Reflections on Beauty
I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately about the transcendental… the 3 essential qualities human beings desire and seek. They are beauty, truth, and goodness. Some people add a fourth, justice. Philosophers have been thinking about these for centuries, and I think it’s very important that we moderns do some thinking about these questions as well. They’re a little complicated, but I think it’s worth the trouble to look at them a bit. Today, I want to have a look at beauty. Some people have written that beauty is the ladder to the others… so here we go!
In the classical view of beauty, an object appears beautiful to us because it appeals to us and there is something we recognize in the thing itself. If it’s a beautiful vase, something about the vase itself calls out to us. It’s a combination of the size and shape and symmetry and color… in the end it looks beautiful. Some of our judgments about beauty vary from culture to culture and from person to person, but in the classical view the beauty is in the thing itself.
In the modern view, the beauty is not in the thing itself. It is inside the person looking at the object. A way we say this is that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Something that I might find beautiful another person would find ugly, or maybe just boring. That’s fine, because each person judges for themselves what is beautiful. Somehow or other a beautiful thing pleases me, and it doesn’t have to please anyone else. It’s totally up to me.
There’s a bit of a problem with this modern view of beauty. To unwrap the problem it’s helpful to think of something more basic than beauty. What about color? If you look at a leaf, you can see that the leaf is green. But is it really? Where exactly is the “greenness” of the leaf? What you perceive as green is really your interpretation of a frequency of light waves, bouncing off the leaf and going into your eye, then being changed into electrical impulses that your brain translates into the perception of “green.” But what if you are colorblind? Then the leaf is grey. So, is it green, really, or is the color inside of each person who looks at the leaf? Most people would say that the leaf is green, and that the greenness is in the leaf. They might say, “Its common sense.” The fact that someone colorblind doesn’t see the green leaf doesn’t mean the leaf isn’t green… it’s a mistake of perception on the part of the colorblind person.
So what about the next transcendental? What about truth. Is there an objective truth out there, or is there my truth, and your truth, and somebody else’s truth, and each one might be different? In the classical view, there is objective truth… in the modern view there is not. Now things get a little more complicated… or maybe not. We are Catholics, and we are Christians. And there is someone who made the claim to be the Way and the Truth, and the Life. And Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever!
For Catholics, truth is stable… our efforts to understand the truth are better or worse… we get closer to what’s really true (or farther away from it), but the truth is there. And beauty is there, and goodness, too. These are things that we get a better grasp of, or a worse grasp. But they are objectively out there, what we really have to do is open our eyes and ears and hearts and try and understand.