It is a sad fact that for many Enlightenment figures and their heirs aesthetics was all that was left after the virtual defeat of Christendom in the 18th century. That defeat came by way of a specious definition of “liberty” which directly opposed the Christian conception (Jn.8:32) and was imposed on bewildered populations.
This new “liberty” was aligned to both moral relativism (as the Marquis de Sade understood well) and syncretism (the return of paganism, the gods of old, and the worship of nature).
In place of a proper understanding of Creation, “nature” was viewed by many now as the timeless Ultimate, the only mystery that remains. And it was to be celebrated and glorified in aesthetics and explored by science. Gone were the days when nature and aesthetics pointed to the One beyond itself. Rather these were to be celebrated in themselves.
But aligned to relativism it is little wonder that even aesthetics would necessarily collapse in time into chaos as we have lived to see. Because a false understanding of liberty gives us no measure for discrimination.
Why should the Enlightenment have eclipsed the centrality of God in human life and thought? Because a potbellied Doubting Thomas like David Hume said he wouldn’t believe in God unless he could see and measure him? Jesus Christ, the Logos, said some would never believe even if they saw the dead raised. It is, alas, for them a matter of bad will. C.S. Lewis said of those who, while begging the question of being, say God can’t be found in the Universe, that they are similar to those who say they cannot find Shakespeare in Hamlet.
And no love of aesthetics (whether corrupted or not) can ever substitute for the Creator Who, tellingly, never recedes from human thought. Philosophers and “Scientists” obsess on Him to this very minute, as the resurgence of militant atheism in recent times affirmed.
Aesthetics point to the Eternal. It is a pointing beyond itself. St. Thomas Aquinas said the appetite is ordered to the desirable object and the mind of man is ordered to ultimate Truth (Jn. 14:6)
“As the good denotes that towards which the appetite tends, so the truth denotes that towards which the intellect tends.
“Thus the term (ie., the end or goal) of the appetite, namely the good, is in the object desirable, and the term of the intellect, namely truth, is in the intellect itself.
“… the appetite is called good if its object is good…” —-Summa Theologiae, (Prima Pars, Q. 16)
But relativism cannot discriminate between good and bad, true and false (as Derrida and the Postmodernists eloquently show), except as these concepts are determined and permitted legally by courts and political powers which are dedicated to Enlightenment prejudices. And to that end these political entities firmly compartmentalize religion and spiritual matters into eccentric ghettos, yielding less and less ground to the Public Square. This is, alas, what the Enlightenment bequeathed to the West, the transvaluation of aesthetics into chaos and corruption.
But many are fighting back. –SH
(Picture: Rousseau’s Last Moment)
“The heroic phase of the 18th-century Enlightenment purported to have freed humankind of antique superstition and the demons of the irrational, but the horrors of the 20th century gave the lie to that triumphalism. Far from humane liberation, 20th-century Europeans had plunged into decades of savage barbarism.” — Stuart Walton