The various definitions of `beauty' are amazingly conflicting. All of which proves, obviously, the complexity of its nature and of the multi-faceted character of its appeal. Some have condensed this idea in the saying "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Although this certainly enters into the experience of `beauty,' there must be more to it than the mere subjective element.
The concept of the beautiful is very closely related to the concepts of unity, truth and goodness. These are the three transcendental qualities of every being.
Some philosophers have even considered `beauty' to be a transcendental or quasi-transcendental property.
Like all fundamental and primary ideas, `beauty' is more easily recognized in a concrete experience than abstractly defined in words.
How can we arrive at some knowledge of what constitutes the `beautiful' as opposed to the `ugly'?
The best method to acquire a practical knowledge of the beautiful is to analyze our own experience of the beautiful and thereby gradually elucidate a more formal definition.
What is our basic experience of beauty? First of all, beauty pleases. This is the universal experience and judgment of all mankind. No one can call `beautiful' that which displeases and annoys. This is true at least under this particular aspect.
Whatever is beautiful _ a poem, a picture, a melody, a sculpture, or an architectural structure _ it is always considered to be so because it pleases, gratifies and gives enjoyment.
Secondly, beauty gives disinterested pleasure. In other words, the pleasure derived from beauty is styled `aesthetic pleasure'. This means that the object perceived as `beautiful' is separate from any other pleasure. For instance, seeing a banana with the main purpose of eating it is not considered `aesthetic pleasure.' Such pleasure is nothing more than utilitarian, selfish `food-pleasure.' Food-pleasure is not based on the beauty of the banana.
Aesthetic pleasure is experienced when the pleasure derived comes from the simple beholding of the object.
If a man owns a painting and takes pleasure in it because he knows he can sell it at a profitable price, he is not considered to have aesthetic pleasure. On the other hand, if he is content to contemplate the picture and thereby derive enjoyment from it, he is then enthralled with its beauty.
There is beauty in the seas, in the stars, in the sunrise, in the sunset, in the waterfalls, in mountains. But, there is no selfish enjoyment in these things.
The agreeable and pleasurable feelings engendered in the beholder through the mere possession of an object or through the satisfaction of the lower sentient appetites, are not aesthetic. The reason is because these feelings are too organic and selfish
Things may taste and smell and feel `agreeable,' but such pleasure is not the delight experienced in the enjoyment of the beautiful. The difference between a nude painting of an artist and the nude center-fold of Playboy is this: The nude painting evokes aesthetic pleasure; the center-fold appeals to the prurient, the organic, and selfish.
The primary object of desire in beauty is not the pleasure derived from profit, consumption, possession, or even use. The primary object is the pleasure aroused through the contemplation of the beautiful. For that reason, the ear, eye, and imagination are the sense faculties properly engaged in the production of aesthetic delight, and they are mainly perceptive in character.
Beauty gives disinterested intellectual pleasure.
Man is the only animal which appreciates beauty. Brutes do not contemplate the beauty of flowers, hills, woods, sunsets, etc., nor do they manifest anything of joy that man feels in the contemplation of these things.
Animals remain indifferent in the presence of all beauty of nature. They are only concerned with beautiful objects in so far as they contribute to their struggle for existence.
Brutes cannot enjoy beauty (nor can they create it!) in any real sense is evident: order, proportion, unity, appropriateness, the agreement between the ideal and the real are fundamental elements of beauty, and the knowledge of these elements rests upon a more or less conscious comparison of the parts in themselves and with the idea expressed in the whole. This is a matter of rational judgment. Only an intellectual being has the faculty for this. Beauty must have an intelligble content.
Beauty gives a disinterested intellectual-sensuous pleasure. The intellect is necessary for the perception of the beautiful, because beauty has an intelligible content. The intellect perceives beauty through the mediation of the senses.
The intelligible, supra-sensible quality or `idea' must be perceived in a sensibly pleasing appearance in order to be beautiful.
It is a universal demand that the artist pleasantly impress the senses with images and plastic forms. Naked thoughts leave us cold. Ideas alone, free from the beauty of form, are found in science, mathematics, and philosophy; but no one looks upon these as being the proper medium and vehicle of beauty. We go to the artist for beauty and its enjoyment.
The idea, or truth, alone is not enough to make a thing beautiful. The idea, or truth, must be embodied in a sensibly pleasing form before we can consider it beautiful.
The scientist and the philosopher may be able to present the idea, or truth, more clearly and more convincingly than the artist. They enlighten, to be sure, but they do not give us aesthetic delight. Even though the artist may express the same idea less exactly, but he gives it form and figure. We are impressed, animated, delighted and pleased by the artist's representation of the idea, or truth.
Why are we impressed, animated, delighted and pleased by the artist's representation of the idea, or truth? The reason is this: Like pleases like. Since we are one in essence, consisting of mind and body, so the beautiful is one in nature, consisting of idea and form.
Art follows a twofold path: the idea may be first and then the form, or the form may be first and then the idea. It is the felicitous combination and harmonious fusion of idea and form which constitutes beauty and corresponds to the composite nature of man _ body and spirit.
A consequence of this is that there must be an equilibrium established between the intellectual and sensible elements.
An excess of idea or an insufficiency of form would mean a lack of beauty, abstractness, too much intellectuality. An overcharge of form or lack of idea would mean shallowness and excess.
Due to the radiant perfection of a thing, beauty gives a disinterested intellectual-sensuous pleasure. Most philosophers admit that beauty is not totally subjective in character, but that it has its foundation in the things themselves and that the experience of delight of beauty is a consequence of some objective factors present in the objects.
Beauty is not mere appropriateness. The arrangements of a house may be very appropriate, but the ordinary house cannot be said to be beautiful. Beauty is not the inner perfection of a thing, considered as such. Many ugly things are intrinsically perfect. For example, the caw of a crow, the bray of a mule, a lizard, a factory, etc.; but these are not considered to be beautiful - at least, not usually.
Beauty is the perfection of a thing manifested in a pleasing, happy manner. Light, splendor, radiance and color produce a pleasing impression on the eye. In like manner, we refer to that which is beautiful as `resplendent, radiant perfection.'
Perfection and goodness are fundamental properties of beauty. This is proven by the fact that beauty pleases. Something that pleases is desirable, and the desirable is, as such, good.
Beauty gives a disinterested intellectual-sensuous pleasure due to the radiant perfection of a thing, primarily in so far as it exerts an appeal to our cognitive faculties and not to our will. Order, harmony, rhythm, unity amid variety, etc., are essential elements of beauty. Their appeal is obviously to the perceptive powers of the mind. Experience proves this. A colorful landscape, a symphony of Beethoven, a poem of Joyce Kilmer, a drama of Shakespeare, a Madonna of Raphael, a cathedral of Lincoln, or a statue of Michaelangelo, produce in us primarily a satisfaction of intellect and imagination.
The apprehension and appreciation of these things and many others afford us the pleasure peculiar to beauty. But, apprehension and appreciation are acts of the cognitive faculties, not of sense-appetancy or will. Only after the inherent beauty of something has been apprehended and appreciated does aesthetic pleasure follow as a natural result.
St.Thomas Aquinas writes on this subject: "Since that is good which all desire, it belongs to the concept of the good that the appetancy come to rest in it. But it pertains to the concept of the beautiful that the appetancy come to rest in its contemplation or knowledge. Whence it happens that those senses are primarily concerned with the beautiful which are mostly cognitive in character, namely, sight and hearing in the service of the mind; for we speak of beautiful sights and beautiful sounds. Concerning the objects of the other senses, we do not use the term `beautiful'; for we do not speak of beautiful tastes or odors. And thus it is clear that the beautiful adds to the good the relation of the cognitive faculty, so that we call that good which directly agrees with the appetitive faculty, and beautiful that whose apprehension pleases." (Summa Theolo. Ia, q.27, art. 1 ad 3).
St. Thomas summarizes the beautiful in the following brief expression: "Things are beautiful which please when seen" (Idem. Ia, q.5, art.4)
The Objective Elements of Beauty.
The `objective elements of beauty' refer to those elements or factors in the object itself which enable us to recognize the object as `beautiful.' There are more general elements and there are more particular elements.
The general elements of beauty agree greatly with the transcendental attributes of unity, truth, and goodness. But not altogether.
There is a close relationship between beauty and unity. Unity amid complexity is a perfection and helps the intellect to grasp the underlying meaning of things without distracting its attention. The magnificence of St. Peter's in Rome is due in no small measure to the proportion, harmony, rhythm and symmetry of its manifold and intricate detail. That is what makes St. Peter's in Rome a work of art. If we admit this, we must admit that beauty is intimately bound up with `unity.'
But, beauty implies more than just unity. There is an amount of unity in everything; but, not everything is `beautiful.' The mathematical theorem, the scientific deduction, the philosophic syllogism, the mechanical creation _ all these have unity, but are not, thereby, `beautiful.' Although their unity is recognized, there is not necessarily an experience of any delight in their knowledge. More is required.
There is a close relationship between beauty and truth. All beauty possesses an intelligible quality which goes beyond the ordinary realm of sense-perception. It is not enough to `perceive' beauty; it must also be `apprehended' and `understood' in order to be appreciated. It is clear from this that there is an element of truth in everything that is beautiful.
However, beauty must not be identified in every respect with the true. As such, truth only commands our assent. It does not necessarily provide us aesthetic delight. In many instances truth displeases, annoys and gives pain. The truth of statistical analysis leaves most people quite cold. Even the truth of an algebraic calculation is empty of emotional response connected with the contemplation of beauty. Truth, as such, is not beauty.
There is a close relationship between beauty and goodness. Beauty satisfies, pleases and delights. Satisfaction, pleasure and delight have a natural reference to an appetancy because an object which possesses these characteristics is a delectable good. Although such emotional releases are a subjective element in the enjoyment of the beautiful, they are elicited by the object itself when contemplated by the observer. So, the element of goodness is also present in the beautiful.
There is, however, a difference between beauty and goodness. That which is good satisfies the appetancy directly as something to be acquired, possessed and retained, not because it is known and perceived. Beauty, however, is the good in so far as it delights the beholder through its perception and contemplation. Whatever is good is always something suitable to a striving power. It is for this reason that it is desired. An appetancy, then, is somewhat selfish in its trend. But, beauty gives satisfaction and pleasure through the simple contemplation of it without the presence of any effort to acquire it. For example, the operatic skill of Placido Dominguez may thrill and please without a desire to acquire, possess and retain his skill or voice. The will, on the other hand, desires to possesses and retain that which is perceived to be good.
Although it is true that everything beautiful is a being, it does not follow that every being is beautiful.
There are particular elements of beauty which must be present in whatever is beautiful. Beauty calls forth joy and delight in the beholder. These emotions are the concomitant result of the normal, healthy, full, vigorous exercise of any faculty. The joy and delight resulting from the beautiful will be supreme when all the faculties involved in the contemplation and appreciation of the beautiful are aroused to such an exercise of their powers. There are three basic properties required for this.
The first such property is integrity. Any noticeable defect or mutilation in a thing makes an unpleasant impression on the beholder. The mind is dissatisfied with this incomplete condition and makes an effort to restore the missing part in its imagination. This effort disturbs its poise and prevents it from coming to a correct state of rest and calm in its contemplation.
This mental disturbance of the aesthetic sense results in a certain amount of annoyance and irritation. Observe what happens when we look at a dilapidated building, a damaged painting, a crippled body, an awkward dance. The reaction is one of annoyance and irritation. We are not pleased; we are displeased.
Observe what happens to the normal human being when listening to a melody out of tune and to the badly memorized lines of a drama; or when reading the poor verses of a mediocre poet.
In some instances, the defects may be so completely overshadowed by the resplendent beauty of the object as a whole to the point that the small mutilations or blemishes escape one's notice entirely. In that case, the experience is that of full enjoyment of beauty by simply concentrating the attention on the object as a whole.
Nevertheless, defects as such detract from the beauty of an object. If these defects force themselves constantly on one's attention, the object cannot be said to be really beautiful.
A second requisite for something to be beautiful is proportion. Another word for proportion is balance. Proportion is the index of a mind which works in an orderly fashion. As the mind experiences pleasure in evolving order out of confusion, so it also experiences aesthetic pleasure in detecting an orderly arrangement in what at first seems to be chaotic confusion. A mere pile of stone does not please. A pile of stones is not an aesthetic object in itself. But, if they are arranged in the orderly construction of a building, provided there is symmetry and balance in the arrangement, they form an object of beauty.
An orchestra tuning its instruments is nothing more than an irritating confusion of noises. But, when the instruments spin the same sounds into an intricate harmony of an operatic overture, the result is beauty of a high order.
Irregular splotches and daubs of pain have no aesthetic value. But, when these daubs of paint are applied by an artist to a canvas, they can become an immortal masterpiece of outstanding beauty.
What is the secret? The secret is proportion, balance, harmony, symmetry _ namely: unity amid diversity. Unity by itself without variety is not beautiful because the energy ( in that case) of the perceptive faculty will be exercised in an unbroken, unrelieved strain. That produces tension and fatigue; but not pleasure.
By the same token, variety, or diversity, without unity is not beautiful because then the mind's energy would be scattered and spent without being able to come to rest. This would disturb and hinder the normal, healthy, full, strong activity of the faculties.
Unity amid diversity acts like a focus, concentrating the attention along certain definite lines. This action brings harmony into the many elements and makes of them a simplified whole. This makes it easy for the mind's activity, gives a feeling of restful completeness, and thus produces in it the joy and delight so characteristic of beauty.
The third requirement for beauty is clarity, or splendor. In order to be beautiful, an object must have a certain amount of compelling force. It must be impressive. It must possesses a vivid presentation. It must attract and charm through its very appearance. Only then will it have the ability to evoke and call forth a powerful movement on the part of the contemplating person.
The elements of beauty must not be obscure or hidden. Otherwise, they will require undue effort of the mind to discover them. This would create strain and pain, rather than joy and delight. Joy and delight must be spontaneous; must spring up in the heart like a fountain and overflow into the emotions. This is the case only when the clarity of beauty exercises the perceptive faculties in such a way that they function with ease and liveliness.
This is the reason why all the arts use contrast as an effective technique to set the splendor of beauty in a brighter light. The elements of aesthetic value then almost leap into the central position of attention and thus give the mind the proper perspective that enables it to study the parts and the whole in a comprehensive glance.
These seem to be the main objective elements present in objects which are called `beautiful.'
Beauty never appears in absolute purity. The reason is because no finite thing is perfect. Only God is perfect. Next to God, the only perfect humans were the Blessed Virgin Mary and Our Lord, Jesus Christ. Consequently, there will always be an overstressing or understressing of some particular element. As a result, it is nearly impossible to find any object which is perfectly beautiful.
As a conclusion, let us formulate a definition of `beauty.' Admittedly, it is not easy. Beauty shows itself in a multitude of different forms. From the time of Socrates to our own day beauty has been the subject of analysis and discussion. No one of whatever profession _ philosopher, scientist or artist _ has yet been able to formulate a definition of beauty that would satisfy everyone. The definitions go from one extreme to another: all the way from expressions of the crudest naturalism to those of the most sublime idealism.
Some sort of definition is needed for practical purposes of judgment between what is genuinely beautiful and what is truly ugly. The following is an attempt to define beauty: Beauty is a blending of the unity, truth, and goodness of a thing, characterized by completeness, proportion, and clarity of presentation in an intellectual-sensuous form, so as to produce a disinterested emotional pleasure in a rational perceiver.
Because God is the Supreme Being, the Ultimate Truth and the Essence of Good in Whom the ideas of unity, truth and goodness are thus realized, it follows that God is Beauty. Consequently, man's effort to reflect the beauty of God through His creation _ including rational beings (mankind) _ the closer the representation of beauty approaches the beauty of God, the more real, true and good it becomes. The closer the human soul approaches the Divinity, the more perfect its expression of beauty becomes; conversely, the further the created spirit moves from the Divinity, the more grotesque and unreal becomes its expression of the inner self.
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