On the eve of the greatest beauty, an essay on what beauty means.
What is beauty? It may be a little complicated to define how an object, thing or person is “beautiful” but examples of beauty are not hard to come by. Certain things like flowers and mountains or animals like cats and dogs or man-made things like houses and musical pieces can be described as “beautiful.” And while people may generally not have any particular definition in mind in attributing beauty to a wide range of things, a thing that is beautiful can be something that looks or sounds good, or something that is well ordered or harmonious, or something that is admirable in some way.
Because aesthetic experience has such a wide variety of different contexts, I think that such experiences can be categorized into three general types of experiences. One, a person can experience a thing to be beautiful as a matter of personal liking or preference. A person may find, for instance, a red colored rose to be more beautiful than a white colored rose. Or, a person may prefer the looks of an orange cat over a gray colored cat. I refer to this as the “psychological approach to beauty” where a person instantly finds something to be beautiful and prefers the appearance of the given object over other things.
The second approach to beauty is a bit more objective approach, where a person states that a certain thing is beautiful because it well ordered, complete or has some objectively admirable features. For instance, a scientist might say that the human brain is something beautiful in the sense that it’s an organ that’s (normally) well-ordered and has plenty of outstanding features that enable us to think and function well in life. Statements like the brain is “beautiful” are more about how well ordered, complex, or functional a thing is as such and not necessarily about how appealing a thing looks or sounds. Aesthetic statements that are made primarily because of how well organized, harmonious or beneficial a thing is as a such is what I would characterize as the “rational approach to beauty.”
Perhaps another example of the so-called rational approach to beauty may be if a person were to say that a computer has beauty to it in that it’s a good or useful machine that has several components that generally work well together and perform certain tasks. The rational approach to beauty is more of a scientific or mathematical approach towards beauty where one finds certain things in nature, or man-made things that are mathematically or rationally well-ordered or functional to be beautiful.
The last approach to beauty is what I refer to as the “mystical” or “spiritual” approach to beauty. It is any kind of experience of finding something spiritual or Divine to be beautiful. In general, the mystical approach to beauty is where the soul or mental substance is drawn to God as the Supreme Beauty. There are, of course, plenty examples of the mystical approach to beauty like in the case of near death experiences where persons often do not want to return to their bodies after apparently getting a glimpse of Heaven or Divine Light. The mystical approach to beauty can also refer to a person’s appreciation of moral goodness or virtue and things of God.
Now all three types of aesthetic experience are evidently not mutually exclusive and a person can experience an overlap of more than one of these approaches in their appreciation of beauty. For instance, a person might find a watch to be beautiful both in the sense that she finds the watch to be delightful in appearance and for being a well designed, functional watch. A person can have an experience of both what I call the psychological and rational approaches to beauty all at the same event. Because the term “beauty” has a wide range of uses and different contexts, I think that categorizing aesthetic experience into three general kinds is a good way of looking at beauty.
There is, of course, this debate about the nature of beauty as to whether it is an objective feature of things or if it’s only a subjective delight in things. In the philosophy of aesthetics, people generally divide themselves between the notions of aesthetic objectivism and aesthetic subjectivism. Aesthetic objectivists say that beauty is an objective feature or property of things and that statements about beauty generally refer to a real admirable feature in an entity.
Aesthetic subjectivists, by contrast, say that beauty is not a real property in things at all, it is simply a state of mind where a person takes delight or appreciation in an entity. Subjectivists usually argue that since people differ in their perspectives on what constitutes beauty and even disagree on whether certain things are “beautiful,” that beauty is merely a subjective matter of preference. However, not all aesthetic subjectivists make such an argument. Immanuel Kant, for instance, was an aesthetic subjectivist yet he would argue that in order for a thing to be beautiful it had to be generally agreed upon that the thing was beautiful.
Persons reading my statements on the “three approaches to beauty” will get the impression that I subscribe to a kind of objectivist philosophy of beauty, especially with my descriptions of the so-called rational and mystical approaches to beauty. Least of all, a person wouldn’t characterized me as a pure subjectivist when it comes to aesthetics. That is correct, and my own philosophy of beauty can be characterized as a form of “aesthetic objectivism.” I would also say that beauty is a universal or “transcendental” property of being and that all existent things to some degree have beauty to them. This is a metaphysical proposition that some philosophers have held like Aquinas.
However, while I may technically subscribe to a type of “objectivist” view of beauty, I think it’s also important to realize that people have different perspectives on what makes a thing beautiful and that people have different preferences on what looks and sounds good. This is why I think there is a kind of “psychological approach to beauty” in that persons have their own unique perspective on what what is aesthetically delightful.
Nonetheless, the description of beauty as being “objective” or “subjective” can be ambiguous and confusing at times. Regardless whether a person says that things have an intrinsic beauty to them or not, there is always a sense in which beauty can be said to be both subjective and objective in that beauty always involves an entity being related to the mind as an object of delight or admiration.
Even granting that beauty can be considered an objective feature of real beings, it is important to point out that beauty always exists within the context of a mind appreciating a given entity. In other words, in order for anything to be beautiful, a particular thing must, at least, have the capacity to be appreciated, admired or delighted by a mind or intelligence. Supposing if there were to exist an entity that could not be appreciated by any mind – including the Mind of God – then that entity could not be beautiful. This is because there would be no possibility in which the entity could be intelligibly described as beautiful or admirable in some way.
So beauty always exists in the framework of a mind appreciating or having the ability to appreciate the given entity that is thought to be beautiful. In that sense, there is no such thing as “absolute, unrelational beauty” or beauty completely cut off from the so-called “subject-object” or the delighter – delighted relationship.
Plotinus understood this fact about beauty and for that reason, he concluded that “the Good” or “the One” (the Neo-Platonic concept of God, where God is thought to be an impersonal, indivisible unity without real distinctions and that’s beyond all minds) to be something beyond beauty or to be not beautiful. Plotinus rightly articulated the implications of Neo-Platonist theology where the Neo-Platonic God would be have to be outside of the realm of beauty because anything that cannot be known or perceived and appreciated by a mind would not be beautiful. I, of course, do not endorse the Neo-Platonic concept of God and I firmly consider God to be a Supreme Mind which enables me to consistently hold that God is beautiful.
God, being the Supreme Intelligence, has a perfect relationship of subject and object, knower and known, admirer and admired within Himself and consequently He can be rightly considered the Supreme Beauty. God is the best possible beauty there is and evidently God, being the Supreme Intelligence, is able to fully appreciate his own beauty. Also the fact that all existent things come from the Divine Mind, enables philosophers like myself and Aquinas to say that all things have a certain degree of beauty to them since all things relate to the Divine Mind as the source of their goodness and existence. To even say that beauty is a transcendental feature of all existent entities presupposes a theistic view of the world where everything has its origin in all-perfect Mind and that all things are valued by an overseeing Mind.
So there is no beauty outside the context of a mind appreciating things. While I believe that things have a genuine beauty to them in the sense that things have objectively admirable features, I, however, reject an extreme form of aesthetic objectivism that says that beauty can or does exist without having the metaphysical possibility of being delighted or admired by a mind. Beauty in some form or another always has to be within the reach of a conscious self admiring some given object or person.
But while things cannot be beautiful without at least the metaphysical possibility of a mind appreciating these aesthetically delightful things, beauty cannot be reduced to a mere, subjective feeling of preference and delight. I have several problems with the purely subjectivist account of beauty. While it’s true that people have different preferences and perspectives on what constitutes a beautiful object, none of this, however, proves that beauty is only in the “eye of the beholder.” It’s a non-sequitur fallacy to say that since individuals disagree sometimes on aesthetic matters, that beauty is only an expression of personal tastes. For it could be that some things or even all existent things have an intrinsic beauty to them and that some people sometimes fail to see the beauty in these given entities.
Or, it could be a case where a person perceives the beauty of a given entity but simply prefers the beauty of another thing like a child preferring the looks of an orange cat over a gray cat. An orange cat and a gray cat may be both beautiful animals but a person may prefer the appearance of an orange cat over a gray colored cat or vise versa. So the fact that persons tend to have different perspectives on beauty does not refute the idea that things may have an intrinsic beauty to them or have objectively admirable qualities that can ignite an aesthetic experience within the person.
Secondly, a subjectivist view of beauty doesn’t account for all of the experiences with beauty. Sometimes a person asserts that something is beautiful not merely because he likes the appearance of the entity but because the entity bears certain objectively admirable or praiseworthy qualities like how well ordered or beneficial a thing is as such like a person stating that a single living cell is beautiful. After all, there is a wide range of the uses of the word “beautiful” and there’s generally more than one specific meaning or definition of a given word just as there’s different (yet similar) meanings of the word “goodness.” Relating to philosophy of language, I think it’s generally wise to accommodate the different senses and uses of words like “beauty” rather than to arbitrarily narrow down a term and restrict everything within a set of experiences.
The problem with aesthetic subjectivism is that it offers too narrow of a definition and consideration of aesthetic experience and it fails to account for experiences that seem to show that beauty can be an intrinsic feature of a thing or at least an expression of a thing having objectively admirable qualities to it. I think it’s simply better to look at all the different contexts and meanings of expressing aesthetic appreciation because by doing so, one sees all the different angles to beauty then trying to arbitrarily narrow everything down to subjective preferences and tastes.
One of the main reasons why I admire Aquinas’ philosophy of beauty is because of how it accommodates all the various experiences and contexts of beauty. While I’m no thomist, I, however, have hardly any disagreement with Aquinas’ philosophy of beauty because of how Aquinas nicely avoids the problem of offering an excessively narrow view of beauty like in the case of aesthetic subjectivism. Aquinas’ philosophy of aesthetics can account for the superficial experiences of beauty as well as the more deep, spiritual experiences of beauty. Overall, I find aesthetic subjectivism to be unsatisfactory because it fails to explain the various experiences in which beauty can be perceived as an objective feature in things or as an appreciation of admirable qualities in things, and aesthetic subjectivism seems to offer an overly narrow view on beauty.
Moreover, speaking of St. Thomas Aquinas, this historic philosopher comes up with three essential features of beauty, which are worth looking into as such. For him, a beautiful entity will have clarity (claritas), integrity (integritas) and due proportion (debita proportio or consonantia).
By “clarity,” Aquinas means that a thing is beautiful in terms of being manifest to the person or being illuminated or well-lighted or bright. The characteristic of having clarity, of course, has a wide variety of contexts from a painting having beautiful, vivid colors to resurrected persons being luminous beings. Basically, in order for a thing to be beautiful it has to manifest or manifest-able to the person that it is beautiful. This is why “clarity” is associated with light in Aquinas.
The feature of “integrity” refers to a beautiful thing being complete or full in its being and fulfilling its purpose or functions. A watch, for instance, may be beautiful partly due to the fact that it has all its parts together and that the whole watch fulfills its purpose to mark time. Finally, the feature of “due proportion” refers to the relations within the beautiful entity and its relations to other things. Again, “due proportion” has a very broad range of things that can said to make a thing beautiful such as the relation of the parts to the whole within an object, how an object makes other things look better like an ornament that decorates a Christmas tree, or even metaphysical relations like existence and essence.
The “due proportion” feature of beauty implies that beauty is a transcendental property of being in Aquinas, as Umberto Eco points out. I would agree with that contention since if metaphysical relations can be described as beautiful then everything, even things that appear ugly, have a certain degree of beauty as well as goodness. I take the idea that beauty is a transcendental property of being to be axiomatic of the theistic view that all existent entities come from an omnibenevolent Mind. Everything having a certain degree of beauty to them does not imply that there is no ugliness in the world just as the proposition that everything is metaphysically good by its existence does not imply that there is no evil. All existent entities being metaphysically good and beautiful only entails that all things are good and admirable to a certain degree since they originate from an omnibenevolent Mind.
As I have remarked earlier, God is a supreme Mind so there is a perfect relation of knower and known, delighter and delighted in God in that God appreciates His own majestic beauty. And beauty always exists in the context of the subject-object relationship. Also, there is a wonderful relation between God and creation in that God actualizes all time at once. God, being timeless, sees all creation at once; our block universe emanates from God and God sees all things within the past, present and future all at once. Hence, all existent beings have beauty to certain degree to them in that they are created and always perceived and valued by God.
So looking at the question, if a CD player were to play Chuck Berry and no one hears the music would the music be “beautiful”? A bit like those metaphysical questions such as “if a tree falls to the ground and no one observes it then does it make a sound?” Or, is there a tree in the first place without anyone viewing the tree? I would say that it has to be at least possible for a mind to appreciate the music or any particular thing in order for it to beautiful. But even if that answer is not adequate, at least one mind would be admiring the Chuck Berry music or any beautiful entity for that matter and that is the Divine Mind. So all beautiful things are beautiful in that they are always valued in some way by a Supreme Mind; beauty always in that sense exists in the context of a mind admiring things.
Before I end this essay, I would like to mention one other thing about Aquinas’ aesthetic philosophy. Aquinas, like other great thinkers, also accounts for “aesthetic disinterestedness.” Aesthetic disinterestedness refers to experiences where a person simply takes delight or appreciation in a beautiful entity without deciding to use or possess the beautiful entity. “Aesthetic disinterestedness,” of course, does not mean that aesthetic experience is devoid of all interest; it only refers to perceiving a beautiful thing without utilizing and possessing a thing. For instance, a person may go on a walk and appreciate the beauty of sunflowers on a trail without attempting to pick the flowers and decorate one’s apartment. Or, a man may simply delight in the beauty of woman without deciding to date her. These would be examples of aesthetic disinterested experiences that are discussed in philosophy of beauty.
Why is aesthetic disinterestedness an essential theme in accounting for beauty? For several reasons, philosophers have emphasized aesthetic disinterestedness. One, it is a good way to explain why human beings are capable of experiencing beauty unlike animals. While animals only value things based on instinct and survival, human beings can take delight in things for their own sake.
Aesthetic disinterestedness is also valued or emphasized by historic thinkers because of how it can enable a person to build virtues like chastity and moderation in pleasures. Aesthetic disinterestedness is also sometimes used as a criteria to discern that something is truly beautiful or as a way of coming to recognize the beauty of a thing. Immanuel Kant, for instance, would say that in order for anything to beautiful it has to be something that can be taken with aesthetic delight in a manner that lacks any attempt to use and possess the object. Kant would go as far as to say that if an experience involves any decision to utilize and/or possess a thing or a person then that experience cannot be a real experience of the beautiful. In other words, all true experiences of beauty always involve aesthetic disinterestedness for Immanuel Kant.
While Aquinas, to his credit, doesn’t over-restrict beauty to aesthetic disinterestedness like Kant does as such, he nonetheless emphasizes aesthetic distinterestedness for reasons that it promotes the virtue of moderation and that it aids people to better see the beauty of things. While I do not agree with Kant’s idea that true experiences of beauty are restricted to delighting in things apart from utility and possession, Kant, however, does have a point in that aesthetic disinterestedness can be helpful in coming to know the beauty of things. And I would also add that aesthetic disinterestedness is essential in the practice of certain virtues like temperance or moderation in pleasures which both Kant and Aquinas upheld that contention as well.
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Apologies, but reality has wiped out my philosophical pinings and I just cannot go there. Have a good Christmas (locked in your house, maybe).
Thus it appears the axiom ‘De gustibus non est disputandum’ is invalid? Comment appreciated.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. At my worst, 64, not tooo badly wrinkled, uncombed, unwashed, down in the dumps (covid – People/family scared, no visits), this morning my husband said you are beautiful and oddly meant it.
In my deepest meditation experiences, and I know that many have shared this, whether in spiritual practices, through “consciousness enhacers” (entheogenics), or in NDE´s, I encountered an absolute, trascendental, formless unity. More than “encountering it”, in those deep states you can coincide with it, you become “it”. And “there” there is only pure subjectivity. It would trascend any exalted state, even beauty itself.
So, in my opinion, there is the beauty of God, but not of the Godhead, because the Godhead is the source of everything, even “beauty” or God itself.
IMO, “beauty” would lie, as archetypes that we somehow chase while on our human journey, in between the human experience and the Godhead (I totally adhere to the Meister Eckhart view because it is the closest to my own.) So maybe it is the different approaches of humans to the archetypes that are impressed in our minds what makes us have different subjective tastes but, at the same time, there are some particular artworks, landscapes, etc., that somehow ring a deep bell in humanity as a whole. That makes the case for objective beauty, which would one that closely resembles those deep archetypes embedded in our very soul.
BTW, two recommendations: First, in the book “Diamonds from heaven”, Christopher Bache, university professor, and one of the bravest psychonauts of all time, give a fabulous map on the multiple terrible and glorious territories that lie between the human and the Godhead. Infinite, inexhaustible. Pure beauty in itself at the highest level, unconceivable for human minds in a conventional state of consciousness. Second, and considering you spoke about NDE´S, please, read everything you can about John Wren Lewis, because you´ll find the most simple, perfect sets of descriptions anybody has given on that particular situation. He was a gifted writer, so it is a pleasure following his conclusions and explanations, especially coming from the mind of a scientist.
This discussion has been going on for, what, about 3,500 years? and has generally had one major weakness: no one can explain the perception of beauty – the holy *blank* nature of my response to Karen, or the 18th Prelude and Fugue (Shostakovich, not Bach) – so it all comes down to navel gazing and dressing up personal drivia in intellectualized verbiage and oh so deep thought.
Many years ago I wrote a thesis on building an AI in which my main contention was that behavior develops from a blank slate as a record of a series of responses to stimuli – starting with physical responses and building patterns of the “this then that” form that eventually build up to produce learned behavioral patterns and so what we think of as intelligent behavior.
This idea leads to a definition of intelligence as a measure of the information needed to correctly discern a
pattern – the less time and information needed to get it right, the higher the intelligence.
It also leads to an understanding of beauty and art: art consists of conveying the most information under the
tightest constraints, and beauty in general gets defined as patterns meeting expectations. In the specific
case of personal perception of beauty this means that we rank beauty, and our emotional response to it, according to earlier emotional responses within other patterns. Thus a girl in a church basement babysitting group I got kicked out of at about 4 had a face and body posture I can still see and, more importantly, one that set a lifetime standard of female beauty for me – look anything like her, and you’re gorgeous: be “objectively” gorgeous (by popular vote, say) and, to me, you’re not if you don’t fit that pattern.
As blind men with the Elephant, we struggle to describe. Yes, it is the “thick snake”; yes the pillar; yes the fan; yes the rope; yes, the spear.
And beauty? Yes, aesthetically objective; yes, subjectively aesthetic. Yes, disinterested and yes, possessive. And yes — it is a psychological thing, a rational thing, and a transcendently spiritual thing: Beauty.
Keats told us all we need to know is Beauty…and Truth.
But are these not all words saying the same singular thing, seeking to describe the same overwhelmingly real and impossibly dimensioned ‘elephant’ we are not equipped or prepared or capable of describing? Do we not ‘see through our glass darkly’ in every way imaginable? Should we be surprised that we return from our outing, our hunt for Beauty chockfull of certainty that this be it, not that?
1000 centuries past we stood beneath the night sky and marveled at the thundrous stroke of lightning which split the heavens. We knew nothing of either (not in the way we know now) but still we were– quite literally — thunderstruck. We were amazed. And from that amazement we constructed the stories and dreams and portents and meanings which explained exactly what it was we saw and felt and heard. And that was Beauty.
1000 centuries later we do the same, save our stories are of storm fronts, and spontaneous electrostatic discharge from ” two electrically charged regions in the atmosphere or ground (which) temporarily equalize themselves, causing the instantaneous release of as much as one gigajoule of energy (in the form of a) wide range of electromagnetic radiation, from very hot plasma created by the rapid movement of electrons to brilliant flashes of visible light in the form of black-body radiation.” And that too was Beauty.
Do we truly know anymore than we did? Is that searing, plasma’d scrawl across the night sky any more beautiful than it was, or less?
“You enquire about the kingfisher’s feathers,
which tremble in the pure springs of the southern tides?
Or you’ve found in the cards a new question touching on
the crystal architecture
of the sea anemone, and you’ll deal that to me now?
You want to understand the electric nature of the ocean
The armored stalactite that breaks as it walks?
The hook of the angler fish, the music stretched out
in the deep places like a thread in the water?
I want to tell you the ocean knows this, that life in its
is endless as the sand, impossible to count, pure,
and among the blood-colored grapes time has made the
hard and shiny, made the jellyfish full of light
and untied its knot, letting its musical threads fall
from a horn of plenty made of infinite mother-of-pearl.” Neruda
“And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.”
Merry Christmas to all…and to all a Good Night!
This is a great read. God Bless you.
It has been said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder but that observation is true only insofar that the intellect has been rightly conditioned/taught.
Man must be taught what is and isn’t beautiful.
The works of Jackson Pollock are execrable abominations.
The works of Rembrant van Rijn are beautiful art.
Similarly, the Liturgy of Tradition is beautiful whereas the New Mass is a religious hack.
see, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Did you grow up and marry her, that would be totally perfect???
Did you grow up and marry her, that would be totally perfect???
Fairy penguins are beautiful.
“beauty is truth, truth, beauty.”
Merry Christmas, BDavi52!! You said it best for me.
And, everything in creation has one or more flaws whether we can see them or not, for all of creation fell when Adam and Eve sinned. I believe that it is our adamic nature that keeps trying to “see” beauty, and the beauty that we see lasts only until we see the flaw, a nick in the idea, in the writing, in the jewel, a tiny blob of paint out of place, or knowledge of the history of the beautiful object which history takes much of the pleasure from the beauty.
And about God, God is the One and Only Triune Being. And He has graciously revealed to us that He is, that He is the Creator, and that He is Love, and that He so loves us and all of creation, that He sent His only Begotten Son in the form of human flesh to teach us of Himself, to suffer horrible persecution, and to die a horrible death to cleanse away our sins, for only One Who was sinless could accomplish such.
So look, see, observe, but keep in mind, that no matter the apparent beauty of any object, or other, there is a flaw.
God bless, C-Marie
Thanks, Perfesser, I need this!
Quite an article, most of which I am unschooled. My meager submission is that beauty is a characteristic of God, and that all things God does reflect His character. God’s creation reflects beauty, though marred by sin, as per C-Marie’s point, yet the reflection remains. I don’t agree that beauty exists outside of relationship, or from an entirely dis-interested one, since gratitude and acknowledgement of God’s handiwork is volitional. I would have to hold to the view that beauty is more than physical, since the nexus of history, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, is glorious and beautiful in all its horridness, for reasons far beyond physical. Perhaps glorious supersedes beauty, since the work God does in an individual open to His will, as the outer body wastes away, is a smelting process.
To Richard S. Absolutely lovingly written by one who knows Christ. Thank you so very much!!
Merry Christmas and God bless,
I loved both the order and integration of this essay on beauty. So many times one component of a subject is pulled out and made the “whole thing” at the expense of an integrated whole.
As I read the essay some things came to mind. It seems to me that beauty has objective reality coupled with subjective experience. In other words the objective/subjective aspect is a both/and, not an either/or.
Once when I was teaching 7th graders a class on arachnids, unsolicited, two students brought in two aquariums on the same morning. The young lady brought in an aquarium filled with brightly colored aquarium rocks, splashy bright flowers and a beautiful butterfly. The young man brought in an aquarium with gray rocks, leafy green plants, and a spider. As we sat around the table with these two aquariums as center-pieces, saying the rosary, I was struck by the Beautiful Mind that had created both. One so pleasing to the eye in its color and grace; the other, while not physically attractive, served as so beautifully in its utilitarian function. At that moment, I felt great joy, as I witnessed the love and care that God provided for us in the simplest ways.
Referring back to the essay, the butterfly aquarium provided the “psychological” form of beauty; the spider exhibited the “rational” form of beauty. The experience brought to mind the Beautiful Mind who created both.
The mystical aspect of beauty, for me is also reflected in one of my favorite Scriptures. Even though St. John the Baptist was causing Herod a great deal of trouble, it says in Mark 6:20, “Herod feared John, knowing him to be a just and holy man…yet he liked to listen to him.” It always struck me that, what there was of the true, beautiful, and good in Herod, gravitated to the True, Beautiful, and Goodness that was God.
Finally, the aspect of “aesthetic disinterestedness” completes the integrated whole. It not only allows a rational intelligence to respond appropriately to beauty; but it allows beauty and the appreciation of beauty to become a vehicle for that rational intelligence to unite with the Supreme Beauty on the vertical plane; and develop human virtue on the horizontal plane.
Thank you & God Bless,
Hey thanks for all the positive and interesting feedback, Linda, C-Marie, Richard, John, ABS, Rogelio etc.
You all have a very good and happy Christmas season and new year!