Friday, May 27, 2016

Tolstoy on Baumgarten's Trinity

So I saw Love and Friendship today, which was good; more on it at some point. But one of the minor scenes that Stillman adds is one of Frederica talking to the local curate. During the conversation, the curate mentions "the divine Baumgarten", which caught my ear. It's a curious twist in the conversation, which is about the commandment to honor one's parents. The curate summarizes Baumgarten's position as a trinity, and, he explains (more or less), "Beauty is the Perfect recognized through the senses; Truth is the Perfect perceived through reason; Goodness is the Perfect reached by moral will."

Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten is in many ways the founder of modern aesthetics; it was he who first used the word 'aesthetica' to describe matters concerned with beauty (the word actually means 'matters concerned with the senses'). Baumgarten took aesthetics to be the art of thinking beautifully. The curate, however, is ahead of his time; he is actually closely paraphrasing Tolstoy writing some ninety years later in What is Art?. Tolstoy arguably doesn't get Baumgarten quite right; the idea that beauty is sensible apprehension of perfection is Wolffian, and Baumgarten, it can be argued, actually switches this up a bit, holding that beauty is the perfection of the apprehension itself (which may, of course, partly depend on perfection in the object). But Tolstoy also has an axe to grind; in great measure What is Art? is an attack on any high-flying metaphysics of beauty (he thinks that people talk a lot about beauty but give the terms they use no serious content). It is in this context that Tolstoy specifically talks about the "Trinity" of Baumgarten:

If a theory justifies the false position in which a certain part of a society is living, then, however unfounded or even obviously false the theory may be, it is accepted, and becomes an article of faith to that section of society....However unfounded such theories are, however contrary to all that is known and confessed by humanity, and however obviously immoral they may be, they are accepted with credulity, pass uncriticized, and are preached, perchance for centuries, until the conditions are destroyed which they served to justify, or until their absurdity has become too evident. To this class belongs this astonishing theory of the Baumgartenian Trinity, — Goodness, Beauty, and Truth, — according to which it appears that the very best that can be done by the art of nations after 1900 years of Christian teaching, is to choose as the ideal of their life the ideal that was held by a small, semi-savage, slave-holding people who lived 2000 years ago, who imitated the nude human body extremely well, and erected buildings pleasant to look at.

Tolstoy is not an admirer of the Classical and, unlike the curate, not an admirer of Baumgarten.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please understand that this weblog runs on a third-party comment system, not on Blogger's comment system. If you have come by way of a mobile device and can see this message, you may have landed on the Blogger comment page, or the third party commenting system has not yet completely loaded; your comments will only be shown on this page and not on the page most people will see, and it is much more likely that your comment will be missed.