An evening salon on George Herbert

Even though I am on summer recess, a passionate teacher should never take a holiday from teaching. My parents recently hosted an evening salon at their home with friends so I could reflect upon three poems by my favorite poet, Anglican priest George Herbert (1593-1633). As I prepared for this event, I realized that each of the poems can be classified within the four-act drama of salvation history:

  • The Pulley” belongs to Creation (Act 1)
  • Sin (I)” belongs to the Fall (Act 2)
  • Love (III)” belongs to Redemption (Act 3) and Glorification (Act 4)

I also formulated existentially urgent questions that are raised from the poems:

  • “The Pulley”: Why am I never at rest?
  • “Sin (I)”: Am I ever safe?
  • “Love (III)”: Where shall I find love?

Since I led a salon and not a class, I kept the main things the “main things” by focusing on profit and pleasure, consistent with the poet’s vocation according to Horace: “Poets wish either to profit or to delight; or to deliver at once both the pleasures and the necessaries of life.”

“The Pulley”

  • Pleasure: The pleasure of the poem resides in the playful use of the word “rest,” which means spiritual repose (lines 10, 14), remainder (line 16), and final rest (line 20). A pun occurs in the last line with the word “rest” buried in “breast” (“May toss him to my breast”); our true rest is the breast of God, as St. Augustine prayed in Confessions: “You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
  • Profit: (1) Sabbath rest is a temporal provision that anticipates our eternal rest. (2) There are two ways to union with God: the way of the saint (goodness) and the way of the sinner (weariness).

“Sin (I)

  • Pleasure: The pleasure of the poem resides in the “stratagem” of the poet who builds a (false) confidence in the fortifications against sin only to ambush the reader when he least expects it.
  • Profit: (1) Our “fences” against sin are only as good as our nearness to the watchful Shepherd. (2) Sin is a covert enemy (cf., Jeremiah 17:9-10).

“Love (III)”

  • Pleasure: The pleasure of the poem resides in the language of intimacy between the guest and his host: “Love bade me welcome” (line 1), “Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning” (line 5), “Love took my hand, and smiling” (line 11), “You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat” (line 17).
  • Profit: (1) Consistent with what Protestant theologian Paul Tillich said is “the genuine meaning of the Pauline-Lutheran doctrine of ‘justification by faith,'” one needs “the courage to accept oneself as accepted in spite of being unacceptable” (The Courage to Be). (2) The eucharist feast is a foretaste of the eschatological feast.

For a bibliography on Herbert, click here.

Bibliography on George Herbert

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Here is a bibliography on my favorite poet, the 17th century Anglican priest, George Herbert.

Primary sources

  • Helen Wilcox (editor), George Herbert: 100 Poems (Cambridge University Press) or The English Poems of George Herbert (Cambridge University Press)
  • George Herbert, Herbert: Poems (Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets Series) or The Complete English Works (Everyman’s Library)

Biographies

  • John Drury, Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert (University of Chicago Press)
  • Cristina Malcolmson, George Herbert: A Literary Life (Palgrave Macmillan)

Secondary sources

  • Joan Bennett, Five Metaphysical Poets: Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, Crashaw, Marvell (Cambridge University Press)
  • T. S. Eliot, George Herbert (Northcote House Publishers)
  • Christopher Hodgkins, Authority, Church, and Society in George Herbert: A Return to the Middle Way (University of Missouri Press)
  • Christopher Hodgkins (ed.), George Herbert’s Pastoral: New Essays on the Poet and Priest of Bemerton (University of Delaware)
  • A. D. Nuttall, Overheard by God: Fiction and Prayer in Herbert, Milton, Dante and St. John (Methuen)
  • Jim Scott Orrick, A Year With George Herbert: A Guide to Fifty-Two of His Best Loved Poems
  • John Piper, Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully (Crossway Books)
  • Leland Ryken, The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton (Crossway Books)
  • Richard Strier, Love Known: Theology and Experience in George Herbert’s Poetry (University of Chicago Press)
  • Joseph H. Summers, George Herbert: His Religion and Art (Harvard University Press)
  • Gene E. Veith, Reformation Spirituality: The Religion of George Herbert (Wipf & Stock)
  • Helen Vendler, The Poetry of George Herbert (Harvard University Press)
  • Rowan Williams, Anglican Identities (Cowley Publications). See the chapter on George Herbert.

To grade or not to grade?

The hegemonic grading system in schools is an enemy to students appreciating that “knowledge is capable of being its own end. Such is the constitution of the human mind, that any kind of knowledge, if it be really such, is its own reward” (John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University). The system generates laborers — not learners. As a teacher, I am trying to explore alternatives to a grading system that belongs to “Descartes’ dream of the mathematization of the world” (Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology).

St. John’s College (Santa Fe, NM and Annapolis, MD) dares to challenge the grading system. Here are relevant excerpts from the student handbooks on grading.

Santa Fe Student Handbook

St. John’s College recognizes that grades often do not give a complete picture of student achievement. Emphasis on grades may also encourage thoughtless competitiveness among students, suggest an unexamined sense of success or failure, or imply wrongly that the teacher is in control of the student’s learning. Therefore, the primary assessment of student achievement is made in the don rag and in less formal communication between tutor and student during the course of the semester.

Nevertheless, in conformity with the common practice of American colleges and universities, the college requires a tutor to award letter grades to students at the end of each semester. Each tutor decides what elements are to be taken into consideration, and in what proportion, in assigning grades.

Other colleges, graduate and professional schools, grantors of scholarships, and employers expect to see the grade records of undergraduates and graduates. Students are not routinely informed of their grades and are not encouraged to be concerned about them. However, a student has the right to see his or her grades at any time convenient to the registrar. The assistant dean also welcomes the opportunity to talk with students about their grade records.

A student who believes a tutor has given an undeserved grade should speak with the tutor about it. In unusual cases the matter may be discussed with the dean, who may then consult the tutor. The tutor always has the right and the obligation to make the final decision.

Annapolis Student Handbook

St. John’s College tries to minimize the pernicious effect that the publication of grades can have on a community of learning. The college does require all tutors to award letter grades to their students at the end of each semester (A=Excellent, B=Good, C=Satisfactory, D=Passing, F=Failure, with pluses and minuses, and I=Incomplete) and authorizes them to decide what elements they will take into consideration and in what proportion. It also requires them to record these grades in the Office of the Registrar. But the college does this primarily because other colleges, graduate and professional schools, granters of scholarships, and employers insist on seeing the grade records of its students and graduates.

Students at the college are consequently not routinely informed of their grades. Indeed they are usually discouraged from having much concern about them. They are urged instead to talk to their tutors about their work, both informally and in don rags. Grades have some usefulness within the college, but in a limited way, and most often as a basis for conversation. Important information about the significance of grades is contained below under “Requirements for Graduation.” A student who thinks that his or her work has been judged unfairly by a tutor should speak to the tutor about this concern. Should the result of such a conversation prove unsatisfactory, the student should speak to the Assistant Dean or Dean. The tutor has the final word on the grade, though in rare cases the Assistant Dean or Dean may amplify the given grade with a letter of explanation.

Here are some essays that are worth reading:

The Atlantic: Why Grades Are Not Paramount to Achievement. The intrinsic love of learning supplants the drive for high marks in the long run.

The Atlantic: Letter Grades Deserve An “F”. The adoption of the Common Core could usher in a new era of standards-based grading.

The Atlantic: When the Value of High School Is Exaggerated. It turns out that students who take AP classes don’t actually get better college grades.

The Atlantic: Why Online Gradebooks Are Changing Education. How software better connects parents with what’s happening in their children’s classrooms – but it can also lead to heightened surveillance and less risk-taking.

The anxious piety of Flannery O’Connor

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Flannery O’Connor in Iowa City, 1947

On a plane flight from Portland to Denver, I read Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal, which was discovered by her friend William Sessions while working on an authorized biography of her and published in 2013. “Learning to avoid cliché and speak authentically is a predicament of both prayer and literature,” writes Casey N. Cep, “and solving the problem in her prayer life allowed O’Connor to solve the same problem in her fiction.”

The New Yorker provides a background on the book: “From In January, 1946, while studying at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Flannery O’Connor began keeping a journal in a ruled Sterling notebook. O’Connor, who had left her home in Milledgeville, Georgia, for Iowa, turned twenty-one in March and had her first short story, ‘The Geranium,’ accepted for publication that month. She was a devout Catholic, and over a year and a half she filled the notebook with a series of entries addressed to God.”

Here are my favorite excerpts:

Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.

I do not know you God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.

I want very much to succeed in the world with what I want to do. I have prayed to You about this with my mind and my nerves on it and strung my nerves into a tension over it and said, “oh God, please,” and “I must,” and “please, please.” I have not asked You, I feel, in the right way. Let me henceforth ask You with resignation—that not being or meant to be a slacking up in prayer but a less frenzied kind, realizing that the frenzy is caused by an eagerness for what I want and not a spiritual trust. I do not wish to presume. I want to love.

Oh God please make my mind clear.

Please make it clean.

I ask You for a greater love for my holy Mother and I ask her for a greater love for You.

Please help me to get down under things and find where You are.

I do not mean to deny the traditional prayers I have said all my life; but I have been saying them and not feeling them. My attention is always very fugitive. This way I have it every instant. I can feel a warmth of love heating me when I think & write this to You. Please do not let the explanations of the psychologists about this make it turn suddenly cold. My intellect is so limited, Lord, that I can only trust in You to preserve me as I should be.

***

Please let Christian principles permeate my writing and please let there be enough of my writing (published) for Christian principles to permeate. I dread, oh Lord, losing my faith. My mind is not strong. It is a prey to all sorts of intellectual quackery. I do not want it to be fear which keeps me in the Church. I don’t want to be a coward, staying with You because I fear hell. I should reason that if I fear hell, I can be assured of the author of it. But learned people can analyze for me why I fear hell and their implication is that there is no hell. But I believe in hell. Hell seems a great deal more feasible to my weak mind than heaven. No doubt because hell is a more earthly-seeming thing. I can fancy the tortures of the damned but I cannot imagine the disembodied souls hanging in a crystal for all eternity praising God. It is natural that I should not imagine this. If we could accurately map heaven some of our up-&-coming scientists would begin drawing blueprints for its improvement, and the bourgeois would sell guides 10¢ the copy to all over sixty-five. But I do not mean to be clever although I do mean to be clever on 2nd thought and like to be clever & want to be considered so. But the point more specifically here is, I don’t want to fear to be out, I want to love to be in; I don’t want to believe in hell but in heaven. Stating this does me no good. It is a matter of the gift of grace. Help me to feel that I will give up every earthly thing for this. I do not mean becoming a nun.

***

My dear God, I do not want this to be a metaphysical exercise but something in praise of God. It is probably more liable to being therapeutical than metaphysical, with the element of self underlying its thoughts. Prayers should be composed I understand of adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication and I would like to see what I can do with each without writing an exegesis. It is the adoration of You, dear God, that most dismays me. I cannot comprehend the exaltation that must be due You. Intellectually, I assent: let us adore God. But can we do that without feeling? To feel, we must know. And for this, when it is practically impossible for us to get it ourselves, not completely, of course, but what we can, we are dependent on God. We are dependent on God for our adoration of Him, adoration, that is, in the fullest sense of the term. Give me the grace, dear God, to adore You, for even this I cannot do for myself. Give me the grace to adore You with the excitement of the old priests when they sacrificed a lamb to You. Give me the grace to adore You with the awe that fills Your priests when they sacrifice the Lamb on our altars. Give me the grace to be impatient for the time when I shall see You face to face and need no stimulus than that to adore You. Give me the grace, dear God, to see the bareness and the misery of the places where You are not adored but desecrated.

***

Mediocrity is a hard word to apply to oneself; yet I see myself so equal with it that it is impossible not to throw it at myself—realizing even as I do that I will be old & beaten before I accept it. I think to accept it would be to accept Despair. There must be some way for the naturally mediocre to escape it. The way must be Grace. There must be a way to escape it even when you know you are even below it. Perhaps knowing you are below it is a way to begin. I say I am equal with it; but I am below it. I will always be staggering between Despair & Presumption, facing first one & then the other, deciding which makes me look the best, which fits most comfortably, most conveniently. I’ll never take a large chunk of anything. I’ll nibble nervously here & there. Fear of God is right; but, God, it is not this nervousness. It is something huge, great, magnanimous. It must be a joy. Every virtue must be vigorous. Virtue must be the only vigorous thing in our lives. Sin is large & stale. You can never finish eating it nor ever digest it. It has to be vomited. But perhaps that is too literary a statement—this mustn’t get insincere.

How can I live—how shall I live. Obviously the only way to live right is to give up everything. But I have no vocation & maybe that is wrong anyway. But how eliminate this picky fish bone kind of way I do things—I want so to love God all the way. At the same time I want all the things that seem opposed to it—I want to be a fine writer. Any success will tend to swell my head—unconsciously even. If I ever do get to be a fine writer, it will not be because I am a fine writer but because God has given me credit for a few of the things He kindly wrote for me. Right at present this does not seem to be His policy. I can’t write a thing. But I’ll continue to try—that is the point. And at every dry point I will be reminded Who is doing the work when it is done & Who is not doing it at that moment. Right now I wonder if God will ever do any more writing for me. He has promised His grace; I am not so sure about the other. Perhaps I have not been thankful enough for what has gone before.

The desires of the flesh—excluding the stomach—have been taken away from me. For how long I don’t know but I hope forever. It is a great peace to be rid of them.

Can’t anyone teach me how to pray?

***

No one can be an atheist who does not know all things. Only God is an atheist. The devil is the greatest believer & he has his reasons.

***

The summer was very arid spiritually & up here getting to go to Mass again every day has left me unmoved—thoughts awful in their pettiness & selfishness come into my mind even with the Host on my tongue. . . . Too weak to pray for suffering, too weak even to get out a prayer for anything much except trifles. I don’t want to be doomed to mediocrity in my feeling for Christ. I want to feel. I want to love. Take me, dear Lord, and set me in the direction I am to go. My Lady of Perpetual Help, pray for me.

***

Dear Lord, please make me want You. It would be the greatest bliss. Not just to want You when I think about You but to want You all the time, to think about You all the time, to have the want driving in me, to have it like a cancer in me. It would kill me like a cancer and that would be the Fulfillment. It is easy for this writing to show a want. There is a want but it is abstract and cold, a dead want that goes well into writing because writing is dead. Writing is dead. Art is dead, dead by nature, not killed by unkindness. I bring my dead want into the place the dead place it shows up most easily, into writing. This has its purpose if by God’s grace it will wake another soul; but it does me no good. The “life” it receives in writing is dead to me, the more so in that it looks alive—a horrible deception. But not to me who knows this. Oh Lord please make this dead desire living, living in life, living as it will probably have to live in suffering. I feel too mediocre now to suffer. If suffering came to me I would not even recognize it. Lord keep me. Mother help me.

Reviews

Art is obedient to the creative gratuity in the world

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David Jones, “Crucifixion” (1922-23)

My recent travel gave me an opportunity to finish Rowan Williams’ work on theological aestheticsGrace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love. The biggest take-away is that art happens because “things are not only what they are” and “give more than they have”to borrow Jacques Maritain’s language. Put differently, art happens because of creative gratuity (or generative excess) in the material world, which connects the artist with Being (read: God). Two examples will help. In George Herbert’s poem “Easter Wings,” the speaker says: “O let me rise / As larks, harmoniously.” Here, the larks are not only larks but emblems of resurrected living in Christ. In Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation,” the narrator says: “The sun was behind the wood, very red, looking over the paling of trees like a farmer inspecting his own hogs.” Here, the sun is not only a sun but an emblem of the Good Shepherd who sacrifices his life to save the recalcitrant sheep, which functions not only as a biblical allusion but also suggests an analogy of being because, as Jonathan Edwards observed, “the things of the world are ordered [and] designed to shadow forth spiritual things.” Of course, all this brings us towards “the frontiers of theology” (154). An artist’s “awareness of a depth in the observable world beyond what is at any moment observable is close to what seems to be meant by ‘the sacred.'” “The element of gratuitous energy in the world’s life,” Williams says, “corresponds to what we can call the sacred” (155).

Here are salient passages from the fourth lecture, “God and the Artist.”

Art has an ‘ontology’ implicit in it. It is not decorative or arbitrary but grounded in what we ought to call a kind of obedience. The artist struggles to let the logic of what is there display itself in the particular concrete matter being worked with (142).

***

You have to find what you must obey, artistically; and finding it is finding that which exists in relation to more than your will and purpose—finding the depth of alternative embodiment in the seen landscape, the depth of gratuitous capacity in the imagined character (when what you want to imagine will not come) and so on. Imagination produces not a self-contained mental construct but a vision that escapes control, that brings with it its shadow and its margins, its absences and ellipses, a dimensional existence as we might call it. The degree to which art is ‘obedient’ – not dependent on an artist’s decisions or tastes—is manifest in the degree to which the product has dimension outside of its relation to the producer, the sense of alternative space around the image, of real time and contingency in narrative, of hinterland (147). 

***

‘The sacred’ is commonly a category of our perception, almost an aesthetic category; it does not capture that sense of energy, action or initiative that arises around the questions we have just been considering. Balthasar speaks of how every finite phenomenon ‘reveals the non-necessity of creaturely existence and thus the Creator’s freedom‘ (Theologik I, p.106). Something in the world of phenomena exceeds what is ‘needed’; there is no final account of how things are that confines itself to function. One of the greatest misunderstandings of popular modernity is the notion that when we have, like good Darwinians, identified the function of various developments in various life-forms, we have thereby demonstrated their necessity; when the truth is that we have not begun to answer the question, ‘Why precisely this?’ or ‘Was this the only possible resolution to an evolutionary conundrum?’ The artist’s commitment to generative excess in the world stands as a challenge to a vulgarised Darwinism: this life could be otherwise; this life could mean more than its adaptation to these particular circumstances suggests. The world ‘makes itself other’, not simply by endless environmental adjustment but by provoking the exploration and ‘re-formation’ of which art is one cardinal element. But when we have said this, have we opened the door to that which is—to paraphrase a great Platonic phrase—’in excess of being’? (155-156).

 

***

Thus when God creates the world, God acts out of a full, not an inchoate, identity. And so, what theology might have to say to the artist is not exactly that human creativity imitates divine but almost the opposite of this—that divine creativity is not capable of imitation; it is uniquely itself, a creation from nothing that realises not an immanent potential in the maker but a pure desire for life and joy in what is freely made. But though divine creation cannot be imitated, what it does is to define the nature of a love that is involved in making. It is both the gift of self and the gift of self. It bestows life unreservedly on what is other, but the life it bestows is a real selfhood, a solid reality. It is not the exercise of an arbitrary will. God’s self-identity is timeless, so that there is no sense in which God becomes more fully God in creating; our self-identity is timebound, inextricably involved with a world of interlocking causes. The most profoundly free action human beings can take in relation to their identity is to elect to discover and mould what they are in the process of ‘remaking’ the world in a love that is both immeasurably different from God’s (because it is to do with the self’s self-definition in history and material relationship) and yet endowed with some share in it (because it is always approaching self-dispossession). In the words of a really remarkable new book on theology and aesthetics (The Beauty of the Infinite by David Hart, p.251), ‘Christian talk of an analogy between the being of creatures and the being of God is something like speaking of the irreducible difference between the being of a work of art and the creative being of the artist (which is not, surely, an arbitrary relationship, any more than it is “necessary”.’ The artist’s freedom is deeply connected to God’s; but connected as something no less deeply other to God, since it is the particular way in which finite freedom comes to perfection (164-65). 

***

Maritain himself asserts that a work is ‘Christian’ simply to the extent that ‘love is alive’ in it . . . . The artist, as we have been reminded many times, does not need to be a saint; the point is rather that without art we should not fully see what sanctity is about. A holiness, a fullness of virtue, that was seen simply as a static mirroring of God’s perfection would in fact not be real holiness; God’s life exercises its own perfection in the imagining of a world into life, so that the artist’s imagination fills out what must be the heart of holy life for human creatures. The artist imagines a world that is both new and secretly inscribed in all that is already seen (‘There is another world but it is the same as this one’, in Rilke’s famous phrase), and in so doing imagines himself, projects an identity that is fully in motion towards its completion. In this bestowing of life on self and world, the artist uncovers the generative love that is at the centre of holiness. There is no ‘godlikeness’ without such bestowal, such ‘imagining’ into life (166-167). 

Related

Retablos

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José Aragón, working 1820-37, “Crucifixion,” Museum of Spanish Colonial Art

During my recent stay in Santa Fe, I visited the Spanish Colonial Museum of Art and developed an affection for the retablo because it is art for worship, all done in a primitive style that creates an atmosphere of childlike faith (Matthew 18:1-4).

Retablo is the word used to refer to paintings on wood in New Mexico. This term seems to have become popular in the early 20th century; historically, paintings on wood were listed in colonial documents as pinturas sobre madera (paintings on wood), or something similar. Retablos were typically pine boards that were sawn, adzed, and sanded into shape. They were then covered with a layer of gesso and painted with water-based pigments, most of which were made locally. The retablo tradition in New Mexico began about 1750 and continues to the present day. Historically, virtually all retablos made in New Mexico were religious in subject matter, the images based on traditional Catholic iconography painted in a local style.  

The altar screen as an art form originated in Spain in the 14th century. From there the design, construction, and iconography were brought to the Americas and eventually to New Mexico. The Spanish word for altar screen used in all historic documents is retablo. The main altar screen in a church was often referred to as the retablo mayor (main altar screen); the side or nave altar screens were retablos colaterales (collateral altar screens), sometimes shortened to colaterales. The term “reredos” which has been used in recent years to refer to these screens, is actually from late Middle English, derived from Old French meaning “behind” or “in back of.” This term seems to have been popularized by early 20th century Anglo-American writers supplying Anglo-American terminology for the artwork they found in the Hispanic Southwest. It never appears in colonial documents.

Altar screens are usually composed of multiple images, both paintings and sculptures, set in a wooden framework. The images may be of the Virgin Mary, Christ or the Saints. They may depict individual holy personages or they may combine to tell a story, such as the life of Christ or the miracles performed by a Saint. The central image was (and is) typically the Virgin Mary, Christ, or the patron Saint of the church.

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Rafael Aragón (ca. 1795-1862), “St. Francis / San Francisco,” Museum of Spanish Colonial Art

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Rafael Aragón (ca. 1795-1862), “St. Christopher / San Cristóbal,” Museum of Spanish Colonial Art

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Quill Pen Santero, mid-19th century, “Christ of Patience,” Museum of Spanish Colonial Art. Although labeled “Ecce Home” (“Behold the Man,” the words Pontius Pilate spoke as he condemned Christ to death by crucifixion), this is actually an image of Christ of Patience, depicting Christ as he sat awaiting his verdict.

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“St. Michael / San Miguel Arcángel,” late 18th – early 19th century, Museum of Spanish Colonial Art

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José Manuel Benavides, early to mid 19th century, “Our Lady of Sorrows / La Dolorosa,” Museum of Spanish Colonial Art

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Pedro Antonio Fresqu¡s (1749-1831), “St. John the Baptist / San Juan Bautista,” Museum of Spanish Colonial Art

Is art for the good of itself?

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David Jones, “Crucifixion and the Eucharist” (1925-26)

For leisure, I am reading Rowan Williams’ work on theological aestheticsGrace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love. Exploring “the relationship between Christian thought and the practice of the arts,” the former Archbishop of Canterbury draws upon the neo-scholastic (or Thomist) philosophy of Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) and two Catholic artists impacted by it: the Welsh poet and painter, David Jones (1895-1974), and the American novelist, Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964). I am mulling over Maritain’s central and controversial argument that “art is not of itself either grounded in or aimed at moral probity” (10).  Here are some other iterations of that argument:

  • “Virtuous making aims not at the good of humanity but at the good of what is made” (11).
  • “In its actual execution, art does not require good dispositions of the will (poisoners write good prose), nor does it aim to produce good dispositions of the will or indeed any particular dispositions of the will. It does not aim at delight or the desire of the good. It seeks the good of this bit of work. And the artist as artist is not called on to love God or the world or humanity, but to love what he or she is doing” (15).
  • Maritain opposes any slippage towards “the magical fallacy of which artists may be victims—that is, the notion that the artist’s proper calling is to change the world according to his or her vision” (16).
  • “The mistake that Maritain is concerned to counter is not a link between art and the good, but a reduction of the former to the latter, so that good art is simply the production of material designed to make us desire the good. Bad men make good things; but good men also make bad things, works that are intrinsically dishonest and empty, because they do not keep their eyes on the good of the work—even when they have a sound conception of what is good for the sort of beings we are. Distinguer pour unir [‘distinguishing so as to unite’] again; we only grasp the way in which art and morality connect when we know exactly why and how they are not the same. And both are damaged when we fail to do this” (40-41).

Williams pulls together “the essentials of Maritain’s aesthetic”:

(i) Art is an action of the intelligence and thus makes claims about how things are.

(ii) As such, it invites contemplation; that is, it sets out to create something that can be absorbed by intelligence, rather than a tool for use in a project larger than itself.

(iii) Thus the canons for understanding art must relate to the integrity of what is being produced, not to goals extrinsic to this process of labour.

(iv) When art engages the will by its own integrity and inner coherence, we speak of its beauty; but beauty cannot be sought as something in itself, independent of what this work demands.

(v) By engaging us in an unforeseen pattern of coherence or integrity, art uncovers relations and resonances in the field of perception that ‘ordinary’ seeing and experiencing obscure or even deny.

(vi) Thus art in one sense ‘dispossesses’ us of our habitual perception and restores to reality a dimension that necessarily escapes our conceptuality and our control. It makes the world strange.

(vii) So, finally, it opens up the dimension in which ‘things are more than they are’, ‘give more than they have’. Maritain is circumspect in spelling out the implication of this, but it is pretty clear that what this means is that art necessarily relates in some way to ‘the sacred’, to energies and activities that are wholly outside the scope of representation and instrumental reason. (36-38)

Question: Is the goal of the artist to make a good work, to produce beauty, or to improve humanity?