The Meaning of Ruskin’s Theoretic Faculty.
By Anthony O’Hear.
to us he appears
some half-fabulous field-ditcher who prised
up, from a stone-wedged hedge root, the lost
– Geoffrey Hill, The Triumph of Love, CXLVI.
ONE OF JOHN RUSKIN’S central doctrines emerged early on in his career, in Volume II of Modern Painters, in the mid-1840s, that is to say. The doctrine in question is that of what he calls there the ‘theoretic’ faculty – theoretic, as opposed to aesthetic. Both are concerned with the perception of the beautiful, the aesthetic in a broad sense; but as we will see, viewing the beautiful with theoretic eyes, so to speak, enables us to see the beautiful as intimating a reality deeper than the everyday in terms of the kind of transcendence we are led to see as immanent in things of this world.
The aesthetic faculty is limited to seeing the beautiful as no more than what some medievals saw as the ‘appeasement of the senses’. In Ruskin’s view, this was fatally limited. Certainly if that were all there is to the beautiful, it would be hard to justify the exalted feelings and sentiments often associated with its experience, or the claims made for the beautiful by thinkers and artists from Plato on. In that sense, Ruskin – and his distinction – is in the Platonic tradition, but with an important qualification we need to highlight right at the start.
If we look at Plato’s account of beauty in the Symposium (210ff), we will see that our experience of beauty comes in three stages. First we fall in love with one person, and with the beauty of their body; this account is filled out with marvellous poetic detail in Phaedrus ( 251ff), where all the madness and force of this sort of love is compellingly depicted. But then, when this initial madness is calmed down and the lover returns to his senses, we see that ‘it would be absurd to deny that the beauty of each and every body is the same’, so our perception of the beautiful begins to spread itself over many beautiful things (including for Plato institutions and laws, as well as physical objects). The lover will thus ‘be saved from a slavish and illiberal devotion to the individual loveliness of a single boy…, turning his eyes toward the open sea of beauty’, as he finds beautiful things, calmly and dispassionately, all over the world. But, for Plato, this is only the second stage; for in this stage there are already intimations of the one, single, eternal, transcendent beauty to which all earthly beauty tends, and to which earthly beauty draws us. The third and final stage, the final revelation, will be of beauty’s very self, not fleshy or physical at all, not multitudinous, taking many forms, but single, abstract, immaterial and in all ways perfect. Crucially, for Plato, while we need to go through the first and, particularly the second stage (which ‘quickens’ us), to get to the third, it is the third we are aiming at, or, rather, to which we are aimed.
This third Platonic stage is, I believe, a stage too far for Ruskin (just as he had little sense of the Platonic first stage). Ruskin’s world is that of the second stage, and all his effort in aesthetic matters is devoted to getting us to look at the beauties of this world, as they are in themselves, but in themselves as part or aspect of something beyond, participating in it, perhaps, representative of it, as a sacrament is, but as a sacrament part of the reality itself, and so more than just representative. For Ruskin, beauty is here and now; the transcendence which he agrees with Plato is part of our experience of beauty, even in the second stage, is immanent in the things and experiences of that stage; we are not to seek to downgrade them in favour of something abstract and immaterial. If Ruskin is to be seen as making a distinctive contribution to philosophical aesthetics – over and above his matchless analyses of individual examples of beauty (and of the opposite) – it is in his attempt to take us in a Platonic direction, without ever denigrating the beauties of this world, without suggesting that they are no more than a step on the way (the perennial Platonic temptation). In theological terms, I see Ruskin as a proponent of transcendence in immanence; though for most readers of Ruskin to-day, what needs defending is not so much that as the fundamental Ruskinian claim that there is a theoretic dimension to our perception of beauty at all. It is the defence and articulation of that which I will be mainly concerned with here.
ONE CAVEAT IS NECESSARY at the outset. I write as a philosopher, not as a Ruskin scholar. I am trying to make sense of a doctrine I believe is important, and whose essence I believe Ruskin held to throughout his career. I am, of course, aware that Ruskin developed his position on this (as on many things) through his life, but I am not here attempting to chart the development of this doctrine in his writings. I shall allude to some developments in it, but they do not seem to me to affect the fundamental point, as I will make clear as we go on. In any case, the fact that Ruskin, this ‘half-fabulous field-ditcher’, struggled, testifies both to his fundamental integrity and openness to experience, and to the difficulty of the questions he was dealing with. So what follows is an attempt to elucidate the importance of one of those questions, and its difficulty, in what I hope is a Ruskinian spirit.
Ruskin introduces his point thus:
‘The Theoretic faculty is concerned with the moral perception and appreciation of ideas of beauty. And the error respecting it is considering and calling it Aesthetic, degrading it into a mere operation of sense, or perhaps worse, of custom; so that the arts which appeal to it sink into a mere amusement, ministers to morbid sensibilities, ticklers and fanners of the soul’s sleep.’
– Modern Painters, Vol II, Part III pp 35-6 – from 1846.
So, from the outset, Ruskin is keen to respect beauty as having Platonic, elevating potential (though with the qualifications of ‘Platonic’ already made). Note that in this early statement, the aesthetic faculty is merely or purely ‘an operation of sense’. This suggestion is reinforced a little later: ‘The term ‘aesthesis’ signifies mere sensual perception of the outward qualities and necessary effects of bodies… But I wholly deny that the impressions of beauty are in any way sensual; they are neither sensual nor intellectual, but moral.’ (p 42)
If by ‘sensual’ Ruskin means ‘sensory’, saying that impressions of beauty are in no way sensual must be doubtful, unless they are of a purely abstract, immaterial beauty, belonging to Plato’s third stage, so to speak. Impressions of beauty (of the first and second stages anyway) usually and centrally have to come in through the senses, and to be related to our modes of perception. Also (from the opposite end) if aesthesis involves human perception, as it surely does, then there will necessarily be more to it than ‘the mere operation of sense’. All human perception involves intellect, categorisation and discrimination. The question raised by talk of aesthesis is whether the horizons of the perception in question are limited by and to the material world, by physics and biology, if you like. Ruskin is right that impressions of beauty will take us further than the narrowly sensual or sensory, towards what Geoffrey Hill has termed ‘sensuous intelligence’, but this will apply to aesthesis as well as to theoria.
BUT WHAT EXACTLY IS meant by Ruskin’s talk of ‘moral’ in connexion with impressions of beauty? Again, what he says is not quite right, if we take ‘moral’ in a narrowly philosophical sense, as referring just to right conduct; but even on this narrow interpretation, Ruskin would be more right than the opposite position, that which would deny any moral implications in works of art. Ruskin is right to contest any doctrine of pure formalism in aesthetics, of art for art’s sake. Even Kant, the most distinguished advocate of pure, disinterested aesthesis, admits that in dependent beauty, moral considerations will play a part in our judgements (e.g. if the human figure is degraded by inappropriate body painting, to take Kant’s own example). More generally, in our reactions to it, literature or art conveying a vision which was humanly wholly repugnant or trivial is bound to seem ultimately questionable, even if we find the vision temporarily powerful – though conversely the work of a great artist might convince us that an initially apparently objectionable vision was not actually wholly repugnant or trivial. (Ruskin’s own famous experience in Turin in 1858, when the life-affirming sensuality of a painting attributed to Veronese, contrasted with the dismal Protestant sermon he heard immediately afterwards, blew his evangelical fundamentalism apart, would be an example of this phenomenon.)
Ruskin goes on to talk about what we have in common with the brutes (embodiment and sensory perception, presumably), but stressing that ‘we must not assume that man is the nobler animal’, and then deduce the nobleness of our pleasures. Rather we must ‘prove the nobleness of the delights, and thence the nobleness of the animal’. (pp 42-3) This is important, and will eventually provide Ruskin with an answer to Proust’s criticism of his approach to art and morality.
On p 47 Ruskin distinguishes Aesthesis from Theoria, in the following terms: ‘mere animal consciousness of pleasantness’ contrasted with ‘the exulting, reverent of grateful perception of it’, contemplation of the Beautiful as a gift of God, perceiving it as kindness on the part of a superior intelligence. Theoria will be received with ‘a pure, right, and open state of heart’, and importantly, can be found everywhere, ‘in what is harsh and fearful, as well as what is kind, nay even in what is coarse and commonplace… hating only what is self-sighted and insolent of men’s work’. (p 50) The point is that the ‘coarse and commonplace’ can sometimes be shown to have their own beauty in their strength and honesty. But there is a kind of vulgarity and revelling in the ignoble which will not be acceptable. So, for example, Ruskin criticises the work of artists from the ‘lower Dutch schools, continually seeking for and feeding upon horror and ugliness and filthiness of sin’ (p 213). Caravaggio is also indicted here (unfairly, I think).
At this (early) stage of Ruskin’s thinking, Theoria and the beautiful are seen in the context of divine providence, as part of God’s gift to us, and as part of His providential design. To preserve Ruskin’s insights against the now standard criticisms of design thinking (that God’s providence is by no means evident on the face of the world), what we need to do is to express them so that, far from resting on an initially sure and given perception of design, they lead by themselves to the qualities Ruskin is looking for in Theoria.
Actually one could make a case that the standard Paleyesque-cum-Stoic design argument is not really very Christian, given both that we live in a fallen world and also the centrality in Christian thought of suffering and the Cross, Christ’s own self-emptying and despair. For Christ and the believer, the world and nature might well look as if God is absent, or even as it did for Ruskin himself later on, as blighted by storm clouds and canker worms (the latter as early as the 1860 study of Turner’s Apollo Slaying the Python at the end of Modern Painters). Ruskin himself points out that for Christian painters, ‘though suffering was to cease in heaven, it was not only to be endured, but honoured upon earth. And from the Crucifixion, down to a beggar’s lameness, all of the tortures and maladies on men were to be made, at least in part, the subjects of art.’ (Modern Painters, V, IX, p 283) This may not, as I say, sit well with any blithe providentialism, which will help us to disengage Theoria from anything like the design argument, and seeing it rather as a glimpse of something transcendent in a religiously ambivalent world.
In the perception of Theoria, patience is crucial, first to see the thing properly, and then to sift the genuinely worthy from the merely fashionable or accidentally pleasant, and in humility ‘to make ourselves susceptible of deep delight from the meanest objects of creation’. (Modern Painters, III, I, p 62) Then again, the Theoretic faculty sees its objects not in mechanistic or utilitarian terms, but as they are in and for themselves: ‘Thus when we are told the leaves of a plant are occupied in decomposing carbonic acid, and preparing oxygen for us, we begin to look upon it with some such indifference as upon a gasometer. It has become a machine; some of our sense of its happiness is gone; its emanation of inherent life is no longer pure.’ (p 153)
SOME BIOLOGISTS WOULD FIND wonder in explaining the inner workings of a plant. There need be nothing wholly wrong with this from the Theoretic point of view – providing that we did not lose sight of the wonder of the whole, of its inherent life, of life itself in all its forms, refusing the scientific temptation to reduce life to the operations of the inorganic parts. What Ruskin refers to as the ‘unselfishness’ of the Theoretic faculty is not simply the standard Kantian disinterestedness (i.e. abstracting from economic or utilitarian considerations in evaluating the beautiful), but over and above that an appreciation of the sheer wonder and movement and force and rhythm of life itself and its infinite variety – a sense which in Ruskin’s hands will extend to the inorganic, when he sees the forms of mountains as petrified waves, for instance. Or, as he wrote of the aspen tree which he drew, and in drawing which he had a Coleridgean sense of the mystery and connectedness of things (in the Fontainbleau chapter of Praeterita):
‘Languidly, but not idly, I began to draw it; and as I drew, the languor passed away: the beautiful lines insisted on being traced, – without weariness. More and more beautiful they became, as each rose out of the rest, and took its place in the air. With wonder increasing every instant, I saw they ‘composed’ themselves by finer laws than any known of men. At last, the tree was there, and everything that I had thought before about trees, nowhere.’
Here we have nature and art conspiring to reveal an order beyond the artist, which the artist submits to. Maybe even in art of an abstract sort there can be a sense of an ineluctable necessity or inner logic guiding the artist, and also the reception of the work by the audience. Thus in Hill’s The Triumph of Love (CXXV): ‘An actual play-through/ from the Last Quartets could prove superfluous/ except to a deaf auditor’, presumably because the music is, so to speak, already all there from the start, in a Platonic world. We are simply cuing ourselves into a transcendent world when we (over)hear the eternal music, as a kind of vision Beethoven – the original deaf auditor – had, and affords us experience of. One might take (Theoretic) experiences of these sorts to aspects of nature and to some works of art as stages on a religious journey, which does not depend on a prior dogmatic commitment.
A key notion Ruskin gives us here is that in our deployment of the Theoretic faculty we, our selves and egos, recede for a time. We deny ourselves and our interests before the thing. For a time we accept the world and humanity ‘in all its light and shadow, without anxiety or lust or spite or remorse’. In Ruskin’s own (early) terms, ‘man’s use and function… are to be witnesses to the glory of God’. (Modern Painters, II, III, p 29). We should not interpret this narrowly. There is something only human beings can do, which is to perceive and appreciate the world with sensory, intellectual, aesthetic and (in a broad sense) moral dimensions all interpenetrating and criss-crossing, with all our sensuous intelligence. If this is not what we are here for, destined to be so to speak, it is still our unique capacity, in the exercise of which we achieve a unique fulfilment. Aristotle and Aquinas both saw human fulfilment as involving a degree of contemplation, that is, perceiving and understanding the world in and for itself. Ruskin is in this tradition, laying a distinctly Aristotelian gloss on to his basic Platonism. He always wants us to see and understand the reality we experience, perceiving its underlying laws of structure and form, but at the same time embellishing the scholastic doctrine with an essentially aesthetic dimension. Or perhaps one could say that the sort of forms and laws Ruskin was interested in showing us were ones which, as with Goethe, require a fundamentally aesthetic sense of unity and of the relationship of wholes to parts to discern. At all events what is required here is a sensuous intelligence, in its requirement of intelligence, beyond the powers of the brutes, and in its requirement of sensuousness, also unavailable to the disembodied intelligence of an angel. From an anthropological/phenomenological point of view, Ruskin’s interpretation of Theoria, as the distinctively human accomplishment it is makes good sense.
FOR RUSKIN, WHEN HE had abandoned his evangelical Christianity, what was important was ‘a wider division of men than that into Christian and Pagan; before we ask what a man worships, we have to ask whether he worships at all’ (The Stones of Venice, 1853, Collected Works, 10, p 67); what distinguished the builders of Venice in the middle ages from the Victorians was that ‘they (the Venetians) did honour something out of themselves; they did believe in spiritual presence judging, animating, redeeming them; they built to its honour and for its habitation’. (p 68) The reference to a spiritual presence out of themselves is enough to save Ruskin from the accusation Erich Heller makes of Rilke and Nietzsche (in Chapter V of The Disinherited Mind, 1952), that the reverence they undoubtedly evoke in their works is an ultimately unsatisfactory religio intransitiva (unkindly, a sense of awe with no awe-ful referent). Ruskin does always affirm a splendour in the universe which (in Ezra Pound’s words) is ‘beyond man made courage, or made order, or made grace’ (Canto LXXXI) – and he also insists that this splendour is sometimes revealed in man made works (of art). There need be no paradox here if we see the artist as only a secondary creator, attending in his best work to an order not of his own making, in that sense a seer, who teaches others by his work to see similarly. As Ruskin said of Turner, and as Proust said of Ruskin himself, ‘it is through these eyes, now closed forever in the grave, that unborn generations will look upon nature.’ But look on nature, notice, and not on a wholly idiosyncratic vision. It would take us too far afield at the moment to do more than note the point, but Ruskin’s essential realism and empiricism undoubtedly raises questions over the visionary art of a Blake or, in our own day, of a Cecil Collins, even (or perhaps especially) in cases such as these, where in some ways Ruskin might be expected to have sympathy for the artist’s intentions.
Heller’s complaint about Rilke and Nietzsche is precisely this: that finding nothing in the world as it is (except nothingness and suffering), we human beings (especially artists) have by efforts of will and imagination to make something of it, otherwise life is ‘impossible’, as Rilke said writing of Malte Laurids Brigge, the hero of his early novel. Interestingly, in that early novel, the heroine, Abelone ‘longed to remove from her love all that was transitive’, yet, according to Rilke, not directing her love to God, because she did not appreciate that loving God can be such an intransitive love, needing to ‘fear no return from Him’. (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Hogarth Press, 1978, p 234.) But what is a God from whom we need to fear no return, or from whom we can hope for no grace? We are left (as Rilke wanted) only with our own lives and loves, our own efforts, pouring themselves out, selflessly maybe, but into the void. An effort of this sort in Nietzsche’s case yields the perception and will of the Superman/Zarathustra, in which in the Midnight Song, joy is distilled from the dregs of eternal pain (Nietzsche); or, in Rilke’s own case the embracing (and creating ?) of the angel of terror as also the angel of beauty ‘serenely disdaining to destroy us’, together with a sense that in a dead and godless world only our activity of naming and perceiving redeems us or it.
The key point is that out of life’s impossibility, the artist creates an order (of sorts), though it is, as Rilke suggests, an operation of spiritual acrobatics; in his Fifth Duino Elegy, which is based on Picasso’s painting of acrobats (les Saltimbanques), the smile and the love they (the acrobats) project is achieved through the thuds of their hundred daily falls, and so with us, whether artists or lovers. Another was of putting this point is to contrast art which sees itself as reflecting an existing order with that which, out of an abyss of meaninglessness, creates its own order. So is the artist a secondary or a primary creator? In a meaningless world without inherent value or order of any personal or moral sort, the artist is, perforce, a primary creator. In Heller’s words ‘every new impoverishment of the world is a new incentive to poetic creativeness.’ (Op cit, Meridian Books, New York, 1959, p 170.) I would add that in this impoverishment, science and materialism has played and continues to play a major role; and, also that this ever-increasing poetic creativeness, imposing meaning and value where none really exists, becomes increasingly hermetic, as well as (in Ruskin’s terms) increasingly a matter of aesthesis, without solidity, justification or promise.
Very much in line with Heller’s interpretation, in a letter of 1898 Rilke wrote ‘art means to be oblivious to the fact that the world already exists, and to create one’. On the other hand, he also wrote of music as reaching beyond us, as pushing on with no regard for us (1914), and also of a person (an artist) succeeding ‘in introducing into something small and mundane the unseen vastness which governs his existence’. (1922), which could be read in a Ruskinian way. (All extracts from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters on Life, The Modern Library, New York, 2006, pp 136, 143 and 149.) Perhaps all one can say here is that the interpretation of Rilke has the same sorts of difficulty as that of Ruskin, partly because Rilke was as sensitive to complexity and ambivalence.
To return to Ruskin himself, Ruskin always looks in art for revelation of what is there, in reality, of an order not of our making (and so, always raising the question, of whose making?). And hence will arise the possibility of a religio transitiva, even if we can know little of its object of worship. There will still be the sense that our sense of beauty opens on to a being with some form of love and intelligence sustaining the universe). Creation of the sort Heller is criticising would be for Ruskin a type of Aesthesis – tickling and fanning the soul’s sleep, even though he might well have responded to Nietzsche’s predicament, philosophical and personal (they both suffered their final mental collapse in the same year, 1889, and both lingered on into 1900), and to Rilke’s poetry (and might actually have seen it in a slightly different way from Heller, which, as might be possible as we have just suggested, did not wholly close off the possibility in it of genuine transcendence).
‘ALL GREAT ART IS the expression of man’s delight in God’s work, not in his own’. Ruskin’s repeated view (as he tells us) and repeated once more in 1858 in Vol V of Modern Painters, at the very time of his loss of dogmatic evangelical faith. At that time, he argued that man was the greatest of God’s creations, the light of the world, but only as long as he knew and loved God’s other creations, animate and inanimate. In loving them, though, he lights them up, as the sun of the world, in ways which combine our spiritual and animal natures. Actually if Ruskin really thought that man was the greatest of God’s creations, he should have been more able than he was to rejoice in men’s (and women’s) bodies, as also divinely created, and as at least as revelatory of the divine as his beloved landscape. (‘To what serves mortal beauty?’ , as Gerard Manley Hopkins famously asked, and answered, ‘dangerous’ ; still, Hopkins tells us, it is ‘love’s worthiest…world’s loveliest’, and even for Hopkins, as for Plato, it may be – or must be ? – met en route to ‘God’s better beauty, grace.’ Hopkins thought Ruskin ‘full of follies’ but numbered him among ‘the true men’. It would be fascinating to know what Ruskin might have made of Hopkins.)
Be that as it may, initially Ruskin’s position on our lighting up the world is not so far from Rilke’s view that we humans are here to name and perceive the things around us, doing what they themselves cannot do and are waiting for us to do them, but for Ruskin it will always be under or within a divine order. But now that order is not clearly that of Christian providence. It can derive from other sources and it can appear in other forms, as it did for the Homeric Greeks: ‘The blood (of the heroes), which seemed to be poured out on the ground, rose into hyacinthine flowers. All the beauty of the earth opened to them; they had ploughed into its darkness, and they reaped its gold; the gods in whom they had trusted through all semblance of oppression, came down to love them and be their helpmates. All nature round them became divine…’ (Modern Painters, V, IX, p 276)
I SHOULD POINT OUT that by this time (around 1860) Ruskin’s faith was tinged with agnosticism (on life after death, for instance). Then, twenty years or so later, in The Bible of Amiens (1880-5), he said that ‘there is no possibility of attaching infallible truth to any form of human language’. (3. XLIX) He also argued there for the value of revelations he had received from Greek and Roman religions, what he called a ‘Sacred classic literature’, to which he had been made sensitive by his earlier study of the Christian bible, (and which he saw being taken up in medieval Christianity). We could also point to the delightful way Ruskin points to analogies between pagan and Christian mythology, as between Herakles killing the Nemean lion and St Jerome translating the Bible with the lion at his feet. So with a degree of agnosticism and some caution over infallible formulations, a faith like Ruskin’s could accommodate other faiths, other visions of the divine order, all of which could be pointers… As we have already seen, the important thing for Ruskin became not whether one was Christian or Pagan so much as whether you worship at all. But Ruskin’s worship remained objective, or so it seems to me.
However, it is just at this point that we have to consider Proust’s famous criticism of Ruskin (in the introduction to La Bible d’Amiens , his translation of The Bible of Amiens), that far from being really moral or religious in his attitude to beauty, Ruskin was actually guilty of self-deception and idolatry:
‘The doctrines he professed were moral doctrines, and not aesthetic ones, and yet he chose them for their beauty. And as he does not wish to present them as being beautiful, but as true, he was forced to lie to himself about the nature of the reasons which made him adopt them.’
– Cobra Editeur, Amiens, 1997, p 80, my translation.
The reason that this is a form of idolatry is because in what he was doing Ruskin was worshipping the beautiful as if it were something other than it was. On the surface he is elevating the moral, but in reality he is compromising both moral and aesthetic senses. According to Proust this self-deception even affects Ruskin stylistically, as when he imports moral-cum-theological attitudes into what should be aesthetic description and criticism, as when he accuses certain critics of ‘irreverence’. I wonder about this, though; is it always inappropriate to speak of someone being ‘irreverent’ in their attitude to, say, Bach’s religious music or, in the case mentioned by Proust, to Amiens Cathedral?
REMEMBER THAT THE OCCASION of Proust’s criticism was that Ruskin had said that the sins of the later, decadent Venetians were that much the worse because they had been committed in the shadow of St Mark’s and, specifically, under the Biblical text inscribed in its dome (‘Know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgement.’). But isn’t this, Proust argues, an over-valuation of a mere thing, an inscription, a set of stones, however beautiful, over and above life itself, over and above men and their deeds, over and above what it represented, over and above the deity itself? He would not otherwise, Proust says, have thought the sins of the Venetians worse than those of other men ‘because they possessed a church of multicoloured marble instead of a limestone cathedral, because the Doge’s palace was next to St Mark’s instead of at the other end of the town…’ (ibid, p 82)
Actually, as Proust knew (because had just referred to the passage in question), Ruskin himself inveighed against this sort of idolatry: ‘the serving with the best of our hearts and minds, some dear or sad fantasy which we have made for ourselves, while we disobey the present call of the Master, who is not dead, and who is not now fainting under His cross, but requiring us to take up ours’; (Lectures on Art, II. 49) and we hardly need underline the extent to which Ruskin, even as his unbelief waxed, took up his own cross of social reform at the expense of art.
So in his person Ruskin cannot really be criticised for according inanimate things, even the most beautiful, value greater than that of life. But what of the potentially more worrying aspect of Proust’s complaint, that Ruskin substitutes aestheticism for something more than it really is, that he attempts mendaciously to dress Aesthesis up as Theoria? It seems to me that Proust would be right if beauty had no moral or intellectual element, but it was just this conception (or, rather, misconception) which Ruskin had fought against all his life.
RUSKIN WAS, IN A qualified but broad sense, a Platonist, as we have already argued. He thought that in and through our perception of the beautiful we could be taken out of ourselves, and brought to love a reality not of our making, which intimated timeless and transcendent truth and goodness – though, against Plato, with Ruskin we never get the sense that this transcendence in the here and now will ever lose its value for us, even in an immaterial paradise. To repeat what we have already said, one of the most striking aspects of Ruskin’s thought is his almost obsessive attention to the actual empirical detail, not just to the forms and lineaments of things, but even to the extent of describing the way we will take to Abbeville and Amiens, the time of day we will arrive, the way during the course of a day light will fall on a cathedral’s front, and even why (in the case of Amiens) we should enter the cathedral by the south door rather than the west. It is this sense of the sheer physicality of things, and of its importance, that marks Ruskin out from many of those who are Platonic in direction. But it is Ruskin, for all his ‘wedded incapacity’ (Geoffrey Hill), who gives a proper evaluation of our embodiment, of our vocation as human perceivers, and who can see nobility in what our physicality enables us to perceive.
To return to Ruskin’s earlier distinction, we do not deduce the nobleness of our delights from the nobleness of the human animal; seeing (some of) our delights as noble puts us on the path of seeing the human animal as noble, and maybe as having a religious destiny, of sorts. For all his occasional wrong-headedness, it was always the nobleness of our delights which Ruskin tried to make us see (and to excoriate those in which there was spite, narrowness and degradation). Ruskin would, I think, have agreed with this:
‘Searching for a beauty that is foreign to or separate from the human search for truth and goodness would become (as unfortunately happens) mere aestheticism and, especially for the young, a path leading to ephemeral values and to banal and superficial appearances, even a flight into an artificial paradise that masks inner emptiness.’
– Pope Benedict XVI, November, 2008.
WE COULD GO SOME distance in the Pope’s direction, I believe, if we consider our experience of beauty, both in the natural world and in some works of art. In our experience of beauty we gain a sense that we are, in a deep sense at home in the world, and that the world responds to our concerns. The aesthetic (or in Ruskin’s terms the theoretic) sense suggests that the world is not that portrayed by natural science, blind, random, humanly indifferent; it also suggests that human suffering and the concomitant impossibility of fulfilling all the demands this might seem to make on us morally is not the whole story. When we experience something as very beautiful we get the sense that consciousness (our consciousness) takes us to the essence of the world. Meaning, intelligibility and a felt harmony with what exists are not simply imposed by us. Somehow, in the beautiful, we sometimes sense a reality in tune with us, as we are drawn to it.
It may be argued that there is nothing in the universe which corresponds to these and analogous feelings. In which case, these experiences have no more significance, ultimately, than taking a warm bath, or Prozac, or in some other way altering the chemistry of the brain. If this were the case, then aesthesis would be all that there is. All that can be said here is that in listening to Beethoven’s Op 132 or to the Goldberg Variations, or in immersing oneself in Botticelli’s Primavera, or in reading Homer or Dante, or in entering Amiens Cathedral, it does not feel like having a warm bath or taking a drug. We feel ourselves in one way or another close to the spirit which harmonises the universe, close to the mystery of life and to penetrating the veil with which it is normally obscured from us, close to possibilities beyond the mundane, and, for what it is worth, a million miles from the tawdriness, ephemerality and sheer lack of nobility of much of what passes as contemporary art and literature. And as Ruskin shows over and over again, the sort of sense I am pointing to can be experienced in the natural world as much as in the world of human creativity.
TO SHOW THAT THE experiences of art I am pointing to are not confined to artists and thinkers who might be expected to move in a religious direction (from whom it would be easy to glean corroborating sentiments), let me refer you to some of the things Clive Bell says in Art (New York, 1958 edition). ‘The contemplation of pure (artistic) form leads to a state of extraordinary exaltation and complete detachment from the concerns of life’ (p 54); that it derives from ‘the spiritual depths of man’s nature is hardly contested’ (p 59). And for Bell these feelings are not conceived of purely subjectively. In the experience of beauty ‘we become aware of its essential reality, of the God in everything… The thing I am talking about is that which lies behind the appearance of all things – that which gives all things their individual significance, the thing in itself, the ultimate reality.’ (p54) What Bell is suggesting is very much along the lines of what I was struggling to articulate just now. And we could add that if we have these experiences, and if they are not wholly illusory, they may go some way to reassuring us that, however terrible things are, and however meaningless the world can seem, especially when viewed more scientifico, that is not the whole story.
‘Vain beauty, yet not all vain. Unlike in birth, how like in their labour, and their power over the future, these masters of England and Venice – Turner and Giorgione. But ten years ago, I saw the last traces of the greatest works of Giorgione yet glowing like a scarlet cloud, on the Fondaco de’ Tedeschi. And though that scarlet cloud may, indeed, melt away into the paleness of night, and Venice herself waste away from her islands as a wreath of wind-driven foam fades from their weedy beach; – that which she won of faithful light and truth shall never pass away. Deiphobe of the sea, – the Sun God measures her immortality to her by its sand. Flushed, above the Avernus of the Adrian lake, her spirit is still seen holding the golden bow; from the lips of the Sea Sybil men shall learn from ages yet to come what is most noble and most fair; and, far away, as the whisper in the coils of the shell, withdrawn through the deep hearts of nations, shall sound for ever the enchanted voice of Venice.’
–Modern Painters, V, IX, pp 438-40.
Vain, yet not all in vain… from the lips of the Sea Sybil men shall learn for ages yet to come what is most noble and most fair. So long as we are able to learn this (maybe guided by Ruskin himself), the distinction between Aesthesis and Theoria remains. From Ruskin’s point of view, the distinction is necessarily timeless. So the fact that it is largely ignored to-day would be neither here nor there. But precisely because it is ignored and also because it can be drawn without the support of dogmatic religion, as I have tried to suggest here, its re-statement is ever more urgent, mediating as it does between a dank materialism and a bloodless spiritualism.
Anthony O’Hear is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Buckingham, the director of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, a co-editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, and the author of, among other books, Philosophy in the New Century and The Great Books: A Journey Through 2500 Years of the West’s Classic Literature.
This article was adapted from a lecture to The Ruskin Society, The Athenaeum, London, 7 April 2009. The author thanks members of the audience there for helpful comments, which have enabled him to improve on it in this written version.
Pagination in the linked source and page references in this document will vary.