We are inaugurating a new series on thomistica.net, aimed at promoting recent and forthcoming work on Thomas Aquinas. Rather than doing a formal review of the work, we will be interviewing the author of the book and allowing the author to introduce the work to us in his or her own words. We are happy to begin this series with a new book on Aquinas’s aesthetics, Aquinas on Beauty, by Scott Sevier. Dr. Sevier received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of California, Riverside and he currently teaches philosophy at the College of Southern Nevada. Dr. Sevier’s book is available for order now and we would encourage you to make sure that your local academic library has a copy, if not your personal library too.
Dr. Sevier, in your introduction you mention Umberto Eco’s influential work, The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas. How do you find yourself engaging with his ideas? That is, what is different in your approach or conclusions from his?
I read Eco’s little book, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, in one sitting, on my birthday one year while I was in grad school. I was thoroughly mesmerized by his treatment. The medieval worldview, especially in its integration, was so rich and made the modern ways of looking at the world seem flat and uninteresting by comparison. This little book spurred me to read his book on Aquinas’s Aesthetics, after which I felt like I’d gotten a taste of what a truly rich and satisfying account of beauty might look like. But I didn’t feel that Eco’s treatment was as thorough as I was looking for. It turned out there really wasn’t anything quite as comprehensive as I was looking for, and that is why I decided to pursue the topic on my own. One can piece together the view that I hope I have captured in my modest work, but not all in one place. There are lots of works on various aspects of Aquinas’s aesthetics, but my task was to assimilate them into a single coherent treatment. As far as my conclusions, the primary difference between Eco and myself is that he doesn’t think Aquinas’s vision of the world is still available to modern man. I disagree. I think that Aquinas does provide a viable alternative. Of course, it does require some metaphysical commitments that will be difficult if not impossible for a naturalist, but it is within reach of many Christian theists. I should perhaps add that though I am a Christian theist, I am not Catholic. So I have never felt like I’m stuck with Aquinas. Rather, I’ve been drawn to him. He has wooed me with reason, insight, and argument.
You mention that Aquinas diverges from his contemporaries in his understanding of beauty. How so?
In Aquinas’s day, the going theory of beauty is what has been called the “great theory” of beauty, which comes down from antiquity. It views beauty as objective. Now Aquinas also views beauty as essentially objective, but he adds a subjective component to it – he explains the human experience of beauty as well as the formal constituents of beauty. To my mind, this had not been clearly done before, nor really has it been done since. Ancient theories tended towards objectivity; modern and contemporary ones tend towards subjectivity. Aquinas, in this as in many things, finds that golden via media between the two potential extremes; and manages to do justice to both of these seemingly competing intuitions.
What does Aquinas’s take on beauty tell us about God and his relation to the world?
The world is beautiful because God is beautiful. This is difficult to imagine only because we tend to think of beauty in strictly physical terms. One thing that can make Aquinas’s view of beauty difficult to engage is that it is not dominated by appeal to physical beauty, preferring rather moral and intellectual beauty. On his view, God is Beauty, and the cause and source of all beauty in the world. Beauty is deeply good and beneficial. It is part of the right order of the world. God thus cares about beauty, and beauty is intrinsically valuable and, in that sense, requires no justification. Nevertheless, beauty is a route to God, if it is appreciated and pursued in the right way.
I frankly think that people who create beauty, especially who make beauty publicly available to others, are doing great good. Plato said that the form of the beautiful is of the forms the most accessible (to sense-enslaved humans). I think he is right about that. So I think beauty can be an available route by which some may find their way to God.
You spend a considerable amount of time on Aquinas’s description of the affective aspect of aesthetic response. What is the role of desire in his aesthetics?
Desire is the motivator that gets us to the good in which we take pleasure. When we take pleasure in things “apprehended” (via sight, sound, or intellect), we are having an aesthetic experience. So pleasure is intimately related to our experience of beauty. But pleasure is simply the soul’s natural response to obtaining what it takes to be good. And whatever I find good, I am drawn to pursue (when I don’t yet have it). That’s where desire comes in. So desire is also intimately related to beauty as well. We have a natural desire for those things we perceive to be beautiful. When we are able to encounter them (typically, we do not need to possess or consume beautiful things in order to encounter and enjoy them), we experience intellectual pleasure or joy. We long for beauty and encountering beauty brings joy.
What is the relationship between Aquinas's aesthetics and his ethics?
This is related to the question above about the role of desire. Again, in a general sense, we desire the good. Whenever we desire something, it is because it appears to us as good under some description. If I perceive something as good that is merely apparently good, but not good in truth, then I desire that thing in a perverse way. Also, I experience pleasure upon obtaining that object. Now depending on what this is there can be moral implications. I am responsible for what I apprehend as good, and so my desire for it, and my pleasure in its attainment. Since Aquinas’s view of aesthetic experience is laid out along these same lines, that means I can be held accountable for what I perceive as beautiful, my desire for it, my pleasure in it, etc. If I can train myself to love the true good by habituation and familiarity and truth, if I can train myself to hate false goods in much the same ways, then I can do the same in the aesthetic realm. If I find something truly beautiful to be “merely sentimental” because it’s too common, not novel, etc., then I can be judged morally defective in some sense. I have failed to see real beauty, and that ought not be the case. And if in the end I have a moral responsibility for the things I desire and in which I take pleasure, there seems to me to be no good reason to exclude aesthetic desire and pleasure from the realm of the moral. So aesthetics is a kind of subdivision of ethics.
How might Aquinas’s understanding of beauty be applied to contemporary discussions, say about things like pornography or video games?
I think I’ve already given a kind of gesture to this in my answer above about the tie in between aesthetics and ethics, but I’d say that on Aquinas’s view, if I am responsible for those things that I come to apprehend as beautiful, then when I expose myself (as happens in pornography) to things that share in an element of real beauty – such as the good of sex in marriage – but without its proper context, and without the right ends in view, then I am going to over time habituate myself to see that as beautiful or (what is more likely) diminish my view of the beauty of the good and beautiful act of marital sex. The same sort of thing can happen in video games, which encourage players to adopt a disposition towards other “humans” that is unkind and, to that extent, unlovely. How much habituation of this mindset is required before I actually come to disdain actual acts of kindness or cease to view human beings as inherently valuable and good, as means and not ends to my own enjoyment, etc. Beauty (or, at least, apparent beauty) is a doorway through which perverse things can find a way into my life. If they can take root, they choke out the life of the good things that grow there, and replace them with weeds. I think we ought to seriously think about what we call beautiful, what we encourage ourselves and our friends and our children to indulge in, to practice, to habituate. And we need to educate ourselves and one another on true beauty and to love the beautiful. Whatsoever things are lovely – we should dwell on these.
You argue that for Aquinas beauty is primarily a spiritual reality – isn’t this even harder to judge than physical beauty? And is this idea what you see as corrective of the abuses of the Romantic movement?
Spiritual beauty is indeed much harder to judge than physical beauty. So is moral or intellectual beauty, to the extent that these are distinct, and its not always clear where the lines of distinction lie. As Plato noted, physical beauty is relatively easy. For all the discussion today about changing norms of beauty, and the implications of this for the relativity and subjectivity of beauty, most people I think have very little difficulty in picking out things that are to them physically beautiful, and this applies to people. But even evolutionary psychologists point out that our ideals of beauty in landscape are astonishingly similar across times, places, cultures, and experiences. These are of course explained as being related to the survival of the species, but it doesn’t really matter how you interpret the data – its still the case that almost everyone finds certain kinds of landscape to be more beautiful than others – to prefer some over others. So the basic fact of the matter is there. Its not that complicated. Much more difficult is getting someone to see the beauty in a human action (e.g., holding an umbrella over someone’s head who is struggling in the rain) or the beauty of a theorem or mathematical equation. These are not open to everyone, and some require training, and some require a certain type of natural aptitude of mind. Theological truths can be beautiful, and they may stand in relation to other truths and these relations themselves display incredible order and harmony. These can be difficult to apprehend. But for the one who has apprehended them, I think they would generally say that sort of beauty exceeds the beauty of the senses. I often return to Plato on this, though I think Aquinas is in the same boat with him in the area of aesthetics, we are in love with our senses. For good reason. We have animal bodies, and depend upon the senses. But we are also rational beings who partake in the divine, and as such have capabilities that far exceed the merely sensory. But it is harder. It takes work, practice, and a good guide. Its abstract, and to the extent that the abstract takes us in the opposite direction of the sensory, we resist.
What drew you to the topic of Aquinas and beauty? Were you interested in beauty and found a fruitful place of engagement in Aquinas? Or were you interested in Aquinas and found his thoughts on beauty worth investigating?
I have been interested in Aquinas almost since I became interested in philosophy. I was in my last semester of my Masters in Biblical and Theological Studies when I took my first graduate level Philosophy of Religion course. What amazed me at the time was that every time some really gnarly issue cropped up, there was always a voice (or two) of reason emerging from the middle ages. More often than not, that voice was Aquinas’s. When I returned a few years later to pursue graduate studies in Philosophy, I determined to specialize in medieval philosophy, and Aquinas in particular.
My interest in beauty arose quite separately, at least at first. Between my graduate programs, I experienced a period of intense depression. Beauty was one of the primary means of my healing, especially the beauty of nature. That planted a seed that would crop up later in my philosophical studies.
Thanks, Dr. Sevier, for taking time to answer our questions. And if any readers know authors of recent or forthcoming books on Aquinas who we could interview, please contact us.