Myth and Religion: Nietzsche (Part 2)

This is the second post for my two part series on myth. This post focuses on Nietzsche’s understanding of myth and its necessary role in religion.

Like Merleau-Ponty and Tolkien, Nietzsche situates myth in the human condition. He sees myth as a kind of narrative, which has themes, characters, and events that relate to the human. A culture can take a hold of these elements, make them part of its identity, and become unified as a community. But unlike Tolkien, myth, for Nietzsche, is only human. It is not something ‘bigger than ourselves’ but something part of ourselves and yet renews our spirits.

Our modern age, however, has given up its belief in myth and instead looks to establish religion on systematic and historical grounds. Nietzsche explains in The Birth of Tragedy:

For this is usually how religions die. It happens when the mythical presuppositions of a religion become systematized as a finished sum of historical events under the severe, intellectual gaze of orthodox dogmatism, and people begin to defend anxiously the credibility of the myths while resisting every natural tendency within them to go on living and to throw out new shoots – in other words, when the feeling for myth dies and is replaced by the claim of religion to have historical foundations.[1]

When the feeling for myth dies, people turn to systems and facts in an attempt to carry on their religion. But a religion without myth, according to Nietzsche, is doomed, for it is the spirit of myth that breathes life into religion. In fact, myth is necessary for religion; it is “the necessary precondition of every religion.”[2]

Nietzsche laments this loss of myth and believes that it causes the destruction of true human community. He writes, “Without myth . . . all cultures lose their healthy, creative, natural energy; only a horizon surrounded by myths encloses and unifies a cultural movement.”[3] Cultures lack creativity and vitality when myth has vanished, and it is only through myth that a culture can be united through the common themes and miracles of that myth. This loss leads to homelessness where people can no longer identify with a place of belonging. Nietzsche asks, “The enormous historical need of dissatisfied modern culture, the accumulation of countless other cultures, the consuming desire for knowledge – what does all this point to, if not to the loss of myth, loss of a mythical home, a mythical maternal womb?”[4]

Not only does Nietzsche affirm the need for myth through his philosophical writings, but also he creates a new myth, Thus Spake Zarathustra. In this philosophical novel, the character Zarathustra wanders about giving speeches to those that he meets. By spreading his message, Zarathustra hopes to encourage these creatures to accept both the pleasurable as well as the painful parts to life – to affirm life no matter what.

A crucial part of myth, both old and new, is the notion of miracle (German:Wunder). Surprisingly, Nietzsche discusses “miracle” often in his writings and the majority of those discussions are positive. He argues that miracle is indispensable to myth. In speaking of the miracle in myth as seen in art, he writes, “This will enable [the art participant] to estimate the extent to which he is at all equipped to understand myth, the contracted image of the world, which, as abbreviation of appearances, cannot dispense with miracle.”[5]

What kind of miracles is Nietzsche talking about? Rejecting the so-called miracles of morality, where someone “miraculously” goes from a bad person to a good person, Nietzsche is talking about the miracle of self-affirmation. Through the experience of myth, one is able to both see and perform the miracle of accepting one’s self and the events of one’s life. “Love fate!” Nietzsche says, “Love the events of your life and be willing to live them over and over again!” The ability to love one’s life in this way is the true miracle. Myth provides the medium through which we can miraculously love our lives – no matter what has happened or will happen.

  1. [1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy in The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writing, ed. Raymond Geuss and Ronald Speirs, trans. Ronald Speirs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), Section 10, pp. 53-54.
  2. [2] Ibid., Section 18, p. 87.
  3. [3] Ibid., Section 23, p. 108.
  4. [4] Ibid., Section 23, p. 109.
  5. [5] Ibid., Section 23, p. 108, italics mine and his.

Myth and the Human Condition: Merleau-Ponty and Tolkien (Part 1)

I will be doing a two part series on myth. This first post will focus on myth and the human condition and refer to French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the British novelist J.R.R. Tolkien. The second post will focus on myth and religion and refer to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

IMG_2347Maurice Merleau-Ponty discusses the purpose of myth in his Phenomenology of Perception:

[M]yth is a projection of existence and an expression of the human condition. But understanding the myth does not mean believing in it, and if all myths are true, this is insofar as they can be put back into a phenomenology of spirit that indicates their function in the emergence of self-consciousness and that ultimately grounds their proper sense upon the sense they have for the philosopher.[1]

There is truth in myth, Merleau-Ponty argues, but it is not found in establishing the historical validity of the myth. A myth is true when it illustrates something true about the human condition, when it represents the true spirit of the human consciousness seeking to understand the world. He often uses the word “magical” in describing how a human puts together the facts or sensations of the world to establish a cohesive whole. There is a magical or mythical element to the way we are in touch with the world.

Tolkien, author of the great mythical stories found in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, also believes in the truth of myths. Before his creation of middle earth, Tolkien is first famous for his work on the myth of Beowolf. In a lecture on Beowulf, Tolkien gives an analogy of a man who built a tower from old stone only for it later to be mocked and torn down. But, before it was destroyed, the man who built it had been able to climb the tower and “look out upon the sea.”[2] (See the picture above of the beautiful sea at Muriwai Beach on the North Island of New Zealand.) Tolkien relates this to Beowulf, who built a tower, his poem, only for it later to be criticized so severely. And yet, the building of the tower was not in vain as the man was still able to look out at the sea.

This is the benefit of the myth: the opportunity to look upon something great. Those who write myths are part of pointing us toward something great. Tolkien writes in his poem, “Mythopoeia”: “Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme, of things not found within recorded time.”[3]

The blessing of “looking out upon the sea” is like the blessing of looking upon truth. Myth reveals parts of our world to us and the way humans interact with the world. Tolkien believes that the best myths and fairy stories will provide the reader with euchatastrophe, unexpected joy. This will all the more take place when we encounter the greatest true myth, the incarnation of Christ. For Tolkien, the God-becoming-man myth is the key to understanding the human condition; this myth is where, according to Tolkien, “Legend and History have met and fused.”[4] When the man looks out at sea, Tolkien may be imagining him facing this incredible, infinite Truth of redemption. He may be thinking of the Psalmist who writes how such truth is greater than the ocean and deeper than the sea.[5]

Although Merleau-Ponty would not see redemption as part of the truth of myth, he, along with Tolkien, believe in the mythical element in the human condition. From his approach, Merleau-Ponty finds that pure objective thought does not account for the real way that humans live in the world. For example, humans live in what he calls a “mythical space.”[6]. This is why we can physically be in one place but that place “not necessarily [be] the landscape of our life.” He continues, “I can ‘be elsewhere’ while remaining here and if I am kept far from what I love, I feel far from the center of real life.”[7]. Homesickness, for example, is a way for us to be dwelling in the mythical space of our home while being physically somewhere else. Anyone who has been in love or has observed someone in love has seen that while that person may be in one location, perhaps even doing something enjoyable, he or she is not fully engaged because of the desire to be with his or her lover. Even dreams, as Merleau-Ponty points out, demonstrate the way that humans have a connection to the mythical. We escape to the myth in our sleep.

These mythical elements of the human experience are not peripheral, but integral to the very way we interact with the world. We approach objects, not as mere appearances, but as actual essences, because we believe, somehow, that there is a sense or meaning to all things. The world of myth invades are world of perception. Merleau-Ponty writes, “The myth fits the essence into the appearance; the mythical phenomenon is not a representation, but a genuine presence.”[8]. We experience objects as having a mythical presence, react according to that presence, and create our lived space in this world.

In summary, Tolkien finds mythical element in the human condition because it reveals our pursuit of truth. Ultimately, our love for myth, he argues, will drive us toward the highest form of truth, a religious form of truth. (We will find a similar notion, although not in accordance with the Christian religion, when we turn to Nietzsche’s notion of myth in the next post.) In a different way, Merleau-Ponty finds the mythical element in the human condition to explain the way we interact with the world. We are not mechanical, calculating robots but experience places and people according to mythical relationships. Both are revealing the integral part myth plays in the human.

  1. [1] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Donald A. Landes (London: Routledge, 2012), 306
  2. [2] J.R.R. Tolkien, a lecture to the British Academy in 1936 in Essays, pp. 7-8, quoted in T.A. Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 162.
  3. [3] Tolkien, “Mythopoeia,” in Tree and Leaf, including the Poem Mythopoeia (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1988), 144, quoted in Bradley Birzer, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-earth (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2003), xxi.
  4. [4] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in Christopher Tolkien, ed., The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, 109, quoted in Birzer, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, 40.
  5. [5] See Psalm 36:5-7: “Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies. Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your justice like the great deep . . . How priceless is your unfailing love!”
  6. [6] Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 298
  7. [7] Ibid., 299.
  8. [8] Ibid., 303.

Taking Off My Subjective Weight

There is power in knowing one’s self, being one’s self, perfecting one’s self, and loving one’s self. It can be argued that without a strong self-identity, life loses much of its meaning, joy and fulfillment. For example, how can you relate with the other without first relating to yourself? Some knowledge of self is necessary in building relationships because a relationship must include a connection between one self and another.

With that said, however, the burden of my own individual subjectivity can become very heavy.[1] Who am I? I am a person limited by my body, my thoughts, and my abilities. I have my own personal history and my own personal thought patterns which are forever upon me and can never be changed. I carry around this inevitable me-ness in this particular time and space and it enters into every circumstance and encounter that I have in my life.

As humans, we look for ways to relieve our subjective weight. Sometimes we try things that appear to give us relief, and actually do temporarily, only to have the weight come back, heavier than before. Escaping to the world of fantasy, where we allow our minds to participate in actions and thoughts which we usually regard as vile and undignified, temporarily relieves our subjective weight. But, upon coming back to the world of reality, we are faced with the shame and guilt for entertaining such images and thoughts. On another level, we may take part in a mob where we move beyond our insignificant selves to become one with others around us. Acting as one, heinous crimes have been committed by those elated with feelings of freedom and unity.

Nietzsche argues that art is a way, or I should say, the way, to take off our subjective weight. In The Birth of Tragedy, he makes a distinction between two types of art: the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The Apollonian art represents the ordered, beautiful and calculated art. The Dionysian, on the other hand, is art which comes from frenzy, laughter, and natural life. He argues that Dionysian art is shown through the presence of the chorus in an Ancient Greek tragedy. In the environment of the chorus, the Dionysian aesthetic is exemplified: the members of the chorus as well as anyone who joins them are able to rise to a new level of artistic experience. Nietzsche writes:

This process of the tragic chorus is the dramatic proto-phenomenon: to see oneself transformed before one’s own eyes and to begin to act as if one had actually entered into another body, another character. [2]

Through participation in the dramatic proto-phenomenon, one is able to move beyond one’s self into another. Nietzsche contrasts this with the Apollonian:

[In the Apollonian] the virgins who proceed solemnly to the temple of Apollo, laurel branches in their hands, singing a processional hymn, remain what they are and retain their civic names: the dithyrambic chorus [Dionysian chorus] is a chorus of transformed characters whose civic past and social status have been totally forgotten: they have become timeless servants of their god who live outside the spheres of society.[3]

Unlike the ordered, calm procession of the worshippers of Apollo, the worshippers of Dionysius have reached such a state of transformation that they have left behind their past and their social status. They have given themselves completely to the worship of this god. In this act, the individuals become united as one, and their identity becomes the identity of the group. Dropping their subjective weight, they can taste the freedom that comes from rising above the self.[4]

I think that many will resonate with this above description, because we too desire to have freedom from ourselves. We could argue that there is something in the human condition which pushes us toward aesthetic experiences: we long to rise above ourselves and feel part of something bigger than ourselves. Whether it is engaging in a piece of music, encountering an epic story in a movie or book, losing one’s self in a painting or acting as a character in a play, art allows us to take part in this beautiful act of freedom.

Notice, however, that while Nietzsche is writing about art, he uses the example of worship. Worship is then an aesthetic experience where we creatively adore someone above ourselves. A theist would argue that worshipping an immanent god, such as Dionysius, only provides a temporary release from our subjectivity, and that the worship of a transcendent God is needed for true subjective relief.[5] Such worship, however, cannot be on one’s own. As Nietzsche reminds us, taking off the weight of subjectivity must be done with others, acting as a united whole, where I lose my identity in a timeless communal act of worship.[6]

  1. [1] I would like to thank Phillip Rosemann for suggesting this terminology.
  2. [2] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Modern Library, 2000), Section 8, p. 64.
  3. [3] Ibid.
  4. [4] In Greek mythology, sometimes Dionysian worship did result in heinous crimes similar to the behavior of a mob, mentioned above. In one myth, Pentheus’s mother, due to her frenzied state of Dionysian worship, unknowingly participated in dismembering her own son.
  5. [5] However, it should be noted that Dionysius has characteristics of a Christ-like figure who suffers, dies and resurrects.
  6. [6] See also my post on the human need to worship: Is the “Need to Worship” Part of the Human Condition?

Sculpture: An Exemplar for the Unreal Nature of Art

Sculpture plays a unique role in the philosophy of art by bringing to light some of the often overlooked characteristics of artworks. All artworks, in my opinion, point us toward another world, but sculpture reflects attributes of the other world in a way that no other artwork is capable of. With its solid and durable materials, sculpture symbolizes a stability and a rigidity, which can withstand the weathering of time. Robert Wood points out:

Bronze and stone, and to a lesser extent wood or ceramic clay fired at extreme temperatures, have a fixity, a solidity less subject to the decay of time than paint on canvas or plaster . . . A sculpted piece suggests an endurance, a hardness, a resistance and is particularly fit for memorializing – especially in stone and bronze. It renders its subject “immortal.”[1]

The permanency of the sculptural materials reflects permanency in another realm; though we know that the materials are not immortal, the longevity of their life suggests to us things or beings which are immortal. But, how exactly does a material artwork, such as a piece of sculpture, reflect something immaterial?

Sartre offers a helpful answer to this question through his description of the real and the unreal (imaginary) worlds. He believes that each work of art participates in both the real and the unreal worlds. The artwork in the real world is the ‘physical analogue’ because it contains the material and physical dimensions of the artwork. A sculpture excellently typifies this due to its permanency of materials, but other artforms have their physical nature as well: the frame, paint and canvas of a painting, the sound waves of a musical piece, or the page filled with words of a poem, for a few examples. The ‘physical analogue’ is not the complete work of art, as it also symbolizes the imaginary artwork in the unreal world. A sculpture, as the ‘physical analogue,’ holds the place in the real world for the sculpture in the imaginary world; it acts as its file name or reference number. Behind the reference number, or ‘physical analogue’, an artist has created an unreal object or image.

Sartre gives us an example of the statue of Ganymede (see image above), a handsome mortal in Greek mythology, to illustrate the way a sculpture symbolizes both the real and the unreal. He proposes:

Consider Ganymede on his pedestal. If you ask me how far away he is, I will tell you that I don’t know what you are talking about. By ‘Ganymede’ do you mean the youth carried away by Jupiter’s eagle? If so, I will say that there is no real distance between us, that no such relation exists because he does not exist. Or are you referring to the block of marble that the sculptor fashioned in the image of the handsome lad? If so, we are dealing with something real, with existing material and can draw comparisons.[2]

Ganymede is both a statue of marble, 15 feet away, as well as an imaginary figure of Greek mythology. An artwork is free to live in both of these worlds: it will stand in front of us, as real as marble, but it will also dwell in the imaginary world of the unreal.

Sartre’s definition of an artwork as both real and unreal gives us a language to understand more fully the power of art, and in particular, the power of sculpture. Though a decidedly physical object, sculpture ironically represents a lasting nature in both the mortal and the immortal worlds.

  1. [1] Robert Wood, Nature, Artforms and the World Around Us, Forthcoming, 76.
  2. [2] Jean-Paul Sartre, “The Quest of the Absolute,” in Essays in Aesthetics, ed. Wade Baskin (New York: The Citadel Press, 1963), 86.

Andy Goldsworthy: Nature, Metaphor and Humanity

I recently had the opportunity to view a screening of a documentary on the nature artist, Andy Goldsworthy, entitled Rivers and Tides. Goldsworthy has developed a unique form of art, which involves going into nature, using the natural materials around him and then creating an artwork, which complements or accents the natural surroundings. Due to the nature of such work, his artworks are often temporary, taken back into nature by wind or water. The actual work of art, then, is not only found in his structure of the natural material, but also in the process by which he makes it and in the photographs and film used to preserve it. He spends all morning, for example, building a wooden round structure, resembling a beaver dam, on the shore of a lake (shown in photo above). At the top of the wooden structure, there is his signature hole, representing eternity or infinity. When the tide comes in, the structure slowly moves away from its original location, breaks free from its foundation and is gradually carried out into the water. The beauty of the art is found not only in the way it is created, but also in the way it is broken down as it returns to nature.

Another example, which I found particularly beautiful, was where he placed brightly colored leaves according to a particular pattern in a small pool at the side of a creek (similar to the photo on the right). The vibrancy and brilliance of the colors were astonishing; it was almost as if the water was on fire! And yet, all the colors were from the surrounding trees, simply arranged in a striking way. Again, this work was only temporary, for when the creek rose, the leaves were carried away.

I will admit, however, that at the beginning of the documentary, I was skeptical of the value of Goldsworthy’s work because I felt uncomfortable with its temporality. With some of his pieces only lasting a few hours or less, I wondered if their value and impact would be diminished. Others, who have encountered Goldsworthy, most likely have posed similar objections. Yet, after reflecting on the power of his art, I realized that all art, and all of humanity, for that matter, is as temporary as the leaves being taken away down the stream. The prophet Isaiah reminds us of this:

All people are like grass, and all human faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, 
because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.[1]

Robert Wood eloquently remarks on this fleeting characteristic of humanity as represented in Andy Goldsworthy’s work in Nature, Artforms and the World Around Us: “ . . . it brings to mind the way in which every form that we introduce into Nature eventually succumbs to its processes as do we who emerged out of Nature. [Goldsworthy’s] work makes a powerful case for the metaphoric use of Nature.”[2] Many other metaphors, in addition to the temporality of humanity, speak to us from Goldsworthy’s profound use of nature.

What is it about Goldsworthy’s nature-art that attracts us and allows us to explore such metaphors? The attraction of his projects, in my opinion, does not lie in his reliance on the natural environment or in his human skill at creating art, though both of these are important and attractive elements of his work. The source for such profound beauty is in his wedding of the natural and the human. Although they are inspired by natural forms and processes, his artworks are not nature look-alikes; each of them is uniquely human in their design and execution. On one hand, his artwork shows the stark contrast between wild, untamed nature and rational humanity, but, on the other hand, it also displays connections and similarities between them through elements of temporality and unpredictability.

Kant speaks of the power of this type of aesthetic contrast towards the end of the first book of the Critique of Judgment. He gives an example of how a pepper garden in itself is not so amusing, but if one were to stumble upon a pepper garden in the middle of a forest, it would be much more attractive. For, he states, “wild beauty, apparently irregular, only pleases as a variation from the regular beauty of which one has seen enough.” [3]. He argues that the variation between wild beauty and regular beauty is what is attractive to us and draws us in. This variety is necessary for aesthetic experience, according to Kant, because it allows us to have free play between our imagination and our understanding.

Goldsworthy’s art certainly does allow our imagination and understanding the freedom to explore new metaphors, and, I would argue, through such exploration, we can be brought to meditate on even deeper metaphysical and spiritual reflections. If you can spare the time, I would encourage you to view the documentary, Rivers and Tides, and allow yourself further meditation on the metaphors between nature and humanity. I welcome comments on Goldsworthy’s work here as well.

  1. [1] Isaiah 40:6-8 (Quoted again in 1 Peter 1:24-25).
  2. [2] Robert Wood, Nature, Artforms and the World Around Us, Forthcoming, Quote at End of Ch.1.
  3. [3] Kant, Critique of Judgment in Philosophies of Art & Beauty: Selected Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger, eds. Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns (Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1976), 307.

Heidegger and Poesy

Heidegger considers poetry to be the pinnacle of all art forms because it most accurately illustrates the essence of art. He views art as fundamentally concerned with setting-into-work of truth (i.e. bringing to light truth), and he believes that poetry is best able to perform this function. Poetry sets-into-work truth with superiority, because it is able to use language to show truth. The linguistic nature of poetry makes it stand apart from all other genres of art and, in Heidegger’s opinion, gives it a “privileged position in the domain of the arts”[1] Other art forms can still set to work truth, when they contain the essence of poetry, which Heidegger calls poesy, but they cannot reach the level of articulation that poetry is able to obtain. Poesy technically means the art of making poetry, so other arts, though they are not poetry, can still be created according to poetic principles. These poetic principles are focused on the projection of truth. Thus, all forms of art can be traced back to poetry through the notion of poesy, as Heidegger relates, “If all art is in essence poetry, then the arts of architecture, painting, sculpture, and music must be traced back to poesy.”[2]

It is unfortunate that Heidegger did not explore this notion of poesy further in his analysis of other art forms. Perhaps, through such exploration, the value of other art forms would become more explicit. Abstract music, for example, is one such art form, which jumps out as having a unique type of poesy; its message is often as loud as poetry if not louder, depending on the person and circumstances. In one sense, abstract music does not have the linguistic characteristic of poetry, and yet, in other sense, it can speak through a language all its own. It can express human emotions in a deep sense; emotions, which may not even be expressible in words. Such depth of feeling needs to be accounted for in art and while poetry proper certainly can describe and elicit such deep feelings, there also needs to be space for art forms to describe and elicit feelings incapable of being articulated in human language. Poesy may be the foundation for the art forms, but the manner in which poesy is displayed varies, making each art form play a different role in the setting-into-work of truth.

  1. [1] Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” in Philosophies of Art & Beauty: Selected Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger, eds. Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns (Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1976), 695.
  2. [2] Ibid.

A Starting Point for Metaphysics: Kant and Lonergan

Immanuel Kant’s famous distinction between the noumenal and the phenomenal world naturally poses problems for metaphysics. The noumenal world is the intelligible world or the world of things-in-themselves where, if we had access to it, we would be able to understand our sensible experiences in the phenomenal world. Access to the noumenal world would include understanding pure ideas such as justice and courage as well as an understanding of causes and effects seemingly found in our world. But, according to Kant, we do not have access to the noumenal world and are stuck in the phenomenal world, the world of appearances, where we can only make speculations about what is really going on. We cannot make synthetic a priori judgments; in other words, we cannot make any universal truth claims based on our experiences in the world. Our link between experience and truth is cut off. In light of this, Kant must reject metaphysics since we are unable to make any metaphysical claims about reality. Metaphysics may exist but we have no way of knowing anything contained in it.

However, Kant appears to take a step closer to the noumenal world in his third critique, Critique of Judgment. In this Critique, he discusses how aesthetic judgment links art to morality. As Wood puts it, “Our shipwreck in the theoretical order points to the real purpose of our faculties: moral action in this world” [1] Art brings out our act of judging and through this act which reflects both freedom and nature, Kant may be finding a unity between the world of appearances and the world of truth. Wood argues, “The whole region of reflective judgment – the beautiful, the sublime, and the organic – points to the possibility of the insertion of causality through concepts into the mechanical world of nature and thus serves to bring together the fractured halves of the field of thought . . .” [2]

Though Kant would not claim that human judgment is a starting point for metaphysics, others, such as Bernard Lonergan, do offer such a proposition. Lonergan seeks to understand the human faculty of judging (along with the other human faculties) in order to first, find a method for how we come to know things (epistemology) and second, to discover a starting point for metaphysics. In his carefully structured 700 page masterpiece, Insight, he slowly finds that the capacity to judge or “revise” the world is where we can find truth about the sensible world. In the Chapter 14, “Method of Metaphysics,” he states, “Bluntly, the starting point of metaphysics is people as they are.” [3]

Sadly, Kant was unwilling to make such a claim, although perhaps he was drawing closer to it in his third critique. Lonergan, in contrast, offers this rather simple starting point for metaphysics: people as they are. People have the unusual capacity to judge the world around them, have insights, revise insights and slowly build up a dynamic set of metaphysical principles. Though all other metaphysical principles are able to be questioned, the fact that we are questioning is unquestionable. Thus, the fact that we are revisers cannot be revised: “for there is no revision of revisers themselves.”[4] It may seem like an obvious principle to grant, but as Lonergan attempts to do, from it, one can begin to discover many other metaphysical principles along the way.

This is not to say that this principle is the only starting point for metaphysics. Certainly, there are many other points on which to begin as philosophers have shown over the centuries. For, if there really is a metaphysics, there will be more than one way to find it.

  1. [1] Robert E. Wood, Placing Aesthetics: Reflections on the Philosophic Tradition (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1999), 125.
  2. [2] Ibid., 145
  3. [3] Bernard Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), 422.
  4. [4] Ibid., 302

Music Opening the Road to Truth and Beauty: Plato and Marcel

In the construction of the theoretical city in The Republic, Socrates argues that when the appropriate kind of music is employed for the training of the youthful guardians of the city, they will be more inclined toward the love of reason. Like a fresh breeze blowing into a field, so music will bring health and life to the soul. Socrates eloquently describes:

Let our artists rather be those who are gifted to discern the true nature of the beautiful and graceful; then will our youth dwell in a land of health, amid fair sights and sounds, and receive the good in everything; and beauty, the effluence of fair works, shall flow into the eye and ear, like a health-giving breeze from a purer region and insensibly draw the soul from earliest years into likeness and sympathy with the beauty of reason.[1]

As they grow up, the youth of this theoretical city will only be exposed to music, which uses the proper words, melody and rhythm to foster a love of reason. Music will be carefully filtered to make sure that only certain words, which tell stories of good virtues, are allowed to be sung, certain melodic sequences, which are only found in the Dorian and Phrygian modes, are allowed to be used in composition,[2] and certain rhythmic patterns, which incite only the appropriate emotions, are accepted. All of this is for the sake of cultivating a love of reason so that the youth will better be able to discern the “true nature of the beautiful and graceful.” “For,” Socrates asks, “what should be the end of music if not the love of beauty?”[3] The goal for the restrictions on art and music in the city is not to deprive the guardians of pleasure for the sake of some kind of asceticism, but to use art to all the more foster an environment which allows the youth to fall in love with reason and to go after the beautiful.

In one of his more autobiographical lectures, “Music in My Life and Works,” the 20th century existentialist philosopher, Gabriel Marcel, relates his own journey directed by music toward the love of the beautiful and the love of truth.[4] Music, for him and for his family, was more than a hobby, as it played a significant role in establishing familial relationships as well as expressing life values. Marcel’s childhood mirrors Plato’s hopes for the youth of his city since he is surrounded by music from birth, by his mother, his father, his aunt and his own playing, which then “opened the road to Truth.” He recounts:

On this level my thought continues in the tradition of Schopenhauer . . . Of course, I admit his pessimism, against which I have always protested without ever forgetting that the world does seem on all sides to invite us to despair. But . . . it seems to me that it is music and music alone that has caused me to discover the saving light. It is music that has opened the road to Truth for me, towards which I have not ceased striving, this Truth beyond all the partial truths that science demonstrates and expounds, the Truth that illumines the work of the greatest composers like Bach or Mozart.[5]

Marcel finds that music revealed the notions of truth to him from an early age and though he did not consciously understand this till much later, he is able to look back and see how music was one of the primary stepping stones leading him toward his idea of truth. To apply Plato’s terms, music was a use to him in that it refined his rational abilities to follow after the beauty and the truth.

Marcel, however, would not apply the same type of restrictions to music (or art) that Plato puts forward in The Republic. He often gravitated toward art that expressed the despair that he found in his own life and in the world around him which included many diverse art forms. Not that he would make no distinctions between good and bad art, but he would argue that art promoting a multiplicity of values was what gradually allowed him to discover hope and truth. The exploration of other values allowed him the freedom to be gently led toward what he called, “the saving light.” Nevertheless, the common thread between both Plato and Marcel is significant: though the scope of music (and art) may be different, both recognized that a greater love of truth and beauty can be gleamed from music.

  1. [1] Plato, The Republic, trans. by Benjamin Jowett, In Philosophies of Art and Beauty, ed. by Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1976), Book III, 401, pg. 27-28.
  2. [2] The Greek Dorian and Phrygian modes are not the same as our modern Dorian and Phrygian modes. The Phrygian mode went from the note d-d’ built on two tetrachords with a whole note in between and the Greek Dorian mode went from e-e’ built on two tetrachords with a whole note in between. The sounds, however, could differ greatly as the tetrachords could be either diatonic, enharmonic or chromatic meaning that the number of whole steps, half steps and even quarter steps composing the tetrachord could vary. Along with the patterns of notes, these modes included other characteristics coming from the people groups after which they were named. The important point here is that these two modes were seen as promoting positive values for the youth. See Don Michael Randel, Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music (Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 1978) for a very brief reference to these ideas and the article Mode (music) on Wikipedia for a more detailed overview.
  3. [3] Plato, The Republic, Book III, 403, pg. 29.
  4. [4] Marcel would claim, however, that all of his works are autobiographical as one cannot divorce his life from his writings.
  5. [5] Gabriel Marcel, “Music in My Life and Works,” In Music and Philosophy, trans. by Stephen Maddux and Robert E. Wood (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2005), 53.

Our Senses and Art

Have you ever been on one of those 4D rides at an amusement park? Not only do you experience the film 3D (because you are wearing those stylish 3D glasses), but there is a supposed fourth dimension which includes water being sprayed on you or the feeling of bugs crawling up your leg simultaneous to the corresponding scenes in the film. While the experience is diverting, do the additional effects enhance or detract from our aesthetic experience? If the purpose is to draw us in to the imaginary world of the film by stimulating more of our senses, I’m afraid it has the opposite result. Just as we are about to enter the imaginary world of the film, the shock of touch calls us back to the real world. We may try to enter into the fantasy world of “Shrek”, for instance, but are jolted back by a spray of cold water on our legs! As a result, the experience becomes awkward and disjointed diminishing the aesthetic experience.[1] This may simply be a personal preference or it may actually relate to how our senses interact with art.

In Robert Wood’s “Introduction” to Placing Aesthetics, he observes that seeing and hearing are the primary senses used in fine arts. By listing off the primary forms of the fine arts: prose, poetry, music, dance, architecture, sculpture and painting, we can agree with his observation that each of them are experienced through either sight or sound (or both). Wood references a few obscure arts that do have other senses such as the culinary arts or perfume making, but we do not usually associate those with fine arts. Wood questions the reason for this emphasis: “What is there about seeing and hearing that sets off their field of operation from that of the other senses?”[2] He suggests that the other senses (taste, smell and touch) are proximity senses; in other words, those senses give us information about an object which is close to us and as a result, produce an immediate sensual experience. The proximity senses relate directly to the body: for example, when we smell, the odor enters through the nose; when we taste, the food enters the mouth; when we touch, the object must come in contact with our body. With seeing and hearing, however, though sight is done with the eyes and hearing with the ears, the experience and reaction takes place more in our mind. We do not have a “somatic self-experience,” as Wood puts it, and thus, these senses can be considered away from the body or distant senses.[3] The distance created between the body and the aesthetic experience by these senses allows the participants to transcend to something above a bodily experience. Participants can engage and connect with the universal world through the ideas referenced in the art. Art, then, is primarily through the senses of sight and sound because it provides us with a deeper, more meaningful experience and pushes us to think upon ideas that are bigger than ourselves.

Think, for example, of reading a good novel. We use our sense of sight to read, but the words on the page are not the form of art in itself. The art is actually found in the imaginary world. The words from the novel paint the world in our minds and we transcend to this place as we read. The better the descriptions and the more relatable the characters, the more we are able to truly engross ourselves in this imaginary world. The sense of sight then uses a real object to call us to an imaginary world which includes universal ideas. As we go deeper into the imaginary world, we connect ourselves more to these universal ideas. If we attempted to use the same techniques found in the 4D theatre experience while reading a good novel, our experience would immediately change. What if we were able to touch the texture of the clothes of the characters or smell the food described in a dinner scene? I would argue that these physical elements would only distract and detract from the aesthetic experience. The novel carries the reader to an imaginary world and the proximate senses, most likely, will only bring him or her back to the real world.

Could incorporating all the senses ever be beneficial to our aesthetic experience? There may be times where, though it is an aesthetic experience, the purpose is not to carry us into the universal or imaginary realm but, rather, to call us to something in the present and real world.[4] In high mass, all of our senses are incorporated: we are listening to the music, touching and tasting the bread and the wine, smelling the incense, reading the Scriptures on the page and seeing the beauty of the art in the cathedral around us. Here it seems that our experience is enhanced because we are able to worship more fully – with all of our body and our mind completely engaged. The purpose of the service is not for us to transcend to an imaginary world, but to fully dedicate all of our being in the present world and in that present moment to God.

The emphasis, then, on the senses of sight and sound in the fine arts is not arbitrary, but goes hand in hand with the usual purposes of the fine arts: to turn us out of ourselves toward universal ideas and to connect us to an imaginary world. There are some aesthetic experiences which successfully use the proximity senses, such as a church service, but here the purpose of such an aesthetic experience differs from the norm.

  1. [1] Though it falls short as an aesthetic experience, I still enjoy the ride!
  2. [2] Robert E. Wood, Placing Aesthetics: Reflections on the Philosophic Tradition (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1999), 19.
  3. [3] Ibid.
  4. [4] Certainly, good art, which may carry us away to the imaginary world in the moment, will also encourage us to change our present reality. Its connection to the universal ideas can be a powerful motivator for reform.