Archive E.J. Hutchinson Philosophy Reformed Irenicism

Toward an Aesthetics of the Ordinary

I frequently make fun of “aesthetics.” I do so because the way in which the term is used in common parlance at the present hour is silly, and serves roughly as a synonym for “something that gives me the feels.” This is the refuge of not a few Tiber-jumpers. Some Protestants, on the other hand, tend to camp out on the rhetoric of plainness, simplicity, and ordinariness. The danger with this approach, however, is that the terms “plain,” “simple,” and “ordinary” can, precisely because they superficially contain an aesthetic program, foreclose the task of real, deep, and concrete reflection on aesthetics and the sensible realm, or functionally, as a by-product, even serve as synonyms, or excuses, for the ugly (they are not). Neither of these approaches is ideal, I would argue, because neither takes adequate account of the position of man in the created world.  

Appearances matter. Everyone knows this, which is why most people try to make their homes and persons comely whenever possible. Obsession with appearances is bad, but so is unconcern about them. The sweet spot must lie somewhere in between. But for some reason many conservative Protestants and evangelicals no longer seem to think it makes a difference whether a space designated for worship is beautiful or not, even when it is possible to make it so,1, or whether the service music is beautiful, or its ceremonial; and therefore they tend toward the latter of the two poles sketched above.

It has not always been so. Go back to churches built in, say, the nineteenth or early twentieth century–whether Presbyterian, Methodist, or Baptist–and you will find that architecture and adornment were important. Or listen to a Lutheran chorale from the seventeenth century, or a Genevan Psalm from the sixteenth. You get the point. All of these things could be done well on Protestant principles–that is, without lapsing into reliance on the image and the icon, or having a rock concert on the “stage,” or featuring a solo performance of an aria in Latin. This middle ground, however, seems to me no longer to be the dominant one.

So we must, it seems to me, think about aesthetics and beauty, despite–or perhaps even because of–the egregiously vacuous way those terms tend to function now in what are really discourses of subjective desire. How are we to do that?

Defining Aesthetics

The term aisthesis, whence “aesthetics” is derived, just means “sense-perception.” But before we lurch into a morass of subjectivity and chirp that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” (which, in a sense, it is), we must remember that, classically, the perception of beauty in external objects was intrinsically linked to properties in those objects that were observable and describable, and so classical aesthetics must not be confused with subjectivism.

There are a number of places to which one could turn for expositions of the beautiful–the qualities and characteristics that make an object an appropriate one to be modified by the adjective “beautiful.” In this post, I’d like to set out a couple of classical discussions so that we can see how the question has often been framed in the past.

In Plato’s Timaeus, the character Timaeus gives an account of the creation of the world, which I will quote at some length. Timaeus says:

And there is still a question to be asked about [the father and maker of all this universe]: Which of the patterns had the artificer in view when he made the world-the pattern of the unchangeable, or of that which is created? If the world be indeed fair and the artificer good, it is manifest that he must have looked to that which is eternal; but if what cannot be said without blasphemy is true, then to the created pattern. Every one will see that he must have looked to the eternal; for the world is the fairest of creations and he is the best of causes. And having been created in this way, the world has been framed in the likeness of that which is apprehended by reason and mind and is unchangeable, and must therefore of necessity, if this is admitted, be a copy of something. Now it is all-important that the beginning of everything should be according to nature. And in speaking of the copy and the original we may assume that words are akin to the matter which they describe; when they relate to the lasting and permanent and intelligible, they ought to be lasting and unalterable, and, as far as their nature allows, irrefutable and immovable-nothing less.

One need not accept this account of creation in its details to grasp the point and the truth of the observations: the world gives evidence of special divine creation and design; that is to say, it is ordered; it is patterned; it manifests goodness. The superlative “fairness” of the world, founded on pattern and order, shows that it must have been designed according to an eternal model.

Timaeus goes on:

Let me tell you then why the creator made this world of generation. He was good, and the good can never have any jealousy of anything. And being free from jealousy, he desired that all things should be as like himself as they could be. This is in the truest sense the origin of creation and of the world, as we shall do well in believing on the testimony of wise men: God desired that all things should be good and nothing bad, so far as this was attainable. Wherefore also finding the whole visible sphere not at rest, but moving in an irregular and disorderly fashion, out of disorder he brought order, considering that this was in every way better than the other. Now the deeds of the best could never be or have been other than the fairest; and the creator, reflecting on the things which are by nature visible, found that no unintelligent creature taken as a whole was fairer than the intelligent taken as a whole; and that intelligence could not be present in anything which was devoid of soul. For which reason, when he was framing the universe, he put intelligence in soul, and soul in body, that he might be the creator of a work which was by nature fairest and best. Wherefore, using the language of probability, we may say that the world became a living creature truly endowed with soul and intelligence by the providence of God.

The created world is a manifestation of the creator’s goodness, and, as such, is itself good. How do we know? Again, by means of its apparent order. Thus the Platonic creator “out of disorder…brought order,” since this was better than any other possibility. Not only so, but to the rational creation he gave a soul endowed with intelligence as the chief adornment of the world–a faculty that, one might say (though Plato does not do so in this passage), allows a man to perceive and understand the beauty of the order displayed in the visible world.

What happens when we turn to man’s secondary, derivative, mimetic creations? It stands to reason that, in so far as what is lower ought to imitate what is higher, men’s creations, if they are to be beautiful, ought also to manifest the same kind of patterned order. Aristotle is helpful here, and specifies the particular kind of order that is pleasing to the human eye (and ear–his comments are equally apposite for the visual and the aural, and indeed the first comes from a work of literary criticism), that is, one that is proportionate.

In his discussion of the elements of a tragedy in the Poetics, Aristotle writes:

After these definitions we must next discuss the proper arrangement of the incidents since this is the first and most important thing in tragedy. We have laid it down that tragedy is a representation of an action that is whole and complete and of a certain magnitude, since a thing may be a whole and yet have no magnitude. A whole is what has a beginning and middle and end. A beginning is that which is not a necessary consequent of anything else but after which something else exists or happens as a natural result. An end on the contrary is that which is inevitably or, as a rule, the natural result of something else but from which nothing else follows; a middle follows something else and something follows from it. Well constructed plots must not therefore begin and end at random, but must embody the formulae we have stated.

Moreover, in everything that is beautiful, whether it be a living creature or any organism composed of parts, these parts must not only be orderly arranged but must also have a certain magnitude of their own; for beauty consists in magnitude and ordered arrangement. From which it follows that neither would a very small creature be beautiful—for our view of it is almost instantaneous and therefore confused—nor a very large one, since being unable to view it all at once, we lose the effect of a single whole; for instance, suppose a creature a thousand miles long. As then creatures and other organic structures must have a certain magnitude and yet be easily taken in by the eye, so too with plots: they must have length but must be easily taken in by the memory.

We could put this in the form of a syllogism. Anything composed of parts must have orderly arrangement to be beautiful; but everything in our world is composed of parts, including human creations (buildings, songs, ceremonies, etc.); therefore human creations must have orderly arrangement to be beautiful. Note also where his standard for human creations comes from: the natural, created world. Human creations–again, whether a building or a poem–should show the same kind of order as “organic structures.”

Aristotle says something similar in the Politics as well, where he writes:

Most persons think that a state in order to be happy ought to be large; but even if they are right, they have no idea what is a large and what a small state. For they judge of the size of the city by the number of the inhabitants; whereas they ought to regard, not their number, but their power. A city too, like an individual, has a work to do; and that city which is best adapted to the fulfillment of its work is to be deemed greatest, in the same sense of the word great in which Hippocrates might be called greater, not as a man, but as a physician, than some one else who was taller. And even if we reckon greatness by numbers, we ought not to include everybody, for there must always be in cities a multitude of slaves and sojourners and foreigners; but we should include those only who are members of the state, and who form an essential part of it. The number of the latter is a proof of the greatness of a city; but a city which produces numerous artisans and comparatively few soldiers cannot be great, for a great city is not to be confounded with a populous one. Moreover, experience shows that a very populous city can rarely, if ever, be well governed; since all cities which have a reputation for good government have a limit of population. We may argue on grounds of reason, and the same result will follow. For law is order, and good law is good order; but a very great multitude cannot be orderly: to introduce order into the unlimited is the work of a divine power- of such a power as holds together the universe. Beauty is realized in number and magnitude, and the state which combines magnitude with good order must necessarily be the most beautiful. To the size of states there is a limit, as there is to other things, plants, animals,implements; for none of these retain their natural power when they are too large or too small, but they either wholly lose their nature, or are spoiled. For example, a ship which is only a span long will not be a ship at all, nor a ship a quarter of a mile long; yet there may be a ship of a certain size, either too large or too small, which will still be a ship, but bad for sailing. In like manner a state when composed of too few is not, as a state ought to be, self-sufficing; when of too many, though self-sufficing in all mere necessaries, as a nation may be, it is not a state, being almost incapable of constitutional government. For who can be the general of such a vast multitude, or who the herald, unless he have the voice of a Stentor?

In the above passage, Aristotle applies the same principle now to political government, and thus demonstrates just how broad the principle is in application: it can be applied to everything that man makes. Man learns the principle from the natural world (cf. his reference to plants and animals above) and puts it into practice in his artificial world.2

Applying Aesthetics

But everything in man’s constructed world is full of artifice (I use the term descriptively [and positively], not pejoratively), and so it applies with equal force to the visible, temporal church as it does to any other part of the visible, temporal world. The church meets in buildings; it sings songs; it employs ceremonies and gestures. All of these things are part of the sensible, not the intelligible, world. So we must think about them to a large extent on that basis and in those terms–we must think about them “naturally.” The Christian is a spiritual reality, but he is a spiritual reality with a body, who lives in the sensible world, and this fact cannot be ignored or dismissed.

But is there any way to integrate the two? If Plato is right above, then yes: the patterns we find employed (and employ ourselves) in the sensible world are modeled on the intelligible world–that is, they are modeled on a kind of comely order in the divine mind itself. That order is reflected in the things that have been made; is learned by man from observation and contemplation of nature; and is then employed in the surroundings that he furnishes for himself. In this way, the spiritual and the sensible, the invisible and the visible, can be brought into contact with one another and serve to beautify our common endeavors with what we might call an “aesthetics of created order”–or even, remembering the word’s derivation from the Latin ordo (“order”), an “aesthetics of the ordinary.”

In future posts, we will look at how this might apply in some of the categories–buildings, ceremonies, and so on–listed above.

  1. In many instances it is not, as I am fully aware; and that is a different issue altogether.
  2. All three of these passages are cited in Alain Besançon’s discussion of classical approaches to artistic beauty in The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.