17 July 2006

Edwards on Beauty

Tisk, tisk President Edwards. There's a Spot on your stole.Well, here we are dealing with the deep philosophical question of the connection between ethics and aesthetics. We are trying in all we do to have a Christian view of things. That is that we acknowledge that Christian theism (fearing Yahweh) precedes all true philosophy and science (knowledge). Proverbs 1:7, "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline."

On the one side, we emphasized that there is an ethical quality to aesthetics. That is, the commands in Scripture which entail cultivating creation assume not only a standard of efficiency, but also a standard of beauty. On the other hand, I think we can say that there is an aesthetic quailty to ethics.

To make the connection more clear, we could say that as beauty relates to our affections, so good or right relates to our volition. Beauty is what we ought to take pleasure in or love; good is what we ought to desire or choose. And those really don’t seem to be mutually exclusive categories, do they?

Edwards didn’t think so:

And as the exercises of the inclination and will of the soul are various in their kinds, so they are much more various in their degrees. There are some exercises of pleasedness or displeasedness, inclination or disinclination, wherein the soul is carried but a little beyond the state of indifference.--And there are other degrees above this, wherein the approbation or dislike, pleasedness or aversion, are stronger, wherein we may rise higher and higher, till the soul comes to act vigorously and sensibly, and the actings of the soul are with that strength, that (through the laws of the union which the Creator has fixed between the soul and the body) the motion of the blood and animal spirits begins to be sensibly altered; whence oftentimes arises some bodily sensation, especially about the heart and vitals, that are the fountain of the fluids of the body: from whence it comes to pass, that the mind, with regard to the exercises of this faculty, perhaps in all nations and ages, is called the heart. And it is to be noted, that they are these more vigorous and sensible exercises of this faculty that are called the affections.The will, and the affections of the soul, are not two faculties; the affections are not essentially distinct from the will, nor do they differ from the mere actings of the will, and inclination of the soul, but only in the liveliness and sensibleness of exercise.
Furthermore, as the affections are the summit of the volitions, he says, moral goodness is the summit of true beauty.
The true beauty and loveliness of all intelligent beings does primarily and most essentially consist in their moral excellency or holiness. Herein consists the loveliness of the angels, without which, with all their natural perfections, their strength, and their knowledge, they would have no more loveliness than devils. It is a moral excellency alone, that is in itself, and on its own account, the excellency of intelligent beings: it is this that gives beauty to, or rather is the beauty of their natural perfections and qualifications. Moral excellency is the excellency of natural excellencies.
Edwards connects aesthetics and ethics in Religious Affections much more ably than I can. So I’ll refer you to him for more specifics.The point is that aesthetics and ethics are tightly interwoven. Perhaps one could say that they are distinguishable but inseparable. As we saw Friday, God has commanded us to work hard for his glory, so there is an ethical quality to aesthetics. And "moral excellency is the excellency of natural excellencies," so there is an aesthetic quality to ethics.

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