Saying What Is, Is, Beautifully On Literature
Dante opens the third part of his supreme literary achievement with a universal statement: “The glory of the One Who moves all things / penetrates all the universe, reflecting / in one part more and in another less.”1 Here, at the summit of the medieval cultural synthesis, is a poetic expression of the essence of nature, that creation is a varied manifestation of the unity of the logos Who was there from the beginning and before the beginning. It has always been the quest of humanity to seek to know as much of the Creator and His creation as possible; this leads to the sciences of theology, philosophy, mathematics, and the rest. From the beginning, however, there has been another way to try to capture the Word: the road to God that involves imitating His creative power. These are the arts, an activity of creation that “presupposes knowledge on the part of the artist . . . [a] knowledge [that] knows not in order to know, but in order to produce,”2 an imitation of nature that can be considered “God’s grandchild.”3 The most intellectual of the traditional seven fine arts, the only one to engage in argumentation,4 the one practiced by the Word Himself while on earth, is literature. This mode of creative imitation uses the mysterious connection between ideas and words—which can only be known by the intellect5—in order to convey truth. By way of definition, literature is the art of creating beautifully truthful statements in order to teach and entertain.
It is significant that the word for poet is derived from the Greek word poiein, which means to create. The artist imitates the creative power of God because he cannot help but do so. There is a breathing forth of the self that seeks to share the artist’s inner life with his fellow men, mind speaking to mind and heart to heart. In trying to understand himself and his world, the artist “holds the mirror up to nature”6 and describes what he sees using, in the literary sphere, language in various ways. However, it is not enough merely to make, to be a master of grammar and form. Aristotle, at the dawn of literary criticism, stresses that in order to be good, this “creative state of mind [must be] under the guidance of true reason.”7 Although the collection of statements that make up a work of literature must be well written, the primary focus cannot be on this because all literature has as its principal aim the truth. In his sly preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde seemingly shocks the reader with the claim that “They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty. There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”8 In fact, it is quite impossible for something to be beautiful without being true. Beauty itself is “the splendor of truth [and] truth is absolute unity . . . [so], the law of beauty in the visible order consists in the manifestation of the unity of truth in sensible variety.”9 In other words, to state that literature is the creation of beautifully truthful statements is really to state the same thing twice from differing points of view—an ontological necessity. As a speaker of the truth, the author, in the presentation of human beings, “has the obligation . . . to represent good human action as good and bad human action as bad.”10 For an author to present good as evil or evil as good would be both immoral and inartistic. Prefaces aside, Dorian’s picture does turn horribly ugly.
The final cause of literature, to teach and delight, stems from this. What the author offers is what St. Thomas terms “connatural”11 knowledge: an understanding of reality as it is lived and experienced among men. The artist is one who sees more deeply into human nature than ordinary people and one who can, at least to a degree, communicate this knowledge. This knowledge has a universal quality but is necessarily put in terms of the singular; in other words, literature is a vitalized, striking, and concrete presentation of universal principles.12 Everyone knows from at least the natural law that murder is an evil—the catechism reminds us it can lead one to hell—but to witness Macbeth’s descent or to contemplate Count Ugolino is to convey the point in a more vivid fashion. Since fallen man lives in a fallen world, literature, to be truthful and realistic, must be concerned about vice as well as virtue, but always with the end of trying to persuade humanity to acquire virtue. Although the poetic form of argumentation is the weakest in terms of logic, in its teaching office it is more influential because men are more likely to understand and appreciate representations of virtue than reasoning upon moral truths.13
This movement of the human mind and heart is initially and powerfully accomplished by the other purpose of literature, to entertain and delight. It is not enough for the author to accurately convey truth; the representation of truth must be pleasing to the reader in order to win his assent to the author’s judgments.14 Since the medium of literature is words, the first aspect of delight involves pleasure created by sound. The words themselves, along with their combinations in devices such as rhyme or alliteration, are analogous to the effect of music. Dante’s definition of poetry as a “rhetorical composition set to music” includes this aspect of literature. Another element of the joy caused by literature involves the images created by the author’s words. While a painter uses colors and lines to convey his message, an author paints with words. An ancient Greek saying describes the parallel: “Poetry is a talking picture, while painting is poetry keeping silent.” The imagination delights in the images conveyed by beautiful words while the intellect is fed by the most important truths; this is concisely expressed, for example, in Samuel Johnson’s famous definition of poetry as “the art of uniting pleasure with truth by calling imagination to the help of reason.” Literature, although related to the great sciences of theology and philosophy, is, so to speak, more human: it embraces the whole of the reader, using all three of Aristotle’s rhetorical appeals15 to persuade while achieving “the ordering of the passions.”16 The delightful wisdom experienced by literature is what keeps the reader returning again and again to hear the same poetic music, to contemplate “Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”17
In an increasingly technological and materialistic age, humanity is in danger of rejecting and then forgetting what life is for; we are busy reducing man to a consumer and ultimately to nothing but the “quintessence of dust.”18 Nevertheless, since the lessons are universal and human nature is a constant, the works of the great masters have permanent value, transcending their own time, even in a decadent age. The great literary tradition, stretching back millennia, “saves us”—as Chesterton puts it—“the degradation of being children of our age.” Even after 2700 years, we can still learn from Homer, but Homer must be read and understood if he and the rest of the wise old masters are to save us. Tender is the thread of civilization that connects these guides to the present, and delicate is the living culture tended by the preservers and restorers for the next generation. We abandon these beautifully truthful expressions of the Word, indifferently forgetful, fleeing down “back to where the sun is mute,”19 at our peril.
1 Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy in The Portable Dante, trans. and ed. Mark Musa (New York: Penguin Classics, 2003), Paradiso I.1-3.
2 Daniel J. Sullivan, An Introduction to Philosophy (Rockford, IL: TAN Books, 1992), 78.
3 Dante, Inf. XI, 105.
4 John Oesterle, Logic: The Art of Defining and Reasoning, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1963), 250.
5 Ibid., 250.
6 William Shakespeare, Hamlet in The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. David Bevington, 4th ed. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1992), 3.2.22.
7 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. James E. C. Welldon, in On Man in the Universe (New York: Walter J. Black, Inc., 1943), 173.
8 Oscar Wilde, preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray (New York: Lancer Books, Inc., 1968), 5.
9 Condé B. Pallen, The Philosophy of Literature (1897; reprint, Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing Legacy Reprints, 2008), 93.
10 Oesterle, Logic, 250.
11 Sullivan, Introduction to Philosophy, 77.
12 Oesterle, Logic, 250.
13 Ibid., 250.
14 Ibid., 249.
15 Sister Miriam Joseph, C.S.C., The Trivium, ed. Marguerite McGlinn (Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2002), 228-229.
16 Oesterle, Logic, 250.
17 William Wordsworth, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” in William Wordsworth: Selected Poems, ed. John O. Hayden (New York: Penguin Books, 1994), 204.
18 Hamlet, 2.2.309.
19 Inf., I, 60.