Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Defining Beauty

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 20, 2008

Looking out over Smith Mountain Lake in southwest Virginia when the humidity is low is like looking out over C. S. Lewis’ Narnia. Everything stands out in welcome relief, crisp, clear, and alive. Sky and clouds, mountains and trees, birds and branches, shoreline and water, docks and boats—it is a world made suddenly young and new. It is achingly beautiful, with an almost framed perfection that brings peace.

But there is also beauty in a storm, wild and relentless and perhaps even catastrophic. There may be peace in a storm, too, if you’re not threatened by it, but the power of the storm transcends peace. Instead it is evocative of something stronger and deeper: majesty perhaps, which is always beautiful and only rarely consoling. How can such a cacophony of wind and water be beautiful? What, then, is beauty?

This is a question I’ve argued over the years, sometimes with colleagues, more often with teen-aged children who so often like the ugliest imaginable music, and who are impossible to persuade that it is ugly. It is said that beauty is in the eye (or the ear) of the beholder, so perhaps, like the storm, what may appear ugly to myself on the surface is not, in its own objective essence, ugly at all. I have my opinions, sometimes strong opinions, but as I enter my seventh decade, I confess I don’t really know.

Too many conservative Christians (in whose number, in many respects, I count myself) are certain that they can distinguish beauty from ugliness as easily as they can distinguish truth from error. This seems tied to the recurring pattern by which each new generation tends to condemn as certainly and obviously ugly whatever breaks its own inherited molds. Thus was jazz pronounced ugly by many of our grandparents well before we turned our guns on rock. To minds so predisposed, the case is always obvious; and the arguments are equally obvious—but only to those who already agree with the conclusion.

Indeed, those of us with dogmatic personalities are quite capable of weaving a thousand arguments to prove our opinions absolute. This or that particular “beat” is intrinsically disordered; the lack of correspondence with how we see things proves that an abstract painting is ugly; only neo-classical theory—which seeks to discover and portray the principles of beauty which are actually enshrined in nature—is capable of producing true beauty; moreover, the former exorcist of the diocese of Rome (how often has he been cited!) has said a particular type of music or art is both ugly and evil, and so the case is closed. Please.

The so-called transcendentals (among which truth, beauty and goodness are most frequently cited) are very hard to grasp, and beauty is by far the most elusive. We Christians have the wonderful advantage of Divine Revelation with respect to truth and goodness, but this advantage works primarily at a different level of consciousness and, in any case, it is an advantage which we utterly lack with respect to beauty. Therefore, it is important for us to avoid talking about beauty with the same dogmatic assurance that rightly characterizes our discussions of revealed truth, including moral truth.

With beauty—and at the deepest levels of our exploration of truth and goodness—we are attempting to grasp the intrinsic “thisness” of things, in which we perceive the harmonies and correspondences invested into reality by God, or we may even learn that the breaking of some harmonies reveals others. This sort of penetration of reality is different from our response to the Revealed Word. It is another matter—not another matter entirely, but enough of another matter to give pause to all but the proud.

I affirm that beauty is objective, and that we are designed by the Creator to perceive it. But I deny that we see it very clearly or understand it easily. Ultimately, beauty reveals an aspect of the Divine (which is why aesthetes must beware of the temptation to turn art into a religion). For the moment, however, locked in our own frail and mortal deficiencies, our understanding of beauty tends to be both fleeting and highly subjective. We have to work very hard and very carefully to render our perceptions more valuable than this. We rightly enjoy beauty when it glances off our consciousness, but we dogmatize about beauty only at our peril.

If one of beauty’s great purposes is to shift our gaze to something beyond ourselves, then this is as it should be. We should be slow, very slow, to condemn the particular appreciations of others, to set strict limits on what may be called beautiful, or to define beauty down, attempting uselessly to imprison it within our own eyes and ears.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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