Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Good Use of our Minds

“The artist must purify the source.”
— Novelist François Mauriac

Thomas Aquinas said there are five intellectual virtues: Wisdom, Science, Understanding, Art and Prudence. They are “intellectual” in that each involves the acquisition of a certain kind of knowledge, and “virtues” in that there is some good in each acquisition.

Wisdom is divine knowledge—the knowledge of God’s moral will. Science is empirical knowledge—knowledge gained by observation of created things. Understanding is intuitive knowledge—a perception of those things we know without reason or instruction. Art is practical knowledge—“know-how” (doing). Prudence is the habit of moral behavior (being).

Wisdom, the knowledge of moral good, prepares the mind for the other intellectual virtues and determines our performance in each one.

The principle is clear in the realm of prudence, for goodness begins with the knowledge of God’s moral will. We are given intellect and the ability to reason that we may know and pursue the good, the true and the beautiful.[1]

The principle is equally true in the realms of science and intuition. Moral wisdom results in greater objectivity, perception, insight and clarity. Good scientists do good science. As C. S. Lewis put it, “anyone who is honestly trying to [live a moral life] will soon find his intelligence sharpened.”

The principle is no less true in the realm of art. What makes for good artists and artisans? Again, the answer is divine wisdom for there is feedback from moral virtue to the arts: Morally good people tend to be more insightful. They are better painters, poets, novelists, and playwrights. 

On the other hand, morally impure artists tend to produce impure and impoverished art, which explains, in part, why literature, television, cinema and the other media are so banal and boring these days. There is little originality, imagination, inspiration or creativity to draw us in, so they must titillate our libidos with sex and nudity to keep our attention.[2] Nowhere is this more evident than in the current spate of silly and salacious sitcoms. Ernie Kovacs got it exactly right:  “Television: A medium. So called because it's neither rare nor well done.”  
I think here of J.R. R. Tolkien's philosophy of creation and subcreation. Creation, as such (making something out of nothing) is the exclusive province of God: He thinks and speaks everything into being. Those who aspire to create can only echo his thoughts (or distort them). An artist’s yearnings after goodness, truth and beauty are reflected in art that speaks from God's heart to ours: “Deep calls to deep” (Psalm 42:7).

“What is to reach the heart must come from above,” Ludwig van Beethoven said. Put another way, “Worship and adoration of the Lord is the source of profound wisdom; insight into life comes from knowing the Holy One” (Proverbs 9:10).


[1] When pre–enlightenment theologians used the word “reason” they were not defining the term as we do as rationalism. Rationalism is the idea that independent human reason is the means by which we discover truth. “Reason,” for ancient writers, is the capacity to understand divine reason as it is disclosed in nature and revelation, an ability given solely to human beings. 
[2] I picked up a book this week that was first written forty years ago. It did not sell well when it was originally published for it was not well written. The author revised and “modernized it” solely by adding a number of explicit sex scenes.

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