Beauty and Its Variations
Few notions of philosophy have been more muddled and distorted and contradicted than that of beauty. For the moderns, the beautiful is devoid of any objectivity, according to the statement that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Yet, this view should be counterbalanced by the existence of factors which, to most people, judge some things beautiful and others ugly. Do we not all enjoy and rest in the face of a gracious sunset or a chain of snow-capped mountains?
St. Augustine was hinting at the reality of beauty when he raised the following question: “I shall ask whether things are beautiful because they bring pleasure or rather they bring pleasure because they are beautiful. And doubtlessly, they will answer that they bring pleasure because they are beautiful.”
How can we define beauty? The Greeks identified it with health, strength, virtue, and beautiful appearance. For them, the desire of physical beauty, as much as of artistic and virtuous beauty, was essential in education and culture. It is a property of the divinity because beauty is associated with, and manifests, perfection. Aristotle after Plato digs into the real properties of aesthetic and moral beauty when he defines it as what is agreeable and desirable in itself.
St. Thomas most simply and wisely calls the beautiful “what gives pleasure on sight.” It involves two things: vision and pleasure. Firstly and mainly, beauty is an act of knowledge, a vision at first sight. This knowledge of the true involves the mind, but also, most importantly for us, the two most cognitive senses of sight and hearing, which refer particularly to the beautiful as is readily seen in the Fine Arts, say, of sculpture and music. Secondly, beauty brings in joy; not any joy, but the joy obtained from that knowledge. Beauty is connected with the ‘true’ as known, but under the aspect of pleasurable. This is the difference between receiving news from a plain teller, and the same news eloquently described by an actor. In the first case, we have the truth of the news told, in the second we relish the beauty of the tale.
The ugly breeds restlessness, disorder, and upset; the beautiful causes peace and joy. And for an object to delight the mind, it needs to be perfectly proportioned to the knower. Said otherwise, for a beautiful object to produce these soothing effects, it needs the three conditions of integrity (the presence of all members, say, in a statue of Jupiter), of harmony of the parts (the proportion which brings order and unity, say, the balance of the musical instruments in a symphony), and of clarity. Why clarity, why brightness? Because light beautifies, whereas darkness and opacity are ugly and dreary. A thing is not beautiful simply because it has light, but because this light is delightful and pleasing. For the Scholastics, “beauty is the splendor of form shining on the proportioned parts of matter.” For instance, a color is only beautiful when it marks the triumph of the form over matter.
The Varieties of Beauty
These basic considerations on beauty already give us a sense of the great variety of the presence of the beautiful in things and its grasp by men. A beautiful color washes the eye, and a brisk Mozart theme flatters the ear, but the mind registers the brilliance and rejoices in it: we cannot but love it. What is beautiful is of necessity good, as the Greek word kaloskagathos—pretty ’n good—was coined to mark this twin property of things. The object is at once delightful, lovable, and pleasurable. Even in these cases, their beauty comes from their relation to the mind reading in them that clarity of form. The latter shines on matter in most varied ways, which Maritain explains in Art and Scholasticism (London: Sheed and Ward): “At one time, it is the sensible brilliance of colour or tone, at another the intelligible clarity of an arabesque, a rhythm or an harmonious balance, an activity or a movement, or again the reflection upon things of some human or divine thought, but above all is the profound splendour of the soul shining through, of the soul which is the principle of life and animal energy or the principle of spiritual life, of pain, and passion. There is also a more exalted splendour, the splendour of Grace, which the Greeks never knew.” Compare for example the photos of Charles de Foucault prior to his conversion and his later years, and especially his fiery but loving eyes.
If the beautiful is found in many different forms according to how different objects affect the diverse senses and reach the understanding mind, it is going to be received by men, and that reception is going to be greatly affected by the viewer or hearer. If anyone is able to appreciate the dance and contours of colours in Raphael’s school of philosophy, not everyone is ready to tackle the subtleties of the Sonnets of Shakespeare. Beauty, especially expressed in the Fine Arts, is an acquired taste, most valuable and profitable when gained, but easily missed by a vast majority, who long for easy entertainment and are unprepared to unlock the greatness of cultural masterpieces of all time.
Because it is found in such varied things, beauty, the offspring of goodness and truth, is analogous on a par with being, truth or life. It is so analogous and flexible that it can be truly said of God, Supremely Beautiful, of Whose face things on earth and angels in heaven are only a poor reflection. The mind rejoices in the beautiful because in it, it finds itself again. This allows the soul of a St. Francis of Assisi to return thanks to their Author, speaking of “Brother Sun” and “Sister Poverty,” or as St. Ignatius talking to the flower: “Little rose, keep quiet! I know Whom you want to talk about!” Beauty of itself carries the soul beyond creation. The romantic poet Baudelaire speaks of this insatiable thirst for something beyond: “It is that immortal instinct for the beautiful which makes us consider the world and its pageants as a glimpse of, a correspondence with, Heaven.” That is why anything truly beautiful stirs some strange, nostalgic inner nerve whereby we wish that time would stay still forever and allow us to contemplate and rest and delight in this timeless contemplation, an anticipation of heaven.
Beauty in the Fine Arts
Beauty is also intimately related to arts. Some beauty is to be found in nature outside things artificial, but any real art—we are speaking of the ‘Fine Arts’—aims at the production of beauty. Poignant happiness, found in the ecstatic sentiment of the contemplative, is typical of beauty when seen. This is somewhat produced in art which concentrates truth and goodness: the riches and intensity of associations involved in a compressed statement. Just think of the luscious harmonies enshrined in the lively themes of Bach’s fugues, happily mixing order and originality. Or think of the melodious line of St. Augustine’s Confessions (Book I, Ch. 1): “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee,” which evokes much more than the plain catechism answer: “God is man’s last end who alone can give him happiness.”
This artistic exposure which shows us a great deal of truth in a simple glance awakens in us the desire to see all truth in a simple glance, which is reserved to the mystics. To saints like Francis and Thomas Aquinas, but not to artists, were reserved to taste the sweetness of God and therefore to judge all things “as rubbish”: not only the Summa Theologica, but the Parthenon and Our Lady of Chartres, the Sixtine Chapel and the Mass in B minor—these are all rubbish destined to be burned on the Last Day. But the “rubbish” of the saints is the golden straw of earthly pilgrims in need of some human consolation.
In fact, art is meant to lead the intellect towards its complete object and happiness. Thus, artists and works of art are to be classified according to their civilizing ability, which corresponds to their degree of spirituality, and ultimately to the nature of our ‘god.’ Said in Fra Angelico’s words: “Art demands great tranquility, and to paint the things of Christ, the artist must live with Christ.” Great art is always an icon, a window opened to the invisible world. Speaking of Christian art in general and of liturgy in particular, Maritain has this to say: “There is nothing more beautiful than a High Mass, a dance before the Ark in slow motion, more majestic than the advance of the hosts of Heaven. And yet, the Church, in the Mass, is not searching for beauty or decorative motifs or a means of touching the heart. Her sole object is worship and union with her Saviour, and from this loving worship an excess of beauty overflows.”
Léon Bloy made a bold statement about the muses: “Art is an aboriginal parasite of the skin of the first serpent.” He was alluding to the foolishness of snobbish or estranged productions. He might also be referring to some periods, like the Renaissance, in which art was cultivated for its own sake. This raises the question of morality in art. Is art for art’s sake or is it a means for propaganda of a social or a religious doctrine? Perhaps the best refutation of the amorality of art is the Gospel parables, in which Our Lord uses great poetry to lead souls to the knowledge of the ultimate end. And, although the artist may use very scary portraits, like Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello, or the twisted bodies of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, they are necessary elements in the entire frame, beautiful as a whole, which describes the struggle of good vs. evil. Such production is both pleasurable and educational, as all great art should be.