The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tradition
by James Matthew Wilson.
The Catholic University of America Press, 2017.
Paperback, 352 pages, $30.
Despite hitting a few bumps, poet James Matthew Wilson’s The Vision of the Soul delivers a stirring and timely account and defense of the West’s traditional way of understanding the universe and our place in it.
For Wilson, the Western tradition is the Christian Platonist one, in which the two basic facts about existence are that the universe is ordered and that its order is intelligible to the human mind. These two facts are augmented by Christian belief in a personal God who loves us unconditionally and desires that we love him. This tradition, argues Wilson, has been overshadowed by the Enlightenment and the philosophies descended from it. The problem with the Enlightenment is that while it begins as an attempt to understand the universe, it has devolved into a crude materialism that denies objective reality. However, writers such as Edmund Burke and T. S. Eliot preserved this culture, despite the dominance of liberalism.
In fact, Wilson maintains that liberalism can never be an actual culture because “it has no positive content, its goods being mere negations,” and so tends towards repetition and indifference. He says that liberal culture is moribund because its only goods are choice and equality, rendering quality and content irrelevant. The only thing that can be done is to transgress the established norms, but eventually there’s nothing left to transgress, only subjective tastes.
The discussion of the French philosopher Jacques Maritain and Thomist aesthetics is the core of the book. “Only in the Christian Platonist tradition … do we see beauty take on its full existential dimension, as a reality given to the senses, as drawing the mind to the perception of being and truth, and finally to a vision of beauty as the ordering principle of reality as a whole,” Wilson writes. “Fine art takes on a new importance … because it attunes us, awakens and habituates us, to the perception of the ordered whole of reality.” The Christian Platonist tradition Wilson writes of is not a specific intellectual position, but a more general perspective on the unique insights of the West. He describes its basic propositions as “bounding the map of reality” and so forming a “synthetic but readily unified tradition” that encompasses Plato of course, but also Aristotle and Aquinas.
The association of beauty, truth, goodness, and the ordering of reality is a key theme of the book and of the Western tradition itself. Wilson reiterates throughout that the world is ordered by and to beauty. The work of Maritain that Wilson discusses includes an exploration of the concept of ordered reality. Maritain argued that art was a virtue, one subordinated to higher virtues while subordinating lower virtues under it. “Maritain thus aligns art properly understood with a society ordered to dignified work … Man does not reduce himself to a beast of animal impulses to engage in ‘creative’ work, shedding his reason like so many mind-forged manacles.” And “Maritain’s theory of art insists upon the humility of even the fine arts as work; the artist, in bringing a new beauty into the world, does so by way of selfless imitation of the hitherto unseen.”
Because beauty is an existential dimension of human experience—that is, beauty reflects and helps explain reality—aesthetics can help us understand it. Maritain helped recover Thomistic aesthetics and Wilson draws on his work to explore three properties of beauty from the Summa Theologica: proportio, integritas, and claritas. This is the most important section of the book, because these ideas are fundamental to the Western understanding of beauty.
Proportio and integritas are very well explained. “Maritain rightly understands integrity as wholeness, the completion of a thing according to its nature” and “Aquinas most obviously intends by [proportio] … the relation of distinct beings and their formal elements relative to one another.” For instance, in a Shakespearean sonnet, the integritas in a specimen is that it has fourteen lines, twelve of which are cross-rhymed with the last two a rhyming couplet. The proportio is that the rhymes are good, the meter is followed and consistent, as well as other relational properties.
Claritas is more abstract and difficult. “When we perceive the clarity or splendor of a thing, we remark above all that its existence is intended, that the fact of its existence testifies not to the reality of a universal essence on which it is based, but on the mediated revelation of a divine mind whose knowledge is causative of being.” Maritain’s definition is not entirely correct, according to Wilson, so he brings in Umberto Eco, who defined claritas as the intelligibility of a form. “Whereas Maritain absorbed proportion into clarity as its mere handmaid, Eco insists that clarity is a secondary or phenomenal attribute of proportion,” but the possible proportions of any one thing are a virtually infinite “dense network of relations.” But this isn’t the final definition of claritas; instead Wilson offers a synthesis of Maritain and Eco, where claritas remains ethereal but is understood through proportion. “The path from a being’s individuality and interior wholeness (integrity) to its fullest realization as an intelligible radiance reflecting and participating in the light of the divine intellect (clarity) is one that proceeds on a proportioned path from proportion to proportion.”
Ultimately, according to Wilson, the key to understanding claritas is appreciating the universal, intelligible order of the world. Beauty is a transcendental property of the universe, like truth and goodness, and claritas is our perception of that order through proportion. “Beauty may well strike the vision of the eye and of the soul with its initial, isolated singularity in this or that particular form, but that initial seeing is but the opening of the soul to a comprehensive vision of all things, the whole of reality in its formal intelligibility.” In treating this topic, however, Wilson’s narrative sometimes collapses under the weight of its own abstraction. He uses synonyms like “shining,” “radiance,” and “splendor” to describe claritas, but switching them out does not help to shed any light on the subject. An example would have been a valuable way to illustrate the concepts. Such examples would be especially helpful in a culture buried in images and cultural products that do not recognize the importance of any of these elements.
From this climax, Wilson concludes the book with a few chapters meditating on the uses and nature of stories, building on beauty to truth because “Proportion is to beauty what reasoning is to truth. Beauty and truth are both perceptible in terms of different types of ratio. When perfected, such measures converge in intellectual vision, the vision of the soul, perceptive of form and splendor, of truth and being illuminated as beautiful” and stories and story-telling help people discover who they are and what they believe about themselves, as well being a method of reasoning in and of themselves.
According to Wilson, stories and abstract reasoning have been split from one another, but should be seen as complementary. “When we reason, we reason about stories—when we reason, we reason in stories; when we examine the life of the intellect, we find it is a biography, a life-story.” People need stories to relate to each other, to examine the good life, and to remember the important things. Liberalism, at least in its more “rationalistic” forms, rejects the importance of story and narrative. The attempt to extirpate the need for story from human life has not only resulted in the isolation of modern life, but in the organization of society around power. As Tolkien understood, the drive to dominate existence ultimately diminishes the would-be dominator. We reduce everything to the single criterion of utility because the power we’ve amassed has no end other than itself.
The true achievement of Wilson’s book is not a didactic exploration of aesthetics, but in awakening a perception of humility by providing a vantage point where we can see the order of the universe and our place in it. Moreover, because he strips us of the illusion that we ourselves order the universe, Wilson allows us to see with fresh eyes the existence of things outside ourselves, with their own stories and as valuable in and of themselves, not just as something to consume. This perception inspires gratitude in addition to humility, unlocking the iron cage and allowing us to see the world as enchanted—and it is wonderful.
It is ironic that a movement calling itself the “Enlightenment” rejected the claritas, the splendor, of a universe ordered by and to beauty in favor of a dark one where any order we perceive is imposed by the human mind deluding itself into seeing patterns in randomness. But perhaps they are right. In that case, Wilson and the Western tradition would still offer a far better way of making art, of organizing society, and of being human. As Alma Deutscher says, “If the world is so ugly,then what’s the point of making it even uglier?”
The book is not always easy going. The prose is often dense, and sometimes concepts are introduced that are not fully integrated into the overall argument. For instance, Wilson discusses the work of Theodor Adorno of the Frankfurt School of philosophy, but does not fully engage Adorno with such thinkers as Aquinas. Overall, however, the defense of the West that Wilson presents in The Vision of the Soul rewards spiritually, as well as intellectually.
Matthew M. Robare a is a freelance writer and editor based in Boston, where he writes on urban issues and leads Boston’s G. K. Chesterton Society.