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Beauty

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express,
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent! 
(She Walks in Beauty, Lord Byron).

In one of his most famous poems, Lord Byron masterfully weaves for us a portrait of personal beauty: both inside and out. Byron’s mysterious woman is beautiful both in “aspect” and “eyes” as well as in “a mind at peace” and “a heart whose love is innocent.”

Taking Byron’s woman as an example, and St. Thomas as our guide, we will ask—quite ambitiously—what makes a thing beautiful?

Before we begin, and it goes without saying, beauty is a topic fraught with controversy and conflicting opinions, and one need not accept Aquinas’s opinion as the true one. Yet, his thoughts are not without warrant and do explain immaterial beauty, as well as why there is One who is most beautiful.

Beauty Basics

According to St. Thomas, in his usual terse and matter-of-fact manner, a thing is beautiful in so far as it possesses these three characteristics: integrity, proportion, and clarity. In his words:

For 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 (ST. I, Q. 39. A. 8).

Excluding the reference to bright color, which can be more confusing than useful, St. Thomas’s definition ought to be, for the most part, intuitive to us. After all, integrity and harmony is the goal in everything from stories, to sculptures, to symphonies. 

However, the last characteristic, clarity—being a bit more mysterious—will take a little more explaining.

Integrity or Perfection

Aquinas’s first condition for beauty is integrity or perfection. St. Thomas seems to use the terms interchangeably. He can do this because, among those things which have parts, perfection presupposes integrity.

For example, we see that a car with integrated axles and tires is better off than one separated from them, and a man with integrated passions is better off than a divided one.

Integrity makes not only for perfection but also for beauty. Consider the beauty of a car cut into pieces versus a whole one. Or the beauty of a person divided into vices compared to a wholesome and virtuous one. 

Lord Bryon illustrates this aspect of beauty in writing:

The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent! 
(Byron, Ibid.)

For our poet, an innocent heart makes for a more beautiful countenance. As Aquinas writes, “beauty is becoming to every virtue,” (ST. II-II, Q. 141. A. 2), especially for temperance because it “consists in a certain moderate and fitting proportion” (Ibid.).

This leads us to Aquinas’ second condition for beauty: proportion.

Due Proportion or Harmony

Hence beauty consists in due proportion; for the senses delight in things duly proportioned…(ST. I, Q. 5, A. 4).

Things that are out of place or misshapen do not, as a rule, strike the eye as beautiful. A portrait slanted off-kilter or outrageously large or small, relative to the room, is destined to be adjusted or removed.

Right proportion is so unanimously associated with beauty that everyone from athletes to artists, endorse perfect “beauty-ratios,” within their respective fields.

One that is common to both, is termed the so-called Golden Ratio. Here is Canva (a multi-billion dollar, graphic design corporation) to explain:

This harmony and proportion has been recognized for thousands of centuries: from the Pyramids in Giza to the Parthenon in Athens; from Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa; and from the Pepsi logo to the definition of The Golden Ratio. Our bodies and faces even follow the mathematical ratio.

In fact, our brains are seemingly hard-wired to prefer objects and images that use the Golden Ratio. It’s almost a subconscious attraction and even tiny tweaks that make an image truer to the Golden Ratio have a large impact on our brains (Canva, What is the Golden Ratio? What you need to know and how to use it.).

Whether these specific proportions prove to make a thing beautiful, they do prove that we hold proportion to be an essential condition for beauty. 

Along with proportion, Aquinas mentions harmony because both imply a kind of order among features. Lord Byron takes account of this (in regard to light) in writing:

And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
(Byron, Ibid.)

And, if harmony and proportion are required for beautiful sights, how much more for beautiful sounds (where harmony is paramount) and written works (where order is required for coherence)? 

Therefore, whether heard, seen, or read, beauty presupposes a kind of proportion or harmony.

Clarity

…each is called beautiful according as it has clarity of its kind, whether spiritual or bodily (St. Thomas, Commentary on the Divine Names, C. IV, L. V).

Clarity is the most mysterious of Aquinas’ conditions for beauty since it isn’t apparent what is clear, or even how it is clear.

Beginning with the latter, clear must not mean strictly to the eyes, as Aquinas’s words indicate since it must apply to things spiritual, which do not come under sight. It must also apply to music and philosophical truth, which are beautiful as well.

So how exactly do we apprehend this clarity, which includes everything from images, to music, to ideas? Mortimer Adler (philosopher and convert to the Catholic faith) gives us an answer:

The answer is that the word “see” does not always mean “apprehend visually.” All of us have said, “I see what you mean,” in order to convey to another person that we understand what he or she has told us…

Therefore,

The beautiful is that which pleases us upon being contemplated. It is that which pleases us when we apprehend it with our minds alone, or, if not by our minds alone, then by our minds in conjunction with our senses, but not by the sense of sight alone (Six Great Ideas, Pt. II, Ch. XV).

What Adler is saying is that beauty is something seen with the mind, which tells us something about what clarity means. In the words of St. Thomas:

…form is a certain irradiation coming forth from the first clarity; yet clarity is of the ratio (notion) of beauty, as has been said (St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Divine Names, C. IV, L. VI).

Clarity is the inner intelligibility (form, essence, idea) of a thing, seen with the mind’s eye, which comes through a thing, adding to its beauty. Billy Joel gives an example of this, in Piano Man, where one of his characters says:

Son can you play me a memory?
I’m not really sure how it goes
But it’s sad and it’s sweet and I knew it complete
When I wore a younger man’s clothes.

We can rephrase the line “play me a memory” to “play me a song through which I can apprehend some deeper sentiment or idea. Convey to me a meaning encased in sound, the essence of something I know.” 

Herein also lies the “subjective” component of beauty. For, in hearing the same song or seeing the same sight, different people are free to see within them different things.

Elements of Clarity

There are two elements within clarity, and therefore two ways in which a thing may be more clear. Something can be more clear to us (namely, easier to understand) as well as more clear in itself (namely, having more to understand).

Because of the first element of clarity, beauty goes hand in hand with a kind of simplicity. Here stands the testimony of artists like G.K. Chesterton (in literature) who said:

A work of art can hardly be too short, for its climax is its merit…the artistic conscience tends in more ambitious works to brevity and impressionism (The Defendant, A Defense of Penny Dreadfuls).

And Hans Zimmer, 2x Oscar Winner for film scores, who said:

I’ve spent my life trying to make things simpler. Because I find ultimately that complicated doesn’t reach the heart (quotation as commonly ascribed).

These men’s works are acclaimed for their beauty, a beauty due in part to the simplicity with which they convey a deeper meaning.

The First Clarity

But within things, not all carry the same depth of meaning. For instance, there is more to know about men than gravel. This depth of “knowability” is the second aspect of clarity: clarity within itself

It makes a man more beautiful than the tree or the stone, even if each is equally integrated and proportioned. This is also why God is most beautiful because in Him there is the greatest depth of meaning. Herein also lies the rationale behind St. Thomas’s words:

…form is a certain irradiation coming forth from the first clarity (St. Thomas, Ibid.).

God can be called first clarity according to both aspects of clarity: simplicity and depth. He is first in simplicity because there are no parts in Him,1 and first in depth of intelligibility because He is the origin and source of all knowable things.

In this way, it is He whom we see—in some shade or another—when we glimpse a deeper meaning and beauty within things. In the words of C.S. Lewis:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them…For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited (The Weight of Glory).

God’s beauty also transcends any beauty arising from integrity or proportion (Aquinas’s first two conditions for beauty), since they presuppose having parts, which God does not have.

Such is a brief analysis of Aquinas’s three conditions for beauty: Integrity or Perfection, Proportion or Harmony, Brightness or Clarity as well as the most beautiful thing to which they point: God.

1.  The Fourth Lateran Council and the First Vatican Council teach that God is an absolutely simple substance or nature (substantia seu natura simplex omnino). The expression “simplex omnino” asserts that with regard to God any kind of composition, whether physical or metaphysical, is out of the question (Ludwig Ott, Bk. I, Pt. I, S. III). Also see, CCC #255,


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