March 2013 Print

Pankalia, The Beauty and Goodness of All Things

by Dr. Peter Chojnowski

I remember distinctly attending a lecture when I was a graduate student in New York City. It was a lecture by Prof. John Caputo on “post-modernism.” The only part of the lecture that I recall is when Prof. Caputo used an example given by Friedrich Nietzsche, the great Nihilist of the 19th century, to explain his own philosophical view of the world. As regards the “predicament” of Man in this world, Nietzsche said that, “man shouts out his greatest hopes and dreams to the universe…and the universe turns towards him, and yawns.” In other words, the universe in its very being has no meaning, no purpose, no value. Since the professor was agreeing with this nihilistic outlook on the world, someone asked him why he was against apartheid—the social and political organization of South Africa at the time. Since he could not really argue that some state of things was “bad” in any kind of objective way, he had to admit that he simply “chose” it as “better” because he simply felt it was better.

The Nietzschean valueless, purposeless and meaningless universe is what necessarily results from portraying the Creator God as a mere “idea” that Modern Man has “killed”; Dios o Nada (God or Nothing), as St. Teresa of Avila said. Before the 19th century, the last time there was a full-scale assault on the Catholic understanding of the created universe as good and beautiful in all of its parts was in the 13th century when the Albigensian heretics sought to strip the material creation of goodness and, instead, portray it as necessarily and essentially evil. Is a “yawning” universe much different? The response at the time on the part of St. Thomas Aquinas, who’s Dominican Order was intentionally directed to oppose the heretics, was to take up the theme of the transcendental properties of being in order to explain why all things, in so far as they exist, have an inner value and fullness. For St. Thomas, a proper appreciation for reality showed that there was an indispensable union between being and value.1

The Transcendental Properties

When St. Thomas Aquinas, and the great philosophers of the Western tradition, looked at “being” or “all that exists,” they looked at it with realistic and objectivist minds that are not prejudiced by an ideological commitment to remove the Sovereign God from the universe. The “transcendental properties” are like the colored light that we would see if we shined a white light into a prism. The single white stream of light is broken up into rays of the various colors of the rainbow. The light is the same; the prism simply allows the light to reveal other aspects or “modes” of that same one stream of light.2 Such is the case with the transcendental properties of being: oneness, goodness, truth, and I would say beauty. They add nothing to being itself, they are not like other attributes like the shine on the newly waxed car or the frost on a rose—these attributes only characterize some very definite things; the transcendental properties can be discerned in every being and are found in every being that is, insofar as it is. Everything, insofar as it exists, can be grasped by an intellect—hence being is true; all can be desired as fulfilling and, hence, is good; everything, insofar as it is a thing, has an inner unity and self-identity—and is, therefore, one. Everything, insofar as it is.3 Since these aspects can be recognized concerning beings that exist around us, we can infer that such characteristics, stripped of their limiting imperfections, exist in God who made all things ex nihilo (from nothing). God is not good, but rather Goodness-Itself.4

When we consider the question of the status of beauty as a transcendental property of being, a quality and characteristic which all things would have insofar as they exist, the answer would seem to be clear-cut; St. Thomas, when commenting on the transcendental properties of Aristotle and the Arab Commentators on Aristotle in his De Veritate, lists the properties as: the one, a thing, a being, something, the good, and the true. Everything that is real has the unity of being one, it is potentially desirable (good), it can be known by a mind (true), it is a thing, a being, and it is something. What about beauty? Can it be that one of the most uplifting perfections of God, that He is, as St. Augustine calls Him in the Confessions, Beauty ever ancient and ever new, not be manifested in His Creation wherever His creative finger touched? To push it to its extreme, just like St. Thomas had no problem speaking of Lucifer as “good” insofar as he exists and, thereby, participates in an attribute of God, could we not say that everything is “beautiful” in so far as it stands outside of nothingness and possesses what St. Thomas calls the act of existence?

The Beauty of the Good and the Good of the Beautiful

Being the realist that he was, when called upon to define the beautiful, he always gave very common-sense definitions that were in accord with universal human experience. Beauty is id quod visum placet, that which when seen pleases,5 or beauty is that “which is brightly colored” (unde quae habent colorem nitidum, pulchra esse dicuntur).6 How can beauty have a more transcendent and ultimate character when it must be “seen”? Not only must it be seen, but it must please when it is seen because of its suavitas coloris, its pleasing color.7 How can beauty then apply to all things—many of which do not please the eye—and to God, who cannot be seen by the human eye as God?

The belief concerning the beauty of all things was a belief and sentiment coming into the Middle Ages from many sources. First and foremost was the Bible, in which the beauties of God’s creation were continually extolled. The verse in the Book of Wisdom, “But thou hast ordered all things in measure, and number, and weight” (11:21) inspired St. Augustine’s concepts of modus, forma, and ordo (dimension or quantity, form, and order), which appear everywhere in medieval philosophy and theology, employed sometimes as a definition of beauty and sometimes as a definition of the good.8

The philosophical works which provided St. Thomas Aquinas with his opportunity to express his teaching on the beauty of all things and the close affinity between the good and the beautiful were the prestigious writings of a Syrian monk of the fifth century, so called Pseudo-Dionysius. According to Dionysius’ The Divine Names, “The beautiful and the good are the same; all beings desire the beautiful and the good with respect to every cause. No being fails to partake of the beautiful and the good.”9 In his attempt to explain Dionysius’ grand vision of a world universally partaking in the power of the good and the beautiful, St. Thomas says in his Commentary, “Everything that exists comes from beauty and goodness that is from God, as from an effective principle. And things have their being in beauty and goodness as if in a principle that preserves and maintains [what Thomistic philosophy would call the Efficient Cause]. And they turn toward beauty and goodness and desire them as their end [the Final Cause].…And all things are and all things become because of beauty and goodness, and all things look to them, as to an exemplary cause, which they possess as a rule governing their activities.”10 So not only is the Creator of All Things explicitly identified with the Good and the Beautiful, the good and the beautiful are principles which preserve and maintain things, attract all things toward the fulfilling goals that God has set before them, and govern all things by serving as a model that governs their activities. Not only this. The good and the beautiful are both characterized by their possession of two qualities, namely claritas and consonantia (i.e., clarity or radiance, and right-proportion). These are the primary attributes of the things we call beautiful, while also being “included in the essential character of the good.”11

What is the difference then between the good and the beautiful as transcendental properties that qualify and characterize all things insofar as they exist? According to St. Thomas, “The beautiful and the good are identical in the subject [i.e., within the beautiful and good things themselves]. Claritas and consonantia, which are sources of beauty, are also an aspect of the good, insofar as they are effects of the Good [i.e., the Good Itself] which creates and orders [emphasis mine]. Nonetheless, the beautiful and the good differ conceptually [ratione], that is, according to the way in which they are conceived, according to the chosen point of view.”12 “Whereas the good, being what all things desire, properly relates to the satisfaction of appetite and with a ‘goal’ towards which action moves, the beautiful refers to something, the mere mental or visual apprehension of which gives pleasure [emphasis mine].”13 While good things or, rather, the goodness of all things entices us with promises of fulfillment and ultimate happiness, the beauty of all things, shining with the light of God-given form and with the clarity of visual or intellectual contours, beckons us be still and merely rejoice in the splendor of form which we find in the other.

1 Umberto Eco, The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, trans. Hugh Bredin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), pp. 21-22.

2 Ibid., p. 20.

3 St. Thomas Aquinas, Truth, trans. James V. McGlynn and Robert Milligan (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1994), I, Ic.

4 Eco, Aesthetics, p. 22.

5 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, Q. 5, Art. 4 ad 1. Cf. Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism and the Frontiers of Poetry, trans. Joseph W. Evans (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1974), p. 23.

6 Aquinas, ST, I, Q. 39, Art. 8. Cf. Eco, Aesthetics, p. 103.

7 Ibid., p. 117.

8 Ibid., p. 23.

9 Pseudo-Dionysius, The Divine Names, trans. C. E. Rolt (New York: Macmillan, 1920), IV, 7.

10 St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on The Divine Names, IV, 8, cited in Eco, Aesthetics, pp. 27-28.

11 St. Thomas Aquinas, Truth, 22, 2 ad 22.

12 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa, I, Q. 16, Art. 4.

13 Ibid., I-II, Q. 27, Art. 3 ad 1.