Monday, June 5, 2017

A Meme Summary of Jordan Peterson's Thought

To climb your dominance hierarchy, you need to slay your dragon of chaos and rescue your virgin, roughly speaking. And a fundamental presupposition is that dragons hoard gold and are very low in agreeableness. And the thing about dragons is that they can eat you, eh? So pay attention. But otherwise you slip into nihilism, and you'll end up, say, bitter and resentful because life is suffering. That's why you got to clean your room and rescue your dead father from the belly of the whale/the underworld—because he's been sent to the Gulags, sunshine. You gotta slay the archetypal snake, y'know. You need to be high in conscientiousness and know your own capacity for evil because the shadow self goes all the way down to hell. You got to embrace your inner monster at every level; that's one way of thinking about it. And we just don't know the upper limits to that, so... Sort yourself out. Take responsibility, carry your load, bear your suffering so that your life will have meaning. Don't be a bloody Neo-Marxist. Don't be a puppet. Don't be a mouthpiece for language you detest. Because I'm not using those words. They're the creation of radical left-wing ideologues, and they're low resolution, and I'm not doing it. You must ascend the set of all possible dominance hierarchies, and that's that, bucko, and that's no joke.

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Source: Making the rounds of the Internet...

Repost: Christopher Morrissey, The Christian Humanism of Marshall McLuhan

Postmodern intellectual culture is perhaps best characterized as adhering to the thesis that all reality is socially constructed. Many have mistaken Marshall McLuhan for being a prophet of postmodernity, this new era of technological change marked by a new media domination of the global theatre. But McLuhan himself said:
“I am a Thomist for whom the sensory order resonates with the divine Logos. … Analogy is not concept. It is community. It is resonance. It is inclusive. It is the cognitive process itself. That is the analogy of the divine Logos. … [I]mmediate analogical awareness … begins in the senses and is derailed by concepts or ideas.”[1]
When he paid homage to his hero G.K. Chesterton, who influenced his conversion to Catholicism, McLuhan indirectly revealed something about himself, and how he wished to emulate his model:
“The specific contemporary relevance of Chesterton is this, that his metaphysical intuition of being was always in service of the search for moral and political order in the current chaos. He was a Thomist by connaturality with being, not by study of St. Thomas. And unlike the neo-Thomists his unfailing sense of the relevance of the analogy of being directed his gaze not to the schoolmen but to the heart of the chaos of our time”.[2]
Exasperated with their inability to appreciate his own efforts in this regard, McLuhan wrote to John Atkin that he was “a bit peeved at the local Thomists for leaving it to me to discover the meaning of their own thoughts instead of helping me—they held me up for years” (McLuhan to John Atkin, 16 March 1971).

Still, he resolved late in life to make charitable efforts in this regard; as McLuhan wrote to his friend, the Thomist Fredrick Wilhelmsen: “I am going to do some further work on translating myself into Thomistic terms. It is a commentary on the Thomists that I should have to tell them how to relate themselves to the contemporary world” (McLuhan to Fredrick Wilhelmsen, 10 March 1971).

McLuhan had even argued back in 1954 that “the role of the Catholic humanist is to cultivate a more than ordinary reverence for the past, for tradition, while exploring every present development for what it reveals about man which the past had not revealed. To be contemporary in this sense is no mere snobbism, not a matter of faddishness. It is an arduous but rewarding business.”[3]

With these latter remarks, I believe we find a decisive clue as to McLuhan’s own philosophy of history, implicit in his subsequent intellectual explorations. Regarding how a Thomist ought to make use of Aquinas in our time of postmodernity, McLuhan said that:
“[W]hereas St. Thomas was a great abstract synthesizer facing a unified psychological world, the modern Thomist has an abstract synthesis of human knowledge with which to face psychological chaos. Who then is the true Thomist? The man who contemplates an already achieved intellectual synthesis, or the man who, sustained by that synthesis, plunges into the heart of the chaos? I say ‘sustained’, not guided by, that synthesis; because the Catholic Thomist does not know the answers to contemporary problems in social and political ethics. He knows only when a particular line of action is promising and analogically consistent, whether it will tend to support a valid solution, and whether it is in conformity with reason and being.” (ibid xvii)
No doubt these remarks about Thomism are lesser-known facts about McLuhan. To those who heard him during the height of his fame, his much more famous pronouncements apparently failed to reveal these, his deepest concerns.

Most think of McLuhan simply as a prophet who predicted the Internet and announced the demise of nature, with the message that there is no escape from technology’s media extensions to our nature, no escape from this alteration of our relation to the rest of nature.

Indeed, McLuhan seems to be giving voice to the postmodern, “everything is socially constructed” thesis, when he says things like this about nature:
“Twenty-five hundred years of rational culture are in the process of dissolution. Age-old habits of conceptualization will not serve to train observation on the effects of the new man-made forms of energy. Since Plato, philosophers and scientists have attributed constant forms and patterns of action only to the world of ‘Nature.’ Both Plato and Aristotle, and their followers, as well as all the other schools of philosophy, have refused to recognize any patterns of energy arising from man-made technologies. Having invented ‘Nature’ as a world of rigorous order and repetition, they studied and observed only ‘natural’ forms as having power to shape and influence psyche and society. The world of man’s artifacts was considered neutral until the electric age. As the electric environment increasingly engulfed the old Greek ‘Nature,’ it became apparent that ‘Nature’ was a figure abstracted from a ground of existence that was far from ‘natural.’”[4]
At first glance, this would seem to say there is no nature; it seems to say that everything is constructed. But note the crucial qualifying word in the above passage: “only.” It suggests that McLuhan, rather, is asking us to go beyond Greek thought and extend our inquiry into nature into the places where we have not been accustomed to take it.

McLuhan wishes to draw our attention to the fact that our tools shape us: they shape our perception of what is natural. That technological mediation, altering the sensory grounds of input, is what is missing from the Greek philosophers’ notion of nature. It is not that he recommends we abandon their notion, but rather that we develop it more rigorously, because we have to contend with the way nature and culture are blended in the immediate web of our environmental perception.

A philosophy of history has to take into account both mind-dependent reality (socially constructed realities) and mind-independent reality (for example, natural units, such as rocks, trees, and horses). What is history, after all, if not an awareness of the blend, the ongoing mutual influence, between both?

McLuhan’s philosophy of history is founded on this key idea: we shape our environment, and it shapes us. History obviously encompasses the interaction of both realities: the mind-independent and the mind-dependent.

The task of a Catholic humanism is thus to think about nothing less than all of reality, in its entire scope.

Notes:

[1] McLuhan to John W. Mole, 18 April 1969.

[2] McLuhan, introduction to Paradox in Chesterton, by Hugh Kenner (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1947), xi–xii.

[3] McLuhan, “Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters,” [1954] in The Medium and the Light, 158–59.

[4] McLuhan and Nevitt, Take Today: The Executive as Dropout (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972): 7.

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Source: Christopher Morrissey, "The Christian Humanism of Marshall McLuhan," The Imaginative Conservative, last modified January 7, 2016, accessed June 6, 2017, http://www.theimaginativeconservative.org/2016/01/marshall-mcluhans-catholic-humanism-a-thomism-for-the-chaos-of-our-time.html.

Marshall McLuhan on the Role of the Christian Humanist

[...] the role of the Catholic humanist is to cultivate a more than ordinary reverence for the past, for tradition, while exploring every present development for what it reveals about man which the past had not revealed. To be contemporary in this sense is no mere snobbism, not a matter of faddishness. It is an arduous but rewarding business.

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Source: Marshall McLuhan, “Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters,” in The Medium and the Light, ed. Eric McLuhan and Jacek Szklarek (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1999), 158–59.

Bp. Athanasius Schneider on the Effects of Ignoring Original Sin

[...] without the acceptance of the truth about original sin and sins in general, one cannot understand properly the redemption of the human race through the sacrifice of Christ at the Cross. If one eliminates the language of sin, one finally also eliminates the true redemption; and one then turns Christianity into a Humanism or into a Pelagianism. Then there is left only the self-redemption or a religion of a naturalistic moral ethic and pedagogy, or a new religion of ecology and of climate change.

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Source: Athanasius Schneider, interview by Maike Hickson, LifeSiteNews, June 8, 2015.

Michael Crichton on the Noble Savage and Romanticized Nature

And what about indigenous peoples, living in a state of harmony with the Eden-like environment? Well, they never did. On this continent, the newly arrived people who crossed the land bridge almost immediately set about wiping out hundreds of species of large animals, and they did this several thousand years before the white man showed up, to accelerate the process. And what was the condition of life? Loving, peaceful, harmonious? Hardly: the early peoples of the New World lived in a state of constant warfare. Generations of hatred, tribal hatreds, constant battles. The warlike tribes of this continent are famous: the Comanche, Sioux, Apache, Mohawk, Aztecs, Toltec, Incas. Some of them practiced infanticide, and human sacrifice. And those tribes that were not fiercely warlike were exterminated, or learned to build their villages high in the cliffs to attain some measure of safety.

How about the human condition in the rest of the world? The Maori of New Zealand committed massacres regularly. The dyaks of Borneo were headhunters. The Polynesians, living in an environment as close to paradise as one can imagine, fought constantly, and created a society so hideously restrictive that you could lose your life if you stepped in the footprint of a chief. It was the Polynesians who gave us the very concept of taboo, as well as the word itself. The noble savage is a fantasy, and it was never true. That anyone still believes it, 200 years after Rousseau, shows the tenacity of religious myths, their ability to hang on in the face of centuries of factual contradiction.

There was even an academic movement, during the latter 20th century, that claimed that cannibalism was a white man's invention to demonize the indigenous peoples. (Only academics could fight such a battle.) It was some thirty years before professors finally agreed that yes, cannibalism does inbdeed occur among human beings. Meanwhile, all during this time New Guinea highlanders in the 20th century continued to eat the brains of their enemies until they were finally made to understand that they risked kuru, a fatal neurological disease, when they did so.

More recently still the gentle Tasaday of the Philippines turned out to be a publicity stunt, a nonexistent tribe. And African pygmies have one of the highest murder rates on the planet.

In short, the romantic view of the natural world as a blissful Eden is only held by people who have no actual experience of nature. People who live in nature are not romantic about it at all. They may hold spiritual beliefs about the world around them, they may have a sense of the unity of nature or the aliveness of all things, but they still kill the animals and uproot the plants in order to eat, to live. If they don't, they will die.

And if you, even now, put yourself in nature even for a matter of days, you will quickly be disabused of all your romantic fantasies. Take a trek through the jungles of Borneo, and in short order you will have festering sores on your skin, you'll have bugs all over your body, biting in your hair, crawling up your nose and into your ears, you'll have infections and sickness and if you're not with somebody who knows what they're doing, you'll quickly starve to death. But chances are that even in the jungles of Borneo you won't experience nature so directly, because you will have covered your entire body with DEET and you will be doing everything you can to keep those bugs off you.

The truth is, almost nobody wants to experience real nature. What people want is to spend a week or two in a cabin in the woods, with screens on the windows. They want a simplified life for a while, without all their stuff. Or a nice river rafting trip for a few days, with somebody else doing the cooking. Nobody wants to go back to nature in any real way, and nobody does. It's all talk-and as the years go on, and the world population grows increasingly urban, it's uninformed talk. Farmers know what they're talking about. City people don't. It's all fantasy.

One way to measure the prevalence of fantasy is to note the number of people who die because they haven't the least knowledge of how nature really is. They stand beside wild animals, like buffalo, for a picture and get trampled to death; they climb a mountain in dicey weather without proper gear, and freeze to death. They drown in the surf on holiday because they can't conceive the real power of what we blithely call "the force of nature." They have seen the ocean. But they haven't been in it.

The television generation expects nature to act the way they want it to be. They think all life experiences can be tivo-ed. The notion that the natural world obeys its own rules and doesn't give a damn about your expectations comes as a massive shock. Well-to-do, educated people in an urban environment experience the ability to fashion their daily lives as they wish. They buy clothes that suit their taste, and decorate their apartments as they wish. Within limits, they can contrive a daily urban world that pleases them.

But the natural world is not so malleable. On the contrary, it will demand that you adapt to it-and if you don't, you die. It is a harsh, powerful, and unforgiving world, that most urban westerners have never experienced.

Many years ago I was trekking in the Karakorum mountains of northern Pakistan, when my group came to a river that we had to cross. It was a glacial river, freezing cold, and it was running very fast, but it wasn't deep---maybe three feet at most. My guide set out ropes for people to hold as they crossed the river, and everybody proceeded, one at a time, with extreme care. I asked the guide what was the big deal about crossing a three-foot river. He said, well, supposing you fell and suffered a compound fracture. We were now four days trek from the last big town, where there was a radio. Even if the guide went back double time to get help, it'd still be at least three days before he could return with a helicopter. If a helicopter were available at all. And in three days, I'd probably be dead from my injuries. So that was why everybody was crossing carefully. Because out in nature a little slip could be deadly.

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Source: Michael Crichton, "Remarks to the Commonwealth Club" (presentation, San Francisco, CA, September 15, 2003).

Michael Crichton on Failed Environmental Predictions

Well, it's interesting. You may have noticed that something has been left off the doomsday list, lately. Although the preachers of environmentalism have been yelling about population for fifty years, over the last decade world population seems to be taking an unexpected turn. Fertility rates are falling almost everywhere. As a result, over the course of my lifetime the thoughtful predictions for total world population have gone from a high of 20 billion, to 15 billion, to 11 billion (which was the UN estimate around 1990) to now 9 billion, and soon, perhaps less. There are some who think that world population will peak in 2050 and then start to decline. There are some who predict we will have fewer people in 2100 than we do today. Is this a reason to rejoice, to say hallelujah? Certainly not. Without a pause, we now hear about the coming crisis of world economy from a shrinking population. We hear about the impending crisis of an aging population. Nobody anywhere will say that the core fears expressed for most of my life have turned out not to be true. As we have moved into the future, these doomsday visions vanished, like a mirage in the desert. They were never there---though they still appear, in the future. As mirages do.

Okay, so, the preachers made a mistake. They got one prediction wrong; they're human. So what. Unfortunately, it's not just one prediction. It's a whole slew of them. We are running out of oil. We are running out of all natural resources. Paul Ehrlich: 60 million Americans will die of starvation in the 1980s. Forty thousand species become extinct every year. Half of all species on the planet will be extinct by 2000. And on and on and on.

With so many past failures, you might think that environmental predictions would become more cautious. But not if it's a religion. Remember, the nut on the sidewalk carrying the placard that predicts the end of the world doesn't quit when the world doesn't end on the day he expects. He just changes his placard, sets a new doomsday date, and goes back to walking the streets.

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Source: Michael Crichton, "Remarks to the Commonwealth Club" (presentation, San Francisco, CA, September 15, 2003).

Michael Crichton on the Religion of Environmentalism

I studied anthropology in college, and one of the things I learned was that certain human social structures always reappear. They can't be eliminated from society. One of those structures is religion. Today it is said we live in a secular society in which many people---the best people, the most enlightened people---do not believe in any religion. But I think that you cannot eliminate religion from the psyche of mankind. If you suppress it in one form, it merely re-emerges in another form. You can not believe in God, but you still have to believe in something that gives meaning to your life, and shapes your sense of the world. Such a belief is religious.

Today, one of the most powerful religions in the Western World is environmentalism. Environmentalism seems to be the religion of choice for urban atheists. Why do I say it's a religion? Well, just look at the beliefs. If you look carefully, you see that environmentalism is in fact a perfect 21st century remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths.

There's an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature, there's a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, and as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all. We are all energy sinners, doomed to die, unless we seek salvation, which is now called sustainability. Sustainability is salvation in the church of the environment. Just as organic food is its communion, that pesticide-free wafer that the right people with the right beliefs, imbibe.

Eden, the fall of man, the loss of grace, the coming doomsday---these are deeply held mythic structures. They are profoundly conservative beliefs. They may even be hard-wired in the brain, for all I know. I certainly don't want to talk anybody out of them, as I don't want to talk anybody out of a belief that Jesus Christ is the son of God who rose from the dead. But the reason I don't want to talk anybody out of these beliefs is that I know that I can't talk anybody out of them. These are not facts that can be argued. These are issues of faith.

And so it is, sadly, with environmentalism. Increasingly it seems facts aren't necessary, because the tenets of environmentalism are all about belief. It's about whether you are going to be a sinner, or saved. Whether you are going to be one of the people on the side of salvation, or on the side of doom. Whether you are going to be one of us, or one of them.

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Source: Michael Crichton, "Remarks to the Commonwealth Club" (presentation, San Francisco, CA, September 15, 2003).

Michael Crichton on the Most Important Challenge for Modern Man

I have been asked to talk about what I consider the most important challenge facing mankind, and I have a fundamental answer. The greatest challenge facing mankind is the challenge of distinguishing reality from fantasy, truth from propaganda. Perceiving the truth has always been a challenge to mankind, but in the information age (or as I think of it, the disinformation age) it takes on a special urgency and importance.

We must daily decide whether the threats we face are real, whether the solutions we are offered will do any good, whether the problems we're told exist are in fact real problems, or non-problems. Every one of us has a sense of the world, and we all know that this sense is in part given to us by what other people and society tell us; in part generated by our emotional state, which we project outward; and in part by our genuine perceptions of reality. In short, our struggle to determine what is true is the struggle to decide which of our perceptions are genuine, and which are false because they are handed down, or sold to us, or generated by our own hopes and fears.

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Source: Michael Crichton, "Remarks to the Commonwealth Club" (presentation, San Francisco, CA, September 15, 2003).

Monday, May 29, 2017

Stefan Molyneux on the Truth about Makeup


Prof. Bret Weinstein Faces the Fruit of Hegelianism

Warning: The video below contains obscenity.


Prof. Weinstein attempts to frame the face-off between whites and blacks as a "dialectic" rather than "debate" since debate is an argument or exertion of power, but a dialectic is a supposedly neutral attempt to come to the "truth." Of course, Weinstein must know the history of this line of thinking. There is no such thing as truth in the dialectic but only higher and higher orders of synthesis, which embody the negation of truth since the dialectic nullifies the law of non-contradiction, and there is nothing stopping others from hijacking that progression and using it to exert force and power over others. His own liberal philosophy has backfired. As the "woman" near the beginning of the video says, "We don't care what you want to speak on. This is not about you. [...] This is not a discussion. You have lost that one." The dialectic is over, Prof. Weinstein. This is a debate.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Difference between Fine Art and Propaganda

If the artist is to help us contemplate, he must not only show us an object by a clear imitation, but he must also dispose us to gaze at it by arousing our interests and winning our sympathy. Works of fine art usually have some element of surprise, of the puzzling, of the dazzling, or of the fascinating, that wins our attention. We might say, therefore, that the work of fine art is an imitation arousing emotional sympathy, or something of that sort.

But again this does not seem sufficiently precise. What we have just described sounds like an advertisement or a piece of propaganda which is persuasive just because it arouses our interest, appeals to our feelings, and then conveys its message. A work of fine art is, indeed, very close to advertising, and yet it is utterly different. The difference is that the advertisement wins our attention and conveys its message in order to get us to do something, to buy the product. A work of fine art, on the other hand, wins our attention in order that we might repose in contemplating its beauty, desiring for the time to do nothing else.

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Source: Fr. Benedict M. Ashley, The Arts of Learning and Communication: A Handbook of the Liberal Arts (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009), 278.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Can the Descent of Modern Society Reverse?

To act as though man made history by his own purposes and decisions is a kind of spiritual blindness which bears within it its own downfall.

[xxxix] And it is precisely this spiritual blindness which is characteristic of modern civilization, a kind of hubris which leads to the frustration of social idealism and society’s turning away from those principles it professes to be following, in order to promote their opposite. Has there ever been a society which set a higher store on the ideals of humanitarianism than our own, and has there ever been one which, at the same time, allowed for the killing off of such countless millions of unborn infants? And has there ever been a culture which so repeatedly emphasized its concerns for the rights of man, and at the same time meekly acquiesced in the obliteration of those rights by totalitarian regimes in all parts of the world?

Written thirty-five years ago, in the midst of World War II, the following judgment of Christopher Dawson has a direct relationship to the condition in which the whole of the modern world finds itself today:
But this is just the truth which the modern world has denied. It has put its trust in the “arm of flesh”; it has believed the word of man rather than the Word of God. It has reversed the whole hierarchy of spiritual values so that our civilization has been turned backwards and upside down, with its face toward darkness and nonentity and its back to the sun of truth and the source of being. For a short time—whether we reckon it in decades or centuries is of small importance—it remained precariously skating on the thin ice of rationalism and secular humanism. Now the ice has broken and we are being carried down the flood, though we may delude ourselves that the forces that have been released are of our own creation and serve our will to power. 
Is it possible to reverse this process? No human power can stop this progress to the abyss. It can only come about by a profound movement of change or conversion which brings the human spirit once more into vital relation with the spirit of God. (The Judgment of the Nations [London: Sheed and Ward, 1942], 157)
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Source: John J. Mulloy, “Preface to the 1978 Edition”, in Dynamics of World History, ed. John J. Mulloy (Washington, DE: ISI Books, 2002), xxxviii–xxxix.

When Society Loses Its Higher Spiritual Ordering

Our own civilization, as Dawson points out, is one which has increasingly ignored the significance of the religious element, whether through prophecy or through the consecration of its social institutions to religious ends. The result is a widespread sense of spiritual dissatisfaction, which leads participants in the culture to look upon it with distrust and hostility. This not only withdraws from society the psychological support which it needs, but also, it leaves society vulnerable to movements of violence against its social structure and the values it embodies. “When the prophets are silent and society no longer possesses any channel of communication with the divine world, the way to the lower depths is still open and man’s frustrated spiritual powers will find their outlet in the unlimited will to power and destruction” (Religion and Culture [London: Sheed & Ward, 1948], 83).

[…] [xxxvii] But while society needs religion for its survival, it cannot return to religious belief simply by an act of the will, as a means of recovering its spiritual roots. This arises from the very nature of religion, from the fact that there is a basic difference between the motivations of religious feeling and those of political purpose. “It is useless to judge a religion from the point of view of the politician or the social reformer. We shall never create a living religion merely as a means to an end, a way out of our practical difficulties. For the religious view of life is opposite of the utilitarian. It regards the world and human life sub specie aeternitatis. It is only by accepting the religious point of view, by regarding religion as an end in itself and not as a means to something else, that we can discuss religious problems profitably” (Christianity and the New Age [London: Sheed & Ward, 1931], 172).

Now this conception of religion is so opposed to the modern attitude that it is difficult for modern man to accept it or appreciate its force. He is always asking whether religion serves this or that purpose, has this effect or that on the social order or on human behavior, as a way of deciding whether its existence is justified. It is man’s will rather than God’s which is taken as a standard, man’s conception of human welfare, not life seen in the light of eternity, which forms the basis for judgments concerning the significance of religion.

Yet this is discernment only on a superficial level; and even history itself testifies how limited and earthbound such ideas of human welfare and human destiny turn out to be. There is, as Dawson points out, an unpredictable character to events and outcomes in history which goes quite counter to rational calculations and makes the standards of a purely human judgment strikingly inadequate. “The real meaning of history is something entirely different from that which the human actors in the historical drama themselves believe or intend” (Religion and the Modern State [London: Sheed & Ward, 1935], 81). As an example of this, Dawson cites the contrast between the expectations of the Liberals concerning the purposes of the French Revolution and the harsh realities of the Revolution itself.

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Source: John J. Mulloy, “Preface to the 1978 Edition”, in Dynamics of World History, ed. John J. Mulloy (Washington, DE: ISI Books, 2002), xxxvi.

Prophets and Mystics Revitalize a Culture’s Religion

In every religion the religious aim of a culture is determined by the mission and the inspiration of its prophets and by the vision and spiritual experience of its mystics. Where these vital organs fail, religion becomes secularized and is absorbed in the cultural tradition to a point at which it becomes identified with it, until it finally becomes nothing more than a form of social activity….

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Source; Christopher Dawson, Religion and Culture (London: Sheed & Ward, 1948), 81–82.

The Cultural Effects of Contrasting Visions of the World

The experience of Mohammed in the cave of Mount Hira, when he saw human life as transitory as the beat of a gnat’s wing in comparison with the splendor and power of the Divine Unity, has shaped the existence of a great part of the human race ever since. For a people which has heard thrice a day for a thousand years the voice of the muezzin proclaiming the unity of God cannot live the same life or see with the same eyes as the Hindu who worships the life of nature in its countless forms, and sees the external world as the manifestation of the interplay of cosmic sexual forces.

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Source: Christopher Dawson, Progress and Religion (London: Sheed & Ward, 1929), 76–77.

The Vitality of a Society is Found in Its Spiritual Roots

The central conviction which has dominated my mind ever since I began to write is the conviction that the society or culture which has lost its spiritual roots is a dying culture, however prosperous it may appear externally. Consequently the problem of social survival is not only a political or economic one; it is above all things religious, since it is in religion that the ultimate spiritual roots both of society and the individual are to be found.

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Source: Christopher Dawson, Enquiries into Religion and Culture (London: Sheed & Ward, 1933), vi.

The Essence of History is Tradition

Hence the essence of history is not to be found in facts but in traditions. The pure fact is not as such historical. It only becomes [286] historical when it can be brought into relation with a social tradition so that it is seen as part of an organic whole. A visitor from another planet who witnessed the Battle of Hastings would possess far greater knowledge of the facts than any modern historian, yet this knowledge would not be historical for lack of any tradition to which it could be related; whereas the child who says “William the Conqueror 1066” has already made his atom of knowledge an historical fact by relating it to a national tradition and placing it in the time-series of Christian culture.

Wherever a social tradition exists, however small and unimportant may be the society which is its vehicle, the possibility of history exists. […] [287]

Yet even the religion that denies the significance of history is itself a part of history and it can only survive in so far as it embodies itself in a social tradition and thus “makes history.”

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Source: Christopher Dawson, “The Kingdom of God and History,” in Dynamics of World History, ed. John J. Mulloy (Washington, DE: ISI Books, 2002), 285–287. Originally published in The Kingdom of God and History, ed. H. G. Woods et al., vol. 3 of Official Oxford Conference Books (New York: Willett, Clark & Company, 1938).

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The fact does not tell the story; the story, as it were, tells the fact. It is the latter that gives pattern and meaning; it is the former that lacks meaning of its own. Moreover to arrange such disordered material, to give it narrative shape, is not to diminish historical particularity but to acknowledge it. To see meaning beyond the local is to see it in the local. After all, we grasp our truths in the solid, the tactile, the here-and-now. We exercise a faculty of imagination without which historical insight is impossible. […] In the parochial we [xxvi] glimpse the perennial. In time we grasp Time’s end, its very purpose and meaning.

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Source: Dermot Quinn, “Introduction,” in Dynamics of World History, ed. John J. Mulloy (Washington, DE: ISI Books, 2002), xxv–xxvi.

Culture Is Incarnational

Rationalists, [Dawson] realized, misunderstood religion precisely because they misunderstood culture as well. Indeed they misunderstood both for the same reason: their thin and etiolated behaviorism denied the possibility of a grander vision of man. Allowing religion no other purpose than the [xxiii] sanctification of social or private compulsions, they closed off an entire realm of man’s being. This represented, of course, the collapse of the very empiricism they claimed to uphold. A conclusion was contrived, then evidence adduced to support it: hardly a triumph of the investigative arts. Yet the circularity should not surprise us. With their functionalist view of culture and religion no other conclusion was available to them.

Dawson’s recognition of culture as a bearer of truth was the insight of an anthropologist but also, in a more profound way, that of a Christian. His understanding of man in society was, in the deepest sense, incarnational. […] Man grasps the divine in diverse, sometimes prosaic, ways. His spiritual insights come mediated through the materiality of the everyday. He understands the blessedness of the ordinary: the common meal, the shared sorrow, the unburdened heart. Slowly, too, he begins to understand the truth beyond these smaller moments: that the God who enters human history reveals Himself in living cultures, authentic communities. His face shines in material and sacramental ways, evident to those with eyes to see. This is not to say that culture itself is religion. Nor is it to say that one culture is much the same as another. Least of all is it to propose that human culture contains the entirety of the divine revelation. It is, however, to acknowledge that culture matters more profoundly than even cultural historians realize.

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Dermot Quinn, “Introduction,” in Dynamics of World History, ed. John J. Mulloy (Washington, DE: ISI Books, 2002), xxii–xxiii.

A Definition of Real Religion

Real religion, Dawson argued, must “embody itself in concrete forms appropriate to the national character and the cultural tradition” (Dynamics of World History, 88) of a people. […] A religion is real precisely to the extent that it integrates, and is integral to, the spiritual and physical lives of its adherents.

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Dermot Quinn, “Introduction,” in Dynamics of World History, ed. John J. Mulloy (Washington, DE: ISI Books, 2002), xxi.

The Religion of Enlightenment Utopianism

Late-eighteenth [xxi] and nineteenth-century utopianism was more absurd than most. But wherein lay the absurdity? Not so much in the ignorance of human history as in its faux religiosity. The great abstractions—Liberity, Equality, Fraternity; Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness—always came in threes. They were secular trinities amply supplied with creeds, priests, keepers of orthodoxy, heresy-hunters, the fervent faithful. All they lacked was self-knowledge, awareness of themselves as profane theologies. Indeed, nowhere was this more apparent than in their understanding of religion itself. Philosophes fashioned a “purely rational philosophy of religion based on the abstract generalities . . . common to all forms of religion. For deism is nothing but the ghost of religion which haunts the grave of dead faith and lost hope” (Dynamics of World History, 88). It never occurred to the builders of the new society hat the religion they concocted—of society itself—was not enough. Such things cannot be concocted anyway, put together as from some recipe book of socially useful devotion. Real religion, Dawson argued, must “embody itself in concrete forms appropriate to the national character and the cultural tradition” (88) of a people. The late-eighteenth-century version was manifestly ersatz.

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Dermot Quinn, “Introduction,” in Dynamics of World History, ed. John J. Mulloy (Washington, DE: ISI Books, 2002), xx–xxi.

When Idea Becomes Ideology

But patterns of thought, and patterns within thought, are also organic. If civilizations grow and decay, the same might be said of philosophical systems. They become rigid, hard and unyielding, forgetful of their first impulses. A theory becomes a Truth; an idea becomes an Ideology. […] Consider Dawson’s account (in “Progress and Decay in Ancient and Modern Civilization”) of the revolutionaries and reformers of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. All of them believed in “the coming reign of the great abstractions—Humanity, Liberty, and Progress” (57). The phrase is pure Dawson, capturing at once the naïveté and dogmatism of the revolutionary generation. Promoters of enlightenment never understood that worship of rationality was itself irrational; that systematic and compulsory optimism was a guarantee of pessimism and gloom. They never understood that their contempt for history was itself historically rooted, the product of a particular time and place. The slow, vegetable growth of human communities meant nothing to them. All that mattered was mechanics. A new society, precise as a piece of clockwork, promised the happiness to which all men were entitled.

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Dermot Quinn, “Introduction,” in Dynamics of World History, ed. John J. Mulloy (Washington, DE: ISI Books, 2002), xx.

Secularism Destroys True Individuality

It would be hard to offer a better description of secularism than “religious emotion divorced from religious belief.” Nor are we likely to find a more accurate account of the spiritual vanity characteristic of the contemporary world. There is, perhaps, only one serious difference between Dawson’s day and our own. When he wrote, half a century ago, he complained of a secularism that was essentially collective. Democracy, nationalism and socialism are movements larger than the individual. This is their point. Nowadays, the secular mind fixates on the purely personal, shrinking from the social. Its preoccupations are curiously private: the cult of the body, authenticity, sexual license, the New Age in all its mystic vapidity. Secularism has become the numinosity of the narcissist. Postmodern man elevates a monstrance and sees at its center a mirror.

There is an obvious irony here. This self-worship is ignorant of the sources of the self. It prizes a rootless individualism, undifferentiated from place to place. In the name of local truths—my right, my body, my opinion—it banishes localism, replacing it with compulsory cosmopolitanism, the standard self-absorptions of Everyman. In the name of distinctive identity it produces identical “individuals.” Yet it is in the local and regional where a person is formed and made. Dawson, the most urbane of thinkers, was unsettled by this derogation of the provincial and the parochial. He knew that cosmopolitanism—the same citified culture the world over—produced homogenous [sic] [xx] cities, homogenous citizens. Urban man, deracinated and despiritualized, forgot the sources of his moral vitality: family, region, local clay. As with early civilizations, so with late: the closer to the land the better.

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Dermot Quinn, “Introduction,” in Dynamics of World History, ed. John J. Mulloy (Washington, DE: ISI Books, 2002), xix–xx.

The Scientism Within Sociology

From the beginning sociology has been haunted by the dream of explaining social phenomena by the mathematical and quantitative methods of the physical sciences and thus creating a science of society which will be completely mechanistic and determinist. The path of sociology is strewn with the corpses of defunct systems of “social physics,” “social energetics” and “social mechanics,” and their failure does little to discourage fresh adventures. Such systems have little use for history or for social reality; they content themselves with generalizations that have no significance and with “laws” which are nothing but false analogies.

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Christopher Dawson, “Sociology as a Science,” in Dynamics of World History, ed. John J. Mulloy (Washington, DE: ISI Books, 2002), 22. Originally published in Science for a New World, ed. Arthur Thomson and J. G. Crowther (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1934).

No Philosophy of History Is a Philosophy of History

No historian need be taken seriously who claims that his only interest is the past itself, as if such a statement needed no further justification. To dismiss a philosophy of history is a philosophy of history, if a paltry and inadvertent one. […] Few are good at philosophy and history.

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Dermot Quinn, “Introduction,” in Dynamics of World History, ed. John J. Mulloy (Washington, DE: ISI Books, 2002), xiii.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Fr. Benedict Ashley on the Difference between Imitation in Art and Photographic Copies

An imitation, therefore, is just the opposite of a photographic copy. The photograph is the unselective reproduction of the mere appearance of a thing. An imitation is the selection of a significant form, of those appearances which reveal the nature or essence of something. A photograph is made by a machine that is without intelligence. An imitation is the work of an intelligent man who sees through the accidents to the substantial reality of things and produces a sign that enables us to do the same. That is why a melody, [258] or an abstract painting, can be a true imitation, although they are far from a mechanical reproduction of anything. Between the melody or the design and the emotion which they imitate, there is a real similarity, a selective and interpretative likeness of movement and pattern existing in utterly different materials.

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Source: Fr. Benedict M. Ashley, The Arts of Learning and Communication: A Handbook of the Liberal Arts (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009), 257–258.

Fr. Benedict Ashley on How Music Stirs the Emotions

In order to signify these emotions by a musical pattern we need to produce a series of notes that move toward or away from sounds that are pleasant and unpleasant. A pattern of concordant or related notes seems pleasant, a pattern of unrelated notes seems unpleasant. The pleasant pattern seems restful and suggests a state of bodily relaxation; the unpleasant pattern is disturbing and indicates bodily tension. When a design is suggested but not completed, then we are in a state of anticipation and tension until it is completed. In this way a piece of music is a constant alternation between the building up and tearing down of a musical design, and this movement to and from an expected pattern or order signifies the emotions. If we see an expected design dissolving or incomplete, the emotions of sorrow are signified; if we see it building up in spite of obstacles, the emotions of joy are signified.

In dancing we have a similar alternation of visual patterns. In painting, sculpture, or architecture there is no actual movement, and at first it might appear that they could never signify the flow of emotion. But every motion begins and ends in rest, and in a static design it is possible to indicate that a motion is about to begin, or has just ended, by showing a design which is not quite complete, but suggested. Hence a picture in which a design seems to be dissolving or ready to fall apart suggests something sorrowful, and a picture in which the design seems just to be arriving at completion suggests triumph and joy.

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Source: Fr. Benedict M. Ashley, The Arts of Learning and Communication: A Handbook of the Liberal Arts (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009), 254.

Fr. Benedict Ashley on the Different Emotions Evoked by Music

What then about pure music, which seems to be free of any obvious emotional content? When we listen to the music of Bach, we do not sense, to be sure, the same violent and obvious emotions as in a piece by Tschaikovsky [sic], or Wagner. We say that the music seems “intellectual.” The reason for this lies in the fact that there are two kinds of emotion. Some emotions are so violent that they carry us along, blinding our intelligence and clarity of thought. Other emotions are controlled, measured by our intelligence, kept in balance and harmony by our thought. Such emotions do not blind us, but rather sharpen our intelligence and help us to think more acutely.

This is not a difference in the intensity of emotion, but in its discipline. Controlled emotion can be much more profound and intense than sentimental, dissipated emotion. Many people who compare the music of romantic composers like Wagner to classical composers like Mozart and Bach at first find the classical music “cold,” “intellectual,” a mere pattern of sounds; but after they know it better they come to see that it signifies most intense and deep emotion.

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Source: Fr. Benedict M. Ashley, The Arts of Learning and Communication: A Handbook of the Liberal Arts (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009), 253.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Fr. Benedict Ashley on the Form of Fine Art

[247] Chapter II: The Forms of Works of Fine Art

The Notion of Form

“Form” Is an Analogical Term

If we are ever to think clearly about the problem of “form” in art we have to realize that this word has many meanings; it is an analogical, not a univocal term.
In the broad sense of the word, “form” is relative to “matter,” so that whenever we have some sort of material, some elements or parts put together in a sort of an order, arrangement, or structure, we may call that structure “form.” In this broad sense, all the nine kinds of accidents […] are “forms,” because all of them give some kind of order to the thing in which they exist.
Among the accidents, however, the one which most truly deserves the name of “form” is quality, the category which answers the question, “What kind of thing is it?”
Hence among the kinds of quality the proper sensible qualities of things which directly affect our different senses may be called “forms.” Color is the form of things perceived by our eyes, sound the form of things perceived by our sense of hearing. Of these, [248] color and sound especially deserve to be called “forms” because it is by sight and hearing that we can best discriminate one kind of thing from another.
In the last chapter (see page 242) we saw that color and sound are forms of the common matter of the fine arts; the reason for this is that they give different qualities to paint, or glass, or stone, or to vibrating strings and columns of air. But although they are forms of the common matter, they are themselves the proper matter of the fine arts.

The Most Proper Sense of the Word “Form”

Although the term “form” may be used in these broad senses to apply to any accident, and particularly to any kind of quality, in the strictest sense it belongs only to one species of quality, namely, to figure.
If we ask most people what “form” means, they will spontaneously answer: “shape” or “figure”; and they will probably be thinking of the shape or figure of a beautiful woman. Thus “form” means “figure.” If we wish to distinguish the connotations of the two words, we may say that “form” means a perfect regular figure. Figure and form are kinds of qualities, but they are qualities very closely related to quantity, and may be defined as follows:
Definition: a figure is a quality which is the boundary of a quantity.
Thus in geometry we construct and study such figures as the straight line, the curved line, the triangle, the polygon, the circle, the cube, and the sphere. Each of these is a quantity having a definite boundary. For example, the circle is an area (quantity) bounded by a curved line equidistant at every point from the center. These boundaries of quantity are its figure, and this figure is not itself quantity but a quality of quantity; it is a form of the quantity.
Closely connected with quantity and figure are four other categories: place, position, vestition, and timing […]. If I draw the figure of a triangle on a sheet of paper, I can put it in various places on the page. I can also turn it in various positions; for example, with the vertex upward or downward. Similarly, the human [249] figure may be in various places, and in various positions (sitting, standing, lying down), and it may also be clothed (vestition) in “form-fitting” or in baggy garments. Finally, as the hands of a clock move through various positions on the dial, we can mark out parts of time to correspond with the parts of the circular figure; or as a runner speeds to his goal, we can mark off parts of the time to correspond with his progress along a straight line. Thus timing and the other categories we have just mentioned are closely related, and we can think of a series of events in time as arranged in a sort of pattern or figure.
Thus “form” strictly means figure, but it may also be applied to other categories closely connected with quantity. Quantity and the other categories which we have just mentioned all provide a foundation for the various relations […] of equality and inequality, similarity and dissimilarity, nearness and distance, before and after, so that in describing figure we must also take into account these various relations.
We often refer to figure in painting, sculpture, or architecture as a “pattern” or a “design.” In music the analogous arrangement of different tones in time may be called by the same names.

Design Is Essential to Fine Art

It should now be evident that a work of fine art that does not have form in the sense of good design could not possibly achieve its purpose. A work with poor design would lack the most basic type of beauty. It might have expensive materials, beautiful colors, or rich sounds; it might portray an interesting subject, or tell a moving story, but it would lack form. It would be the material of a work of art as a pile of bricks is the material of a building, but it would not be the completed work. A girl may be healthy without being very beautiful.
Oddly enough, many people miss this point. Girls are sometimes admired for beauty who really do not have it. A girl with bright eyes, a glowing complexion, or a pleasant manner is often thought beautiful, although actually she does not have regular features nor a good figure. Similarly, in judging works of art many people are inclined to think that a work of art is good if it has bright colors, or if [250] it is about some subject that they personally like. A man who likes hunting is likely to think that a brightly colored photograph of the woods is a fine work of art; and a woman who likes children is likely to think that a picture of a sweet baby painted in lovely pastel shades is a masterpiece.
This is not unnatural, and we need not object to people enjoying bright colors and pleasant subjects. But we must recognize that it is not the work of art itself they are enjoying, but merely something accidental to it. That is why the opinions of the public and the opinions of experts in matters of art sometimes seem so far apart. The public cannot understand why a prize at an exhibition should be given to a rather dull looking picture of some apples on a table cloth, while a flashy picture of a beautiful girl is passed over by the judges. The difference is principally in the fact that the judges are looking for the form of a work of art, and in the picture of the apples they find a most complicated and interesting design, while in the flashy picture of the girl they find very little design at all.
The public, on the other hand, has perhaps not learned to look for design and probably does not even realize that it is the very essence of art. Good design may be greatly aided by brilliant, beautiful colors, and it should tell us something interesting and human (as we will see below); but without it all the colors and subject-matter in the world cannot produce a work of art. The same is true of music; brilliant or rich sounds, or easily memorized tunes, or a great deal of lively and noisy rhythm does not make a good piece of music, nor does the fact that the music is patriotic, or romantic, or tells a clever story. Without musical form or design such music is like a collection of pretty silks and laces that has not been cut and sewn to make a dress. It is the possible material of a work of art and nothing more.

Abstract Art

It is the growing recognition of this true conception of art that has led to the surprising development of abstract painting and pure music in the last fifty years, a development which has outraged the public and which they find it very difficult to regard as anything but “insane art,” or “boiler-factory music.” In an abstract painting [251] or sculpture the artist gives us a pure design which seems devoid of all meaning (“What in the world is it supposed to be?”) and which frequently is devoid of appeal in color or careful finish (“A child could do as well!”). By giving us a work which seems “crude,” sketchy, unfinished, the artist is trying to get us to forget about the mere superficial qualities of color and neatness, and by not picturing anything definite he is trying to get us to concentrate on the pattern. It is rather like a football coach deciding that the crowd is becoming more concerned about the hot-dogs, the pennants, the chrysanthemums, the marching bands, the majorettes, the cheer-leaders, and the mascots than about the game of football itself; so he decides to cut them all out and give the spectators nothing but a hard-played game by a team in dirty uniforms. The public would not like that, but the real sport fans wouldn’t mind at all. They would be happy to concentrate on the game. In similar fashion abstract art and pure music are intended to be works of fine art cut down to the essentials with little appeal to the ignorant public, but with a very direct and strong appeal to those who really know what art is all about.

Significant Form

We have just given the case for abstract art, but we hasten to add that the public is not altogether mistaken in its astonishment at this type of art. The figure or shape or design of things is only an accident. The human mind, however, is made to know reality, and the accidents of things, although real, are only the most superficial aspect of reality. Reality consists of things, of substances which exist in themselves. Accidents cannot exist in themselves but have reality only because they exist in substances. Until our mind penetrates accidents and grasps the substances of things it is unsatisfied. Perhaps at a circus or fair you have bought a paper cone full of pink “cotton-candy” spun out of sugar, and you remember that when you bit into it you found it was hardly more than slightly sweet air. The world of accidents is just as unsubstantial to the appetite of our mind.
Accidents are the natural signs […] of the substantial nature in which they exist. A man’s color, height, shape, weight, [252] etc., are the outward signs of his human nature. When our senses take in these accidents our mind at once begins to try to read their meaning and to discover what they signify. Of all the accidents those which are most significant to us are the figure, the sounds, and the motions of things. If we see the shadow of a dog, hear its bark, or see it streak across the lawn after a rabbit, we recognize it immediately and we understand what its nature is.
So habitual is it for us to read the natures of things through their figures that when we sit idly watching the shifting forms of the clouds or the fire, or when a psychologist shows us an ink-blot, we immediately see in these random shapes the likeness of animals or human faces. The same is true of sounds, for if we listen to the wind or the waterfall for some time, or the sound of the wheels of the train on the track, they may begin to suggest words and voices to us. The tendency of children or of insane or delirious adults to see figures in the shadows and hear voices in the wind is only an exaggeration of a universal human tendency to seek for meanings in every shape and sound.
A form which quickly reveals a nature and which thus acts as an effective sign is a significant form, in contrast to one which seems meaningless. The reason we resent abstract painting and music is that it seems to promise a meaning which we can never discover. Purely abstract art is inhuman, because it offers us a mere surface, a flow of phenomena instead of the reality we naturally crave.
It certainly is legitimate for the mathematician to abstract from all reality except the accident of quantity, because he is a scientist, and science sometimes gains by sacrificing depth for the sake of exactitude […]. The artist, too, may feel that by making his picture very mathematical he is gaining in clarity of form what he is losing in richness of content, but this sacrifice becomes too great when nothing but mathematical pattern is left. The history of art shows that cultures like that of the Jews or the Mohammedans (who, for fear of idolatry, banished the use of representation in art and confined themselves to abstract designs) did not achieve artistic greatness.

[253] The Function of Emotion

Emotion and Abstraction

As a matter of fact, the abstract art of today is really not so abstract as it appears. Most of it actually has some meaning or significance because it conveys emotion. Very little music has even attempted to reproduce natural sounds (except as an incidental novelty); yet music does convey emotion, and has a rich emotional meaning. In an analogous way, visual design which seems to resemble nothing in particular may have a definite emotional content, and may convey a sense of joy or gloom, agitation or serenity. If it were not so, then architectural designs would not convey any mood to us—and they obviously do. Who has not felt the sense of serenity in the façade of the Parthenon, or the sense of prayer in the interior of the cathedral of Chartres? Abstract painting is a visual design which signifies emotion in somewhat the same way as music does.
What then about pure music, which seems to be free of any obvious emotional content? When we listen to the music of Bach, we do not sense, to be sure, the same violent and obvious emotions as in a piece by Tschaikovsky [sic], or Wagner. We say that the music seems “intellectual.” The reason for this lies in the fact that there are two kinds of emotion. Some emotions are so violent that they carry us along, blinding our intelligence and clarity of thought. Other emotions are controlled, measured by our intelligence, kept in balance and harmony by our thought. Such emotions do not blind us, but rather sharpen our intelligence and help us to think more acutely.
This is not a difference in the intensity of emotion, but in its discipline. Controlled emotion can be much more profound and intense than sentimental, dissipated emotion. Many people who compare the music of romantic composers like Wagner to classical composers like Mozart and Bach at first find the classical music “cold,” “intellectual,” a mere pattern of sounds; but after they know it better they come to see that it signifies most intense and deep emotion.

How Can a Design Have Emotional Significance?

Granted that “abstract” designs and musical patterns often signify emotion, it is rather difficult to explain how this can be. We need to recall what an emotion is:
Definition: An emotion is a movement of our sense appetites toward an object presented to the imagination as pleasant or away from an object as presented to the imagination as unpleasant, with an accompanying physical change.
So, for instance, when we imagine a delicious dish of food we have a hungry impulse that moves us toward it, and we feel our stomach begin to get active and our mouth begin to water. […]
In order to signify these emotions by a musical pattern we need to produce a series of notes that move toward or away from sounds that are pleasant and unpleasant. A pattern of concordant or related notes seems pleasant, a pattern of unrelated notes seems unpleasant. The pleasant pattern seems restful and suggests a state of bodily relaxation; the unpleasant pattern is disturbing and indicates bodily tension. When a design is suggested but not completed, then we are in a state of anticipation and tension until it is completed. In this way a piece of music is a constant alternation between the building up and tearing down of a musical design, and this movement to and from an expected pattern or order signifies the emotions. If we see an expected design dissolving or incomplete, the emotions of sorrow are signified; if we see it building up in spite of obstacles, the emotions of joy are signified.
In dancing we have a similar alternation of visual patterns. In painting, sculpture, or architecture there is no actual movement, and at first it might appear that they could never signify the flow of emotion. But every motion begins and ends in rest, and in a static design it is possible to indicate that a motion is about to begin, or has just ended, by showing a design which is not quite complete, but suggested. Hence a picture in which a design seems to be dissolving or ready to fall apart suggests something sorrowful, and a picture in which the design seems just to be arriving at completion suggests triumph and joy.

[255] Ugliness and Beauty

We can now understand why a work of art, if it is to have emotional meaning, must not be simply a perfect geometrical design or pattern; why it must contain something which is imperfect, incomplete, ugly, and disordered. It is not possible to present the pleasant in an effective and intense way without also suggesting the unpleasant, or at least the less pleasant. A piece of music which was all sweet chords, or a picture which had a perfect balance of pure colors, would seem emotionally empty because they would not suggest to us the movement of emotions from the unpleasant to the pleasant. A story with no villain, no conflict, no danger is bound to be insipid. That is why good works of art at first sight sometimes seem shocking or strange or depressing. It is because we have noticed the unpleasant element, and have not yet perceived how this unpleasant element is present only as a means to intensify the emotional movement toward the pleasant. The apparent disorder exists only to bring us to a profound order, just as in the universe sin and sorrow exist only to awaken us to the pursuit of true happiness.
This does not mean, however, that there must always be something ugly for there to be something beautiful. God is Beauty without ugliness of any sort because he is Eternal Beauty. But creatures arrive at beauty and goodness only by a long journey, and every journey not only has a goal, but also a place of departure. We journey toward Beauty only by leaving ugliness behind.

Natural Signs of Emotion

It may appear very surprising that we are able to read the emotional meaning of a piece of music or a design just by looking or listening to it, even when we have had no training in these arts. And yet people spontaneously understand the joyfulness or sadness of a great deal of music and design. The reason is that we are naturally inclined to read this visual or musical language of the emotions because the appearance of our bodies and the sound of our voices are natural signs of our emotional states.
Even a small child soon learns to read its mother’s emotions from her facial expression, from her calm or nervous gestures, and from the tone of her voice. When we watch a fine actor we are amazed to [256] see how his body and his voice seem to reveal his interior feelings by their slightest changes. Thus the human body in its movements, postures, expressions indicates the interior tension or repose that accompany emotion (see definition above, page 254), and so does the human voice which is so affected by the muscular tensions of the face, throat, and chest, and by our breathing.
When our body is in repose (standing or sitting easily), it forms a perfect symmetrical pattern; and so, in a similar state, does our face. When we are moved by emotion, this pattern is disturbed and goes through a series of shifting appearances until we return to repose. In dancing or acting we see this alternation of repose and movement. The voice also has its rest and repose, silence or a clear, even tone. When we are moved, the voice rises or falls, grows stronger or weakens, and then returns again to repose. It follows, then, that the pattern of design or of music of which we have been speaking is natural to man, so from our acquaintance with the human body and voice we quickly come to read this natural language.

Imitation in the Fine Arts

Art as Imitation

We can now understand the famous saying of the great Greek philosopher, that art is imitation. In Greek the word is mimesis, the same word from which comes our word “mimic.” No doubt Aristotle particularly had in mind the actor who mimics or imitates a character in a story. He says, however, that music also is imitative (Politics, VIII, 1340a, 19), because it so subtly portrays the emotions. By this he means that the work of art is a significant form, as we have already explained, not that it is a photographic copy of the appearance of something. If he had meant the latter he certainly could not have cited music as an obvious example of imitation, since music is no obvious likeness of anything.
Some have argued that “imitation” was taken by Aristotle to mean that the artist does for his work of art what nature does for the things it produces. According to this theory, just as nature helps the seed to grow into a beautiful tree, so the artist develops a design from [257] some germinal idea and embodies it in his material. It is perfectly true that human art does imitate nature in this way, but this is true of all arts—of farming, of medicine, of engineering, of teaching—and would not be especially characteristic of the fine arts. Yet Aristotle uses the term “imitation” as the specific difference of the fine arts to define them in contrast to these other arts.
Aristotle tells us himself (Poetics, IV, 1448b, 4 ff.) that the fine arts are imitations in the sense that they lead us to knowledge. By comparing the work of art with the thing it imitates we come to know something which we did not know before. How is that possible? How do we come to know by comparing the picture of a man with a man?
We can understand the answer to this question if we recall that we human beings learn to define things by comparing similar things and then noticing the differences. It is in this way that we come to distinguish between what is essential and important and what is accidental and insignificant. Hence when an actor “imitates” or mimics someone else, we first make a comparison between two persons who are unlike each other (the actor and the one he imitates) and then we notice their similarity, the tricks of gesture, gait, expression, and pronunciation which make them startlingly similar.
When we recognize this similarity we are very interested, because previously we had never realized the distinctive personality of the person who is being imitated. But when we see these traits put on by an entirely different person, we see them plainly and clearly and appreciate them as we never appreciated them before. The mimic has said to us, so to speak: “Here is the very essence of Mr. So-and-So. Now you know what Mr. So-and-So is really like, although you never realized it before.”
An imitation, therefore, is just the opposite of a photographic copy. The photograph is the unselective reproduction of the mere appearance of a thing. An imitation is the selection of a significant form, of those appearances which reveal the nature or essence of something. A photograph is made by a machine that is without intelligence. An imitation is the work of an intelligent man who sees through the accidents to the substantial reality of things and produces a sign that enables us to do the same. That is why a melody, [258] or an abstract painting, can be a true imitation, although they are far from a mechanical reproduction of anything. Between the melody or the design and the emotion which they imitate, there is a real similarity, a selective and interpretative likeness of movement and pattern existing in utterly different materials.

The Scope of Imitation

Emotion and Action

Up to this point we have shown how even when works of painting or music seem very abstract or “non-objective” they may actually imitate the emotions. But emotions do not exist of themselves, they exist in human beings. It is the human being who is a substance, and emotion is only one of his activities. Nor is it the highest human activity. Man fully lives, not merely in feeling and suffering, but rather in thinking, willing, loving, choosing a course of action, and executing it. Furthermore, it is not merely in some passing experience that he truly lives; rather it is in his habitual, deliberate way of life that his character and personality are truly realized. If art were confined to imitating man’s emotions, it would be able to show us only a very fleeting and superficial aspect of reality.
Hence it is that in poetic works, which are the fullest and most complete type of art, the writer does not merely portray emotion (this is paramount only in lyric poetry, see page 216), but deals with human action, that is, with human life as a whole. The scope of the imitation of a poetic work, therefore, extends beyond emotion to the whole of man’s nature and life, and to the world in which he lives.

The Scope of Music

Is it possible for the arts which do not use words to go beyond emotions in their work of imitation? It would seem that music cannot go further, unless it is united to words or drama as in a song or opera. Music represents emotion, and in that emotion we sense the control of reason and of virtue which gives that emotion its own balance and symmetry. But music alone can never tell us the objects of these emotions (the thoughts), nor the characters that feel them, nor the situation that provokes them.
[259] In hearing a piece of music we witness someone’s noble sorrow, or exultant joy, but we do not know who it is that feels these emotions, nor why. On this account music is very limited in its scope, although it compensates for these limitations by its extreme subtlety and power in imitating what it can imitate. The words of a poet or the expressions of an actor fall far short of music when it comes to imitating the shades and changes of feeling.
It is for this reason that music is so often used in connection with other arts, along with words, or as an accompaniment to acting or dancing. This is also the reason why it has such intense appeal to people of deep emotions, while it may seem tedious and empty to those who are more interested in the other aspects of life.

Limitations of the Other Arts

Architecture, which has been called “frozen music,” has even narrower limitations. It cannot show the shift or changes of emotion, but only a certain mood or atmosphere of grandeur, or peace, or comfort, or whatever it may be. It may be said to imitate a habitual state of character or emotion, rather than the emotion itself. Abstract design has these same limitations, and in spite of the great fashion at the moment for such designs, we may be sure that people and artists will soon tire of so limited a medium. Abstract design has neither the power of music, nor the scope of representational art.
Why is it so popular at present? Partly, it would seem, as a reaction to the mechanical, materialistic, photographic ideal of art which is so prevalent in our mechanical age, but mainly because the artists of today are very ignorant of the fulness [sic] of reality. Like so many experts, they are narrow specialists and they find nothing to imitate which they know well except their own emotions. It is well known that among writers lyric poetry is the one field in which the young writer can excel, since it requires a minimum of knowledge and experience with life, and only a sufficient sensitivity on the part of the young poet. Abstract painting and sculpture are the lyric form of the visual arts, and today’s artists, cut off from the fulness [sic] of life by their lack of education and general culture, tend to devote themselves to it. This is by no means all their own fault; it is largely due [260] to the fact that in modern life the fine arts have lost their social function and have become very narrow […].
Acting and dancing have a much wider scope, since vision is the most informative of all our senses. Before the “talking picture” was invented, the silent movies had proved that it is possible to go very far in telling an effective story without words. Nonetheless, everyone is aware that the silent movies were very limited in their dramatic scope. Without words it was difficult to express the shades of motivation, and the story had to be confined to very broad simple effects. The same is true of the ballet which can tell a simple story and express the related emotions very clearly—more clearly than can a play. Yet a ballet becomes confusing if the story takes on any complication or subtlety of plot, character, or thought.
In painting and sculpture even motion is eliminated. Hence these arts cannot effectively tell a story. The efforts of some painters to suggest a story in a picture is more clever than successful. To be sure, the technique of the comic-strip may be tried. In Chinese painting, in illustrations for manuscripts and books, in some primitive Italian and Flemish painting, and in certain large groups of mural paintings, successful efforts have been made to portray the separate incidents of a story in a succession of pictures. Even here, however, each picture has to have an interest of its own, and a single picture conveys a story only feebly.

The Imitative Function of These Arts

What these arts can do is to portray the repose that completes precedes action, and by showing this repose as imperfect to suggest the action which is coming to rest or about to begin. In the famous Greek statue of the discus thrower, for example, we see the athlete poised to release the discus. In Michelangelo’s statue of Moses we see the great lawgiver just about to rise from his seat in righteous anger. In the “Winged Victory” in the Louvre we see the goddess of victory just coming to rest on the prow of a ship and ready to fold her wings, and in Michelangelo’s Pietà we see Our Lady gazing in silent grief after receiving the body of her Son. The history of Egyptian and Greek sculpture or of the painting of the Renaissance shows the gradual development of the art by which the artists learned to [261] suggest, in a static design, this beginning or coming to rest of motion. In the later periods of Greek and Renaissance art this skill was so abused that the static design was destroyed by motions too violent for successful portrayal without actual acting or dancing.

The Matter of the Arts as Limiting Principle

In fine, each of the arts tends to be limited in its scope by the effective possibilities of the matter. It pertains to the perfection of these arts to widen their scope, but not to do violence to it. The great musician tries to give a dramatic and intellectual quality to his music. The painter and sculptor attempt to suggest action in repose. The poet seeks to give a vivid pictorial and sound impression in his poem. All, however, if they respect their own art, will not attempt to compete with the other arts, nor try to do within the limits of one material what could be better done in another.
The musician who tries to paint a picture or tell a story, the painter who tries to turn his poem into a piece of music or a painting—all are striving to do the impossible, and thereby violating the nature of their own art.

Objects of Imitation

Since an imitation receives its form from the object imitated, we need now to ask: what objects are imitated by the fine arts? The answer must be given in terms of two principles:
1. An artist should seek to imitate what is most beautiful in itself insofar as he can.
2. But he is limited in this by the kind of matter he uses.

The Beauty of the Divine

If we consider the first principle, then, of course, the most beautiful of all things is the One God in the three divine Persons. God’s Being is seen especially in the Father, his Truth especially in the Son, and his Goodness in the Holy Spirit. Since beauty is a kind of goodness (namely, the good of knowledge), the Beauty of God is seen especially in the Holy Spirit. Since beauty is the splendor of truth, it is especially especially as the Holy Spirit is the very splendor of the Word of God that he is Beauty.
[262] After God the most beautiful reality is the Triumphant Church (taking its Head and its members together) as it will be after the last judgment. This Church will then include all glorified rational creatures and the whole glorified physical universe as its temple. The damned in hell will remain to render this glory more clearly, in the same way that something of ugliness remains in a work of art as the sign of the catharsis achieved. In this Church our divine Saviour [sic] and Our Lady are most beautiful. By reason of his human nature, our Lord, who is a divine Person, is fitted to our knowledge, and is thus most beautiful to us. But even more evident than the beauty of our Lord as man is his sublimity, whereas his beauty is found most clearly for us in Our Lady, who so perfectly resembles him. Our Lord’s beauty appears especially in his actions, his life, since it is by these that his Person is manifested to us. For this reason the history of the Church (and in it the story of our Lord’s life) is the most beautiful of dramas. The life of Christ is also strongest in its catharsis, since we can completely identify ourselves with him who has become our brother, and his life moves from the extremes of sorrow to those of perfect joy. It is in the Sacrifice of the Cross and in the Resurrection that this catharsis attains its goal.

The Beauty of the Human

Among other human beings, the saints, who most resemble Christ, are most beautiful; and their heroic actions, especially martyrdom, share the tragic power of his own life. But it is particularly in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass (which is a sacramental imitation of the Sacrifice of Calvary, truly re-presenting it) that this beauty is found at its highest.
It is also found, however, in the humble life of the home where he lived in Nazareth, and in his daily contacts with weak humanity. In these incidents is found the comic spirit, ranging from the burning satire of his exposure of the Pharisees, to the gentle humor with which he dealt with his disciples. The sublime sorrow of his life, however, prevents the comic from being seen there fully, but it is fully evident in the life of his members in the Church, who alone of men can afford to laugh at themselves. The sublimity of our Lord’s life, on the other hand, is fully seen only in the entire panorama [263] of history outlined in the Bible and filled in by the details of secular histories.

The Chief Object of Imitation

Thus it is human action (whether tragic or comic) which is the chief object of imitation in fine art. For this is the highest object which appears perfectly adapted to our understanding and sympathy, and hence the one which produces in us the most perfect purification of our emotions (catharsis, see pages 152 ff.) and the most perfect contemplation of the beautiful. Divine things and cosmic things are represented, but as they are reflected in human action, as its law and goal. When we see human life in relation to its ultimate consequences beyond this life, in its relation to God and the society of the universe, we have a tragic vision. When we see human life in relation to the less consequential affairs of everyday life in human society, we have the comic vision. In the former the catharsis is more profound, because it is a lasting joy attained by conquering sorrow. In the latter the joy attained is less perfect and final; it is the commonplace joy of daily life.
When we consider things below man we consider them as ordered to man and reflecting human life, as similar to man and sharing in his beauty or ugliness. Sometimes they appear as obstacles to his action (hence as ugly), sometimes as the instruments and appropriate setting of his action (hence as beautiful). Such humble things also have a sublime aspect, since they reflect the cosmic order of which man is not the highest part. They suggest to us man’s subordination to the Creator who made both man and ant. Thus in looking at apples on a table, not only do we see a design, but also a reflection of man in his daily domestic life, and, further still, a reflection of the mystery of the universe in which man finds himself as a part. Seeing the reality of the apples in sunlight we realize that the world is not our work, but the work of someone greater than ourselves whose art is infinite.
Consequently, the landscape painting, the still-life, the picture of animals, the poetic description of the weather, are subordinate and minor objects of imitation in art which take their meaning from their relation to human life and to God.

[264] The Division of the Fine Arts

Since human action is the principal object of imitation in the arts, especially as it reflects the divine action, we can now consider how we can give a classification of the fine arts. We can do this by seeing the ways in which this object can best be imitated in the different materials of words, color, or musical tone, which we have seen are the proper matter of the fine arts. The division rests on the three possible objects of imitation: action, character, thought, and on the three possible kinds of matter: words, musical design (which includes both melody and rhythm), and visual design (spectacle). Words and musical design must include movement, but visual design may be either moving or static. Words have their significance by convention, musical and visual design by the natural expressiveness of the human voice and body.
Finally, the difference between the dramatic and non-dramatic manner is basically a difference between the joint use of the arts to produce a synthetic work (in which human action is represented on the stage in all its aspects) and the individual work of poetics (where the other arts are omitted). Thus Aristotle’s division of the arts (Poetics, I) according to objects, means, and manner is observed in the following division:

Classification of the Fine Arts

A. The synthesis of the fine arts, the drama:
Definition: The drama is a work of fine art whose form is the representation of human acts in their relation to divine and human law, along with the characters who act and their thoughts about their acts,
and whose matter is words, along with moving musical and visual designs whose significance is derived from the natural significance of the human voice and body in repose and motion.
B. The individual fine arts, each of which produces a part of the drama but which may produce independent works:
I: Literature (poetics):
A poetic work excels in representing the element of thought by means of conventional signs or words, along with spoken musical design.
II: Music:
A musical work excels in representing character as it shows itself in emotion, by means of a pattern of sounds.
III: Visual Art:
1. Dancing excels in representing character as it shows itself in the movements of the human body, by means of a visual design using such movements.
2. Painting and sculpture excel in representing character as it shows in the repose of the human body, by means of a visual design using this repose.

3. Architecture and the crafts provide an appropriate setting or instruments for human motion or repose, by a visual design adapted to these.

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Source: Fr. Benedict M. Ashley, The Arts of Learning and Communication: A Handbook of the Liberal Arts (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009), 247–264.