On the eve of the greatest beauty, an essay on what beauty means.
What is beauty? It may be a little complicated to define how an object, thing or person is “beautiful” but examples of beauty are not hard to come by. Certain things like flowers and mountains or animals like cats and dogs or man-made things like houses and musical pieces can be described as “beautiful.” And while people may generally not have any particular definition in mind in attributing beauty to a wide range of things, a thing that is beautiful can be something that looks or sounds good, or something that is well ordered or harmonious, or something that is admirable in some way.
Because aesthetic experience has such a wide variety of different contexts, I think that such experiences can be categorized into three general types of experiences. One, a person can experience a thing to be beautiful as a matter of personal liking or preference. A person may find, for instance, a red colored rose to be more beautiful than a white colored rose. Or, a person may prefer the looks of an orange cat over a gray colored cat. I refer to this as the “psychological approach to beauty” where a person instantly finds something to be beautiful and prefers the appearance of the given object over other things.
The second approach to beauty is a bit more objective approach, where a person states that a certain thing is beautiful because it well ordered, complete or has some objectively admirable features. For instance, a scientist might say that the human brain is something beautiful in the sense that it’s an organ that’s (normally) well-ordered and has plenty of outstanding features that enable us to think and function well in life. Statements like the brain is “beautiful” are more about how well ordered, complex, or functional a thing is as such and not necessarily about how appealing a thing looks or sounds. Aesthetic statements that are made primarily because of how well organized, harmonious or beneficial a thing is as a such is what I would characterize as the “rational approach to beauty.”
Perhaps another example of the so-called rational approach to beauty may be if a person were to say that a computer has beauty to it in that it’s a good or useful machine that has several components that generally work well together and perform certain tasks. The rational approach to beauty is more of a scientific or mathematical approach towards beauty where one finds certain things in nature, or man-made things that are mathematically or rationally well-ordered or functional to be beautiful.
The last approach to beauty is what I refer to as the “mystical” or “spiritual” approach to beauty. It is any kind of experience of finding something spiritual or Divine to be beautiful. In general, the mystical approach to beauty is where the soul or mental substance is drawn to God as the Supreme Beauty. There are, of course, plenty examples of the mystical approach to beauty like in the case of near death experiences where persons often do not want to return to their bodies after apparently getting a glimpse of Heaven or Divine Light. The mystical approach to beauty can also refer to a person’s appreciation of moral goodness or virtue and things of God.
Now all three types of aesthetic experience are evidently not mutually exclusive and a person can experience an overlap of more than one of these approaches in their appreciation of beauty. For instance, a person might find a watch to be beautiful both in the sense that she finds the watch to be delightful in appearance and for being a well designed, functional watch. A person can have an experience of both what I call the psychological and rational approaches to beauty all at the same event. Because the term “beauty” has a wide range of uses and different contexts, I think that categorizing aesthetic experience into three general kinds is a good way of looking at beauty.
There is, of course, this debate about the nature of beauty as to whether it is an objective feature of things or if it’s only a subjective delight in things. In the philosophy of aesthetics, people generally divide themselves between the notions of aesthetic objectivism and aesthetic subjectivism. Aesthetic objectivists say that beauty is an objective feature or property of things and that statements about beauty generally refer to a real admirable feature in an entity.
Aesthetic subjectivists, by contrast, say that beauty is not a real property in things at all, it is simply a state of mind where a person takes delight or appreciation in an entity. Subjectivists usually argue that since people differ in their perspectives on what constitutes beauty and even disagree on whether certain things are “beautiful,” that beauty is merely a subjective matter of preference. However, not all aesthetic subjectivists make such an argument. Immanuel Kant, for instance, was an aesthetic subjectivist yet he would argue that in order for a thing to be beautiful it had to be generally agreed upon that the thing was beautiful.
Persons reading my statements on the “three approaches to beauty” will get the impression that I subscribe to a kind of objectivist philosophy of beauty, especially with my descriptions of the so-called rational and mystical approaches to beauty. Least of all, a person wouldn’t characterized me as a pure subjectivist when it comes to aesthetics. That is correct, and my own philosophy of beauty can be characterized as a form of “aesthetic objectivism.” I would also say that beauty is a universal or “transcendental” property of being and that all existent things to some degree have beauty to them. This is a metaphysical proposition that some philosophers have held like Aquinas.
However, while I may technically subscribe to a type of “objectivist” view of beauty, I think it’s also important to realize that people have different perspectives on what makes a thing beautiful and that people have different preferences on what looks and sounds good. This is why I think there is a kind of “psychological approach to beauty” in that persons have their own unique perspective on what what is aesthetically delightful.
Nonetheless, the description of beauty as being “objective” or “subjective” can be ambiguous and confusing at times. Regardless whether a person says that things have an intrinsic beauty to them or not, there is always a sense in which beauty can be said to be both subjective and objective in that beauty always involves an entity being related to the mind as an object of delight or admiration.
Even granting that beauty can be considered an objective feature of real beings, it is important to point out that beauty always exists within the context of a mind appreciating a given entity. In other words, in order for anything to be beautiful, a particular thing must, at least, have the capacity to be appreciated, admired or delighted by a mind or intelligence. Supposing if there were to exist an entity that could not be appreciated by any mind – including the Mind of God – then that entity could not be beautiful. This is because there would be no possibility in which the entity could be intelligibly described as beautiful or admirable in some way.
So beauty always exists in the framework of a mind appreciating or having the ability to appreciate the given entity that is thought to be beautiful. In that sense, there is no such thing as “absolute, unrelational beauty” or beauty completely cut off from the so-called “subject-object” or the delighter – delighted relationship.
Plotinus understood this fact about beauty and for that reason, he concluded that “the Good” or “the One” (the Neo-Platonic concept of God, where God is thought to be an impersonal, indivisible unity without real distinctions and that’s beyond all minds) to be something beyond beauty or to be not beautiful. Plotinus rightly articulated the implications of Neo-Platonist theology where the Neo-Platonic God would be have to be outside of the realm of beauty because anything that cannot be known or perceived and appreciated by a mind would not be beautiful. I, of course, do not endorse the Neo-Platonic concept of God and I firmly consider God to be a Supreme Mind which enables me to consistently hold that God is beautiful.
God, being the Supreme Intelligence, has a perfect relationship of subject and object, knower and known, admirer and admired within Himself and consequently He can be rightly considered the Supreme Beauty. God is the best possible beauty there is and evidently God, being the Supreme Intelligence, is able to fully appreciate his own beauty. Also the fact that all existent things come from the Divine Mind, enables philosophers like myself and Aquinas to say that all things have a certain degree of beauty to them since all things relate to the Divine Mind as the source of their goodness and existence. To even say that beauty is a transcendental feature of all existent entities presupposes a theistic view of the world where everything has its origin in all-perfect Mind and that all things are valued by an overseeing Mind.
So there is no beauty outside the context of a mind appreciating things. While I believe that things have a genuine beauty to them in the sense that things have objectively admirable features, I, however, reject an extreme form of aesthetic objectivism that says that beauty can or does exist without having the metaphysical possibility of being delighted or admired by a mind. Beauty in some form or another always has to be within the reach of a conscious self admiring some given object or person.
But while things cannot be beautiful without at least the metaphysical possibility of a mind appreciating these aesthetically delightful things, beauty cannot be reduced to a mere, subjective feeling of preference and delight. I have several problems with the purely subjectivist account of beauty. While it’s true that people have different preferences and perspectives on what constitutes a beautiful object, none of this, however, proves that beauty is only in the “eye of the beholder.” It’s a non-sequitur fallacy to say that since individuals disagree sometimes on aesthetic matters, that beauty is only an expression of personal tastes. For it could be that some things or even all existent things have an intrinsic beauty to them and that some people sometimes fail to see the beauty in these given entities.
Or, it could be a case where a person perceives the beauty of a given entity but simply prefers the beauty of another thing like a child preferring the looks of an orange cat over a gray cat. An orange cat and a gray cat may be both beautiful animals but a person may prefer the appearance of an orange cat over a gray colored cat or vise versa. So the fact that persons tend to have different perspectives on beauty does not refute the idea that things may have an intrinsic beauty to them or have objectively admirable qualities that can ignite an aesthetic experience within the person.
Secondly, a subjectivist view of beauty doesn’t account for all of the experiences with beauty. Sometimes a person asserts that something is beautiful not merely because he likes the appearance of the entity but because the entity bears certain objectively admirable or praiseworthy qualities like how well ordered or beneficial a thing is as such like a person stating that a single living cell is beautiful. After all, there is a wide range of the uses of the word “beautiful” and there’s generally more than one specific meaning or definition of a given word just as there’s different (yet similar) meanings of the word “goodness.” Relating to philosophy of language, I think it’s generally wise to accommodate the different senses and uses of words like “beauty” rather than to arbitrarily narrow down a term and restrict everything within a set of experiences.
The problem with aesthetic subjectivism is that it offers too narrow of a definition and consideration of aesthetic experience and it fails to account for experiences that seem to show that beauty can be an intrinsic feature of a thing or at least an expression of a thing having objectively admirable qualities to it. I think it’s simply better to look at all the different contexts and meanings of expressing aesthetic appreciation because by doing so, one sees all the different angles to beauty then trying to arbitrarily narrow everything down to subjective preferences and tastes.
One of the main reasons why I admire Aquinas’ philosophy of beauty is because of how it accommodates all the various experiences and contexts of beauty. While I’m no thomist, I, however, have hardly any disagreement with Aquinas’ philosophy of beauty because of how Aquinas nicely avoids the problem of offering an excessively narrow view of beauty like in the case of aesthetic subjectivism. Aquinas’ philosophy of aesthetics can account for the superficial experiences of beauty as well as the more deep, spiritual experiences of beauty. Overall, I find aesthetic subjectivism to be unsatisfactory because it fails to explain the various experiences in which beauty can be perceived as an objective feature in things or as an appreciation of admirable qualities in things, and aesthetic subjectivism seems to offer an overly narrow view on beauty.
Moreover, speaking of St. Thomas Aquinas, this historic philosopher comes up with three essential features of beauty, which are worth looking into as such. For him, a beautiful entity will have clarity (claritas), integrity (integritas) and due proportion (debita proportio or consonantia).
By “clarity,” Aquinas means that a thing is beautiful in terms of being manifest to the person or being illuminated or well-lighted or bright. The characteristic of having clarity, of course, has a wide variety of contexts from a painting having beautiful, vivid colors to resurrected persons being luminous beings. Basically, in order for a thing to be beautiful it has to manifest or manifest-able to the person that it is beautiful. This is why “clarity” is associated with light in Aquinas.
The feature of “integrity” refers to a beautiful thing being complete or full in its being and fulfilling its purpose or functions. A watch, for instance, may be beautiful partly due to the fact that it has all its parts together and that the whole watch fulfills its purpose to mark time. Finally, the feature of “due proportion” refers to the relations within the beautiful entity and its relations to other things. Again, “due proportion” has a very broad range of things that can said to make a thing beautiful such as the relation of the parts to the whole within an object, how an object makes other things look better like an ornament that decorates a Christmas tree, or even metaphysical relations like existence and essence.
The “due proportion” feature of beauty implies that beauty is a transcendental property of being in Aquinas, as Umberto Eco points out. I would agree with that contention since if metaphysical relations can be described as beautiful then everything, even things that appear ugly, have a certain degree of beauty as well as goodness. I take the idea that beauty is a transcendental property of being to be axiomatic of the theistic view that all existent entities come from an omnibenevolent Mind. Everything having a certain degree of beauty to them does not imply that there is no ugliness in the world just as the proposition that everything is metaphysically good by its existence does not imply that there is no evil. All existent entities being metaphysically good and beautiful only entails that all things are good and admirable to a certain degree since they originate from an omnibenevolent Mind.
As I have remarked earlier, God is a supreme Mind so there is a perfect relation of knower and known, delighter and delighted in God in that God appreciates His own majestic beauty. And beauty always exists in the context of the subject-object relationship. Also, there is a wonderful relation between God and creation in that God actualizes all time at once. God, being timeless, sees all creation at once; our block universe emanates from God and God sees all things within the past, present and future all at once. Hence, all existent beings have beauty to certain degree to them in that they are created and always perceived and valued by God.
So looking at the question, if a CD player were to play Chuck Berry and no one hears the music would the music be “beautiful”? A bit like those metaphysical questions such as “if a tree falls to the ground and no one observes it then does it make a sound?” Or, is there a tree in the first place without anyone viewing the tree? I would say that it has to be at least possible for a mind to appreciate the music or any particular thing in order for it to beautiful. But even if that answer is not adequate, at least one mind would be admiring the Chuck Berry music or any beautiful entity for that matter and that is the Divine Mind. So all beautiful things are beautiful in that they are always valued in some way by a Supreme Mind; beauty always in that sense exists in the context of a mind admiring things.
Before I end this essay, I would like to mention one other thing about Aquinas’ aesthetic philosophy. Aquinas, like other great thinkers, also accounts for “aesthetic disinterestedness.” Aesthetic disinterestedness refers to experiences where a person simply takes delight or appreciation in a beautiful entity without deciding to use or possess the beautiful entity. “Aesthetic disinterestedness,” of course, does not mean that aesthetic experience is devoid of all interest; it only refers to perceiving a beautiful thing without utilizing and possessing a thing. For instance, a person may go on a walk and appreciate the beauty of sunflowers on a trail without attempting to pick the flowers and decorate one’s apartment. Or, a man may simply delight in the beauty of woman without deciding to date her. These would be examples of aesthetic disinterested experiences that are discussed in philosophy of beauty.
Why is aesthetic disinterestedness an essential theme in accounting for beauty? For several reasons, philosophers have emphasized aesthetic disinterestedness. One, it is a good way to explain why human beings are capable of experiencing beauty unlike animals. While animals only value things based on instinct and survival, human beings can take delight in things for their own sake.
Aesthetic disinterestedness is also valued or emphasized by historic thinkers because of how it can enable a person to build virtues like chastity and moderation in pleasures. Aesthetic disinterestedness is also sometimes used as a criteria to discern that something is truly beautiful or as a way of coming to recognize the beauty of a thing. Immanuel Kant, for instance, would say that in order for anything to beautiful it has to be something that can be taken with aesthetic delight in a manner that lacks any attempt to use and possess the object. Kant would go as far as to say that if an experience involves any decision to utilize and/or possess a thing or a person then that experience cannot be a real experience of the beautiful. In other words, all true experiences of beauty always involve aesthetic disinterestedness for Immanuel Kant.
While Aquinas, to his credit, doesn’t over-restrict beauty to aesthetic disinterestedness like Kant does as such, he nonetheless emphasizes aesthetic distinterestedness for reasons that it promotes the virtue of moderation and that it aids people to better see the beauty of things. While I do not agree with Kant’s idea that true experiences of beauty are restricted to delighting in things apart from utility and possession, Kant, however, does have a point in that aesthetic disinterestedness can be helpful in coming to know the beauty of things. And I would also add that aesthetic disinterestedness is essential in the practice of certain virtues like temperance or moderation in pleasures which both Kant and Aquinas upheld that contention as well.
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