From the film Amelie, 2001
“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
In his book An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis encourages us to receive great art rather than use it, seeking to enter “fully into the opinions, and therefore also the attitudes, feelings and total experience, of other men.” We should refrain from the easier project of reducing a work to a message we might find problematic. Instead, we should seek to approach a work of art with the same level of charity with which we approach people.
Art is a dialogue. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that all beauty compels dialogue: it causes a response in us that we instinctively want to engage and share. This sharing is what an artist does when they create, from choreographers to filmmakers. But, as Lewis argues in his book, we have to become good dialogue partners: we must learn the language of the art form we wish to engage. Lewis characterized readers as either “literary” or “unliterary” in their responsiveness.
Nocturne in Black and Gold, Whistler 1875
C.S. Lewis might remark that our culture’s fascination with horror films arises from the “numinous awe” that “is as old as humanity itself.” In his book, The Problem of Pain, he wrote that “nothing is more certain than that man, from a very early period, began to believe that the universe was haunted by spirits.” He distinguishes this kind of awe from mere fear, too: “When man passes from physical fear to dread and awe, he makes a sheer jump, and apprehends something which could never be given, as danger is, by the physical facts and logical deductions from them.”
The river of temporal things hurries one along: but like a tree sprung up beside the river is our Lord Jesus Christ. He assumed flesh, died, rose again, ascended into heaven. It was His will to plant Himself, in a manner, beside the river of the things of time. Are you rushing down the stream to the headlong deep? Hold fast the tree. Is love of the world whirling you on? Hold fast Christ. For you He became temporal, that you might become eternal; because He also in such sort became temporal, that He remained still eternal.
~ Saint Augustine, Homily 2 on the First Epistle of John
More than any previous era, modern Man feels small. As astronomy presses further the boundaries of the known universe, one could say that we shrink in proportion. As our cities grow larger and our buildings seem to defy gravity, this conquest of nature leaves us estranged from it. “What is Man that you are mindful of him?” asked the ancient Psalmist under the star-studded sky that greeted him each night. “What is Man?” the modern asks, as astonishing images from Hubble reveal millions of luminaries that lie forever beyond his vision’s capacity. Only silence seems to answer us from this infinite beyond. “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me,” wrote the 17th-century mathematician Blaise Pascal. Ours is an age when mankind has been put in his place, one could say. What we are learning screams “Where were you when the universe began?” Our existence appears so unnecessary, so insignificant in comparison to the vastness of time and space. Pain and suffering accentuate the sense of isolation all the more.
Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life addresses this alienation. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? . . . When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” The Tree of Life begins, quoting the Book of Job as its epigraph. Director Terrence Malick’s experimental film is not unlike the Book of Job in that it sets this cosmic question within the context of an individual family’s loss. God answers Job with a riddle, but he was comforted, nonetheless. As an artistic exploration of the problem of evil and unjust suffering, Malick’s The Tree of Life is as complex and puzzling as Job’s mysteries, with meaning that encompasses and transcends every camera movement. This film provides a modern retelling of Job with stunning cinematic lyricism, one in which the wonder of existence “shines through everything.”
In Plato’s Cave No.1 by Robert Motherwell, 1972
Perhaps the most memorable illustration of the limitations of the pagan poets and their epistemology is Plato’s cave allegory. Socrates wants to move the minds of the young men away from the visible world to the unseen world beyond the senses, the realm to which reason looks and is grounded. In the allegory, Plato likens the world as perceived by the senses (and the pagan poets) to a dark cave. The sensual aspects of our souls are what keep us captive there in chains, while the fire (representing convention) offers a secondary light, casting shadows on the cave wall that we perceive as reality. The poets might be the ones who produce the shadows that capture our attention. The goal of reason (and education) is to move one outside the cave into the world that “is eternal, unchanging and utterly good.” Once one has been freed from the chains and has ascended, he is obligated to return to the cave and seek to free others with captivating images drawn from outside the cave that are necessarily closer to that which is truly good, true, and beautiful. The genius of this allegory is that it has done just that for many generations. Reynolds notes that “the image of the cave is so powerful that it has haunted countless other works of art, including poems and movies.” Plato was indeed engaged in his own artistic endeavor.
Plato conversing with his students, mosaic from Pompeii, first century BC
The opening dialogue of Plato’s Republic centers on the question of whether or not “morality is beneficial to its possessor – that, in fact, an individual gains happiness by being moral whether or not any external advantages accrue to him.” Plato has three characters express the general view of the pagans, none of which seem to indicate that morality is an intrinsic good. It is here that the reader gets the first glimpse of Plato’s complaint against the popular poets of his day such as Homer, Hesiod, and Simonides. Reynolds notes that the Homeric religion, in particular, “had a tight grip on the Athenian imagination and represented a dark power against which even the love of wisdom seemed scarcely enough protection.” Glaucon and Adeimantus, two of his young questioners, present the case for injustice as told by the poets and storytellers of the day. This forms a succinct summary of the pagan beliefs about morality against which Socrates must contend.
“There’s an ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy.”
“Yesterday I went down to the Piraeus with Glaucon the son of Ariston …” Thus begins the world’s seminal Socratic dialogue, Plato’s Republic. It is a literary journey through the human soul; a dramatic dialectic in the search for morality. The process will involve constructing a “city with words” in an attempt to create a concrete representation of the elusive human psyche. The hope is that such a projection, writ large, of the inner workings of man will enable Socrates and his young students to find true morality and observe its effects on the one who seeks it above all else. The question: Is morality “intrinsically rewarding” regardless of extrinsic benefits? Inevitably, part of the discussion moves to education, namely, how one ensures the production of a moral soul. What will nourish and protect the inner man on his treacherous quest to find and follow the good? What will guard him against all the various temptations he will encounter along the way? This leads the discussion to poetry, something that C.S. Lewis saw as “a little incarnation, giving body to what had been before invisible and inaudible.” At first glance, Plato seems to suggest that the arts are inherently dangerous and should be avoided. Yet, we would be remiss if we failed to recognize that the very medium he chooses to denounce them is itself artistic, an attempt to make the invisible soul incarnate. Indeed, Plato’s narrator Socrates will compare the construction of this mythical city to the work of the artist. What, then, is Plato’s assessment of the role of the arts in society, and can we find any truth to guide us in our consumption and production of art in our modern world? Republic is what translator Allan Bloom observed as an “invitation to the philosophic quest.” Let us take Plato up on his invitation and determine if he is correct in his assessment of the role of the arts in the soul and in society.
Nocturne by Whistler
“Round us in antic order their crippled vices came—
Lust that had lost its laughter, fear that had lost its shame.
Like the white lock of Whistler, that lit our aimless gloom,
Men showed their own white feather as proudly as a plume.
Life was a fly that faded, and death a drone that stung;
The world was very old indeed when you and I were young.”
~ G.K. Chesterton
Taking up a theme from a previous post, here is another area in which Christianity changed the world for the better. Not only did the Gospel’s focus on the poor and unforgotten give value to an entire segment of society that the pagan world looked upon with patronizing pity at best, the Gospel revolutionized mankind’s conceptual framework for understanding reality. The modern world rejects Christianity at its own peril, as Hart will demonstrate. We are deluding ourselves, in fact.
In his book, Atheist Delusions, David Bentley Hart notes that we moderns “believe in nature and in history: in the former’s rational regularity and in the latter’s genuine openness to novelty.” Not so for the pagans. They had no concept of “the arrow of time” and did not assume that history contained a “narrative logic” broad enough to house “both disjunction and resolution.” For them, history could not move “towards an end quite different from its beginning” but was stuck in an endless cycle, punctuated by the wiles of capricious and demanding gods. In their view, there was a regularity in history that followed the cycles of nature – an endless, thus meaningless, continuum of “creation and dissolution, without beginning or end.” The wisest amongst the pagans would agree that “generations come and generations go, / but the earth remains forever” all the while, the ultimate deity remained completely out of reach and uninvolved.  The most one could hope for is to be able to cultivate a resigned soul that was “immune to the effects of time and nature alike.”