Durant 1926: What is Beauty? (Croce)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter X Section 2.3 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.

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II. BENEDETTO CROCE

3. What is Beauty?

Croce came to philosophy from historical and literary studies; and it was natural that his philosophic interest should be deeply colored by the problems of criticism and esthetics. His greatest book is his Esthetic (1902). He prefers art to metaphysics and to science: the sciences give us utility but the arts give us beauty; the sciences take us away from the individual and the actual, into a world of increasingly mathematical abstractions, until (as in Einstein) they issue in momentous conclusions of no practical importance; but art takes us directly to the particular person and the unique fact, to the philosophical universal intuited in the form of the concrete individual. “Knowledge has two forms: it is either intuitive knowledge or logical knowledge; knowledge obtained through the imagination or knowledge obtained through the intellect; knowledge of the individual or knowledge of the universal; of individual things or of the relations between them; it is the production either of images or of concepts.” The origin of art, therefore, lies in the power of forming images. “Art is ruled uniquely by the imagination, Images are its only wealth. It does not classify objects, it does not pronounce them real or imaginary, does not qualify them, does not define them; it feels and presents them—nothing more.” Because imagination precedes thought, and is necessary to it, the artistic, or image-forming activity of the mind is prior to the logical, concept-forming, activity. Man is an artist as soon as he imagines, and long before he reasons.

Croce prefers art to metaphysics and to science: the sciences give us utility but the arts give us beauty. The origin of art lies in the power of forming images and not concepts. The image-forming activity of the mind is prior to the logical, concept-forming, activity.

The great artists understood the matter so. “One paints not with the hands but with the brain,” said Michelangelo; and Leonardo wrote: “The minds of men of lofty genius are most active in invention when they are doing the least external work.” Everybody knows the story told of da Vinci, that when he was painting the “Last Supper,” he sorely displeased the Abbot who had ordered the work, by sitting motionless for days before an untouched canvas; and revenged himself for the importunate Abbot’s persistent query—When would he begin to work?—by using the gentleman as an unconscious model for the figure of Judas.

One paints not with the hands but with the brain. The minds of men of lofty genius are most active in invention when they are doing the least external work.

The essence of the esthetic activity lies in this motionless effort of the artist to conceive the perfect image that shaIl express the subject he has in mind; it lies in a form of intuition that involves no mystic insight, but perfect sight, complete perception, and adequate imagination. The miracle of art lies not in the externalization but in the conception of the idea; externalization is a matter of mechanical technique and manual skill.

“When we have mastered the internal word, when we have vividly and clearly conceived a figure or a statue, when we have found a musical theme, expression is born and is complete, nothing more is needed. If, then, we open our mouth, and speak or sing, … what we do is to say aloud what we have already said within, to sing aloud what we have already sung within. If our hands strike the keyboard of the pianoforte, if we take up pencil or chisel, such actions are willed” (they belong to the practical, not to the esthetic, activity), “and what we are then doing is executing in great movements what we have already executed briefly and rapidly within.”

The miracle of art lies not in the externalization but in the conception of the idea; externalization is a matter of mechanical technique and manual skill.

Does this help us to answer that baffling question, What is beauty? Here certainly there are as many opinions as, there are heads; and every lover, in this matter, thinks himself an authority not to be gainsaid. Croce answers that beauty is the mental formation of an image (or a series of images ) that catches the essence of the thing perceived. The beauty belongs, again, rather to the inward image than to the outward form in which it is embodied. We like to think that the difference between ourselves and Shakespeare is largely a difference in technique of external expression; that we have thoughts that lie too deep for words. But this is a fond delusion: the difference lies not in the power of externalizing the image but in the power of inwardly forming an image that expresses the object.

Beauty is the mental formation of an image (or a series of images ) that catches the essence of the thing perceived. The difference lies not in the power of externalizing the image but in the power of inwardly forming an image that expresses the object.

Even that esthetic sense which is contemplation rather than creation is also inward expression; the degree in which we understand or appreciate a work of art depends upon our ability to see by direct intuition the reality portrayed,—our power to form for ourselves an expressive image. “It is always our own intuition we express when we are enjoying a beautiful work of art. … It can only be my own intuition when, reading Shakespeare, I form the image of Hamlet or Othello.” Both in the artist creating and in the spectator contemplating beauty, the esthetic secret is the expressive image. Beauty is adequate expression: and since there is no real expression if it be not adequate, we may answer very simply the ancient question, and say, Beauty is expression.

It is always our own intuition we express when we are enjoying a beautiful work of art. It can only be my own intuition when, reading Shakespeare, I form the image of Hamlet or Othello. The esthetic secret is the expressive image.

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