Aesthetics: Peter Kreeft’s Summa Philosophica Part X

An objectively weepingly hideous building off Delancey.
An objectively weepingly hideous building off Delancey.
Previous installments: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX.

Remember our review of Peter Kreeft’s Summa Philosophica? We did nine (of ten plus one) chapters, then I laid aside the book and forgot all about it. When I was rearranging my books yesterday, I rediscovered it. Off we go!

Article 1: Whether beauty is an objective reality?

You bet it is. Even if you don’t want it to be. Here’s your very own self-made proof. Take a look at “Eventos de la vida de Moisés” by Botticelli. Study it at your leisure. When ready, take an ordinary blank piece of white paper and a green crayon, and in 30 seconds recreate, to the best of your ability, Botticelli’s work.

Before you will be two works of art, yours and his. Which is objectively better? Which is the more beautiful? Be honest.

This works with music, too. Try it with St Matthew’s Passion. Listen to the piece for as long as you like, then whip out your kazoo and, by memory, recreate Bach’s masterpiece. Which was the better, i.e. the more beautiful, performance? Yours or Richter’s? Now compare your playing to the Beatles or whatever is the top “hip hop” tune. In this case, you have a solid chance of winning.

But isn’t beauty in the eye of the beholder? If it is, that’s a strange place for beauty to live. There isn’t a mother-loving reader out there—I assume you all love your mothers—who has not made a comparison between works of art or music and pronounced this good, that bad. That means you had an objective standard towards which the art aimed, and that one approached the objective standard more closely than the other.

There can be argument at the fine level. Richter might have two bad nights in a row, conducting the first movement well but the second not as well one night and the reverse the second night. Now which was the more beautiful performance? Tricky. Our answer may only be probable. But then so much of our knowledge is. We do not claim objective physical reality does not exist when our knowledge is only probabilistic. If Jones is in the dock on trial for the murder of Smith, we might never know for certain that Jones did the deed, but we know it is true somebody did. Just because we can’t say with certainty it was Jones we don’t say murder isn’t a real thing or that it “depends on your prospective.”

Kreeft: “Disagreement does not prove subjectivity. If everyone disagreed about the correct answer to a complex mathematical equation, or about the location of a hidden treasure, that disagreement would not make the truth of the matter subjective.”

You can’t go by preferences, neither. People often prefer that which is bad or bad for them well knowing this to be the case. This is what sin is, after all.

Article 2: Whether beauty consists in harmony?

This one has “Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Cassiodorus, Aquinas” on its side. Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins, too.

Aren’t they always going on and on (Sagan not so much anymore) about how beautiful, how harmonious is the universe? You know they are, and on this subject they’re right. The mistake they and materialists make is saying the universe is the only beautiful thing.

But isn’t it so that “dissonances are often more beautiful than consonances?”

The harmony of dissonances with consonances is part of music’s higher harmonies, as colors are harmonious blends of light with darkness. The dissonances frame, reveal, and augment the beauty of the consonances as darkness does to light, absences to presences, and pains to pleasures.

Article 3: Whether beauty is the object of love?

Yes. Kreeft:

[I]f the terms are conceived broadly enough, beauty can be defined as id quod videtur placet, “that which, being seen, pleases.” Whatever (id quod) is apparently (videtur) pleasing (placet) and satisfying is the object of our desire, for desire always seeks its own satisfaction. And whatever is desired, is loved. Therefore beauty is the object of love.

Article 4: Whether beauty moves us more than truth?

Except for inveterate mathematicians, it does. After all, how many high schools blurt out, “I love these beautiful and true algebraic equations!”? Novels sell better than books of philosophy. More people line up at the cinema for adventure than for documentaries. And “there are far more poems in praise of beauty than in praise of truth. Poems may not be a reliable index of objective truth, but they are a reliable index of what moves human love.”

Given the “poetry” one hears today, in the form of popular song, what moves people isn’t pretty. Yet how many, in their ignorance, are convinced it is?

Incidentally, there are also attacks on truth, but you have to submit yourself to an education to be plagued by these.

Article 5: Whether beauty moves us more than goodness?

Yep. “If beauty did not move us more than goodness, temptation would be impossible, for temptation uses the attractiveness, or apparent beauty, of something that is evil to lure us to prefer it to what is good [emphasis added].”

Article 6: Whether souls are more beautiful than bodies?

They are. But don’t forget that the soul is the intellective form of the human being. It is not a material object. Neither are our intellects material. Our souls can move beyond particulars, which are the only things our senses/brains can enjoy, and grasp universals, like truth and beauty. And universals are greater beauties than particulars.

Since our souls are capable of greater feats than our bodies, this makes them, in principle, more beautiful. Or uglier, depending on the soul in question.

Article 7: Whether persons are the most beautiful things in the world?

Indeed, I take this as read. We only ever have to be careful of those insane or evil persons who disagree. Like those who would save a newt—or an ideology—at the expensive of a human being.

Article 8: Whether all persons are beautiful?

They are. Yet some folks are especially vile. “Since the corruption of the best is the worst, these persons are the ugliest and least beautiful of all things in nature. Hitler is uglier than a hyena.” But “[g]reat evildoers are morally ugly only because they are ontological beautiful.” (The ontological beauty of what they are, not what they do.)

[T]he most important of all moral obligations is to have love and goodwill for all persons. But we are not to love evil, only good. And whatever is good, is also beautiful. Therefore all persons are beautiful.

Article 9: Whether God is beautiful?

Certainly. Speaking analogically, God is beauty. To pick just one example:

Whatever is true and good is beautiful, for beauty is a property that flows from truth and goodness. But God is supremely true and good. Therefore God is supremely beautiful.

Article 10: Whether music is the primal art and language?

My friends, it is. This is why it is so painful to see our language so debased and stunted. When you lack words for a concept, or the meaning of those words are twisted, you can’t speak coherently or truthfully about it.

Kreeft lapses into poetry:

[M]usic is the primary art because everything in the universe is held together by harmonious musical waves of energy/matter, and God is highest music of all, which is the harmony of love. Music has the ability, more than any other art, to ravish us into out-of-body experiences, or transcendence of self-consciousness.

Next and last time: Sample questions in ten extensions of philosophy.


  1. The building pictured is not so much hideous as lacking in beauty. Modern art and music does not represent a disagreement as to a standard of beauty and competence. It is a rebellion from it – a resentment of achievement. Listen to any justification of modern art and this becomes immediately apparent. Its purpose is to shock, but since nothing is really shocking anymore we have hit rock bottom.

    I think that you are a little, only a little, too hard on the Beatles. They may represent one of the first moves along the current path but there are still past influences in their music. Also the existence of individual tastes in art does not demonstrate an objective standard. Why would you say that it does?

    Is the universe harmonious? I always pictured it as chaotic. In fact, I like the view of the universe as starting out in complete disorder and it has been going downhill ever since, i.e. entophy continues to increase. There is local order and this is where the rareness of beauty lies. Some say that the simplicity of the underlying physics is harmony, but this is a human invention and was designed to be so.

    Here is a good question: why is fiction more popular than non-fiction, and why does it become less popular with age? At least that has been my experience.

    You start to lose me near the end. If everyone is beautiful in their own way, as you seem to be saying, then no one is. In fact you are coming dangerously close to what you criticized at the top of your post.

  2. The word “cosmos” means a harmonious relationship. “Cosmetic” has the same root. If the universe were inherently chaotic, the gravity would not routinely attract, chemical reactions would not routinely result in the same compounds. True chaos is not even random, since random variation generally results in a specific distribution of results.
    + + +
    Agreed: “ugly” is not a “thing.” It is the lack of a thing, in this case, defectus boni, a lack of beauty. Without beauty, there can be no ugly, just as without life there can be no death.

  3. Yes YOS, the harmony of the spheres, but this is an early view that saw an order in chaos. The attraction of gravity is Newtonian physics. There is no such rule in general relatively. I am obliged to point out that chemical reactions do not always produce the same components. The yield is never 100%. You are correct that chaos is not mathematically random. That is my point. Don’t impose limitations on chaos. I refer you back to my earlier posting on the power of chance (chaos).

    To elaborate, the triumph of technology is the human imposition of beneficial local order on an unforgiving and chaotic world. We do not wait around for an harmonious universe to do it for us.

  4. The origin of the word ‘soul ‘ is ‘breath’ or ‘wind’. To say the soul is the intellective form of the body is an an abomination before God.

  5. Ahhh William M Briggs, the one person on Earth who will unashamedly make both the argument that Art is Objective with a capital O and that Health is Subjective with a capital S.

    I couldn’t make this up!

  6. Luis,

    Actually, brother, it appears that you did.

    ad, a.k.a. Mott,

    You haven’t any idea of which you speak. I merely paraphrase Saint Thomas Aquinas.

  7. the harmony of the spheres


    The attraction of gravity is Newtonian physics. There is no such rule in general relatively.

    Of course there is. If mass is a particular state of the field of Ricci tensors, gravity is the distortion in that field caused by the presence of mass. But there is nothing chaotic about it. It functions according to rules, and it functions consistently with the electromagnetic, radiative, and nuclear forces.

    I am obliged to point out that chemical reactions do not always produce the same components.

    What other than salt does a sodium atom produce when it couples with a chlorine atom? When mixed in bulk, of course, there are always impurities, and in the course of reaction, some sodium atoms may not encounter any chlorine atoms. But in that case the residuals are the result of the reaction not taking place at all. That’s why God invented distillation columns. As for the %Xs, those are the results of additional reactions, which also follow chemical laws.

  8. I strongly disagree that beauty is an objective reality. Counterexamples: Some people suggest that some of the garbage produced by “modern artists” is beautiful. Some also suggest that some of the wilder excesses of experimental “music” are beautiful; ditto the atonal wailing of Arabic “music”. Architecture also produces similar disagreements. And, most especially, so does literature – particularly of the religious variety.

    I would also point out that beauty is not always pleasant. To my eyes, the film I’ve seen of thermonuclear explosions is beautiful; this doesn’t mean it isn’t also a thing of horror.

  9. YOS, There is no action at a distance in general relativity as there is in Newtonian mechanics but you are straying from the point. First you say that chaos is not random chance but then you say that it cannot follow rules. But it does as it is deterministic chaos in the classical view, although non-deterministic in quantum mechanics. The chaotic nature destroys the concept of universal harmony which is our opening point of discussion. Local order (harmony) can still exist in an otherwise chaotic system which was my original point.

    Your discussion of chemical reactions is incomplete as you have ignored the law of mass action. It is not just non-encounter or failure to react. In any case see the first paragraph.

    It is almost time for statistical mechanics class. First lecture, the random (drunkard’s) walk and the role of chance in the universe.

  10. Scotian,

    There is no role for “chance.” Chance is not a thing and can’t cause anything.

    There is, however, plenty of uncertainty.


    Yet we have already agreed that disagreement is not disproof. For example, most of agree that raping a child is wrong. But many who live in Hollywood do not agree (e.g. see the defence of Roman Polanski). Does this disagreement mean child rape is not objectively a moral wrong?

    More later…

  11. There is no action at a distance in general relativity as there is in Newtonian mechanics

    Perhaps not, but that does not mean there is no gravity, or that gravity does not act in harmony with other natural powers.
    + + +
    The universe “meshes,” i.e., everything “works together.”

    The appeal to randomness fails, since a) “random” is not “chaotic,” and b) “random” is not a “thing” and does not act. At best, it is a description of our understanding of a thing. There is always order beneath. For example, in a random walk description, the transition from state to state is governed by an assumed probability distribution. (Quite often we find such walks terminating in the same final state, regardless of inputs.) It’s really quite beautiful. (See topic header.)

    “Deterministic” neither the contrast to “chaos” nor the necessary consequence of “order.” For example, the law of mass action is a mathematical model expressed in beautiful equations. Since the chemical and pharmaceutical industries exist and often make money, I’m going to suggest that even mass action involving statistical mechanics, multiple reaction steps, back-reactions and so forth all work harmoniously together to achieve the equilibrium state.

    + + +
    Regarding Arabic music: we mustn’t confuse taste or preference with objective beauty. How does the Arab think his music is beautiful, and a European think Mozart is beautiful if there is no Beauty per se? That would be like supposing that X exists and Y exists but Existence does not exist. This is utterly independent of whether anyone recognizes the beauty of X or refuses to acknowledge it. Or for that matter if someone is of a school that deliberately seeks to overthrow bourgeois notions of “beauty.” (Perhaps by using “scare quotes” when referring to it!)

  12. YOS, you’ve lost me again. What appeal to randomness are you referring to? The random walk is used to derive the binomial distribution. What does governed by mean? And this statement is just bizarre:

    “Quite often we find such walks terminating in the same final state, regardless of inputs”.

    I can only assume that you are referring to strange attractors but that requires a system a lot more complicated, and chaotic, than the random walk. Possibly we are agreeing on some fundamental level, but you see harmony where I see chaos. The explosion in interest of chaotic systems of the last thirty odd years has disputed the order or harmony that used to be the default position and the role of chance has come into its own. That last bit is for Briggs. It is more aharmonic than harmonic. It is easy to think otherwise since academic science courses train students in the simple problems first, and often last, with their high degree of harmony, but this, although necessary, is incomplete. The world out there is very chaotic and it requires an enormous amount of effort to clean it up. This is the local harmony of life and technology amidst the chaos and is how the pharmaceutical industries make money. It is not the harmony of the garden of Eden.

  13. The explosion in interest of chaotic systems of the last thirty odd years

    Ah. Enlightenment. Complexity theory is the proper name. “Chaos” theory is a misnomer. Beneath apparent chaos typically lurks a deep order. We can ask a particle physicist:
    As we turn to the fundamental principles of physics, we discover that order does not really emerge from chaos, as we might naively assume; it always emerges from greater and more impressive order already present at a deeper level. It turns out that things are not more coarse or crude or unformed as one goes down into the foundations of the physical world but more subtle, sophisticated, and intricate the deeper one goes.
    — Stephen Barr, “Fearful Symmetries”

    The other great trend that has culminated in superstring theory is the increasing role of powerful principles of “symmetry” in our understanding of the laws of physics. Since ancient times people have been impressed by the harmony and order they saw in nature, manifested most clearly in the grand cyclic motions of the heavenly bodies. They pointed to this order as evidence of a cosmic design-and a Designer.

    What science has shown is that this order runs far deeper than anyone had imagined. In the phenomena around us we catch mere fragmentary glimpses of order amidst much apparent haphazardness and chaos. But modern physics gives us eyes to see down to the very roots of the world’s structure, to the deepest layers of physical law, and what is seen there is an orderliness of the most pristine mathematical purity.
    — “Theories of Everything”

  14. YOS, complexity theory developed from chaos theory. There is no misnomer. The deeper order that you and your links refer to is in the mathematical theory, a human development. Of course it will show harmony, how could it be otherwise? My point is whether the universe is an ordered or chaotic place and I conclude that it started out as a completely chaotic Big Bang and has become even more disordered since. But because of the nature of the approach to equilibrium we see pockets of local order. This is what gives us life. What is there to dispute in this? In fact I will claim that Stephen Barr’s concentration on theory is an attempt to sidestep the above, which I am certain he would not dispute. He has his conclusion firmly in mind and nothing will sway him from the course. The articles are, after all, published on a religious website. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t condemn them for that as I find many interesting and useful articles on religious websites. I just think that he is jumping to conclusions in this case. We are all guilty of that on occasion.

    As always, thank you for a stimulating discussion.

  15. Beauty undoubtedly exists, but the real question is (IMHO) what it actually is.

    My opinion is that beauty is a subjective reaction to sensory data – or, sometimes, to what that data represents. (The latter may apply, for example, to the beauty of mathematics as seen by some.)

    The degree of agreement between different people about the beauty of something may well vary. It also varies by time; of which more a little later.

    For example, most people today would say unspoiled nature in some areas (Grand Canyon, Lake District in Britain…) is beautiful. However, the beauty of many pieces of modern art is in far more dispute.

    Oh yes, time variance. Regarding the Lake District in Britain, it is a recorded fact that the consensus in the early 1700s was that area being exceedingly ugly. That is certainly not the case now.

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