In Which There is a Hiccup

A conversation with Jenna St. Hilaire and Masha.

You’ll be interested to know that the blogalectic has temporarily hiccupped. Jenna St. Hilaire is on holiday, and has kindly left the conversation on hiatus, with nothing more complex to worry about that this:

I’ll leave you all—and Mr. Pond and Masha, if they wish to engage it—with this question: If beauty is necessary to good art (or all art, if you prefer Masha’s terminology), what, objectively speaking, is beauty?

Nothing too heady…

Masha, with her commendable clarity and precision, has put forward this striking and, I must say, captivating definition:

Simply speaking, Beauty is the visible form of the Good.

I suspect Masha may be right. She has clearly thought her definition through more than I have mine, and any definition I would give would be rushed and harried at the moment. This definition is one I like and admire. I haven’t fully embraced it in my own thinking, though I do share a conviction that Beauty and the True are irrevocably linked, and the True inevitably coincides with the Good.

I did read with some amazement, however, Masha’s corollary:

Mr. Pond, who seems to be under some illusions about my philosophical ideals, will be somewhat surprised to learn that this definition is not essentially Platonic, but Catholic (in both senses of the word). While there are aspects of Plato in Catholic thought, Plato is not the essential, he is absorbed or dismissed according to his ability to fall in with what is understood to be True. Plato has lovely ideas, but he’s been eclipsed. The tendency to say, this is Platonic thought, and respond to it as such makes true discussion impossible, it is a response to an impression from the writing, not what is actually written.

I agree fully that Plato has been eclipsed per se; the footnote has become, like Frazer’s Golden Bough, a good deal longer than the original text. But I feel I ought to make clear that when I said these ideas were Platonic, I wasn’t restricting myself to meaning ‘derived exclusively from Plato’, but rather indicating one of two great Schools of Western Thought. If we want to get more technical, and I will in a moment, I should have said Neoplatonic.

And, despite my cheerful avoidance of disagreement last week, I have to face one now. I do not agree that identifying this line of thought as ‘(Neo)Platonic’ therefore ‘makes true discussion impossible’, and that it is not a response to ‘what is actually written’. With that I beg to disagree. So bear with me while I attempt an exercise which I’ve found quite fun (and hope, not too enthusiastically, that you will too). If all disagreements proved this enjoyable, I’d look for a lot more! But alas…

It begins below the jump.

There’s two ways the reference to ‘what is actually written’ seems to turn. First of all it suggests that attention is diverted from what Masha has written. On reflection, this seems to be the plainest meaning, and I’ll take it to heart by trying to engage more directly with her words when I write my replies. Second, however, it could imply that one is not engaging with what Plato and/or Catholic thinkers have written, that it’s using a cheap terminological shortcut, that really Plato and Neoplatonism isn’t at issue here at all.

The distinction between Catholic thought, particularly in the broader sense of Catholic = church universal, and Neolatonic thought is in this instance, I think, at the very least unhelpful. The idea of the Beautiful as an outward manifestation of the Good is found almost in that precise form in Plato’s Symposium, 211-212, where Socrates relates his conversation with Diotima about Love. That seems to be the seminal source in Plato although, for our purposes, the development of Platonic thought is more relevant.

The idea is carried through and cultivated in the Enneads of Plotinus, who is known as the father of Neoplatonism and who studied under Ammonius with St. Origen. In Ennead VI.vii, ‘On Beauty’, we read:

[…] the Soul heightened to the Intellectual-Principle is beautiful to all its power. For Intellection and all that proceeds from Intellection are the Soul’s beauty, a graciousness native to it and not foreign, for only with these is it truly Soul. And it is just to say that in the Soul’s becoming a good and beautiful thing is its becoming like to God, for from the Divine comes all the Beauty and all the Good in beings.

We may even say that Beauty is the Authentic-Existents and Ugliness is the Principle contrary to Existence: and the Ugly is also the primal evil; therefore its contrary is at once good and beautiful, or is Good and Beauty: and hence the one method will discover to us the Beauty-Good and the Ugliness-Evil.

And Beauty, this Beauty which is also The Good, must be posed as The First: directly deriving from this First is the Intellectual-Principle which is pre-eminently the manifestation of Beauty; through the Intellectual-Principle Soul is beautiful. (emphasis added)

Origen draws somewhat from Plotinus’s thought in his own discussion of the Good, although he doesn’t seem to associate it with Beauty per se (if he does, I haven’t found it in my research, and would be quite interested in anything anyone else may have found). That connection is made in the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, who synthesized the Neoplatonism of Plotinus and Proclus into Christian Theology, and like Plotinus ‘does not claim to be an innovator, but rather a communicator of a tradition’.

In On the Divine Names, IV.vii, says that the ‘Good is celebrated by the sacred theologians, both as beautiful and as Beauty, and as Love, and as Beloved; and all the other Divine Names which beseem the beautifying and highly-favoured comeliness.’ After discussing in some detail how Beauty is the source of being (and that’s a very reductive summary), he writes:

Wherefore, also, the Beautiful is identical with the Good, because all things aspire to the Beautiful and Good, on every account, and there is no existing thing which does not participate in the Beautiful and the Good. Yea, reason will dare to say even this, that even the non-existing participates in the Beautiful and Good. For then even it is beautiful and good, when in God it is celebrated superessentially to the exclusion of all. This, the one Good and Beautiful, is uniquely Cause of all the many things beautiful and good. (emphasis added)

These ideas would later be drawn into St. Bernard’s sermons on divine love in Song of Solomon, as well as in Dante’s Divine Comedy (Paradiso XIV.130-139). The point is, the assertion that if a thought is Catholic it cannot also be Neoplatonic is unconvincing. Nor am I convinced that identifying thought as ‘(Neo)Platonist’ immediately suppresses discourse, particularly when those exact thoughts are to be found in the writings of Plotinus and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite among others.

I don’t even really disagree with this aspect of Neoplatonism. I tend to follow absurdist and existentialist thought more closely than Neoplatonism, but I respect and admire many elements of Neoplatonic thought. And I respect that Catholic theology is broader and richer than simply (Neo)Platonic philosophy; I respect that very much. And if Masha prefers to identify her thinking as emerging from that broader and richer tradition, I cheerfully accede, and so stop flailing my philosophical and historical horse carcass.

(h/t to Josh Richards for timely conversations and endless Dante allusions)

5 thoughts on “In Which There is a Hiccup

  1. Thanks for your lovely response, to clarify a bit on my own position, there is a good bit of Augustine, which would fall under “neo-platonist” but the majority of my thoughts on Art/Beauty come primarily from my own life and faith, from Wojtyla (who tends to bridge Aquinas and John of the Cross), Kierkegaard (I’m sure you know if you follow existentialism), and Rilke (whose ideas on Art were influenced a good deal by Lou Andres-Salome, a woman who also influence the pre-insanity Nietzsche – his breakdown came much later. Though Rilke’s concepts of art and beauty are decidedly better formed than Nietzsche’s). While I’m certain that Plato, being Plato, has had his influences on all these people to varying extents, and particuarly on the developement of thought in the western Church, his thoughts always seem to require a bit of adjustment for me to really fall into them.

    I’m glad you enjoyed my definition, though I’d love some clarification as to what prevents you from embracing it, where does the difference lie for you? (If that is a clear way of asking?)

    Anyway, I enjoyed your response I look forward to continuing the discussion!

  2. Thanks, Katherine! The best part was getting to write a blog post that mentioned Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. Twice. 🙂

    Masha, thanks for your comment and clarification. I think that Plotinus via Pseudo-Dionysius provide the ‘bit of adjustment’ you said you need when approaching Plato; his thought was the inspiration of theirs, but taken perhaps in different directions and aligned to different creeds. So going to Plato per se would require a sort of reversal. That’s why I said that, technically, I should have referred to your thoughts as Neoplatonic.

    What prevents me from embracing your definition–well. I don’t disagree with it, exactly. Although I might prefer to see both the Beautiful and the Good being emanations or essences of the True, if that makes sense. But I think the main reason is this: Raphael’s School of Athens, Plato’s hand pointing upwards toward the Universal, Aristotle’s hand spread downward toward the particular. It’s a question of whether one conflates the particular into the Type or Universal, the upward focus, or whether one seeks the Universal withing the particular, the downward gaze. Put more accurately, Plato points to the kataphatic way, Aristotle to the apophatic. And in that divide, I do pursue the particular, and the apophatic way–silences rather than words, contemplation rather than discourse.

    Thus anything we can say, being finite, is ultimately a misrepresentation and inaccurate naming of the infinite. I hesitate to embrace that particular definition because I ultimately read it as ‘[Placeholder for the Unutterable] is the visible manifestation of the [placeholder for the Unutterable].’ Words inevitably are symbols, shows, and shadows; art is capricious, art invokes mayhem. That’s why I’m reluctant to offer my own definition of beauty; anything I say will inevitably be wrong.

    Does that explain it a little? Or am I talking in a tin?

  3. It does explain a it, Thanks. I can see where you’re coming from now, and it makes discussion a good deal clearer for me!

    I can certainly appreciate the idea of Goodness and Beauty flowing from Truth, I understand them to be existing more or less in trinitarian fashion, different aspects obviously but equal, “sisters” as Von Balthasar refers to them.

    And I can see our differences nicely in the image of Raphael’s painting, (I do love images!), but I can’t be either Plato or Aristotle, I fall between, the Universal merging with the particular, I believe the intimacy of the artist requires both, just as the person requires the unity of body and soul…I can see how that might leave me closer to the Neoplatonists. 🙂

    Fantastic write-up though, it gives me a much clearer understanding of your philosophy and a better understanding of why you don’t simply Define! 🙂 I enjoyed it.

  4. Fascinating thoughts, and the comments no less than the post. I’m still trying to comprehend kataphatic and apophatic, and suspect I grew up with a very Western distrust of the latter, but I agree almost entirely, Mr. Pond, with these words of yours:

    Thus anything we can say, being finite, is ultimately a misrepresentation and inaccurate naming of the infinite. I hesitate to embrace that particular definition because I ultimately read it as ‘[Placeholder for the Unutterable] is the visible manifestation of the [placeholder for the Unutterable].’ Words inevitably are symbols, shows, and shadows; art is capricious, art invokes mayhem. That’s why I’m reluctant to offer my own definition of beauty; anything I say will inevitably be wrong.

    Only two quibbles: I’m not sure I’d use the word mayhem, as I think there’s order to what art invokes. A wild and complex order, perhaps, but an order nonetheless. And I wouldn’t say that our definitions of beauty would be wrong so much as weak and incomplete, lacking the greater dimensions of the truth. Which makes me wonder, now, if I tend more toward the apophatic than I thought, and maybe that’s why my whole philosophy has shifted from what I grew up with.

    Masha, I like your idea of beauty, truth and goodness as trinitarian. I like that a lot.

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