Plato famously observed that “the proper emotion of the philosopher is wonder. For there is no other beginning of philosophy than this.” [1] Indeed the implication of the title “philosopher” itself bears witness to such a sentiment, since we love what we do not assume already to possess and thus “the lover (philo) of wisdom (Sophia)” must assume wonder as his perennial disposition. The soft light of dawn shines into the cavern of indifference and this essential temperament of wonder gradually enlightens the devotees of Sophia to the majesty of the cosmos. Let us therefore pose the loftiest questions and trust that wonder will lend us wings to reach the philosophic heights necessary to behold the answer. “What is the truth of Beauty; what is the beauty of Truth?” We might inquire in this spirit, and furthermore, “whence and wherefore does the creative impulse arise in the first place?”

Such questions stem from the very heart of the true philosopher, who enthused with the mood of wonder, may employ intellectual analysis as a tool which she may subsequently wield towards the “expurgation of the [conceptual] superfluities” that cradle the grandest questions of the universe. Diligently, with such an instrument, the inspired philosopher may chisel away this marble of myriad mundane incidentals till she sets the answer free. [2]

The more one indeed weighs creativity with scales of wonder, the more it reveals itself as a sublime mystery. To reiterate the prompt above: Why does the human being do art, and what is the relationship between Truth and Beauty? In the civilisation and culture characteristic of the modern world, Science and Art appear as institutionalised emissaries of Truth and Beauty, respectively. In an investigation into their particular natures, therefore, the most useful heuristic is one that might mutually encompass both seemingly divergent disciplines. One is fortunate in this regard to discover the words of the Renaissance physician Theophrastus Bombastus Phillipus Aureolus von Hohenheim preserved over five centuries:

Alchemy is the science and art of separating what is useful from what is not by transforming it into its ultimate matter and essence. [3]

Ordinarily remembered by his self-chosen epithet Paracelsus, this individual appears as one of the definitive figures in the codification of European alchemy. As Paracelsus indicated, the latter tradition is not so partisan as many of its offspring. The elaborated alchemical manuscripts and extensive allegorical formulations characteristic of this tradition dictate that alchemy should appear as an Art to the scientist of today. Conversely, the meticulous laboratory procedures make it appear as a Science from the vantage of Art. Too-soft for scientists and too-hard for artists, alchemy offers its language as the ideal mediary in a dialogue between Truth and Beauty. The famous physician and alchemist Paracelsus further enunciated the precepts of the alchemical art over the course of the 16th century, and his writings still stand out for their choleric authenticity:

The office of Vulcan is the separation of the good from the bad…which is Alchemy…the eternal and the temporal are divided one from another… [4]

For nature brings forth nothing into the light of day which is complete as it stands; rather, man must complete it…This completion is alchemy. Thus the alchemist is the baker when he bakes the bread, the vintager when he makes the wine, the weaver when he makes the cloth. [5]

Paracelsus furthermore delineated three essential stages in this process of completing nature’s unfinished business: (a) separation, (b) purification, and (c) recombination. Some five centuries later, the great psychologist Carl Jung would express the implicit inner dimension of the writings of Paracelsus and his alchemystical contemporaries, thus definitely establishing a bridge between the physical and the psychic aspects of the art, and science:

The alchemical operation consisted essentially in separating the prima materia, the so-called chaos, into the active principle, the soul, and the passive principle, the body, which were then reunited in personified form in the coniunctio or ‘chymical marriage’… the ritual cohabitation of Sol and Luna. [6]

The symbolic resonance of outer and inner that Jung indicates above lies at the very crux of the alchemical philosophy; a core it must share with any earnest investigation of Truth and Beauty. Again, to quote Paracelsus, “Man is a microcosm, or a little world, because he is an extract from all the stars and planets of the whole firmament, from the earth and the elements; and so he is their quintessence.” [7]

Interestingly, in identifying the human being as a concentration of the cosmos, the Renaissance physician is echoing a primaeval understanding, perhaps first recorded in text some twenty centuries earlier by the rishis of Ancient India:

As large as the universe outside, even so large is the universe within the lotus of the heart. Within it are heaven and earth, the sun, the moon, the lightning, and all the stars. What is in the macrocosm is in this microcosm. [8]

The poets William Butler Yeats and Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, among others, bear the torch of this knowledge in more recent times in Europe. The former once declared that “the laws of art are the hidden laws of the world” and the latter that “art is a manifestation of Nature’s secret forces that without which may have remained ever hidden to us.” [9] Friedrich von Schiller, a friend and contemporary of Goethe, spoke to the ideal aspect of the inquiry that was introduced in the first paragraph of this investigation when he wrote in his poem Die Künstler (“The Artist”):

Nur durch das Morgentor des Schönen
Dringst du in der Erkenntnis Land. [11]

“Only through Beauty’s morning-gate
Do you press on to the land of Knowledge”

A fellow Romantic poet writing across the English Channel at roughly the same expressed a similar understanding between epistemology and aesthesis: John Keats’ most famous poem ends with the immortal dictum:

‘Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty,’—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. [12]

Adding nuance to Keats’ characterisation of the relation of these two transcendent facets of Being, the Indian Nobel Laureate Rabindrinath Tagore writes that “Beauty is Truth’s smile when she beholds her own face in the perfect mirror.” [13]

Having now established a veritable “chaos” of diverse testimonies on the nature of the relation of the human being, the universe, Truth, and Beauty, it is fitting that we should attempt to analyse the matter with more discrimination. We may then happily proceed according to the general alchemical method outlined above: (a) to first separate this “prima materia” into its discreet components in order (b) to effect an individual elucidation, before (c) ultimately recombining them in a higher synthesis, or “chymical marriage.”

One can hardly speak of Truth and knowledge without indicating the dualistic experience characterises the ordinary human condition today. This pervasive epistemic division between subject and object, or self and world, appears as an initial partition between Truth, and knowledge of it. Such a barrier would furthermore seem to relate to Beauty and Truth insofar as one might expect the former should emerge to one side (i.e. as a subjective phenomenon) whilst the latter should appear on the other (i.e. objective). After all, individuals appear to vary in their aesthetic preferences: the English idiom that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” for example, captures the apparent subjectivity of Beauty. “De gustibus non est disputandum,” as the Scholastic philosophers would have expressed it. The fact that some people are pleased by the taste of mashed potatoes would seem to prove this statement.

Truth, conversely, would seem to require an objective referent. Thus one of the most famous philosophers of the Western tradition, St. Thomas Aquinas famously wrote, “Veritas est adaequatio rei et intellectus, or “Truth is the equation [or adequation] of things and intellect.” The prince of Scholastics also offered the definition that “a judgment is said to be true when it conforms to the external reality.”  [14] Indeed Immanuel Kant, arguably the most influential philosopher of the modern Western tradition, adopts such a conception with little reservation in his most famous work. Thus, in the introduction to The Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant writes that “The nominal definition of truth, namely that it is the agreement of cognition with its object, is here granted and presupposed.” [15] It is telling that one of the most famous philosophers of the modern era does not even bother to defend such a conception, but rather merely adopts it as a foregone conclusion. Knowledge, according to such a model, consists in establishing this conceptual correspondence between cognition and reality.

Aside from the “correspondence theory” of truth introduced above, another conventional epistemological framework common amongst rationalistic philosophers is the “coherence theory.” For the proponent (e.g. Baruch Spinoza, Gottfried Leibniz, Georg W. F. Hegel) of such a conception, logical consistency of a given ontology determines its veracity, entirely regardless of its connection to facts. Mathematics or formal logic present ideal examples of such a theory.

Upon consideration, however, neither one of the prevailing theories of truth satisfy the real thirst of one’s inquiry. A pith characterisation of their respective shortcomings might be to say that the correspondence theory suffers from an extraverted, empirical cathexis, whilst the coherence theory from an introverted, rationalistic one. Counter-examples likely limn these faults with greater clarity: the correspondence theory utterly fails to supply for knowledge in the domains of aesthetic, romantic, or moral truths. At the same time, the coherence theory has altogether no necessary connection to human experience (i.e. Leibniz’ monadology is entirely logical and internally consistent but the ordinary reader would find it fantastical)[16]. Philosopher-polymath and esotericist Rudolf Steiner characterises and then critiques such a view in a lecture given in 1923 when he says:

[I]f reality is to be seized, phantasy has to be suppressed, imagination eliminated; one must confine oneself to the logical. This may be demanded. But consider: If reality, if nature herself were an artist, then it would be of no avail to demand that everything be grasped solely through logic; something vital in it would elude logical understanding. And nature is indeed an artist…in order to grasp nature…one must cease to live exclusively in ideas and begin to “think” in pictures…Understanding is achieved only by living cognition that has been given wings by artistic feeling. [17]

Indeed, both the correspondence and the coherence theories of Truth seem to suffer from such a mistake as Steiner indicates. Furthermore, each fails to overcome the epistemic isolation of subject from object as presented above. Lacking an unmediated relation, any ostensible truth-claim or assertion of knowledge in reference to a given object can be, in the final measure, no more than “justified belief” on the part of the subject. Knowledge, in such a model, approaches Truth at best in tangent—as an epistemic horizon beyond which its object tantalisingly recedes. Unless one wishes to content oneself with the post-Kantian pseudo-solipsism of most Idealist positions, or ignore the problem altogether and adopt the unexamined Realism of the naïve onlooker, such a dualistic shortcoming in the models above encourages one to seek a new understanding of Truth and knowledge.

Conveniently for the purposes of this investigation (as so many thinkers cited above have indicated) the aesthetic experience itself appears as a preëminent method to transcend the notorious subject-object duality. The significance of such an epistemic rapprochement is that a subject “presses on to the land of knowledge” not by any arbitrary one-sided method, but through unmediated identification with the erstwhile object. Knowledge, therefore, arises intuitively, entirely irrespective of eventual methodological imperfection. Consider, as an analogy, that one could speculate about the nature of Venice to no end and therefore achieve an interminable catalogue of provisional conclusions, but that such an approach would represent an exhaustive circumambulation of the question’s periphery without penetrating to its center. To apprehend the heart, one must travel thither; one must become a Venetian.

How is it that the aesthetic experience manages to bridge this infamous divide? Steiner again suggests the mechanism for such transcendence in the same series of lectures from the quote above when he says:

In German the word beautiful (das Schöne) is related to shining (das Scheinende). We speak of the opposite of the beautiful (das Schöne) as the ugly or hateful (das Hässliche). Were we to denote the beautiful in the same way we would call it—since the opposite of hate is love—the lovely or loving… The beautiful shines; brings its inner nature to the surface. It is the distinguishing quality of the beautiful not to hide itself, but to carry its essence into outer configuration. Thus beauty reveals inwardness through outer form; a shining radiates outward into the world. If we were to speak, in this sense, of beauty’s opposite, we would call it “the concealed” or “non-radiant,” that which holds back its being, refusing to disclose it in any outer sheath. To put it another way, “the beautiful” designates something objective. If we were to treat its opposite just as objectively, we would have to speak of concealment, of something whose outer aspect belies what it really is. But here subjectivity enters, for we cannot love what conceals itself, showing a false countenance; we must hate it. In this way the ugly calls up quite a different emotional reaction than the beautiful; we do not respond to it out of the same recesses of our nature.

…what shines? What we apprehend with our senses does not need to shine for us; it exists as given. It is the spiritual that shines, radiating into the sensory, proclaiming its being even in the sensory. By speaking objectively of the beautiful, we take hold of it as a spiritual element which reveals itself in the world through art. The task of art is to take hold of the shining, the radiance, the manifestation, of that which as spirit weaves and lives throughout the world. All genuine art seeks the spirit. Even when art wishes to represent the ugly, the disagreeable, it is concerned, not with the sensory-disagreeable as such, but with the spiritual which proclaims its nature in the midst of unpleasantness. If the spiritual shines through the ugly, even the ugly becomes beautiful. In art it is upon a relation to the spiritual that beauty depends. [18]

For Steiner, Beauty is not a subjective idiosyncrasy, but an objective “shining forth” of spiritual Truth. That it happens to transpire within the human soul is merely an accident of metaphysical topography; where Truth happens to emerge has no bearing on what it is, which is to say, its essence. In this way, the art of philosophy reveals its intimate conjunction with the philosophy of art, for “love of wisdom” impels the philosopher to find Truth lovely even when its outward face presents as unsightly, semblance being a mere medium to convey the spiritual essence. In other words, just as an aesthetically sub-optimal typeface ( i.e. superficial beauty) on a manuscript of the The Gospel of John would not compromise the meaning (and spiritual beauty) of this sacred text, so the outward appearance of creation does not define its inner being. The picture that Steiner suggests offers new insight into the quotes above by Keats, Schelling, and Tagore: Truth represents the what and Beauty the how, as it were. This is to say that Beauty is the way Truth appears when it enters the theatre of human cognition. What prevents the appearance of Truth is the opposite of beautiful. The masks of Coronatide lend themselves as manifest symbols of this metaphysical relation, since they conceal the truth of expression on the human countenance and as a result, can only be perceived as Hässlich or “hateful.”

Having thus analysed these supereminent faces of Being and then resynthesised them into a sublime chiasmus of Beauty as Truth and Truth as Beauty, one might then turn one’s inquiry to the question of the creative impulse itself. In fact, just as aesthesis and epistemology revealed a secret coincidence upon close consideration, so likewise a thorough comprehension of creativity is already implicit in the investigation hitherto presented. To understand the creative impulse will require less an accumulation of further data and more an appreciation of the points already considered.

The investigation thus far has suggested that the human being exists in intimate communion with the universe itself; as a concentrate of the macrocosm. This connection, however, remains concealed to ordinary awareness because of a compulsive epistemic tendency to quarantine oneself as subject from the world of objects. As the clairvoyant poet William Blake described this condition in his poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

If the doors of perception were cleansed
Everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees
All things thro’ narrow chinks in his cavern. [19]

These cookie-cutter circumscriptors to perception are made manifest in the subject-object divide, or “attempting to grasp the world through logic,” as the quote above from Steiner suggested. Indeed, however, as both Steiner and Blake indicate, the true nature of the world utterly supersedes such efforts at rationalistic reduction. If nature is indeed an artist, as Steiner posits, then the painter or the poet, when she practices her art, is merely re-entering the stream of world-becoming whence ordinary prosaic existence provisionally estranged her. Thus, creativity represents a continuation of the supreme project of Creation; creativity establishes an allegiance with nature and contributes to bring her impulses to fruition. The philosopher Spinoza articulated an illustrative metaphysical distinction when he popularised the medieval dichotomy of natura naturans, or “nature naturing” and natura naturata, or “nature natured.” [20] Spinoza describes the world as subject or process and the latter as object or product. Spinoza’s distinction illustrates, however, a common shortcoming of the modern worldview, for to conceive of nature as mere object or product is epistemologically disingenuous (ethical and ecological implications notwithstanding). In this sense, “facts” represent a philosophical cul-de-sac of sorts; an epistemic dead-end. Facts appear as discrete snapshots of a being whose truth is dynamic and whose essence is eternal becoming. Knowledge, therefore, demands an identification with this perennial genesis; a participation in fundamental creativity. The legendary English philologist and myth-maker J. R. R.. Tolkien expressed this relationship of the human to world-becoming in theological language consistent with his Roman Catholic faith in this paragraph, excerpted from “On Fairy-stories”:

We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. [21]

For Tolkien, therefore, the individual human artist as “sub-creator” represented a high attainment of the human being, originally made in the “image and likeness of the God.” The creative impulse emerges spontaneously within the human soul when the latter ceases to arbitrarily erect existential partitions in an effort to sustain an illusory sense of individuality; the latter dualistic condition characterising the aftermath of the proverbial Fall. Art, therefore, represents a pure expression of “nature naturing”—the dynamism of the great macrocosm reflected microcosmically in the human psyche. In reference to the initial phrasing of this question, more appropriate than inquiring into the source of the creative impulse would be to investigate its lack. Thus, Beauty is Truth, Truth is creativity, and Creation is beautiful. In this way, philosophy begins, and ends, in wonder.

 

[1] Theaetetus 155d

[2] Michelangelo. “Letter to Rene Lui Descartes XIV.” (6 March 1540). From Michelangelo: Poems and Letters, trans; Anthony Mortimer (repr; New York, NY: Penguin Classics, 2007), 77.

[3] Walter Pagel. Paracelsus: an Introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of the Renaissance (Basel, Switzerland: Karger Press, 1958), 16.

[4] From The Book Concerning The Tincture Of The Philosophers. Available at: http://www.sacred-texts.com/alc/paracel2.htm

[5] Quoted by Rudolf Steiner in Mysticism at the Dawn of the Modern Age, trans. Karl Zimmer (1901;  946; repr; Steinerbooks, 1960), 100.

[6] Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Vol. 14. 2nd ed.“Mysterium Coniunctionis,” Princeton, MA: Princeton University Press, 1970), 702.

[7] Ibid., 116.

[8] Chandogya Upanishad 8:1:3. Available at: sivanandaonline.org/public_html/?cmd=displaysection&section_id=588

[9]   Virginia Moore. From the Introduction to Rudolf Steiner’s The Arts and Their Mission, trans. Lisa Monges (1923; repr; New York, NY: The Anthroposophic Press, 1960), 6 and Rudolf Steiner. The Spiritual-Scientific Basis of Goethe’s Work. (1906; Spring Valley, NY: St. George Publications, 1982), 3.

[11] Gesammelte Gedichte. http://www.textlog.de/schiller-gedichte-die-kuenstler.html.

[12] “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” 1820. Available at: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/44477

[13] The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore, ed. Mohit Kumar Ray. (New York, NY: Atlantic Publishers & Dist, 2007), 452.

[14]  “De Veritate” Q.1, A.1&3; cf. Summa Theologiae Q.16

[15] (1781/1787), trans. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1998), A58/B82.

[16] The fantastic speculations of modern theoretical physics will appear no less-astonishing to future generations.

[17] The Arts and Their Mission; Lecture VII.

[18] The Arts and Their Mission; Lecture VI.

[19] The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 1790. Available at: http://www.bartleby.com/235/253.html.

[20] Ethics, Part I, Prop. 29, Scholium. Trans: Edwin Curley. London: Penguin, 1996.

[21]  J. R. R. Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays, (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1983).

Afterthoughts:

Steiner writes in “The Science of Knowing.” (1979, repr; Mercury Press, 1988):

The overcoming of the sense-perceptible by the spirit is the goal of art and science. Science overcomes the sense perceptible by dissolving it entirely into spirit; art does so by implanting spirit into the sense-perceptible. A statement of Goethe, which expresses these truths in a comprehensive way, may serve to bring our considerations to a close: “I think one could call science the knowledge of the general, abstracted knowledge; art, on the other hand, would be science turned into deed; science would be reason, and art its mechanism; therefore one could also call it practical science. And so, finally, science would be the theorem, art the problem.”

Tolkien describes “art” as “the operative link between Imagination and the final result, Sub‐creation”

The poet Novalis writes that “The individual soul should seek for an intimate union with the soul of the universe.” The London Review, Vol. XVII, (London: Hamilton, Adams, & Co., 1861), 342

 

Written by

Max Leyf is a certified Rolfer, a writer, an adjunct professor of philosophy, and a doctoral candidate in the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program at the California Institute of Integral Studies. He sees philosophy and Rolfing as reciprocally completing one another, as word to deed. He currently lives in Anchorage, Alaska, where he was born and which, despite having lived for extended periods of time in Sweden, Colorado, Brazil, and California, he has never ceased to call home. His favourite book is Hamlet and he is the author of Honeybees of the Invisible, But Now Face to Face, and Five Themes: Mind Live, Self, Truth, and Knowledge.

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