Up the Ladder, Down the Ladder

“He now is struck with wonder by
what’s wonderful in him. Unwittingly,
he wants himself; he praises, but his praise
is for himself; he is the seeker and
the sought, the longed-for and the one who longs;
he is the arsonist— and is the scorched.”

The Metamorphoses of Ovid

In his Metamorphosis, Ovid paints a poignant picture of unrequited love: Echo desires Narcissus, who desires the beauty of his own reflection. This tale demonstrates that to love in vain is to love too little too much: to love the particular rather than the universal, the carnate rather than what is being incarnated. As creative and intellectual beings, we must not devolve to prefer images to realities, but rather to use earthly glimpses of beauty to turn heavenward. 

Plato, in Symposium, discusses the love of beauty, and, in particular, the proper ordering of this love toward its highest form: loving the Beautiful itself. He concludes by introducing “Diotima’s Ladder,”a tool for understanding the progression of love from common to virtuous, mortal to immortal.

“First, [the Beautiful] always is and neither comes to be nor passes away… Second, it is not beautiful [in] this way and ugly that way…Nor will the beautiful appear to him in the guise of a face or hands or anything else that belongs to the body. It will not appear to him as one idea or one kind of knowledge. It is not anywhere in another thing…but itself by itself with itself… always one in form; and all the other beautiful things share in that.” 

Symposium, Plato 

Diotima’s Ladder (so named for the prophetess who supposedly first explained it) emphasizes that love is fundamentally driven by the desire for immortality. According to this idea, human affections ought to strive rung-by-rung from what is beautiful yet earthly to the Beautiful: that is, the highest form of beauty, which is eternal, objective, self-sustaining, and preeminent. Beautiful particulars partake in this formal Beauty, which is manifest in but not lessened by their various incarnations. 

By learning to love beautiful things, lovers may ascend Diotima’s ladder to love the Beautiful itself. First, they love the beauty of a single body. Then, this love expands to many bodies before blossoming into a love of the customs and laws which bind people together in harmony. Next comes the love of knowledge, revealing the progression from the physical to the philosophical. Finally, through their developed powers of affection, lovers will ideally come to perceive and adore the Beautiful itself. 

In this philosophy, physical beauty can become a mediator by which admirers might ascend to higher forms of affection. Humanity, though, tends to love too lowly, becoming fixated on the glimmers of beauty found in lesser things instead of turning towards the greatest Beauty. Mankind is moonstruck: content to praise the dimmer beauty of the moon and to forget that its light is a mere reflection of the sun’s. Perhaps it is because the Beautiful is, like the sun, too much for mortal eyes. Mannkind has acclimated to the climate of lowland loves, eyes too weak to look heavenward. 

In his allegory, The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis writes of a painter who suffers from this sort of disordered affection. As an artist, the painter ought to have a better understanding of beauty, but by his own pride, he descends Diotima’s ladder and renders himself incapable of loving neither beauty as manifest in creation nor the Creator Himself. Eventually, he falls in love with his own skill and material subjects—and out of love with the Light itself: 

“‘You’re forgetting,’ said the Spirit. ‘…Light itself was your first love: you loved paint only as a means of telling about light.’

‘Oh, that’s ages ago,’ said the [Painter]. ‘One grows out of that…one becomes more and more interested in paint for its own sake.’

‘…It was all a snare. Ink and catgut and paint were necessary down there, but they are also dangerous stimulants. Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all, but only in what they say about Him.’

The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis

All lovers of beauty are in danger of becoming like this painter. Often a philosopher or artist will, like a Slinky toy, begin at the top of Diotima’s ladder and tumble his way down. Like artists who come to love their craft above their calling, philosophers and even theologians may cease to love God Himself and settle instead for talking of Him, preferring the study to the Person

Creative and thoughtful people are especially gifted with the ability to capture what is good, true, and beautiful in God and to communicate it with others. To paraphrase Lewis, they “catch glimpses of Heaven in the earthly and […] enable others to see the glimpses too.” Unfortunately, while this powerful ability may lead others to perceive and pursue beauty, the artist himself may come to lose sight of his initial end. 

Almost inevitably, artists like the painter in The Great Divorce will topple from the highest to the lowest of loves. It is the same with a bookworm who begins by loving stories for their wisdom and imagination, then loves books for their stories, then eventually loves books for no further reason; eventually, he is destined to become a hoarder rather than a reader. 

Recall the words of Ecclesiastes: 

“Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”

-Ecclesiastes 12:12, ESV

The Preacher of Ecclesiastes, ironically, made a book. In fact, he did so with words of both truth and delight (12:10).What the Preacher warns against, then, is not making books, but making them for their sake alone. 

Like the painter of Lewis’ allegory, these verses warn that is unwise to become interested in the act of creating for its own sake or for the sake of reputation. Artists and philosophers can too easily fall from the truest love of Light and Beauty to the lowest pandering. They can sink from gathering glimpses of glory to glorifying the self alone. 

Readers, I too want my words to be read; I want my stories to be shared and my songs to be heard. However, we must remember why we began creating in the first place; we glimpsed something enduring and radiant that we wished to capture, communicate, and, hopefully, commune with. We wished to clothe the divine so that we might better grasp and share it: to incarnate the invisible through our art and study. 

“To paint a picture or to write a story or to compose a song is an incarnational activity.” 

Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle

If to create is, at least in part, to image Christ’s incarnation, we must learn to love the words we pen because they are shadows of the Word Himself. We must  pursue art only to increase in ourselves and others an appreciation for beauty and, through this, to draw closer to the Source Himself. We must refuse to grow out of our first love of Light in favor of shadows. 

So, reader, lay aside your “ink and catgut and paint” and let an adoration higher and more overwhelming than your own dictate your smaller affections. Let us not become like Narcissus, in love with the beauty we reflect, nor like Echo, chasing a beauty that will not love us in return. Rather, in turning to the true Light, let us learn to love beauty better and better until we can see its fullness face to face; let us incarnate it in our art and study so that others might see and believe in the Incarnation Himself. 

Works Cited: 

LEngle, Madeleine. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook Press, 2001.

Lewis, C. S. The Great Divorce. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Ovid. The Metamorphoses of Ovid. Translated by Allen Mandelbaum. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1995.

Plato. Complete Works: Symposium. Translated by John M. Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2009.

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