Is Beauty a Fact or Subjective Experience?
Can it be that beauty is no more than an empty word? We naturally tend to reject this notion, for when we perceive beauty, we see it as located in the beautiful object, not simply imposed upon it by our emotions. In addition, though we tend to respect others’ views in regard to beauty more than in other areas, we will often argue and try to bring others around to see beauty in the things we perceive as beautiful. So is beauty simply an emotional experience? Or could it be something more, existing independent of our perceptions?
St. Augustine asks this very question in his De Vera Religione. “Is a thing beautiful because it pleases,” he asks, “or does it please because it is beautiful?” ( ) He then affirms, “it pleases because it is beautiful,” ( ) that beauty is an objective fact that is the cause of the pleasure we feel on perceiving it.
But if beauty is an objective fact, existing fixed and independent of our emotions, then how is it that not all have the same view of it? If beauty is an inherent characteristic like size or texture, then why do some see beauty where others cannot? The answer is simply that our understanding and perception of beauty are heavily dependent on our knowledge. In this, beauty is no different from Math or Science. A student failing to understand a concept does not change the truth of mathematical law. Neither does one’s imperception change the truth of beauty. And just as the student may develop an understanding of the law, so can one learn an appreciation of beauty.
Plato’s Theory of Forms
This, however, brings us back to our original question: what is beauty? The Greek philosopher Plato explained beauty in his Theory of Forms. He believed that there exists a perfect Form of everything that exists, including the Form of Beauty. This Form of Beauty was a sort of spiritual ideal, located outside of our physical world, and that all beautiful things are beautiful only through their participation in this pure and perfect Beauty. He called this notion mimesis, or imitation. This Form of Beauty was absolutely essential, timeless, and unchanging. He believed that it was higher, more real, than any physical beauty since the beauty of the natural world is simply an imitation of the Form. Taking this notion further, he believed that the beauty in art was of an even lower kind than that of nature because it is yet another step removed from the true essence of Beauty, being but a representation of nature, a reflection of the shadow.
While these ideas of Plato clearly contain some errors, they provided a strong foundation which later philosophers then developed. An important change, and a logical one for Christian thinkers, was to replace Plato’s abstract “Form” with God. “For thinkers such as Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius platonic forms (including the form of beauty) are in fact ideas in the mind of God, and the world is but a shadow of the divine image” (MToA). The beautiful things we see around us, then, are reflections not of some abstract notion but of God Himself. It is His beauty which we perceive shining through in the loveliness of His creation.
St. Augustine’s Views
Another significant alteration made by St. Augustine to the platonic view of Beauty was a change in the notion of mimesis. While Plato held that nature was but an imitation of Beauty and art an imitation of nature, Augustine made a clear distinction between the creation of God (nature), and the creation of man (art). While the arts are truly mimetic in nature, God’s act of creation is something more. In it, He draws substance out of nothingness. “In a sense, God’s beauty emanates out of natural things through His act of creation” (MToA). An artist’s work is not entirely personal, since he imitates the work of another; but the work of God is wholly of Himself. So while nature is not simply an imitation or reflection of God, His beauty and perfection suffuses it nonetheless.
So far, we have dealt with the nature of beauty, its essence. We have seen that it exists not just in the eye of the beholder but as an independent truth and that this Truth is in fact God. We have seen that all beautiful things are but reflections of God’s beauty. But now, returning to earth, we must learn how to apply these facts to our practical experience. How exactly do the things we call beautiful (a sunset, a cathedral, a symphony), participate in God’s beauty? What is it about the things themselves that shows the hand of God?
The philosopher Aristotle taught that beauty deals with the form of things. His idea of form, however, differed from that of his teacher Plato. Where Plato held the form of a thing to be an abstract and perfect idea completely removed from the physical object, Aristotle’ forms were inseparable from the things themselves. For example, Plato believed that a Form of a tree and that all trees are imitations of this perfect ideal. Aristotle on the other hand believed that every tree had the form of a tree, and even that a sculpture or painting could have the form of a tree. For him, the form was not the essence of a thing, but dealt more with its shape and properties. If beauty, then, deals with the form of an object, an object must first of all be true to its from in order to be beautiful. This becomes obvious if we consider the specific characteristics that we would deem beautiful in, say, a dog. Thick, glossy coat; large, floppy ears, a sweeping tail; all these we would admire in a dog. But imagine them in a human, for example, and the image we get is a horrific one. An object, then, is more beautiful the more truly it adheres to its form. But not only can a thing be more beautiful through its truth, there is a scale of beauty which follows the degrees of form. According to Augustine, “The earth occupies the lowest form of beauty, and things become more beautiful as they possess more form and less of the void. God is supremely beautiful, since only God possesses perfect form” (Augustine ??). The scale of form begins at the inanimate, ascends to the animate, the human, and culminates in the Divine.
But now let us look into some more specific aspects of beauty. While it is difficult to gauge or physically measure beauty, there are certain aspects, such as proportion, light, and symbolism, which can be studied to gain a better understanding of beauty as a whole.
Proportions and Golden Section
Proportion has to do with the relationship of the parts making up a whole. Over the centuries certain proportions have been discovered that are more pleasing than others. A well-known example of such a number is the Golden Section, a ratio that is often exhibited in nature. Proportions such as this have been applied to all types of art, from painting, to architecture, even to music. “The proportions that govern the dimensions of Greek temples, the intervals between columns or the relationships between the various parts of the façade, correspond to the same ratios that govern musical intervals” (MToA). St. Augustine asserts that the proportions of a thing are play an integral part in its beautification. “In all the arts it is the symmetry [or proportion] that gives pleasure, preserving unity and making the whole beautiful” (of True religion qut in MToA). He also believed that the principles of proportion, and particularly rhythm in music, were predetermined truths which had their source in God. Thus, they were not numbers chosen arbitrarily by man but immutable truths which had to be discovered by him.