“He now is struck with wonder by
what’s wonderful in him. Unwittingly,
he wants himself; he praises, but his praise
is for himself; he is the seeker and
the sought, the longed-for and the one who longs;
he is the arsonist— and is the scorched.”

The Metamorphoses of Ovid

In his Metamorphosis, Ovid paints perhaps the most poignant picture of unrequited love: Echo desires Narcissus, who desires the beauty of his reflection. This tale displays that to love in vain is to love too little: to love the particular rather than the universal, the carnate rather than what is being incarnated. As creative and intellectual beings, mankind must be reminded of the dangers of preferring images to realities and of settling for earthbound affections rather than allowing these to point heavenward. 

Plato, in Symposium, discusses the love of beauty, and, in particular, the proper ordering of this love toward its highest form: loving the Beautiful itself. The philosopher concludes by introducing a tool (Diotima’s Ladder) for understanding the progression of love from common to virtuous, mortal to immortal.

“First, [the Beautiful] always is and neither comes to be nor passes away… Second, it is not beautiful [in] this way and ugly that way…Nor will the beautiful appear to him in the guise of a face or hands or anything else that belongs to the body. It will not appear to him as one idea or one kind of knowledge. It is not anywhere in another thing…but itself by itself with itself… always one in form; and all the other beautiful things share in that.” 

Symposium, Plato 

Diotima’s Ladder (so named for the woman who supposedly first explained it) emphasizes that love is fundamentally driven by the desire for immortality. According to this idea, affections ought to strive from what is beautiful yet earthly to, rung-by-rung, the Beautiful: that is, the highest form of beauty, which is eternal, objective, self-sustaining, and preeminent. Beautiful particulars partake in this formal Beauty, which is not lessened by their existence, but rather manifest through their various incarnations.

By learning to love beautiful things, lovers progress up Diotima’s ladder to eventually love the Beautiful itself. First, they love the beauty of a single body. Then, this love expands to many bodies before blossoming into a love of the customs and laws which bind people together in harmony. (After all, harmony is an essential element of beauty.) Next comes the love of knowledge, demonstrating the progression from the physical to the philosophical. Finally, through their developed powers of affection, lovers will come to perceive and adore the Beautiful itself. 

In this philosophy, physical beauty becomes a mediator by which admirers might ascend to higher forms of affection. The problem, though, is that humanity tends to love too lowly; lovers become fixated on the glimpses of beauty found in lesser things when they ought to use these to turn towards the greatest Beauty. Mankind is content to praise the dimmer beauty of the moon, willfully forgetting that its light is a mere reflection of the sun’s. Perhaps it is because the Beautiful is, like the sun, too much for mortal eyes. More likely, though, men become acclimated to the climate of lowland loves, with eyes too weak to look heavenward. 

In On Loving God, St. Bernard of Clairvaux embarks on a similar attempt to reorder love. Much like Plato, he defines virtuous love as that which moves toward the highest, most enduring object. Rather than focusing on the love of the Beautiful alone, however, Bernard is concerned with redeeming lesser loves such as self-love by drawing them into proper relationship with God-love. 

His “ladder” is as follows: 

  1. Love of Self, for Self’s Sake
    The beginning of love in mankind is in the love of self; this is not necessarily immoral, for it can—according to Bernard—be the first step toward loving God. However, it may also be the final step for those who look no further.
  2. Love of God for His Benefits
    Here, man begins to love God, but only for the love God has demonstrated to him through His providence. Again, the soul may stagnate here, content with conditional affection.
  3. Love of God for God’s Sake
    Now, the Christian has experienced the sweetness of loving God for His own sake. There is a transcendent intimacy between lover and Beloved which is not reliant on benefits beyond simply loving and being loved. 
  4. Love of Self for God’s Sake
    This level is not reached on earth, for it is the redemption and perfection of self-love. In this, the self is in unity with God and is free to love itself in and through God’s love. This is the fullness of liberty in love. 

Again like Plato, Bernard begins with more material affections and uses them to draw lovers toward unity with divine love. In this, his theology is inseparable from the doctrine of the Incarnation, which is the reconciliation of body and soul in the fullness of love. 

In his allegory, The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis writes of a painter who suffers from the same disordered affection that Ovid depicts and that both Plato and Bernard seek to remedy. As an artist, the painter ought to have a better understanding of beauty, but by his own pride, he descends Diotima’s ladder and renders himself incapable of loving neither beauty as manifest in creation nor the Creator Himself. Through time, he falls in love with his skill and material subjects and out of love with the Light that first enchanted him: 

“‘You’re forgetting,’ said the Spirit. ‘…Light itself was your first love: you loved paint only as a means of telling about light.’

‘Oh, that’s ages ago,’ said the [Painter]. ‘One grows out of that…one becomes more and more interested in paint for its own sake.’

‘…It was all a snare. Ink and catgut and paint were necessary down there, but they are also dangerous stimulants. Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all, but only in what they say about Him.’

-C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

All lovers of beauty are in danger of becoming like this painter. Often a philosopher or artist will, like a Slinky toy, begin at the top of Diotima’s ladder and walk his way down. Many fall in love with beauty, but then devolve to love the images rather than the inspiration, losing sight of what they were recreating in the first place and loving light with only a utilitarian affection. In the same way, it is easy for artists, philosophers—even theologians—to cease loving God Himself and to settle instead for talking of Him, loving the study rather than the Person

Creative and thoughtful people are especially gifted with the ability to capture what is good, true, and beautiful in God and to communicate it with others or, to paraphrase Lewis, to “catch glimpses of Heaven in the earthly and to enable others to see the glimpses too.” Unfortunately, with great ability comes great responsibility and, in a fallen world, great potential for failure. 

Artists are perceptive and often one or more of their senses are uniquely attuned to the medium of their art. A painter’s conception of color and a musician’s awareness of pitch enable them to capture beauty and share it with others. Likewise, a writer may explain ideas in innovative ways so that readers understand what was previously inaccessible. These artists are placed, by the virtue of their abilities, in a position to leap the lower rungs and work from the top of Diotima’s ladder. (Though, like the rest of the world, they likely begin at the base of Bernard’s steps toward loving God.)

However, there is a danger with being perched so high from the start; artists almost inevitably, like the painter in The Great Divorce, topple from the highest loves to the lowest. It is the same way with a bookworm who begins by loving stories, then loves books for the stories, but eventually becomes a hoarder who would rather buy books than read them. Those who love highly have the farthest to fall, which becomes tragic upon the realization that these talented few were equipped to draw others up the ladder while they themselves are sliding down. 

Recall the words of Ecclesiastes: 

“Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”

-Ecclesiastes 12:12, ESV

The Preacher of Ecclesiastes, ironically, made a book. Only a few verses earlier, he describes how he “taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care,” proving that not only did he write a book, he did so to share “words of truth” using “words of delight.” The composition of Ecclesiastes was an academic and aesthetic matter. What he warns against in the conclusion, then, is not the making of books, but the making of them for their sake alone. 

Like the painter of Lewis’ allegory, it is unwise to become interested in the act of creating for its own sake or for the sake of reputation, for this becomes similar to the lowest rung on Bernard’s ladder: loving oneself for oneself’s sake. It is all too easy for the artist and philosopher to fall from the truest love of Light and Beauty to the lowest pandering, to sink from gathering glimpses of glory to glorifying the self only. 

The painter’s ghost is concerned with his reputation as garnered by his art’s reception. When speaking with the redeemed spirit, he only wants to know whether there are any famous men in heaven. To his dismay, he receives a very Ecclesiastical answer: fame was vanity compared to being perfectly known and loved in heaven. In descending Diotima’s ladder from loving the Beautiful to his own little beauties, the artist also fails to realize that if he truly loved himself, he would see that, as Bernard explains, perfect self-love is found in unity with God-love.

Readers, I too want my words to be read; I want my stories to be shared and my songs to be heard. However, we must remember why it is that we started creating in the first place: because we glimpsed something enduring and otherly that we wished to capture, communicate, and, eventually, commune with. We wished to clothe the divine so that we might better grasp and share it: to incarnate the invisible through our art and study. 

“To paint a picture or to write a story or to compose a song is an incarnational activity.” 

Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle

The essence of incarnation is manifestation and mediation; Christ as the Word of God incarnate displayed divine glory and proved Himself preeminent by being the mediation of man and Deity (Colossians 1:18). If this is so and art is also an act of incarnation, we must learn to love the words we pen only because they are shadows of the Word Himself. We must seek to pursue art only to increase in ourselves and others an appreciation for beauty and, through this, to draw closer in communion with the Source of all beauty. We must refuse to grow out of our first love of Light in favor of shadows. 

So, reader, lay aside your “ink and catgut and paint.” Do not let your love of beauty and creativity stay earthbound; love here and love well, but look ever upward. Let an adoration higher and more overwhelming than your own dictate your smaller affections. Let us not become like Narcissus, in love with the beauty we reflect rather than the Beautiful itself. Nor let us be like Echo, futilely following a beauty that will not love us in return. Rather, in turning to the true Light, let us learn to love beauty better and better until we can see its fullness face to face; let us incarnate it in our art and study so that others might see and believe in the Incarnation Himself. Then, we might truly love and be loved, basking forever in the Light we once only glimpsed.

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