Leo Tolstoy Archive

What is Art?
Chapter 7

Written: 1897
Source: Original Text from Gutenberg.org
Transcription/Markup: Andy Carloff
Online Source: RevoltLib.com; 2021

Leo Tolstoy

From the time that people of the upper classes lost faith in Church Christianity, beauty (i.e. the pleasure received from art) became their standard of good and bad art. And, in accordance with that view, an æsthetic theory naturally sprang up among those upper classes justifying such a conception,—a theory according to which the aim of art is to exhibit beauty. The partisans of this æsthetic theory, in confirmation of its truth, affirmed that it was no invention of their own, but that it existed in the nature of things, and was recognized even by the ancient Greeks. But this assertion was quite arbitrary, and has no foundation other than the fact that among the ancient Greeks, in consequence of the low grade of their moral ideal (as compared with the Christian), their conception of the good, τὸ ἀγαθόν, was not yet sharply divided from their conception of the beautiful, τὸ καλόν.

That highest perfection of goodness (not only not identical with beauty, but, for the most part, contrasting with it) which was discerned by the Jews even in the times of Isaiah, and fully expressed by Christianity, was quite unknown to the Greeks. They supposed that the beautiful must necessarily also be the good. It is true that their foremost thinkers—Socrates, Plato, Aristotle—felt that goodness may happen not to coincide with beauty. Socrates expressly subordinated beauty to goodness; Plato, to unite the two conceptions, spoke of spiritual beauty; while Aristotle demanded from art that it should have a moral influence on people (κάθαρσις). 62But, notwithstanding all this, they could not quite dismiss the notion that beauty and goodness coincide.

And consequently, in the language of that period, a compound word (καλο-κἀγαθία, beauty-goodness), came into use to express that notion.

Evidently the Greek sages began to draw near to that perception of goodness which is expressed in Buddhism and in Christianity, and they got entangled in defining the relation between goodness and beauty. Plato’s reasonings about beauty and goodness are full of contradictions. And it was just this confusion of ideas that those Europeans of a later age, who had lost all faith, tried to elevate into a law. They tried to prove that this union of beauty and goodness is inherent in the very essence of things; that beauty and goodness must coincide; and that the word and conception καλο-κἀγαθία (which had a meaning for Greeks but has none at all for Christians) represents the highest ideal of humanity. On this misunderstanding the new science of æsthetics was built up. And, to justify its existence, the teachings of the ancients on art were so twisted as to make it appear that this invented science of æsthetics had existed among the Greeks.

In reality, the reasoning of the ancients on art was quite unlike ours. As Benard, in his book on the æsthetics of Aristotle, quite justly remarks: “Pour qui veut y regarder de près, la théorie du beau et celle de l’art sont tout à fait séparées dans Aristote, comme elles le sont dans Platon et chez tous leurs successeurs” (L’esthétique d’Aristote et de ses successeurs, Paris, 1889, p. 28).[63] And indeed the reasoning of the ancients on art not only does not confirm our science of æsthetics, but rather contradicts its doctrine of beauty. But nevertheless all the æsthetic guides, from Schasler to Knight, 63declare that the science of the beautiful—æsthetic science—was commenced by the ancients, by Socrates, Plato, Aristotle; and was continued, they say, partially by the Epicureans and Stoics: by Seneca and Plutarch, down to Plotinus. But it is supposed that this science, by some unfortunate accident, suddenly vanished in the fourth century, and stayed away for about 1500 years, and only after these 1500 years had passed did it revive in Germany, A.D. 1750, in Baumgarten’s doctrine.

After Plotinus, says Schasler, fifteen centuries passed away during which there was not the slightest scientific interest felt for the world of beauty and art. These one and a half thousand years, says he, have been lost to æsthetics and have contributed nothing towards the erection of the learned edifice of this science.[64]

In reality nothing of the kind happened. The science of æsthetics, the science of the beautiful, neither did nor could vanish because it never existed. Simply, the Greeks (just 64like everybody else, always and everywhere) considered art (like everything else) good only when it served goodness (as they understood goodness), and bad when it was in opposition to that goodness. And the Greeks themselves were so little developed morally, that goodness and beauty seemed to them to coincide. On that obsolete Greek view of life was erected the science of æsthetics, invented by men of the eighteenth century, and especially shaped and mounted in Baumgarten’s theory. The Greeks (as anyone may see who will read Benard’s admirable book on Aristotle and his successors, and Walter’s work on Plato) never had a science of æsthetics.

Æsthetic theories arose about one hundred and fifty years ago among the wealthy classes of the Christian European world, and arose simultaneously among different nations,—German, Italian, Dutch, French, and English. The founder and organizer of it, who gave it a scientific, theoretic form, was Baumgarten.

With a characteristically German, external exactitude, pedantry and symmetry, he devised and expounded this extraordinary theory. And, notwithstanding its obvious insolidity, nobody else’s theory so pleased the cultured crowd, or was accepted so readily and with such an absence of criticism. It so suited the people of the upper classes, that to this day, notwithstanding its entirely fantastic character and the arbitrary nature of its assertions, it is repeated by learned and unlearned as though it were something indubitable and self-evident.

Habent sua fata libelli pro capite lectoris, and so, or even more so, theories habent sua fata according to the condition of error in which that society is living, among whom and for whom the theories are invented. If a theory justifies the false position in which a certain part of a society is living, then, however unfounded or even obviously false the theory may be, it is accepted, and becomes an article of faith to that 65section of society. Such, for instance, was the celebrated and unfounded theory expounded by Malthus, of the tendency of the population of the world to increase in geometrical progression, but of the means of sustenance to increase only in arithmetical progression, and of the consequent overpopulation of the world; such, also, was the theory (an outgrowth of the Malthusian) of selection and struggle for existence as the basis of human progress. Such, again, is Marx’s theory, which regards the gradual destruction of small private production by large capitalistic production now going on around us, as an inevitable decree of fate. However unfounded such theories are, however contrary to all that is known and confessed by humanity, and however obviously immoral they may be, they are accepted with credulity, pass uncriticized, and are preached, perchance for centuries, until the conditions are destroyed which they served to justify, or until their absurdity has become too evident. To this class belongs this astonishing theory of the Baumgartenian Trinity—Goodness, Beauty, and Truth, according to which it appears that the very best that can be done by the art of nations after 1900 years of Christian teaching, is to choose as the ideal of their life the ideal that was held by a small, semi-savage, slave-holding people who lived 2000 years ago, who imitated the nude human body extremely well, and erected buildings pleasant to look at. All these incompatibilities pass completely unnoticed. Learned people write long, cloudy treatises on beauty as a member of the æsthetic trinity of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness; das Schöne, das Wahre, das Gute; le Beau, le Vrai, le Bon, are repeated, with capital letters, by philosophers, æstheticians and artists, by private individuals, by novelists and by feuilletonistes, and they all think, when pronouncing these sacrosanct words, that they speak of something quite definite and solid—something on which they can base their opinions. In reality, these words not only have no definite 66meaning, but they hinder us in attaching any definite meaning to existing art; they are wanted only for the purpose of justifying the false importance we attribute to an art that transmits every kind of feeling if only those feelings afford us pleasure.