Jul 6, 2011
Before the sixth century B.C., the objective basis of beauty lay in the ideal proportion of the perfect human body. The measure of the perfect man was the measure of all things beautiful. The design of the Parthenon exemplifies this balance, symmetry, and proportion. The Ancients and pre-modernists were aware of aesthetic disagreements, especially in works of art, but they could not ignore the evidence that “things are not beautiful because they delight us; we enjoy things because they are beautiful” (F.J. Kovach, “Aesthetic Subjectivism and Pre-Modern Philosophy,” 211). Some reasons for disagreement may attributed to prejudice, religious education, nationality and cultural differences, close mindedness, immaturity or ignorance, excessive familiarity with a thing of beauty, dark mood, or illness. (Ibid., 211-14).
St. Thomas Aquinas (d 1274)
Summing up ancient and patristic teaching on beauty, St. Thomas offers a terse definition of it: beauty pleases when seen. A beautiful thing attracts when it is perceived, but we do not possess it as in a good. Goodness relates to the appetite—enjoying a good meal; beauty, to the cognitive—enjoying a good book. Beauty has three formal criteria: (1) integrity or wholeness, (2) proportion or harmony, and (3) clarity or brilliance. All three are united as one.
Integrity means that the parts fit together as a unified and intelligible whole. In proportion, the parts fit together to produce its overall harmony. Proportion conjures up ballet dancers or trapeze artists who dazzle audiences with their high wire balance and symmetry. A child can distinguish the beauty of neatly-arranged proportioned row houses from the squalid, ugly tenements. These same principles are seen in ethics and justice, and a child is quick to detect lopsided injustice. Clarity refers to things that are what they should be—conspicuous forms.
Beauty’s twofold movement
In beauty, a twofold movement takes place: 1) an objective form reveals itself in its wholeness, proportion, and clarity, 2) the eye that sees it is drawn to it, delighted by it. We saw this in last week’s examples of Eliza Doolittle, the night sky, and a sprawling elm tree. One is grasped by the form and, in so doing, grasps the form as lovely. Is beauty subjective or objective? In a middle ground, beauty implies a knowing that is (a) sentient (b) cognitive and c) intuitive (perception, sizing up an event or a person).