Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Finding my Voice in Beauty

Back in the 80’s, just after my return from India, I read a series on the history of western philosophy by the Jesuit priest Frederick Copleston. At the time, I didn’t care much for the Greek or medieval periods of philosophy. So, I began my reading with volume 4 and Rene Descartes, proceeding through Jean-Paul Sartre in volume 9. A volume 10 and 11 also exist. They, respectively, cover Russian philosophy and compare logical positivism with existentialism. I don’t own either of those.

Copleston’s reason for the study is stated in the Preface to volume 1. “My chief motive in writing this book…has been that of supply Catholic ecclesiastical seminars with a work that should be somewhat more detailed and wider of scope than the text-books commonly in use and which at the same time should endeavour to exhibit the logical development and inter-connection of philosophical systems.” (page v) So, there is clearly a Catholic bent throughout.

Nevertheless, Copleston’s grasp of western philosophy is massive. Although he certainly projected an occasional prejudice and marginalized "unorthodox" movements like Sophism, Gnosticism, and Skepticism, for the most part his sprawling overview of the development of our philosophic tradition is thorough and objective. I have referred back to his work many times in the course of the last 25 years or so. They are a mainstay reference for me.

Philosophy is an important aspect of my spirituality. I am not someone who chooses to elevate intimate, emotional, biological or non-rational paths over the achievements, however modest, of human reason. Sure, much of philosophy is the equivalent of mental masturbation but I nevertheless find it inspiring, insightful to the human condition, and it often provides the framework for which I can find my own voice in spiritual matters.

A couple of months ago I decided to add to my Copleston collection by purchasing the first three volumes in the series, which were begun back in 1946. My interest in Greek philosophy has grown in recent years as I continue my studies into the life and thought of Frederick Nietzsche, who grounded so much of his own academic life in the pre-Socratic Greeks. The remaining material, most of volumes 2 and 3, covers the philosophy of the middle ages which I have traditionally believed to be little philosophy at all, given the dominance of the Catholic Church on human thought in what is not too dishonorably labeled as “The Dark Ages.”

So, for the past several weeks, I have perused these volumes in my morning devotional times and in much of my other time for reading as well. I skipped around reading Plato and Aristotle, then to William Ockham and Francis Bacon, then to Saint Thomas Aquinas. All of these philosophers were brilliant thinkers of their day, reflecting the times in which they lived (which is one reason I find their insights so interesting), and offering interpretations upon human reality that at least warrant serious consideration.

But, what impressed me most about the three volumes I am currently skipping around in is the rather unintended but nevertheless fairly obvious examination of something that we today consider a part of “aesthetics.” Earlier in the development of western thought aesthetics was not as rationalized and fragmented as it is today. In those less sophisticated times aesthetic matters were almost always referred to in degrees of Beauty.

Of course, Copleston is not really interested in Beauty as such. Within his vast overview of western philosophy he is focused on a great many other elements, ideas, and influences. Certainly, Beauty is not his primary concern. It is just something I happened to notice over the span of repeatedly scanning this 1500 page book (my editions are out-of-print compilations of three or more volumes in one book) and Beauty, as such, is covered in roughly the first 500 pages up to the completion of Copleston’s analysis of Saint Augustine. So, my interest is not to claim any significance to what I observed and delighted me. It is merely to attempt to supply you with an overview of a small part of Copleston’s overview. This is a summary of a minor theme, as it were.

I will start with what Copleston has to say about, Anaxagoras, an obscure pre-Socratic philosopher. Anaxagoras wasn’t interested in Beauty specifically but he had a lot to say about something that later became connected with Beauty by someone else. “Nous,” says Anaxagoras “has power over all things.”

Copleston points out that the early philosophers of antiquity were primarily concerned with what is the essence of being. This led to a diversity of perceived essences - fire, air, water, earth, and others. Anaxagoras advanced rational thought with the concept that Nous is “the finest of all things and the purist, and it has all knowledge about everything and it has the greatest power….” For Anaxagoras, no matter what essence you want to speak about, you are speaking about Nous every time.

Following Anaxagoras, Plato espoused the first true Theory of Beauty around 370 B.C. (which is notated in the postmodern mind as BCE – Before the Common Era – so as not to refer the person of Jesus at all) Plato’s instructor, Socrates, professed a “standard of Beauty” that applied to every human mind but he never developed a specific thought experiment for this standard. Plato, however, attributed Beauty to part of his Theory of Forms and thought “Beauty is a transcendental Form.”

“Absolute Beauty, for instance, does not exist outside us in the sense in which a flower exists outside us – for it might just as well be said to exist inside us, inasmuch as spatial categories simply do not apply to it. On the other hand, it cannot be said to be inside us in the sense that it is purely subjective, is confined to us, comes into being with us, and perishes through our agency or with us. It is both transcendent and immanent, inaccessible to the sense, apprehensible by the intellect.” (I, page 175)

I confess I basically agree with this newfound (for me) philosophic statement. Of all the philosophers of antiquity, I knew a bit about Plato prior to reading Copleston. But, I knew him in only the most general terms. The first-time discovery of this quote made my heart glow as well as my head.

Plato never offered a specific definition for Beauty, rather he made a lot of statements about Beauty. “…if we take into account the remarks on beauty scattered about in the dialogues, it is probable that we must admit that Plato wanders ‘among so many conceptions, among which it is just possible to say that the identification of the Beautiful with the Good prevails…” (I, page 256) In spite of the diversity of what was called “beauty” even in those times, for Plato there was one archetypal Beauty connecting them all.

Aristotle follows Plato like Plato follows Socrates. The former was a pupil of the latter living on after the passing of the teacher. Aristotle taught little about Beauty other than to mention, rather in passing, “the beautiful is the object of contemplation not desire.” (I, page 360) I find this brief statement fascinating. Beauty can only be truly touched through a reflective or meditative intellect, not through the physical attraction (either erotic or sensible).

Fast-forward several centuries to the time after Jesus died. A relatively obscure philosopher, Plotinus was born in Egypt but later lived in Rome. For the purposes of this post, Plotinus taught “From Nous, which is Beauty, proceeds the Soul…” (I, page 468) Nous is equated with the human soul which is, in turn, equated with Platonic Beauty (think of the term as Platonic Love and you can begin to see the spherical reality of how Plato’s Forms may be said to exist).

We know that St. Augustine was influenced by Plato and post-Platonic writers including Plotinus, living about 150 years later than Plotinus, which places him circa 380 A.D. (so about equal distance from the death of Jesus but on opposite ends of the historic event from Plato). As with all early philosophers, St. Augustine provides us with a great opportunity to peer back into the pre-modern human mind. He understood the classic importance of Beauty in human life.

Copleston makes it plain that St. Augustine experienced Beauty as an Ideal Form of Plato. Moreover, “Beauty itself illuminates the mind’s activity….” For St. Augustine, Beauty is a fundamental manifestation of human reality. Beauty is not just a rational concept; it literally causes the mind to shine. This is an experience from which we are distanced today. Things are experienced as more complicated for us than they were for St. Augustine. He could enjoy the beautiful in the Form of nature, art, architecture, and in the human body as simple, pristine, and just as much absolute and universal as relative.

For we postmodern beings “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” But, for St. Augustine no matter what beauty the eye beheld it was Beauty as the Ideal Form. Our natural emphasis on a variety of beauty is a paradigm shift not necessarily for the better. The philosophic emphasis back circa 390 A.D. was clearly on the Ideal. That a person could connect with that divine experience (Beauty, as with any St. Augustine Idea or Platonic Form, is partly and fundamentally sacred for St. Augustine and of the highest mind for Plato) was more important than the variety of beautiful things. St. Augustine considers the One to be more important than the Many from a metaphysical perspective.

Today, as Nietzsche predicted and attempted to resolve, nothing is sacred. Not marriage, not nature, not livelihood, nothing. Everything is utility toward consumer ends or times of leisure for travel or other pleasures. Function within accepted societal systems (cultures surrendered to systems) often overwhelms every human consideration. We find all things completely disposable. The fact is the convenience of throwing away large expanses of our previously expressed being just as if it never happened has become commonplace.

This is a far distance from St. Augustine’s experience and expression of Beauty. There was definitive splendor to connect with and the experience of splendor was greater than any one splendid thing. The experience of Beauty was Nous, spiritual, beyond reason, an intimate experience that connects all intimacies. That is the point. It connects us because, no matter what we see as beautiful, we see the same Idea. It connects human Being at a higher level.

“...the Saint depicts the human soul questioning the things of sense and hearing them confess that beauty of the visible world, of mutable things, is the creation and reflection of immutable Beauty, after which the soul proceeds inward, discovers itself and realizes the superiority of the soul to the body.” (II, page 71)

So, considering the way I want to live my life, I can appreciate the complete relativity of beauty in the postmodern sense. But, I freely choose to discount it and give preference to St. Augustine as I understand him. Though I don’t agree with his “soul over body” premise, that’s hardly the point.

For St. Augustine, Beauty is not only sacred but Beauty illuminates the mind in a special way. I find that this uniqueness is a happy thing and my recent discovery of St. Augustine is therefore a boost to my life these days. To hold philosophy in such esteem and to discover something so moving is obviously a great experience of Being anytime but particularly at age 51. This I take as an inspiration and I feel I can relate with intimately.

This is the importance of philosophy. All my life I have appreciated the beauty of nature and art and the human form. Various philosophers have given me frameworks to understand this. But, St. Augustine nailed it, for me, and I knew nothing of him until a couple of weeks ago beyond the vague fact he was a saint. Now, he gives me voice to express an experience I have always had but never been able to articulate. He articulates Beauty in a way that, while I would disagree with both him and Plato about the nature of the Ideal, I share the importance of the Ideal with them. They give me voice.

That’s beautiful on so many levels.

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