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Bonaventure’s Contributions to Aesthetics: Thomas McKenna’s “Bonaventure’s Aesthetics”

Bonaventure’s Aesthetics: The Delight of the Soul in Its Ascent into God. Thomas McKenna. Lanham: Lexington Press, 2020.

In the pantheon of great Christian thinkers, everyone tends to remember Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and John Calvin. It is easy to forget other great figures who held tremendous sway in their time, and still hold great residual influence today. Thomas McKenna, therefore, does an indelible service in restoring the influence and insight of Bonaventure for us in Bonaventure’s Aesthetics: The Delight of the Soul in Its Ascent into God. If Beauty is a pathway to God, Bonaventure—more than any other theologian in the Christian tradition—is undoubtedly its chief theologian. And if the enjoyment of beauty is a central part of the aesthetic experience, Bonaventure is also its chief philosopher.

The place of aesthetics in philosophical, and theological, discourse has a long tradition behind it. As McKenna opens, “The standard definition of aesthetics, the philosophy of beauty and its principal manifestation in the fine or beaux arts, possesses an impressive pedigree. Plato initiated the philosophical reflection on the concept of beauty.” Plato, the Platonic inheritance through mediating forces, culminating in Plotinus and the Neoplatonic inheritance and augmentation under Augustine, Dionysius, and Hugh of St. Victor, necessarily serve as the background to Bonaventure’s contributions to aesthetic theology. McKenna shines in his early introduction providing the long history of “the philosophy of beauty and its principal manifestation” from Antiquity to the Middle Ages (and beyond) that sets the stage for Bonaventure.

Part of McKenna’s introduction to the place of beauty in philosophical discourse and history is to pave the way for his principal protagonist: Bonaventure. For in the concise history of aesthetics McKenna opens with, we find many familiar names: Plato, Plotinus, Porphyry, Augustine, Pseudo-Denys, Shaftesbury, and Kant. It is, therefore, McKenna’s assertion that among the great names of aesthetic thinkers should be added Bonaventure and that he should no longer be overlooked as one of the greatest theorists of aesthetics in the history of Western intellectual thought.

The implicit heart of the book is an attempt to place Bonaventure in the pantheon of great aesthetic thinkers. While it is acknowledged that many sources influence Bonaventure, including the great troika of Hellenic thought: “Pythagorean, Platonic, and Stoic,” McKenna’s chief interlocutor in writing about Bonaventure’s aesthetics and its central place in the soul’s ascent to God is Donatien de Bruyne who placed Bonaventure’s aesthetics squarely in the Pythagorean tradition of musical harmony (l’esthétique musicale) moreover than the Platonic concept of musical proportionality (l’esthétique de la lumières). McKenna enters this debate by providing an overview of all the strands of philosophical thought that influenced Bonaventure’s aesthetic development and alters our understanding inherited by De Bruyne.

It is obvious that Bonaventure relies on Genesis and the Biblical narrative, but he also drew upon Stoic thought than rely on strict Pythagoreanism. In McKenna’s reappraisal of the Stoic influences upon Bonaventure, the first chapter shines forth. Nevertheless, there are problems with the Stoic inheritance that would prove unpalatable for those strongly influenced by late Platonism and the Biblical tradition. Ultimately, McKenna acknowledges the debt Bonaventure owed to l’esthétique musicale but regularly implies that Bonaventure as an aesthetician of l’esthétique musicale is insufficient and that the l’esthétique de la lumières is equally important in understanding Bonaventure’s views.

If Pythagorean and Stoic influences don’t overwhelm Bonaventure, it must stand to reason that Bonaventure had a strong Platonist inheritance. After all, Bonaventure was more Augustinian and therefore Platonic than other Aristotelian-leaning Scholastics; and like Augustine before him, Bonaventure came under the strong influence of the mystical interpretation of Plato’s Timaeus. Like the best of his predecessors, it becomes clear that Bonaventure was a great synthesizer of Biblical and Hellenic thought. The Platonic inheritance in Bonaventure’s aesthetic development cannot be understated—to which McKenna shows why. In fact, it might be argued that Bonaventure’s Christianized cosmic metaphysics owes more to Platonism than Pythagoreanism or Stoicism.

Bonaventure’s itinerarium bears a strong debt to the Neoplatonic ladder of love. As McKenna writes, “Plotinus and his heirs developed the influential codification of the Platonic ladder of love that led Bonaventure to delineate three stages of the soul’s ascent, the contemplation of the physical realm of being, the intelligible, and the divine.” Carrying forward this long tradition of aesthetic ascent, now theologized, Bonaventure carves out a path for aesthetic experience and aesthetic delight in the spiritual journey.

Here, Bonaventure proves a consequential and revolutionary thinker in aesthetics—both for philosophy and theology. While there are antecedent roots of aesthetic joy in theology, especially from the mind of Augustine, Bonaventure codifies the central place that aesthetics can play in the soul’s ascension to the Divine that would subsequently influence post-Bonaventurean theology. Bonaventure’s revolutionary change in aesthetic understanding, through combining theology with many strands of Hellenic philosophical thought, is that aesthetics can be a source of joy rather than mere contemplation and understanding about the nature of the cosmos. (In this respect, we might say that even decidedly non-Christian thinkers who give consideration on the power of aesthetic experience and rapture, like Arthur Schopenhauer, stand on the shoulder of Bonaventure.)

Thomas McKenna’s Bonaventure’s Aesthetics: The Delight of the Soul in Its Ascent into God is an indispensable book on Bonaventure’s aesthetic theology as well as the many influences that went into Bonaventure’s aesthetic revolution. McKenna shows how Bonaventure brought forth a new aesthetic outlook combining the totality of Hellenic philosophy with Christian theology which also changed Christianity’s own theological tradition. The book is now the best English introduction to Bonaventure’s aesthetics. And if there are future books written about the history of aesthetics, McKenna has also made an impassioned and convincing argument for Bonaventure’s place alongside the likes of Plato, Plotinus, Augustine, Shaftesbury, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche.

*This review was originally published at VoegelinView, 21 December 2021 under the title “Bonaventure’s Aesthetic Revolution.”

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Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.

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