Art and Morality (first draft)

Charles De Koninck

(Original source and the entry referring to this page.)

In the beginning of his commentary on the Posterior Analytics St. Thomas says, "poetae est inducere ad aliquod virtuosum per aliquam decentem reprae­sen­ta­tionem"1—it pertains to the poet to lead toward the virtuous by means of a suitable representation. If we are to take St. Thomas formally, he means that poetry serves a moral purpose, that there is a necessary connection between the work of the poet and disposing toward virtue. It is not unusual to take him so at his word. Many have insisted that, since art as such is distinct from prudence, it is only as a man and not as a poet that a given writer is bound to consider the moral order in relation to his work. Our purpose is to point out the importance of St. Thomas's own view and the insufficiency of the current explanation.

First, it must be clear that the Angelic Doctor did not regard poetry as a "didactic instrument" in the ordinary sense. He is perfectly clear that the poet does not proceed by argument but seduces by similitudes in those matters which because of their lack of truth do not lie within the compass of sheer reason.2 The least of the doctrines to use argument is rhetoric; poetry, however, confines itself to pleasing imitations; just as food may be rendered repulsive when it is presented in the likeness of something repulsive.3 This is not the method of argument, but rather a method that involves the appetite through imaginative representations, through poetic imitation, in other words. It is necessary to point this out lest anyone should think St. Thomas did not know what is proper to poetry, namely that it should seduce.

Secondly, where poetry imitates human action, it is ordained to manifest this action in its enchainment, as well as the consequent expression of passion and the relation of both action and passion to the comparatively fixed element of human character. Now, the important point about human action is that it is either good or bad.4 This is also true of human character, and of the concrete expression of passion in men. Hence, insofar as poetry is concerned with these elements, it is necessarily concerned with morality, that is to say the distinction between good and evil in human action.

As a consequence, one can say that an art which represents a good action as bad or vice-versa is bad art. (Tota ratio ordinis trahitur a fine.) The very purpose of poetry is to manifest human action through pleasing imitation. Thus, it is not precisely because he is a man subject to the rules of morality that an artist does wrong when he represents despair or bestiality as a good. It is primarily true to say that he has offended against the very nature of his art.

It is possible that his error is a purely speculative one, and this is the case when the artist is deceived about the moral value involved. Indeed, it is only on this speculative error that a critic has a right to pronounce. All criticism, except of the purely technical elements would be impossible if it were necessary to judge the artist's incommunicable act of prudence.

Obviously, even a work of art that is substantially bad because of a speculative error concerning human action represents the object badly, can have much incidental beauty in the way of elegant metaphors and all the rest that relates to the perfection of the means.

What has been said of poetry applies to other arts insofar as they are concerned with human action, passion or character. Poetry itself is a term that can include all imaginative writing concerned with human action. To this we can add the drama, music and the dance, and even to some degree all the fine arts except architecture.

We must now return to the question of how the fine arts lead to virtue. It is because they represent the real order or disorder in the enchainment of human action in an imaginative way that they are able to involve the lower appetite and make it follow the way of reason rather than the random law of instinct. This discipline of the lower appetite reduces the struggle between reason and sense, and enlists at least temporarily the lower appetite in the service of the higher.

To summarize what has been said we can assert that the intrinsic end of the fine arts under consideration is the manifestation of the order or disorder in human actions through pleasing imitations and that their extrinsic end is to induce the lower appetite to follow the order discovered by reason.5 The extrinsic end spoken of here is, of course, not remote but rather proximate.

Since it cannot be said that the fine arts which imitate human action are independent of morality, the artist must [conform to] formally practical knowledge in order to discern the character of the actions to be imitated.

Those who have spoken of this matter as if nothing more were involved than relations of art and prudence conclude as we have seen that the work of art as such has only a per accidens relation to morality, that namely which arises because the artist as a man is subject to the law of prudence, and so contrasts prudence which is concerned with the good of man and art which is concerned with the good of the work, [asserting] that the work of art as such is distinct from the work of prudence because the end of each is different. 6

What is said of art in all its generality, namely, that its end being distinct from prudence, it need not take morality into account except accidentally, cannot be said of arts which by their very nature are concerned with the imitation of human actions. Here the object is not independent of morality, and so neither are the arts in question.


1. In I lib. Post. Anal. Arist. lectio 1, n. 6.

2. In I lib. Sent. Prol. Q. I, art. 5, ad 3: "Ad tertium dicendum, quod poetica scientia est de his quae propter defectum veritatis non possunt a ratione capi; unde oportet quod quasi quibusdam similitudinibus ratio seducatur: theologia autem est de his quae sunt supra rationem; et ideo modus symbolicus utrique communis est, cum neutra rationi proportionetur."

3. In I lib. Post. Anal. Lect. 1, n. 6.

4. Ia IIae, q. 18, art. 9 corpus.

5. An analogous case (and one on which this distinction is based) is that of theology. St. Thomas says (Ia. q. 1, a. 5) it is the noblest of the practical sciences because it leads us to the highest happiness, namely the vision of God. In answer to the objection that theology as such does not lead to heaven, Cajetan distinguishes between the intrinsic end of theology, which is knowledge and extrinsic (though proximate) end, which is salvation. A knowledge of the truths of faith is itself ordained to guide us practically in the service of God.

6. Ia IIae, q. 57, art. 4, cf. also art. 3.

Art and Morality (summarized version)

In the first lesson of his commentary on the Posterior Analytics St. Thomas states that it pertains to the poet to lead toward something virtuous, not by a process of reasoning, but by means of a suitable representation, so that the representation itself will incline human reason to adhere to one part of an opposition rather than to the other.1 The passage in question states clearly that poetry serves a moral purpose. Yet, many have insisted that because art is quite distinct from prudence, it can only be as a man, not however as a poet, that the latter must conform to the moral order in his work. Our purpose is to point out briefly the importance of St. Thomas's own doctrine as well as the inadequacy of the now current interpretation.

The position held by most contemporary Thomists is in keeping with their confusion of the speculative truth of formally practical knowledge and the practical truth of prudence.2 The "moral order" then embraces indistinctly both moral science and prudence, so that if a poem is to be morally good, only the prudent, the good man, can write good poetry. This being patently false, they conclude that there can be no essential connection between morality and poetry qua poetry. On the contrary, we believe that while the good poet may be an imprudent man—and the good man a poor poet—, the practical truth of his work depends upon its conformity with the speculative truth in moral matters. All would agree that a poem which would assume some preposterous reason for the functioning of the steam-engine to compose a metaphore, would be, in that essential respect, a bad poem; we could not fail to regret the poet's ignorance. Likewise, a work representing despair or bestiality as a good, would be intrinsically and per se false art, just as much as an ineptly constructed house, however fine the quality of the material employed.

(Original source.)


1. In I lib. Post. Anal. Arist. lectio 1, n. 6: "Pars autem logicae, quae primo deservit processui, pars iudicativa dicitur, eo quod iudicium est cum certitudine scientiae. Et quia iudicium certum de effectibus haberi non potest nisi resolvendo in prima principia, ideo pars haec analytica vocatur, idest resolutoria. Certitudo autem iudicii, quae per resolutionem habetur, est, vel ex ipsa forma syllogismi tantum, et ad hoc ordinatur liber priorum analyticorum, qui est de syllogismo simpliciter; vel etiam cum hoc ex materia, quia sumuntur propositiones per se et necessariae, et ad hoc ordinatur liber posteriorum analyticorum, qui est de syllogismo demonstrativo. Secundo autem rationis processui deservit alia pars logicae, quae dicitur inventiva. Nam inventio non semper est cum certitudine. Unde de his, quae inventa sunt, iudicium requiritur, ad hoc quod certitudo habeatur. Sicut autem in rebus naturalibus, in his quae ut in pluribus agunt, gradus quidam attenditur (quia quanto virtus naturae est fortior, tanto rarius deficit a suo effectu), ita et in processu rationis, qui non est cum omnimoda certitudine, gradus aliquis invenitur, secundum quod magis et minus ad perfectam certitudinem acceditur. Per huiusmodi enim processum, quandoque quidem, etsi non fiat scientia, fit tamen fides vel opinio propter probabilitatem propositionum, ex quibus proceditur: quia ratio totaliter declinat in unam partem contradictionis, licet cum formidine alterius, et ad hoc ordinatur topica sive dialectica. Nam syllogismus dialecticus ex probabilibus est, de quo agit Aristoteles in libro topicorum. Quandoque vero, non fit complete fides vel opinio, sed suspicio quaedam, quia non totaliter declinatur ad unam partem contradictionis, licet magis inclinetur in hanc quam in illam. Et ad hoc ordinatur rhetorica. Quandoque vero sola existimatio declinat in aliquam partem contradictionis propter aliquam repraesentationem, ad modum quo fit homini abominatio alicuius cibi, si repraesentetur ei sub similitudine alicuius abominabilis. Et ad hoc ordinatur poetica; nam poetae est inducere ad aliquod virtuosum per aliquam decentem repraesentationem. Omnia autem haec ad rationalem philosophiam pertinent: inducere enim ex uno in aliud rationis est. Tertio autem processui rationis deservit pars logicae, quae dicitur sophistica, de qua agit Aristoteles in libro elenchorum."

2. Jacques de Monléon, 'Note sur la division de la connaissance pratique', in Revue de Philosophie, Paris 1939, n. 3, pp. 189-198; Henri Pichette, 'Considérations sur quelques principes fondamentaux de la doctrine du spéculatif et du pratique', in Laval théologique et philosophique, 1945, vol. I, n. 1, pp. 52-70.