keskiviikko 21. joulukuuta 2016

François-René de Chateaubriand: Genius of Christianity – Art and literature

When it comes to art, Chateaubriand's outlook is clearly literary – he has almost nothing to say about fine arts, when compared to his extensive take on poetry. Furthermore, even here we could as well repeat most of the criticism we launched against Chateaubriand's take on poetry. He is especially careful to point out that Christianity provides e.g. good topics for paintings. This appears rather pathetic defense of Christianity, because surely the worth of a painting lies in something else than merely their topic, even if a good topic does make it easier to make an aesthetic impression. Most original is probably Chateaubriand's take on architecture, where he points out how e.g. Gothic churches provide a more concrete experience of infinity than Greek temples.

Chateaubriand's take on literature is not that much better. He divides his topic intro three classes: history, rhetoric and philosophy or science. Of these, we might be quick with the rhetoric. Chateaubriand is especially keen to show that people like Church Fathers were good writers. This is again part of Chateaubriand's general strategy to show that Christianity is especially good religion for producing beauty.

History and science are a different matter. Chateaubriand does have a somewhat antiquated notion of history – it is more a literary effort of describing certain series of actual events in an aesthetic fashion than a research into past events. His defense of Christianity as a source of good histories is rather halfhearted. Chateaubriand merely states that Christian historians have been as proficient as Pagan historians and points out in a familiar manner how the Christian nations have had interesting fates worthy of a historian.

Chateaubriand's plea for the worth of Christianity in case of science and philosophy is the least convincing. In this case, religion either seems like a detriment to the work of scientists and philosophers or then at best apparently contributes nothing to their progress. Chateaubriand relies on name dropping, mentioning all the famous mathematicians, scientists, philosophers etc. who were clearly at least religious in general or even Christian in particular. In case of philosophy, he is especially keen to point out that times of heightened Christianity were those with great philosophers. One is somewhat perplexed that Chateaubriand has then nothing to say about the philosophy of Middle Ages, since that was the time with most Christian and even Catholic philosophers, but is satisfied with such modern names as Leibniz and Clarke. The basic problem is, of course, that Chateaubriand is already evaluating the worth of a philosophic work with lenses of a Catholic Christian.

The most convincing part of the third book of the Genius of Christianity is then the one not mentioned in the title of the book. This part has as its topic what Chateaubriand calls harmonies. In practice, these include, on the one hand, harmonies between religious buildings and nature, and secondly, between religious feasts and human life. The first continues Chateaubriand's interest on architecture. Places of Christian worship are not just capable of connecting us to divinity, he says, but they also exist in harmony with the surrounding nature, and even when they are becoming ruins, they show the power of divinity over the nature. The second topic opens up the discussion to the fourth book, which covers the cult of Christianity. Together, they contains ingredients of most importance in Chateaubriand's book – it is the practice and personal experience that has the greatest ability to make people Christian. This is a topic that I shall deal in more detail in the next post.

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