Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Pillar of Beauty: The Exalting Principle of Æsthetics

     Many years ago men looked at the world and asked themselves the question "What separates me from the beasts?"  The answer obviously had something to do with intellect.  The first claim of division seemed to be that man was able to employ his intellect via tools to make his life easier.  But naturalists were quick to point out that many animals use tools:  The otter will use rocks to open shells, the chimpanzee will use twigs or grass stems to "fish" for termites, crows will make hooks from pieces of wire to retrieve food, etc.  Perhaps then, the difference between man and beast was in language.  certainly animals communicate through a few rude noises, but that is not really a language, is it?  The naturalists spoke up again quickly enough:  The more we look at animal language, from bees to whales, the more amazingly complex we discover it to be.  Granted, animal "language" is a far cry in complexity from ours, but it is obvious that intellectual communication of one sort or another does occur.  But now it seems that a determining difference between man and beast can be identified:  Art. 
     "Humans are the only animals that draw.  While showmen and hucksters have gotten elephants and chimpanzees to drag paintbrushes across paper and canvas, so far as we know the animals are simply manipulating materials and not making representations of things.  As rare as the ability is in other species, drawing is almost universal among humans; it is as human a quality as speech and bipedal locomotion.  Practically every human being draws at some time in childhood.  As adults, we draw maps to direct people to our houses, diagram schemes for seating guests at a dinner party, sketch plans for the bookshelves we intend to build, make graphs of corporate performance.  The qualities that separate the human mind from the minds of other creatures are those that enable us to make images and symbols."  (Peter Steinhart "The Undressed Art: Why We Draw").
     Humans are graced with the capacity to take in separate pieces of information, process them in the brain, and then use them to produce or create something entirely new and unique.  This ability to create is what makes us human, and it first exhibits itself as the ability to draw.  Nearly every child responds to and interprets its environment through drawing. 
     Now, creating may make us human, but it also connects us to the Divine.  The Grand Architect of the Universe is also the Creator.  Our human desire to create things is evidence that we are His offspring.  Now if the ability to create ties us to deity, then what we create may also help create a sacred link.  Art has the power to move, uplift, and inspire us.  It can communicate to us in ways far more subtle, yet with far more impact than words alone.  Beauty strikes a chord deep in the recesses of our hearts and lifts our eyes upwards.
     The science of æsthetics is, on the surface, the science of beauty.  But it should not be forgotten that the Greek roots of the word indicate that the core of æsthetics is that of perception.  (Remember that conversely an "anesthetic" is something that dulls the senses.)  Through æsthetics then we learn that enlightenment is achieved through the perception of Beauty, or in other words, through apprehension of Divinity. 
     That beauty is the crowning achievement of man is evidenced in the symbol of the Corinthian pillar.  This pillar is "the noblest, richest, and most delicate of all the orders of architecture," (Robert Macoy) and as such it represents Beauty.  (The Ionic order represents Wisdom, the Doric represents Strength). 
     Masonic truths such as this are often taught to us æsthetically via the language of visual symbols.  Hearing truth is not enough if we wish the knowledge to penetrate deep into our minds and hearts; seeing truth impresses it deeper into our consciousness.  If, perchance, we are taught that a circle inside of a square holds symbolic meaning, and we are taught those meanings, then every time we see a circle inside of a square (whether in a symbolic context or not), our thoughts are drawn back to the moment of our education and the truths learned there are recalled to memory.  In this fashion a few simple lines become a tool to help constantly elevate our minds and spirits.
      And how much more are we drawn to symbols of they are more than crude scratchings; the human breast yearns for beauty in all things.  Beauty fulfills a deep longing, as it reminds us that we are co-creators with the Creator.  It reminds us that we should not drag ourselves through the muck and mire of the coarse material world, but set our sights on a higher more perfect goal.   Beautiful objects reflect the care we must take in the spiritual and philosophical.  Beautiful surroundings  remind us that our bodies and lives must also be pure and beautiful.  "The outward tokens and clothing of our Order are composed of the most beautiful colours.  We refuse neither silk nor metal in our jewels, we rejoice in the purity of the clothing of our Order; but more especially we endeavour to make the spirit of true beauty shine in our assemblies, and not to allow it to denigrate into a lifeless appearance." (Robert Macoy)

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