Art and Scholasticism by Jacques Maritain

Chapter IX

Art and Morality

The artistic habitus is intent only on the work to be made. No doubt it permits the consideration of the objective conditions (practical use, intended purpose, etc.) which the work must satisfy -- a statue made to be prayed before, is different from a statue for a garden. But this is because such a consideration has to do with the very beauty of the work: a work which would not be adapted to these conditions would thereby be lacking in proportion, and therefore in beauty. Art has for sole end the work itself and its beauty.

But for the man working, the work-to-be-made enters -- itself -- into the line of morality,[147] and on this ground it is only a means. If the artist took the end of his art or the beauty of the work for the ultimate end of his operation and therefore for beatitude, he would be but an idolater.[148] It is absolutely necessary therefore that the artist, qua man, work for something other than his work, for something better loved. God is infinitely more lovable than art.


God is jealous. "The rule of divine love is without mercy," said Mélanie de la Salette. "Love is a true sacrificer: it desires the death of all that is not it." Unhappy the artist with a divided heart! The blessed Angelico was willing to put down his painting without a murmur and go and tend geese if obedience had required this of him. Consequently a creative stream gushed from his tranquil heart. God left him that, because he had renounced it.

Art has no right against God. There is no good opposed to God or the ultimate Good of human life. Art in its own domain is sovereign like wisdom; through its object it is subordinate neither to wisdom nor to prudence nor to any other virtue. But by the subject in which it exists, by man and in man it is subordinate -- extrinsically subordinate--to the good of the subject; insofar as it finds itself in man and insofar as the liberty of man makes use of it, it is subordinate to the end of man and to the human virtues. Therefore "if an art produces objects which men cannot use without sinning, the artist who makes such works himself commits sin, because he directly offers to others the occasion of sin; as if someone were to make idols for idolatry. As to the arts of works which men can put to a good or bad use, they are permissible; and yet if there are some of them whose works are employed in the greatest number of cases for a bad use, they must, although permissible in themselves, be banished from the city by the office of the Prince, secundum documenta Platonis."[149] Fortunately for the rights of man, our fine cities have no Prince, and all that works for idolatry and lechery, in dressmaking or in literature, is not thwarted by Plato.

Because it exists in man and because its good is not the good of man, art is subject in its exercise to an extrinsic control, imposed in the name of a higher end which is the very beatitude of the living being in whom it resides. But in the Christian this control proceeds without constraint, because the immanent order of charity renders it connatural to him, and because the law has become his own interior inclination: spiritualis homo non est sub lege. It is to him that one can say: ama, et fac quod vis; if you love, you can do what you wish, you will never offend love. A work of art which offends God offends the Christian too, and, no longer having anything with which to delight, it immediately loses for him any claim to beauty.

There is according to Aristotle[150] a twofold good of the multitude, for example, of an army: one which is in the multitude, itself, and such is the order of the army; the other separate from the multitude, and such is the good of the Commander. And this latter good is the nobler of the two, because it is to it that the other one is ordered -- the order of the army being for the realization of the good of the Commander, that is to say, the will of the Commander in the obtaining of victory.[151] We can conclude from this that the contemplative, being ordered directly to the "separate common good" of the whole universe, that is to say, to God, serves better than any other the common good of the human multitude; for the "intrinsic common good" of this multitude, the social common good, depends on the "separate common good," which is superior to it. It is the same, analogically and all allowances being made, with all those, metaphysicians or artists, whose activity touches the transcendental order of truth or beauty, and who have some part in wisdom if only natural wisdom. Leave, then, the artist to his art: he serves the community better than the engineer or the tradesman.

This does not mean that he must ignore the city, either as a man -- this is obvious -- or even as an artist. The question for him is not whether he ought to open his work to all the human currents flowing into his heart, and to pursue, in making it, this or that particular human aim: the individual case is sole master here, and all prejudgment would be improper. The sole question for the artist is not to be a weakling; it is to have an art which is robust enough and undeviating enough to dominate at all events his matter without losing anything of its loftiness and purity, and to aim, in the very act of making, at the sole good of the work, without being turned aside or distracted by the human ends pursued.

To tell the truth, art took to enclosing itself in its famous ivory tower, in the XIX century, only because of the disheartening degradation of its environment. But the normal condition of art is altogether different. Aeschylus, Dante, or Cervantes did not write in a vacuum bell. Moreover, there cannot in fact be any purely "gratuitous" work of art -- the universe excepted. Not only is our act of artistic creation ordered to an ultimate end, true God or false God, but it is impossible that it not regard, because of the environment in which it steeps, certain proximate ends that concern the human order. The workman works for his wages, and the most disincarnate artist has some concern to act on souls and to serve an idea, be it only an aesthetic idea. What is required is the perfect practical discrimination between the aim of the workman (finis operantis, as the Schoolmen put it) and the aim of the work (finis operis): so that the workman should work for his wages, but the work should be ruled and shaped and brought into being only with regard to its own good and in nowise with regard to the wages. Thus the artist may work for any and every human intention he likes, but the work taken in itself must be made and constructed only for its own beauty.


It is the idlest fancy to think that the ingenuousness or the purity of the work of art depends on a break with the animating and motive principles of the human being, on a line drawn between art and desire or love. It depends rather on the force of the principle that generates the work, or on the force of the virtue of art.

There was a tree that said: "I want to be tree only and nothing else, and to bear fruit which will be pure fruit. That is why I do not want to grow in earth which is not tree, nor in a climate which is climate of Provence or of Vendée, and not tree-climate. Shelter me from the air."


It would simplify many questions to make a distinction between art itself and its material or subjective conditions. Art being of man, how could it not depend on the pre-existing structures and inclinations of the subject in which it dwells? They remain extrinsic to art, but they influence it.

Art as such, for instance, transcends, like the spirit, every frontier of space or time, every historical or national boundary; it has its bounds only in the infinite amplitude of beauty. Like science, philosophy and civilization, by its very nature and object it is universal.

But art does not reside in an angelic mind; it resides in a soul which animates a living body, and which, by the natural necessity in which it finds itself of learning, and progressing little by little and with the assistance of others, makes the rational animal a naturally social animal. Art is therefore basically dependent upon everything which the human community, spiritual tradition and history transmit to the body and mind of man. By its human subject and its human roots, art belongs to a time and a country.

That is why the most universal and the most human works are those which bear most openly the mark of their country.[152] The century of Pascal and Bossuet was a century of vigorous nationalism. At the time of the great tranquil victories of Cluny, and at the time of Saint Louis, a French -- but, above all, Catholic -- intellectual radiation was exerted on Christendom, and it was then that the world experienced the purest and the freest "international" of the spirit, and the most universal culture.

It thus appears that attachment to the natural environment, political and territorial, of a nation is one of the conditions of the proper life and therefore of the very universality of the intellect and of art; whereas a metaphysical and religious cult of the nation, which would seek to enslave the intellect to the physiology of a race or to the interests of a State, exposes art and every virtue of the spirit to mortal danger.

* All our values depend on the nature of our God.

Now God is Spirit. To progress -- which means for any nature, to tend toward its Principle[153] -- is therefore to pass from the sensible to the rational and from the rational to the spiritual and from the less spiritual to the more spiritual; to civilize is to spiritualize.

Material progress may contribute, to the extent that it allows man leisure of soul. But if such progress is employed only to serve the will to power and to gratify a cupidity which opens infinite jaws -- concupiscentia est infinita[154] -- it leads the world back to chaos at an accelerated speed; that is its way of tending toward the principle.


There is a fundamental need of art in the human community: "Nobody," says Saint Thomas following Aristotle, "can do without delectation for long. That is why he who is deprived of spiritual delectations goes over to the carnal."[155]

Art teaches men the delectations of the spirit, and because it is itself sensible and adapted to their nature, it can best lead them to what is nobler than itself. It thus plays in natural life the same role, so to speak, as the "sensible graces" in the spiritual life; and from very far, and unconsciously, it prepares the human race for contemplation (the contemplation of the saints), whose spiritual delectation exceeds all delectation,"[156] and which seems to be the end of all the operations of men. For why the servile works and trade, if not in order that the body, being provided with the necessaries of life, may be in the state required for contemplation? Why the moral virtues and prudence, if not to procure the tranquility of the passions and the interior peace that contemplation needs? Why the whole government of civil life, if not to assure the exterior peace necessary to contemplation? "So that, properly considered, all the functions of human life seem to be for the service of those who contemplate truth."[157] But contemplation itself -- and all the rest -- is for the sake of love.


If one tried, not, certainly, to make an impossible classification of artists and works, but to understand the normal hierarchy of the different types of art, one could do so only from this human point of view of their properly civilizing value, or of their degree of spirituality.

One would thus descend from the beauty of Holy Scripture and of the Liturgy, to that of the writings of the mystics, then to art properly so-called: the spiritual fullness of mediaeval art, the rational harmony of Greek and classical art, the pathos-laden harmony of Shakespearean art. . . . The imaginative and verbal richness of romanticism, the instinct of the heart, maintains in it, in spite of its deep-seated lack of balance and its intellectual indigence, the concept of art. With naturalism this concept disappears almost completely -- only to reappear, as one might expect, cleansed and sharpened, with new values.

The magnificence of Julius II and of Leo X had a great deal more to it than a noble love of glory and beauty; with whatever vanity it may have been accompanied, a ray passed through it of the Spirit which has never failed the Church.

That great Contemplative, instructed by the gift of Science, profoundly discerns all the needs of the human heart; she knows the unique value of art. That is why she has so protected it in the world. Even more, she has summoned it to the opus Dei, and she asks it to make precious ointments which she spreads over the head and feet of her Master. Ut quid perditio ista? murmur the philanthropists. She continues to embalm the body of her Beloved, whose death she proclaims every day, donec veniat.


Do you think that God, Who "is called Zealot," says Denis the Areopagite, "because He has love and zeal for all that is,"[158] is scornful of artists and of the fragile beauty which issues from their hands? Remember what He says of the men whom He Himself assigned to sacred art: "Behold, the Lord hath called by name Beseleel, the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Juda, and hath filled him with the spirit of God, with wisdom and understanding and knowledge and all learning to devise and to work in gold and silver and brass, and in engraving stones, and in carpenter's work. Whatsoever can be devised artificially He hath given in his heart: Ooliab also, the son of Achisameck of the tribe of Dan: both of them hath he instructed with wisdom, to do carpenter's work, and tapestry, and embroidery in blue and purple, and scarlet twice-dyed, and fine linen, and to weave all things, and to invent all new things."[159]

We have already noted the general opposition between Art and Prudence. This opposition is further aggravated in the fine arts, by reason of the very transcendence of their object.

The Artist is subject, in the sphere of his art, to a kind of asceticism, which may require heroic sacrifices. He must be thoroughly undeviating as regards the end of his art, perpetually on guard not only against the banal attraction of easy execution and success, but against a multitude of more subtle temptations, and against the slightest relaxation of his interior effort, for habitus diminish with the mere cessation of their acts,[160] even more, with every relaxed act, every act which is not proportionate to their intensity.[161] He must pass through spiritual nights, purify himself without ceasing, voluntarily abandon fertile regions for regions that are barren and full of insecurity. In a certain sphere and from a particular point of view, in the sphere of the making and from the point of view of the good of the work, he must possess humility and magnanimity, prudence, integrity, fortitude, temperance, simplicity, ingenuousness. All these virtues which the saints possess purely and simply, and in the line of the supreme good, the artist must have in a certain relation, and in a line apart, extra-human if not inhuman. So he easily takes on the tone of the moralist when he speaks or writes about art, and he knows well that he has a virtue to protect. "We shelter in ourselves an Angel whom we constantly shock. We must be the guardians of this angel. Shelter well your virtue. . . ."[162]

But if this analogy invests the artist with a unique nobility, and explains the admiration he enjoys among men, it runs the risk of leading him pitiably astray and of having him place his treasure and his heart in a phantom, ubi aerugo et tinea demolitur.

The Prudent Man as such, on the other hand, judging as he does all things under the angle of morality and in relation to the good of man, is absolutely ignorant of all that pertains to art. He can, no doubt, and he must, judge the work of art insofar as it concerns morality: [163] he has no right to judge it as a work of art.


The work of art is the occasion for a unique conflict of virtues. Prudence, which considers it in its relation to morality, deserves on better grounds than Art the name of virtue,[164] for, like every moral virtue, it causes the man who acts to be good -- purely and simply good.

But Art, insofar as it resembles more the speculative virtues, and insofar as it thus possesses more intellectual splendor, is in itself a nobler habitus: simply speaking, that virtue is nobler which has the nobler object. Prudence is superior to Art in relation to man. Understood purely and simply, Art -- at least the art that, aiming at Beauty, has a speculative character -- is superior metaphysically to Prudence.[165]

What makes the conflict bitter is the fact that Art is not subordinate to Prudence by virtue of their respective objects, as science, for instance, is subordinate to wisdom. As concerns its own objects, everything comes under the purview of Art, and of Art alone. But as concerns the human subject, nothing comes under Art's purview. Over anything made by the hand of man Art and Prudence each claim dominion. From the point of view of poetic, or, if you will, working values, Prudence is not competent. From the point of view of human values, and of the moral regulation of the free act, to which everything is subordinate on the side of the human subject, Prudence alone is competent, and there is no limitation upon its rights to govern. In order to form a correct judgment about the work both virtues are necessary.

When he reproves a work of art, the Prudent Man, standing squarely upon his moral virtue, has the certitude that he is defending against the Artist a sacred good, the good of man, and he looks upon the Artist as a child or a madman. Perched on his intellectual virtue, the Artist has the certitude that he is defending a no less sacred good, the good of Beauty, and he looks as though he were bearing down on the Prudent Man with the weight of Aristotle's maxim: "Life proportioned to the intellect is better than life proportioned to man."[166]


The Prudent Man and the Artist have difficulty therefore in understanding one another. But the Contemplative and the Artist, each perfected by an intellectual virtue which rivets him to the transcendental order, are naturally close. They also have the same brand of enemies. The Contemplative, who looks at the highest cause on which every being and activity depend, knows the place and the value of art, and understands the Artist. The Artist as such cannot judge the Contemplative, but he can divine his grandeur. If he truly loves beauty and if a moral vice does not hold his heart in a dazed condition, when his path crosses the Contemplative's he will recognize love and beauty.

And besides, in following the very line of his art, he tends without knowing it to pass beyond his art; just as a plant, though lacking knowledge, directs its stem towards the sun, the artist, however sordid his life, is oriented in the direction of subsisting Beauty, whose sweetness the saints enjoy in a light inaccessible to art and reason. "Neither painting nor sculpture," said Michelangelo in his old age, "will any longer charm the soul that is turned towards that divine love which opens out its arms on the Cross to receive us."


Consider Saint Catherine of Sienna, that apis argumentosa who was the counsellor of a Pope and of Princes of the Church, surrounded by artists and poets whom she leads into Paradise. Perfectly prudent, but set far above Prudence, judging all things by Wisdom, which is "architectonic in regard to all the intellectual virtues," and in whose service is Prudence as the porter in the service of the king,"[167] the Saints are free like the Spirit. Like God, the wise man is interested in the effort of every form of life.

Delicate and not exclusive,
He will be of our day;
His heart, contemplative by choice,
Will yet know the work of men . . .

Thus Wisdom, placed as it is at the point of view of God, which equally commands the spheres of Doing and of Making, can alone perfectly reconcile Art and Prudence.

Adam sinned because he failed in contemplation. Ever since, the heart of man has been divided.

To turn away from Wisdom and Contemplation, and to aim lower than God, is for a Christian civilization the first cause of all disorder.[168] It is in particular the cause of that ungodly divorce between Art and Prudence which one observes in times when Christians no longer have the strength to bear the integrity of their riches. That is doubtless why Prudence was sacrificed to Art at the time of the Italian Renaissance, in a civilization which no longer tended to anything but the humanist Virtù, and why Art was sacrificed to Prudence, in the XIX century, in "right-thinking" circles which no longer tended to anything but Respectability.

Appendix I An Essay on Art