Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

God's Glory Appears: Beauty, Gift, and Gratitude

IN OUR LAST POST, we addressed the important point that von Balthasar's aesthetics emphasizes the relationship feature, the communicative aspect, as central to the aesthetic experience. Aesthetics involves an encounter: not an encounter of self, but an encounter of an other-to-self. There is therefore an "engagement of freedoms wherein the free self-disclosure of one is greeted and returned by the free self-offering of the other--mutual gift and self-expression joined in an intertwined emergence of the 'We'." Solpisistic aesthetics is incomprehensible. It is never only an "I" or "me," but rather it is is a "we" or an "us."

For an authentic aesthetic experience, there must therefore be a mutuality between the revealing other and the receptive and responsive self.  There is both a giving and a receiving.  There is a "dialogical dimension" intrinsic to aesthetics.

This fact is important in von Balthasar's thinking.  He sees beauty as a sort of bond between truth and good. Truth and good each have their own draw, their own attraction, but in beauty we have a relational feature which is absent in the draw that truth or good has on us. Beauty is a straddler between good and truth:

[B]eauty overcomes two different one-sided approaches. One the one hand, the object is not simply an objective truth of bare fact lacking existential import, for the beautiful form is attractive to the beholder. On the other hand, the object is not simply a malleable thing to be refashioned into some benefit by an evaluating subject, for the beautiful form is objective gift. The beautiful form draws together objective truthfulness with the striving of the beholder toward fulfillment in relationality. The agent's intentionality is directed away from worth as domestication of the other for my sake to worth as a spontaneous pouring forth of a gift. Truth and goodness, apart from beauty, threaten to condense, respectively, around the (now disengaged) objective and subjective poles of worldly encounter. Truth gets reduced to what is "out there," removed from the agent (i.e., correct laws and right ideas), while goodness becomes preoccupied with what satisfies the agent. As long as these two poles are disengaged, there can be no true encounter or harmony of freeedoms. The truth of the other (the "object") would have nothing to do with the agent's desires and, ultimately, his identity. However, with the inclusion of beauty, the two poles are bridged through the deep, ontological eros--a love that is established between they why-lessness of every appearance (its giftedness) and the rapturous response of the beholder.

Steck, 23.* Beauty, therefore, keeps us from lapsing into a pure intrinsic-ism of good or truth (what is good for me, what is true for me) or a pure extrinsic-ism of good or truth (what is objective good, what is objective truth as externally-imposed).  Beauty is what saves us from falling into a purely heteronomous notion of truth and good, or into its opposite, a purely autonomous notion of truth and good.  Beauty allows for a binomous or duonomous notion of truth or good.  Implied in this is that any attractiveness to the good or to the truth is based upon the beauty (or glory, if dealing with God) intrinsic in the truth and the good.  It is this quality what attracts.  It is what calls for a response.  It is, in the final order of things, a realization of someone giving a gift, our receiving that gift, and our thanksgiving for that gift.

The response that is prompted by beauty is closely imitative of the response that is required in moral responses."Ethical behavior," just like aesthetic experience, "takes shape as grateful response." Steck, 24.  With respect to response, von Balthasar is careful to preserve freedom.  The response that beauty elicits from us is an obligation of fittingness, of rightness.  Failure to respond to beauty "is not only an aesthetic wrongness, but a genuine moral wrongness."  This failure ought not to be seen as a violation of some duty, or some law, but as a "visible deformation of freedom's expression."  Steck, 25.  What should have been a "free, creative, loving" response is instead short-of-the-mark, "marred."  Steck, 25.

By tying the aesthetic and moral response, in particular the free response between object and subject, von Balthasar avoids Kantian coldness and dryness of "pure" reason or "pure" unimaginative submission to a universal rule without regarding to one-on-one response. It departs in two significant ways:
First the law that freedom embodies is universal but not simply uniform. That is, it subsists in the engaged, interpersonal actions of unique individuals in which personal particularity, creativity, and spontaneity so shape the course of their encounters that aesthetic rightness more aptly describes the embodiment of the moral law than conformity to universalizable maxims, where the particularities tend to be viewed as accidentals accruing to an isolable, moral core. Second, the moral law has an epiphanic dimension. It is aesthetically perceived, not just judged to be the law through an objection application of rational principles.
Steck, 25. Thus von Balthasar seeks to join both law and freedom in this aesthetic "ought."  "[T]his aesthetic ought is is softer than the binding inflexibility of logical consistency.  It invites and attracts; it does not at all cajole with the threat of reprisals."  Steck, 26. 
*Here, and elsewhere, I have replaced the female personal pronoun with the masculine (generic sense) personal pronoun.  For me, Steck's use of the female personal pronoun (she/her) as generic is distracting and unnatural.  It may be PC, but it is not proper English.

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