I’d like to pass on something that has shaped my understanding of beauty greatly and could answer some possible objections to the past few posts. Here is a description of what Aquinas said about beauty:
“St. Thomas offers us another important insight into the nature of beauty when he informs us of the three elements that constitute it. Beauty, for the Angelic Doctor, includes unity, proportion, and clarity. The traditional notion that beauty is “diversity within unity” is an integration of the first two of these three elements. The third, however, claritas, is the most elusive of the triad.
The American Thomistic philosopher Mortimer Adler renders the word claritas as ‘effulgence,’ a flowing out from the beautiful object to the perceiver. It is a kind of ‘radiance’ or ‘splendor’ that cannot be reduced to anything that is scientifically analyzable. Beauty confers delight through its shining clarity, this je ne sais quoi, ‘I know not what,’ that separates the beautiful from the mundane.
John Paul II entitled one of his encyclicals Veritatis Splendor, ‘The Splendor of Truth.’ It is said that truth has a certain splendor because it is a fitting and natural object for human intelligence. Its splendor is recognized in the natural way in which it greets the human intellect. Similarly, beauty has a certain splendor that flows out to the person with such a naturalness that it confers delight. Thus, Maritain can say that ‘the beautiful that is connatural to man is the beautiful that delights the intellect through the senses and through their intuition.'”
Essentially, Catholics do believe that Beauty is real, and it is an objectively existing, transcendental entity. So, no, beauty is not really in the eye of the beholder, but in some things which are beheld.
Now, I will say this: we can certainly acknowledge the objective beauty of something without necessarily liking it much. For instance, I can agree that U2 makes beautiful music (sometimes); however, I just never could really get into them.
Preference does not equal beauty. Beauty is something that is whole and something that moves us, even if certain things move us more than others. There’s a reason the homepage of this blog has a picture my wife took of the sunrise on top of Haleakala in Maui, rather than the picture she later took of the bathroom in the condo we rented for our honeymoon. One is objectively more beautiful, more pleasing, more moving, even though it was a darn fine bathroom.
Beauty is the common thread that runs through many of our experiences. It’s what makes looking at the Rockies something not altogether different from looking in my wife’s eyes. It makes hearing “Ara Batur” kind of like hearing the ocean washing against the shore. It’s what makes smelling my daughter’s hair something similar to smelling a campfire.
These experiences are not the same, but there is something in each of them that touches the same place inside me. And that something is what we call Beauty.
For the next few posts, I am simply going to offer some beautiful things with little or no commentary. Come on back, now.