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Milton C. Nahm

The Theological Background of the Theory of the Artist as Creator

Journal of the History of Ideas

Volume 8, Issue 3

Jun., 1947, 363-372.



Greek and the Hebraic-Christian Theories

The Aesthetic Miracle


HHC: Titling and Index added


The arts bear upon few philosophical issues more significant than that of freedom, although aesthetic does not compare to ethics as a battleground for controversy concerning free will or determinism.  Rather, the issue of freedom has been an implicit, if pervasive, presupposition of theories of artistic creativity, of aesthetic perception, and, indeed, of the nature of the fine arts themselves.  It is the purpose of the present paper to examine the theory of the artist as creator, which I take to be the ground for this omnipresent attribution of freedom in the aesthetic realm.  Theology, which has frequently provided religion with the numerous arguments it has employed to restrain the artist, is in its turn curiously enough, if not the ultimate, at least the conserving source for the western world’s theory of the almost unlimited freedom of the artist as creator.

The lack of precision in current theories of the artist as creator suggests the truth of Robert Frost’s remark that “the best way out is always through.”  It is interesting to speculate whether or not centuries of dialectical controversy would have helped to clarify the issue - just as such discussion brought the Aristotelian practical wisdom into the vexed realms of free-will, foreknowledge, and predestination.  In this paper, however, I should like only to point out what did in fact occur and to examine some consequences of that occurrence.  I should like, first, to consider the heritage of aesthetic from an earlier theological and metaphysical conflict in the theory of creation.  I should like then to evaluate the consequences of this inheritance, principally the assumption that the artist has power to transcend natural laws, as well as the related hypotheses that he can produce unique individuals and cause novelty to emerge.


Greek and the Hebraic-Christian Theories

The early theological and metaphysical conflict to which I refer is well known in the historical differences between the Greek and the Hebraic-Christian theories of the making and creation of the world, and to its brief consideration I shall shortly come.  But it is well at the outset to make clear that the implications of this conflict for aesthetic are not merely what the western tradition once drew upon for guidance, but are, as well, what that tradition still draws upon.  By way of illustration, Robert Browning writes of Abt Vogler’s extemporization upon music:

For think, had I painted the whole,

Why, there it had stood, to see, nor the process so wonder-worth:

Had I written the same, made verse - still, effect proceeds from cause,


Ye know why the forms are fair, ye hear how the tale is told:

It is all triumphant art, but art in obedience to laws,

Painter and poet are proud in the artist-list enrolled; -

But here is the finger of God, a flash of the will that can,

Existent behind all laws, that made them and, lo, they are!

And I know not if, save in this, such gift be allowed to man,

That out of three sounds he frame, not a fourth sound, but a star.

Consider it well: each tone of our scale in itself is naught:

It is everywhere in the world - loud, soft, and all is said:

Give it to me to use!  I mix it with two in my thought:

And there!  Ye have heard and seen: consider and bow the head!

In suggesting that the musician has powers identical with the “Existent behind all laws that made them,” the poem discloses a clear discernment of two significant facts, namely, that to the artist are attributed miraculous powers, and that his divine freedom consists precisely in a capacity to transcend “art in obedience to laws.”

Let us glance in turn at a philosophical statement of the theory. Benedetto Croce urges that “expression is free inspiration.” 1  At the particular point at which this proposition is presented, Croce has been analyzing “the search for the end of art,” a search which he calls “ridiculous”: “To fix an end,” he writes, “is to choose… A selection among impressions and sensations implies that these are already expressions… To choose is to will: to will this and not to will that: and this and that must be before us, expressed.  Practice follows, it does not precede theory; expression is free inspiration.”

Croce undercuts the problem of free will or determinism of will for aesthetic by asserting the logical priority of intuition to willing, by identifying intuition, art, and expression, and by associating practice and making.  The artist is freed in this fashion both from the limitations placed upon his will and from those imposed upon art by the requirements of material and end.  In a sense, too, the artist is freed from causal laws, because Croce never considers them to be applicable at the level of expression, but only within the scope of technique and its products.  It is no less significant that on this hypothesis the artist is not only free but is free to produce novelty, i.e., to intuit individuals and to express “the individual expressive fact”. 2  The mode of attack permits Croce to hold that “individual expressive facts are so many individuals, not one of which is interchangeable with another,” 3 to assert that every impression or “content differs from every other content,” 4 and to regard “expression” as “a species which cannot function in its turn as a genus.” 5

1. Aesthetic, D. Ainslie translation, 51.

2. Ibid., 35.

3. Ibid., 67-68.

4. Ibid., 68.

5. Ibid., 68.


I believe that Croce is in error, for reasons which I have put forward elsewhere, and with consequences to which I shall later allude.  It is true, nonetheless, that he has delineated a fundamental problem for aesthetic in his efforts to provide freedom for the artist and to establish the work of art’s unique individuality.  What has occurred is clear: Croce has inherited the spirit of a tradition but has doffed the trappings.  The poet-philosopher, Coleridge, in suggesting that poetry is “a dim analogue to creation,” is wholly within that tradition.  Moreover, it is only within the tradition that we may discern plainly the full implications of the key word, “creation.”  Coleridge, in fact, echoes Athanasius 6 - probably through Schelling:

For God creates, and to create (HHC: Greek not reproduced) is also ascribed to men;… Yet does God create as men do?... Perish the thought; we understand the terms in one sense of God, and in another of men.  For God creates, in that He calls what is not into being, needing nothing thereunto; but men work some existing material (HHC: Greek not reproduced)

The western tradition of creation in aesthetic reflects the spirit of this denial to man of God’s miraculous power.  It is significant, however, that the use of the word “analogous” has sufficed to endow the artist with freedom commensurate with that attributed to Deity, in. that as maker he has power to produce by his art unique individuals and to transcend natural laws. 7  In this respect, aesthetic theory is heir to one of the great theological and metaphysical controversies of history.  To account for the artist’s presumed capacity to produce unique individuals, a specification of the general theory of the emergence of novelty in essences and immortal souls has been employed.  The presumption that the artist is capable of transcending natural law is but a specification of the theory that God has power to perform miracles.  And these two general issues are among the principal points of differentiation between the Hebraic-Christian theory of God’s creativity and the classical view of “making” put forward by Plato.

A glance at that historical conflict will suffice to make explicit much that is merely implicit in present day assertions concerning the artist as creator.  The classical theory is found in Plato’s Timaeus, 8 where, in Shorey’s words, 9 “A demiurgos or supreme artisan does not precisely create the universe out of nothing but reduces a vaguely visioned pre-existent chaos to a cosmos.”  This demiurgos, which Cornford identifies with the World-Soul, 10 imposes

6.“De Decretis, or Defence of the Nicene Definition,” A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, IV, 11.  Cf. ibid., 19; and “de Orat.,” II, 22.

7. It should be noted, however, that Browning’s musician does not create ex nihilo.  Compare Croce, op. cit., 5-6, on the “passivity” of matter, and “the notion of it as a mere limit.”

8. Timaeus, 28 B if.

9. What Plato Said, 332.

10. Plato’s Cosmology, 176-177.


upon uncreated matter the eternally existing “forms,” to make after their model the structure of the universe.  The theory put forward in Timaeus is one of making, not of creation.  The demiurge works upon already existent material, which, in turn, provides necessity and limitation, and serves as the principium individuationis. 11

Concerning the latter point, Constantin Ritter remarks 12 that “whatever appears as extended is in space (the various positions in space are all different) and as such an object appears only once, as something individual.”  However sound may be this interpretation of Plato’s place, space or receptacle, it still is true that no one of the many problems implicit in Plato’s account of the making of the world has exercised history more than that which concerns the adequacy of the account of the means of individuating.  Nor need we search far for the reason, since what we are here primarily concerned with is the possibility, validity, and process of the emergence of novelty.  Plato, no doubt, held that the essence is archetypal, and his search for a canon of beauty, his praise for the conservatism of Egyptian art, and his dislike of artistic novelty in art appear to be aesthetic consequences of this fundamental doctrine.  Still, I believe that Ritter is correct in interpreting the Platonic theory to mean 13 that “Each Idea indicates the essence of the individual appearance in so far as that is knowable.”  Implicit in Platonic and Aristotelian theories of universals, however, is the interpretation developed by the realists of the Middle Ages, who urged that universals 14 “are the more Real in.proportion as they are the more universal.”  We need not here trace the significant view which endows matter with greater self-subsistency and reality.  It is necessary only to mention the Stoic, Hebrew, and Christian interest in the personality and individuality of man to suggest the difficulties inherent in any view that subordinates the value of the individual to that of the form, or which interprets the significance of the individual substance in terms only of its capacity to manifest the type.

Whatever Plato’s theory may have been, the predilection to make the typical the essential is one scarcely in accord with the Hebraic-Christian

11. Timaeus 52, A. E. Taylor’s translation: “The form is one thing, self-same, never born, never perishing, neither receiving anything else into itself from without nor entering anywhere into anything else, invisible and imperceptible to any sense; it is that, in fact, which it is the function of thinking to contemplate.  A second thing is that which bears the same name and is like the first, but is perceptible to sense, is born, is continually in motion, comes to be in a place and again vanishes out of it, is apprehended by opinion based on sense.  Our third term, once more, is, in every case, space which never perishes but provides an emplacement for all that is born...

12. The Essence of Plato’s Philosophy, 210.

13. Op. cit., 210.

14. W. Windelband, A History of Philosophy, English Translation, 290.  Compare ibid., 232-33, 252-55, and 287 ff.


conception of unique individuals endowed with personality and granted individual immortality.  The issue is the more complex because the problem of personality is integral, in the western tradition, to that of human freedom. 15  To those, therefore, who have followed the course of the controversy concerning creating or making, it is not strange that, as Erich Frank points out, 16 St. Augustine, in contrast to Plato, maintains that “the world was created by God out of nothing and this creation was due to God’s absolute free will, not to any logical or other necessity, or to any Idea outside himself.” 17  This notion of St. Augustine’s is true “creation,” not only because specifically it is the bringing into being of something from nothing, but also and more significantly for a general reason implicit in the Alexandrian philosophy intermediate between Plato and the Church Father.  In a brilliant paper, 18 Professor Wolfson, writing upon Philo ‘s conception of free will, calls attention to the fundamental difference between Plato’s and Philo ‘s evaluation of God’s power over the “laws of nature.”  Both believe that these laws “were implanted by God in the universe as an act of good will.”  Plato held, however, that once implanted, they could “never be upset,” while Philo thought that “God may change the order of natural events when it serves some good purpose.”

The reason for this historical divergence in the evaluation of God’s power to change “the order of natural events” is of crucial importance for any consideration of creation, cosmological or artistic.  As Professor Wolfson points out, 19 “There is no room for miracles in the philosophy of Plato.”  Although Philo ‘s God “is philosophically the Demiurge of Plato,” there is room in the Alexandrian’s system of thought “for miracles.”  Philo’s God retains “the essential characteristics of the miracle-working Jehovah of the

15. op. cit., 251 et seq.

16. E. Frank, “St. Augustine and Greek Thought,” 5 (The Augustinian Society, 1942).  See also Professor Frank’s Philosophical Understanding and Religious Truth, Chapter 3, note 19.

17. The validity of this type of interpretation of Plato is denied by implication by A. E. Taylor.  See, for example, Plato: The Man and His Work, 443-44: “It seems plain that the Timaeus knows of no external limitations imposed on God’s will by conditions independent of God himself.”  Taylor maintains that the Demiurge is a true “Creator” and that “everything sensible has ‘emerged’ as a result of a process the world is always in ‘evolution,’ even if the evolution never begins and will never come to an end.”

18. Harry Austryn Wolfson, “Philo on Free Will,” Harvard Theological Review, XXXV, No. 2 (1942), 138-40.

19. Ibid., 139-40.  Cf. F. M. Cornford, Plato’s Cosmology, 176: “This last instance [i.e., Reason must be content to sacrifice the less important advantage and achieve the best result attainable] illustrates the truth of Galen’s observation that the Demiurge is not strictly omnipotent.  In arranging the world he could not group physical qualities in such a way as to secure all the ends he desired.”  Cf. ibid., 209 ff.


Hebrew Scriptures… Philo held that God may change the order of natural events.”

This moment in Alexandrian speculation is crucial for the unfolding theory of creation throughout later centuries.  It was then that the aura of the miraculous emanated, and first re-formed and later largely supplanted the classical theory of making.  And it is this aura of the miraculous which, in my estimation, has enveloped the thought of the West upon the subject of artistic creation.  Moreover, here at its beginning is that conjunction of the miracle of creation and of limitless freedom which makes of human freedom one function of the creative power.  The crucial point is that both Plato and Philo regard man as a microcosm of the macrocosm.  Plato maintains, however, that man makes under the laws of nature and by necessity, while Philo, whose God “has reserved for himself the power of freedom to upset the laws of nature which He established in the world at the time of its creation,” has “endowed man with similar power of freedom to upset the laws of nature to which he is subject.” 20  Acts of the will are “absolutely of man’s free choice,” determined neither by God nor “by any of the natural causes” by means of which His purpose is effected in the universe. 21


The Aesthetic Miracle

I have labored this historical distinction between creating and making because in the emergence and evolution of the theory that man possesses miraculous powers to transcend the laws of nature we discover as well the prototype and sustaining source for much in contemporary thinking concerning the artist’s powers.  Moreover, precisely as one of theology’s miracles is the existence of unique and individual souls, free and endowed with personality, so the aesthetic miracle is the production of unique and individual works of art, created by an artist liberated from the technique of making.  Again this is manifest in Croce ‘s theory: 22 “The true artist, in fact, finds himself big with his theme, he knows not how; he feels the moment of birth draw near, but he cannot will it or not will it… The impossibility of choice of content completes the theorem of the independence of art.”  The analogy, in turn, is complete: one recalls that this “independence of art” completes the theorem of the uniqueness and individuality of all impressions. 23

With this small portion of the available evidence before us, we may well inquire concerning the validity or invalidity of such a theory of creation.  A more immediate question arises, however: why has a theory of this character been insulated from contact with the currents that flow in the field of the determined or undetermined will?  I believe that our proximate answer to the question, which turns on the western tradition’s acceptance of

20. Wolf son, op. cit., 163.

21. Ibid., 138.

22. Op. cit., 51-52.

23. See above, p. 3 and note 4.


views similar to those put forward by Croce as to the artist’s freedom, has its philosophical ground in the Aristotelian distinction between making and acting.  That distinction, which in itself has had enormous influence on the bearing of the philosophy of art upon philosophic issues in general, has proved to be of considerable value for the critical approach to art.  Implicit in Aristotle’s judgment that “making has an end other than itself” has been history’s interpretation that the object made is not only separate from the maker but is likewise subject to laws different from those governing the maker.  On this interpretation, the work of art is freed from the willing agent.  It is nonetheless true, however, that the distinction and its value conceal a difficulty for the analysis of the maker.  It is clear that making is a form of acting and, insofar as acting comes within the framework of natural law, so likewise does making fall under its rules.  The “freedom” of the work of art does not warrant the ascription of unlimited freedom to the artist, if by creative power is meant an escape from laws either of cause and effect or of will.

What compulsion leads to the maintenance of a theory that disregards the inclusion of making within acting, and leaves aesthetic theory in a state comparable to that of the classical atomic hypothesis, once Epicurus had succumbed to the urgent demand that the human will be endowed with unlimited freedom in a world of atoms and the void, for which Leucippus had stated the law: “Nothing occurs at random, but everything for a reason and by necessity”. 24  Here is a factor far less abstract than the distinction between making and acting.  The will is a mysterious and imperceptible entity.  The process of making is thoroughly concrete.  Cornford remarks 25 of Plato ‘s account in Timaeus that “the image of the craftsman is employed as the most simple and vivid means of making us realize that the world was not a chance product born of aimless natural powers but exhibits evidences of rational design, like a product of human art.”  If we think, not of the abstract phrase, ex nihilo, but of the image in Genesis, we have ample evidence of tremendous imaginative powers and extraordinary poetic gifts.  Small wonder, indeed, that Philo treats the story of creation 26 “as in a class by itself throughout the history of the philosophic interpretation of Scripture.”

The fact of the matter is that man ‘s control of nature is, for the imagination, far less a function of abstract rational powers than of rational powers in process of making or constructing something.  It is in fact a function of the power Bergson regards 27 as distinguishing “the two main lines of evolution of animal life… the Arthropods and the Vertebrates.”  For while instinct and intelligence “have each as their essential object the utilization

24. Fr. 2, translated by Cyril Bailey, The Greek Atomists and Epicurus, 85.

25. Op. cit., 176.

26. Wolfson, op. cit., 143.

27. Henri Bergson, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, 19.


of implements,” the implements of instinct are “organs supplied by nature and hence immutable,” whereas those of intelligence are “invented tools, and therefore varied and unforeseen.”  Instruments and tools as means to the control of nature appear to be unlimited in variety and infinite in power.  If we think, then, of the artist, whose production of beauty presupposes technical skill but who transcends the realm of mere technique, we seem to have come upon the supreme artificer.  With the tremendous image of God’s creation in Genesis before us, it is almost inevitable that the fine artist should come to be called a creator.

But this, in effect, renders the position of the artist as creator paradoxical, since the freedom attributed to him in terms of such hypotheses as Croce ‘s “free inspiration” would appear to be available only if it be denied that true artistry is or even presupposes technique.  This means the denial and abrogation of the Greek theory of making for some reinterpretation of the Hebraic-Christian doctrine of creation.  The alternative may be put in the form of a question: Can aesthetic theory explain unique and individual works of fine art, that is, can it account for the emergence of novelty, without converting freedom into caprice or worse?  My answer is that it not only can but must do so.  But for the effort to succeed, we must first recognize that Kant’s statement of the third antinomy concerning freedom holds for the artist as well as for other men: “Freedom [independence] from the laws of nature is no doubt a deliverance from restraint, but also from the guidance of all rules.”  Once having examined the implications of this dictum and learned that the laws of nature applicable in this field are those of technique, signs, and material, the theorist must search for the guidance contained therein and consider facts running counter to the analogy of the artist to the creator.  Plato, in theory, is correct.  The artist is one who works upon material.  As Aristotle suggests, things made fall within the scope of the variable, “where all such things might actually be otherwise.”  The material upon which the artist works is infinite in potentialities, but those potentialities are offered within severely definable limits.  Productivity is creative, but it is creative only in the sense that the artist is free, within the limits of his technique, materials, and symbols, to produce images, not to effect miracles.

How profoundly this affects some derivative aspects of our problem of artistic creativity may be but briefly suggested.  Were it true that the artist works a miracle, he could probably “utter wisdom from the central deep.”  It would appear doubtful, however, that he could listen “to the inner flow of things.”  It is certain that another miracle would be required to permit him to

… utter wisdom from the central deep,

And, listening to the inner flow of things,

Speak to an age out of an eternity. 28

28. James Russell Lowe, “Columbus”


For the theory of creativity, stated on the analogy of God’s miraculous powers, presents the most formidable problems for an intelligible account of the structure either of fine art or of aesthetic experience.  The work of art is an instrument by which the artist communicates something to the aesthetic percipient, and the task of the fine artist is fulfilled only if the maker expresses a communicable datum and if we, the perceivers, make that potentially communicable datum one that actually communicates.  But if the theory of creation is carried to its logical conclusion in the philosophy of art - as it has been by Croce - we discover that the postulation of “free inspiration” for the artist results, first, in the purchase of individuality and uniqueness at the expense of intelligibility; for, as Croce 29 argues, “expressions considered directly or positively are not divisible into classes,” and “likenesses such as are observed among individuals… can never be rendered with abstract determinations.” 30  But this is to deny the relevance to fine art of the theory of classes or types, a theory which Plato’s philosophy of making correctly presupposes - if only because one must know what kind of thing a thing or event is before we know whether or not it is good or bad of its kind - and which on the theory of generic symbols makes the individual an intelligible member of a class.  And, secondly, the theory of creation leads to nominalism, since, to quote again Croce, 31 “the sublime (or comic, tragic, humorous, etc.) is everything that is or shall be so called by those who… shall employ these words.”  The consequence, it appears to me, is that the theory of the artist as creator would entail not one but two events which pass the bounds of rational explanation, the first, that the artist could effect the work of art, the second, that we, the aesthetic percipients, could make it intelligible and re-effect it.



The alternative, I suggest, is a sound theory of artistic productivity which will account for the emergence of novelty through the reconciliation of the Greek theory of making, concerned as it is with the typical and the necessary, with the Hebraic-Christian doctrine of creating, concerned as it is with the individual and the free. 32  A reconciliation of the two traditions in art is a task of formidable proportions, impossible on such simple grounds as the identification of the two theories in question.  For no sensible man will maintain that such a reconciliation occurs in writings like George Putten-

29. Croce, Aesthetic, 70.

30. ibid., 73.

31. Ibid., 90.

32. The artist is heir to the ages in style and design, in tools and symbols.  He is free to individualize each aspect of his heritage.  Similarly, the ancient doctrine of the “typical” is essential for our recognition of the class to which the object of art belongs and within which it is individualized.  The modern doctrine is strong in that it demands that the work of art be accounted for in terms of the emergence of novelty and by the substantiation of the work’s individuality.


ham’s The Arte of English Poesie ,33 where we are told in successive paragraphs that “the very Poet makes” like God “who without any trauell to his diuine imagination, made the world out of nought, nor also by any patterne or mould”; and that “a Poet may in some sort be said a follower or imitator, because he can expresse the true and liuely of euerything is set before him, and which he taketh in hand to describe: and so in that respect is both a maker and a counterfaitor.”  The reconciliation I have in mind is possible if to it is brought knowledge of technical processes, of iconology, and of materials.  From the perspective of such a reconciliation, the value of the theory of unlimited and unrestricted creative power with which we have been concerned may be discerned.  As philosophic issues, the ideas of pure creativity, the unique individual, and absolute freedom are for the artist and for the aesthetic percipient limiting conceptions.  By using them in this way, man may at once measure his present achievement in terms of perfection and give himself a goal of value, definable, unattainable, but progressively approachable without limit.  By means of such limiting conceptions, the artist adjusts the infinitely variable and flexible instruments of art to the artistic structure and to the aesthetic end.  In so doing, he is at once creative and free, as the discerning eye of the poet 34 perceives, because

How exquisitely the individual Mind

(And the progressive powers perhaps no less

Of the whole species) to the external World

Is fitted: - and bow exquisitely, too –

Theme this but little heard of among men –

The external World is fitted to the Mind;

And the creation (by no lower name

Can it be called) which they with blended might

Accomplish: - this is our high argument.

Bryn Mawr College.

33. Op. cit., 19-20.

34. William Wordsworth, “The Recluse.”



The Competitiveness of Nations

in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

August  2002

AAP Homepage