The mark of a truly wise man is that he is able to gather the seeds of wisdom in his midst and fears not to adopt them as his own. Sometimes the wisdom is even snatched from the lips of an idiot. Case in point: one of the wisest men of the 20th Century, St. John Paul II, was unafraid to adopt as his own the thesis of Dostoevsky’s character Prince Myskin in his novel The Idiot that “Beauty will save the world.” In his 1999 Letter to Artists, the Pope said
“People of today and tomorrow need this enthusiasm[sparked by wonder] if they are to meet and master the crucial challenges which stand before us. Thanks to this enthusiasm, humanity, every time it loses its way, will be able to lift itself up and set out again on the right path. In this sense it has been said with profound insight that “beauty will save the world” (Letter to Artists, 16).
Fast–forward to our day, seventeen years after the Pope put ink to paper and we, the “people of tomorrow,” are collectively more boring and duller than the simplest peasant from the so-called Dark Ages. Our minds, thanks to their reduction to nothing but firing synapses, have atrophied paralyzing our capacity to wonder. There is nothing new under the sun. While the circumstances may have changed, the prescription is perennial—“every time humanity loses its way” it is the encounter with beauty that will set us “out again on the right path.” What makes our circumstances rather unique is that in order for “beauty to save the world” it must first be rescued from the poison of subjectivism.
Most of us are quick to denounce relativism in both its axiomatic and moral forms. But when it comes to its aesthetical claims, we find ourselves all too ready to concede that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” If beauty is entirely subjective, that is a matter strictly of personal taste, then how can we join the Pope’s aesthetical revolution, a revolution that always “stirs that hidden nostalgia for God” (LA, 16)?
Is there Such Thing as Objective Beauty?
The linking of beauty with truth and goodness was deliberate. The truth ignites the intellect, the good moves the will, but the beautiful strikes the heart. Beauty’s grip on the heart gives it an indomitable power to move us. It is found in many disparate types of things—there are beautiful beaches, beautiful people, beautiful art, and beautiful music—so that it transcends all categories. In this way it is the third wheel of the other two transcendentals. Unlike its transcendental counterparts, goodness and truth, it can only be known when it is experienced. Someone may tell you something is beautiful, but you are merely repeating what they have said until you experience it for yourself. Beauty, therefore, because it is completely practical, is always threatened by a subjective interpretation.
When asked to define Time, St. Augustine says he could define it if you didn’t ask him to. Beauty is like that in that we know what it is, but it is difficult to define. The most succinct definition is that beauty is the material expression of the inner most identity of a thing. Beauty reveals what a thing is and leads to knowledge of that thing. This is why St. Thomas defines beauty as “that which when seen, pleases” (more on this definition in a moment).
When we attach the adjective beautiful to each of the things mentioned above, we are saying that there is some quality in that particular object that sets it apart from other objects of its kind. A moment’s reflection and we realize that the beauty is not in the eye of the beholder but in the object itself. Before beauty can be in the eye of the beholder, it must first be in the object eyed. Because beauty is objective, St. Thomas sought to articulate some principles by which the beauty in the object could be moved to the eye of the beholder.
In a paragraph on the Trinity (for what could be more beautiful than God Himself?) in the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas assigns three conditions:
“For beauty includes three conditions: integrity or perfection, since those things which are impaired are by that very fact ugly; due proportion or harmony; and lastly, brightness or clarity, whence things are called beautiful which have a bright color” (ST I, q.39, art.8).
- A beautiful object has integrity meaning it reflect the fullness of the object’s being. It lacks nothing that it ought to have. A male peacock may have beautiful feathers, but if it is missing a leg then it tends towards ugliness.
- A beautiful object has due proportion in that there is an order and unity to it. Everything is in the right place and in the right amount.
- A beautiful object has clarity in that what the object is, its ontological reality, shines forth. Clarity means that the appearance (or sound in the case of music) of the object makes it clear what it is.
These three conditions can be thought of as the objective components of beauty and give us a basis upon which to talk about and evaluate beauty. We may call a church building that looks like an auditorium ugly not because we don’t like it, but because it lacks clarity and does not reveal what it is. We may call DaVinci’s Mona Lisa beautiful because it has integrity, due proportion (it is filled with examples of the divine ratio) and clarity, even if the subject is a rather plain woman.
Why It All Matters
Once we recognize the objectivity of beauty we can return to St. Thomas’ definition of beauty as “that which, when seen, pleases.” When St. Thomas refers to the beautiful as that which when seen delights he is referring to an intuitive seeing (knowledge) and not merely seeing with the eyes. He is speaking of a delight of the intellect and not just the senses. More accurately, the beautiful creates a delight in the mind that spills over into the senses, that is it strikes the heart. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is not proof of subjectivity but proof that there is a need to cultivate taste. Mozart’s Requiem is objectively beautiful, but the fact that I may not like it, is because I have deadened my taste buds from consuming so much ugliness. The beautiful must be slowly reintroduced to my system before I can fully enjoy its richness.
Why this discussion needs to happen is because Christians have abdicated their role as peddlers of the beautiful. There is little beautiful Christian art. There is little beautiful Christian music. Even Christian movies are mostly ugly. Rather than attempting to make something beautiful, using Aquinas’ criteria, they have tried to adopt the ugly forms the world uses and smuggle Christianity into them. What comes out is something ugly and uninspiring.
A friend of mine and I were teaching a class together. Before going to teach, we went to Mass. As we were climbing the steps to go to the classroom, he said to me “that was a beautiful Mass.” I agreed with him, but admittedly it wasn’t the first thing I thought of when I came out of Mass. Those words left a lasting impression on me however because they were the last words he ever spoke. A couple of minutes later he was on the floor after suffering a massive heart attack. This was a holy man who had cultivated the habit of capturing the beautiful and allowing it to move him. So moved that day that the Mass was like a springboard launching him from the sign to the full reality. Please God he is seeing the full Beauty right now. Ultimately this shows that beauty matters because Heaven is Beautiful and each encounter we have with it, only increases our longing for its fullness.
In an age in which all truth and goodness are thought to be relative, the power of beauty to move even the most hardened of hearts cannot be overlooked. This of course assumes that we can present and point out those things that really are true, good and beautiful. It just might be that beauty really will save the world!