A biology professor I once knew used to have the habit of standing up in the interdisciplinary seminar we both attended and beginning his remarks by saying, “In the 20th century, science has proven that…” Whatever followed was almost inevitably something with which I disagreed. One of his favorite targets was the idea that human life has a purpose or a point. “In the 20th century, science has proven that there is no such thing as teleology.” I remember him saying this on more than one occasion.
I always found this professor's comments particularly jarring because
they were so radically at odds with the assumptions encountered in my
own area of study: medieval Christian philosophical theology. Christian
thinkers in the middle ages see teleology as a self-evident part of the
world around us. I would like to believe that they are right. I want to
start with the assumption that life is meant to be beautiful, not ugly;
purposeful, not random. I enjoy medieval philosophical theology because
I find there a support for such assumptions, a support which is often
missing from contemporary philosophy and theology. My work is motivated
by a hope that there may be a way to recapture the ancient and medieval
vision of both Beauty and purpose in a way which is relevant to our own
century. I even dare to hope that the two ideas may be related, that Beauty
is actually part of the meaning and purpose of life.
In discussing the concept of progress, C. S. Lewis once observed:
We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. We have all seen this when doing arithmetic. When I have started a sum the wrong way, the sooner I admit this and go back and start over again, the faster I shall get on. There is nothing progressive about being pigheaded and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world, it is pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistakes. We are on the wrong road. And if that is so, we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on.
If we have, indeed, come to such a pass that the concepts of beauty and purpose, goal and design are no longer seen as relevant, it is high time to go back. In this paper, I hope to offer the beginnings of support for a teleology based on aesthetics, specifically based on the idea that a goal - perhaps even the goal - of human life is to apprehend and attain the Beautiful. I believe that the philosophy of the past may be reappropriated and adapted by us to defend such teleology.
Two 20th-century authors who are models of such reappropriation of past thinking are Simone Weil (1909-1943) and Charles Williams (1886-1945). Weil is known primarily as a philosopher, working under the influence of ancient philosophy, particularly Plato. Williams was a novelist, poet and literary critic, who was most influenced by Dante and the literature of the Renaissance. Both were thinkers shaped by a deep respect for tradition and a profound religious faith. Both offer the possibility of a teleology oriented toward Beauty - though with significant differences.
SIMONE WEIL AND THE VIA NEGATIVA
For Simone Weil, the first goal of human life is renunciation, especially the renunciation of any illusory structures of meaning generated by the imagination. Such renunciation is an assent to nothingness, and as such appears to work against a purposive ordering of life and in favor of a nihilistic understanding of the universe. Weil is interesting and useful precisely because she begins with renunciation and moves toward purposive order.
Renunciation, according to Weil, must begin with my understanding of myself. “I... am other than I imagine myself to be,” writes Weil. Self-knowledge begins with the letting go of the imaginary self, which we experience as self-denial or abnegation.
I cannot conceive the necessity for God to love me, when I feel so clearly that even with human beings affection for me can only be a mistake. But I can easily imagine that he loves that perspective of creation which can only be seen from the point where I am. But I act as a screen. I must withdraw so that he may see it.
Weil's religious convictions thus do not lead her to a sense of self-worth, but rather to a determination to withdraw or disappear.
Self-denial is a consistent theme in Weil's writing and was also a theme in her life. She died young, partly as a result of a commitment to asceticism, which undermined her health. Robert Coles cites a prayer which Weil wrote near the end of her life when she was living in New York. It illustrates the extremity of her commitment to self-denial.
Father, in the name of Christ, grant me this in all reality. May this body move or be still, with perfect suppleness or rigidity, in continuous conformity to thy will. May our faculties of hearing, sight, taste, smell and touch register the perfectly accurate impress of thy creation. May this mind, in fullest lucidity, connect all ideas in perfect conformity with thy truth. May this sensibility experience, in their greatest possible intensity and in all their purity, all the nuances of grief and joy. May this love be an absolutely devouring flame of love for God. May all this be stripped away from me, devoured by God, transformed into Christ's substance, and given for food to afflicted men whose body and soul lack every kind of nourishment. And let me be a paralytic - blind, deaf, witless and utterly decrepit. . . . Father, since thou art the Good, and I am mediocrity, rend this body and soul away from me to make them do things for your use, and let nothing remain of me, forever, except this rending itself, or else nothingness.
Although she was never left blind, deaf or witless, Weil did spend her life looking for opportunities to sacrifice herself for others, often to the exasperation of her family and friends. She sought out opportunities for hard labor, working in factories and on farms, and attempted to live on as little food as possible. While in an English hospital during World War II, she would accept only as much food as she would have been rationed had she still been in France. Self-renunciation was not just a theoretical commitment for Weil, but a way of life.
But renunciation is not masochistic for Weil. It is a sign of love. She
suggests that in renouncing the imagined meanings and paradigms by which
we try to control the world we reflect God's renunciation of control in
the act of creation, thereby making space for our love of creation and
God's creative love which maintains us in existence is not merely a superabundance of generosity, it is also renunciation and sacrifice. Not only the Passion but the Creation itself is a renunciation and sacrifice on the part of God.... God already voids himself of his divinity by the Creation. He takes the form of a slave, submits to necessity, abases himself. His love maintains in existence, in a free and autonomous existence, beings other than himself, beings other than the good, mediocre beings. Through love, he abandons them to affliction and sin. For if he did not abandon them they would not exist. His presence would annul their existence as a flame kills a butterfly.
God's absence thus becomes a sign of his love, because it is only his withdrawal which makes other life possible.
Since we are not God, we can not practice renunciation by means of creation ex nihilo. For us, renunciation consists of being willing to live under the necessity of reality, which is fundamentally indifferent to us or at least to our imaginations of ourselves. Renunciation consists of submission to the laws of the natural world. One of the philosophers Weil found most intriguing was Spinoza, and we can hear echoes of his determinism here. This is why Weil does not ever seem to move from the renunciation of the imagined self to acceptance or celebration of the real self. Self-assertion - even the assertion of the true self as made and known by God - would be rebellion against necessity. To know the self truly is to know that we are people living under authority before which we should submit.
This submission to necessity requires that we renounce our imagination, not only insofar as we imagine we know ourselves but also our imaginings about the world and other people. Weil's suspicion of the imagination is one of the most consistent features of her work. She presents imagination as the source of illusion and deception, generating an alternative and unreal world in which we often choose to live. Renouncing the power of the imagination is a prerequisite for receiving revelation or knowledge of the real.
We live in a world of unreality and dreams. To give up our imaginary position as the center, to renounce it, not only intellectually but in the imaginative part of our soul, that means to awaken to what is real and eternal, to see the true light and hear the true silence. A transformation then takes place at the very roots of our sensibility, in our immediate reception of sense impressions and psychological impressions. It is a transformation analogous to that which takes place in the dusk of evening on a road, where we suddenly discern as a tree what we had at first seen as a stooping man; or where we suddenly recognize as a rustling of leaves what we thought at first was whispering voices. We see the same colors; we hear the same sounds, but not in the same way.
In renouncing our imagination in this way, we imitate God's act of renunciation when he willed the creation of the world - something outside himself - and decided to allow freedom to his creatures. But it is also a different act, for we are surrendering our desire to create a world and agreeing instead to live in the one already created. This submission to necessity is what Weil understands by love.
To empty ourselves of our false divinity, to deny ourselves, to give up being the center of the world in imagination, to discern that all points in the world are equally centers and that the true center is outside the world, this is to consent to the rule of mechanical necessity in matter and of free choice at the center of each soul. Such consent is love. The face of this love, which is turned toward thinking persons, is the love of our neighbor; the face turned toward matter is love of the order of the world, or love of the beauty of the world which is the same thing.
Finally, after all this renunciation of self, submission to necessity and surrender of imagination, we arrive - surprisingly - at beauty. Since beauty and order are the same thing for Weil, beauty becomes a function of the world's necessity, for which she uses the metaphor of gravity. The beautiful order of the world is an irresistible force which we must obey, whether willingly or unwillingly.
Weil's emphasis on the renunciation of imagination and images marks her as a follower of the via negativa, the pursuit of the ultimate by way of elimination. “Not this, not this, not this” - that is the motto of this path. All imagined realities must be exposed and rejected.
This act of suspending imagination is what Weil calls attention. It is
essentially a “shattering” of illusions. An inattentive person
enjoys the illusion of control. One who has begun to pay attention realizes
not only that control is imaginary, but also that the natural world will
not fulfill the natural desires of human life. Attention reveals the absence
of the ultimate. Those who lack the courage to pay attention and who live
in an imaginary world of their own devising may ignore this painful absence.
Weil will not ignore it.
The process of paying attention begins with the intellectual life of study - especially with math and science - because such study reveals our subservience to necessity and our helplessness to control the events around us. Ann Pirruccello explains the importance of study for Weil.
In applying oneself to intellectual exercises, one can come to an appreciation of truth as something universal and necessary. Studies teach us that a suspension of our selves - our own opinions and imagination - is prerequisite to the apprehension of necessary and universal truths. Mathematical studies are particularly helpful in this regard. The intelligence is forced to recognize and manipulate necessary relationships, which are resistant to imaginative attempts to invent truth. Specific relationships must be obeyed, and rules must be rigorously applied in order for such intellectual exercises to be successful.
Thus, although a philosopher, Weil is not opposed to science, but sees it as a teacher in the development of the mature person.
When my attention moves beyond myself and my studies to other people,
I must again renounce the imagined apprehension of other people which
would allow me the illusion of being the Creator, designing and controlling
the world around me. Rather, I must be attentive to the other as purely
real - as an independent existence not oriented to me. Weil writes of
the common experience of writing to a friend and anticipating his reply.
“It is impossible that he should not reply by saying what I have
said to myself in his name.” Having scripted the response in advance
and imagined a particular answer, it is startling and disturbing to encounter
the other's independence. “Men owe us what we imagine they will
give us. We must forgive them this debt.” This attention to the
reality of the other is how I show love to my neighbor, just as attention
to the necessity of the world is how I love the beauty of the created
Imagination is the reverse of love. Imagination is associated with possession, love with distance. Imagination is associated with illusion, love with reality.
Love needs reality. What is more terrible than the discovery that through a bodily appearance we have been loving an imaginary being. It is much more terrible than death, for death does not prevent the beloved from having lived.
That is the punishment for having fed love on imagination.
Most of us have probably had the experience of being disillusioned after an infatuation, of realizing that the person with whom we thought we were in love was merely the product of our own imagination and that the real person is a disappointment. Most of us have probably not identified our fantasies in such instances as criminal, but that is how Weil defines them. She claims that such imaginings are an offense against reality, that they are poisonous for real love, which she elsewhere defines as “belief in the existence of other human beings as such.”
Such love is the recognition of the other's beauty, since beauty is precisely that which is distant and not possessable. “Everything obeys God, therefore everything is perfect beauty.” Beauty consists in being what one is designed to be, i.e., of being in obedience to one's nature. To some extent, Weil thinks obedience is not chosen, but inevitable, as a function of God's sovereignty. To that extent, everything is beautiful. On the connection between beauty and necessity, Weil observes:
In the beauty of the world harsh necessity becomes an object of love. What is more beautiful than the effect of gravity on sea-waves as they flow in ever-changing folds, or the almost eternal folds of the mountains? The sea is not less beautiful in our eyes because we know that ships are sometimes wrecked. On the contrary this adds to its beauty. If it altered the movement of its waves to spare a ship it would be a creature gifted with discernment and choice, and not this fluid perfectly obedient to every external pressure. It is this perfect obedience which makes the sea's beauty.
For Weil, the Real is not immediately apparent and is only visible through
loving self-renunciation. We can see the influence of Plato in her insistence
on the contrast between reality and illusion. Weil envisions life as being
a sort of screen behind which can be glimpsed formal reality. Beauty exists
behind the screen, in the realm of the Real, and is appropriately apprehended
and loved, not pursued or possessed.
The beautiful is a carnal attraction which keeps us at a distance and implies a renunciation. This includes the renunciation of that which is most deep-seated, the imagination. We want to eat all the other objects of desire. The beautiful is that which we desire without wishing to eat it. We desire that it should be. . . . We have to remain quite still and unite ourselves with that which we desire yet do not approach. We unite ourselves to God in this way: we cannot approach him. Distance is the soul of the beautiful.
The imagination has no role in this experience.
Beauty is the source of finality for Weil, but an ultimately unsatisfying source. Beauty creates a desire which it can not itself meet and confronts us with God's absence within the sensible world. Beauty makes us long for finality but offers us nothing beyond its own existence, which may only be apprehended from afar. Beauty alerts us to our own incompleteness.
Beauty is the supreme mystery of this world. It is a gleam which attracts the attention and yet does nothing to sustain it. Beauty always promises, but never gives anything; it stimulates hunger but has no nourishment for the part of the soul which looks in this world for sustenance. It feeds only the part of the soul that gazes. While exciting desire, it makes clear that there is nothing in it to be desired. Because the one thing we want is that it should not change. If one does not seek means to evade the exquisite anguish it inflicts, then desire is gradually transformed into love; and one begins to acquire the faculty of pure and disinterested attention.
One can never find enough visible finality in the world to prove that it is analogous to an object made with a view to a certain end. It is even manifest that this is not the case. Yet the analogy between the world and a work of art has its experimental verification in the very feeling itself of the beauty of the world, for the beautiful is the only source of the sense of beauty. This verification is valid only for those who have experienced that feeling, but those who have never felt it, and who are doubtless very rare, cannot perhaps be brought to God by any path. In comparing the world to a work of art, it is not only the act of creation but Providence itself which is found to be assimilated in the artistic inspiration. That is to say that in the world, as in the work of art, there is completion without any imaginable end.... In a sense the end is nothing but the very arrangement, the assembling itself of the means employed; in another sense the end is completely transcendent.
Weil connects Beauty and Purpose in this analogy between the world and a work of art. But she also leaves them disconnected, suggesting that ultimately Beauty serves to show us what our purpose is not, more than what our purpose is. Beauty reveals the limitations of our experience and illustrates our need for some reality to transcend that experience and make it meaningful.
George Herbert - an author who exercised a strong influence on Weil - expresses this idea in his poem “The Pulley.” Herbert explains that when God created people, he poured all possible blessings on them:
beauty, wisdom, honor, pleasure.
The only blessing which he withheld was the blessing of rest.
For if I should (said he)
Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature:
So both should losers be.
Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness:
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.
Clearly, Herbert is inspired here by Augustine's idea of the restless heart. Like Herbert, Weil suggests that it is part of the design of creation that people should not be able to rest in Nature. So, although Beauty has a finality about it, it is not the final finality. Weil leaves us with the classic outcome of the via negativa - being driven outside and beyond experience to find the transcendent and wholly other God.
There are some elements of immanentism in Weil, but they are consistently overshadowed by her insistence on transcendence. She affirms that the beautiful is “the experimental proof that the incarnation is possible.” She further says that all beauty reflects God. But even in its reflection of God, the Beautiful suggests negation and distance, a distance which can not be crossed or bridged, at least not within our experience. “To love purely is to consent to distance, it is to adore the distance between ourselves and that which we love.” Beauty functions teleologically for Weil in that it is the only thing we can experience which is not a means, but purely an end. However, our experience of Beauty, even under the power of love, remains frustrating and unsatisfying.
CHARLES WILLIAMS AND THE VIA AFFIRMATIVA
In contrast to Weil, Charles Williams consistently presents both God and
the Beautiful as immanent. He explicitly ties this to the Incarnation,
and affirms that he is presenting the via affirmativa. Williams does write
about suffering and renunciation, so there is a negative way present in
his writing, but his emphasis is very deliberately on the affirmative.
In The Figure of Beatrice as well as elsewhere, Williams lays out the
features of these two paths, which he calls “the Way of Affirmation”
and “the Way of Rejection.” He posits that the Way of Rejection
has been more commonly followed in the history of Christian doctrine,
perhaps because it is logically prior to the Way of Affirmation. “It
was necessary first to establish the awful difference between God and
the world before we could be permitted to see the awful likeness.”
He admits that a balanced life requires that the “tangle of affirmation
and rejection which is in each of us... be drawn into some kind of pattern,”
although he himself is drawn more clearly to the Way of Affirmation -
which he also calls “the Way of Images,” and “the Dantean
Way,” since he identifies Dante as its greatest exemplar.
In the literature of Europe the greatest record of the Way of Affirmation of Images is contained in the work of Dante Alighieri.... he had the genius to imagine the Way of Affirmation wholly - after a particular manner indeed, but then that is the nature of the way of the Images. If a man is called to imagine certain images, he must work in them and not in others. The record of the Dantean Way begins with three things - an experience, the environment of that experience, and the means of understanding and expressing that experience; say - a woman, a city, and intellect or poetry; say again - Beatrice, Florence, and Virgil. These images are never quite separated, even in the beginning; towards the end they mingle and become a great complex image. They end with the inGodding of man.
Alice Hadfield, Williams’ chief biographer, says that in The Figure
of Beatrice, “the title [uses] a formal meaning of the word ‘figure’
- a mixing of idea and shape - as a blending of imagination and fact.”
Clearly, for Williams the imagination is a good thing, a tool to be used
in apprehending God.
Even when he is calling for self-renunciation, Williams gives this call a positive spin which is unlike that of Simone Weil.
The denial of the self has come, as is natural, to mean in general the making of the self thoroughly uncomfortable. That (though it may be all that is possible) leaves the self still strongly existing. But the phrase is more intellectual than moral, or rather it is only moral because it is intellectual; it is a denial of the consciousness of the existence of the self at all. What had been the self is to become a single individual, neither less nor more than others; as it were, one of the living creatures that run about and compose the web of the glory.
Being part of the “web of the glory,” though a metaphor for self-denial, still seems to be a more attractive, affirmative image than the complete disappearance of self under the weight of necessity which Weil envisions when she speaks of renunciation.
For Williams, the Beautiful is most clearly and naturally apprehended in the experience of love - and not just love in general but specifically the experience of romantic love. Over and over in his works, Williams returns to the idea of “romantic theology,” that is, a theological exploration of the phenomenon of romantic love. He began exploring these themes in his first book of poetry, a cycle of eighty-four sonnets written for his wife as part of their courtship.
I love her. O! what other word could keep
In many tongues one clear immutable sound,
Having so many meanings? It is bound,
First, to religion, signifying: “The steep
Whence I see God,” translated into sleep
It is: “Glad waking,” into thought: “Fixed ground;
A measuring rod,” and for the body: “Found.”
These know I, with one more, which is: “To weep.”
For Williams, falling in love was a source of knowledge and revelation. His love helps him to know God and to find stability, purpose and self-knowledge.
Later in life, Williams became acquainted with the poetry of Dante and found there the full articulation of that romantic theology for which he had been seeking. Like Dante, Williams presents romantic love as an experience by which we have a vision of the beauty of God. This vision is mediated to us through imagination, which is a tool for love to see the hidden glory of the beloved, a glory which is really the presence of God. So romantic love, assisted by imagination, experiences revelation and has a direct apprehension of the Beautiful.
Williams suggests that everyone could potentially show us this vision of God. But it is a divine mercy that they don't. So much glory would crush us.
.... perfection is the arch-natural state of human beings as such.... It is everyone's or it is no-one's; on that there can be no compromise. But then why do we not see it always, everywhere, and in all? Because the Divine Mercy intervenes. Mercy? Mercy assuredly. 'We cannot', wrote Dante in the third Tractate of the Convivio, 'look fixedly upon her aspect because the soul is so intoxicated by it that after gazing it at once goes astray in all its operations.' The first manner in which it goes astray is in a tendency always to extort from the glory its own satisfaction with the glory. The alternative to being with Love at the centre of the circle is to disorder the circumference for our own purposes. This - the perversion of the image - is in fact the sole subject of the Inferno, although Beatrice herself is hardly mentioned there. If such a perversion follows so easily on a single seeing, would it be less likely to follow on a multitudinous? If the gazing fixedly on one divine aspect is apt to intoxicate the soul and send it reelingly astray, what chaos would follow if all men and women were so beheld, what sin, what despair!... While we are what we are, the Divine Mercy clouds its creation.
Love empowers the imagination to see a beauty which is not visible without the presence of love. That beauty is divine, in so far as it reflects and obeys God. It is formal, in that it reflects the essential nature or form of the person we love. It is potential, in that it is not yet fully actualized but is in the process of becoming.
Beauty thus functions in a revelatory way when mediated by love. This insight lies behind the vast tradition of calling on the beloved to serve as a Muse. A Muse is one who makes knowledge of transcendent reality possible, who reveals glory, though in a passive way - simply by existing and by being loved.
[Beatrice] is, in a sense, his [Dante's] very act of knowing. It is in this sense that the Paradiso is an image of the whole act of knowing which is the great Romantic way, the Way of the Affirmation of Images, ending in the balanced whole. Indeed the entire work of Dante... is a description of the great act of knowledge, in which Dante himself is the Knower, and God is the Known, and Beatrice is the Knowing.
The Muse does not vigorously proclaim the truth but is perceived with
a clarity and glory which is not normally part of our perception of other
people, and through this inspired vision an epiphany occurs. So an artist
may take as a Muse a loved person who does not return that artist's love.
Mutuality is not a requirement of the Muse tradition. In fact, it is not
the norm. Poet Robert Graves describes the experience:
A Muse-poet falls in love, absolutely, and his true love is for him the embodiment of the Muse. As a rule, the power of absolutely falling in love soon vanishes; and, as a rule, because the woman feels embarrassed by the spell she exercises over her poet-lover and repudiates it.... But the real, perpetually obsessed Muse-poet distinguishes between the Goddess as manifest in the supreme power, glory, wisdom and love of woman, and the individual woman whom the Goddess may make her instrument for a month, a year, seven years, or even more. The Goddess abides; and perhaps he will again have knowledge of her through his experience of another woman.
Williams would not refer to Beatrice as the Goddess, but he is daring in the titles out of Christian tradition which he considers to be appropriate for the beloved.
... in this state of love he [the lover] sees and contemplates the beloved as the perfection of living things: love is bestowed by her smile; she is its source and its mother. She appears to him, as it were, archetypal, the alpha and omega of creation; without father or mother, without human ties of any sort, for she is before humanity, the first-created of God.... She is the Mother of Love, purissima, inviolata, admirabilis .... she is the mirror of all mystical titles - speculum iustitiae, sedes sapientiae, causa nostrae laetitiae, domus aurea, stella matutina, salus infir-morum .... any lover to whom the application of the titles we have quoted seems natural and right may believe from that in the Godhead of Incarnate Love, and may so dare to apply in a very real sense the titles which remain - Mater divinae gratiae, Mater Salvatoris, Rosa mystica, Refugium peccatorum, Regina Prophetarum. Not certainly of herself is she anything but as being glorious in the delight taken in her by the Divine Presence that accompanies her, and yet is born of her; which created her and is helpless as a child in her power. However in all other ways she may be full of error or deliberate evil, in the eyes of the lover, were it but for a moment, she recovers her glory, which is the glory that Love had with the Father before the world was. Immaculate she appears, Theotokos, the Mother of God.
In his discussions of Dante, Williams calls Beatrice the “Mother of Love.”
Traditionally, only poets and artists experience the revelatory power of a Muse, and only men - since the Muse always seems to be female. The Muse “does not choose but is chosen: la demoiselle élue. But if the man is religious,... he will believe that the woman was chosen by God; he will even resist making a choice until the inevitable is forced upon him.” Williams departs from this tradition in that he believes all Christian marriage - not just the love affairs of artists - should be marked by revelatory romantic love, so that every Christian husband should be able to assign all the titles mentioned above to his wife. Williams also never suggests that the experience of encountering God through romantic love is gender-specific. Though he writes out of his own experience as a married man, he clearly expects Christian women to have the same epiphanous experiences through their love for their husbands.
In Williams' understanding, Beauty functions teleologically as final cause, in that it draws us to itself. The apprehension of Beauty is an end or a goal for us. He would agree with Weil in understanding Beauty as that which we wish to see without consuming, the one thing which we can see as an end in itself, not as a means to a further end. But whereas Weil sees Beauty stirring up our desire for a rest which is not available to us, Williams envisions rest as part of a knowable future reality. We can rest in Beauty, rather than striving to use it for some further end. The traditional Christian idea of the Beatific Vision as the ultimate telos is predicated on the assumption that God is the Beautiful, and that to look on God is the one thing which we will find we are content to do always.
Beauty further functions teleologically for Williams in that it is formal cause. Each being moves toward its own beauty by moving toward the actualization of its own essence. As Williams read Dante's Vita Nuova, Beatrice becomes more herself because of Dante's love for her.
The deepening beauty of Beatrice is a part of the poem; that is, it is (in the poem) known to us because Dante knew it. Her beauty is her own, but its publication is his; more - it is in his sight of it and worship of it that it grows deeper - so that all the infinite gratitude is not to be only on his side. In the exchange of their celestial love, she becomes more Beatrician by the measure of the Dantean knowledge.
Beatrice in turn mediates God's presence and even salvation itself to
Dante because of Dante's love for her. It is not that Beatrice is unique
among women, but that Dante has been granted a vision of her in glory.
Here Williams and Weil are very close. Dante is seeing Beatrice's formal
reality. His view of her is more real than the view he has of other people.
Williams wrote to a woman whom he loved about having the experience of
seeing her reality: “Quite clearly, quite certainly, you are all
that I ever said. I always saw you.” And to another friend he wrote,
“do not underrate yourself... you were meant to be Margaret after
all, to be Margaret and no other; there is no other in all the masses
of creation, who can be that.” Yet Williams differs from Weil in
that he believes this vision is mediated by imagination - of which Weil
is so distrustful.
Williams posits a double vision of the beloved. He suggests that Dante was quite capable of seeing Beatrice both as a normal girl like any other, flawed and complex and resistant to the workings of his imagination. But Dante simultaneously enjoys another vision of Beatrice glorified.
Beatrice was, in her degree, an image of nobility, of virtue, of the Redeemed Life, and in some sense of Almighty God himself. But she also remained Beatrice right to the end; her derivation was not to obscure her identity any more than her identity should hide her derivation. Just as there is no point in Dante's thought at which the image of Beatrice in his mind was supposed to exclude the actual objective Beatrice, so there is no point at which the objective Beatrice is to exclude the Power which is expressed through her.
And again: The girl seems to him something like perfection - though, of course, he knows quite well that she is not, and may even . . . experience quite sharply that she is not. The vision of perfection does not at all exclude the sight of imperfection; the two can exist together; they can even, in a sense, co-inhere.
In He Came Down from Heaven, Williams often discusses the dynamic of simultaneous inclusivity and exclusivity. This is a vision of both actuality and potentiality simultaneously. What is actual may be apprehended by paying attention, to use Weil's expression, but what is potential may only be seen through the work of loving imagination.
In traditional Christian philosophy, God is understood as pure actuality. Therefore, God is the Beautiful, just as God is Being. Imagination should not be necessary when perceiving God. In fact, imagination gets in the way of an accurate vision of God by distorting our perception. People, however, are a mixture of actuality and potentiality, being and becoming. Our essential nature is not fully actualized; therefore, our beauty has not fully come into its own. To see another person's full beauty requires seeing not only what is actual, but also seeing what is potential - what that person may become. Seeing such potential reality does require imagination, since it cannot be directly experienced as acutal or real.
An example of such vision is the way parents look at their children. A parent will say: My child is special, gifted, brilliant; my child is going to be a great artist, an athlete, a scholar. The parent is not simply fantasizing. Rather, he or she has the ability to see beyond what is to what may be, the ability to recognize potential attributes in the child as well as actualized attributes.
Clearly there is the danger that we will imagine something illusory, rather than potential reality. Think, for instance, of parents who imagine their own frustrated aspirations fulfilled in their children. Such children may wish their parents had less imagination. The key seems to be the combination of imagination with love. Williams would agree with Weil in saying that love celebrates the other's independence from myself. Therefore, loving imagination never seeks to use the other as an extension of myself but rather sees the potential of the other's essence realized.
This ability to imagine the beauty which is coming as well as the beauty which is present is activated by love and made possible by imagination. It is love which lets us see each other as we may someday be. It is love which gives us insight into the divine spark in the other. The loving vision sees potentiality fully actualized. This is the Beautiful. “Beauty,” says Aquinas, “properly belongs to the nature of a formal cause.” In other words, a thing has beauty in so far as it actualizes its essential nature, and that form or nature is its proper beauty. So the Beautiful exercises causal influence by leading and pulling, rather than by pushing and propelling. The Beautiful is that which is being actualized when a being becomes what it is meant to be by virtue of its own essential nature.
Beatrice becomes Dante's guide to heaven, for “the beloved is the first preparatory form of heaven and earth.” The perfected form, the image of which may be apprehended by love, contains the goal toward which each individual and the very cosmos move. We are meant to progress toward Beauty. Toward the end of his life, Williams wrote to a friend:
...many things I have lost, and many thrown away, and many were forbidden. But almost everywhere a something has - I hardly dare even say lasted, but been. There has been everywhere a point of good; it is astonishing and in a way terrifying - that lucid, often vanishing, often repudiated, point of - beauty? say, of fact. I should like to believe I shall never emotionally deny it again.
Beauty and fact are two words for this same “point of good” which grounds our existence.
TOWARDS AN AESTHETIC TELEOLOGY
So what can be retained from these two thinkers’ efforts to go back into history and find a meaningful understanding of Beauty? Is it possible to draw their two approaches into “some sort of pattern,” as Williams would say, or are they too different? I am committed to the project of drawing the best from both because whichever of these two authors I am reading at the moment always sounds completely convincing to me. Still there are such substantial differences - and even contradictions - between them that I fail to see how they can both be completely right.
First, they clearly differ in their understanding of the role which the imagination should play in apprehending the Beautiful. While Williams sees imagination as a means by which we reach heaven, Weil observes: “We must prefer real hell to an imaginary paradise.” Martin Andic argues that Weil does allow for a positive understanding of imagination, but that when she's speaking in positive terms she uses the word “genius.” So she makes space for the value of imagination in the work of an artist, or even the work of a scientist. But her fundamental view of imagination is still that it is a source of unreality, whereas the real is apprehended only by love. Even in speaking of artists, she observes, “The poet produces the beautiful by fixing his attention on something real.”
I find this dismissal of imagination disturbing. Imagination seems to be the only way to apprehend potential reality, and I fear that Weil's dismissal of imagination is in part the result of an understanding of reality which is too static. At the same time, I appreciate her hard-nosed insistence on facing reality and her suspicion of self-serving delusions which the imagination easily creates. From Weil we need to take the idea that a true encounter with reality, and therefore with Beauty, may have a shattering effect on our illusions. C. S. Lewis discusses this same “shattering” phenomenon when he talks of the “iconoclastic” nature of the real.
Images, I must suppose, have their use or they would not have been so popular. (It makes little difference whether they are pictures and statues outside the mind or imaginative constructions within it.) To me, however, their danger is more obvious. Images of the Holy easily become holy images - sacrosanct. My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins. . . . All reality is iconoclastic. The earthly beloved, even in this life, incessantly triumphs over your mere idea of her. And you want her to; you want her with all her resistances, all her faults, all her unexpectedness. That is, in her foursquare and independent reality.
Here Lewis unites Williams' insights from romantic love with Weil's insistence on resisting imagination. The shattering of images and ideas is one of the marks of God's presence. Since Reality and Beauty are synonymous for Weil, it is the Beautiful which is so iconoclastic. Contact with the Beautiful shatters our illusions about the nature of reality.
A second difference between Williams and Weil concerns the role of romantic
love in apprehending the Beautiful. Williams understands romantic love
as the most direct way to achieve a vision of Beauty and to know God.
Again, Weil is more suspicious, though she does affirm that love may serve
The longing to love the beauty of the world in a human being is essentially the longing for the Incarnation. It is mistaken if it thinks it is anything else. The Incarnation alone can satisfy it. It is therefore wrong to reproach the mystics, as has been done sometimes, because they use love's language. It is theirs by right. Others only borrow it.
But such love is still based on illusion for Weil, not on reality, and
so its function as a source of revelation is limited. Weil is uncomfortable
with the idea of loving any one person more than another. She assumes
that she is obligated to love everyone equally.
I think I must love wrongly: otherwise things would not seem like this to me. My love would not be attached to a few beings. It would be extended to everything which is worthy of love.
Even friendship is somewhat suspect for her, since she sees it as a concession to her own self-centered nature. The particularity of Dante's experience of Beatrice would trouble Weil. Weil observes approvingly that “Plato thinks that carnal desire is a corruption, a degradation, of love of God.” This is quite different from Williams assertion that romantic love is a first step toward the love of God.
The model of the Incarnation tells us that revelation must always be particular in order to be understood. In the Hebrew Bible, we read the story of the creation of human beings. First God creates Adam, the sinless man who has God's own spirit breathed into him and who walks in the garden of Eden with God as a friend walks with his friend. And yet Adam is described as lonely or alone. Perfect and sinless communion with God is not enough for him. “There was not found a helper to be his partner,” says the book of Genesis. The word “helper” is generally a divine word in Genesis. Adam does have a helper in God, who made him and continues to nurture and care for him. But God is not Adam's partner. He needs that divine helping presence in his own form in order for it to be comprehensible. When God creates Eve and presents her to Adam, he greets her with this song: “Here at last is flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone.” Here is the helper who is also a partner - divine help and presence in a “meet” form, a form designed for Adam, to correspond to him.
Within Christian tradition, this is the first sign that the Incarnation is necessary. Divine essence requires comprehensible form in order to be understood. This happens through other people, who carry the image of God - participate in the divine nature; share the divine spark - all in human form. Human form is necessarily particular and individuated. This is the insight offered by Charles Williams’ romantic theology: part of our human design includes the ability to glimpse ultimate Reality and Beauty in the particular form of those we most love.
So both Weil and Williams offer us legitimate ways in which contact with the Beautiful may help us to know the nature of reality. For Simone Weil, the Beautiful shows us what reality is not, shattering those ideas which are simply products of our imagination. For Charles Williams, the Beautiful as it is glimpsed in a loved person gives us a positive vision of the nature of reality.
For Weil as well as for Williams, therefore, Beauty may function as a formal cause. A formal cause is “that attribute by virtue of which any thing is what it is.” In agreeing that Beauty shows the nature of reality, both Weil and Williams allow Beauty to reveal something of the essential nature of individual beings and of the world. In agreeing to identify Beauty with formal reality, they suggest that the Beautiful is the essential nature of reality. A being's design and purpose are contained in its essential nature. If the essential nature of reality is Beauty, then the actualization of Beauty is where reality is headed.
There is still disagreement between Weil and Williams on what it means to identify Beauty with reality. For Weil, this is a relatively static concept, leading to her insistence on submission and obedience before the necessity of the world and our own essential nature. For Williams, the formal dimension of Beauty includes a potential aspect. There is a sense in which Beauty is that which we are meant to become. For Weil, Beauty reveals that humanity's purpose is to unflinchingly accept the shattering of our imaginary realities, to renounce all pretense to control or power, and to bow in obedience before the necessity of the world. For Williams, our destiny is to grow into the beautiful beings we have been designed to become.