Beauty and the Beast
AN ESSAY IN EVOLUTIONARY AESTHETIC
BY STEWART A. McDOWALL, B.D.
For verily all men by nature were but vain who had no perception of God, and from the good things that are seen they gained not power to know him that is, neither by giving heed to the works did they recognise the artificer; but either fire, or wind, or swift air, or circling stars, or raging water, or luminaries of heaven, they thought to be gods that rule the world. And if it was through delight in their beauty that they took them to be gods, let them know how much better than these is their Sovereign Lord; for the first author of beauty created them: but if it was through astonishment at their power and influence, let them understand from them how much more powerful is he that formed them; for from the greatness of the beauty even of created things in like proportion does man form the image of their first maker. But yet for these men there is but small blame, for they too peradventure do but go astray while they are seeking God and desiring to find him. For living among his works they make diligent search, and they yield themselves up to sight, because the things that they look upon are beautiful. But again even they are not to be excused. For if they had power to know so much, that they should be able to explore the course of things, how is it that they did not sooner find the Sovereign Lord of these his works?
Wisdom xiii. 1-9.
I wish to take this opportunity of expressing my gratitude to Mrs R. B. Goodden and Mr R. M. Y. Gleadowe for the help they have given me in writing this book. With Mrs Goodden the theory was discussed point by point, and her criticisms and suggestions are largely responsible for the final shaping of the argument, as well as for an important development of the theory. To Mr Gleadowe I am indebted for some useful hints, which led to a partial rearrangement of the material, by which the form of the book has been greatly improved.
S. A. McD.
Are we to look at the Beautiful with our feet firmly planted on the Natural, or are we to look at the Natural from the apparently precarious height of the Beautiful? This, after all, is the dilemma of aesthetic, slow though men have been to realise it. As we read the history of Aesthetic Theory we are puzzled by the tentativeness and the uncertainty even of those philosophers who played the greatest part in moulding human thought, until it dawns on us that, idealist though they might be in all else, in this they were unconsciously disloyal to their own systems, being in some measure materialist.
An attempt to form a philosophy of religion which should start from the generally accepted facts of biological science and pass, through the common experiences of personal relationship, to the ultimate problems of Godhead and manhood, left at the close a keen sense of something lacking—something more than the lack of unity and balance inevitable in work written and published step by step. I had tried to find in Love, which is the very nature of Godhead, an essential impulse towards creation. It was clear that this creation must be the creation of something new, if it were to be justified; and the conclusion which forced itself upon me was that the creation of personal beings fulfilled this demand.
Yet an unsatisfied sense remained either that even the experience of love reciprocated by fresh personal beings could not be new for God with that utter newness which belief in Him as Transcendent and Perfect required, or else that His experience was not always perfect. At any rate something that would make this newness self-evident was missing. Something vital had clearly been left out. The one thing of which no account had been taken was Beauty; and I began to consider whether this missing something, all-pervading yet intangible, was not Beauty itself. And in Beauty I seemed to find what I had missed.
To Aesthetic has generally been assigned the fate of Cinderella. Her uglier sisters, Epistemology and Metaphysic, have monopolised the court invitations, for the most part. Might she not, after all, be destined to marry the Prince? A little thought made it clear that, properly arrayed, she would bid fair to outshine the others. This book is not an effort to dress her in a new fashion. Fairy godmother I cannot claim to be, nor have I a magic wand. I shall only try to strip off some of the rags, leaving her, like Psyche, to proclaim her own loveliness.
It is not my intention to give a systematic account of the development of aesthetic theory. Such books as Dr Bosanquet’s History of Aesthetic, and the historical portion of Croce’s Aesthetic, from which works the following summary is chiefly derived, fortunately make the task unnecessary. Nor does any detailed criticism of the work of others fall within the scope of the present essay. My aim is merely to suggest an idea, avoiding technicalities as far as I may, and then to link it up with the Christian idea of God on the one hand, and with the development of the human soul on the other. The very briefest note on the course of speculation concerning Art and Beauty will suffice to introduce the point of view that I wish to suggest, which is that Beauty must be a first and not a last consideration for metaphysic. To advocate this is to turn his own weapon against Croce; but that is inevitable. Croce claims that Beauty is the expression of that intuition of Reality which constitutes the first stage of knowledge; but the philosophy of Croce is anti-metaphysical. Since many, while agreeing with the great and original discovery involved in his affirmation, must disagree profoundly with his negation, it follows of necessity that sooner or later they will endeavour to hoist him with his own petard.
Aesthetic theories show a steady and yet very remarkable change in the views of philosophers concerning Art and even Beauty itself. The Greeks tended, on the whole, to regard Art as mere imitation. Thus, at best, the beauty produced by artistic creation was inferior, because second-hand; in fact, as Plato argued, the artist’s representation was really third-hand, for there is first the idea, then the concrete individual object, then the representation. Stress was laid on harmony, rhythm, order, as being indicative of the homogeneity of an ideal world and therefore admirable. But, being an incomplete reproduction of nature, art could have no primary importance. It might be evil or good, in its own degree; and from the moral standpoint it might be judged, for the beautiful and the good are not completely distinguished. Being so judged, it was found wanting. It is one of the tragedies of thought that the beauty-loving Plato should have been driven to formulate a theory which is the negation of art, because it seemed to him that art was simply the false endeavouring to masquerade as the true. In Aristotle we find the beginnings of a freer idea. Symbolism in art is implicitly recognised, and there is some escape, though not much, from the moralistic bond; some dawning conception, though not much, of the concrete expressiveness of artistic creation. In the Middle Ages the mystical symbolic conception, characteristic of Plotinus, was developed. Symmetry and rhythm are beautiful because they symbolise reason and divinity, and relate the human soul, through the perception of order, to the divine which created that order. St Thomas Aquinas even goes so far as to say that in beauty desire is quieted—presumably because satisfied. We shall be led to disagree profoundly with this statement.
Of Vico (1725), to whom Croce acknowledges so great a debt, we will only here say that he was the discoverer of the creative intuition, and this discovery entitles him to the honourable position of first founder of a coherent theory of aesthetic. Vico was primarily concerned with the nature of poetry. He showed that poetry was a ‘moment’ of the spiritual consciousness, by which a man was brought into contact with reality—that it represented a stage of knowledge before reflection (and was therefore an intuition) and that it expressed this knowledge (and was therefore creative); while it was distinct from feeling, and therefore free from the stigma which Plato attached to it, and which led to his banishing it from his Republic.
Men first feel without being aware; they then become aware with troubled and affected soul; finally they reflect with pure mind. This dignity is the Principle of the poetical feelings, which are formed by the senses of passions and of affections, as distinct from the philosophical feelings, which are formed from reflection by reasoning. Hence the philosophical feelings approach more to truth, the more they rise to universals; the poetical feelings are more certain the more they approach to particulars.
Poetry is thus placed on the imaginative plane, says Professor Wildon Carr, as distinct from the intellective, and this imaginative plane, or as Croce calls it, degree, is furnished with positive value.
By Kant we first find the problem of aesthetic faced boldly and at close quarters. Kant’s thought had led him to the formulation of two Critiques, the one dealing with the world of abstract reason, the other with the world of concrete, practical experience; and no systematic bond yet existed between them. The unity of life itself made such a dualism intolerable, and Kant sought the unifying medium in aesthetic judgment, for judgment is pre-eminently a synthesis. The domain of aesthetic consciousness, if purely subjective by Kant’s interpretation, is yet clearly determined. It furnishes decisions on the quality, the quantity and the relation of those objects with which practical experience makes us acquainted, and with whose existence the intellect is occupied. Yet beauty is for Kant subjective, devoid of abstract conceptions, pleasing without interest, destitute of content; though he fails in achieving more than a verbal consistency in this matter. Subjective or not, however, it is symbolic of the moral order, and owes its apparent rationality to the Order which it symbolises. No doubt it is through the doctrine of symbolism that Kant is led on to his discussion of the sublime as another species of the aesthetic judgment, yet more subjective, yet more abstract.
With Schelling we reach the stage of philosophical appreciation of the objectivity of beauty; and, with this objectivity, of the relation of beauty to historical continuity, both in its own expression in the mind of man, and in the sequence of objective episodes. The artist recognises the eternal idea in an individual, and expresses it outwardly, transforming the individual into a world apart, into a species, into an eternal idea. The divine, successively expressing itself through man, gives a unity and absoluteness to all reality; and reality is the object of the aesthetic judgment.
We have not stayed to discuss, or even state, the many definitions of the Beautiful that have been given. Neither have we attempted to represent the contribution of countless writers to the problem. Our only object in this brief page of summary has been to indicate the changing trend of thought.
The Greeks reared their philosophic system on an unstable foundation, because they looked on Beauty as mere imitation. For them Art mimics life as crudely as a company of strolling players at a country fair mimics the doings of the great. Art is dramatic rather than true.
But with less rigorous and honest minds than Plato’s the instinctive love of beauty weighed more strongly. Beauty was, at highest, too ennobling to be wholly false; it must at least symbolise the true. And when a more disciplined thought was once more turned upon Reality, without beauty the world seemed dual—hard and cold, with theory and practice divorced. The only bond appeared to lie in the region of the judgment of values, itself essentially aesthetic. Men born out of due time there were who showed here and there flashes of deeper insight before Kant’s systematisation was effected, but to them came only sporadic glimpses of the truth. These for the most part were men deeply versed in the life and soul of man—the Dantes, the Shakespeares, the Goethes. Only one was pre-eminent in the realm of pure thought—Giambattista Vico. With other thinkers the tide rose and fell alternately, yet always moved from the neap of Platonism towards the spring.
Then, at the end, in our own time, Benedetto Croce set himself to formulate the first adequate theory of the Aesthetic.
The importance of Beauty to any system of philosophy that could pretend to completeness had been more and more recognised. It was left for Croce to grasp the truth that Beauty is not judgment, but expression: the expression of the intuition which is our first contact with Reality; and that Aesthetic is the science of expressive activity. Given this first movement of the spirit, the other modes of approach to Reality follow—or rather are involved, since no temporal series is concerned.
Croce’s philosophy as a whole, and especially his extension of the logical a priori synthesis on which it is founded, is difficult to grasp; and for the sake of those who may not have made acquaintance with his own exposition or with Professor Wildon Carr’s summary, a brief discussion of one or two salient points may be forgiven. It is only fair to state, however, that it is not possible to give a really short and clear résumé that will do justice to the most interesting and elusive of modern philosophies.
We may begin by explaining what Croce means by an intuition, what he means by the a priori synthesis, and what part the relation of the double degree plays in his system.
When you perceive an object, already you are using two mental processes, which cannot in fact be separated, or exist the one without the other. In the first place there is simple awareness of a reality. You objectify an impression without arguing as to its reality at all, or relating it to yourself or anything else. You merely characterise the thing, and are aware of it as concrete and individual. This is the Pure Intuition. It has no admixture of intellectual process. And its salient characteristic isthat it is made or expressed by the mind, and is indeed identical with this expression. You cannot separate the intuition from its expression. Moreover it is aesthetic in nature. Its character is identical with the character of the mind-process which makes the vision of the artist and the poet.
But this intuition is at once generalised, and related. The process of generalisation is the formation of the Concept, and is characteristic of the logical or intellectual activity. Moreover the Pure Concept is universal, and expressive, belonging to all individuals; concrete, and therefore real. Pseudo-concepts, which fail either in universality, expressiveness or concreteness, do exist and are of great value, but this value belongs not to the theoretical, but to the practical, activity. ‘Evolution’ is a pure concept, ‘chair’ a pseudo-concept. For our purpose it is not necessary to elaborate this point.
What does interest us is the relation between the two theoretical activities of the spirit—Intuition and Concept. They are ‘moments in the unity of a single process.’ Neither takes a prior place. “We cannot think without universalising, and we cannot have an intuition without thinking.” In other words, they are related in a synthesis that is a priori. This means that the intellectual activity which relates and generalises the intuitions or presentations does not depend upon them, but is as much a condition of experience as are the presentations themselves. Each of the two things, the intuition and the concept, is essential to knowledge; the concept is empty of content without the intuition, but you cannot have an intuition without thinking it. The two form an indivisible, organic unity; neither able to exist without the other. You cannot think without universalising, nor intuit without thinking. This is the logical a priori synthesis discovered by Kant. But Croce proceeds to use it in a wider sense, as we shall see.
These two elements then, the intuitional and the conceptual, together constitute the whole theoretic activity of knowing.
Now the first of these elements, the intuition, is expression of a reality to the self. It is essentially aesthetic, for aesthetic is the science of expressive activity. In forming an intuition, and expressing it, we compass Beauty, for Beauty is expression.
But there is another side to the activity of the spirit. Thinking and doing, willing and acting, go hand in hand.
The Practical Activity begins as Economic, directed towards particular ends. There is individual action; but there is also action universalised: directed to general ends: and this action is Ethical. Utility passes over into goodness: there is no good action which is not in some way useful, there is no useful action which is not in some way good.
Here again, then, we have two inseparable activities, related, as are the theoretic activities, as a first and second degree, yet each involving the other. The relation is identical with that of the a priori synthesis, and the term may be extended to cover this relation also.
Finally, the two sides of the activity of the spirit, the theoretic and the practical, are themselves related in this same double degree by a[Pg 12] relation of synthesis that we may again term a priori. The theoretic activity cannot exist apart from the practical, nor the practical apart from the theoretic. The relation is again the same as that which obtains for the relation of the elements constituting each pair of the four ‘moments,’ and for the pairs themselves. The a priori synthesis is extended to cover all these relations.
With Croce’s theory of Beauty we have already made acquaintance. As we have seen, Kant laid the foundations by his discussion of the judgment of taste; Vico, by distinguishing the imaginative from the intellectual plane, had supplied the basal idea; but it was left to Croce to see that Beauty is expression, or the form given by the spirit to its intuitions, through which it makes contact with Reality. It must, however, be borne in mind that Croce draws an absolutely definite line between the expression, which belongs to the Theoretic Activity, and the technical embodiment of that expression, which belongs to the domain of the Practical. The work of art affords simply the stimulus which enables us to recreate the artist’s expression; and it is the expression, not the work of art, that is beautiful. The Beautiful is a distinct concept; the Ugly is ugly in so far as it fails in distinctness, through failure to express. Beauty is simply aesthetic value—the value of the expressed intuition; ugliness the lack of aesthetic value,[Pg 13] through lack of clarity in intuition and expression.
It is needless for us to follow out the rest of Croce’s system. The chief point that remains is his identification of Philosophy with History—the thought about the presentation of Reality (Philosophy) with that presentation itself as an unfolding of immanent life (History). This identification really follows from the relation of the double degree between the theoretic and the practical. In thinking past history you bring it into the present as a practical issue; and you introduce the logical element in thinking it, but you could not do so if there were not an intuitive element in it intrinsically. Philosophy is historically conditioned; without philosophy there could be no history. With this line of argument, whose affinities with the philosophy of Bergson are obvious, Croce rounds off his system, completing his demonstration that the only Reality is living Spirit, immanent and unfolding.
Thus, according to Croce, the expressive nature of the Intuition, as it objectifies itself, and so differentiates itself from mere sensation, is appreciated by the mind, and serves as the first step in the formation of the Concept or judgment of definition. For the Concept is expressive, universal, and concrete. Through the Concept we arrive at knowledge of Reality; and this Concept reacts upon the Intuition, giving rise to the individual judgment. Croce shows,[Pg 14] by demonstrating that analysis apart from synthesis, and equally synthesis apart from analysis, in any act of thought, is inconceivable, that one must, by an extension of the logical a priori synthesis, identify the judgment of definition and the individual judgment. You cannot, like the idealists, separate the concept from the facts, nor, like the empiricists, the facts from the concept. But neither in the realm of aesthetic interest can you separate the fact from its expressive intuition, or vice versa. The whole of Croce’s system is, as he says, a philosophy of the spirit, which is itself all Reality. The activity of the spirit is twofold. In its theoretic activity there are two stages, Aesthetic and Logic, each involving the other, yet the first in a sense independent because primary, the second dependent on the first. In its practical activity there are also two degrees, the Economic and the Ethic, related to each other in the same way. Yet of these two activities, theoretic and practical, each involves the other, and in an a priorisynthesis each substantiates the other.
It is not our purpose to examine the philosophy of Croce as a whole. Some points of disagreement with him will become manifest as we proceed to develop our discussion of the nature of beauty. Notably, we shall disagree with his rejection of a metaphysic and his denial of a God; since their inclusion is not really so inimical to his system as he supposes, their rejection by[Pg 15] him would seem to be in a measure an accident of his circumstances, while their omission leaves the why? of spiritual and personal being unanswered. For the moment all we need is his discovery that Beauty is Expression, Aesthetic the Science of Expression; that to appreciate a work of art is to create it yourself by entering into the mind, and following the same path, as the original creator of it; and, first and most important of all, that our knowledge of the Real owes its possibility and its first beginnings to the movement of aesthetic intuition. It is a far cry from Plato to Croce.
If the fine arts be utterly distinct, having nothing in common save a background of emotion, this Essay is a meaningless attempt to express something which does not exist. It stands condemned; and this condemnation it shares with many nobler works. But if, as Croce urges, each art aims at presenting, through the practise of its own conventions, aspects of Truth which are suitable to that special medium, no effort to find a highest common factor of all arts is necessarily doomed to failure.