Tuesday, 23 July 2013

The Nature of Beauty

One of my favorite areas of philosophy is aesthetics, which is the study of the nature of beauty and how it applies to art. As always, I like to draw my logic and conclusions from the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. Unfortunately, St. Thomas did not write any actual treatise on the nature of the beautiful, but only has a limited number of passing comments which address the matter. However, I believe that it is possible to derive a coherent aesthetic theory from the several statements which St. Thomas made. I am not a philosopher, nor a scholar of St. Thomas, by any stretch; so my abilities to draw up such a system of aesthetics are rather limited. I have recourse to the writings of certain other philosophers who have attempted to put together the thoughts of St. Thomas on this matter, using their insights as a guide to my own endeavors. These other thinkers do not always agree among themselves on how to interpret St. Thomas, but it is at least a start. And I have a few more original thoughts of my own to contribute, though I cannot claim the same level of scholarship…

First off: the most well-known comment made by St. Thomas on beauty is his description of it as “that which when seen pleases.” This is a standard understanding of beauty, I think. Beauty is quite universally understood to be that quality which, when perceived, gives pleasure. Many people conclude, from this understanding, that beauty must therefore be a purely subjective thing, since an object might please different people to varying degrees. But I propose that St. Thomas’ understanding of beauty is not in fact compatible with the view that beauty is in the eye of the beholder; I think it entails just the opposite, namely that beauty is an objective thing. Here’s why:

When St. Thomas says that beauty is that which pleases when seen, he means something quite specific by “seen.” This is an intellectual vision, a kind of knowledge. In fact, St. Thomas quite explicitly associates beauty with knowledge. For St. Thomas, beauty is kind of a half-way point between goodness and truth, for it adds a cognitive element to goodness, and a pleasurable element to truth. Furthermore, he likens beauty to the formal cause, which specifically has to do with the objective nature of a thing. As such, when we have knowledge of something, we are taking a hold of the nature of that thing, forming an abstract concept of it in our mind. In other words, when we know, we grasp the form or formal cause of the thing. Since beauty is likened to a formal cause, it is an object of knowledge. As such, it inherently pertains to the nature of a thing. It is objective.

How then do we explain the variation that occurs between the different perceptions that individuals have of beauty? Here I will admit that there is, perhaps, a subjective element to beauty. For while beauty, that quality which gives pleasure when seen, may be an objective quality inherent in things, nonetheless it is also true that the subjective ability to perceive that beauty necessarily varies from person to person. But not only this, it must also be true that the ability to take pleasure in seeing – which pleasure is essential to the aesthetic experience – varies from person to person. And not only is this variation in degree, but also in kind: it is not only a question of who perceives or delights in beauty better than another person, but a question of which elements of an object strike each person as being beautiful. For beauty is not a simple thing, but manifests itself in innumerable ways, all of which are likely impossible for a single person to perceive. Thus it happens that one person will tend to be able to see certain aspects of an object’s beauty, while another person will be able to see other aspects.

That having been said, it is impossible to deny that there are degrees of beauty, and thus that some things simply are more beautiful than others. Again, this is not always immediately perceptible to the beholder; oftentimes it must be examined and demonstrated by a process of reasoning. This can be done in regards to the arts of painting, sculpture, music, etc., as well as in the realm of nature itself. St. Thomas, in addition to his statements about the knowledge and perception of beauty, lists three objective conditions for the beautiful, in which he says that beauty consists. These conditions are integrity, proportion, and clarity. These three conditions can serve well as guiding principles in the demonstration of an object’s beauty, or lack thereof. But as always, we should first understand what is meant by these conditions…

The first condition of the beautiful, namely integrity, signifies a kind of perfection and wholeness. This is brought about by a thing’s being in proper conformity with its nature, or its form. Generally speaking, this means it must lack none of the parts which belong to it by its nature, nor possess something which is repugnant to its nature. It must attain the fullness of its proper existence, as determined by its form. This is perfection or integrity, a completeness of the whole.

The second condition of beauty is proportion or harmony. This has several important implications. First, it means that the various parts of the whole must be harmonious among themselves, that in their diversity there must be an overall unity. In general, there must not be any discord or anarchy existing in a thing, for this indicates a lack of harmony and proportion. St. Thomas says that the senses delight in proportion. This can be said to be true not only of the senses of the body, but also of the whole cognitive faculty of man.

The third condition of the beautiful is clarity. This is perhaps the most important of the three, and it can been defined as the splendor of the form. It is a kind of radiance and brightness, a special intelligibility, that brings out in an extraordinary way the nature of the thing. Clarity presupposes integrity, in that both have to do with the form or nature of the object. Clarity brings out the form, makes it more manifest, in a way that heightens its perfection and makes it radiant to the perception. Clarity thus seals the cap, as it were, on the making of the beautiful, and it gives the final push towards the aesthetic delight that results from the perception of beauty.

These three conditions – which I have only very briefly explained here – can serve as general principles by which to analyze any given object and its beauty. These principles can serve as a basis in the analysis of beauty in the arts as well as in natural objects. 

So that's the basics of Thomistic aesthetics, as I have studied it. I'll likely be writing about it more in later posts.

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