Illumination and The Mechanical Arts (St. Bonaventure, On the Reduction of the Arts to Theology, Part 7)
In section 11, Bonaventure moves on from sense knowledge to show how divine wisdom likewise illumines the mechanical arts. Bonaventure compares the mechanical arts to sense knowledge because both deal with the generation and incarnation of the Word, the pattern of human life, and the union of the soul with God. Bonaventure links these three truths with the production, effect, and fruit of a work.
Bonaventure explores first the production of a work in section 12. He argues that an artisan, before beginning his work, studies the pattern or model carefully so that he might produce the object as planned (49). This process reflects the similitude he addressed regarding the incarnation of the Word in section 8.
Then, in section 13, Bonaventure asserts that in the effect of a work we see the pattern of human life. He claims that a work is only valued and acceptable when it is beautiful, useful, and enduring. Knowledge, he proposes, makes a work beautiful; the will makes it useful; and perseverance makes it lasting. These three ideas parallel the elements of the pattern of life: “to know, to will, and to work constantly with perseverance” (51).
Finally, in section 14, Bonaventure considers the fruit of a work and its relation of the union of the soul with God. Bonaventure arrives at this conclusion from the belief that every artisan fashions a work for praise, benefit, or delight (51). These three purposes correspond to the three formal objects of the appetites: a noble, useful, and agreeable good. Moreover, it was for these three reasons that God made the soul rational, that we might praise God, serve God, and find delight in God (51, 53).
Bonaventure’s point in these sections is to show how the mechanical arts, and the things artisans create by means of these arts, lead us back to God. More specifically, the things which are made bear witness to the purposes for which we are made, namely, to bring about beauty that points people to God, to improve our work so that we might serve God, and to persevere in these things that we might delight in God. Bonaventure’s discussion in these sections goes far beyond our typical thoughts of the mechanical arts. In most cases our view of the mechanical arts today has been limited merely to the useful, and that for an ever-diminishing audience. The reminder that the mechanical arts bring also beauty and delight reminds us in our pragmatic age that a thing that is beautiful is a thing that has purpose and value. We must not merely give value to things that are useful. Instead, we should see beauty, usefulness, and perseverance as a more theologically informed lens with which to view the mechanical arts. I think this approach also helps us see value in education in these arts, as they are not merely pragmatic skills for material success, but rather opportunities to bring beauty and goodness into greater perspective.