The Magnificent Mystery of Art and the Glory of the Human Soul

092914One of the more common modern themes is that the human person is really nothing more than a smart ape or an above-average animal. To this I must reply, “Nonsense!”

It is true that we have many similarities to primates and, really, to all mammals. But the similarities stop there.

At the level of the soul the differences could not be greater! Animals do not compose symphonies; they do not write great works of literature or create magnificent art. They do not build cities or form bicameral legislatures.  They do not pass laws or even ponder right and wrong. They do not punish crime or reward virtue. They have no museums or libraries to collect their great works. They do not invent telescopes to look to the stars; they have not been to the moon and back or even wish to go there. They do not speak or sing, not because they lack a larynx, but because they have nothing to say, nothing to sing joyfully or to lament. They may suffer physical pain but they do not cry out in anguish, “Why?” They do not have cemeteries or religious rites. They may form packs to hunt but they do not form brotherhoods to assist the widows of dead members. They do not send their children to school to learn and they do not desire something greater for them. They do not ponder the Pythagorean theorem and its relationship to music theory. They do not build hospitals, theaters, or sports arenas.  They do not hold contests or celebrate weddings. They do not debate rights or justice or have courts. They do not have armies or go to war.

The gulf between animals and humans is enormous. Clearly the existence of the human soul, and more specifically that aspect of the soul called the spirit, is evident in abundance in the chasm between man and even the highest primates. Our lives and experiences are wholly different from theirs.

Consider art, specifically the fine art of painting.  I cannot draw or paint, yet I have always marveled at how some can take an empty canvas and bring it to life with color, form, depth, and shadow. And, little by little, from the painter’s brush and from his or her soul a picture emerges. So, too, with sculpting. A mere block of marble, with each blow of the sculptor’s tools, comes to resemble the form of a human being or some other reality in nature.

Some years ago there was a painter on PBS (Bob Ross) who would, over the course of half an hour, paint a picture and describe what he was doing as he went along. I watched that show almost every week for a number of years. And though I watched him, saw what he did, and even heard him describe the techniques, I never ceased to be amazed by the mystery before me. How did he do it? He described his method and technique, but there was some deeper mystery at work, a power of the soul, a gift. He claimed that we all have it. But I am more inclined to think that some have the ability to paint or sculpt as a special gift.

Michelangelo famously said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” He also said, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” Yes, but how does he see it? How does he set it free? Indeed, another great mystery and faculty of the human soul of some.

As with music, the art of painting and sculpting seems a unique capacity of the human soul. As I pointed out, animals do not draw; they do not sculpt; they do not even appreciate art. It is a special gift to the human person to be captivated by beauty, and for that beauty, once seen and experienced, to emerge from the soul in expressive praise. There are special glories and unique gifts given only to the human person, mysterious gifts to be sure. It is caught up in our desire for what is good, true, and beautiful; caught up in our soul’s ultimate longing for God.

Perhaps Michelangelo should have the last word: “Every beauty which is seen here by persons of perception resembles more than anything else that celestial source from which we all are come.”

Here’s a video of a painter at work on a speed painting. Be sure to watch all the way through to the surprise ending.

David Garibaldi: Jesus Painting from Thriving Churches on Vimeo.

Here’s a video of Bob Ross from the Joy of Painting show I mentioned above. In this brief passage, Bob teaches us to paint a mountain and imparts a little philosophy as well.

And finally, this video shows the remarkable transformation of a block of marble to the image of a human face.

21 Replies to “The Magnificent Mystery of Art and the Glory of the Human Soul”

  1. A friend sent me some sculptures such as you have here on You Tube and they were so delicate and exquisite I have never seen the like. What was truly amazing is that they were of things covered by lace or by fine veils and one can actually “see” through the lace and the fine veils. Imagine a young woman’s face covered by a veil and you can actually “see” the face through the veil, and yet the whole sculpture was solid marble; the face and the veil that one can “see” through! I would like to send them to you but I don’t know if I can!

  2. Beautiful post. David Garibaldi’s gift (and the others too) from God is so revealing about how special we are to God. How can we not respect the miracle of human life.
    God bless you msgr,
    Larry P

  3. “They do not speak or sing, not because they lack a larynx, but because they have nothing to say, nothing to sing joyfully or to lament. They may suffer physical pain but they do not cry out in anguish, “Why?””

    Let’s not get carried away here, Monsignor. Do humpback whales not sing to each other across hundreds of miles of ocean? Do elephants not grieve their dead? Do dogs not grieve the death of their masters? Do gray parrots not speak the words of people around them? Are there not thousands of species of songbirds?

    1. Whales and birds are “singing” to communicate rudimentary data about location and mating factors etc, there is no evidence that they are sharing delightsome melodies that they dance to or develop as fugues or variations. Where are their choirs and familiar hymns where they sing intelligibly, communally and simply ars gratis artis. I think the elephant thing is a projection. I doubt they are mourning (since they don’t have souls) They are surely noting a member of the pack is no more and for all I know they are sorting out pack leadership issues in the wake of it, you can say that are crying if you want but it is speculation and I think you bear a burden of proof.

      I am not “carried away” and I don’t appreciate your “schooling” tone here. If I am carried away, then permit me to employ your condescending tone and say you are naive and have been watching too many dopey animal shows full of speculation and projection about the inner life of animals. Animals are sentient creatures in the sense that they are aware of the world around them and of changes (such as a loss of the member of the pack). That’s about all we can say. If I am “carried away,” then respondeo dicendum quod: you are engaging in fanciful speculation and psychological projection that is probably naive and hopeful rather than rooted in solid evidence or reality. If they are mourning and grieving, where are their laments, funeral rites and graves and monuments to their dead. If they are singing, where is their top forty list, and how has their music developed, moving from chant to polyphony, to baroque and jazz?

      1. “you are engaging in fanciful speculation and psychological projection that is probably naive and hopeful rather than rooted in solid evidence or reality.”

        I would draw your attention to the wikipedia article on elephant cognition:

        As the article says, there is evidence that elephants engage in behaviors associated with grief, learning, mimicry, play, altruism, use of tools, compassion, cooperation, self-awareness, memory, and language. You can dismiss this evidence as mere projection if you like, but I would be careful before doing so.

        Does this mean I think elephants can write symphonies, requiems or te deums, or that they could have painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling? Hardly. We should not exaggerate animals’ abilities, but we should not exaggerate their incapacities either.

        1. Come on you have to do better than this.

          And by the way, your quoting of me shows you miss the illustrative point of my tone. It is intentionally excessive to imitate your own tone with me. You are reading replying literally what I intend to be illustrative of your “schooling” tone and so I am giving it back to you. Don’t direct your remarks to me, direct them to the issue.

          As for your Wikepdia link, its just in the same genre as I am already skeptical of. Really, my point stands even if you want to quibble about minor issues at the edge. I think you are being played by a lot of highly speculative theories about the inner lives of animals who still don’t do 99.9 % of things I mention.

          But wowza they you really blow the lid off and show how deeply you have been influenced: Really honestly, “grief, learning, mimicry, play, altruism, use of tools, compassion, cooperation, self-awareness, memory and language….? All this way over the top, it strains the proper use of these words and is highly speculative at best. You are smarter than this. You are not balanced here even if you wish to argue I am not. Go back to the Church Fathers or change you moniker because your recent comments no longer relate to that at all as far as I can tell.

          Enough of this now, the point still stands, the gulf between humans and animals is vast and wide.

          1. Dear Msgr:
            Your assertion about the gulf between humans and animal cognition is strongly supported in relatively recent research in comparative psychology. See the book by Michael Tomasello, The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. Harvard University Press (April 1, 2001). Tomasello shows through empirical research that human language/cognition is completely unique in its ability to engage in shared attention, and perspective taking. The basis of the findings are extensive and widely documented. To my knowledge, there has not been a generally accepted rebuttal to Tomasello’s treatise, even after 14 years.

  4. On our regional news website, there will be random stories of animal cruelty, abandonment etc. Which are horrible acts no doubt. But the outcry in the comment sections! And I always wonder, where is the outcry for the unborn? I do think something perverse has happened in our society regarding pet animals…they’ve become substitute children in a sense? I am not putting down people who love their companion pets, I have a great dog whom I love dearly. But he is a dog. The flip side of this is people like Peter Singer saying that a newborn infant is less worthy of life than a full-grown pig. Anyway, very interesting article Msgr, as always.

  5. On the contrary: A physical being must be rational in order to be a person.

    I answer that: Rationality (also called reason) is not merely an additional trait or group of traits added to non-rational animals; rather, it is an essentially different way of being, thinking, and acting. In other words, with regard to being, thinking, and acting, rational and non-rational animals cannot be spoken of univocally. A rational being is able to act and react “intentionally;” that is, such a being is able to know itself as an independent subject, to know what it is doing, to know why it is doing it, and to think and act precisely because of its knowledge of these things. For instance, a chimpanzee can detect a rule, abide by a rule, and even create a rule. However, a chimpanzee cannot reflect upon a rule as such (upon a rule as a rule), which would require an essentially different relationship with the rule: having a definition of a rule, knowing the rule to be a rule according to that definition, knowing the self in relation to the rule, having a defined morality by which to assess the rule, etc. In addition, a rational animal is able not only to make judgments but to judge judgments; that is, it not only perceives what is to be gained, but also scrutinizes the moral appropriateness of its desires. It is the difference between a two-dimensional and a three-dimensional relationship: for non-rational animals, judgments involve the animal and the object; for rational animals, judgments involve the animal, the object, and the truth. In other words, the ability to intentionally act and react brings with it conscience and culpability worthy of scrutiny in a criminal court.

    Rationality is made possible by intellect, which is the function by which abstract concepts are derived from the data of the senses. Whereas the senses detect changeable realities, the intellect can surpass detection to reflect upon unchanging realities as such – existence, truth, justice, infinity, eternity, etc. By its process of abstraction, intellect enables the rational being to think and act intentionally, thereby giving moral value to thoughts and actions. The result of the scrutinizing ability of the intellect is free will. Together, intellect and free will allow for the abilities particular to personality – namely, those mentioned in Q. 1, Reply 1.

    In the Blessed Trinity, the single divine intellect and the single divine will correspond to the Son and the Holy Spirit, respectively: the Word and the Love of the Almighty. Thus, it is in having intellect and free will that human individuals are made in the image of God, and it is by being intelligent and freely willing that human beings are able to know and to love him, respectively.

    It must be said that the claim that human beings are rational does not mean that all or most human beings presently act or think rationally; rather, it means that all human beings will be rational if nothing obstructs them from becoming and remaining rational. Among physical beings, only humans are known to have discursive reason and conscience, and are known to be able to have them by expressing more fully what they already are; therefore, human beings are the only known persons among physical beings.

    Reply to Objection 3: The knowledge, belief, warrant, and language of non-rational animals are not merely a lesser quantity of these same in human beings. Rather, in human beings, knowledge, belief, warrant, and language appear in an essentially different kind, grounded in a mind that can surpass instinct and habit to achieve introspection and, in matters of moral significance, self-mastery (cf. Q. 3, answer). While all species can be said to fall somewhere on a cognitive spectrum of lowest-functioning to highest-functioning, there is a threshold on the spectrum beyond which cognitive abilities are essentially different than those that came before. This is the threshold of moral conscience, which is also the threshold of personhood.

    The essential difference between the rational mind, capable of intentional actions and reactions (cf. Q. 3, answer), and the non-rational mind is the moral value it assigns to knowledge, belief, etc. Among chimpanzees, for instance, alliances, reciprocity, a sense of the well-being of the community, an awareness of the desires of others, a sense that certain factors affect community well-being, the impetus to reconcile divisions – these astonishingly complex structures and behaviors are not accompanied by the ability to reflect upon these concepts in themselves (an alliance as an alliance, etc.). Like chimpanzees’ democratic governance, these organic structures and behaviors have been naturally selected because they proved beneficial. In the absence of the ability to reflect upon these things beyond the level of a three-year old child, they are not accompanied by any moral value. For instance, reconciliation, while sensed as beneficial, is not recognized as something “just” or “good” according to definitions that chimpanzees are not capable of producing. Moreover, though certain non-rational animals can associate words with concepts, these animals have not been proven to understand language in the abstract way that provides for culpable free will and the traits particular to personality, namely, those mentioned in Q. 1, Reply 1. This is why no non-human animal can be diagnosed with a personality disorder of the variety observed in humans. Among the known animals, it is only in the human being that knowledge can become understanding, that defense of another can become self-sacrifice, that affection can become love, etc.

    With regard to the question of personhood, a fully-functional non-rational animal is not directly comparable to a healthy a three-year old human being, although the level at which they function cognitively may be similar. Primarily, this is the case because personhood is not a matter of functional ability (cf. Q. 1, answer and Reply 1). Secondarily, it does not logically follow that, because a being has the functional ability of a healthy three-year old human being, it is equivalent in dignity or even in potential utilitarian worth to a human being who, because of its latent and functional abilities, can intentionally do more for or against the world than a member of any other known animal species.

    1. Yes, I also remember that Boethius defined a person as an individual substance of a rational nature, and thus this includes both the angels, The Three Divine Persons and human persons. Some good distinctions here. Can you provide the reference?

      1. Sure, Msgr. It’s from a short work called ‘Abortion and Personhood: a Pro-life Document in Two Parts.’ Thus far, it has not been published, but I believe it will soon be distributed through the Knights of Columbus in Nassau County, New York. I have PDF file of it if you are interested in it.

  6. I would love to read more about your (or Catholic) conceptualization of the soul. It is one of those words we use a lot without really being sure what it is and is not.

    I have heard the evangelical preacher John Ortberg refer to a “healthy soul” as someone who’s will (or spirit), thoughts, actions, and relationships are aligned to do the will of God – as opposed to, say, some ethereal presence that will de-link from the body when it dies. The “healthy soul” concept appealed to me – but, as I listened to him, I realized I had no Catholic conceptualization against which to assess it. If you have thoughts on that, I would love to read them.

  7. Undergirding that is the fact that only humans can think abstract concepts – that is universals. Humans can think the concept “cat” that applies to all possible cats, whereas animals can only perceive and react to individual cats.

  8. I had read somewhere that Thomas Aquinas taught that animals do indeed have a kind of soul, but that he also placed these “souls” in a different category altogether from immortal human souls (made in the image and likeness of God).

    Am I on the wrong track here, or did Aquinas write something of this sort?

    1. You are right. Every living thing has a soul in the sense that the soul in the life-giving or animating aspect of any living thing. Humans however have a rational soul which distinguishes us greatly from even the higher mammals. Thomas teaches for example that an animal can experience pleasure, since pleasure is related to the body, but cannot experience joy, which pertains to a rational soul that perceives pleasure in context to proper ends and in a contextual way that gives joy etc.

  9. If your tongue misses a recently removed (or lost) tooth, and it keeps searching the empty spot for it, does that mean it’s grieving?

    Monsignor, thanks for another beautiful and thought-provoking post.

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