Lectures on Aesthetics by G.W.F. Hegel – Part I

Lectures on Aesthetics
by G.W.F. Hegel
Part I
Of the Symbolic Form of Art
I. Of the Symbol in General

The symbol, in the sense which we here give to this term, constitutes, according to its very idea, as well as from the epoch of its appearance in history, the beginning of art. Thus it ought rather to be considered as the precursor of art. It belongs especially to the Orient, and will conduct us, by a multitude of transitions, transformations, and mediations, to the true realisation of the ideal under the classic form. We must then distinguish the symbol, properly speaking, as furnishing the type of all the conceptions or representations of art at this epoch, from that species of symbol which, on its own account, nothing more than a mere unsubstantial, outward form. Where the symbol presents itself under its appropriate and independent form, it exhibits in general the character of sublimnity. The idea, being vague and indeterminate, incapable of a free and measured development, cannot find in the real world any fixed form which perfectly corresponds to it; in default of which correspondence and proportion, it transcends infinitely its external manifestation. Such is the sublime style, which is rather the immeasurable than the true sublime?

We will first explain what should here be understood by the term symbol.

1. It is a sensuous object, which must not be taken in itself such as it presents itself immediately to us, but in more extended and more general sense. There are, then, in the symbol two terms to be distinguished: first, the meaning, and, secondly, the expression. The first is a conception of the mind; the second, a sensuous phenomenon, an image which address itself to the senses.

Thus the symbol is a sign, but it is distinguished from the signs of language in this: that between the image and the idea which it represents, there is a relation which is natural, not arbitrary or conventional. It is thus that the lion is the symbol of courage, the circle of eternity, the triangle of the trinity.

Still, the symbol does not represent the idea perfectly, but only from a single side. The lion is not merely courageous, the fox cunning. Whence it follows that the symbol, having many meanings, is equivocal. This ambiguity ceases only when the two terms are first conceived separately and then in combination; the symbol then gives place to comparison.

Thus conceived, the symbol, with its enigmatical and mysterious character, is peculiarly applicable to a whole epoch of history – to Oriental art and its extraordinary creations. It characterises that order of monuments and emblems by which the peoples of the Orient have sought to express their ideas, but have been able to do so only in an equivocal and obscure fashion. Instead of beauty and regularity, these works of art have a bizarre, grandiose, fantastic aspect.

When we find ourselves in this world of symbolic representations and images of ancient Persia, India, and Egypt, all seems strange to us. We feel that we are groping about in the midst of problems. These images do not entertain us of themselves. The spectacle neither pleases nor satisfies us in itself; we must pass beyond the sensuous form in order to penetrate its the more extended and more profound meaning. In other productions we see at the first glance that they have nothing serious; that, like the stories of children, they are a simple play of the imagination, which is pleased with accidental and particular associations. But these peoples, although in their infancy, demand a meaning and a truer and more substantial basis of ideas. This, indeed, is what we find among the Indians, the Egyptians, etc., although in these enigmatical figures the meaning may be often very difficult to divine. What part must it play amid this poverty and grossness of conceptions? How far, on the contrary, in the incapability of expressing by purer more beautiful forms the depth of religious ideas, is it proper to call in the fantastic and the grotesque to the aid of a representation of which the aspiration is not to remain beneath its object? This is a difficult point to decide.

The classic ideal, it is true, presents the same difficulty. Though the idea seized by the mind may here be lodged in an adequate form, the image, beyond this idea of which it serves as the expression, represents other and foreign ideas. Is it possible to see in these representations and these stories only absurd inventions which shock the religious sense – as the amours of Jupiter, etc.? Such stories being related of superior divinities, is it not very probable that they contain a wider and deeper meaning concealed? Whence two different opinions, the one of which regards mythology as a collection of fables unworthy of the idea of God; which present, it is true, much that is interesting and charming, but which cannot furnish a basis for a more serious interpretation. In the other, on the contrary, they pretend that a more general and more profound meaning resides in these fables. To penetrate beneath the veil with which they envelop their mysterious meanings is the task of those who devote themselves to the philosophic study of myths.

All mythology is then conceived as essentially symbolical. This would be to say that myths, as creations of the human spirit, however bizarre and grotesque they may appear, contain in themselves a meaning for the reason; general thoughts upon the divine nature — in a word, philosophemes.

From this point of view myths and traditions have their origin in the spirit of man, who can easily make a play of the representations of his gods, but seeks and finds in them also a higher interest, whenever he finds himself unable to set forth his ideas in a more suitable manner. Now, this is the true opinion. Thus, when reason finds again these forms in history, it realises the necessity of probing their meaning.

If, then, we penetrate to the source of these myths in order to discover there their concealed truth, yet without losing from view the accidental element which belongs to the imagination and to history, we are able thus to justify the different mythologies. And to justify man in the images and the representations which his spirit has created is a noble enterprise, far preferable to that which consists in particulars more or less insignificant.

Without doubt, priests and poets have never known under an abstract and general form the thoughts which constitute the basis of mythological representations, and it is not by design that they have been enveloped in a symbolical veil. But it does not follow that their representations cannot be symbols and ought not to be considered as such. Those peoples, at the time when they composed their myths, lived in a state altogether poetic; they expressed their most secret and most profound sentiments, not by abstract formulae, but by the imagination.

Thus the mythological fables contain a wholly rational basis, and more or less profound religious ideas.

Nor is it less correct to say that for every true work of art there serves as basis a universal thought which, afterward presented under an abstract form, must give the meaning of the work. The critical spirit, or the understanding, hastens on to the symbol or allegory. Here it separates image from signification, and thus destroys the art-form; to which, indeed, in respect of the symbolic explanation which only brings out the universal as such, no importance attaches.

2. But this mode of extending the symbol to the entire domain of mythology is by no means the method which we are here to pursue. Our aim is not to discover to what point the representations of art have had a symbolic or allegorical meaning.

On the contrary, we have to inquire how far the symbol, properly speaking, extends as a special form of art, while still preserving its appropriate character, and thereby we shall distinguish it in particular from the two other forms, Classic and Romantic.

Now, the symbol, in the special sense which we attach to this term, ceases where free subjectivity (personality), taking the place of vague and indeterminate conceptions, constitutes the basis of representation in art. Such is the character which the Greek gods present us. Greek art represents them as free individuals, independent in themselves; genuine moral persons. Hence we cannot consider them from the symbolic point of view. The acts, for example, of Jupiter, of Apollo, of Minerva, belong only to these divinities themselves; represent only their power and their passions. Should we abstract from these free individualities a general idea and set it up as an explanation, we should abandon and destroy in these figures just that which corresponds to the idea of art. Whence artists have never been satisfied with these symbolic or allegorical explanations applied to works of art and to mythology. If there remains a place for allegory or the symbol, it is in the accessories, in simple attributes, signs — as the eagle by the side of Jupiter, the ox by the side of St. Luke; while the Egyptians saw in the bull Apis a divinity itself.

The difficult point in our investigation is to distinguish whether what are represented as personages in mythology or art possess a real individuality or personality, or whether they contain but the empty semblance of it, and are only mere personifications. This is what constitutes the real problem of the limitation of Symbolic Art.

What interests us here is that we are present at the very origin of art. At the same time we shall observe the progressive advancement of the symbol, the stages by which it proceeds toward genuine art. Whatever may he the narrow line which unites religion and art, we have here to consider the symbol solely from the artistic point of view. We abandon to the history of mythology itself the religious side.

DIVISION. — Many degrees are to be noted in the development of this form of art in the Orient.

But first we must mark its origin. This, which is, blended with that of art in general, can be explained in the following manner:

The sentiment of art like the religious sentiment, like scientific curiosity, is born of wonder; the man who wonders at nothing lives in a state of imbecility and stupidity. This state ceases when his spirit, disengaging itself from matter and from physical necessities, is struck by the phenomena of nature, and seeks their meaning; when he is impressed by in them grand and mysterious, a concealed power which reveals itself.

Then he experiences also the need of representing this internal sentiment of a general and universal power. Particular objects – the elements, the sea, the waves, the mountains — lose their immediate meaning and become for the spirit images of this invisible power.

It is then that art appears. It is born of the necessity of representing this idea by sensuous images, which address themselves at once to the senses and to the mind.

In religions, the idea of an absolute power is at first manifested by the worship of physical objects. The divinity is identified with nature itself; but this gross worship cannot last. Instead of seeing the absolute in real objects, man conceives it as a distinct and universal being; he seizes, though very imperfectly, the relation which unites the invisible principle to the objects of nature; he fashions an image, a symbol destined to represent it. Art is then the interpreter of religious ideas.

Such, in its origin, is art, and with it the Symbolic Form is born.

We will attempt, by a precise division, to trace exactly the circle in which the symbol moves.

That which characterises, in general, Symbolic Art is that it vainly endeavours to find pure conception and a mode of representation which is suitable to them. It is a conflict between matter and form; both imperfect and heterogeneous. Whence the incessant strife between the two elements of art, which seek, uselessly, to place themselves in harmony. The degrees of its development present successive phases or modes of this conflict.

1. At the beginning of art this conflict does not yet exist. The point of departure, at least, is a still undivided unity, in the center of which ferments the discord between the two principles. Here, then, the creations of art, little distinguished from objects of nature, are still, scarcely symbols.

2. The termination of this epoch is the disappearance of the symbol, which takes place by the reflective separation of the two terms, the idea being clearly conceived; the image, on its side, being perceived as distinct from the idea. From their reconciliation (rapprochement) is born the reflective symbol or comparison, the allegory, etc.

The two extreme points being thus fixed, we may now see, in what follows, the intermediary points or degrees. The general division is this:

I. The true symbol is the unconscious, irreflective symbol, the forms of which appear to us in Oriental civilisation.

II. Then follows, as a mixed form, or form of transition, the reflective symbol, of which the basis is comparison, and which marks the close of this epoch.

We have, then, to follow each of these two forms in the successive stages of its development; to mark its steps in the career which it has passed through in the Orient before arriving at the Greek ideal.


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