The Catholic Notion of Beauty

The Catholic Notion of Beauty
Dr. Peter Chojnowski

It was during the Renaissance that for the first time the “artisan” was distinguished from the “fine artist” (e.g., Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and Raphael). The fine artist was now acknowledged as the fashioner of “the beautiful” instead of the artisan or craftsman, who was dedicated to making what could be used by those who had a job to do. “Beauty” and its laws became the unique domain of the painter, sculptor, or musician.

From then until now, we have experienced a progressive diminution-a narrowing, an enervation-of the concept of “the beautiful.” In fact, the only time the word is used today, mostly by women, rarely by men, is to describe things for which no other suitable word comes to mind when we are grasping at that which is colorful, polished, and bright.

Contrary to what we may at first think, the fine artists of the Renaissance did not expand the arenas for expressions of “the beautiful.” Actually, the attention which these artists gave to “beauty” by making it something pursuable strictly for its own sake caused the beautiful to be increasingly regulated as to how it was “allowed” to emerge. Beauty, as in the case of the paintings of Da Vinci, had to express itself according to the mathematical laws of nature (e.g.,  the mathematical balance in his The Last Supper). Even though Michelangelo rebelled against this enslavement of the artistic eye and imagination to mathematical laws of proportion, he still contributed to the exclusivity of the beautiful by insisting on the unique ability of the fine artist to have insight into the forms latent in the unformed “stuff” of matter (e.g., a slab of unformed marble). As he states, “The greatest artist has no conception which a single block of marble does not potentially contain within its mass, but only a hand obedient to the mind can penetrate to this image.”1

After seeing the pursuit of “beauty” first relegated to elite artistic and Neo-Platonic intellectual circles, the Romanticism  of the 18th and 19th centuries enclosed “beauty” within the “moment” of artistic experience pursued and possessed by the appreciater of art-the aesthete. Soren Kierkegaard identified this type of man as one who does not evaluate actions, situations, or choices in terms of “good” and “evil,” but rather in terms of “beautiful” and “ugly.” His pursuit in life was to achieve aesthetic experiences that could be captured and enclosed within the beautiful moment. The life of the aesthete was to accumulate “beautiful moments.” >From now on, “the beautiful” was put into the category of the subjective.  Rather than being a real attribute of concrete existing things, “beauty was in the eye of the beholder” and, to be a valid experience, needed to be attached to a subjective feeling of contentment.

The gradual hijacking of “the beautiful” by the artistic and literary elite ended when that same elite violently rejected the concept of “the beautiful” as imposing an objective standard on the autonomy of the artistic mind, therefore oppressing that mind and repressing the originality and subjective choice of the artist, for example, in Dadaism [see “Splendor of Form: Catholic Aesthetics,”  The Angelus, July, 1996, pp. 2-9-Ed.] and Surrealism. Since Beauty’s exile in the last century by the artistic elites, it has wandered into the realm of the maudlin, sentimental, and the “pretty.” This concept of Beauty cannot move, drive, or overpower.

Is Everything “Beautiful”?

St. Thomas Aquinas says in his Commentary on the Divine Names (IV, 5), “There is nothing that does not participate in the beautiful.” What a world of difference between our modern, trite conception of the beautiful and the richness of St. Thomas Aquinas. The “There is nothing…” part of his phrase is the classical Greek idea of pankalia, the understanding that everything which is  is beautiful. In other words, “To be is to be beautiful.” Here we must make a critically important distinction between “beings” and “being” so we can understand the meaning and intent of St. Thomas’s attribution of beauty to all of created and uncreated reality.

Whereas  beings (e.g., dogs, toads, clouds, rainbows) can have attributes attached to them that indicate their qualities  (e.g., “Fifi the dog is vicious.”): Fifi is understood to have the characteristic of being vicious), such characteristics could not be used to qualify and distinguish “‘being.’1’1  Being is the foundational attribute of all things that exist. Since “being” has such a universal reach, it cannot be described in any way that restricts it (e.g., “sweet,” “hungry,” or “tired”). On a good day, Fifi  may be “sweet,” but “being” in which Fifi participates, cannot be “sweet.” It is immediately apparent that while we can say, “Fifi is sweet,” it is absurd to say, “Being is sweet.” We understand that the predicate must be more inclusive than the subject. “Sweetness” can apply to more things than Fifi. Whereas, if we say, “Being is sweet,” we would be saying that “sweet things” outnumber those things that exist and, hence, have being. This would be absurd!

Even if being is not sweet, or soft, or round, can we say truthfully that being is beautiful and, hence, that everything which has being (i.e., everything which is) also has beauty? If we say yes, three very important consequences follow: 1) If God is the highest instance of being-in fact, if God is Being-Itself and all that it means “to be”-then God would have a new quality which could be pre-eminently applied to Him, that is, Beauty. 2)  The universe of beings would acquire a new perfection, putting to rest the nihilistic proposition which says that the universe, in itself, is meaningless and without objective value. So just as there is nothing ontologically evil (i.e., evil in the very roots of its being), so too the apparent deformities and dissonances in the universe would be resolved within a resplendent beauty that shined forth insofar as it stood forth out of nothingness. 3) The perfection of beauty itself would acquire a new dignity and objectivity, which it would not have if it were simply “in the eye of the beholder.” This is very important if we are to ground our description of things as “beautiful.” If the defenders of the ancient Faith and Tradition are to argue for the intrinsic connection between art and “the beautifuP’-if we are to refute those who switch lights off and on in empty rooms insisting this meets their standard of “the beautiful”-we must be able to rationally relate the appearance of the beautiful, of which all men are aware, to some exemplar that would reveal, in a rationally accessible and manifest way, the outline of what constitutes the beautiful.

St. Thomas and the Divine Names

The place in the writings of St. Thomas where he directly treats the whole question of “the beautiful” is in his Commentary on the Divine Names. The text The Divine Names was produced by a 5th-century Syrian monk known as Pseudo-Dionysius. It is in Chapter 4 of this text entitled, “Concerning the Good, Light, Beauty,  Eros, Ecstasis, and Zeal,” that Pseudo-Dionysius presents the realm of being as a hierarchy of goodness and being. In this hierarchy, a thing’s degree of perfection depends upon its degree of participation in the qualities possessed (in a pre­eminent way) by the most perfect Being, that is, God. Just as goodness and being belong to God and to creatures in a distinctly different way, so too does the property of beauty belong to God and to creatures in a distinctly different way. The words that St. Thomas and Pseudo-Dionysius use to describe the beauty of God obviate any understanding of the beautiful as a form of mere “prettiness.” God is “supersubstantial being” and beauty “beyond being.” When we predicate the quality of beauty to God, however, we are faced with a philosophical difficulty, which transcends mere aesthetics and edges itself into the realm of metaphysics. How can both God and His creatures be “beautiful,” since one is self-sufficient, infinite, eternal being, and the other is contingent, limited, and constantly changing being? Are we speaking in a completely equivocal way when we apply the term “beauty” to both simultaneously?

The answer to this question is, of course, no. But how is the “beauty” of each similar? This philosophical problem is only exacerbated by the fact that, whereas the most immediate experience of the beautiful which man has is that which he experiences with his own two eyes, God is invisible and has in Himself no outline, nor form, nor proportion nor unity of parts, those elements which normally constitute the beauty of a thing. How can the beauty of God resemble in any way the sensible splendor of the visible forms, which so attract our visual awareness? The most obvious way in which we can uncover this shared property of the beautiful is by acknowledging the basic fact that the Beauty of One is the source of the beauty of all the rest. As St. Thomas states in his Commentary on the Divine Names (1,2):

Everything that exists comes from beauty and goodness, that is from God, as from an effective principle. And all things have their being in beauty and goodness and desire them as their end….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.

Here we can make the connection between our earlier considerations, in which we mentioned the ancient Greek and Medieval idea that everything is beautiful insofar as it is, and the super-eminent beauty of God, God as Beauty-Itself. Everything that exists possesses beauty insofar as it comes forth from the creative hand of God. All things are generated in beauty. It is the formal mark which the Creator places on all things, thereby bringing order and harmony to all things, from their innermost being to the most “superficial” of external appearances. For the created order, all things are drawn together into community and fullness by beauty. To quote St. Thomas, “It is always the case that whatever creatures may have in the way of communion and coming together, they have it due to the power of beauty.”2

Not only do creatures come forth from the Divine Beauty, but also they are motivated to return to the Divine Beauty by the attraction of the Divine Perfection. It is only God, perfectly proportioned, perfectly integral, and superabundantly radiant, who can impress order on whatever He creates. Nothing can escape this inner form characterizing all things. When man conforms his moral actions to the inner form impressed upon him by God, we can see the obvious relationship between “the beautiful” and the rational.

The Three Criteria of the Beautiful

How can this metaphysical (that is to say, ostensibly “abstract” ) understanding of “the beautiful” relate to the beautiful things that we encounter continually in ever more immediate and appreciative moments. How can the beauty of God resemble, in any way, the beauty of a vast sunlit landscape or the face of a beloved child? Moreover, how can we relate the metaphysical beauty of all things which are to the proportioned and bright bodies that attract our visual and psychological attention?

In order to discern the connections between these various aspects of the beautiful, we should consider the criteria [i.e.,  standards by which to judge something-Ed.] by which the Ancients judged whether something they saw or heard was beautiful or not.

Before we consider the three criteria of 1) right-proportion,  2) integrity, and 3) “clarity,” we must identify the basic experiential fact that leads to our bodily human recognition of the beautiful. St. Thomas expresses this experiential fact as “Beauty is said to be that which when seen pleases.”  Such ease and naturalness in handling the realities of human existence is characteristic of St. Thomas. He makes such “ordinary” statements as, “…for we call things beautiful when they are brightly colored.” St. Thomas not only reveals for us the appreciation that the men of his own age had for simple and bright color, warm tones, and brilliant illuminations, he also, refuting those who accuse the Medieval Catholic mind of boorishness and relegating beauty to the domain of metaphysical abstraction, affirms the concreteness  of the beautiful and the immediacy of its attractiveness to the eye. We moderns, who pride ourselves on our “attentiveness to the real world,” have difficulty appreciating the naturalness and joy that characterizes St. Thomas’s statement:

Beauty or handsomeness arises when clarity and due proportion run together__So, beauty of body consists in this, that a person has well-proportioned limbs, together with a certain requisite clarity of color.3

It is the qualities of right-proportion (i.e., the fitting relationship of parts to each other), integrity (i.e.,  the relationship between the parts and the unity of the whole), and clarity or splendor (i.e., the radiant and uniform color) that are so “fitted” to the knowing and desiring powers of man that there is a deep contentment engendered in the human soul when an object of beauty is encountered. Such contentment and pleasure indicates that there is some connaturality that characterizes the encounter between splendid form and the appreciative and receptive human mind. As St. Thomas states, the beautiful form “allays” the rational appetite,4 it is an ecstatic act that leaves self-interest and crabbed conceit behind in the rapturous outgoing to the form and order that marks “the beautiful.” It brings peace and contentment  to the soul on account of the attraction man has to what is in accord with the perfection in the Divine Mind from which he too issued. The momentary glance that “catches” the beauty and splendor of a visible form turns away from it with tears of joy lest the indwelling in perfected form unleash the heart, encouraging man to pursue that which cannot yet be attained. It is a quiet, tearful yearning for paradise lost or for the celestial vision yet to be gained.

But what is more heartening to us wayfarers than tears is the fruit  of “the beautiful.” These are tears of hope, for no man weeps for that of which he is in despair. Perhaps we can then say that when beauty and tears meet the essence of our human lives is expressed.

The Beauty of the Son

It is not without reason that St. Thomas treats most extensively the three criteria for judging the beauty of things in an article in the  Summa Theologica dedicated to the question, “Whether the Holy Doctors Have Correctly Assigned Essential Attributes to Each of the Divine Persons?” In the course of this article on the “attribution” of qualities to each of the Divine Persons, St. Thomas states that Beauty is a quality that is most fittingly attributed to God the Son. The Son is the Beauty of God; He is Beauty-Itself.

By applying the criterion of right-proportion to God the Son, St. Thomas indicates that we are not to think of right-proportion solely in terms of symmetrical shape of parts, but also in a deeper, more intellectual sense….In the Son, we find “lightness” in the highest degree because he is a clear image of the Father. Moreover, we can find exemplary proportion in God on account of the perfect accord which exists between His Intellect and His Will. God is, therefore, “rightly-proportioned” to a pre-eminent degree.5

Integrity  is also applicable in a pre-eminent way to God the Son. St.Thomas says that the Son possesses integrity because He possesses the full nature of the Father truly and perfectly within Himself. He is substantially one with the Father without any confusion of Person. According to St. Thomas, the integrity of a thing’s form may be infringed by default or by excess. [The forms of things are like numbers. Any change-any addition or subtraction-confounds the nature of the species and transmutes it into a different one.-Ed] A thing must be unified-must be one-in order to be truly “beautiful. That which is mutilated or characterized by superfluity is, for that very reason, distorted and ugly.

The Splendor of Form and the Divine Radiance

Of all three criteria for identifying the beautiful, clarity most enticed the minds of the Ancients. When trying to explain what they meant by this most extraordinary and unique characteristic of “the beautiful,” I offer words like “luminosity,” “splendor,” “radiance,” “clarity of form,” or “to be brightly colored.” It cannot be doubted that light, brightness, and luminosity were understood to be associated with beauty. In fact, they were the specific expression of the well-proportioned and harmonious physical object. St. Thomas states that God the Son can have attributed to Him clarity since He is the Intelligible Word of the Father, the “light and splendor of the [Divine] mind.”

The Son of God, then, is a perfect image, an entity adequate to His own nature, harmoniously in accord with the Father, and resplendent with an expressive life-for He is the Word-which is profoundly rational, a splendor intellectus.6

It is the task of Catholics to free the reality of “beauty” from the artsy-craftsy constraints placed upon it by those who thought they could master it. How far are we away from the Greeks who regularly spoke of the kaloskagathos, that is, the “beautiful and good man,” the man of moral excellence, the “beauty” of whose virtues shone through in the decorum, nobility, and fetching vitality of his actions. It is such a beauty, form, and clarity in the individual man or woman that lays to rest all the confusions of this earth, which can bring tears to our eyes and yearning to our hearts.

The entire effort of a true and genuine culture is to bring the human heart to these moments of transfixion. We are pierced and “split open” by the shaft which can only come from a divine and perfect Source. A Source which fears not to bring man to exaltation. A Source which knows not envy. It can only be from a Word, ever the light of man, Who has emboldened the flesh with divinity that we can expect with certainty the outpouring of grace and truth.

The Angelus, April 2003 Volume XXVI,  Number 4

1. Cf. Anthony Blunt, “Michelangelo’s Views on Art” in Readings in Art History, vol. II, ed. Harold Spencer, p. 116.

2. St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Divine Names, I, 2.

3. St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, Q.39, Art. 8.

4.  ST, I-II, Q.27,Art. I, ad 3.

5.  ST, I, Q.39, Art. 8.

6.  ST, I, Q.5, Art. 5.

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