Aesthetics, Relativism and the Enlightenment

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

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 specious definitions of “liberty” which directly opposed the Christian conception (Jn.8:32) and was imposed on bewildered populations nonetheless.

This new “liberty” was aligned to both moral relativism (as the Marquis de Sade understood quite 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 beyond themselves to the One. Rather these were to be celebrated in themselves.

But aligned to relativism it is little wonder that even aesthetics would have to necessarily collapse in time, collapse 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 mischievous David Hume said he wouldn’t believe in God unless he could see and measure him? Jesus Christ, the Logos, said some persons would not 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.

But no love of aesthetics (whether corrupted or not) can ever substitute for the Creator Who, tellingly, never recedes from human thought and is the Ground of every good aesthetic. Philosophers and “scientists” obsess on Him to this very hour, as the resurgence of militant atheism in recent times showed.

Aesthetics once pointed to the Eternal. It was considered a pointing beyond itself. St. Thomas Aquinas said that the appetite is ordered to the desirable object, and the mind of man is ordered to ultimate Truth (Jn. 14:6). Frustrate these ends and chaos threatens, as we have lived to see.

“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.

And “… the appetite is called good if its object is good…” —-Summa Theologiae, (Prima Pars, Q. 16)

He to whom the Eternal Word speaks is free from a multitude of opinions. For from this Word* are all things, and of Him all things speak—the Beginning Who also speaks to us. Without this Word no man understands or judges aright. He to whom it becomes everything, who traces all things to it and who sees all things in it, may ease his heart and remain at peace with God.” — Imitation of Christ, Excerpt, Bk. 1 ch. 1, Thomas a Kempis. Emphasis supplied. / * John 1:1,16

But, again, relativism cannot discriminate between the good and the bad, between true and false (as Derrida and the Postmodernists eloquently showed despite themselves), except as these concepts are determined or permitted by force of media moguls or the courts and political powers which are dedicated to Enlightenment prejudices.

And to that end these same political entities firmly compartmentalize religion and spiritual matters into increasingly restricted ghettos, yielding to it less and less access to the Public Square. This is because arbitrary Aesthetics today is substituted for religion. And it is presented by it’s content-creators as a jealous god. This prejudice is, alas, what  Enlightenment principles bequeathed to the West, the transvaluation of all Values, aesthetics into chaos and corruption, both in our institutions and in our personal lives.

But many are fighting back. –SH