Monthly Archives: June 2014

Aquinas on Beauty

This week I would like to focus on some key elements brought about by the theologian Thomas Aquinas. He was a giant in the theological world, and so it’s only appropriate to take a look at what he had to say about beauty, and see what we can learn from him.

Aquinas was heavily influenced by Aristotle, and so there are some similar ideas, but ultimately, Aquinas sought the glory of God, and his study was to that end. Like Aristotle, Aquinas found three qualities that a thing must possess in order to be considered beautiful. However, for Aquinas, these qualities were integrity, proportion, and clarity.

By integrity, Aquinas meant that thing which gives something its essence. In other words, what gives a table its table-ness, or an apple its apple-ness? In fancy philosophical terms, what is it that gives something its ontological reality? As a Christian, Aquinas believed that God created everything, and as such, there was a certain way that God had intended things to be. For example, we know that an apple core is not considered beautiful, because we know what a whole apple is. In order to give an apple its apple-ness, there needs to be wholeness or completeness. In other words, all the parts that make up a whole apple need to be there. In connection with this is the second quality, that of proportion.

We tend to automatically notice things which are out of proportion, and for Aquinas, that is one of the hallmarks of how we know where beauty lies or does not. In other words, when God created things, not only did He give them a certain amount of parts, but He also gave them particular proportions that would be fitting for them. In our apple example, it would not be something considered beautiful if it had all the required parts, but had a 3ft stem. It would likely seem comical to us, and that is because we recognize how it differs from its original state. Both these elements are fairly easy to understand, and are also fairly Aristotelian, but the third element is where he made a clean break from Aristotle.

The third element that is needed for an object to be objectively beautiful is clarity. In this, he meant that we must not only be able to tell if something has all its parts, and in the right proportion, but we must also be able to say what a thing is, or what its purpose is. To use our apple example, it is pleasing to our senses, and is used for eating, as it nourishes us. It completes its purpose, and when done by an animal in nature, it will naturally get the apple seeds transferred to another location. In other words, God created things for a reason, and when that reason is clear and easy to understand, then it can be considered beautiful.

Ultimately, these three things need to all be present for a thing to be considered beautiful. Aquinas believed that God had created things a certain way, and in order to understand what objective beauty is, even if we interpret that through our subjective senses, we are to get beyond preference and try and get back to the way God intended the thing to be.

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” – Philippians 4:8

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Plato & Aristotle on Beauty

This is part 2 in a series of blogs which is more or less following my search for how to describe what beauty is. If you haven’t read part 1 yet, go here and check that out!

This is going to be brief explanation of some thoughts that Plato and Aristotle had on what beauty was, based primarily on Hippias Major and Metaphysics II. It is often said that Plato was an idealist, while Aristotle was a realist. Philosophically speaking, this means that Plato thought things had to be grounded in ideas, and that those ideas had primacy over the physical “stuff” that we experience. This is where his ideas about the Forms came from, and this explains where he gets his ideas of beauty. As a realist, Aristotle was more concerned about the physical stuff that we encounter than he was about ideas (in the sense explained above). He was critical of Plato’s ideas about the Forms, and his ideas about beauty are more grounded the physical stuff around us.

In Hippias Major, Socrates is talking with Hippias, a guy known far and wide for being really smart on everything. In typical fashion, it’s a dense dialog that ends up showing the superiority of the questioning of Socrates. There is movement in the discussion about labeling what is objectively beautiful. Originally, Hippias simply states things which people usually don’t argue with being beautiful, but this soon falls into a problem. In saying that a maiden or a horse is beautiful, one has to acknowledge that there is greater beauty still in the gods, or that even a certain type of wood ladle would be more beautiful to use than a golden one. From there it’s postulated that what is beautiful is whatever is appropriate, or at least that something becomes beautiful when it is used appropriately. However, is it the appropriateness of something that makes it beautiful, or is it beautiful once it becomes appropriate? Is appropriateness itself more beautiful than beauty? And has that really answered the question?

SPOILERS: They never actually come to a resolution on what “the beautiful” is. However, there are points where Socrates manages to get Hippias to realize that whatever the beautiful is, it must transcend something that we simply find to be beautiful (like gold), especially since there are instances where things we may find beautiful in one setting, we find ugly in another.

In contrast, Aristotle believed that whatever is beautiful must be in the substance of things we encounter. He didn’t exactly get rid of the idea of the Forms (or the Ideals) altogether, but rather, that the beautiful must be in the substance of the Ideals just like it must be in the substance of, say, gold. While there was some confusion between “the good” and “the beautiful” in the Hippias Major dialog, Aristotle is clear to make the distinction between the two. The good, he says, always implies conduct, whereas the beautiful can be found in motionless things. Aristotle lists three essential forms of beauty: order, symmetry, and definiteness. This comes from the fact that his realism was somewhat rooted in the field of geometry (think of the “golden ratio”).

Beauty, he said, transcends mere usefulness or personal preference, and exists in the fabric or substance of reality. The physical and mathematical stuff that makes up what we experience in daily living. However, because most of his observations about beauty were mathematical in nature, he talked a lot about beauty being the relation of parts, one to another. A tree has both a trunk and leaves, and these things can be analyzed mathematically. The beauty of the tree is intrinsic to the fact that there are mathematical relations between its parts.

So, while he didn’t exactly say that order, symmetry, and definiteness were themselves beauty, he did say that they are basically signifiers to what beauty is or where to find it. In other words, if you find these things, you will find something beautiful.

The two main things I’ve taken from this are similar to points we talked about in the first part. That beauty is both objective (and therefore transcendent) to human ideas and physical reality, while still existing in the created order (including us) and interpreted subjectively. So while we are getting closer to the answer to the original question of what beauty is, I think we still have a long way to go. Next, we’ll take a look at some theologians who thought about beauty, and while they were influenced by Plato and Aristotle, they had ultimately different ideas about what beauty is.

“Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth.” – Psalm 50:2

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Thinking About Beauty

UPDATE! So I’m going to try and push myself to blog every Friday. Hopefully I can stick to that, and while they may be short at first, I hope to develop some stronger blogging muscles in the process.

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Living where I do (here) has allowed me to observe the beauty of creation on a daily basis, and recently I have started thinking about what beauty is. I feel like the idea of truth or goodness, is something that I can grasp and define, but beauty seems a bit more fuzzy for me.

I’ve had some discussions on this with friends and it seems like I’m not alone in being slightly confused as to how to define beauty, or God’s beauty in particular. I’ve gotten everything from “just ask Him to show you” to “the expanse of special energy deeply intertwined at the most microscopic level which makes our soul breathe in awe and a largeness, more than light years, which makes our eyes stretch in curious need for understanding.”  Needless to say, this is a topic which, if anything, doesn’t have an answer which is widely agreed upon.

I know that truth is objective, and grounded in God, and I think beauty has a similar parallel, and so that stated getting me thinking. Beauty must be objective, and ultimately rooted in God. This seems to contradict the widely held belief that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. Thankfully, I have some very smart friends who have offered me a lot of insight into this issue, and I will try and summarize some things they said below.

Things which are truly beautiful are those things which accurately reflect the beauty of God. While our perception is always subjective, we can cultivate “good taste” by studying and understanding the truly beautiful. In other words, we can learn to recognize true beauty. However, it is also possible for us as fallen people to claim something as beautiful , or even find delight in it, when it is actually ugly or sinful. This doesn’t give any weight to the idea that beauty is relative, but it does point to the fact that we are fallen and sinful.

How do we cultivate a true taste for the objectively beautiful? What have thinkers of the past and present said about beauty? What does the Bible have to say about beauty? I’ll be exploring these things in the coming weeks, and hopefully this will be an edifying experience for you, as you’ll be learning right along with me!

“One thing have I asked of the LORD,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD
and to inquire in his temple.”
(Psalm 27:4 ESV)

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