Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Beauty and Reality

Do beautiful things open the door to the really Real?

Last week at Villanova, I sat in on an aesthetics class taught by James Matthew Wilson. I’ve posted his poetry on this site before (here and here). I found the class thrilling because I have no training in how to think formally about beauty, and these ideas, as elementary as they surely were, struck me as a series of small eureka moments (fitting, as the class is called “Epiphanies of Beauty”).

James sent me home with a photocopy of an essay he published in the Winter 2015 issue of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture (that issue is not available online, but you can access the essay on this site). Its title is “John Paul II’s Letter to Artists and the Force of Beauty.” I read it on the plane home, and it sparked all kinds of thoughts. Mostly, though, it helped me to understand why the Divine Comedy, as well as the Chartres cathedral, were for me doorways leading to God. I suppose I ended the essay with more questions than answers, but fruitful questions, for sure. This post is going to reflect the fragmented nature of this amateur’s reading of the paper.

Early in the paper, James calls the imaginative arts “a preamble to metaphysics. We imagine what we cannot yet know by reason or believe by faith, and this act of sympathy and imagination can prepare the soil of our soul for more substantial realities.” More:

If the significance of the artwork is strictly that of the made thing expressive of its maker, it requires few if any a priori beliefs to be in place: only our natural capacity for sympathy and an openness to pretending. And yet, in the case of such novelists, we leave off with a question that the works by their nature cannot answer. We may be moved in sympathy to think of the world through the mind of the Christian character, but the exciting question left suspended is “Are we right to think thus?” or “Is it true?”

A talented young poet named Therese Couture explores the lead up to, and lingering in, such questions in a recent poem published in the Catholic literary journal Dappled Things. Describing historic Catholic churches, their architecture and art all in place but largely neglected of the purpose for which they were built, namely, worship, Couture inquires whether they might still signify for a secular viewer what they did for those who once prayed in them. She describes an artist “sketching in a book” the “arches and the stained glass trill/ of light across the trodden, ancient floor.” She speculates that the blessing of this artist may lie “in some firm intuition” that
awakes the urge to reinhabit, make anew
or otherwise inquire into suspicion
of loveliness and that it might be true

Those lines describe exactly the feeling that struck me when I stood in Chartres for the first time, a feeling that I had not been able to fully articulate. I wondered if the imaginative world that created this cathedral as an icon of the divine might be true — that is, was I looking at a work of art that told me something about the nature of God, a God in whom I wasn’t sure I believed. And it also made me desire to live within that world, to be able to call that cathedral my own in some way. To be consumed by it. Nothing like that had ever happened to me.

What would it mean to say that beauty is also true? James Matthew Wilson argues that

we must first understand beauty as having a distinct and primary reality apart from art and the artists, and that we have to understand it as real per se, as a transcendental property of being standing alongside truth and goodness. Unless we first believe in beauty as a reality in the world, we cannot rightly hope for much to come of the beauty that might be found in the fine arts.

That’s a strong claim to modern sensibilities. James gets this, and says that since Kant, many of us, if we think about beauty at all, think of it solely as a matter of taste. In Kant, and after Kant, when we describe an object as “beautiful,” we are really describing the way we feel about the object, not a property that inheres in the object itself. Writes James, “The persuasiveness of Kant’s position therefore makes it less likely for us to feel obliged by a fact of beauty in the way we may suppose ourselves to feel obliged by facts of truth.”

(In this way, it seems to me, Kantian aesthetics prepare the mind for emotivism — the idea that statements about moral truths are only statements about how the individual feels, not what is.)

In contrast to this, there is the “Christian-Platonist” concept of beauty, in which individual things “are beautiful only insofar as they participate in Beauty itself, which subsists independently, over and above them.

The human intellect, with its power of abstraction, may perceive a multitude of individual instances of beauty, ordering them from least to greatest. In the process, it will come to discern that quality they all have in common, the beautiful, and will thus ascend rung by rung up a ladder from physical beauty to moral beauty to intellectual beauty and on to eternal and unqualified beauty. Since ancient times, Christians have specifically identified this assent to beauty as one with the assent to God, declaring Beauty Itself to be one of the divine names.

Beauty, then, is a pathway to God. Read on:

As I have framed it, John Paul’s summons of artists to evangelize culture through the manifestation of art that is beautiful can only be fruitful if we can establish three things. First, that beauty refers to a real property of being rather than a description of a subjective judgment of “taste.” Second, that the encounter with something beautiful is indeed an encounter with a particular participation in Beauty Itself and, therefore, opens up a path for the perceiving intellect to approach God. And, third, that more than simply allowing sympathy or communication between one human mind and another, artworks by their nature do in fact participate in the Beautiful. In brief, it must be the case that beauty is real, is a divine name, and can be manifest in artworks. The first may seem counterintuitive to the modern mind. The second will seem familiar insofar as most persons do believe that encounters with beauty in some way draw us out of ourselves in a vaguely edifying manner; but we are unused to conceiving that as a spiritual journey with a real and definite destination rather than as a momentary elevation. The third will chiefly raise objections among modern artists, who often do not think of their making as a manifestation of the beautiful, but in terms of the expressivity I have already described.


It’s too much for me to summarize JMW’s argument here; read the whole paper. This passage was really helpful to me:

Aquinas appropriately emphasizes that beauty is distinct from goodness precisely because, where goodness leads us to the pleasure of possession, “beautiful things are those which please when seen.” The measurement of arithmetic concludes primarily in a true answer; but it and other measures may also be such that, when we see the way in which they fit together, we are pleased. Beauty’s root in the form is no understatement: we encounter beauty precisely when we see the form of a thing and how it fits within a larger harmony and order comprising other things. Beauty therefore designates an aspect of reality. It is ontological, and no less so because part of its reality may be its relation to the perception of a knowing subject.

A short space later in the Summa, again almost incidentally, Aquinas defines what it is we are pleased with when we encounter a beautiful thing. He writes, “Beauty includes three conditions, integrity or perfection, since those things which are impaired are by the very fact ugly; due proportion or harmony; and lastly, brightness, or clarity, whence things are called beautiful which have a bright color.” These terms recur in his work, but they never receive further explanation. What I have argued above about proportion in fact explains them: there is the internal proportion of integrity, the more wide-ranging, inter-entitative, set of proportions called harmony or consonance, and there is clarity, the proportion of a thing to the light of the mind that creates it and to the light of the mind that perceives its form. A thing is beautiful insofar as it meets these three conditions.

“Bright color” does not mean “shines like a candy-apple red fire engine.” It refers to the capacity of a thing to reveal it’s “unique what-ness” (JMW). JMW quotes Umberto Eco as defining clarity, in Aquinas, as “the fundamental communicability of form, which is made actual in relation to someone’s looking at or seeing of the object.” Eco adds: “The rationality that belongs to every form is the ‘light’ which manifests itself to aesthetic seeing.”

So, if I’m reading this correctly, a beautiful object is one that is internally harmonious in its proportions, is harmonious with the world beyond itself (which implies that it does what it is supposed to do with respect to its ends), and expresses its own ontological reality with exceptional force. This is why Dante’s Paradiso is a realm of pure light within forms. This is the poet’s way of signaling to us that in Paradise, everything appears to be exactly what it is; nothing is veiled. And more, from JMW’s paper:

A work of art’s integrity is its internal wholeness, and its proportion is its fitting relation to a potentially vast order of things part of and beyond itself. Clarity marks the proportion of a thing to our intellect, as Eco appreciates, but it also draws our intellect into luminous relation with the whole intelligible order of reality that proceeds from Beauty Itself.  The work of art, in its beauty, therefore stands between the perceiving and the creative intellects, drawing the former toward the latter.  We are oriented by beauty into the whole harmony of the cosmos; the individual artwork draws us toward a vision of the truth, goodness, and order of things. These are obviously bold claims, but they would seem to follow logically from the idea of claritas as a condition of beauty. The medieval thinkers who so frequently spoke of light in regard to beauty, but also in regard to things in general, were searching for a language to capture the way in which everything we encounter strikes us with its intelligibility. As Viladesau argues, “‘light’ or ‘luminocity’ for medieval thought symbolizes the nature of being an ‘intelligible’ and–at its higher levels–self-conscious.” A thing may be mysterious, but it is never wholly alien to our thought: we can understand it to the extent that we may understand it, as it were, and we can also be conscious, we can know the degree of our understanding. When we encounter the proportions of a form, we sense that this intelligibility is no fluke or ubiquitous type of chance, but a revelation of light and order.

I marked the copy of JMW’s paper up on the plane, and my notes for the above paragraph mark the epiphany in which I understood the Commedia as a ladder of ascent to the experience of God. My notes quote the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” In the Commedia, the pilgrim Dante cannot ascend to the realms in which he can look directly upon the light of God until he purifies his heart. The more pure his heart becomes, the more light he is able to see. Isn’t this how it is with us? That the impurity of our heart darkens our intellects, and occludes our perception of the Real. The Commedia, then, is a work of unparalleled poetic beauty that teaches the reader that beauty prepares us for truth, and in turn, conforming our souls to that truth, we attain a measure of goodness, which makes it possible for us to see more deeply into beauty, which reveals the nature of things. And so on, over and over, as we ascend to God.

JMW writes:

In the claritas of a beautiful thing we mark its intelligibility and thus its signifying position between two minds. As John Paul indicates, in a work of art, we often encounter a revelation of the being of the maker along with the revelation of the being of the artwork itself. In natural objects we experience a similar revelation, most often experienced as the illumination of a thing in light of its position within a larger order of beings: not just the waterfall gushing across the rocky slope and framed with a staggered appointment of fir trees but also those things perceived as part of the whole working order of the universe. We do not feel that we need to learn a different mental language other than that with which we read the signification of a desert plain or a fish’s anatomy in order “to read” the waterfall. The clarity of the beautiful reveals this order to us, not in the formulae of truth, or in the moving language of desire that teaches us about goods, but in the mute but intensely signifying manifestation of form.

We do not need to argue in quite the same way as we have for the ontological reality of beauty that the illumination of the order of things, of their formal intelligibility, is a sign of their participation in the God of Being and Beauty. Philosophers since Kant have returned again and again to the question “What are the conditions of possibility for knowledge? What has to be in place, as it were, in a knowing subject for that subject to know in the first place?” Bernard Lonergan provides a provocative argument that is apposite to the account of claritas I have given. We know we know things, but it would seem that we can only know things if they are intelligible, in other words, capable of being known. That knowability is not something that things give to themselves or that we could give to them, since the potency to be known must be prior to our actual knowing. Intelligibility must therefore be given to things with their being. Viladesau summarizes this argument thus: “If the real is completely intelligible, then God exists. But the real is completely intelligible. Therefore, God exists.” Viladesau extends this argument to the reality of beauty: “The condition of possibility for the experience of beauty [which we all can have]–in the sense of the joyous affirmation of the ‘form’ or desirable intelligibility of existence, even in its finite limitation–is the implicit and unavoidable coaffirmation of ultimate Beauty.”

I would elaborate this claim as follows. As soon as we acknowledge the bare presence of proportion in things, and proceed to discern them as beautiful, we will be led by our own intellects, from proportion to proportion, form to form, and on to the source of their intelligible light. This experience of an ascent from the finite to the infinite, from a beautiful thing to Beauty itself, absolutely speaking, merely retraces a path from the appearance of things to the substance, the reality beneath, that makes them possible in the first place. Again, that beautiful things participate in Beauty Itself is not a theory that needs to be separately demonstrated, for it is a reality that we all already experience through the natural proceedings of the sense and intellect from the effects of beauty they already know toward the causes that make them to signify with such irreducible power. While the theory of participation is distinct from the ontological theory of beauty, it follows from it. The experience of beauty taken as real will lead us upward of its own accord from beautiful things to Beauty Itself.

This is the journey Dante the pilgrim — and with him, the reader — makes in the Divine Comedy.

I will quote one more passage from JMW’s paper, because it struck me with great force as being true to my own experience:

But, beauty’s silence is not so gentle; we think it so only when we follow Kant and mistake beauty for a subjective judgment or understand the arts only as a communication of merely the sensibilities of their makers and not the creative intellect of the divine. Rather, beauty’s silence is that of the form of beings in their unmediated, nondiscursive reality.  It thus may enter our minds before we have become aware of it, it may dominate us, brooking no resistance. It may even shape our appetite and reason, determining in advance what we can recognize as good or acknowledge as true, as modern doctrines of “sensibility” and Plato’s ancient quibbles about poetry testify. We can, after all, make an error in a math problem, but the judgment of the beautiful and the ugly can be instantaneous and irrevocable–even if it also develops and deepens gradually as the proportions of a thing unfold before our intellects. One can soften truth claims with qualifications and ethical judgments by couching them as kind reminders and positive enticements. But when a work of art is set before us to declare the lordship of God, as do, for instance, the churches of the high Middle Ages, there can be no such hesitation: as soon as we perceive a proportion as beautiful, it takes hold of us as much as we do of it.

Of course, the millions of tourists who visit Notre Dame or Chartres may beg to differ. They would tell us that they come for the beauty of the architecture, not for the Gospel in stone it claims to preach. But I can only reply, “It is the force of that Gospel already working within you. You cannot deny the presence of beauty; you sense its orderliness calling you to an order beyond itself but of which it is a part.” The only moment that allows one to resist that call comes not in denying that beautiful things participate in Beauty, but in the Kantian denial of the reality of beauty as a property of the object itself. The great irony of Kant’s aesthetic theory, and the romantic theory of imagination, is that it was intended to open up a place for spiritual freedom, where the beautiful can appear, but it did so only at the cost of dismissing beauty’s ontological status. This has been the great consolation Kant offers the modern age: he allows us to devalue our experience of the real by treating it as being of as little worth as we consider ourselves to be. “Beauty is just my taste, and what am I?” we ask. The imagination can unveil sublime and stirring plains, in the romantic view, but they are just as quickly swept aside as a higher “kind of dreaming.” My argument has shown that there is indeed a subjective element in the conditions of beauty insofar as proportions are always relational, and one proportion of claritas is to a perceiving subject. But, the other proportion is to that intelligence whose knowledge is constitutive of reality as such.

On walking out of the Chartres cathedral at age 17, I knew that I had seen something beautiful, and that what I had seen was not simply pleasing to my eye, but stood for some Ultimate Mystery that called to me.

In reading the Commedia, the beauty of Dante’s verse revealed to me truths about human nature, and my own particular nature. It also revealed to me what goodness looked like, and how through humility and repentance one makes room for the action of divinity to purify one’s heart, and, in turn, increases one’s capacity to perceive beauty — which leads the rightly-guided soul to deeper and higher levels of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, all of which are properties of God, who is Reality Itself.

I’m going to have to think about this for a while. I have pondered a lot the moral, psychological, and spiritual changes that the Commedia worked in me, but I have not thought nearly enough about the transformative role the encounter with Beauty in the poem. This is because I lack the conceptual vocabulary in which to think systematically about beauty. Read the entire James Matthew Wilson paper; if you know how to think philosophically and aesthetically, it will mean more to you than it does me. I’m grateful for even my cursory grasp of these ideas, and envious, in a good way, of the Villanova undergraduates who are in his Epiphanies of Beauty class this fall.

One final thought: Can an object be said to possess the quality of Beauty if there is no one around to observe it? Yes, if Beauty is an ontological property, that must be true. But Beauty cannot be perceived except by a conscious observer — and even then, the observer may be so blinded that he cannot fully perceive the beauty around him. I think one of the most important points in JMW’s paper is that to believe that Beauty is only in the eye of the beholder — that is, to affirm that beauty is merely a reflection of an individual’s preferences — is to cut oneself off from participation in the reality of God, of the infinite, of the really real. I could be wrong, but intuitively, it seems to me that the concept of Beauty could not exist in a universe without consciousness.

This stuff really makes me stretch, and use muscles I’ve never exercised.