The Theosophical Forum – December 1947

AESTHETICS AND THE PHILOSOPHY OF ART — Leonard Lester

An important contribution to the literature of Aesthetics is Professor Nahm's recent work,(1) whose title Aesthetic Experience and its Presuppositions indicates as precisely as possible the scope and boundaries of his work.

It is impossible in a short review to more than touch upon certain accents in the wide range of research and learning which our author unfolds for the student of Empirical Idealism. But the cultured reader who is willing to follow his line of argument through all the labyrinths and spacious ranges of this survey, although he encounter much to challenge and arrest his inquiry, will also meet much to spur him in pursuit of his author's solution to his problems, and also in admiration of his sincerity and enthusiasm.

This essay presents a problem which issues from a conflict. This conflict is defined as follows: "Art is compounded of apparently incompatible elements and the analysis of its experience seems to lay bare only an unresolvable antimony." The speculations which have arisen from these divergencies, involving philosophical, ethical and cosmological theories, both metaphysical and physical, have created a unique field for inquiry into the nature of art and its experiences. It is with this conflict that this essay begins. It is assumed that aesthetic experience is at least conditioned by "feeling" evoked by fine art, also that within the artist's product is its capacity to move us profoundly and "to open paths for creative imagination." The study follows through the centuries the history of its changes and attempted reconciliations to end with offering its own interpretation and reconciliation of these apparently incompatible elements.

One aspect of this conflict is presented by a quotation from Plato's Republic on the moral effect of certain poetic and imitative descriptions or portrayals in a State dedicated to justice, temperance, wisdom and courage. The assumed antithesis of this view is a quotation from On the Sublime by Longinus, a devoted Neo-Platonist, profoundly imbued with Plato's philosophy and hardly likely to have misinterpreted the spirit and intention of his master's teaching, as will be evident in the following excerpt from the above-mentioned quotation: "For Nature from the first breathed into our hearts an unconquerable passion for whatever is great and more divine than ourselves. Thus within the scope of human enterprise there lie such powers of contemplation and thought that even the whole universe cannot satisfy them, but our ideas often pass beyond the limits that enring us." This seems to echo and harmonize with rather than oppose the spirit and intention of Plato's strictures on art, since both philosophers are prompted from a common aspiration toward that sublimer state of being and source of diviner intelligence, which is Plato's overmastering theme. It is the source and tendency — the moral value of art that Plato is here considering. Elsewhere he extols the science and love of the Beautiful and declares that State to be the happy one "which is planned by artists who make use of the heavenly pattern."(2)

And is not Plato's stern refusal to admit anything that stimulates "images of moral depravity" or to permit trivial or ill-inspired art into the ideal State, evidence of his keen desire to maintain unpolluted its nobility of character and education — a very revealing contrast to the laxity of our present-day "civilization" in polluting the atmosphere of thought and feeling and vitiating the taste of impressionable youth with its realistic presentments of a questionable and criminal character? Would not all right-minded parents rejoice to see realized, in exchange for our mechanized realism, the environment of health and beauty which the following words from The Republic portray? "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 the likeness and sympathy with the beauty of reason."(3)

Sympathetic readers of Professor Nahm's essay may tacitly infer that his voluntary quotation from Longinus (On the Sublime) as the antithesis of Plato's thought, when, in reality, the spirit and intention of both philosophers converge toward the same ideal, is significant, presaging the design and end of his thesis. For coming at the beginning of his essay it seems inspired by that positive energy of affirmation, of which he speaks later, which guides his argument through many exhausting and perplexing adventures to its stimulating conclusion, viz.: "that profoundly moving art speaks primarily of sublimity."

He concludes also that the artist who moves men profoundly is "a messenger of discontent." In stirring "the deepest depths of the soul" he initiates in aesthetic exeperience, "the productive powers of imagination." The author cites scientific facts of disequilibrium and bodily reactions as agents in these states of sublime exaltation and despondency. But perhaps also within the real man, there is a monitor — an intuition of the nearness of the ineffable and the un-attained which invokes that divine discontent — those "tears from the depth of some divine despair" of which Tennyson sings.

The book is rich in scholarly quotations and pointed illustrations gleaned from a wide survey and study of classic and contemporary writers and thinkers. The following two will exemplify such as may suggest a clue or a keynote to help clarify or solve. One is taken from Boswell's Life of Johnson. Boswell is quoted as saying: "There is no arguing with Johnson, for when his pistol misses fire he knocks you down with the butt of it." This hyperbole may be profitably considered: the learned Doctor's "talking for victory" bespeaks the conviction that affirmation is essential to the proof of a thesis. Few men are convinced solely by the disproof of an alternative theory. "There is no need for the scientist of ends to adopt the practice of fighting "with all weapons" including rudeness and overbearing. But as he grasps the "guiding thread" of a science of ends, his expectation that it will lead through the maze of aesthetic, often attempted but never traversed by the ateleologist, will be fulfilled only on condition that he offer an affirmatively formulated philosophy of art. The firmest advocacy of an aesthetic that ignores ends is powerless uniquely to define the objects and events in that universe of discourse."

Commenting upon the relations of a work of art to its creator and Plato's figure of the magnetic rings in Ion as illustrating the transmission of the artist's "feeling" through his art, the author quotes from a modern poet in terminology acceptable to modern thought. It is A. E. Houseman, who writes: "I think that to transfuse emotion, not to transmit thought, but to set up in the reader's sense a vibration corresponding to what is felt by the writer — is the peculiar function of poetry." (Note that the concept of vibration unlocks a profounder range of thought.) And our author finds in the idea substantial ground for launching his new hypothesis of another status of "feeling," of what "feeling" is in relation to art.

Speaking of vibration and recent scientific findings as to the nature and constitution of matter as being in reality Force or Energy in differing states or degrees of vibration, governed by their inner states of being or embodied Consciousness, and applying this thought to that filmy borderland of speculation of which Aesthetics hesitates to speak — is it not a little overbold to declare, as the author does, that Plotinus is in error when he maintains that form "is in the designer before ever it enters the stone," and that the art of the sculptor (its beauty) has value because of this immaterial form or ideal image in the sculptor's mind, and not in consequence of the material medium of the work of art?

Considering matter in this light, is it not easy for the analytic mentality of today to conceive that creative thought may become the molding prototype of the material expression of a work of art, through the links of Consciousness, from Spirit — to matter? H. P. Blavatsky uses a still finer illustration of this in The Voice of the Silence: "Before the soul can comprehend and may remember, she must unto the Silent Speaker be united, just as the form to which the clay is modeled is first united with the potter's mind." (p. 5)

In considering this question of the nature of Beauty and its Arts, and linking it with what was in the maturer mind of Keats and within the romanticism of his "Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty," etc., together with other keen glancings by Shakespeare and others — these profound words stand forth, yet to be fathomed:

"To perceive the true relation of earthly beauty and Eternal Truth."

It is H. P. Blavatsky in The Secret Doctrine who wrote:

"In the oldest Aryan race, the Hindu, the worship of the intellectual classes never consisted (as with the Greeks) in a fervent adoration of marvelous form and art, which led later on to anthropomorphism. But while the Greek philosopher adored form, and the Hindu sage alone "perceived the true relation of earthly beauty and eternal truth" — the uneducated of every nation understood neither, at any time.

"They do not understand it even now. The evolution of the GOD-IDEA proceeds apace with man's own intellectual evolution. So true it is that the noblest ideal to which the religious Spirit of one age can soar, will appear but a gross caricature to the philosophic mind in a succeeding epoch! The philosophers themselves had to be initiated into perceptive mysteries, before they could grasp the correct idea of the ancients in relation to this most metaphysical subject. Otherwise — outside such initiation — for every thinker there will be a 'Thus far shalt thou go and no farther, . . .' " — I, 326

Professor Nahm's book must be carefully studied to be fully appreciated. It has won for itself an abiding niche among works of research and reference in the field of Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art. No mere review can present more than a snapshot of what is in reality a learned and enlightening contribution to the literature of Aesthetics. Its author seeks all through his patient and closely-woven analyses to clarify and harmonize the elements of a unified aesthetic of "Beauty" which has the power to inspire feeling to levels of the transcendental. We are all learners and face the far summits of higher thought, keenly aware of "the little known, the unknown vast."

1. Aesthetic Experience and its Presuppositions, by Milton C. Nahm, Bryn Mawr College. Harper and Bros., New York and London. 554 pp., $4.50. (return to text)

2. These last words recall the precept of a Poet-Philosopher of more recent times. It was Thomas Carlyle who wrote: "For only in looking heavenward, take it in what sense you may, not in looking earthward, does what we can call Union, mutual Love, Society, begin to be possible." (return to text)

3. Reason here: spiritual knowledge, intuition. (return to text)


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