The Great Conversation:
By Matt McKeown
The definition of beauty—indeed, whether it can be defined at all—is a remarkably difficult problem in the history of thought.
Goodness, truth, and beauty are the three great transcendental values traditionally recognized in Western culture. (They form a fascinating compare-and-contrast to the three core human desires recognized in Hinduism: sat, chit, and ananda, which roughly translate to being, knowledge, and bliss.) Beauty is rather the “problem child” of the three. It is extremely difficult to define, yet everyone has some notion of what it means—otherwise we could not use or discuss the word.
The meaning of beauty, or æsthetics, is one of the earliest subjects of both literature and philosophy. Plato gave a prominent role to beauty in the intellectual life: he represents Socrates as teaching that falling in love was the first step on a long ladder, whose uppermost rung was the contemplation of the Forms. Centuries later, Dante advanced a similar view, combining Thomist theology with the poetic movement of courtly love. St Thomas stated in the Summa Theologiæ that beauty and goodness are essentially the same thing, but that beauty is specifically goodness as a thing perceived (whether by the senses or intellectually). For Dante, the beautiful beloved as seen by a lover was thus a kind of foretaste of the Beatific Vision. In Charles Williams’ words, “the beloved is the first preparatory form of heaven and earth.”
Not every school of thought has been quite so “beauty-positive,” as it were. The role of beauty in temptation to sin was a prominent theme in St Augustine’s Confessions. The great saint did not teach that beauty was bad, exactly—God made it, after all—but it was a powerful distraction on the road to union with God. On some level, almost anyone who believes that the moral life requires self-discipline would have to sympathize with St Augustine, at the least. The usual reason for transgressing moral rules is to obtain something we find attractive: such things “seduce” us, after a fashion, or we seduce ourselves for them.
This prompts the question of how beauty is related to pleasure. Is everything that gives pleasure beautiful? The answer seems like it should be no: delicious foods are often quite unattractive to look at. Then again, is appearance the only, or the best, criterion of beauty? Music is invisible, but we talk about beautiful music all the time.
More curiously still, it is possible to speak about things that are irritating, sad, or even frightening as pleasurable—given the right artistic presentation. Whole genres of art, such as horror and tragedy, are based on inventing fictional catastrophes or even imitating real ones. C. S. Lewis sets out a milder example in A Preface to “Paradise Lost.” “Jane Austen’s Miss Bates could be described either as a very entertaining or a very tedious person. If we said the first, we should mean that the author’s portrait of her entertains us while we read; if we said the second, we should mean that it does so by being the portrait of a person … whose like we should find tedious in real life. For it is a very old critical discovery that the imitation in art of unpleasing objects may be a pleasing imitation.”
But of course not everyone does enjoy Jane Austen, or horror or tragedy, for that matter. And appreciating some things takes training, especially when we speak of the fine arts. Moreover, conventional ideas of beauty certainly do shape our tastes. In the eighteenth century, the bare white marble of ancient Roman and Greek statuary and architecture was celebrated for its restraint, which contemporary Classicists regarded as an essential element in good taste. But it has since been proven by archæologists that ancient statues and buildings (like Medieval cathedrals, incidentally) were painted in bright, even gaudy colors. It is clear enough that cultural and even personal preferences were dictating the eighteenth century Classicists’ æsthetic philosophy. This seems to favor the notion that beauty is entirely subjective.
Yet there still seem to be things that no culture or person regards as beautiful—or at least, if they do, they are seen by those around them as deranged rather than merely different. A farmer might prefer a pile of dung, which he can use to fertilize his crops, to a copy of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. But even that farmer hardly seems likely to claim in cold prose that a pile of dung is beautiful per se. Canons of beauty are more flexible than most of us recognize at first, but they do not seem to be infinitely flexible.
Plato, The Symposium
St Augustine, Confessions Book IV
Ben Jonson, Still to Be Neat, Still to Be Dressed
Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy
Page image of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The Damsel of the Sanct Grael, painted 1874.