Saturday, April 30, 2011

Book 4: What is Beauty?

Roma-Jan-05-013Augustine recounts his early thoughts on the nature of beauty. He notes that he had written several books on the topic which he has now lost, though he seems quite familiar with their content. He theorizes that beauty has two aspects. First there is the idea that some objects have an inherent quality, ‘beauty’ which we recognize as intrinsic. We also recognize a second aspect; some things are beautiful because of their harmonious relation or adaption to other things.

Augustine begins to muse about a certain orator to whom he dedicated his work on beauty. Is the love of an orator different than the admiration of an actor? Can we love traits in someone that we wouldn’t wish to have for ourselves? He notes that someone can love a horse but not desire to change places with it (4.14.22). He asks, “Do I love in one man what I would hate to be myself, when I too am a man?” (4.14.22). Augustine analyses the problem philosophically and drives beneath the unity of the species ‘man’. An individual has hidden depths affections and ‘movements of the heart’ that are known only to the Lord. He concludes that our nature as individuals depends more on the will than on the intelligible structures we exemplify.[i]

Following the intuitions of Cicero, Augustine observed the unity found in virtue and the fragmentation of human life seen in the vices. Initially he thought that the disunity was caused by an indefinable substance of evil but looking back from the present the he notes that “evil is no substance at all” (4.15.24). Later he will understand that evil is not a thing but the absence of the good.[ii] As we shall see in Book 5, Augustine used the idea of ‘evil as a substance’ to avoid personal responsibility for his actions. Augustine thought that at this point that the mind or rational soul was the supreme good (4.15.24).

Augustine interrupts the flow of his narrative with yet another anecdote, this time from seven years before he writes his first book. At the age of twenty he reads a Latin translation of Aristotle’s Categories. Again he highlights a mistake that he fell into as he tried to understand God as an instance of the categories rather than as identical with the ‘transcendentals’ (4.16.29).[iii] He will later correct this mistake in Book 7.

Plato had argued that the sensible world is a reflection or shadow of ideas which transcend the sensible realm. Chief among these transcendental properties are the one, the true and the good. Aristotle agreed with these transcendental properties but saw them not manifest in ideas but in the forms of actual things. One significant difference between Plato and Aristotle is that Plato indirectly also includes beauty as a transcendental property. Plato “argues in the Lysis and Timeaus that whatever is good (Greek: agathon) is also beautiful (Greek: kalon), and in the Republic that everything that exists participates in the good.”[iv] Augustine’s error was to attempt to see God as mere category rather than as a transcendental property. Jacque Maritain describes transcendentals as “concepts which surpass all limits of kind or category and will not suffer themselves to be confined in any class, because they absorb everything and are to be found everywhere.”[v] Ultimately Augustine is left awash in his own pride. He compares himself to the Prodigal son, who, “left you and set out for a distant land to squander it there on the quest for meretricious[vi] gratifications” (4.16.30). He concludes his prayer in this book,

We need not fear to find no home again

Because we have fallen away for it:

While we are absent our home falls not to ruins,

For our home is your eternity (4.16.31).

Text © Scott McKellar 2011






[i] Ibid., p. 108. Vaught notes that this is a development in thinking by Augustine which moved beyond common the Neo-Platonist thinking of Plotinus.

[ii] For a defense of Augustine’s views on evil against the objections of modern philosophers see Donald A. Cress, “A Defense of Augustine’s Privation Account of Evil,” Augustinian Studies (1989)20: 109 – 127.

[iii] Daniel Gallagher, “The Platonic-Aristotelian Hybridity of Aquinas’s Aesthetic Theory”, Hortulus: The Online Graduate Journal of Medieval Studies Vol. 2, No. 1, 2006, p. 2-15. Accessed 4/23/2011.

[iv] Ibid. p. 2.

[v] Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, trans. J. F. Scanlan (New York: Scribner, 1930), p. 30. As quoted in Gallagher.

[vi] “meretricious: of or relating to a prostitute : having the nature of prostitution”

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