I had the great pleasure of presenting a lecture at a weekly seminar on October 5th. The title named the topic: “Heroism.” I may have an occasion later to say more about it, but for now I will say that I made these two claims: first, there is a godlike quality in every act of heroism, but second, a hero is more heroic the more moral the action is that he or she performs.
I cannot help but be reminded of St. Augustine’s Confessions, in which he penned the unforgettable sentence: “Our heart is restless until it rests in you” (I.i.1, Henry Chadwick’s translation), and the “you” to whom he refers is the one to whom he makes his confessions, God himself.
Late in the book, St. Augustine asks who it is whom he loves (X.vi.9):
I asked the earth and it said: ‘It is not I.’ I asked all that is in it; they made the same confession. I asked the sea, the deeps, the living creatures that creep, and they responded: ‘We are not your God, look beyond us.’ I asked the breezes which blow and the entire air with its inhabitants said, ‘Anaximenes [a pre-Socratic philosopher who made air out to be the highest being] was mistaken; I am not God.’ I asked heaven, sun, moon and stars; they said: ‘Nor are we the God whom you seek.’ And I said to all these things in my external environment: ‘Tell me of my God who you are not, tell me something about him.’ And with a great voice they cried out: ‘He made us.’
The saint’s readers may be surprised to hear creatures be so talkative, and he explains this dialogue: “My question was the attention I gave to them, and their response was their beauty” (ibid). Creatures’ beauty tells him about God, and so the saint can exclaim at last to this same God: “Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you” (X.xxvii.38, emphasis added). The love is late, I take it, because it comes after loving those creatures that God, so to speak, comes before.
So also do the beauties of heroes speak to me of the divine, and the more moral the heroic action, the more it says of the divine.
The defense of beauty may itself be heroic. Not unquestionably so, I think, and yet I cannot but admire the defense made by Fred Ross at the Art Renewal Center (art renewal.org), who closes one lecture in this way:
The modern world is a boiling cauldron of all sorts of great and absurd ideas, feelings, pathos, pathologies, psycho pathologies, humiliation, and dehumanizing ideas … and yet … yet even beauty, too, is still here amongst us, here in this hall and throughout the world, and her manifestations in modern times have been insufficiently expressed. So, find her in your homes, find her in the streets, find her in your communities and in nature, and especially, find her in each other … and save her … save her … protect and cherish her … and exalt her back to her rightful place … a place of supreme prominence, and bring her back into these our greatest institutions and our highest citadels of society and culture.
The defense that Ross makes against modernism of one and another sort seems to me to be rather harsh in tone at one place and another in the lecture. Perhaps a greater harshness than he displays is validated by the attempt made on the virtue of beauty, if that attempt is regarded as occurring in this place and at this time, but this harshness, I think, does not obliterate the heroism of Ross’ mission at ARC. Besides the heroism of bringing the attack upon beauty to naught, and besides the heroism of bringing about the increasing fame of beautiful works of art, which he accomplishes–although neither seems moral in the strong sense–there is, I would say, the morality of beauty. A morality in a weaker sense, perhaps, but a morality, nonetheless–performing actions because they are beautiful, for example, defending something because that thing is beautiful–and there is a heroism to that.
Laud, then, Ross, you my readers. May he spread the fame of many beautiful works of art, may his heroism be ever more beautifully performed, and may he manifest, too, with the works of art whose fame he spreads and in the performance of his spreading it, ever more of the divine.