Apolaustic reflections

“Mankind must learn to serve beauty before we can faithfully serve freedom.”

True, I am quoting that radical Protestant, Friedrich Schiller, apparently with approval; but his view was shared, broadly, by such natural Catholics as Corneille, Burke, Plato. Alas, Schiller sometimes speaks with that repellant smile I hinted at yesterday. But fortunately it is not the happyface smile by which we are afflicted by naïve propagandists of the present time. He lived when the limits of “progress” had been illustrated by the collapse of the Revolution in France. His remarkable capacity for philosophical abstraction was freed by this disintegration of political ideals. He had no choice but to explore more deeply, honestly and awkwardly, the crossroad of philosophy and poetry.

His extraordinary work of 1795, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, swept me aloft many years ago; recently, I caught sight of its trajectory through the stars. The book was also written by a surprisingly young man, I now realize.

“Beauty is not an inductive idea; it is an imperative.” (I think that is a quote.) It is what moves us to right action, and to the making of good things.

The alternative inspirations turn out to be sordid. We could, most obviously, work for money, in order to get rich or perhaps just to get by; or we could be slaves of some other kind. We might not do much harm, while being paid “hourly”; but if we are idealistic, and work “for the greater good of mankind,” the result will be horrors.

Justice is, in this light, one aspect of beauty. I leave to some other discussion how beauty can be judged — Schiller refers to Kant, and for many of his examples to that other contemporary, Goethe. That each of us is born with some apprehension of the beautiful, quickening our heart, I accept almost as a point of dogma.

It is a command, an imperative. We must act upon it. It might be trivial to suggest that we should all be artists, but to be an artist is to be the opposite of a slave.

In the command of beauty, we rise to the discovery that we have been working for God. But when we don’t even make the attempt, to advance the beautiful into being, we find that we have created ugliness all around us.

This touches on what Prince Myshkin meant, when he said that: “the world will be saved by beauty.” In his novel, The Idiot, Dostoevsky sought to create this “perfectly good man” as a protagonist — this entirely positive, beautiful character. An artist, as it were.