Thinking in Threes—Beauty in the beheld

A guest post by Carl B. Schmitt, Jr.

Have you ever come upon one of those discussions about whether beauty is objective or subjective?  Carl Schmitt went beyond dichotomies of this kind, seeing in them our culture’s tendency to get stuck in “dualisms.”  He favored what he called “trinal thinking” as the only fully human way for man to deal with the realities that confront him and to order his life in a truly satisfactory way.


Carl Schmitt, Annunciation. Oil on canvas, c. 1922, 20 x 24 in.

Trinal thinking involves more than going from one to two to three: the “three” incorporates one and two.  It finds application when we experience reality outside of ourselves.  When I say, “That rose is beautiful,” it is the “I” as a subject that perceives the beauty, yet the beauty is found in a something that I actually see.

Trinal thinking credits both sides, raising the subject/object dualism to the level where we see what beauty is in itself.  Along with Beauty, trinal thinking applies to Truth and Goodness as well: all three involve going more deeply into the realities we encounter every day in our drive for meaning and happiness.

In the case of Truth, the intellect proceeds through the triad of Knowledge, Understanding, and Wisdom.  While we can always pile up more and more knowledge, it is more important to accompany this with understanding.  The insights gained from understanding then lead to wisdom, by which we are open to what transcends and encompasses all reality. There is another triadic progress involving Goodness and the will, how we choose and order our loves.

Carl Schmitt, Annunciation, and Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445-1510), “Cestello” Annunciation, c. 1489-90 (Uffizi Gallery, Florence).

Beauty is special in that, though it deals with reality as does truth and goodness, it never leaves behind the material aspect of reality, either in its subjective or objective levels.  On the subjective level, beauty as perceived by man involves his senses and imagination right along with his intellectual powers to know and love and choose—and this gives rise to feelings and emotions as well.  On the objective level, the material and spiritual unity in the beauty of the object itself gives rise to the mystery of reality.

When a man says, “Look at that attractive woman,” the person he’s speaking to may caution, “Be careful; her beauty is only skin deep.”  Man is capable of seeing more deeply.  And if he pursues it (or her) and gets to know her better and can start to appreciate many qualities she has, he may come to realize that “She really is a very beautiful person.”  Even the tiniest experience of beauty can gently remind us of—and even confront us with—the mystery of reality, in both the object and the subject.  Beauty, in short, is always mysterious.

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Anno Domini 1941, oil on hardboard, 1941, 14 x 18 in.

Schmitt strove to create works that would be beautiful, to place that mystery of reality before us.  The painting shown here, entitled Anno Domini 1941, stands as a comment on our modern culture.  The two airplanes in the painting may be seen as representing our devotion to the pursuit of knowledge solely to produce things that make money, to the point that the highest realities are obscured.  This painting is certainly a beautiful still life, yet if the viewer continues to gaze and ponder it, he may just catch the gentle irony in it—and some of the wisdom behind it.

Anno Domini 1941 detail and Botticelli

Carl Schmitt, Anno Domini 1941 (detail) and Botticelli Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist, tempera on panel, 1468 (Musée du Louvre, Paris).

Further commentary on Anno Domini 1941 can be found in the Summer 2012 issue of the CSF News.


Thinking in Threes: Painting, Architecture, Sculpture

Among the seven fine arts enumerated by Carl Schmitt, Painting, Architecture and Sculpture form a natural triad.  Unlike the other fine arts (Music, Literature, Dance, and Drama (acting)), these three exist as permanent, visible realities.  Often called the “plastic arts,” they are “performed usually but once in some permanent material with the object of ensuring the life of the performance beyond that of the life-span of one man.”

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Self-Portrait, c. 1965, oil on canvas, 30 x 25 in.

The other four arts, by contrast, are not embodied in permanent material form and cannot be experienced all at once; rather, “time is the basic medium.”  Schmitt named the respective groups “statuary” and “kinetic,” “visual-tactile” and “audio-visual,” or “permanent arts” and “time arts.”

Delving more deeply, Schmitt saw the three permanent arts as arts of “being” as opposed to “expression.”  By this he did not mean that Painting, Architecture, and Sculpture were not “expressive” in the sense of conveying some meaning to the viewer, but that this meaning was precisely bound up with being.


Gertrude with Violin, oil on canvas, c. 1946, 25 x 30 in.

As Schmitt himself wrote: “The common person in looking for vision or appearance or likeness in a picture rather than expression, is in the main right.  For the ‘visio-tactile’ (painting, sculpture, architecture) are primarily arts of vision and incidentally of expression, whereas the ‘audio-visual arts’ (music. literature, dance, acting) are primarily arts of expression.”  He goes on to explain that in the four expressive arts “vision is a goal,” whereas with the arts of being vision is “the atmosphere of their being.”


Palace of Septimius Severus, oil on canvas, c. 1948, 30 x 25 in.
A view of the ruins of the emperor’s palace from the Roman Forum, based on sketches done by the artist in the 1930s.

By the “being” of these arts, Schmitt is referring to their existence as permanent forms.  It is precisely their permanence that expresses—Schmitt would say “symbolizes”—in a fundamental way, “eternity.”  The four “time arts” for their part, symbolize what he calls “time-eternity,” or eternal values as they are experienced in time.

Schmitt referred to this contrast between the two kinds of arts the “paradox of the symbol”—“the permanent aesthetic reality within the symbol.”  As Schmitt explains: “All great philosophy, all poetry, all great music is paradoxical because Reality is dynamic.  When expressed in space-time (that is, in tone and word)”—in the time arts—“the paradox is only in process of being resolved. In the plastic arts, on the other hand, there is no paradox in a major work of those fine arts because these arts (Painting, Sculpture, Architecture) reside completely in material Being—that is, in that faculty of the artist in which the paradox has been resolved.”


Head in marble, c. 1924.
Carl Schmitt’s only finished work of sculpture.

It is this “faculty of the artist” which grasps the “vision”—the end or object of the fine arts.  We will explore this vision as expressed in each of the fine arts in future posts.

Thinking in threes: Catastrophe

How do we come to know reality fully, “in three planes,” as Carl Schmitt would say?

Schmitt offers an answer in the conclusion of his essay “And/Or” which we referred to in our last post.  He does not speak of enlightenment and wonder, or the contemplation of artistic beauty, as one might expect from an artist.  Rather, the path seems to be in the opposite direction, what Schmitt calls “catastrophe.”  “When our fellow men are so immersed in means that they can admit of nothing but the exclusion of ends and origins—when ‘truth’ is pursued to the complete exclusion of beauty and goodness, when wealth alone is valid to the exclusion of all else, it would seem that only catastrophe would bring man to his senses.”


Pencil sketch, Naples, 1915

It is this “catastrophe” which leads to that docility before reality which is necessary to wisdom, indeed to an authentically human life: “For, only the humiliated and impoverished man is capable of those inclusions which make him once more human.”  In the final analysis a full grasp of reality does come through those experiences we mentioned but through humility.  It is humility that  makes possible true enlightenment, real wonder, and an authentic appreciation of beauty.

This insight reveals the deepest reason for Schmitt’s insistence that the artist, and anyone else searching for a truly human life, must resist mightily the trap of money, comfort, “security”—being “immersed in means.”  All these “means” insulate the person from real life, from reality, from wisdom.  Humiliation and poverty are not ends in themselves, but precisely those genuine means which are needed to “go forward to [innocence] through wisdom.”

Schmitt knew of what he spoke.  His long struggle as an artist, his poverty and all the humiliations that go with it, and his years of chronic illness, far from embittering him, shaped his conviction that only humility before reality could lead to wisdom.  As he sums up in another passage: “Wisdom is the full exercise of the free-will . . . . the battle of the will against pride.”


St. Francis of Assisi, October 27, 1925

For the artist, this battle takes on a special character, what Schmitt called “criticism.”  We’ll take this up in our next post.

The complete text of the essay “And/Or” can be found at the Carl Schmitt Foundation website.

Thinking in threes: “Third-plane thinking”

In our last post we discussed Carl Schmitt’s fondness for “threes” and how this was rooted in his deep conviction that the Holy Trinity permeates all things.  More practically, this way of thinking also springs from a realization that dualistic thinking—considering a question in terms of only two sides—is finally self-defeating. The full truth, Schmitt insisted, lies not in pitting one side against another, but in that he calls “trinal” or “third-plane” thinking.

Thus, Schmitt did not see life as a conflict between youth and old age, between innocence and experience.  Rather, the full development of a person was an integration of the innocence of youth with the wisdom of maturity: “Middle-age must both return to innocence and must go forward to it through wisdom.”


Gertrude, pastel on paper, c. 1918

How do these lofty ideas work out in practice?

Schmitt spelled this out in his own ironic way in an essay entitled “And/Or.”  As an example of “two-way” thinking Schmitt quotes from a phrase he had read recently “which started me thinking. . . . The phrase was ‘We need a religion of life instead of definitions.’”  Schmitt goes on to make an obvious point: “Now anyone would have thought that a normal man in possession of his faculties could accommodate both ‘life’ and ‘definitions’ in his religion. But no, it is our symptom today that we must have one extreme theory “instead” of another extreme theory. . . . in art we must  amorphous expressionists or admire Raphael . . . we must either ‘take vitamins’ or perish without them . . . sweetness and light or else bitterness and darkness.” He concludes wryly, “Nothing will satisfy us today but doing exclusively one or the other—or rather fighting over the theory.”

The dualisms we cling to in political and social life, and even in our personal decisions, are so natural to us that we may not even notice them.  But why does it have to be only one way or the other?  Why not “both / and”?  This simple but fundamental insight is Schmitt’s way of getting us to start “thinking in threes” beyond the dichotomies of the left / right, black / white, good / bad we find ourselves trapped in so often.

Schmitt called this trap “second-plane thinking.”  But for him the answer does not lie in a “third way” between extremes, a supposed synthesis of the best of each side.  Still less is the truth to be found in a compromise taken for sake of avoiding conflict.  Schmitt believed that since reality itself is a reflection of the Trinity, its very structure reveals that the full truth lies in “three planes”: origins, means, and ends; goodness, truth, and beauty.


Gertrude Knitting, oil on canvas, c. 1970

How are we to be led to this full perception of reality?  Schmitt offers a surprising answer which we will explore in our next post.

The complete text of the essay “And/Or” can be found at the Carl Schmitt Foundation website.

Thinking in threes: family, society, person

Carl Schmitt was fond of speaking in threes.  As we saw in our last post, his artistic vision was expressed in terms of three “planes:” the lyric, epic, and dramatic.  He often spoke in terms of “threes”—family, society, person; origins, means, ends; art, science, wisdom—the most fundamental “three” being, of course, the Blessed Trinity.

For Schmitt, wisdom was a matter of keeping all three in balance.  As he wrote in 1963: “Wisdom is proportion. Man’s origin (his myths), man’s end (his goal), man’s means (his science) must be in proportion.”

Schmitt saw the modern world as plagued by a lack of balance and proportion: man’s pursuit of means (money)—what Schmitt calls the “expedient”—has crowded out any consideration of his origins (the esthetic realm of myth and art) and his end or goal (as embodied in religion).  Wisdom comes with the integration of all three realms. “Of the three activities of man—religious, esthetic, expedient—wisdom maintains the balance.”

Schmitt’s way of speaking in “threes” was not a simply fancy, but reflected his conviction that “every creature is a symbol of the Absolute and is Triune.”  One of his fundamental “threes” was “family – society – person”—the first concerned with the origins, the second with means, the third with ends or destiny.


Woman of Kotor, oil on aluminum, c. 1930

One can see this triad at work both in the life of the individual and in the broad sweep in history.

On the individual level, one is born into a family (his origin), makes his way in society as he grows up (makes use of the means offered by the world to support himself), but eventually must come to terms with his own personhood (his final end).  For Carl Schmitt, the truly mature individual is one who, in the final analysis, is not determined by his family, his race, his nationality, or any other social group, but takes personal responsibility for himself and his destiny.  As Schmitt himself puts it: “Most men must belong to, identify themselves with, either the collectivity of the family (or an ethnic group) or with the mass of individualist, economic-limited people. . . Very few identify with themselves.”

Why is this?  Schmitt gives a characteristically ironic and unsettling answer: “For that way leads to complete subjection to God or the devil—a condition of slavery which is odious to upstanding, forward-looking, literary-loving, wise and compassionate men.”  He himself prayed that he would not be one to hedge his bets.

In the larger historical development of Western civilization, the first two terms of the triad have epitomized each of the two millennia since the time of Christ.  In the first thousand years the dominant society in the West, that of Rome, was fundamentally familial, centered on the authority of the father (paterfamilias) and the emperor as “father of the fatherland” (pater patriae).  A transition from a familial to a more socially ordered world can be seen in the development of feudalism in the 11th century and rise of towns and commerce later in the Middle Ages.

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Christening Party at Chartres, oil on canvas, 1928

The culmination of the social world is evident today in the pervasive power of the nation state and mass communication.  Indeed, as we embark upon a new millennium, one can argue, as Carl Schmitt did, that we are at a crisis point for the family and the person vis-à-vis society and the state.  “One can only say that too great a preoccupation with either the person or the family or the collective society is dangerous and fanatical,” he wrote in 1961, “and for what it is worth I believe we suffer most today from an almost fanatical preoccupation with the collective society.”

Schmitt, however, was fundamentally positive about the future, seeing our present era as a time of transition to a “personal age” for which he had great hopes: “The future does not lie with society, but with the family and the person.  And the personal will leads because persons alone and not societies can experience humility.  Find me humble men and I will show you our rulers of the next centuries.  Men and families rather than nations will rule the future.”


Christopher, oil on canvas, c. 1950