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Response to Review of The Experience of Beauty in the Middle Ages

In the first few paragraphs of his review of my book, Richard Braude gives a cursory summary of the content of its chapters. He credits me with producing ‘good essays’, says I even have ‘a talent’, but also asserts that mine is a book ‘bound up’ in a ‘conservative polemic’, which the bulk of his review attempts to locate through partial quotation, outright misrepresentation, and other fictions. Nowhere does he substantively engage what is the main matter of the book (stated plainly in its introduction), which is to try to discover, first, if a medieval lexicon even existed for what we now consider ‘aesthetic values’ or if, as several historians and critics named in my notes have asserted, medieval responses to human artefacts were always and only thought of as extensions of pastoral and theological moral concerns. I focused on this matter by considering how human responses to human artefacts were described in a number of texts. I considered in particular how such human-based aesthetics (that is, theories of sensory experiences) were related to prevailing medieval theories about human sensation, including medical theories of the humours, and especially to the creative tensions among mixtures of opposite qualities that these theories routinely employ. Mine is indeed a book about the uses and effects of stylistic choices, considered from the viewpoints of medieval rhetoric and medicine, which were conceived to be analogous in fruitful ways. Mr. Braude ignores these major discussions in the book entirely, and, concluding his abbreviated over-view, gets down to his main agenda – which is overtly, and I presume proudly, polemical.

Mr. Braude writes: ‘My criticism of this book, however, is political.’ But my book is deliberately NOT ‘politicized’ and moralized, as I say from its outset. Indeed, I think critical evaluations of medieval artefacts have, for at least a century, been ‘over-moralized and over-theologized’, from the revolutionary left as much as from the religious right. Evidently this is my book’s root problem for Mr. Braude, and so he simply makes up a moralized agenda for it, and based on this fiction he passes judgements on what he asserts to be my own politics and ethics. This is typical of a rhetorical mode called Invective, and there is a excellent example of it on p. 55, composed by Tertullian (and no, Mr. Braude, calling it ‘excellent’ as Invective does NOT indicate that I agree with Tertullian, morally or politically, or that I judge Tertullian to have been of excellent character). Invective belongs to the Blame side of epideictic rhetoric. It depends greatly on hyperbolic language, ‘puffed up’ like a balloon. Another of its defining characteristics is to make up an opponent, evil or stupid or both, a straw man or woman, who can then readily be knocked down (or burned at the stake, as case may be). Augustine was also a master of Invective, when it suited his purpose. Styles, as Mr. Braude well knows (though, employing a common rhetorical trope, he avows disdain for rhetoric and indeed persuasion generally) always are chosen for particular purposes. Augustine’s letter 91 contains much accomplished Invective, though Augustine is wittier than Tertullian, an aspect of rhetoric which Mr. Braude might want to work on in his own prose. He is coming along with his various rhetorical practices, but has much still to learn from the masters.

He writes: ‘Why does Carruthers make this argument [note that ‘this’ has no referent]? Why argue that the Christian Middle Ages was a time of sweetness, moderacy and rhetoric? [An example of the typical reductio ad absurdum of Invective: boil off all inconvenient complexity and nuance, take up the few grotesque simplicities left behind, call this your enemy’s ‘argument’, and then triumphantly destroy it, preferably by posing some rhetorical questions, which you then get to answer yourself: see next.] Carruthers highlights this aspect of the world because it matches her own: a well spoken, non-religious (but not irreligious) academy, where an elite (believe they) speak well because they live well. Despite constantly flitting between her description of medieval texts and her own truisms, it is clear that the Aristotelian ‘virtue based ethics’ of her favourite medieval writers is also the system of ethics to which she holds (p. 57, n. 17)’.

[In this paragraph, the commentary in square brackets is mine; that in curved brackets is Mr. Braude’s sotto voce nuance of his own statements.]

The fiction created by this paragraph is based entirely on my judgement (stated in the note cited but – notice – not quoted) that Julia Annas’s recent book on virtue ethics(1) gives ‘an excellent presentation’ of the subject and its Aristotelian origins. It does not follow that I either do or do not hold the same system of ethics (see my comment about Tertullian, above). But Mr. Braude needs his stalking-horses. He is really, really angry with me for criticizing equally all who instantly and immediately moralize (or ‘politicize’, as Mr Braude would have it) medieval artefacts and styles, whether such moralizing comes from the right or from the left, or the middle for that matter. He is correct about that, at least. I do criticize it, strongly. His review is a cogent example of why I do.

Mr. Braude is of the persuasion that aesthetic judgements are of necessity moral judgements. This assumption has a long but dangerous social history, for conflating the two categories has led too often in the past to the destruction of those artefacts (and sometimes of their artists) that various moralizers have deemed degenerate, decadent, or even evil. Three works set out the parameters of this matter clearly: 1) Leo Tolstoy, What is Art?, arguing for the necessarily moralized nature of art; 2) Stuart Hampshire, ’Logic and appreciation’, arguing that aesthetic judgements and moral judgements are separate logical categories and should not be simply conflated; 3) Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just, which takes a middle ground, exactly that 'moderacy' so despised by Mr. Braude.(2)

Those who are unafraid that they may be duped by unstated, underhanded, unconscious (and yet ‘polemical’) politicizing on my part are free to read my book and judge it for themselves. Those who may still be curious as to what it actually is about may read the introduction for free on the online catalogue of Oxford University Press.(3) Please do so.

Notes

1) Julia Annas, Intelligent Virtue (Oxford, 2011).

2) Leo Tolstoy, What is Art?, can be read freely online in the standard English translation by Aylmer Maude (London, 1899) through Google Books, as well as in many printed editions; Stuart Hampshire, 'Logic and appreciation,' was first published in The Review of Reviews (also called The World Review), 44 (October 1952) and was reprinted in the anthology Art and Philosophy, ed. W. E. Kennick (New York, 1964), pp. 579–85; Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton, 1999).

3) <http://www.oup.com/uk/isbn/9780199590322> [accessed 12 August 2013].