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Grace and Necessity
by Rowan Williams
Continuum, 144 pages, $14.95 (paper)

The election of Rowan Williams as archbishop of Canterbury in 2002 caused a stir. Evangelicals thought his views on ordination and homosexuality dangerously liberal; liberals thought his Anglo-Catholic theology troublingly conservative. Then the evangelicals stood behind him when he took issue with the gratuitous portrayal of immorality on British television, while the liberals excused his traditional theological leanings when he proved a critic of the war in Iraq.

Williams has a lesser-known side, however. In addition to his scholarly writings, he has written several volumes of English verse. His latest book, Grace and Necessity , collects his provocative reflections on the philosophy of poetry, originally delivered as the 2005 Clark Lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge. Grace and Necessity works from the aesthetics of French neo-Thomistic philosopher Jacques Maritain, who attempted to direct philosophy’s attention toward the good of the artistic product rather than the good of the artist or the viewer. Williams admires Maritain’s work, but he is convinced the attempt needs revision.

The fundamental Thomistic distinction, highlighted by Maritain and reiterated by Williams, is between art and prudence. Prudence, the auriga virtutum of the moral life, aims toward the good of the personal agent. Art, understood as craftsmanship, aims toward the good of the object produced.

Though elementary in its formulation, this distinction has generated an impassioned debate over what is meant by “the good of the object itself.” Williams strives to ground the distinction in an even more fundamental assertion about the ontology of art: “The artist’s work,” he explains, “is inescapably a claim about reality. It has to do with our knowledge of being itself.” In his Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry (1953), Maritain had suggested that the poet acts under the motivation of certain precognitive and prelinguistic “pulsions”: a sort of life rhythm flowing through things and intuited by the artist. Williams expresses this in terms of a “being more.” Things are not simply themselves, nor are they simply poetic symbols. They are endowed with a unique act of being that often goes unperceived in the ordinary act of knowing. The artist, perceiving this “being more” of things through creative intuition, is able to represent their being through the exercise of artistic skill.

This was a source of contention among the neo-Thomistic philosophers of the twentieth century. Is the exercise of artistic skill to be considered in negative terms, as the removal of obstacles that stand in the way of realizing creative intuition, or in positive terms, as the action that leads to the realization of creative intuition? The former position was held by Maritain, the latter by Etienne Gilson. Williams sides with Gilson, arguing that the artist is never entirely sure what will come about until the creative process is well underway.

Williams exalts two artists as living embodiments of neo-Thomistic aesthetics. One is Flannery O’Connor, whom he quotes extensively. The other is David Jones, a convert to Catholicism who was a close associate of Eric Gill and the Ditchling artists’ community. According to Williams, Jones exemplifies the quest to bring pulsions of intuition to light through the exercise of artistic skill. During the first half of his career, Jones focused on the visual media of pencil, watercolor, and etching. Williams examines Jones’ effort to express the “being more” of things through the increasingly complex use of interweaving lines to produce overlapping images on a single plane.

Later in life, Jones tried to reconstruct that same complexity through poetry, which Williams calls “material words.” In his poetry, according to Williams, Jones was attempting to correct Gill’s unfortunate distortion of Maritain’s distinction between art and morality. Maritain, Williams reminds us, did not mean to suggest that the two realms are entirely unrelated. Yes, in the transmutation of nature, the artist transcends the immediate moral problems of the community by displaying the “being more” of natural things. But this is still tied to genuine human concerns: The good of art is the good of reality displayed in its super-effluence, and it is directed toward the good of human contemplation, which is inextricably linked to the moral life.

Williams makes a significant contribution to neo-Thomistic aesthetics while remaining open to the way artists themselves further refine aesthetic philosophy. Though short, Grace and Necessity is not an easy read. Yet its point is worth the effort: If supernatural grace is as latently and mysteriously present in ordinary things as Williams claims, then we must pay attention to the ways in which artists disclose that grace.


<span style=”font-variant: small-caps”>Daniel B. Gallagher</span> teaches theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit.