The Charles De Koninck Project

Art and Morality, with a Note on History

Art and Morality, with a Note on History

  (Unpublished manuscripts, Charles De Koninck Papers)


Art and Morality (Original Version)

            In the beginning of his commentary on the Posterior Analytics St. Thomas says: “poetae est inducere ad aliquod virtuosum per aliquam decentem representationem”[1] – it pertains to the poet to lead toward something 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 usual 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 last 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 some[thing] 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, when poetry imitates human action, it is ordained to manifest this action in its enchaînement, 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 [and hence which] 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 enchaînement 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 then 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 the 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. They base themselves on certain texts in the Prima Secundae where St. Thomas is concerned with the relationship between art in all its generality and 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.


 Art and Morality (Revised 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 another.[7] 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.[8] 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 metaphor, 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.


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

[2]  In I lib. Sent. Prol. Q. I, art. 5, ad. 3: [“…quod poetica scientia est de his quae propter defectum veritatis non possunt a ratione capi; unde oportet quod quasi quibusdam similitudinibus ratio seducatur.” Compare also Ia IIae, q. 101, art. 2, ad. 2: “Ad secundum dicendum quod, sicut poetica non capiuntur a ratione humana propter defectum veritatis qui est in eis, ita etiam ratio humana perfecte capere non potest divina propter excedentem ipsorum veritatem. Et ideo utrobique opus est repraesentatione per sensibiles figuras.” –ed.]

[3]  In I lib. Post. Anal. lectio 1, n. 6.

[5] An analogous case (and the one on which this distinction is based) is that of theology. St. Thomas says (Ia, q. 1, art 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 the extrinsic (though proximate) end, which is salvation. A knowledge of the truths of faith is in itself ordained to guide us practically in the service of God.

[7] “Quandoque vero sola existamatio declinat in aliquam partem contradictionis propter aliquam repraesentationem, ad modum quo fit homini abominatio alicuius cibi, si representetur ei sub similitudine alicuius abominabilis. Et ad hoc ordinatur Poetica; nam poetae est inducere ad aliquod virtuosum per aliquam decentem reprasentationem. Omnia autem haec ad Rationalem Philosophiam pertinent:  inducere enim ex uno in aliud rationis est.” (edit leon.), [In. I. Lib. Post. Anal., lect. I.]  n. 6.

[8] Jacques de Monleon, Note sur la division de la connaissance pratique, in Revue de Philosophie, Paris 1939, n. 3, pp. 189-198; Henri Pichette, Considerations sur quelques principes fondamentaux de la doctrine de speculatif et du pratique, in Laval theologique et philosophique, 1945, vol. I, n. 1, pp. 52-70.



Note on History

In the Poetics Aristotle says that poetry is more philosophic and more elevated than history because it is more universal.[1] St. Thomas speaks of history as quaedam narratio.[2]  Further, it is often said that poetry is infima doctrina.[3] Obviously then if history is less philosophic than poetry and poetry is infima doctrina, history is not doctrina at all.

This opinion has scandalized most modern writers on the nature of history. As a result many scholastics feel themselves obliged to diminish the force of the statements of Aristotle and St. Thomas, and, if possible, to explain them away.

It is common to point to works like those of Thucydides where the arrangement and selection of facts tend to manifest certain universal tendencies in the growth and decline of nations and about the nature of government. It is said that the views of Aristotle and St. Thomas apply to the works of the chroniclers, men who make no attempt at scientific selection, but merely recount all that they have learned about a given set of happenings. On the other hand it would be false to apply such judgments to serious and mature works which alone can be called histories precisely because the wise selection of facts help us to understand political life.

It has been further pointed out that history can play a decisive role even in philosophy. The study of the works of his predecessors can be regarded as of very great importance for Aristotle. Even today, it is asserted, St. Thomas can best be understood against the background of his sources. This would show that philosophy can be learned satisfactorily through history and that those who relegate history to an infra-scientific role of mere narration do not appreciate it in its true importance.

In order to see the error of these critics of Aristotle and St. Thomas it is necessary to allude to the notion of intellectual light. The general principle, quoted from St. Paul and used by St. Thomas, is omne quod est manifestativum lumen est.[4] The application of this principle is most clear in demonstration where the definition is seen as causing the proper passion of the subject. The definition is a light whereby the inherence of the passion in the subject is known to us.

In a lesser degree dialectical reasoning illustrates the same thing. Here the manifestation is at least partially through beings of reason, that is, principles formed not from the nature of the subject, but from the mind itself. Such principles can be used to show the probable inherence of some predicate in a subject.

Even in poetry there is still some manifestation. Events in the life of the rex fictus, Oedipus or another, are ordered according to possibility or probability. A kind of necessity in the midst of the contingent order is thereby manifested. The mind forms the events in such a way that the reason is seduced into accepting the probability or the necessity of the order. There is here a selection and a formation of the personages that constitutes them in a certain universality, the proper stamp of the mind.

Thus poetry involves a kind of light, a principle of manifesting one thing through something else. It is a very inferior light, and it cannot be better because of the defect of truth in its object,[5] that is, the order of contingent events, of human actions. It only succeeds in being a doctrine by neglecting much that belongs to the object and [by] constructing for itself something with a certain universality.

The historian does not have this refuge of the poet. He cannot construct the events of his record or rearrange them so that a kind of necessity will appear. Very often the events that he must record have very little connection between one another beyond the fact that they happened at the same time. Many of the most important events he records have no intrinsic necessity. They come about through the action of some great man, who might very well have acted otherwise. Others are caused by forces that are, at least to us, irrational, like floods and plagues. With these elements it is impossible to construct a chain of necessity. Hence, the historian must be content with narration and he cannot properly, as historian, manifest anything.

Like poetry, history deals with objects that are deficient in truth, contingent. Unlike poetry, history cannot even imperfectly escape the irrationalness in things by constructing them so that they possess an intelligibility supplied by the mind.

How then can we explain a book like that of Thucydides which so arranges events that, in a way, the source of all merchant empires is made clear; where the unfortunate effects of all revolutions are shown?  The answer is, as so many authors who reject Aristotle and St. Thomas say, that Thucydides has made a wise selection of facts. However, far from proving that history is more than narration, it proves that a great historian of the stamp of Thucydides must know political science and be guided by it. The knowledge of the different types of state and what is proper to each enables him to select, from the multitude of things that happen those events that manifest the rise and fall of merchant states and the effects of revolution. The knowledge of the different types of state and the definition of revolution is something that only political science can give. Once these notions are supplied they can be used to illuminate history. Thus, it is not history but another discipline that guides the selection of facts. The case is somewhat complicated because political science itself can only be learned by a careful consideration of history and of actual political institutions. Aristotle composed one hundred and fifty treatises on the constitution of various states as part of the inductive study that founded his treatise on politics. The Constitution of Athens, which has survived, is only one of these. However, such works are akin to chronicles, in the terminology of our opponents. They are listings of facts, not selections based upon a sophisticated knowledge of the nature of political institutions.

A facsimile of the papyrus with the text "Constitution of the Athenians" by Aristotle. London papyrus No. 131, now in the British Museum. (Wikipedia)

A facsimile of the papyrus with the text “Constitution of the Athenians” by Aristotle. London papyrus No. 131, now in the British Museum. (Wikipedia)


Thus there is a sort of cross-fertilization of these disciplines. History, in the true sense of narratio is necessary to the acquisition of the science of politics, which relies so heavily on induction. Once acquired, the science of politics can guide a writer in the selection of facts that will illustrate certain general political notions. The important thing to note here is that the universal light, the principle of selection, belongs not to history, but to political science.

Something very similar is true of the history of philosophy. If someone who does not possess the habitus of philosophy wishes to edit the text of some philosopher, he may do so, provided no judgment of the work is involved. Even such a problem as the choice between two readings may involve difficulties that the historian cannot resolve. He may be adequate if the question is one of orthography or punctuation, provided the solution is not in terms of the fundamental meaning of the text.

The historian as such cannot decide upon the truth or even relative probability of conflicting opinions. For this reason he cannot order philosophical writers according to their importance. Furthermore, he cannot decide upon the meaning of a disputed passage in the work of even a minor philosopher, much less St. Thomas or Aristotle. Aristotle was able to order and judge the work of his predecessors and contemporaries in relation to his own thought because he possessed the scientific habitus necessary for accomplishing this. Thus he and St. Thomas as well as those of lesser stature who know the truth can judge the opinions of others, but no historian can judge them.

It is simply impudence for someone having no equipment beyond grammar to presume to say that St. Thomas, for example, has misunderstood Aristotle or St. Augustine. Such a judgment involves a penetration into the thought of these writers, and it is not given in terms of grammar alone, but of profound philosophical and theological science.

In the process of learning philosophy a student may be obliged to proceed dialectically by assigning a more or less probable meaning to the texts he is studying. Indeed, in the beginning he has no other alternative even if he follows the best and most authorized commentators. He must work toward an understanding of their thought on the basis of an imperfect and even nominal grasp of their thought. If this stage of the intellectual life is necessary, as it is, so is extreme modesty in expressing any judgment on the meaning of the texts studied during this period of learning. This is the time of apprenticeship, not of judgment.

For example, anyone who would try to interpret texts on the formal object of metaphysics must do so in virtue of the definition of a formal object. This involves knowing very precisely the nature of science and the other intellectual virtues, not to mention the nature of knowledge itself. These notions can be grasped only by someone who knows philosophy. They are quite beyond the paleographer grammarian as such, and consequently they are beyond the historia, for it is only of such instruments that he can dispose independently.



N.B. Although this space has been left blank in the original, a handwritten note at the bottom of the typescript reads: narra[tio] cf. Sent. de locut. angelos — locutio est [illegible]. Cf. In II Sent., dist. 11, art. 3. c.:

Respondeo dicendum, quod in Angelis est quaedam locutio, quae tamen ab illuminatione differt in duobus. Primo quantum ad ea de quibus sunt: quia illuminatio proprie est de his quae superior Angelus in lumine divinae essentiae apprehendit, quae inferior ibi non videt; unde indiget ut in lumine superioris Angeli magis determinato et contracto quam sit lumen divinum, illa cognoscat. Sed locutio est de motibus liberi arbitrii, quos in uno alius non videt. His enim duobus modis aliquid potest esse notum uni Angelo et ignotum alteri. Secundo quantum ad modum quo utrumque perficitur, differentem secundum duo quae ad visionem intellectualem requiruntur, ad similitudinem visionis corporalis, scilicet ipsa res quae intellectui proponitur, et lumen sub quo videtur. Illuminatio ergo fit per hoc quod lumen intellectus unius Angeli per perfectius lumen superioris confortatur ad aliquorum cognitionem; sed locutio per hoc quod aliqua prius occulta proponuntur ut cognoscenda sine hoc quod virtus cognoscentis fortificetur; ut patet in recitationibus historiarum, in quibus aliquis cognoscit quod prius nesciebat, sine hoc quod suus intellectus clarificetur. Qualiter autem aliquid possit proponi Angelo ut cognoscendum ab ipso, patet ex simili nostrae locutionis. Est enim aliquid in homine quod alius homo de ipso naturaliter percipere potest, ut ea quae exterioribus sensibus subjacent; aliquid vero quod videri non potest, sicut interiores conceptus mentis. Species ergo conceptae interius, secundum quod manent in simplici conceptione intellectus, habent rationem intelligibilis tantum: secundum autem quod ordinantur ab intelligente ut manifestandae alteri, habent rationem verbi, quod dicitur verbum cordis; secundum autem quod aptantur et quodammodo ordinantur signis exterius apparentibus, si quidem sunt signa ad visum, dicuntur nutus; si vero ad auditum, dicitur proprie locutio vocalis: hi enim duo sensus disciplinabiles sunt. Similiter in Angelis interior conceptus mentis libero arbitrio subjacens ab alio videri non potest. Quando ergo speciem conceptam ordinat ut manifestandam alteri, dicitur verbum cordis; quando vero coordinat eam alicui eorum quae unus Angelus in alio naturaliter videre potest, illud naturaliter cognoscibile fit signum expressivum interioris conceptus; et talis expressio vocatur locutio, non quidem vocalis, sed intellectualibus signis expressa; et virtus exprimendi dicitur lingua eorum.

[3] [Ia, q. 1, art. 9 obj. 1] (supplied by the Editor)

See also:

Art and Morality — Additional Materials

Note on History — Additional Materials

The Nature of Man and His Historical Being

Notes on the Philosophy of History

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