Philosophical Reflections
In which a philosopher speaks, sometimes without having been asked

Aesthetics and Religion

by John Ziegler

Uncultured as I am in the fine arts, I nevertheless wish to give a philosopher's view of the relevance, indeed the mutual relevance, between aesthetics and religion. To do this, it will be necessary to conduct an analysis of both.

The notion of subjecting to analysis two such transcending things as beauty and its appreciation, and religion and its 'uplift', might seem not only impossible but ridiculous. But let us do it just the same. Whatever insight we can gain into them will not only be interesting but will also be profitable to the very appreciation and uplift themselves. Furthermore, let us do it because some might say that religious art is impossible since aesthetics is about beauty for its own sake, but religious artefacts are for the sake of something else.


Let us begin with aesthetics. It would be better at the outset to dispense with that word 'aesthetics' with its unfortunate connotations to us of an exaggerated cult of beauty: although the genesis of the word, properly understood, will tell us, as is true of the genesis of most words (with the unfortunate exception of acronyms), much of the fundamental understanding of the thing. We may, indeed, use this genesis as a starting point.

The word comes from the Greek, and refers to what the Latins, and we, call perceiving. Now, the underlying notion of perceiving is to grasp by the senses. What, then, is the connection between grasping by the senses and the pleasure of beauty, aesthetic pleasure?

Some have thought that the connection is direct, and that the appreciation of beauty is something strictly sensible. This is the school which thinks that music has nothing to do with anything but emotions, that poetry properly and entirely consists in speech rich with images, and that the plastic arts appeal only through the external senses via that same imagination to our emotional response; so that aesthetic pleasure is no more than something emotional. It is not to be denied that this school has seen something of the truth, but it is to be denied that it has it whole: if only because of what C.S. Lewis remarked of this opinion: "we appear to be saying something very important.....but actually we are only saying something about our own feelings".

The doctrine of Aquinas is far more subtle.

For this, it is necessary first to follow him into his analysis of knowledge, although in the interest of brevity we will need to forego much of its richness.

Now, it is undeniable that when we know something, it is indeed that something that we know: our power of knowing, capable of knowing much, is, by that thing, fixed. That is, to the extent, at least partly, that the thing is determinate, our power of knowing is also determined: for prior to that it is not determined, but still 'open'. And as Chesterton remarked regarding the phrase 'to keep an open mind', the purpose of opening the mind, like that of opening the mouth, is to shut it on something solid.

It will be better to follow, again for brevity, the Greek terminology: 'form' is that determination, fixing, of what is otherwise indeterminate, open. So, to know is to 'have form', to be determinate, just as the thing is itself determinate, has form. That said, it is obvious that it is the form of the known that is had by the knower, for it knows not other than that. Equally obviously the stuff of the known is not had by the knower, for, at least in the case of sense knowledge, it is the stuff of the knower, its matter, which is determined by knowing. A material knower can have form only in that matter which is its own, and as for an intellective knower, it knows only in the realm of form.


The question now is: just as the form of the known thing 'belongs' to that thing, since it is its determination, then, in knowledge, does not the form which comes into the knower, determining it, thereby now belong to the knower? To put this concretely: this plant I see is indeed green, determinately green: it has the form of green, owning it exclusively, since it is confined to this plant. In seeing it, my sight is determined to green, whereas otherwise it was open to anything visible; so that, in that knowledge, my sight is 'greened', having that form. The question we ask is: is this form, this green now 'in' the knower, confined to the knower, as it is to the plant? After all, if a piece of iron acquires the form of heat from hot water, then the heat in the iron, confined as it is to the iron, has the iron as its exclusive owner. Is the green in the knower, acquired from the plant, exclusively owned by the knower?

On the answer to this hinges the whole richness of Aquinas's doctrine of knowledge. Let us see what follows if the answer is taken as 'yes'. In that case, since knowledge can be about none other than that form, then knowledge would necessarily be self-knowledge. And if we say that all knowledge is self-knowledge, it is necessary, with the Idealists, to end by denying that there is any reality at all outside the knower. If that were so, there would be no plant for me to see in the first place.

Rejecting 'yes', then, the answer must be 'no': unlike the green of the plant, and unlike the heat of the iron (and for that matter the heat of the water) the green 'in' the knower is not exclusively owned by the knower. Moreover, the knower does indeed have its own, exclusively owned, form, whereby it is what it is. And so the crux of the doctrine is this saying of St Thomas: non-knowers have only their own form, but the knower (besides its own form) has also - also, he says - the form of another (that is, it remains the form of that other, the known). For unless it remains the form of the known, we have answered 'yes'. Thus, and only thus, is the objectivity of knowledge saved.

From this follows the fundamental insight that the knower is in a way identified with the known, because determined - as knowing - by the very same form. Aquinas is saying that this union in knowing, which is the most intimate of possible unions, identity, albeit identity of form rather than matter, is a far more intimate one than mere expressed similitude; as an image, or as a concept, are expressed similitudes. Clearly, the image or the concept are not that which is known: they merely make knowledge possible.

Intuitive Knowledge

And yet there is not found an expressed similitude in all knowledge. Expressed similitudes are found, as images, in imagination and memory, for example, and as concept in intellect. Now, these powers are the very powers of knowledge which can know their object while not together experiencing its very existence, for I can understand an absent triangle, for instance. But it is different with such external senses as sight and touch: they require the very physical present existence of the object, which existence they also know. I don't 'see something that is not there': if I truly see, there is something there to see, although I may misinterpret what it is.

Now, knowledge which together knows the physical existence of its object, which knows it not only in its presence but necessarily only in its presence, is technically called intuitive. With us, only external sense, and one other, are strictly intuitive. It is not properly true of our intellectual knowledge of things, for all that there is the union of identity between knower and known. Indeed, the expressed similitude which is the concept, conceptual knowledge, as said above, makes it possible for me to understand something, such as the greenness of the plant, by making it present to my knowledge in the very absence of the thing.

As regards our intellectual knowledge, then, conceptual or abstract knowledge is its proper business. However, should there be an intellectual knowledge where there is an element of concrete existence, it has title to be called intuitive. It is on this point that the subtlety of St Thomas's doctrine on beauty appears. According to him, our appreciation of beauty involves knowledge that is also an experience.

So now we may begin to see the relevance of the genesis of the word 'aesthetic': for, taking the external senses as its reference, it speaks to us of a certain intuitive intellectual knowledge.

But that is only the half of it. We speak of 'aesthetic pleasure'. In what does this delight consist? And, for that matter, why, on what title, is this knowledge intuitive?

It is here that, had it not already, his doctrine can be called 'subtle'. It is to be noted that the fundamental difference between our intellect, which draws its objects into itself, and will, which, conversely, is itself drawn to the object, is that the will necessarily attaches itself to the object as it concretely exists. And that, for all that it is intellect which (so to speak) presents will with its object. It is the concrete thing, this actual automobile here and now, that I will: not the abstract notion of automobile.

"That which seen, pleases"

Now, Aquinas says of the beautiful, and indeed thus defines it, that it is "that which seen, pleases". This, from a philosopher who calls things by their names: who, when he means 'understand', says 'understand'. Let us unpack the implications of his "that which seen, pleases".

First, he says "seen". This taken literally is an act of external sense, although here it is to be taken widely as 'see' includes 'understand', for clearly more than corporeal sight is involved. But there is the reference to external sense, and indeed by that reference he surely means intellectual knowledge that is somehow intuitive.

Secondly, he says that the very seeing, the very apprehension, pleases. This is the heart of the subtlety and insight. He is speaking of an intuitive intellectual knowledge, intuitive on some title: but this title can only be because of involvement of the will in the very intellective apprehension itself, for otherwise, for its own part, intellect would act to draw its object into itself. For, true, the will is pleased at possession of some thing, but here it is not question of possession of a thing. Here, rather, the pleasure is in the apprehension; "beautiful", says St Thomas, "is the name given to that of which the very apprehension pleases".

It is in a way on account of this involvement by the will, power versed about the concrete, that the apprehension itself acquires a concrete and intuitive, experienced, character: and yet, conversely, it is because the apprehension has a concrete character that the will can itself be involved. Causes are indeed causes to each other: not in the same way, which would be absurd, but 'in a diverse mode of cause'. He had noted that all being is capable of conformity with intellect - understandable. This is called its truth. And all being is capable of being the object of will - appetible. This is called its goodness. And: "the true has the character of good, else it would not be willable; and the good has the character of true, else it would not be understandable".

But how can something give pleasure or joy unless it is had concretely and is present? We can, after all, have aesthetic pleasure at the very memory of something, in its absence, as I might have aesthetic pleasure at a remembered sunset. What St Thomas is saying is that, of the beautiful, "the very apprehension pleases": the very act of apprehending, necessarily had while knowing (however inadequate might be the knowledge) is what concretely exists for the will.

Yet the will could never appetise that apprehension did not the intellect know it as something good. That is, the intellect must know the beautiful thing as good to apprehend - 'good to know', if you like, but not as the thing apprehended is good (like the automobile), nor even that the knowledge of it is good to have (as it is good to know a science), but that the very act of apprehending - beholding - it is good. And yet in turn, the intellect knows that act of beholding as good because it is something which indeed pleases the will. Causes are causes to each other.

Further, this beholding is before the intellect abstracts its knowledge, so that the object, not yet known abstractly, is yet as 'given', concrete; and this is the other reason for that intuitive character.

Will and Intellect

Thus it is that the beautiful has together the character of true, as object of intellect, and good, as object of will, not only as each has its object of truth and of goodness, but as joint object: the good-true, the true-good.

And why should the beholding please? Again according to Aquinas, because of a certain congeniality, co-likeness, between the beholder and the beheld. There is an excellence to the human form, a form which so far exceeds the exigencies of matter that understanding is not even a material act (despite what many say). And so, excellence of form is the root of a congeniality, a love of similars, seen, concretely experienced (for that is what intuitive knowledge means), by one who beholds beauty in something displaying some excellence of form: as I might have aesthetic pleasure in a Haydn symphony, a graceful structure, a magnificent landscape, a moonlit night. Excellence of form beheld is the root of aesthetic pleasure. "Beauty is splendour of form", says Aquinas.

Let us now turn consideration to religion.

Again, it will be useful to take the genesis of the word. Aquinas gives several possibilities (and modern scholarship does not improve upon them). He says it may derive from what Cicero says, that someone is said to be religious from 'religio' because he often ponders over and as it were reads again (relegit) things pertaining to the worship of God. Or again, he says, it may derive from 'religare' - bind together. He defines it from its object: "It belongs to religion to show reverence to one God under one aspect, namely as the first principle of creation and governance of things". And the virtues of religion and love of God differ in object: "The object of love is the good, but the object of honour and reverence is something excellent".

He says further: "Whatever is directed to an end takes its goodness from being ordered to that end; so that the nearer it is to the end the better it is. Now moral virtues.........are about matters that are ordered to God as their end. And religion approaches nearer to God than the other moral virtues, in so far as its actions are directly and immediately ordered to the honor of God. Hence religion excels among the moral virtues."

And he has this: "by sanctity the human mind applies itself and its acts to God, so that it differs from religion not essentially" (i.e. according to what it is) "but only logically" (conceptually).

And this: "We pay God honour and respect, not for his sake (because he is of himself full of glory to which no creature can add anything), but for our own sake, because by the very fact that we revere and honour God, our mind is subjected to him; wherein its perfection consists, since a thing is perfected by being subjected to its superior..........Wherefore in the divine worship it is necessary to make use of corporeal things, that man's mind may be aroused thereby, as by signs, to the spiritual acts by means of which he is united to God."

"It is necessary to make use of corporeal things"

Let us emphasise: "in the divine worship it is" (not merely fitting, but) "necessary to make use of corporeal things"; and to this end: "that man's mind may be aroused thereby, as by signs, to the spiritual acts by means of which he is united to God."

Thus there is the connection between the beautiful and the religious: both are versed about excellence, the one apprehending it as together true and good, the other giving honour and respect to supreme excellence "for our own sake".

And so it is apparent that religious practice ought to make use of artifacts which have an excellence of their kind - splendour of form - because "the object of honour and reverence is something excellent", and "it belongs to religion to show reverence", and "religion approaches nearer to God than the other moral virtues". This use in the practice of religion of artifacts which are beautiful is not only because the excellence of the object requires excellence in the reverence, but also because "in the divine worship it is necessary to make use of corporeal things, that man's mind may be aroused thereby, as by signs, to the spiritual acts by means of which he is united to God."


There is one more thing to add. Religious artefacts, beginning with buildings since artifacts cannot be without location, should indeed be things of beauty: but as to the canons of what is seen to be beautiful, they change. And this, for the reason that the human mind all too readily tires of making the bodily effort that accompanies its act: it is always turning words of wisdom or wit into mere clichés. And so it is necessary for the expression of the beautiful to express in many different ways; the canons must change continually so that the cliché is avoided, both in the making of the artifact and in the appreciation of it. This means that there requires to be a certain cultus to appreciation of fine art; certain conventions. Thus there are distinguished various 'periods' in painting and other fine arts.

Now, with changing conventions, change meant to cause the perceiver to see another facet of beauty, there is always the danger that the perceiver will miss the point. Every age has had those who 'can't understand modern art'. Yet some conventions in the fine arts more readily lend themselves to appreciation than others. What this means is that too great a change of convention should not be imposed upon religious art, for fear that it may fail to arouse man's mind "as by signs", which applies all the more, the more removed is the convention from what is already known or readily assimilated. One hardly need add that if novelty is pursued for its own sake, the inevitable result is the ugly.

Is religious (fine) art a contradictory notion? We have seen that, far from being contradictory, it is necessary that religious artifacts be things of beauty. And further, religious art above all art should strive to reflect the exemplar of all that is beautiful, the divine beauty itself.

Thus religious art, beginning with architecture and continuing to whatever is thereby located, should indeed embody novelty, as should all fine art, not only to avoid the cliché but for the fundamental reason that the beautiful is inexhaustible because the good and the true are inexhaustible: but not too much, so that the proper end of religious art, that which makes it religious, and it is ultimately for "our own sake", is not left behind.


John Ziegler is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted July 2000. It was published in Universitas, Number 6 (2000).
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