The Aesthetical Philosophies of St Thomas Aquinas Essay
The Aesthetical Philosophies of St Thomas Aquinas
Thomist philosophy as the only true Christian philosophy3 , regarded to the best of its kind. As we delved into the study of the aesthetics of Tomas Aquinas, the interesting thing about it that there seemed to be no singular book written about the topic among his great body of philosophical oeuvre. It also have been said that he seemed to be not written a clear, specific aesthetic theory4 . Yet his appreciation of beauty and aesthetics and his artistic personality are spread throughout and very much evident in his works.
Now lays a problem for me, our contemporary era in the 21st century has no relevant comparison to the medieval times. Our contemporary times with the technological advancements and societal developments and upheavals present little resemblance to the conditions of the Middle Ages. To my mind the world we are living in, i. e. my life and my way of thinking, is anything but medieval. Studying the philosophies of St. Thomas, made me think if there is any significance of his aesthetic principles to my artistic future.
Now comes the question: do the aesthetic principles of St. Thomas still be applicable to our fickle fast-faced times of “anything-is-possible” and “art-isover”5 mentality? In these era of mobile phones, Internet, iPod™’s, iPad™s and Digital Cameras, where beauty is a sinuous shape and titanium casings to to die-for, do integritas, proportio, and claritas6 still ring true to the contemporary artists like Vik Muniz7 , designers at Apple®, or to the recent OSCAR™’s best picture movie director of “The King’s Speech”, are they even applicable to other arts such as performance art like dance? What got me interested in this particular topic is stating the obvious: I am curious if St.
Thomas aesthetics and appreciation of beauty is still relevant to me? With a 700 years between us, can his teaching still have any impact to me? A newbie artist / graduate student. 3 4 5 Ralph McInerny, Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings (London: Penguin Books, 1998) p. xxvii Umberto Eco, The Aesthetic of Thomas Aquinas (Milan: Gruppo Editoriale Fabbri, 1970) p. 19 Arthur Danto, The End of Art in the Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art (New York: Columbia Uni- versity Press, 1986) pp 85 6 7 Thomas Aquinas, “Summa Theologica” Q39, Ar 8.
Vik Muniz is a Brazilian Artist who is famous for bringing multi-media artform to the wide acceptance of the public. See his TED video presentation of his life, work and artistic philosophy: http://blog. ted. com/2007/04/20/vik_muniz_on_te/ Majella Salceda-Tresvalles • [email protected] com • UST Graduate School 4 Tomasso D’Aquino His education and professional life Thomas from the land Aquino was born in the thirteenth century Italy, in 1225, at a time of resurgence in the appreciation of the classical literature, philosophical writings and concepts.
He was born to an aristocratic class, and having been well provided for, had been educated at the nearby monastery of Monte Cassino. He was exposed very early in his life to musical education thanks to the resources of his landed family. Having been honed early in rhetoric, grammar, dialectic in his trivium years and later, quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy8 , the appreciation of the finer arts of music, poetry and literature came very natural. Through his education that his aesthetic sense was developed.
His early grasp of musical harmony shows in his liturgical musical compositions later in his professional life. His solid background in rhetoric is well evident in his voluminous writings of the Summas, Commentaries, Letters, etc. All these presents us, modern people, a deep artistic appreciation of the many creative talents of Thomas Aquinas. Thomas wrote on his appreciation of beauty of the arts was coming from the breath of his education and experience and not merely coming from detached point of view of an observer or mere intellectual.
Before becoming a friar himself he had already a highly-developed sense of artistic talent and aesthetics. Much was said about how Tomas became a Dominican, a mendicant order of friars, much to the consternation of his wealthy family who had designs for him to become a landlord himself or become an Abbot of the nearby Benedictine Abbey, Monte Cassino, much like his uncle the Abbot Sinibald. But Tomas had other plans. He became a Dominican, this ambition was instrumental to his success as the leading thinkers of all history. It was with the Dominicans that 8
Ralph McInerny, editor, Thomas Aquinas Selected Writings, (London: Penguin Books, 1998) pp. x Majella Salceda-Tresvalles • [email protected] com • UST Graduate School 5 his in-depth intellect was nurtured and encouraged and given credence. It was a match simply planned in heaven! Tomas became a protege of Albertus Magnus, a giant among the intellectuals in the Dominican order. But earlier on, in his education at the University of Naples Tomas was introduced by one of his teachers, Master Lawrence, a Transylvanian, of to the great writings of Aristotle9.
It also have to be noted that the classical philosophies at that time had a resurgence by way of Alexandria. The islamic scientists and scholars have been known to have and propagated the ideas championed by Plato, Aristotle 10, Plotinus, Boethius and many more. St. Albert the Great nurtured Tomas’ talent and intelligence to maturity. To cite a few of his compositions, “The Office and Mass of Corpus Christi” is surely the most admirable liturgical service ever composed, the “Adoro Te” touches deep emotion and has been considered as a great poetry.
Tomas was not only exact in his theology but also a master of prosody11 . Tomas became a bright young teacher himself after being conferred a master at the University of Paris. He was under the tutelage of his great mentor, Albertus Magnus and eventually out-shined his master. A contemporary of Tomas was Giovanni Di Fidanza, who later became Bonaventure, a Franciscan who later became a saint himself. The two had a mutual respect for each other but that relationship was later tested by a religious controversy, which we will not be discussing, as the scope of this paper is limited.
The two former classmates went on their separate directions, Thomas became a renowned teacher and philosopher, had two stints as regent master of the Parisian Dominican house and Bonaventure, a noted Theologian, eventually became the Minister General of the order of Franciscans. Both led parallel lives and both died in the same year, 1274, a mere four months of each other. Bonaventure was eventually declared a “Doctor Seraphicus” and we know Tomas is “Doctor Angelicus” and the “Doctor Universalis”. St. Thomas died early without finishing his greatest work, the third part of Summa Theologica, about Christ.
Around six months prior to his untimely 9 Peter Strather, Thomas Aquinas in 90 Minutes An Audiobook (Blackstone: London, N. d. ) Ibid. David Knowles, “The Evolution of the Medieval Thought” 2nd ed. (Longman Group: Essex, England, 10 11 1988), p235 Majella Salceda-Tresvalles • [email protected] com • UST Graduate School 6 death, he had another vision of God that changed his point-of-view. Apparently he had conversation with God while saying a mass, this vision had shown him the magnificence and grandeur of God. After which, he ‘hanged his writing instruments’, so to speak.
His reasoning was that all his writings were mere ‘straw’ compared to the majesty of God. Tomas was canonized a saint some fifty years after his death, but not without controversy within the theological community, largely brought by the Franciscans 12 and other theologian opposed to his theoglogy. But Pope Leo XIII, an ardent Thomist scholar, prevailed in 1879, citing in his encyclical Aeterni Patris that the theology of Thomas is philosophia perenis, whose philosophies are to be taught in all the religious schools from there on after.
Thus, the prophesy of Albertus Magnus came true, that the ‘dumb ox’s bellowing will be heard to the ends of the earth’, and it is still being heard as of this day, loud and clear. 12 “St. Thomas Aquinas”, New Advent website, 7 Majella Salceda-Tresvalles • [email protected] com • UST Graduate School Medieval Concept of Beauty and Art Gothic Cathedral in Lyon, France (Photo Credit: Majella Salceda-Tresvalles, 2008) Let us start by understanding the concept of beauty and art during the medieval times, the appreciation of beauty is very much different from
appreciation of arts. Way back in the classical times in Greece, Arts, or Ars, as it was known then, as techne (‘????? ’, meaning craft)13 were related to craftmaking only, unlike what we know of art today. The artist then was a craftsman that churns the requirements of the religious to come up with tall churches, golden vestments and bejeweled chalices. The monarchs and landed too are among the privileged few that can afford to have beautiful things to adorn their palaces and splendid residences.
Medieval thought, like the classical thought, did not considered that art necessarily had to do with the production of beautiful things or stimulation of aesthetic pleasure. As “Ars” (art) signified a technique for constructing objects. If some of these objects appeared to be beautiful, this was a side issue. However this “side issue” is central to modern philosophy, to which the artistic experience is always somehow connected with aesthetic experience. 14 13 14 Steve Shipps, (Re)Thinking ‘Art’: A Guide for Beginners (USA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2008) pp. 4
Eco, Aesthetic of Thomas Aquinas, pp. 3 Majella Salceda-Tresvalles • [email protected] com • UST Graduate School 8 A survey of the history of medieval aesthetics provides ample evidence of the two of the elements in medieval culture: (1) philosophical reflection on beauty; (2) a concrete and conscious awareness of the beauty of things and the aesthetic reality of art. Some historian assert that the two are in fact independent of each other, the metaphysical reflection on beauty was something quite separate from the everyday, concrete aesthetic sensibility at that time.
In the medieval times, the appreciation of beauty in the everyday living was grounded on the ordinary taste. It cannot be denied that the medievals had aesthetic sense, yet it must be noted too that during those times, they lack in the proper artistic semantics unlike what we have in our “advanced” era of the 21st century. But not knowing the terminologies does not mean that they did not admire what beauty was. One only has to survey the designs of medieval cathedrals, musical compositions, commissions to produce various metal functional implements, to agree that truly there was medieval aesthetics.
The integration of the temporal pleasures to the theological beauty was very much evident in the Middle Ages, i. e. temporal pleasures – admiration of the beauty of a church, theological beauty- church architectural design served to “give praise” to the divinity of God. If art could simultaneously instruct and delight (prodesse et delectare) this was because the medieval sensibility like the whole medieval culture as a whole, was an “integrated” sensibility. 16 This integration was used to the fore by the church, choosing the art in churches to simultaneously instruct and enhance worship.
The Catholic Church was the biggest benefactor or client for the artisans, art was used for religious, court and political purposes only. Whether one favors that the only appreciation of beauty was limited to theological aspects or only of this earth, or both, the apparent system of aesthetic sensibility, i. e. its limitations in semantics should be taken into account within the cultural framework of the medievals at the time. Lets face it, the wheels of history was moving slowly during that time, and inventing new words and discovering new things took time.