The Power of Images

Over the last few decades, tradition-loving intellectuals have produced many books tracing the genealogy of modernity. From Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue to Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, these books have chronicled the shifts in thinking that led to the worldviews that characterize modernity, often paying particular attention to their false or immoral aspects. 

One worry about this genre is that it’s not always clear whether the diagnoses leveled by its authors are correct. There is a certain up-front plausibility to narratives that explain the reductionism, relativism, and secularism of our own times by appeal to philosophies from earlier periods, such as nominalism or emotivism. But are historical changes in ideas the best explanation of the state of modern culture? It’s often hard to tell. A fixation on intellectual history may cause us to focus too much on abstract ideas and too little on material, technological, and economic conditions. As a philosopher, I’d like to think that “ideas have consequences” in the culture. But I suspect that the physical conditions of people’s lives are at least as influential in shaping people’s worldviews as philosophy is.

Thomas Pfau, the Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of English at Duke University, has contributed previously to this genre with Minding the Modern, which traces shifts in the exercise of rationality during modernity, and advocates for a realist view of reason rooted in the thought of medievals like Thomas Aquinas, and Romantics like Samuel Taylor Coleridge. That book, like others in the genre, emphasized the importance of abstract ideas, gleaned from careful readings of key texts in the genealogy of modern rationality. 

His new book, Incomprehensible Certainty: Metaphysics and Hermeneutics of the Image, takes this genre in exciting new directions. This book traces the history of Western experiences and uses of images. As the subtitle suggests, Pfau seeks to explain what images are and how we should interpret them. He opens the book with a careful reading of Plato, showing how he once held a negative view of images, but eventually shifted to a view on which images help put us in touch with divinity. This is followed by a detailed exploration of the early Church’s struggle over how to incorporate images into Christian worship, and the remainder of the book follows the history of roles that images have had in our culture up to the early twentieth century. 

However, Pfau is even more interested in the way that images—paintings, icons, sculptures, scientific diagrams, and so forth—influence how we see the world. Our worldviews are shaped by real, physical images, and by the way we view them, handle them, and write about them. By examining the role of images in ordinary life, Pfau is able to show how his book’s genealogy of modernity is true, as compared to other books in this genre. Happily, the book is lavishly illustrated so that the reader can directly see the changes in ways that Western people have seen the world. It is a marvelous history of Western visual culture, packed with fascinating analyses of artworks, and of philosophical texts about them, from Plato and Plotinus to Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso.

Rightly seen, visible things reveal invisible, numinous depths, a fecund excess that spills out into the visible world and calls us to a more vital, contemplative, moral, and religious life. 

It’s not controversial, I hope, to observe that the contemporary world is awash in images—in advertisements, on social media, in the news, through film and television, in pornography, and so forth. The ways in which these images are presented, Pfau convincingly argues, train us to see reality in a way dominated by libido—not just in the sexual sense, but more fundamentally in the Augustinian sense of the libido dominandi, the desire to dominate, manipulate, and master the world. Many contemporary images are entirely manipulable, and calculated to elicit a quick, pleasurable emotional response, so they train us to see the visible world as manipulable, lacking mystery and depth, and existing mostly for our pleasure. 

But Pfau’s book is not primarily a cri du coeur about the malign influence of images in our times. Rather, it is a celebration of the beneficent power that images can have, and a call to contemplative vision. Images can teach us to see in a patient, uncontrolling, awe-struck way. They can train us to see, in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ lovely phrase, “the dearest freshness deep down things.” Rightly seen, visible things reveal invisible, numinous depths, a fecund excess that spills out into the visible world and calls us to a more vital, contemplative, moral, and religious life. 

Western artists and writers have conceived of these depths in a range of ways. Unlike some books that critique modernity, Pfau’s approach is not to claim that there is one “correct” approach to images—say, the approach of the ancient Greeks or that of the high Middle Ages—which we need to recover. Rather, he engages in a close reading of writers who broadly share his sacramental or iconic approach to images, and a careful description of paintings, sculptures, and other kinds of images from throughout Western history. His purpose is to reveal multiple ways in which visible images can unveil, and train us to see, divine depths. 

Pfau is much influenced by phenomenology, a twentieth-century philosophical movement focused on describing the structure of experience. One of his favorite phenomenologists, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, observed that, when it comes to images, we don’t just see them, but we see according to them: images that we spend time with become a lens through which we see the rest of the world. Anyone concerned about contemporary morality would do well to pay attention to this: we act on the basis of how we perceive the world, and a reform of our actions must begin with a reform of our seeing. Something similar is true about religion: we might lament the loss of belief and religious practice, but we are not going to be able to solve these problems unless we can reform how people see reality. Widespread commitment to religion requires not just abstract belief or engaging in various practices, but continually seeing the world in a religious way. Whether people are able to do that is largely determined by the actual, physical images they spend time viewing, which shape their vision of everything else. 

But Pfau is not primarily concerned with moral or religious reform. Rather, like many of the great philosophers and theologians of the Western tradition, his focus is on contemplation: we human persons are made for, and fulfilled by, a kind of seeing in which we appreciate reality for its own sake. The way we engage with images is important in itself, not just for its effects. We can rise above a focus on our biological and political needs, and attend to reality in itself; this is the greatness displayed in our finest achievements in science, art, philosophy, and theology. Those concerned with the Western tradition would do well to follow Pfau in focusing on this non-instrumentalizing approach to human life. 

Given his commitments, it makes sense that Pfau would admire Plato, and  the icon-loving Fathers of the Church. Their accounts of how the visible world shares or “participates” in God or a divine realm sets the pattern for Pfau’s own thoughts about images. But, given his Christian commitments, some of the other accounts he endorses are a little surprising, though certainly welcome. For example, the final chapter of the book focuses on the non-Christian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and the visual artists who influenced him, Auguste Rodin and Paul Cézanne. Lovers of more traditional art might worry that these modern artists move us away from the vibrant depths of reality, and toward a more abstracted or relativistic view of things. It is true that Rodin’s sculptures and Cézanne’s paintings present their subjects not “objectively,” but according to the artist’s own perspective. But it is these features of their works that allow them to give us the sheer presence of what they depict, whether it be a human body, a bowl of fruit, or a landscape. In their simple presence to our gaze, things can “manifest” or “unveil” a depth and a splendor that awakens our longing for something higher and greater.  

Rilke expresses this religious depth in what, to a normal Judeo-Christian perspective, might appear somewhat shocking. In a letter to Nancy Wunderly-Volkart in March of 1920, which Pfau uses as the epigraph for his last chapter, Rilke discusses how he had been recently asked “Do you believe in God” and “Do you believe in life after death?” He comments, “I am baffled by this impatience of mind…Down below, right next to the poplar that’s in plain view…something is blossoming (a plum-tree? a cherry-tree?); and on the road just beyond it…a bird repeats a two-note sequence…This is what should occupy us; this we should give as an answer to such large questions, should look up and say whatever we see: doesn’t it contain everything—far more than our interpretations and speculations?”

There is something in Rilke’s vision of the world here that Pfau would have all of us, Christian or otherwise, retain. Each sensory thing can mediate to us the depths of existence. When religious doctrines and philosophical conclusions sound hollow and cliché, attending to how God is made present through sensible things allows us to re-enliven those doctrines. Non-Christian poets like Rilke can help us see the world as an “epiphany” of God.

The sensory world is like a conversation: God (or the human artist) speak their words in sensory things, and we critics and intellectuals must do those things justice by speaking in response.

Within the Christian tradition, Pfau finds both positive and negative approaches to images. During the eighth century, in the Byzantine Empire, there was a focused opposition to the use of images in worship; those known as “iconoclasts,” “image-breakers,” saw images as idols, not putting us in touch with the divine person they depicted, but rather substituting for that person and getting in the way of approaching that person. God and the saints could only be truly approached interiorly, through propositional beliefs or through mystical experience. The best Christian responses to this view came from Eastern Christian saints like Theodore the Studite, Photios of Constantinople, John of Damascus, and Gregory Palamas. They helped Christians see how, especially when approached in the context of communal liturgies, icons mediate God or the saints.

While Pfau uses this Eastern icon-loving tradition as his model for a proper approach to images, he has a more negative take on many Western Christian approaches to images. At the beginning of the Middle Ages, Pope St. Gregory the Great defended images, but only insofar as they help illustrate the words of Scripture, remind us of events in Scripture or Church history, or encourage feelings of devotion. At the end of the Middle Ages, there was a proliferation of images used for private devotion. As printing became more common, it became more possible for ordinary people to have images in their homes; these were understood as tools for prompting interior feelings of devotion. Around that same time, artists began experimenting with single-point perspective and other techniques for depicting the world realistically. These techniques, expressed most fully by Leon Battista Alberti in the fifteenth century, aimed to show the world, including religious subjects, from a purely natural point of view.

While some thinkers in the medieval West, like Nicholas of Cusa, resisted these trends, they largely became our dominant approach to images during the Renaissance. Pfau sees these trends as planting the seeds for our current, secular approach to the visible world. In what he calls “soft iconoclasm,” religious images ceased to be seen as sacraments mediating God’s presence, and instead came to be viewed purely as tools used to achieve interior union with, or feelings about, God. As a result, interior conscious life and exterior physical life became sundered from each other. With such a view, we lose sight of how the visible world itself can, by itself, mediate divine depths. Even though it can produce beautiful pictures, Alberti’s approach to perspective trains us to see ourselves as pure observers, able to survey the world, depict it, and then manipulate it. 

Pfau presents the Eastern Christian defenders of icons not merely as a historical curiosity, but as thinkers who set a pattern for relating to the visible world in ways that others, even non-Christians, can use. Goethe, for example, saw the world in much the same way as those Eastern saints: in his poetry and in his scientific research on plants, he came to see the sensory world as a manifestation of depths. Each part of a plant, for example, reveals the underlying “idea” or “form” of the plant, a deeply meaningful reality worthy of contemplation. 

The Byzantine defenders of icons did so, sometimes, by appealing to the tradition that some icons were archeiropoetic, not made by human hands but miraculously produced by God. Regardless of what one thinks about the plausibility of that traditional view, Pfau notes how Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry, for example, depicts natural things, in all their unique particularity, as icons of God that are made by God. From the unusual rhythms of his poems, we learn to see the world in that way. Pfau is not interested in turning us to a purely silent, awe-struck vision of the world. Rather, he says that “visible beauty calls for spoken beauty,” which is, again, seen in the poetry of Hopkins, Rilke, and other poets who are attentive to the beauty of the natural world. Pfau’s book provides much food for thought for the critic, who seeks to express in words what he has seen in art. The sensory world is like a conversation: God (or the human artist) speak their words in sensory things, and we critics and intellectuals must do those things justice by speaking in response.

Finally, Pfau’s book is deeply hopeful. He believes that sensory things always point beyond themselves toward God, and this vision of the visible world itself encourages us to hope. But Pfau also gives us reason to hope in our contemporary world, even with our debased approach to images. Sometimes, in books tracing the genealogy of modernity, one gets the sense that the author is reveling in a feeling of doom, on which all is now lost, and a faithful remnant must stand against all of modernity. But this is not Pfau’s approach. As he sees things, even the most naturalistic images still are able to convey our attention to what is deeper and what is of divine value. Even in banal images, there is the possibility of being arrested by the sudden vision of God, the pure goodness and beauty who shines forth in all things.


Beautiful spring nature scene with pink blooming tree

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