On Beauty

Beauty, like the beast, is something objective. It is a property of natural or artificial things—a complex property that a thing has because of the disposition of other properties. Beauty is objective in the way that sound and color and taste are objective. These properties require a recipient in order to become actual – color is actual when it is seen, sound when it is heard, a flavor when it is tasted. Although a tongue is required to taste, it would be wrong to say that the taste is a property of the tongue. Except of course in cultures where more of the cow is eaten than here. The adage that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” is true of some eyes, but not all. But beautiful eyes must be seen in order to be recognized as beautiful and this does not transfer their beauty to the eye of the beholder of that beauty. This would start us on an infinite regress, a journey not worth taking since it leads nowhere.

De gustibus non disputandum est is often similarly mistaken. If someone does not realize that sugar is sweet, it is not disputation he needs but nursing. When he gets well, his uncoated tongue will enable him to recognize that sugar is sweet. The sour taste he had while writhing with fever is no more subjective than the taste of sugar, of course. The bile or whatever coats the fevered tongue has the sour flavor it has.

It follows that the sweetness of sugar, actually sensed when the refined product comes into contact with the tongue, is perceived only by those who are well. But the tasting of neither the well nor the ill is subjective, as if sweetness were conferred upon sugar by us. The well person tastes the objective sweetness of sugar and the ill person is prevented from tasting sweetness by the coating on his tongue. He really tastes what is sour, but it is not sugar that is sour,

Forgive these obvious remarks. To utter them would be an index of madness in a sane world. But we live in a world that has been misled by modern philosophy. By modern philosophy I mean the assumption that what we know is our knowing and that consequently we have a problem as to whether our concepts and images and judgments refer to anything outside us. The project of modern philosophy is this: How do I get out of my mind? To have such a project is to have succeeded at it. If one thinks thinking is about thinking he will never get out of his mind save in the clinical sense.

If a philosopher tells you that he does not know whether what he thinks refers to something beyond his thinking, ask him, “Who’s speaking?” “Who’s writing?” “To whom?” Questions such as these may release him from his frenzy. He may laugh, and laughter is a mark of sanity. Unless of course it is mad laughter, but that would never be accorded your healing questions.

It is because thinkers in their studies, or huddled together in airless halls, doubted whether “thing” refers to things and “motion” to motion and “purple” to purple, that those influenced by them found it easy to believe that beauty too was something subjective. Talk of beauty then became a matter of “aesthetics,” that is, feeling, where feeling was thought to take place whether or not anything, say a hat, was felt. Then when it was said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, this was no longer properly understood as a nice compliment, but as a denial that beauty is an objective property of natural or artificial things.

What disposition of properties leads us to recognize that something is beautiful? The quantitative, mathematics in a broad sense, lies at the base of all the arts. The beauty of man-made things is parasitic on the beauty of God’s creatures, but there is a sense in which we can more easily grasp the latter through the former. A beauty we, or at least the artist, brings about, is more within our grasp. We more easily recognize that it results from a combination of things brought into a fitting relation to one another. Of beauty Thomas Aquinas said that it requires three things: wholeness, proportion and radiance (integritas, proportio, claritas). He gave as a sign that a thing is beautiful that it is pleasant to look at: pulchrum est id quod visum placet. It is the wholeness, proportion and radiance of the thing that causes our pleasure. Of course it would be silly to equate beauty with our pleasure in it. There must be something in which we take pleasure and which brings it about because of the relation among its properties.

Initiation into any of the arts must stress the objective properties and their interrelations that constitute the beauty of a given artifact. Writing is not often recognized as an art because thanks to universal education everyone can do it, if only badly. But perhaps all the arts presuppose a pre-artistic engagement in the activity that is perfected when the art is acquired. Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad collaborated on a number of novels, and the story of their joint efforts is essential reading for anyone who would write in the sense of producing artful products, whether of prose or verse. Conrad said of his writing that above all he wished to make his reader see. Ford tells us – he wrote a moving memoir of Conrad after Conrad’s death – how the two men sought the means to bring about a given effect in the reader’s seeing or understanding of the way things are.
It was once the practice for young people to learn about poetry by attempting to write it. The sonnet form, for example, was explained and the child was told to write a sonnet. Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote accomplished poetry as a mere child, e.g. “Renascence,” but most children will not rise even to the level of memorable doggerel. No matter. The effort to create with words within a demanding form is the best antidote to thinking that poetry is an emotional effusion and the appreciation of it a holiday from using one’s mind.

I have sought to make two points. First, by argument, mockery and winsome wit, to wean the reader from the misconception that beauty is something subjective, conferred upon the world by our creative selves. Second, I have suggested that even a bumbling effort to do what the poet does will bring home to the child that, like the carpenter, the poet must know his materials and work within their possibilities. There are notable differences between carpentry and writing poems, but until we understand what they have in common, we are in no position to grasp their differences.

Ralph McInerny (+ 2009) served as director of the Jacques Maritain Center at the University of Notre Dame, founded numerable journals, and wrote innumerable books on St. Thomas Aquinas and Father Dowling.