A Philosopher Looks at Beauty

by William A Marra, appearing in Volume 2

What Do We Mean by Beauty?
Beauty is an ultimate datum, distinguishable from other things which are sometimes related. There are all sorts of spectacular things, such as huge explosions, fearful things, such as earthquakes and interesting things—all of them have their place—but they are not the same as beauty. Well, where do we find beauty? First of all, in nature. That is what we mean by something natural as opposed to something artistic. Something artistic requires a rational creator—one of us. Using hands or voice to form the pre-existing stuff of the world into something else. That is art, both fine and manual art. But nature is that which arises spontaneously in so many different levels beginning with the sky above, the forests and the trees, and the animals and the water. Nature presents different aspects; sometimes nature is dull, boring, neutral, (like a gray day in some undifferentiated landscape) but nature also gives us glorious sunrises and sunsets. Nature gives us magnificent forests and individual trees, animals which are beautiful and in the vegetable kingdom, one thinks of the rose. Such a beautiful thing, a rose is exquisitely beautiful. So, beauty is in those things. Also, in the mountains: snow covered or not. In the day, in the night, in the summer, and the winter, and finally, beauty resides in human beings. Everybody knows there are beautiful women and men and children. But there is something mightily attractive and it has its own unique glow to it, that answers the questions of beauty. I simply point to this ultimate datum, and I note that it is when we meet things under the aspect of beautiful, we delight in them. The delight is the subjective correlative to beauty, and we love them. Love really is the response to the beauty of another person. One can also love the world such as in the poem, “O world, I cannot hold thee close enough.” This sorrowful beauty, this sad beauty, really, of the impersonal world where you want to clutch it. Beauty is this radiant thing on the object side, which accounts for exhilaration, delight, love, and some- times desire, on the subject side.

Is Beauty in the Eyes of the Beholder?

If, for example, there is a man who is wild about Susan, and he keeps singing her praises, - he is madly in love with her. And if you look at Susan and you say, “she’s not that pretty,” or you say, “What does he see in her?” And people say, “Well, love is blind and if he thinks she’s beautiful, she’s beautiful.” And so, too, is Cyrano de Bergerac. It is not exactly a part of beauty to have an extra long nose. Nevertheless, someone might say – “I love him, he’s beautiful.” So that seems to prove that there is no such thing as an objective property of beauty, it is somehow in the eyes of the beholder.

Modern art has contributed to this notion, that there is nothing on the object side which warrants your delight or love, but rather some subjective quirk, possibly accessible to psychoanalysis, is such that upon the occasion of meeting these things, you respond with delight and love and desire, etc. But God forbid there should be anything on the object side calling for this response! I simply ask you, who might think beauty is subjective, have you once in your life ever considered anything objectively beautiful? Was it a rose, or a mountain top, a play of Shakespeare or your fiancee? Now, when you say this is beautiful, isn’t it the case that all you are saying is: “I met something out there, which though totally neutral, somehow provided a subjective reaction and now I am having all of these goose-bumps and I am all excited about beauty. But if others don’t see anything there, they are just as right as I am”?

When you look at a rose, it is first of all a living thing, and it has geometric patterns and formation, but so do a million other things, but there’s something about a rose, which shines from IT. Now what if you say, “I don’t see IT.” Well, I’d have nothing more to say to you, because you have nothing to say about beauty, really. Perhaps you might be able to admit that in the charm of a child, in certain faces or figures of women and men, in sunsets and sunrises, in certain music, is a quality which has every right to be called beauty and has a certain enchantment about it. We are drawn into a higher sphere. When I say something is beautiful, I mean there is a property on the object’s side, which justifies my exhilaration and it is such that if you could grasp what I grasp, you too would have the same exhilaration. But maybe you are not able to grasp it. It could be that you are colorblind. That’s too bad, but should your colorblindness be the norm? Simply because you can’t see the radiant colors of the sunset or sunrise, then you attribute everything to subjectivity when I see more than you.

And so too, in the case of a piece of music or painting. In principle, it is quite possible when you show me a late work of Picasso, which at first sight seems total nonsense, but if I had certain intelligence, perception or patience, I would see something on the object side which is truly beautiful. When I have profound experiences with beauty, especially natural beauty, that is indisputable. Roses are not on the same level as dandelions. A redwood forest is not on the same level as some lot with a few weeds growing in it. I cannot believe otherwise. So, when something is beautiful, I certainly refer to an objective property, and it is such that I could expect that you would have a similar exhilaration, and very often you do. When you are confused, beauty is in the mind of the beholder, but in your lived experience, beauty sings and you know it. When you come out of a dismal city into an enchanted forest the whole world becomes poetic and you are in the midst of beauty.

Different Kinds of Beauty
When it comes to Cyrano de Bergerac or Susan, it is perfectly possible that I love Susan and I am perfectly aware that from a physical point of view she is not beautiful. So, too with Cyrano de Bergerac. I know there is a certain proportion that the nose should have to the face. But if I say Susan is beautiful, I am not saying she has a beautiful face. She is a beautiful person, and this is a new kind of beauty, but it is a real beauty. There is something absolutely enchanting about Susan. Maybe the way she laughs, maybe her pure eyes, maybe a certain gesture of hers. So too with Cyrano, the women didn’t love him because he had a long nose, they loved his heart. They loved this inner principle which said such beautiful thoughts in the poetic form.

Dietrich Von Hildebrand, my teacher, makes a distinction in his book called The New Tower of Babel. His distinction is that there are two different meanings to beauty, both of them profound. The first meaning is the most obvious and it is restricted, as we discussed, to the beauty of physical and audible things. On the other hand, Hildebrand notes, there is this beauty which Jacques Maritain wrote about: the splendor of essence. There is such a thing as the beauty of generosity, the beauty of purity, the beauty of a great personality. And this beauty can be mediated to us in the narrative. Someone can simply tell the story of this woman, this saint, this charming child, and your heart is on fire. Not simply because what they did is good. But how beautiful is this virtue, this characteristic, this attitude. In general, the aim of the plastic arts and of music is visible and audible beauty. The aim of literature is somewhat different. If it is Shakespeare, the very metre and rhyme adds to its beauty as a tremendous dramatic effect, but most of the time what Shakespeare does is elicit beautiful characteristics.

The Importance of Beauty

I come now to the importance of beauty in our life. As stated previously, there are two huge avenues of beauty: natural beauty and artistic beauty.

For the most part, nature is visible beauty, it comes through your eyes and sometimes your ears. You can get gripped by the beauty of visible things in nature so much your heart aches. So often the Psalmist says, “Oh, how I yearn to see your palace, oh God.” And the yearning is set forth, because he has seen something beautiful on the mountain, or in the sunrise. Natural beauty is almost unlimited. Beauty in nature always stirs our hearts.

When it comes to art, sometimes the artist wants visible things displayed as in architecture and audible things heard as in music, and mntal things shared as in literature. No matter where you are, you can always have access to certain works of art. Blest are you if you live in a beautiful city. Private homes are usually more beautiful than most modern churches now. In a private home you have a little touch of a charming gable or something like that, whereas most churches today are like cold barren concrete mausoleums. We need to be surrounded by genuine beauty in art, not simply enclosures.

The writer of literature can describe the beauty of a person, the inner beauty of a person, the beauty of intelligence, of humility, and of fidelity. This can be similarly said of the creators of liturgy. The liturgy is the highest act of the human person, it is the adoring and glorifying of God, and we must surround that worship with the most available beautiful things, beginning with architecture, then with the very words of liturgy, and the music of liturgy.

There are two things when you are talking about beauty in liturgy, which is mostly architectural and musical and, I suppose, dramatic. Number one, are the proposed inputs beautiful or not? Secondly, even if everyone should agree that something is beautiful, there is a new question in liturgy, which is not the case in other art, “Is it sacred?” There are many marvelous arias of Verdi, and of Mozart, which are not sacred. And if they are brought into liturgy, they are giving us something beautiful, but they are disharmonious with the meaning of holy worship.

When I went to Italy, and particularly to Florence, I found out what architecture is all about. Not that I am rich enough or talented enough to do it, but at least I know what I am talking about when I talk about a beautiful building. In the past, even in the villages of the poor, there were gifts that the people always enjoyed in beautiful churches. In California, the only beautiful buildings are the Franciscan missions or anything based on them.

We must be acquainted with past masterpieces. Above all, if you are a pastor, a liturgist, or a church architect, please be humble enough to know that it didn’t all start with you.

We Don’t Live by Bread Alone
We ought to resolve to make everything about us more beautiful. We know the direction in which we’re going, and the path has to be something of beauty, of humaneness, of the human dimension. I think this gift of beauty is especially active in Franciscan spirituality. Something like that Franciscan sense of charm and loveliness is in their Missions, which were not Taj Mahals, but always had a very special sense of transcendent beauty.