with other persons and indeed with ourselves. In so doing, the Revealer, so we discern, confers on human history the weight of eternity.

Naturally enough, this cannot be done without treating the content of revelation from within, rather than simply the fact of revelation from without. What Balthasar is attempting in the Theological aesthetics coheres with much of this Blondelian programme, though his manner of pursuing its agenda is entirely is own. Certainly, Balthasar had no desire to replace an extrinsicist apologetics with an apologetics of natural immanence. As he wrote:

[T]he tradition never set the criterion for the truth of revelation in the centre of the pious human subject, it never measured the abyss of grace by the abyss of need or sin, it never judged the content of dogma according to its beneficial effects on human beings. The Spirit does not reveal himself,- he reveals the Father in the Son, who has become man. And the Son never allows himself to become re-absorbed in the human spirit

How then does Balthasar proceed? His first step is to show that beauty is a possible vehicle for divine self-manifestation. As we have seen, considered ontologically, beauty is not just a property of all created things qua created. What appears in the beauty of created forms is the radiance of being, der Glanz des Seins. Beauty thus speaks of the meaning of that which transcends and yet inheres in all existents.

Secondly, Balthasar treats beauty as the vehicle of the actual revelation of God in Christ, a revelation made when the eternal manifests itself in a concrete, material form, breaking into this world, as beauty does, numinously (for beauty, in words Balthasar liked to quote from Rilke’s Duino Elegies, is the beginning of the terrible). In the case of revelation, this means the eternal breaking in with the glory that truly inheres in the form of Jesus Christ.

The epiphany of this form is not just sheerly overwhelming, however, for exploration of the career and fate of Jesus shows it is an intelligible history. This form is a narrative form, and the meaning of the story is divine love. Here the content and the form are one since both are wonderful. The content is as marvelously beautiful as is the form, and Balthasar’s explanation for this is that both content and form reflect love. Love shares the structure of beauty. It confronts us with the mystery of the otherness of some other and calls forth a corresponding wonder and admiration.

Thirdly and finally, Balthasar develops his theological aesthetics in two parts that are, however, strongly unified as well as distinct. And this two-in-one exposition spans the separate treatises of (early modern and modern) apologetics and dogmatics. This is so because Balthasar’s aesthetics is not only an epistemological investigation of the kind of `seeing’ involved in faith. It is also a doctrine of what he terms `ecstasy’. There is `ecstasy’, first, in the going out (in Greek, ek-stasis) of the Godhead in weakness into the world as the manifestation of the love that is interior to the divine glory.

There is `ecstasy’, secondly, in the way the believer is seized by the divine glory in this revelation in Jesus Christ and is taken up thereby into a share in the life of God himself. Ecstasy, so understood, contains in principle all the main themes of dogmatics — the Trinity, Christology, the doctrines of justification and sanctification, as well as of the sacraments, the Church and eschatology, the Last Things. Faith is a response to the radiance of what St Thomas calls the bonum promissum, the beautifully ordered whole of salvation that is offered to us, exceeding any such `whole’ that exists within the world.”

So what we have here is a tendency to elide, without however ever completely denying, the distinction between apologetics and dogmatics just because Balthasar wants to elide, without however ever completely denying, the distinction between what the Schoolmen called `certainty of adhesion’ and the virtue of theological faith properly so called — the faith that, corresponded to in loving conversion, justifies and saves.

Balthasar can proceed in this direction because he doesn’t think that what explains the act of faith is simply rationally available materials plus an elevation of human judgment by supernatural light. In his view, there is not only God’s gracious supplying of more light with which to judge materials accessible to any reasonable person supplied with appropriate historical data about Jesus and arguments to back up those data. There is also, he maintains, a `light’ that shines forth from those materials themselves in their beautiful ordering in Jesus’ person, life and work.

The act of faith needs both kinds of light: light from within where God can affect my powers of knowing and willing internally, since as my Creator he is closer to me than I am to myself, and light from without — light striking one from Jesus Christ himself as a figure in history who is made palpable to me in the preaching and Liturgy of the Church. On the one hand, the glory of the divine self-emptying in Jesus Christ can be seen only by `eyes of faith’ when God has prepared me interiorly to be receptive to Christ. On the other hand, the `eyes of faith’ can only see when the light of faith falls on them from the divine form that Jesus is. What the eyes of faith see when this interplay of light works as it should is the opening of the divine heart in love, the self-disclosure of the Trinity.

Conclusion On Aesthetics
It is in the lives of saints and mystics that the inspired seeing which animates the Christian life in general and theological aesthetics in particular is most fully in act.
Balthasar identifies its key as humility, which is the readiness to accept the gift of the divine love as it is, to appreciate the necessary and rightness of the form of the divine revelation as we are given it.

Much of Balthasar’s celebrated concern with the practice of holiness as precondition of fruitful theologizing belongs here; adoration and obedience follow from humility, and draw good theology in their train. Henri de Lubac once contrasted Balthasar’s theology with Hegel’s. Whereas Hegel called his own thought `speculative Good Friday’, de Lubac calls Balthasar’s a `contemplative Holy Saturday’.

Evidently, I note in passing, de Lubac was not `phased’ by Balthasar’s theology of the Descent into Hell which turns, of course, on the events of the first Holy Saturday: perhaps he realized that for Balthasar while the Descent is, unlike for most of Catholic tradition, the end-point of the mysteries of Christ’s humiliation, it is also, in keeping with Catholic tradition, the starting-point of the mysteries of hi exaltation.

The useful phrase `contemplative Holy Saturday’ in the wider meaning de Lubac intended for it, brings out the degree to which Balthasar’s material dogmatics are informed by his fundamental theological insight into the nature of faith a contemplative seeing, as well as the extent to which his theology  centers on the self-emptying of the Son of God which reached full term in the Descent into Hell.

It also reminds us that the final volumes of the theological aesthetics consist in a reading of the Old and New Testament. Balthasar at the close of this massive work turns again to the Bible in the hope that, now we grasp what is at stake in theological aesthetics, we can read the Scriptures with new eyes. If we do so, we shall see how though the New Testament’s amazing consummation of the Old, the mystery of all creation, man included, received its definitive interpretation as the hidden presence of Absolute Love, to which, in its luminous, bountiful and exuberant character, beauty’s qualities of clarity, integrity and proportion, by analogy, belong.

See too how the recipients of God’s self-revelation — ourselves — receive thereby the call to make the divine visible in charity, the specifically Christian love of God and neighbor, the intended moral outcome of Balthasar’s entire work. These statements are not only conclusions drawn from his theological aesthetics. They are also anticipations of the message of his theological dramatics and theological logic as well.


Balthasar and the Beautiful 3 –Aidan Nichols, OP

February 5, 2014
The life of Christ culminating in the Paschal mystery -- the totality of which constitutes the Christ-form -- has all the intelligible beauty of a drama. The more deeply we penetrate its meaning -- ultimately the task of a theological dramatics -- the more this beauty asserts itself. Theological dramatics, then, requires theological aesthetics. That is why the Church expresses the ugly physical facts of the Crucifixion not simply as an act of barbaric execution: the Church presents them as supremely beautiful.

The life of Christ culminating in the Paschal mystery — the totality of which constitutes the Christ-form — has all the intelligible beauty of a drama. The more deeply we penetrate its meaning — ultimately the task of a theological dramatics — the more this beauty asserts itself. Theological dramatics, then, requires theological aesthetics. That is why the Church expresses the ugly physical facts of the Crucifixion not simply as an act of barbaric execution: the Church presents them as supremely beautiful.

Objective And Subjective In Revelatory `Evidence’
We have said that the aesthetic act always has both an objective and a subjective side to it. It is a subject’s marveling appreciation of an object. The absolutely foundational opening volume of Balthasar’s theological aesthetics is governed by this pair of terms. Divine revelation in Jesus Christ has, in the first place, subjective evidence. What Balthasar means by `subjective evidence’ here is certainly not vague and conjectural evidence.

Rather, it is evidence from the side of the human subject. Divine revelation in Jesus Christ also has objective evidence. What Balthasar means by `objective evidence’ is not the only kind of evidence worth having but, more specifically, evidence from the side of the divine-human object.

Let us take the subjective evidence first. It may seem at first sight disconcerting that Balthasar identifies the subjective evidence for revelation as faith itself. Surely faith is a response to the evidence of revelation: can it be, in that case, itself part of the evidence? Balthasar holds that, in an important sense, God’s self-revelation is, and can only be, self-authenticating. Faith accepts its own object on the authority of that object which in this way becomes `subjective evidence’ for it.

The classical account of faith as an infused theological virtue — the account found in Thomas — already claimed that our recognition of God is God’s own act in us: it is the inchoatio gloriae, the `beginning of glory’. Crucial to the act of faith is a power of apperception experienced as a gift from a source beyond oneself. And yet no such gift — no such grace — is, in Catholic doctrine, irresistible. We have to co-operate. On our part, the grace of faith requires a readiness to receive the light God gives, and a self-surrender to that light.

On God’s part, faith entails the gift to us of fresh insights, motives, impulses, by which we are gradually shaped into the pattern of Christ as well as granted understanding of that pattern. Behind these statements lies Thomas’ account of understanding, and with it ancient Greek philosophy which, thanks chiefly to Aristotle, saw mind as both receptive or `patient’ (passive) and also spontaneous or `agent’ (active). To cite Chesterton’s wonderful little Thomas book one last time:

The mind is not merely receptive, in the sense that it absorbs sensations like so much blotting-paper; on that sort of softness has been based all that cowardly materialism, which conceives man as wholly servile to his environment. On the other hand, the mind is not purely creative, in the sense that it paints pictures on the windows and then mistakes them for a landscape outside. But the mind is active, and its activity consists in following, so far as the will chooses to follow, the light outside that does really shine upon real landscapes.
G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas, p.121

A light shines for the mind as well as for the senses when the intellect as agent judges aright the impressions, mental as well as sensuous, that the intellect as patient receives. In the case of faith, this light is a divinely enabled intensification of the intellectual light in which we make our natural judgments. For Thomas, the light of faith is indeed an anticipation of the light of glory, the beatific Vision.

In all this, Balthasar’s distinctive stress lies on how the light of faith makes possible, on our own more modest level as disciples, a certain alignment with the experience of Christ himself. Balthasar emphasizes how archetypal for us as Christians is the experience which Christ himself had in his human nature of his Father and himself in the Holy Spirit. We come to know of that uniquely formative experience through the apprehension of Christ found in the New Testament writers — who are not just a few more authors from the ancient world but inspired witnesses, or what Greek Christians call `hagiography’, the `sacred writers’. The variety of their witness — which for some scholars undermines the consistency of the figure of Jesus in the New Testament — Balthasar regards as, on the contrary, vital to their function. The varied appearances of an object to observers capable of communicating their experience is the only way something of the object’s fullness (if it has one) can be transmitted by the witnesses.

In our appreciation of those witnesses, when carried out by the light of faith, we are to let our own senses and imagination be disciplined and re-shaped pneumatically — by the action of the Holy Spirit. Some spiritual authors tell us not to stay on the level of images, of the imagination. But for Balthasar when, in personal prayer and devotion, we break through to another level where the sensuous seems to be stripped away, and we go beyond images, we should not understand that as a happy victory of the superbly intellectual side of us over the wretchedly sensuous.

Rather, we should understand it as a participation by precisely that sensuous side of us in the self-emptying of Christ. For Balthasar, the negative incomprehensibility of God to materially embodied creatures like ourselves is less interesting than the positive incomprehensibility that derives from the overwhelming greatness of God’s triune self-giving or self-humbling (‘kenotic’) love which the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery display.

This brings us, then, to revelation’s objective evidence. There must also be objective evidence and not just subjective, or else Catholics would be fideists — people who think belief can and should proceed without any reference to external legitimating grounds. For Balthasar, the chief objective evidence in Christianity is: Christ Jesus as he is in himself, the Trinitarian Son disclosing in his humanity the hidden tri-unity of divine being.

That includes what conventional Catholic apologetics has treated as objective evidence for the truth of Jesus’ claims — such things as Christ’s miracles (above all, his Resurrection), his fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, the sublimity of his teaching, his moral perfection, and so on. But on Balthasar’s understanding of the matter, the Christological objective evidence also goes beyond that set of considerations since, after all, they are only signs of his Trinitarian identity, not that identity in and of itself.

Now to see Christ in this fuller way for who and what he really is, we must have an unlimited willingness to receive the impress of God’s greatness and glory. Here Balthasar’s position can be regarded as the exact antithesis to Bultmann’s. Bultmann’s work belongs to a long line of theological speculation which gradually debilitated the physical and metaphysical texture of its object.

For Bultmann, the visually graspable shapes of nature and salvation history do not mediate our approach to God because created being is not constituted from substantial self-transcending forms. Nature and history are not impressed with illustrative form, so God has to be approached in a way that abstracts from all human perceptibility.”

Balthasar says the contrary. The necessary willingness to receive the impress of God’s greatness and glory is mediated in the Church — not least through the variety of her approved theologies, a number of which Balthasar explores in the second and third volumes of The Glory of the Lord.

As Balthasar presents it in those volumes and in other essays, theology is a rich and complex activity which at one pole contains the careful logical analysis which explains the faith and answers heresy (‘controversial’ theology), and at the other pole – ultimately, the more important one — embraces the adoring contemplation of God. The adoring contemplation aspect of theology may seem something essentially mysteric — typically, apophatic and imageless, but Balthasar notes how in many of the great mystics it has gone hand in hand with a capacity for densely concrete, and in its own way precise, poetic expression.

It is as if the vision of that which is above-and-beyond-form, the vision of `Super-form’, by its very fascination prompts the human form-creating powers to move into action on their own level. The poems of St John of the Cross are a good example, and indeed Sanjuanist (vocab: of St. John of the Cross) thought is included by Balthasar as one of his examples of how all great theologies are `beautiful’ through pointing in some way to the initial vision without which there would be nothing worthwhile for theologians to analyze in the manner of a theological logic.

The two volumes of The Glory of the Lord devoted to such historic examples from the work of clerical or lay `doctors’ (scare-quotes since Balthasar does not confine himself to those canonically and liturgically so recognized) are not merely illustrative of Balthasar’s project or simply preparatory to it. Taken cumulatively, they are meant to suggest how it is that, without a theological aesthetics, no theological logic worth its salt can be written. Unless the content of theology is marvelous, why indeed should we spend so much time explaining its truth? This is one important way in which Balthasar’s trilogy — aesthetics, dramatics, logic — hangs together.

Another such way, which relates the aesthetics not to the logic so much as to the dramatics, is that, for Balthasar, the life of Christ culminating in the Paschal mystery — the totality of which constitutes the Christ-form — has all the intelligible beauty of a drama. The more deeply we penetrate its meaning — ultimately the task of a theological dramatics — the more this beauty asserts itself. Theological dramatics, then, requires theological aesthetics. That is why the Church expresses the ugly physical facts of the Crucifixion not simply as an act of barbaric execution: the Church presents them as supremely beautiful. Compare the witness of iconography and the exalted language of the Liturgies about the Cross.

The Religious `A Priori’ And The Theological `A Priori’
As the discussion earlier in this Chapter of the grace of faith will already (I hope) have suggested, the light in which we appreciate subjectively the objectivity of the divine epiphany in Jesus Christ is not the same as the intellectual light in which the mind makes natural judgments — even though both of these kinds of illumination are given by God. Despite his dislike of the bloodless abstractions of Transcendental Thomism, Balthasar uses a formula of the sort such Thomism borrowed from Kant so that he can underline the difference he sees here.

In his epistemological writings, Kant had used the Latin logical term `a priori’ to refer to the way human understanding is structured in advance as it comes to scan the materials of experience. Using this same terminology, it is of great importance to Balthasar to grasp the distinction between what he terms the `religious a priori’ in our ordinary human experience and the ‘theological a priori’ in our distinctively Christian experience.

Let us take the religious a priori first. The religious a priori is our natural participation in the light of God as Creator. That prior structure of human awareness is `transcendental’ in the sense of the word proper to Kant and the — in Kantian perspective, rightly so named — `Transcendental’ Thomists.

This sense of the word should be carefully distinguished, then, from the meaning given it by the high medievals (see Chapter One of this study, and especially note 2) in whose company Balthasar was more at home.) The religious a priori is the `transcendental’ presupposition of the objective vision we can entertain of the divine reality in, and on the occasion of, the natural forms of creation. It is the source of religious experience in general, and includes an intuition of the absence as well as the presence of God in all contingent being which, of course, as contingent, finite, imperfect feet, can never entirely mediate the God who is absolute, infinite, perfect. This is how human beings produce symbols and construct myths about the `What’ and the `Who’ lying beyond all creation. The religious a priori is the source of mytho-poetic thought in all cultures and periods.

How, then, does the theological a priori come in? By way of contrast, might be Balthasar’s best answer. By contrast with the religious a priori, the theological a priori, while taking the religious a priori for granted, differs from it in being distinctively Christological and Trinitarian in character. It is what enables our response to the new light of Christ granting human beings as this does a participation in the uncreated light of the Holy Trinity. The theological a priori is the `transcendental’ presupposition of our sharing in the inner life of the Trinity through Jesus Christ on the basis of a connaturality with the divine Persons given by the Mediator, the God-man, when he took what was ours (namely, humanity), so as to give us a share in what is his (namely, divinity). Amazingly, it becomes second nature to us (hence, `connaturality’) to be, through Christ, in tune with the triune God.

In sum: the religious a priori enables us to perceive the objective light of the Creator in the forms of the creation, whereas the theological a priori enables us to perceive the objective light of the Trinity in the historical form of Jesus Christ. This second `transcendental’ structure is not inbuilt at creation, it is a matter, rather, of God’s `second’ gift, in a new order of the divine generosity. Entirely gratuitous, it is a fresh gift of a connaturality with the divine that goes beyond our natural imagehood of God.

It brings about what Balthasar terms a new `proportionality’ between man and the divine Trinity – something that can in no way be inferred from the nature of the human spirit, not even in the dynamic orientation to God creation confers upon us. The theological a priori concerns itself with the distinctively Christian experience as irreducible to any other, no matter how religious.

The manner of expression shaped by the theological a priori may draw on genres known to `religious man’ at large — but what is done with them through the Gospel differs utterly. Myth is now actualized. In the bodily Resurrection of the incarnate humanity of the Word, the literal and particular are carried into the vertical transcendent realm in a final and eternal manner. The symbol takes root in the reality of ever-lasting being.

The images used in biblical revelation may have affinities with those the mythopoeic imagination uses in this or that extra-biblical culture to express its sense of the Eternal. The shapes of human imagining are not, indeed, to be expunged. Rather, the forms of natural, man-generated, aesthetic, if they admit the Christ-form, will be given a transcendent relation to the supernatural. In his study Science, Religion and Christianity, Balthasar praises Baroque literature and art for having so imaginatively played out the realization of the figures of Greek myth — Orpheus, Odysseus, Eros — in the person of the historic Christ.

As C. S. Lewis liked to remark, myth has become fact. Or, as Balthasar puts it, the truth of Jesus Christ is found at the point where what he calls, in the metaphysics volume of his Theo-aesthetics, the `two piers’ of myth and philosophy can finally be made to form an entire bridge. Myth tries to make sense of the world through concrete images. Philosophy tries to make sense of the world through articulating universal truth. They reach out towards each other, but never quite meet.

The ineluctable growth of the philosophic impulse pushed myth toward the periphery of the human imagination. Myth continued to exist but without philosophy it became increasingly enclosed in gnostic fantasy. Philosophy then became cut off from doxology and prayer which had been instinctive for myth, and its concept of human reason narrowed. When the religious a priori gives way to the theological a priori these ills can be healed, this rupture in humanity’s quest for a truth that would also be beauty repaired.

We have here one major source of Balthasar’s disagreement with the approach of his erstwhile fellow Jesuit, Karl Rahner. To Balthasar’s mind, Rahner made a great mistake in blocking together the theological a priori with its merely religious counterpart. Rahner’s vocabulary is partly the same and partly different, which could make comparison confusing. But the upshot is that Rahner tends to treat the Trinitarian and Christological revelation as simply the fullest (in Rahner’s word) ‘thematization’ or conscious, explicit articulation of a piety which is itself not yet `thematic’ — not consciously, explicitly articulated — but, at least in principle, pre-contains the content of the supreme revelation since our intellectual nature is turned towards the human-divine encounter, without our being aware of it, from the very start.

For Balthasar, this renders the given, historic revelation vulnerable to what some would frankly call ‘demythologizing’ and others, more politely, `resolution into its transcendental formality’. It seems to come down to much the same thing. (This is the argument of Balthasar’s little polemical work Cordula, translated into English as The Moment of Christian Witness) What Balthasar objects to in Rahner’s theology of faith is that it fails to derive faith from the form of Christ. Christ’s form does not verify itself (as it should) by virtue of the unique evidence contained in its amazing and unexpected beauty.

Instead, it commends itself by its ability to satisfy, especially on the level of the understanding, a drive towards transcendence already entirely operative in peoples’ lives (so no great surprise is involved). Balthasar sees Rahner as, so to speak, almost half way down the road to Rudolph Bultmann, for whom God cannot be known objectively in the image of Christ but only non-objectively as the condition of possibility for the human self-understanding that occurs on the occasion of hearing the Gospel of Christ.59

Balthasar shows his forthright commitment to the Christian revelation in its irreducibly specific pattern when he insists that, in collaboration with this inner grace, the form of Christ makes for a new revelation with its own evidence which no insight into the dynamism of the human spirit in its tendency towards God can either anticipate in advance or verify in retrospect. There is in fact no need at all in man that can explain or authenticate the words and deeds of Christ. Only Christ’s form makes those words and deeds lucidly plain. The `a posteriori’, historical, evidence of that form is what founds Christian faith, not some `a priori’, ahistorical state of affairs which has come into consciousness for this or that individual through prompting by the general a posteriori experience.

In any case, what human expectation could envisage a triune, totally self-sufficient Creator becoming man in a tiny speck of dust somewhere in the universe .end presenting his own extremity of humiliation, suffering — both physical and spiritual — and substitutionary death as the very form of life for all mankind? This rhetorical question identifies Balthasar’s most basic theological conviction. Nowhere else but in the historical form of Jesus could anyone find the evidence to verify so extravagantly wasteful a love on the side of divinity and so utterly devastating a burden on the side of humanity.

As Balthasar puts it in his theology of the Easter Triduum, no human evolution, hope or desire can unite the Hellish destruction of Good Friday with the splendid affirmation of Easter Sunday.6° Only Jesus’ form can verify a triune God who knows no need to subject himself to such horrors and yet in his total freedom does so. The evidence of the form of Christ is thus akin, Balthasar argues, to that of an artistic masterpiece. This form knows no external necessity in either divine or human reality, yet once we apprehend it we see that it `must’ be as it is.

Balthasar stresses the rupture and transformation that Christian conversion entails. Pace Rahner, it is not simply a matter of one who is already an anonymous Christian becoming so openly by name. For the Old Testament, as the Book of Exodus testifies, human beings were told by God, `Man shall not see me and live’. The New Testament fulfils this. We died to ourselves in God when we were converted to Christ and then we were brought to life again.

In Jesus, the believer has for the first time seen God. It follows that what is incomprehensible in God no longer proceeds from mere ignorance. Rather is it the daunting, stupefying incomprehensibility of the fact that God so loved the world as to give his only Son. The God of all plenitude lowered himself not only by entering his creation as a creature but by entering it in the conditions of an existence determined by sin, destined for death, removed from God. Such was his amazing grace.


Balthasar and the Beautiful 2 –Aidan Nichols, OP

February 4, 2014
Hans Urs von Balthasar’s life was hardly the plain, uneventful life of a scholar. Born in 1905, he lived through the horror and devastation of both World Wars, writing his doctoral thesis, The Apocalypse of the German Soul, during Hitler’s rise to power. He was immersed in literature, music, and philosophy. In 1929, after a retreat where he felt a powerful call to the priesthood, he entered the Society of Jesus and was educated by some of the best of his time including the Polish philosopher, Erich Przywara, and French Jesuit and patristic scholar, Henri de Lubac. Balthasar is becoming recognized as perhaps the greatest theologian of the 20th century–yet he never held an academic position in theology. Far from being an ivory tower academic, he was involved with the pastoral duties as a student chaplain at the University of Basel, Switzerland. It was there that he came to know Adrienne von Spyer, who converted to the Catholic Church and became the recipient of what seems to have been intense mystical graces. Together they discerned a call to found a secular institute (a community whose members take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience but live in the world engaged in secular professions), the Community of St. John. To continue his work as leader of the community, Balthasar eventually had to make one of the most painful decisions of his life: to leave the Jesuit Order and become a diocesan priest.

Hans Urs von Balthasar’s life was hardly the plain, uneventful life of a scholar. Born in 1905, he lived through the horror and devastation of both World Wars, writing his doctoral thesis, The Apocalypse of the German Soul, during Hitler’s rise to power. He was immersed in literature, music, and philosophy. In 1929, after a retreat where he felt a powerful call to the priesthood, he entered the Society of Jesus and was educated by some of the best of his time including the Polish philosopher, Erich Przywara, and French Jesuit and patristic scholar, Henri de Lubac. Balthasar is becoming recognized as perhaps the greatest theologian of the 20th century–yet he never held an academic position in theology. Far from being an ivory tower academic, he was involved with the pastoral duties as a student chaplain at the University of Basel, Switzerland. It was there that he came to know Adrienne von Spyer, who converted to the Catholic Church and became the recipient of what seems to have been intense mystical graces. Together they discerned a call to found a secular institute (a community whose members take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience but live in the world engaged in secular professions), the Community of St. John. To continue his work as leader of the community, Balthasar eventually had to make one of the most painful decisions of his life: to leave the Jesuit Order and become a diocesan priest.

We continue exploring the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar with Fr. Aidan Nichols. See previous post for intro.


The Centrality Of Christ In Aesthetics
Where the perceptual object in question is Jesus Christ, the real object thus presented to us is not just one of the possibilities of created being. Owing to the Incarnation, the object here presented through beautiful form is not merely human being but in a direct and plenary (vocab: unqualified; absolute) way divine Being itself. In this unique instance, then, the sensuous appearance is loaded with the endless significance and inherent authority of the divine. In this particular case, accordingly, `beauty’ will also be called `glory’ as well, for appearance charged with the inexhaustible significance and inherent authority of the divine is a plausible first stab at defining what the Judaeo-Christian Scriptures mean by `the glory of the Lord’.

Balthasar’s aesthetics begin humbly, at the level of sense perception, but ultimately they investigate the meaning and content of encounter with the glory of God. The form of revelation is the main theme of Balthasar’s theological aesthetics because it is `the glorious evidence of divine agency in the world’. God, of course, is not part of the world. He cannot be ranged among the many things that happen to exist (a good Thomistic point: God is not in any genus of being, any type of thing). This does not mean, however, that God fails to attain to form. Surely we should say, rather, that God is that to which all form fails to attain. We can call him, with Balthasar, not ‘non-Form’ but `Super-form’.

In speaking of God as `Super-form’, Balthasar offers his own theologically aesthetic version of the Thomistic claim that the human creature has a natural desire for the vision of God. Translated into theologically aesthetic terms, this reads: we humans desire to find a perceivable form that transcends our powers, and in that way to transcend ourselves by knowing ourselves to be thus transcended. For this reason, the contemplation of God is, as the mystics show, not only dark and baffling but also a cause of joy for us.

To search out the beautiful is to explore, then, not only the formal possibilities of being but also the possibilities of human feeling-response in the face of the forms that being takes. It has, therefore, both an objective and a subjective side to it (we shall look at this more closely in a moment). Notice meanwhile how Balthasar is not saying that perception of anything beautiful should be regarded as equivalent to an act of recognition of God.

What he is saying is twofold. First, for those who have some awareness of God as the Source of all being, beauty acquires ontological depth. Such people can develop a habit of seeing the world as transparent to God. That is highly relevant to belief in creation. Secondly, and even more importantly, the events of salvation history — where God is active, presenting himself for contemplation — show the divine to have its own style of manifestation, and we must learn to register its impress. That is highly relevant to belief in the Incarnation. In the biblical revelation, the self-disclosure of God comes to a climax in Jesus Christ.

As the centre of Scripture, Christ unifies Old Testament and New Testament in a single form. Once seen as such, he can also be recognized as the centre of creation: “the One who brings genesis and apocalypse, the original creation and its eschatological fulfillment, into a single form likewise.” In `Revelation and the Beautiful’, Balthasar draws attention to the need for holism these affirmations entail:

The historical revelation is molded throughout into a single structure, so that the person contemplating it perceives, through the relationships and proportion of its various parts, the divine rightness of the whole. For however clear and convincing these relationships are, they are inexhaustible — not only in the practical sense, because we lack the power to grasp them in their entirety, but also in principle, because what comes to light in the structure is something which opens our minds to the infinite.

Note, however, that Jesus Christ is the centre of this structure, not the exclusive content of it. Though Balthasar’s vision always centers on the figure of Christ, he does not follow the great Protestant Neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth, for example, in making Christ’s form as God made human the sole analogue between God and the world. Balthasar states plainly that it is impossible to understand beauty as supernatural revelation without first experiencing beauty naturally, in creation.

Still, perhaps the best argument for the existence of the transcendentals is their capacity to infuse the human community with shared meanings where goodness, truth and beauty are concerned. And in this regard, Jesus Christ, whose Gospel has enabled millions in many ages and cultures to find such meaning, is as it were an open window on the transcendentals, joining together webs of human sensibility so that people can apprehend the transcendentals in their full reality.

Of course, Christ is a very unexpected climax to the experience of the beautiful. As Balthasar suggests in his meditation on the Easter Triduum, Mysterium Paschale, the Incarnation is ordered to the Passion: from the very word `Go!’ its direction is the Cross.” In Jesus Christ it will, then, be a strange and terrible Beauty that is born. Hence Balthasar’s remark in `Revelation and the Beautiful’:

For this reason, the glory inherent in God’s revelation, its fulfillment beyond measure of all possible aesthetic ideas, must perforce remain hidden from the eyes of all, believers and unbelievers, though in very various degrees.
Hans urs von Balthasar, Revelation and the Beautiful, p.113

Naturally, Balthasar can hardly say that the glory of God in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is something entirely hidden to everybody: in that case, there would be no point in writing a Christ-centred theological aesthetics at all. But there is a point! The Incarnation is the supreme presentation of aesthetic form despite or rather, when seen more deeply, because of the Cross. As Balthasar explains:

Insofar as the veil over the face of Christ’s mystery is drawn aside, and insofar as the economy of grace allows, Christian contemplation can marvel, in the self-emptying of divine love, at the exceeding wisdom, truth and beauty inherent there. But it is only in this self-emptying that they can be contemplated, for it is the source whence the glory contemplated by the angels and the saints radiated into eternal life … The humiliation of the servant only makes the concealed glory shine more resplendently, and the descent into the ordinary and commonplace brings out the uniqueness of him who so abased himself
Hans urs von Balthasar, Revelation and the Beautiful, pp.113-114

Here is a form than which none more wonderful can be imagined. For the `ground’ that appears in this `gestalt’, above all in the moment of the Cross, is the love that the Trinity is. That statement is the climactic assertion of Balthasarian ‘theo-aesthetics’. In the next Chapter, we shall see how, for Balthasar’s ‘theo-dramatics’, two more words need adding to this formulation: the ground that appears in the Christ-form is the love and freedom of the triune God.

The Unification Of Human Experience By Aesthetic Form
In his theological aesthetics Balthasar expects human experience to be completed and unified when guided by aesthetic form. To cite once again from `Revelation and the Beautiful’:

Everywhere there should be a correspondence between object and subject; the external harmony must correspond to a subjective need and both give rise to a new harmony of a higher order; subjectivity, with its feeling and imagination, must free itself in an objective work, in which it rediscovers itself in the course of which … there may be as much self-discovery as experience of another.
Hans urs von Balthasar, Revelation and the Beautiful, p.105

As that highly original student of Balthasar’s work Francesca Aran Murphy has pointed out, Balthasar presupposes, rightly enough, that human beings need rounded patterns through which to shape their experiences and make of them a coherent unity. Our capacity for awareness of such rounded patterns is called imagination.

Owing to Balthasar’s epistemological optimism and ontological realism, the thrust of the imagination for him is towards the real foundation which upholds all such forms. As we have seen, Balthasar employs a realistic metaphysics for which form is a basic principle. In such a metaphysic, beauty will be treated as an objective reality, present both in natural reality and in artistic works and accessible to us through their mediation.

For Balthasar (as for anyone else, for that matter), the word `imagination’ denotes a human faculty that eschews the quantitative measuring techniques of the empirical sciences. But for Balthasar (unlike for many other writers), the functioning of imagination can and should be grounded in objective reality.

Whereas historic Romanticism was plagued by Idealism, according to which imagination tells us chiefly about our own minds, the matter looks very different when a realist metaphysic is brought into the picture. Symbolic forms, though of our devising, allow us to gesture toward the inherent reality of things. The imagination expresses meaning in terms which draw the mind into the world.

When a realist metaphysics, recognizing the force of imagination, is combined with an orthodox Christology, the vista opened up is transformed again. Now our imaginative penetration of the world finds its response in a form a supremely rounded pattern — who rises up to meet it from beyond all human powers of exploration, since this form — the form of the Word incarnate — discloses God himself, author and archetype of being as a whole. While revealing itself to us from its source in the Uncreated, from what lies beyond the natural world, this form is also an attracting principle that draws out man’s effort to unite himself imaginatively with the created, with the natural order found in the cosmos and in human existence.

At one and the same time, then, the shape of this unique form, Jesus Christ, is both congruent with the activity of the human imagination at large, for imagination in general works on what is given in creation, and yet extends infinitely beyond all humanly discerned patterns — and, indeed, beyond the range of creation itself. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge divined, and he was, in this regard, an English forerunner of Balthasar, the highest unity the imagination can conceive is that which joins the finite and the infinite.’ But as Balthasar stresses with a vigor absent in Coleridge, this joining is supremely carried out by God himself in assuming human nature into unity with his divine Word.

The Deficiencies Of Modern Theological Culture
As Balthasar was aware, much modern theology does not honor this claim. Modern theological liberalism characteristically takes as its base the organization of human experience rather than the objective givens of divine agency impacting on nature and history. Probably Kant is the single greatest culprit here, because he it was who established the quite misleading presupposition that what critical thought considers is merely why we experience the world in the way we do. The situation deteriorates even further with Neo-Kantianism, influential in the German Universities (and notably Marburg — later to host the philosopher Heidegger and the exegete and quasi-theologian Bultmann) around the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

For Neo-Kantians, the threads binding the Kantian subject to an objective world were attenuated even further. In their view, Kant was hasty in allowing that external sense impressions impinge upon the mind, and misguided in granting the existence of a noumenon behind such perceptual presentation, the elusive `thing in itself’. Such Neo-Kantianiism is, it would seem, the philosophical origin of the ‘demythologising’ movement in Christian theology, and that has been, under whatever name, an enormously influential movement, both academically and in ordinary Church life. It is a movement to which Balthasar was implacably opposed.

Bultmann had regarded all alleged ‘knowledge’ of reality as mere objectification; projecting onto the largely unknowable a screen of our own culturally generated ideas: such false ‘objectivity’ must be stripped from the New Testament record. To his mind, the cosmological canvas on which the New Testament writers painted concealed the true message of the Gospel, which is the `extra-worldly’ dependence of the human person on the divine. For Bultmann, the Gospel has to do with my subjective relation to God within my own existence — my relation to him as myself a subject called to shape the meaning of life as I go along, thanks to my own ‘existential’ decisions, what I choose to regard as ‘authentic’, as valid ‘for me’.

Francesca Murphy draws attention to the usefulness of Balthasar’s corpus for those seeking to repel the Bultmann-style subversion of revelation-guided thought. Balthasar was clearly right to identify the hazards of granting primacy to what the last Chapter of this study called an ‘I ‘ I’ principle in laying intellectual foundations — rather than the ‘I’-world principle where the transcendentals can enter the picture from the very start.

A starting-point in the ‘I’-’I’ relationship will always prejudice the chances of any presentation of the incarnate Christ as divinity given in and through form. If as philosophers we follow the Kantians (and here is why, unlike most modern thinkers in the German language, Balthasar preferred to Kant the more classically inspired mind-set of Goethe), we abandon the really metaphysical path to God leading as that path does through a substantial, material world — in other words, a world of substances that make themselves known through their forms to human intelligence, mediated by the senses. And when we come to the theology of revelation, where the acting subject is not ourselves but God himself reaching out to us, we shall inevitably, sooner or later, cease to think of God’s movement toward us as really mediated by the forms and images, understood as valid for everyone, in which the Bible deals.

This for Balthasar is where appeal to pulchrum, the transcendental we call ‘the beautiful’ can help restore the integrity of a Christologically-given revelation of the God of all being. The significance of the beautiful is that it indicates how an object might be outside us, facing us, and yet at the same time draw us into itself. Of all the transcendentals, the beautiful is the closest to our senses. It is, therefore, more directly present to us than are hue other transcendental properties of being.

The beautiful is a fully objective property of being, but it is the nature of this property to be communicative, to communicate itself to observers. The beautiful is reality under the aspect of form, known as such by imaginative intuition, just as truth is reality as best known through propositions, by the intelligence, and goodness is reality as best known through values, by the moral sense.

These ways of knowing refer to the same world manifesting itself in distinct but analogously related ways: as beautiful, true and good respectively. Specifically, the antidote Balthasar would prescribe for the sick theological patient is stored at the centre of his aesthetics where he draws on the Augustinian and mediaeval tradition which ascribed transcendental beauty most especially to the divine Son. In, for example, the prima pars of the Summa Theologiae, St Thomas explains that Christ has radiance through being the Art of the Father, where the Word illuminates the mind that contemplates him. He has proportion because he is the fullest likeness of the Father. He has integrity because his form is the Father’s form. [Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia q39, a8]

And for Aquinas precisely those three qualities — radiance, proportion, integrity — are the hallmarks of the beautiful. St Thomas was speaking of the pre-existent Son, who is with the Father from all eternity. Balthasar, by contrast, wants to apply pulchrum to the incarnate Son, precisely in his sensuous as well as intelligible form, a form that is well accommodated to our finitude so that we may grasp it.

But how, we may ask, is this particular doctrine the remedy an ailing theological culture needs? The human yearning for structured intelligibility, the single chief impetus to the making of art, suggested to Balthasar an analogy in art — and notably visual art — for the form and splendor attaching to the transcendent beauty of Christ  Considered as symbols, artworks function within the analogical network of being whose indefinitely extended character we charted in Chapter One.

Though they belong to immanent being — the realm of being that is suitably proportioned to the human mind, they also participate in the transcendentals, and thus they have a relation to the transcendent, divine Being that is all creation’s source. Aesthetic beauty, we can say, strives towards transcendental beauty, and this is a token of its spirituality.

Yet aesthetic beauty cannot spiritualize itself. It is ordered to the delight of the embodied human mind of everyman or everywoman — toward the satisfaction of the imagination as earthed in this world. It can, then, only receive a direction toward the transcendent, and do so, accordingly, from beyond itself. The supreme, altogether unified, and yet interior experience the Romantics were looking for is not self-shaped.

Rather, it is shaped by a transcendent and supernatural form. The subject of religious experience, the human self, can be, ought to be, and has been, re-formed by its transcendent object. Human experience enters true synthesis through receiving an objective revealed form that brings it to fulfillment. The self becomes re-formed divinely when it lets Christ’s archetypal experience form its own.

All instances of the real participate in form in analogically ordered degrees, but that means in unequal degrees. Every beautiful form possesses an openness to the infinite, but some beautiful forms possess this more than others. Beautiful form is heterogeneous, differentiated, qualitatively variable, of more or less significance in terms of focusing the totality of being at large. A snow-crystal, a mango-tree, Michelangelo’s statue of King David, the Aurora Borealis, St Francis kissing the leper, do this to varying degrees.

Every form is a contraction of the totality of being, and some are more contracted than others. This should remind us that it is for God to provide the norm by which he will interpret himself (the word-play of `norm’ and `form’ only works in English — and Latin, but Balthasar wants his readers to understand `authoritative principle’ [norm] in aesthetic terms form]). Only God can fashion a form that could be a comprehensive revelation of himself, the world and our relation to both of these.

Balthasar stresses, however, that, though the phenomenon in which God supremely shows himself is indeed overwhelming, it is still a norm that is comprehensible to human modes of perception and knowing, and does not simply override these or lay them to one side. As he puts it in the metaphysics volume of the theological aesthetics:

if a concept that is fundamental to the Bible has no kind of analogy in the general intellectual sphere, and awoke no familiar echo in the heart of man, it would remain absolutely incomprehensible and thereby a matter of indifference. It is only when there is an analogy (be it only distant) between the human sense of the divine and divine revelation that the height, the difference and the distance of that which the revelation discloses may be measured in God’s grace.”
The Glory of the Lord, A Theological Aesthetics
IV The Realism of Metaphysics in Antiquity p. 14

No beauty in the world can be identified with God’s glory – though we might suspect that human personality, where the being of the world comes to its crown and its varied splendors (including their relation to God) can be perceived, might be a special locus for imaging glory (were it not, at any rate, for moral evil — a rather large obstacle in the way). There is, however:

one concrete historical event in which divine glory is fully present: in the beauty of the Christ
S. Van Erp, The Art of Theology, p.138


Balthasar and the Beautiful 1 –Aidan Nichols, OP

February 3, 2014


Hans Urs von Balthasar was considered to be one of the most important Catholic writers and theologians of the twentieth century. His works include over one hundred books and articles. He was devoted to addressing spiritual and practical issues of his time and resisted reductionism and the human focus of modernity, wanting Christians to challenge modern and philosophical assumptions. Balthasar is most famously known for his sixteen-volume systematic theology which is divided into three parts: The Glory of the Lord, Theo-Drama, and Theo-Logic. The Glory of the Lord, the seven-volume work on theological aesthetics, introduces theology based on the contemplation of the good, beautiful, and true. The second part of the trilogy, the five-volume Theo-Drama, focuses on theodramatics, the actions of God and our human response. Balthasar particularly focuses on the events of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. His soteriology, Christology, and eschatology are also developed in this series. The trilogy is completed with the three-volume Theo-Logic. Here, Balthasar describes the relation of the nature of Jesus Christ (Christology) to reality itself (ontology). Finally, in Epilogue Balthasar brings together the three parts of his trilogy by providing an overview and analysis of the preceeding 15 volumes. The Hans Urs von Balthasar Collection is sure to bring you insight, whether you’re wanting to discover new theological ideas or are seeking a deeper understanding of Christology, eschatology, Mariology, soteriology, and ontology.

Hans Urs von Balthasar was considered to be one of the most important Catholic writers and theologians of the twentieth century. His works include over one hundred books and articles. He was devoted to addressing spiritual and practical issues of his time and resisted reductionism and the human focus of modernity, wanting Christians to challenge modern and philosophical assumptions. Balthasar is most famously known for his sixteen-volume systematic theology which is divided into three parts: The Glory of the Lord, Theo-Drama, and Theo-Logic. The Glory of the Lord, the seven-volume work on theological aesthetics, introduces theology based on the contemplation of the good, beautiful, and true. The second part of the trilogy, the five-volume Theo-Drama, focuses on theodramatics, the actions of God and our human response. Balthasar particularly focuses on the events of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. His soteriology, Christology, and eschatology are also developed in this series. The trilogy is completed with the three-volume Theo-Logic. Here, Balthasar describes the relation of the nature of Jesus Christ (Christology) to reality itself (ontology). Finally, in Epilogue Balthasar brings together the three parts of his trilogy by providing an overview and analysis of the preceeding 15 volumes. The Hans Urs von Balthasar Collection is sure to bring you insight, whether you’re wanting to discover new theological ideas or are seeking a deeper understanding of Christology, eschatology, Mariology, soteriology, and ontology.

John Christopher “Aidan” Nichols OP (born 17 September 1948) is an academic and Catholic priest. Nichols served as the first John Paul II Memorial Visiting Lecturer at the University of Oxford for 2006 to 2008, the first lectureship of Catholic theology at that university since the Reformation. He is a member of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans) and was formerly the Prior of St Michael and All Angels in Cambridge. Nichols began his academic work in the Russian theological tradition and has written on many figures including Sergei Bulgakov. However he is best known for his work on Hans Urs von Balthasar, publishing three analytic volumes on von Balthasar’s famous trilogy: The Word Has Been Abroad: A Guide Through Balthasar’s Aesthetics (1998) , No Bloodless Myth: A Guide Through Balthasar’s Dramatics (2000)   and Say It Is Pentecost: A Guide Through Balthasar’s Logic (2001).  He was also one of the contributors to the Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar (2004) . The following is taken from a chapter on a much shorter work concerning Beauty, Goodness and Truth in Balthazar’s thought.


The Place Of Beauty
Balthasar was deeply opposed to the separation of the beautiful from the true and the good. The idea of beauty, he lamented, has been reduced to that of a merely this-worldly aesthetics, with baleful consequences for Christian faith and morals. Beauty’s separation from the other transcendentals, and the consequent rise of what Balthasar terms the ‘aestheticisation’ of the beautiful, is at least partly responsible, he thinks, for the inability of people to pray and contemplate.

The notion of the sheer beauty of the divine Being has disappeared. The severance of beauty from goodness and truth also helps to explain the perceived reduction of the moral order to a self-centered relativism, and the retrenchment of the metaphysical order to a materialism placed at the service of either technology or psychology or both. The final upshot of all this, he predicts, will be incapacity for either faith or love.

Unfashionably, Balthasar holds that, in the modern Western epoch, the Church has become the guardian of metaphysics. We live in a period when `things are deprived of the splendor reflected from eternity’. In our time, only an orthodox Christian mind and heart can bridge the gap between, on the one hand, an acosmic spirituality — a religiosity concerned merely with salvation in some other realm, private, interior, extra-mundane, and, on the other hand, a present world consigned to domination by positivists for whom all that exists is only organized matter.

Revelation can be a therapy for a metaphysical malaise that has, at the moment, no other medicine available. Tutored by revelation, the orthodox believer can show people how once again to experience the cosmos as what Balthasar terms `the revelation of an infinity of grace and love’. In the course of the eighty or one hundred years before Balthasar was writing, imaginative writers like Gerard Manley Hopkins, in England, and, in France, Paul Claudel and Charles Peguy managed precisely this, as had in Austria, qua composer of music, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart a century before them. They showed it was possible.

And so they gave us marching orders for what we in our turn should be doing — `all proportions guarded’, as the French say, not all of us can be great creative artists — as Christians who reflect on the revelation given them and wish to apply its benefits to the surrounding culture.

More widely, in Balthasar’s analysis, there must be a reunion of philosophy and theology, and, within theology, a reunion of spirituality and dogmatic thought, if there is to be for Western man — who is now for many purposes global man — a recovery of the sense of the integrity of being, in its co-constitutive transcendent and immanent dimensions. Thus in the first part of his trilogy, which he called a `theological aesthetics’, Balthasar sets himself the task of trying to perceive the objective form of revelation, in creation and in Jesus Christ, in all its splendid, harmonious and symphonic fullness.

What Are `Theological Aesthetics’?
What, then, does Balthasar mean by `theological aesthetics’? It is important to get clear from the outset that he does not intend to confine himself to a consideration of the beauty of the created world — whether, with antiquity, we have in mind there the harmony of the cosmic order, or whether, in the spirit of European Romanticism, we are more struck by the terrible but wonderful power of nature. Without excluding such considerations, the defining question of theological aesthetics goes beyond them — as it must if it is to include in its purview not only creation but salvation. For Balthasar, that defining question runs: How can the revelation of God’s sovereign grace be perceived in the world?

In his use of the phrase `theological aesthetics’, Balthasar gives the `aesthetics’ component two co-essential meanings. The first of these is indebted to Immanuel Kant, who used the word frequently enough in his Critique of Judgment, which is itself an essay in philosophical aesthetics albeit of the limited sort that Kant, on his own presuppositions in epistemology and ontology, felt able to write. `Aesthetics’ considers the part played at the higher levels of our experience by the human senses, of which sight has often been singled out as the most noble. So `theological aesthetics’ will consider the part played by the senses — with their associated powers of memory and imagination — in the awareness of God.

Balthasar invokes this meaning of the phrase in relation to, above all, the series of revelatory events and processes which culminated in the appearance of Christ. In Christ, his eternal Word or Son now come on earth, God made himself — as the First Letter of St John insists — a sensuous Object, being seen, heard, touched. Indeed, thanks to the assumption of human nature by the Logos at the Incarnation, a woman (we call her, accordingly, the Theotokos, the ‘God-bearer’) felt him growing in her body.

In the opening volume of The Glory of the Lord, Balthasar stresses the way the divine ‘form’ that is made available to human perception in Jesus Christ is mediated by the historical record (the Gospels and other New Testament writings), but also by the Liturgy and Christian experience. In various ways, a number of which he explores, the human imagination has been seized by this central figure of revelation — this (in Latin) figura, this (in German) Gestalt, this (in both English and German) F/form, which is close enough to another Latin word for it: forma.

Still on the first meaning of the phrase ‘theological aesthetics’: when Balthasar embarked on this project, many readers seemed to have had difficulty in getting hold of what he was saying. But really, his concept of the aesthetic perception should not perplex a readership in any way familiar with the res Christiana, ‘the Christian thing’. Take, for example, what G. K. Chesterton has to say on the subject in his celebrated came to study St Thomas Aquinas. In the passage I have in mind, he is talking about the difference the Incarnation makes, or should make, to the way we evaluate the importance of the senses. In Christian theology, wrote Chesterton

[It]here really was a new reason for regarding the senses, and the sensations of the body, and the experiences of the common man, with a reverence at which great Aristotle would have stared, and no man in the ancient world could have begun to understand. The Body was no longer what it was when Plato and Porphyry and the old mystics had left it for dead. It had hung upon a gibbet. It had risen from a tomb. It was no longer possible for the soul to despise the senses, which had been the organs of something that was more than man. Plato might despise the flesh but God had not despised it. The senses had truly become sanctified; as they are blessed one by one at a Catholic baptism. ‘Seeing is believing’ was no longer the platitude of a mere idiot, or common individual, as in Plato’s world; it was mixed up with real conditions of real belief.
G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas27

So much, then, for the first meaning of `aesthetics’ in the term ‘theological aesthetics’: it signifies, quite simply, having to do with the senses.

The second way in which Balthasar uses the term `theological aesthetics’ is to denote a study of beauty — more especially an account of beauty as a transcendental determination of being, and most especially of all an exploration of the revealed cone-late of beauty which is, so Balthasar held, the glory of God.

Not all the Scholastics had treated pulchrum, `the beautiful’, explicitly as a transcendental, but the conviction gradually settled on the Thomist school that it is –just as much as truth and goodness or the remaining transcendental which Balthasar never used to structure a distinct theological treatise: unity. Thus for a mid-twentieth century Thomist, Jacques Maritain, beauty is the `splendor of being and of all the transcendentals re-united.’

On this presupposition, we might describe beautifully former objects as in-gatherings and out-pouring of that `splendor’. In Balthasar’s case, the most important of the key terms in the first use of `aesthetics’, namely `form’, recurs in the second way Balthasar uses the term. Form is just as important to an understanding of beauty as it is to an account of how reality is presented to us by the senses.

Again, some people confess themselves bemused by what Balthasar means by the word `form’, which owes something to Goethe but rather more to Aquinas. But here, once more, is what Chesterton had to say in his little book on St Thomas:

‘Formal’ in Thomist language means actual or possessing the real decisive quality that makes a thing itself Roughly, when [Thomas] describes a thing as made out of Form and Matter, he very rightly recognizes that Matter is the more mysterious and indefinite and featureless element; and that what stamps anything with its identity is its Form.

And Chesterton goes on to say in this same passage:

Every artist knows that the form is not superficial but fundamental; that the form is the foundation. Every sculptor knows that the form of the statue is not the outside of the statue, but rather the inside of the statue; even in the sense of the inside of the sculptor. Every poet knows that the sonnet form is not only the form of the poem, but the poem.

And Chesterton concludes, rather peremptorily perhaps:

No modern critic who does not understand what the mediaeval Schoolman meant by form can meet the mediaeval Schoolman as an intellectual equal.”

Like Chesterton and indeed Maritain, Balthasar is thinking of natural forms as well as humanly shaped ones. A relatively straightforward summary of what he has in mind might run something like this. The perceptible form of an object is the expression, under particular conditions, of its metaphysical form — its essence or nature. We are glad when a perceptual form is rich, clear, and expressive because we feel that it lays open the object to us, even though we may also feel there is more in the thing’s nature than appears in this or that single expression.

From here we can go one step further. Something’s nature, surely, is itself one expression of the inherent possibilities of being at large. So when, in appreciating the clear, rich, expressive sensuous form, we also look through it to the nature of the thing in question, through that again we look to what one student of Balthasar’s aesthetics has called `the vast ocean of formal fertility which is the mystery of being’. The form of a thing may tell us more than just about itself. It may also tell us something about the world in which it is situated, about the universe.

The clarity of form in Balthasar’s aesthetics can usefully be contrasted with Descartes’ equally strong emphasis on `clarity’ in his philosophy of mind. Descartes was in love with what he called `clear and distinct ideas’. Balthasar’s concept of clarity, however, is taken from Thomas, for whom clarity — radiance — is one of the essential traits of the beautiful, along with proportion and integrity.

This is a very different sort of `brightness’. The brightness of the beautiful is something that overwhelms us, impelling us and enabling us to enter further into the depths of being than the unaided intelligence can venture. And whereas the Cartesian `idea’ is, in Scholastic terms, an intuited potential essence — something that may or may not be the case about the world, the Thomistic `radiance’ is expressed by a form actually enacting its own existence, its being-in-act.

We could explain the meaning of the second component in ‘theological aesthetics’ as an intersection of two axes: `vertical’ and `horizontal’ (not exactly exhilarating language, but it is handy). For Balthasar, the dimensions of the beautiful are ‘vertically’, an infinite depth of splendor, which, `horizontally’, is expressed in a materially graspable extension of form. The beautiful unifies — on the one hand — the definitely shaped form of something present, something on which the mind can come to rest, with — on the other hand — an endless sea of radiant intelligibility in which the mind can move without limitation. The beautiful is, as he would put it, the meeting-place of finite form with infinite light.

Balthasar seems to expand the Scholastic teaching on pulchrum by marrying it with the notion of the `sublime’, an idea the late-eighteenth-century Romantic authors found, or thought they found, in the ancients. The sublime reminds people that ontological beauty is a mystery whose inner momentum can never fully be grasped.” Unlike the Romantics, however, Balthasar is always careful not to allow `sublimity’ to dissolve forms into a general sea of being, where objects lose their outlines and coalesce.


“The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

August 17, 2012

Colijn de Coter, Man of Sorrows, circa 1500.

Every year, in the Liturgy of the Hours for the Season of Lent, I am struck anew by a paradox in Vespers for Monday of the Second Week of the Psalter. Here, side by side, are two antiphons, one for the Season of Lent, the other for Holy Week. Both introduce Psalm 44 [45], but they present strikingly contradictory interpretations. The Psalm describes the wedding of the King, his beauty, his virtues, his mission, and then becomes an exaltation of his bride. In the Season of Lent, Psalm 44 is framed by the same antiphon used for the rest of the year. The third verse of the Psalm says: “You are the fairest of the children of men and grace is poured upon your lips”.

Naturally, the Church reads this psalm as a poetic-prophetic representation of Christ’s spousal relationship with his Church. She recognizes Christ as the fairest of men, the grace poured upon his lips points to the inner beauty of his words, the glory of his proclamation. So it is not merely the external beauty of the Redeemer’s appearance that is glorified: rather, the beauty of Truth appears in him, the beauty of God himself who draws us to himself and, at the same time captures us with the wound of Love, the holy passion (eros), that enables us to go forth together, with and in the Church his Bride, to meet the Love who calls us.

On Monday of Holy Week, however, the Church changes the antiphon and invites us to interpret the Psalm in the light of Is 53,2: “He had neither beauty, no majesty, nothing to attract our eyes, no grace to make us delight in him”. How can we reconcile this? The appearance of the “fairest of the children of men” is so wretched that no one desires to look at him. Pilate presented him to the crowd saying: “Behold the man!“, to rouse sympathy for the crushed and battered Man, in whom no external beauty remained.

Augustine, who in his youth wrote a book on the Beautiful and the Harmonious [De pulchro et apto] and who appreciated beauty in words, in music, in the figurative arts, had a keen appreciation of this paradox and realized that in this regard, the great Greek philosophy of the beautiful was not simply rejected but rather, dramatically called into question and what the beautiful might be, what beauty might mean, would have to be debated anew and suffered. Referring to the paradox contained in these texts, he spoke of the contrasting blasts of “two trumpets”, produced by the same breath, the same Spirit. He knew that a paradox is contrast and not contradiction. Both quotes come from the same Spirit who inspires all Scripture, but sounds different notes in it. It is in this way that he sets us before the totality of true Beauty, of Truth itself.

In the first place, the text of Isaiah supplies the question that interested the Fathers of the Church, whether or not Christ was beautiful. Implicit here is the more radical question of whether beauty is true or whether it is not ugliness that leads us to the deepest truth of reality. Whoever believes in God, in the God who manifested himself, precisely in the altered appearance of Christ crucified as love “to the end” (John13,1), knows that beauty is truth and truth beauty; but in the suffering Christ he also learns that the beauty of truth also embraces offence, pain, and even the dark mystery of death, and that this can only be found in accepting suffering, not in ignoring it.

Certainly, the consciousness that beauty has something to do with pain was also present in the Greek world. For example, let us take Plato’s Phaedrus. Plato contemplates the encounter with beauty as the salutary emotional shock that makes man leave his shell and sparks his “enthusiasm” by attracting him to what is other than himself. Man, says Plato, has lost the original perfection that was conceived for him. He is now perennially searching for the healing primitive form. Nostalgia and longing impel him to pursue the quest; beauty prevents him from being content with just daily life. It causes him to suffer.

In a Platonic sense, we could say that the arrow of nostalgia pierces man, wounds him and in this way gives him wings, lifts him upwards towards the transcendent. In his discourse in the Symposium, Aristophanes says that lovers do not know what they really want from each other. From the search for what is more than their pleasure, it is obvious that the souls of both are thirsting for something other than amorous pleasure. But the heart cannot express this “other” thing, “it has only a vague perception of what it truly wants and wonders about it as an enigma”.

In the 14th century, in the book, “The Life in Christ” by the Byzantine theologian, Nicholas Cabasilas, we rediscover Plato’s experience in which the ultimate object of nostalgia, transformed by the new Christian experience, continues to be nameless. Cabasilas says: “When men have a longing so great that it surpasses human nature and eagerly desire and are able to accomplish things beyond human thought, it is the Bridegroom who has smitten them with this longing. It is he who has sent a ray of his beauty into their eyes. The greatness of the wound already shows the arrow which has struck home, the longing indicates who has inflicted the wound” (cf. The Life in Christ, the Second Book, 15).

The beautiful wounds, but this is exactly how it summons man to his final destiny. What Plato said, and, more than 1,500 years later, Cabasilas, has nothing to do with superficial aestheticism and irrationalism or with the flight from clarity and the importance of reason. The beautiful is knowledge certainly, but, in a superior form, since it arouses man to the real greatness of the truth. Here Cabasilas has remained entirely Greek, since he puts knowledge first when he says, “In fact it is knowing that causes love and gives birth to it…. Since this knowledge is sometimes very ample and complete and at other times imperfect, it follows that the love potion has the same effect” (cf. ibid.).

He is not content to leave this assertion in general terms. In his characteristically rigorous thought, he distinguishes between two kinds of knowledge: knowledge through instruction which remains, so to speak, “second hand” and does not imply any direct contact with reality itself. The second type of knowledge, on the other hand, is knowledge through personal experience, through a direct relationship with the reality. “Therefore we do not love it to the extent that it is a worthy object of love, and since we have not perceived the very form itself we do not experience its proper effect”.

True knowledge is being struck by the arrow of Beauty that wounds man, moved by reality, “how it is Christ himself who is present and in an ineffable way disposes and forms the souls of men” (cf. ibid.).

Being struck and overcome by the beauty of Christ is a more real, more profound knowledge than mere rational deduction. Of course we must not underrate the importance of theological reflection, of exact and precise theological thought; it remains absolutely necessary. But to move from here to disdain or to reject the impact produced by the response of the heart in the encounter with beauty as a true form of knowledge would impoverish us and dry up our faith and our theology. We must rediscover this form of knowledge; it is a pressing need of our time.

Starting with this concept, Hans Urs von Balthasar built his Opus magnum of Theological Aesthetics. Many of its details have passed into theological work, while his fundamental approach, in truth the essential element of the whole work, has not been so readily accepted. Of course, this is not just, or principally, a theological problem, but a problem of pastoral life, that has to foster the human person’s encounter with the beauty of faith.

All too often arguments fall on deaf ears because in our world too many contradictory arguments compete with one another, so much so that we are spontaneously reminded of the medieval theologians’ description of reason, that it “has a wax nose’: in other words, it can be pointed in any direction, if one is clever enough. Everything makes sense, is so convincing, whom should we trust?

The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes, so that later, from this experience, we take the criteria for judgment and can correctly evaluate the arguments. For me an unforgettable experience was the Bach concert that Leonard Bernstein conducted in Munich after the sudden death of Karl Richter. I was sitting next to the Lutheran Bishop Hanselmann. When the last note of one of the great Thomas-Kantor-Cantatas triumphantly faded away, we looked at each other spontaneously and right then we said: “Anyone who has heard this, knows that the faith is true”. The music had such an extraordinary force of reality that we realized, no longer by deduction, but by the impact on our hearts, that it could not have originated from nothingness, but could only have come to be through the power of the Truth that became real in the composer’s inspiration.

The icon of the Trinity of Rublëv

Isn’t the same thing evident when we allow ourselves to be moved by the icon of the Trinity of Rublëv? In the art of the icons, as in the great Western paintings of the Romanesque and Gothic period, the experience described by Cabasilas, starting with interiority, is visibly portrayed and can be shared.

In a rich way Pavel Evdokimov has brought to light the interior pathway that an icon establishes. An icon does not simply reproduce what can be perceived by the senses, but rather it presupposes, as he says, “a fasting of sight”. Inner perception must free itself from the impression of the merely sensible, and in prayer and ascetical effort acquire a new and deeper capacity to see, to perform the passage from what is merely external to the profundity of reality, in such a way that the artist can see what the senses as such do not see, and what actually appears in what can be perceived: the splendor of the glory of God, the “glory of God shining on the face of Christ(2 Corinthians 4,6).

To admire the icons and the great masterpieces of Christian art in general, leads us on an inner way, a way of overcoming ourselves; thus in this purification of vision that is a purification of the heart, it reveals the beautiful to us, or at least a ray of it. In this way we are brought into contact with the power of the truth. I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the faith has generated. Today, for faith to grow, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to enter into contact with the Beautiful.

Now however, we still have to respond to an objection. We have already rejected the assumption which claims that what has just been said is a flight into the irrational, into mere aestheticism.

Rather, it is the opposite that is true: this is the very way in which reason is freed from dullness and made ready to act.

Today another objection has even greater weight: the message of beauty is thrown into complete doubt by the power of falsehood, seduction, violence and evil. Can the beautiful be genuine, or, in the end, is it only an illusion? Isn’t reality perhaps basically evil? The fear that in the end it is not the arrow of the beautiful that leads us to the truth, but that falsehood, all that is ugly and vulgar, may constitute the true “reality” has at all times caused people anguish.

At present this has been expressed in the assertion that after Auschwitz it was no longer possible to write poetry; after Auschwitz it is no longer possible to speak of a God who is good. People wondered: where was God when the gas chambers were operating? This objection, which seemed reasonable enough before Auschwitz when one realized all the atrocities of history, shows that in any case a purely harmonious concept of beauty is not enough. It cannot stand up to the confrontation with the gravity of the questioning about God, truth and beauty. Apollo, who for Plato’s Socrates was “the God” and the guarantor of unruffled beauty as “the truly divine” is absolutely no longer sufficient.

In this way, we return to the “two trumpets” of the Bible with which we started, to the paradox of being able to say of Christ: “You are the fairest of the children of men”, and: “He had no beauty, no majesty to draw our eyes, no grace to make us delight in him”.In the Passion of Christ the Greek aesthetic that deserves admiration for its perceived contact with the Divine but which remained inexpressible for it, in Christ’s passion is not removed but overcome. The experience of the beautiful has received new depth and new realism.

The One who is the Beauty itself let himself be slapped in the face, spat upon, crowned with thorns; the Shroud of Turin can help us imagine this in a realistic way. However, in his Face that is so disfigured, there appears the genuine, extreme beauty: the beauty of love that goes “to the very end“; for this reason it is revealed as greater than falsehood and violence. Whoever has perceived this beauty knows that truth, and not falsehood, is the real aspiration of the world. It is not the false that is “true”, but indeed, the Truth.

It is, as it were, a new trick of what is false to present itself as “truth” and to say to us: over and above me there is basically nothing, stop seeking or even loving the truth; in doing so you are on the wrong track. The icon of the crucified Christ sets us free from this deception that is so widespread today. However it imposes a condition: that we let ourselves be wounded by him, and that we believe in the Love who can risk setting aside his external beauty to proclaim, in this way, the truth of the beautiful.

Falsehood however has another strategem. A beauty that is deceptive and false, a dazzling beauty that does not bring human beings out of themselves to open them to the ecstasy of rising to the heights, but indeed locks them entirely into themselves. Such beauty does not reawaken a longing for the Ineffable, readiness for sacrifice, the abandonment of self, but instead stirs up the desire, the will for power, possession and pleasure.

It is that type of experience of beauty of which Genesis speaks in the account of the Original Sin. Eve saw that the fruit of the tree was “beautiful” to eat and was “delightful to the eyes”. The beautiful, as she experienced it, aroused in her a desire for possession, making her, as it were, turn in upon herself. Who would not recognize, for example, in advertising, the images made with supreme skill that are created to tempt the human being irresistibly, to make him want to grab everything and seek the passing satisfaction rather than be open to others.

So it is that Christian art today is caught between two fires (as perhaps it always has been): it must oppose the cult of the ugly, which says that everything beautiful is a deception and only the representation of what is crude, low and vulgar is the truth, the true illumination of knowledge. Or it has to counter the deceptive beauty that makes the human being seem diminished instead of making him great, and for this reason is false.

Is there anyone who does not know Dostoyevsky’s often quoted sentence: “The Beautiful will save us”? However, people usually forget that Dostoyevsky is referring here to the redeeming Beauty of Christ. We must learn to see Him. If we know Him, not only in words, but if we are struck by the arrow of his paradoxical beauty, then we will truly know him, and know him not only because we have heard others speak about him. Then we will have found the beauty of Truth, of the Truth that redeems. Nothing can bring us into close contact with the beauty of Christ himself other than the world of beauty created by faith and light that shines out from the faces of the saints, through whom his own light becomes visible.


Jacques Maritain and Dietrich von Hildebrand On Beauty by Alice von Hildebrand

June 27, 2011


Dietrich von Hildebrand and Jacques Maritain


Alice von Hildebrand, wife of the Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand, examines the thoughts of two very different leading philosophers of aesthetics. First is Jacques Maritain and the second her husband. Alice von Hildebrand is professor emerita of philosophy at Hunter College of the City University of New York and a renowned author and speaker.

While many revere her husband Dietrich von Hildebrand as a religious author, few realize that he was a philosopher of great stature and importance. “Those who knew von Hildebrand as philosopher held him in the highest esteem. Louis Bouyer, for example, once said that “von Hildebrand was the most important Catholic philosopher in Europe between the two world wars.” Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger expressed even greater esteem when he said: “I am personally convinced that, when, at some time in the future, the intellectual history of the Catholic Church in the twentieth century is written, the name of Dietrich von Hildebrand will be most prominent among the figures of our time.”

Maritain at the time of his death in 1973 was arguably the most well known Catholic philosopher. Despite his fame it is not easy to place Maritain’s work within the history of philosophy in the 20th century. “Clearly, his influence was strongest in those countries where Thomistic philosophy had pride of place. While his political philosophy led him, at least in his time, to be considered a liberal and even a social democrat, he eschewed socialism and, in Le paysan de la Garonne, was an early critic of many of the religious reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council. One can say, then, that he would be considered by present-day liberals as too conservative, and by many conservatives as too liberal. Again, though generally considered to be a Thomist, the extent to which he was is a matter of some debate. Indeed, according to Etienne Gilson, Maritain’s ‘Thomism’ was really an epistemology and, hence, not a real Thomism at all. There is, not surprisingly, no generally shared view of the precise character of Maritain’s philosophy.”


Having taught both ethics and aesthetics many times in the course of my career, I’ve come to the conclusion that the latter is a much more demanding task. In both cases, the enemy to be fought is the deeply rooted relativism and subjectivism prevalent in our society. But in ethics, there’s always a possibility that students will agree that in some cases, the evil nature of certain acts cannot be contested.

But when it comes to aesthetic appreciation of individual works of art — much as thinkers might agree on some basic principles — the disagreements are baffling. Two philosophers might agree that there’s a hierarchy among beautiful objects but disagree violently as to which one is actually more beautiful.

Is aesthetic appreciation a question of taste, as one can like or dislike beer? Tastes cannot be debated, and such debates would be totally meaningless.

Just as mystifying is the fact that some great artists have often shown no appreciation for other artists. One is tempted to assume that artists are qualified to pass judgment on the works of their peers, but this is far from the case. It is amazing, for example, that an artistic giant such as Michelangelo “was singularly hard on Flemish painting,” “which attempting to do so many things does none of them well” (Maritain, Creative Intuition). Just as amazing is El Greco’s judgment on the same artist: “Michelangelo was a good man, but he did not know how to paint” (Ibid.). These assertions are so shocking that one’s tempted to draw the conclusion that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder and is therefore purely subjective.

Both Jacques Maritain and Dietrich von Hildebrand have written extensively on aesthetics. As close as these two devout Catholics were on central philosophical questions — the existence of God, the objectivity of moral values, the capacity that man’s mind has to reach absolute truth — their approach to aesthetics was vastly different.

Both men were great devotees of art. As a young man and later with his wife, Raissa, Maritain enjoyed going to the Louvre and contemplating its treasures. Dietrich von Hildebrand was the son of a great artist, brought up in Florence, acquainted with leading musicians and artists. He wrote his two-volume Aesthetics (close to a thousand pages) when he was more than 80 and completed the work in less than a year. Alice, the author of this piece was his wife.

Maritain’s Approach
Maritain based his views of aesthetics on the philosophy of St. Thomas. In his early work, Art and Scholasticism, Maritain acknowledged his debt to his master. But aesthetics, as Etienne Gilson remarked, is a field in which the Angelic Doctor had made but few major contributions.

In his writings, Maritain distinguished between two types of beauty: The first was “beauty as transcendental,” that is to say that beauty — like being, truth, and goodness — transcends all categories for the simple reason that it is a property of everything that exists. In other words, everything that is is beautiful. For God, Maritain argued, everything is beautiful, though he clarified this in a footnote:

Evil, it is true — the wound of nothingness by which the freedom of a creature deforms a voluntary act — is ugly in the eyes of God. But no being is ugly, as Angelus Silesius (Johann Scheffler) repeatedly points out.

Thus not only does Silesius claim that everything is beautiful, but he writes that “a frog is as beautiful as a Seraphic angel.” Whether everything is beautiful is one thing. The claim that an animal is as beautiful as an angel is quite another. Let us assume for the time being that the first assertion is true, and the second is obviously false. As there is a hierarchy of being, there is also a hierarchy of beauty: To claim that a saint is as beautiful as the Holy Virgin is plainly false.

One can also ask whether man can really know how God experiences beauty. Being Beauty itself, He need not perceive it frontally, as angels and humans do. Maritain proceeds: “Thus, just as everything is in its own way, and is good in its own way, so everything is beautiful in its own way.”

But this transcendental beauty isn’t what our senses perceive. And so we have another distinction that Maritain calls “aesthetic beauty,” that is, the type of beauty that we perceive through our eyes and ears. While transcendental beauty is intellectually perceived, our senses play a vital part in aesthetic beauty. The result is that not all things are beautiful to us. Writes Maritain: “The presence of the senses, which depend on our fleshly constitution, is inherently involved in the notion of aesthetic beauty. I would say that aesthetic beauty, which is not all beauty for man but which is the beauty most naturally proportioned to the human mind, is a particular determination of transcendental beauty: it is transcendental beauty as confronting not simply the intellect, but the intellect and the sense acting together in one single act.

Maritain didn’t stop there. He further praises Jean Paul Sartre for having highlighted the fact that ugliness, filth, and their cortege of negative characteristics are a category in existence. In other words, ugliness is a human phenomenon: that which is ugly, being seen, displeases; “where there is no sense, there is no category of ugliness.” For purely spiritual beings, “everything is a kind of spatial-temporal number, as Pythagoras saw it.” And if certain objects are experienced by man as noxious, “it is not because they are noxious, it is essentially because they are repugnant to the inner proportion or harmony of the sense itself.”

Ultimately, then, the artist aims at absorbing aesthetic beauty in transcendental beauty.

One can question whether it’s really true that “for a pure intellect, everything is a kind of spatial-temporal number, as Pythagoras saw it.” Certainly, there is such a thing as a beautiful mathematical demonstration, but one can raise the question whether this beauty can trigger in us the enchantment and Sursum Corda [Vocab:  (Latin for "Lift up your hearts") (Slavonic: Милост мира) is the opening dialogue to the Preface of the Eucharistic Prayer or Anaphora in the liturgies of the Christian Church, dating back to at least the third century and the Anaphora of the Apostolic Tradition.] that we experience in contemplating a great work of art or a glorious sunset.

Once the mind has perceived the convincing luminosity of a geometrical demonstration, the latter is hardly an object that it will contemplate over and over again. What is typical of the aesthetic experience is the desire to go from a joyful acquaintance with a beautiful object to a contemplative attitude characterized by the desire to dwell on it again and again. Quantum notiores, tantum cariores, writes St. Augustine. The better we know it, the more we love it. He who does not wish to go back to Florence because he’s seen it once is either blind to its beauty or very foolish. We rate our love for a piece of art according to our longing to see or hear it again.

Which one of us would prefer to have a Pythagorean acquaintance with aesthetic beauty than the one granted to us through our eyes and ears? John Henry Cardinal Newman had a particular love for music. In his monumental biography of this great English writer, Ian Ker writes that, listening to Beethoven’s quartets, “. . . he thought them more exquisite than ever” — “so that I was obliged to lay down the instrument and literally cry out with delight.” (Let us not forget that the English are well-known for controlling their feelings.) It’s hard to imagine that upon giving assent to the Euclidian proof that the sum of the angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles, Newman would have expressed the same explosive joy.

A Very Different View
Von Hildebrand’s presentation is different. He rejects the notion that whatever exists is beautiful and justifies his position — partly — by appealing to what he calls “metaphysical beauty.” This differs from transcendental beauty because it isn’t a characteristic of being. Rather it’s the radiance, the splendor, the glory of every value. But what is meant by value? Von Hildebrand distinguishes between two categories. The first he calls “ontological.” These are characterized by the fact that a being either possesses them or not. For example, man has an ontological value that is shared by all men: They’re all equally men.

Moreover, ontological values have no opposite: Logically, the opposite of man is “non-man;” but non-man is a concept, not a real entity. The universe is a hierarchy, and ontological values are structured according to this hierarchy. At the top, we have God, then angels, then men, then higher animals, then lower ones, then plants, then inanimate matter. Each one of them, according to its value and dignity, possesses beauty.

Von Hildebrand remarks further that it’s vitally important for human beings to be aware of their ontological value — their dignity as persons made in God’s image and likeness. The pantheistic view that we’re but drops in an immense universe is fake humility, a subtle lack of gratitude for the fact that God — in His infinite bounty and generosity — has metaphysically “knighted” us.

Apart from ontological values that are more or less beautiful according to their ontological rank, von Hildebrand speaks about qualitative values, moral values, intellectual values, and aesthetical values, to mention the most important ones. These clearly differ from ontological values for the obvious reason that one can possess them more or less. Men are not equally just, or kind, or generous, or beautiful. Some are geniuses, some are intellectually talented, and some have a mediocre intelligence. Some are exceptionally handsome, some are pleasant-looking, and some have a physical appearance that only a mother’s love can appreciate.

Moreover, qualitative values have opposites: Moral goodness is opposed to moral evil; stupidity antagonizes intelligence; ugliness is at loggerheads with beauty. He stresses the fact that moral wickedness isn’t just an absence of goodness, but, alas, a very real quality called sin, which, because of its reality, offends God. Stupidity isn’t just a weak intelligence but a full-fledged negative quality. And ugliness isn’t just an absence of beauty but wages war on it.

The author tells us, further, that qualitative values are beautiful and that once again, their degree of beauty depends on the degree in which a good incorporates this value. In other words, the moral value of a saint is infinitely more beautiful than the moral value of an honest man. Plato’s genius is more beautiful than the mind of a thinker of lower rank. Good is opposed to evil, intelligence to stupidity, beauty to ugliness.

Qualitative values, as opposed to ontological ones, shouldn’t make us focus on our own persons. The saint doesn’t contemplate his own humility — that would be the best and fastest way to lose it. The person endowed with remarkable intellectual gifts should be concerned about using the gifts for God’s glory and not gloat over them. Similarly, the beautiful person who is narcissistic would inevitably lose one dimension of aesthetic beauty.

All values are beautiful, whether ontological or qualitative. But in all of them, except in aesthetic values, beauty isn’t the theme. Rather, it’s a halo, a perfume that necessarily accompanies them, but shouldn’t be the locus of our interest. Moreover, all of them (except some aesthetic values) are intellectually perceived. Whereas only persons can be morally good or intelligent, aesthetic values can be found in every single level of being: An animal can be beautiful, as can plants and inanimate matter. Beauty is the most universal of all values. It’s found both in ontological and qualitative values.

But some aesthetic values (should we call them artistic values?) need the integrity of our sight and hearing in order to be perceived. In this Maritain and von Hildebrand agree. The beauty that we find in art is “thematic.” The philosopher worthy of the name should be a truth lover and a truth seeker. Neither his “brilliance” nor his style should be our concern in reading his works. The one question that is crucial is: Is what he says true? This does not prevent us from appreciating his stylistic gifts, but his work should not be rated according to it. The aesthete — that is, the person who makes of beauty his one exclusive concern — would have to rate Nietzsche above Aristotle because of the beauty of his style. This would clearly be a perversion.

The artist’s aim should be to create beauty. If he fails to do so, he is a bad artist. A writer whose novels are boring and clumsy is a bad writer. And a philosopher whose aim is “originality” and who cares not whether his claims are justified by agreeing with reality is a bad philosopher.

Two Ways
Clearly, Maritain and von Hildebrand have different approaches to aesthetic beauty. As mentioned, the latter makes no use of “transcendental beauty,” arguing that the knowledge that something exists does not guarantee that this object is beautiful.

Moreover, both thinkers differ in their interpretation of sense-perceived beauty. Maritain considers it a purely human phenomenon, as it necessarily presupposes sense perception. Far from denying the importance of the senses, von Hildebrand differs from the French philosopher in his claim that whereas the beauty of a painting or of music is perceived through the senses, the message it delivers totally transcends the world of matter.

Whereas for Maritain, sense experiences are purely human, both Newman and von Hildebrand claim that though man’s senses are necessarily involved, the message they communicate radically transcends the world of pure matter. It transmits a message coming from above, some mysterious echo of “the eternal hills” that sharpen our longing for Beauty itself — that is, God.

In metaphysical beauty there’s a perfect proportion between the dignity of the object and its beauty. In sense-perceived beauty — and this is a mirandumthere’s a total disproportion between the material used and the result obtained. What, after all, are tones? What are colors and forms? What are canvasses and bronze? They rank low on the metaphysical scale, but by some mysterious artistic transformation, they can radiate a beauty that brings tears to our eyes.

This is why von Hildebrand speaks of a quasi-sacramental dimension of sense-perceived beauty. In baptism, plain water is poured on the head of a child, while the priest pronounces some words, and lo, through these mediums, the Holy Trinity takes hold of the child’s soul and blots out the stain of original sin. Our response to beauty is awe, enchantment, gratitude — something that a meditation on purely abstract being cannot give us. Our senses are like windows opened to a sublime world — a sort of Promised Land. This explains the deepest stirrings of the heart, this profound emotion that takes the one whose eyes and ears are opened to the message of beauty.

The aesthetic difference between Maritain and von Hildebrand also finds its expression in their appreciation of concrete works of art. Maritain — a close friend of Georges Rouault — sees 19th- and early 20th-century French painting as a climax of artistic beauty. Echoing her husband, Raissa Maritain calls Rouault “the greatest religious painter of our time” and adds “one of the greatest painters of all times.”

Maritain feels so strongly about this that he doesn’t hesitate to disparage the distinguished historian of art, Hans Sedlmayr, for criticizing Cezanne in his famous work Verlust de Mitte. (Maritain accused Sedlmayr and Fritz Novotny of being “biased doctrinaires” and of making “blind judgments” for detecting in Maritain’s favorite painter the germs of cultural degeneration.)

Von Hildebrand would certainly not place Cezanne, Rouault, Chagall, Braque, and some of the “most durable works of Picasso” on the level of Giotto, Giorgione, Titian, Leonardo, or Michelangelo (to mention some of the many geniuses that Catholic culture has produced).

The reader is free to draw his own conclusions. Disagreements between art lovers — much less philosophers — don’t prevent us from claiming that artistic beauty is a great gift, not only in our human life but in our religious life as well. Indeed, it’s a faint reflection of the Eternal Beauty.


Art and Beauty Part III – Jacques Maritain

June 21, 2011

The moment one touches a transcendental, one touches being itself, a likeness of God, an absolute, that which ennobles and delights our life; one enters into the domain of the spirit. It is remarkable that men really communicate with one another only by passing through being or one of its properties. Only in this way do they escape from the individuality in which matter encloses them. If they remain in the world of their sense needs and of their sentimental egos, in vain do they tell their stories to one another, they do not understand each other. They observe each other without seeing each other, each one of them infinitely alone, even though work or sense pleasures bind them together.

But let one touch the good and Love, like the saints, the true, like an Aristotle, the beautiful, like a Dante or a Bach or a Giotto, then contact is made, souls communicate. Men are really united only by the spirit; light alone brings them together, intellectualia et rationalia omnia congregans, et indestructibilia faciens.

Art in general tends to make a work. But certain arts tend to make a beautiful work, and in this they differ essentially from all the others. The work to which all the other arts tend is itself ordered to the service of man, and is therefore a simple means; and it is entirely enclosed in a determined material genus. The work to which the fine arts tend is ordered to beauty; as beautiful, it is an end, an absolute, it suffices of itself; and if, as work-to-be-made, it is material and enclosed in a genus, as beautiful it belongs to the kingdom of the spirit and plunges deep into the transcendence and the infinity of being.

The fine arts thus stand out in the genus art as man stands out in the genus animal. And like man himself they are like a horizon where matter and spirit meet. They have a spiritual soul. Hence they possess many distinctive properties. Their contact with the beautiful modifies in them certain characteristics of art in general, notably, as I shall try to show, with respect to the rules of art; on the other hand, this contact discloses and carries to a sort of excess other generic characteristics of the virtue of art, above all its intellectual character and its resemblance to the speculative virtues.

There is a curious analogy between the fine arts and wisdom. Like wisdom, they are ordered to an object which transcends man and which is of value in itself, and whose amplitude is limitless, for beauty, like being, is infinite. They are disinterested, desired for themselves, truly noble because their work taken in itself is not made in order that one may use it as a means, but in order that one may enjoy it as an end, being a true fruit, aliquid ultimum et delectabile. Their whole value is spiritual, and their mode of being is contemplative. For if contemplation is not their act, as it is the act of wisdom, nevertheless they aim at producing an intellectual delight, that is to say, a kind of contemplation; and they also presuppose in the artist a kind of contemplation, from which the beauty of the work must overflow.

That is why we may apply to them, with due allowance, what Saint Thomas says of wisdom when he compares it to play: “The contemplation of wisdom is rightly compared to play, because of two things that one finds in play. The first is that play is delightful, and the contemplation of wisdom has the greatest delight, according to what Wisdom says of itself in Ecclesiasticus: my spirit is sweet above honey. The second is that the movements of play are not ordered to anything else, but are sought for themselves. And it is the same with the delights of wisdom. . . . That is why divine Wisdom compares its delight to play: I was delighted every day, playing before him in the world. “

But Art remains, nevertheless, in the order of Making, and it is by drudgery upon some matter that it aims at delighting the spirit. Hence for the artist a strange and saddening condition, image itself of man’s condition in the world, where he must wear himself out among bodies and live with the spirits. Though reproaching the old poets for holding Divinity to be jealous, Aristotle acknowledges that they were right in saying that the possession of wisdom is in the strict sense reserved to Divinity alone: “It is not a human possession, for human nature is a slave in so many ways.” To produce beauty likewise belongs to God alone in the strict sense. And if the condition of the artist is more human and less exalted than that of the wise man, it is also more discordant and more painful, because his activity does not remain wholly within the pure immanence of spiritual operations, and does not in itself consist in contemplating, but in making. Without enjoying the substance and the peace of wisdom, he is caught up in the hard exigencies of the intellect and the speculative life, and he is condemned to all the servile miseries of practice and of temporal production.

“Dear Brother Leo, God’s little beast, even if a Friar Minor spoke the language of the angels and raised to life a man dead for four days, note it well that it is not therein that perfect joy is found. . . .”

Even if the artist were to encompass in his work all the light of heaven and all the grace of the first garden, he would not have perfect joy, because he is following wisdom’s footsteps and running by the scent of its perfumes, but does not possess it. Even if the philosopher were to know all the intelligible reasons and all the properties of being, he would not have perfect joy, because his wisdom is human. Even if the theologian were to know all the analogies of the divine processions and all the whys and the wherefores of Christ’s actions, he would not have perfect joy, because his wisdom has a divine origin but a human mode, and a human voice.

Ah! les voix, mourez donc, mourantes que vows etes!

The Poor and the Peaceful alone have perfect joy because they possess wisdom and contemplation par excellence, in the silence of creatures and in the voice of Love; united without intermediary to subsisting Truth, they know “the sweetness that God gives and the delicious taste of the Holy Spirit.” This is what prompted Saint Thomas, a short time before his death, to say of his unfinished Summa: “It seems to me as so much straw”– mihi videtur ut palea. Human straw: the Parthenon and Notre-Dame de Chartres, the Sistine Chapel and the Mass in D — and which will be burned on the last day! “Creatures have no savor.”

I feel today that I must apologize for the sort of thoughtlessness with which I adopted this phrase here. One must have little experience of created things, or much experience of divine things, in order to be able to speak in this way. In general, formulas of contempt with regard to created things belong to a conventional literature that is difficult to endure. The creature is deserving of compassion, not contempt; it exists only because it is loved. It is deceptive because it has too much savor, and because this savor is nothing in comparison with the being of God. [1935]

The Middle Ages knew this order. The Renaissance shattered it. After three centuries of infidelity, prodigal Art aspired to become the ultimate end of man, his Bread and his Wine, the consubstantial mirror of beatific Beauty. And the poet hungry for beatitude who asked of art the mystical fullness that God alone can give, has been able to open out only onto Sige l’abime.

Rimbaud’s silence marks perhaps the end of a secular apostasy. In any case it clearly signifies that it is folly to seek in art the words of eternal life and the repose of the human heart; and that the artist, if he is not to shatter his art or his soul, must simply be, as artist, what art wants him to be — a good workman.

And now the modern world, which had promised the artist everything, soon will scarcely leave him even the bare means of subsistence. Founded on the two unnatural principles of the fecundity of money and the finality of the useful, multiplying needs and servitude without the possibility of there ever being a limit, destroying the leisure of the soul, withdrawing the material factibile from the control which proportioned it to the ends of the human being, and imposing on man the panting of the machine and the accelerated movement of matter, the system of nothing but the earth is imprinting on human activity a truly inhuman mode and a diabolical direction, for the final end of all this frenzy is to prevent man from resembling God,

dum nil perenne cogitat,
seseque culpis illigat.

while thinking but the thoughts of time,
they weave new chains of woe and crime
Attributed to Pope St. Gregory the Great (540-604), Hymn, O Blest Creator of the Light

Consequently he must, if he is to be logical, treat as useless, and therefore as rejected, all that by any grounds bears the mark of the spirit.

Or it will even be necessary that heroism, truth, virtue, beauty become useful values — the best, the most loyal instruments of propaganda and of control of temporal powers.

Persecuted like the wise man and almost like the saint, the artist will perhaps recognize his brothers at last and discover his true vocation again: for in a way he is not of this world, being, from the moment that he works for beauty, on the path which leads upright souls to God and manifests to them the invisible things by the visible. However rare may be at such a time those who will not want to please the Beast and to turn with the wind, it is in them, by the very fact that they will exercise a disinterested activity, that the human race will live.




Art and Beauty Part II – Jacques Maritain

June 20, 2011

The speculations of the ancients concerning the beautiful must be taken in the most formal sense; we must avoid materializing their thought in any too narrow specification. There is not just one way but a thousand or ten thousand ways in which the notion of integrity or perfection or completion can be realized. The lack of a head or an arm is quite a considerable lack of integrity in a woman but of very little account in a statue — whatever disappointment M. Ravaisson may have felt at not being able to complete the Venus de Milo. The least sketch of da Vinci’s or even of Rodin’s is more complete than the most perfect Bouguereau. And if it pleases a futurist to give the lady he is painting only one eye, or a quarter of an eye, no one denies him the right to do this: one asks only — here is the whole problem — that this quarter of an eye be precisely all the eye this lady needs in the given case.

It is the same with proportion, fitness and harmony. They are diversified according to the objects and according to the ends. The good proportion of a man is not the good proportion of a child. Figures constructed according to the Greek or the Egyptian canons are perfectly proportioned in their genre; but Rouault’s clowns are also perfectly proportioned, in their genre. Integrity and proportion have no absolute signification, and must be understood solely in relation to the end of the work, which is to make a form shine on matter. Finally, and above all, this radiance itself of the form, which is the main thing in beauty, has an infinity of diverse ways of shining on matter.

By “radiance of the form” must be understood an ontological splendor which is in one way or another revealed to our mind, not a conceptual clarity. We must avoid all misunderstanding here: the words clarity, intelligibility, light, which we use to characterize the role of “form” at the heart of things, do not necessarily designate something clear and intelligible for us, but rather something clear and luminous in itself, intelligible in itself, and which often remains obscure to our eyes, either because of the matter in which the form in question is buried, or because of the transcendence of the form itself in the things of the spirit.

The more substantial and the more profound this secret sense is, the more hidden it is for us; so that, in truth, to say with the Schoolmen that the form is in things the proper principle of intelligibility, is to say at the same time that it is the proper principle of mystery. (There is in fact no mystery where there is nothing to know: mystery exists where there is more to be known than is given to our comprehension.) To define the beautiful by the radiance of the form is in reality to define it by the radiance of a mystery.

It is a Cartesian misconception to reduce clarity in itself to clarity for us. In art this misconception produces academicism, and condemns us to a beauty so meagre that it can radiate in the soul only the most paltry of delights. If it be a question of the “legibility” of the work, I would add that if the radiance of form can appear in an “obscure” work as well as in a “clear” work, the radiance of mystery can appear in a “clear” work as well as in an “obscure” work. From this point of view neither “obscurity” nor “clarity” enjoys any privilege. [1927]

Moreover, it is natural that every really new work appear obscure at first. Time will decant the judgment. “They say,” Hopkins wrote to Bridges apropos the poem The Wreck of the Deutschland, “that vessels sailing from the port of London will take (perhaps it should be / used once to take) Thames water for the voyage: it was foul and stunk at first as the ship worked but by degrees casting its filth was in a few days very pure and sweet and wholesome and better than any water in the world. However that may be, it is true to my purpose.

When a new thing, such as my ventures in the Deutschland are, is presented us our first criticisms are not our truest, best, most homefelt, or most lasting but what come easiest on the instant. They are barbarous and like what the ignorant and the ruck say. This was so with you. The Deutschland on her first run worked very much and unsettled you, thickening and clouding your mind with vulgar mud-bottom and common sewage (I see that I am going it with the image) and just then you drew off your criticisms all stinking (a necessity now of the image) and bilgy, whereas if you had let your thoughts cast themselves they would have been clearer in themselves and more to my taste too.” [Letter of May 13, 1878, in The Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins to Robert Bridges, edited with notes and an introduction by Claude Colleer Abbott (London: Oxford University Press, 1935), pp. 50-51.]

There is the sensible radiance of color or tone; there is the intelligible clarity of an arabesque, of a rhythm or an harmonious balance, of an activity or a movement; there is the reflection upon things of a human or divine thought; there is, above all, the deep-seated splendor one glimpses of the soul, of the soul principle of life and animal energy, or principle of spiritual life, of pain and passion. And there is a still more exalted splendor, the splendor of Grace, which the Greeks did not know.

Beauty, therefore, is not conformity to a certain ideal and immutable type, in the sense in which they understand it who, confusing the true and the beautiful, knowledge and delight, would have it that in order to perceive beauty man discover “by the vision of ideas,” “through the material envelope,” “the invisible essence of things” and their “necessary type.” Saint Thomas was as far removed from this pseudo-Platonism as he was from the idealist bazaar of Winckelmann and David. There is beauty for him the moment the shining of any form on a suitably proportioned matter succeeds in pleasing the intellect, and he takes care to warn us that beauty is in some way relative — relative not to the dispositions of the subject, in the sense in which the moderns understand the word relative, but to the proper nature and end of the thing, and to the formal conditions under which it is taken. “Pulchritudo quodammodo dicitur per respectum ad aliquid…  “Alia enim est pulchritudo spiritus et alia corporis, atque alia hujus et illius corporis.” And however beautiful a created thing may be, it can appear beautiful to some and not to others, because it is beautiful only under certain aspects, which some discern and others do not: it is thus “beautiful in one place and not beautiful in another.”

If this is so, it is because the beautiful belongs to the order of the transcendentals, that is to say, objects of thought which transcend every limit of genus or category, and which do not allow themselves to be enclosed in any class, because they imbue everything and are to be found everywhere. Like the one, the true and the good, the beautiful is being itself considered from a certain aspect; it is a property of being. It is not an accident superadded to being, it adds to being only a relation of reason: it is being considered as delighting, by the mere intuition of it, an intellectual nature.

Thus everything is beautiful, just as everything is good, at least in a certain relation. And as being is everywhere present and everywhere varied the beautiful likewise is diffused everywhere and is everywhere varied. Like being and the other transcendentals, it is essentially analogous, that is to say, it is predicated for diverse reasons, sub diversa ratione, of the diverse subjects of which it is predicated: each kind of being is in its own way, is good in its own way, is beautiful in its own way.

Analogous concepts are predicated of God pre-eminently; in Him the perfection they designate exists in a “formal-eminent” manner, in the pure and infinite state. God is their “sovereign analogue,” and they are to be met with again in things only as a dispersed and prismatized reflection of the countenance of God. Thus Beauty is one of the divine names.

God is beautiful. He is the most beautiful of beings, because, as Denis the Areopagite and Saint Thomas explain, His beauty is without alteration or vicissitude, without increase or diminution; and because it is not as the beauty of things, all of which have a particularized beauty, particulatam pulchritudinem, sicut et particulatam naturam. He is beautiful through Himself and in Himself, beautiful absolutely.

He is beautiful to the extreme (superpulcher), because in the perfectly simple unity of His nature there pre-exists in a super-excellent manner the fountain of all beauty.

He is beauty itself, because He gives beauty to all created beings, according to the particular nature of each, and because He is the cause of all consonance and all brightness. Every form indeed, that is to say, every light, is “a certain irradiation proceeding from the first brightness,” “a participation in the divine brightness.” And every consonance or every harmony, every concord, every friendship and every union whatsoever among beings proceeds from the divine beauty, the primordial and super-eminent type of all consonance, which gathers all things together and which calls them all to itself, meriting well in this “the name Xakos, which derives from `to call.’ ” Thus “the beauty of anything created is nothing else than a similitude of divine beauty participated in by things,” and, on the other hand, as every form is a principle of being and as every consonance or every harmony is preservative of being, it must be said that divine beauty is the cause of the being of all that is. Ex divina pulchritudine esse omnium derivatur.

In the Trinity, Saint Thomas adds, the name Beauty is attributed most fittingly to the Son. As for integrity or perfection, He has truly and perfectly in Himself, without the least diminution, the nature of the Father. As for due proportion or consonance, He is the express and perfect image of the Father: and it is proportion which befits the image as such. As for radiance, finally, He is the Word, the light and the splendor of the intellect, “perfect Word to Whom nothing is lacking, and., so to speak, art of Almighty God.”

Beauty, therefore, belongs to the transcendental and metaphysical order. This is why it tends of itself to draw the soul beyond the created. Speaking of the instinct for beauty, Baudelaire, the poete maudit to whom modern art owes its renewed awareness of the theological quality and tyrannical spirituality of beauty, writes: “. . . it is this immortal instinct for the beautiful which makes us consider the earth and its various spectacles as a sketch of, as a correspondence with, Heaven. . . . It is at once through poetry and across poetry, through and across music, that the soul glimpses the splendors situated beyond the grave; and when an exquisite poem brings tears to the eyes, these tears are not proof of an excess of joy, they are rather the testimony of an irritated melancholy, a demand of the nerves, of a nature exiled in the imperfect and desiring to take possession immediately, even on this earth, of a revealed paradise.”


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