Maritain expresses some suspicion about the term “fine arts”. It is hard to say what the fine arts are all about except to say that they make beautiful things, and yet Maritain maintains that beauty is not the end of the fine arts. It is the “end beyond the end,” he says—and in the same passage, he admits that he struggles to find words for what he has in mind.
This past year, I thought a lot about what he meant and how he should have said it, because I was asked to teach a course that covers the history of art from ancient Greece to the Gothic cathedral. The course presented a puzzle in its construction: during the entire period it covers, there was no word or category for “art” in the sense that defines the course, meaning more or less “the kinds of things that go in collections and museums”. Throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages, “artists” were simply artisans, and “art” was the ability to make things of all kinds, including both paintings and plows. Today we distinguish the useful arts from the fine arts. How should we approach a course on fine arts that covers only those times in which no such distinction was made? How do the useful arts and the fine arts in fact relate to one another?
Over the past two years I have studied Maritain’s aesthetics with great enjoyment. I even taught an art history course and used it as a chance to find out whether Maritain’s theory can help students in a practical way. (The answer was, “Yes!”) When I turn to others who have written on aesthetics, like Gilson, they seem clumsy in comparison. Unfortunately, many interpreters of Maritain also seem clumsy to me, so it might be helpful to others if I set out what I took away at least from Maritain’s major work, Creative Intuition.
What follows is not only a summary but also an interpretation of Creative Intuition. I aim to set down what he meant, but I spell out some ideas that he left implicit and others that may have remained implicit in his own understanding. Maritain had in mind a theory with many parts that make up a system, but he never wrote a summary chapter to bring all the parts into explicit relation, and as a result I think he never asked himself some questions that inevitably occur to the reader. Here is an outline, according to me.
A crack runs through the sanctuary of God, a crevice across the floor, spewing smoke from under the altar; The crack widens into a chasm, the crevice into an abyss, belching clouds to hide the heavens. From the blackness emerges a scorpion, a locust with sting in its tail, and takes its stand at the altar; From the deep creeps a face like a man’s, a head with hair like a woman’s, and presides over the mystery of ages. Locusts swarm over locusts, the mass of scorpions writhes, it kindles a coarse fire. Locusts entangled with locusts, scorpion legs around scorpion tails, in a fire that burns but does not warm, a fire that consumes but gives no light, and they smile with teeth like a human’s. The people shuffle into the Temple, they drag their feet into the sanctuary; they are obliged to Mass every Sunday. They come like lambs to the slaughter, they breathe the smoke and the ashes; there is no other path to communion.
My home was in the path of the total eclipse of 2017. The hype before the event made us all doubt it could possibly live up to the anticipation—and yet it did. And how. Follow this link to read my essay over at The Peregrine Magazine, “Standing in the Solar System”.
The same folks that started The Josias have kicked off another journal, The Peregrine. While the former is about big ideas and its entries are long, the latter is about living out the ideas and its articles are short.
When I saw that Peter Edmund Waldstein of the Sancrucensis Blog had published a lovely reflection on swimming with goggles at The Peregrine, I was reminded of a piece I wrote quite some time ago titled Life in the Cosmos. I sent it in, but unfortunately their word limit meant they could only publish snippets of the original essay. It’s enough to offer a feel for the topic. Check out the shorter Life in the Cosmos here.
One of my projects this summer was editing a translation of part of Book IV of Aquinas’s commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. Since “Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard” is a pretty big mouthful, most people just call it the Scriptum.
Beth Mortensen of The Aquinas Institute has done a magnificent job translating this hitherto untranslated text by the Angelic Doctor. I was tapped to read the whole thing and catch mistakes, but for the most part that just meant reading.
Some of problems I did fix related to an exciting development for the Aquinas Institute. The Leonine Commission, the group officially tasked by the Church with working critical editions of all of Aquinas’s works, gave us access to their provisional critical edition of the Scriptum. So in many places we were able to correct our translation by looking at a better Latin text than anything currently in print!
The Aquinas Institute is all about making Aquinas’s works widely available, so in addition to selling the new translation as a physical book they have also made the entire text available online for free. It’s satisfying to see it go up!
My last post explored Dr. Baxter’s ingenious quiz, “How Much of a Modernist Are You?” I would like to delve deeper into the questions raised by Dr. Baxter (and ultimately Charles Taylor) by attempting my own answer of Question 4:
Why does an apple fall to the ground when it detaches from the stem?
The laws of physics teach us that all objects fall to the ground according to gravity.
Gravity, of course, but behind the working of nature we can perceive the “hand” of God, which I mean metaphorically.
The apple longs to return its native place, because the whole universe is infused with desire. Ultimately, the world longs to imitate, to the extent it can, Eternity.
My colleague and friend Dr. Jason Baxter has published a delightful quiz at The Imaginative Conservative to show us how thoroughgoingly modern we all are. He takes his cue from Dr. Charles Taylor, whose gigantic book on the modern age argues that we live in a “disenchanted” world—all us inhabitants of the North Atlantic region, inevitably, without any choice in the matter. While our medieval forbears lived in a sacred and magical cosmos, we live in an autonomous, scientific universe. Continue reading “Are you a modernist? Take the quiz.”
I have been thinking about the notion of “emotional processing,” as in when someone says that he needs to “process what happened.” Does this phrase have a clear meaning, or is it a fuzzy phrase used to escape clear thinking? I think it does have a clear meaning, and what follows is my attempt to unfold it. I am not a psychiatrist, and I don’t intend this blog post as a contribution to the psychiatric profession. This is just an exploration of a word.
To “process” something means to take something that is not immediately usable and change it into something more immediately usable. This is how we “process” meat or vegetables, for example. So to “process” an experience would mean to take the raw experience and turn it into something that is more useful in life. Experiences need to be processed both intellectually and emotionally: intellectually, we need to get practical wisdom from our experiences, while emotionally we need to calibrate our desires and fears. Continue reading “What is emotional “processing”?”