What do paintings, songs, people, animals, weather conditions, architecture, and just about everything else have in common? They have a potential to be beautiful. Beauty can seem subjective, but the reality is that true beauty (as opposed to mere aesthetic appeal) is for more objective than it is often given credit for. Nobody in their right mind looks at murder or the aftermath of 9/11 and calls such things beautiful. And things such as sunsets, starry nights, generous people, and galloping horses are all essentially universally seen as beautiful.
But what do all those things have in common which makes them beautiful? The answer is simply that beauty is the highest good of a thing the highest purpose of it. When something fulfills that highest end, it is beautiful. Beauty, in the tradition of Aristotle, is that which is chosen for its own sake (see the entry on beauty in Sachs’ translation of the Ethics). A running horse is beautiful because horses are made to run. A generous person is beautiful because people are made to exhibit virtue. A song is beautiful because everything is played just right.
This kind of true beauty is not to be confused with that which is simply pleasant (though beautiful things can certainly be pleasant). A thing can be pleasant but not beautiful. It could be pleasant to me to steal, but such an action is not beautiful. A top 40 pop song may be pleasant to me, but I very well might not call it beautiful due to the content or lack of excellence within the song. An opera might be entirely unpleasant to me (as they are), but I still see the beauty in how well it is done. I might despise banjo music (as I do), but I can still recognize the beauty in the skill of an excellent banjo player and his ability to play the instrument well. I find the winter entirely unpleasant, and I hate the snow. But the sheer beauty of winter catches me off guard every year.
Therefore, beauty transcends pleasantness, and takes into account the extent to which a thing is good or excellent.
The following passage summarizes Aristotle’s position on beauty well:
And this is why it is work to be of serious moral stature, since in each kind of thing it is work to get hold of the mean; for instance, to take the center of a circle belongs not to everyone but to one who knows something, and so too, while getting angry, or giving and spending money, belong to everyone and are easy, to whom and how much and when and for what purpose and in what way to do these things are no longer in everyone’s power, nor are they easy; for this reason what is done well is rare and praiseworthy and beautiful.
The key phrase to focus on is “what is done well is rare and praiseworthy and beautiful.” Beauty is a being done well — an excellence, an attaining of the highest end of a thing.
But what happens if a thing has an evil purpose, and it fully realizes that purpose? Is such a thing beautiful in that case? The answer is no.
Only good things can be beautiful — that is things that have attained their good; or their end. Thus, a machine intended only to produce evil cannot possibly be beautiful even if it completely fulfills the intentions of the one who designed it because both the designer and his ability are not reaching the highest end of humanity (reason in accordance with virtue). And reason in accordance with virtue would never permit the use of some sort of machine built only for evil.
Beauty is what occurs when a person or a thing is done well, and this also necessitates that such a thing be good as opposed to corrupt. And excellence requires a purpose or an end so a thing can be excellent at something. A beautiful painting fulfills the intention of the artist to convey a certain image in the way he or she desires. A beautiful piece of music is beautiful because the musician skillfully makes it sound the way they desired. When we think of beautiful man-made things, we see beauty as a fulfillment of the end of those things (the end being determined by the person who made those things).
Why then do we see beauty in a running horse? We might say it is because the horse is meant to run through open fields wherever it pleases. But who meant for the horse to do that? Are we just engaging in silly misconceptions when we appreciate the beauty of a horse? Or does the horse truly have an end to run? Why do we not merely see a horse running, and see just that? Why is such a thing beautiful as though it is fulfilling a highest good that has been placed upon it?
Why are sunsets beautiful? Is it because there is a certain end to the lights and colors which creates beauty when that end is fulfilled? Or is it just a misconception? We might never look at a sunset and actively think of any kind of intentionality behind it, but if beauty occurs when the highest good of a thing is fulfilled, then there is an agent behind the beauty (as only an agent can bestow purpose upon a thing). Or, if there is no agent, there can be no beauty because without an agent there can be no intentionality. Without intentionality, there can be no end, and without an end there can be no beauty which is the fulfillment of an end.
Perhaps we might think of the beauty of people as well. Not merely physical attractiveness, but true beauty (or the true lack thereof). We can look at someone selflessly caring for others (such as Mother Theresa) and see beauty. But such beauty is not to be found in a selfish, harsh person (such as Scrooge before he is confronted by the ghosts of Christmas). Are humans actually intended to live virtuously and attain beauty by living in virtue? Or is such a thing merely an illusion, and Mother Theresa is no more inherently beautiful than Ebenezer Scrooge?
Perhaps one might say that beauty is an arbitrary construct as a by-product of evolution, therefore there need not be any agent providing an end for sunsets, horses, or humans. We simply find things beautiful because our ancestors who liked those things in the past survived to pass on their genes (and their preferences) to us. However, this account of beauty fails on two fronts.
The idea that beauty is an evolutionary conglomeration of advantageous preferences does not account for the purpose that is required for beauty. If we remove the obtaining of the highest good of a thing from beauty, we are left with nothing more than mere preferences. If purpose is removed from beauty, then beauty ceases to exist and is replaced with pleasantness.
If such a state were true, there would no-longer be anything transcendentally beautiful about a work of art. A work of art would only be valuable as long as people find it aesthetically appealing without paying any respect to the extent to which the artist did well and the painting was made well. Therefore, the intended end of a thing, must remain a fundamental aspect of beauty lest beauty be swallowed up be mere personal preferences.
Secondly, beauty may be found in things that are not advantageous for survival. There is beauty in a strong, majestic lion. But our ancestors who spent too much time around lions probably didn’t have a chance to pass on their genes. Beauty may be found in a thunderstorm, but our ancestors who spent too much time out in them to enjoy the beauty were at a serious disadvantage (let alone an advantage). Thus, evolutionary theory fails to account for beauty because it cannot account for intentionality, nor can it account for the beauty of things that are disadvantageous/not advantageous for survival.
What, then, can account for the beauty of horses, lions, thunderstorms, sunsets, and humans? Unless there is a purpose for these things, there can be no beauty to them. If indeed there was no purpose in the forming of such things, the perception of beauty in them is a mere illusion.
This then is the decision we must make. Either we are to forego any belief in the beauty of a vibrant sunset, a horse running freely through the plains, or of a human doing a kind deed if we are to believe that these things just happen to exist without a purpose being given to them. In such a scenario, our preference of a sunset over an overcast evening has no bearing in beauty, but in personal preference. In such a scenario, Mother Theresa is no more beautiful of a human being than the most brutal, selfish man to walk the face of the earth. A preference of one or the other is reduced to subjective taste.
The other option is that we recognize intrinsic beauty in such things, but to do so we must recognize that such things are fulfilling their ends as that is the essence of beauty. But if such things have purpose, who then gave the purpose to them? No man created the horse so that it could run so magnificently. Mankind had no say in the purpose of light, sound, or color such as that he could decide under what circumstances such things would be beautiful. Man certainly had no say in his own purpose as a being meant to live a virtuous life in accordance with reason.
All of these things transcend the authority of man. Therefore, it must be a different agent altogether who placed purpose, and accordingly the the potential for beauty, on the things of nature. We must then ask ourselves what kind of thing is capable of causing things to exist with a certain purpose in mind. Of all things that come to mind, a personal God (or something very much like one) is certainly among them.
The only kind of thing capable of bestowing purpose on a thing is an agent who created such things with a purpose in mind. Therefore, the agent is creative, powerful, purposeful, etc. While this alone may not demonstrate that the God of Christianity specifically exists, it is evident that if we are to continue recognizing beauty in places in which it is so readily apparent, we must recognize the existence of a creator who could bestow purposes on his creation so that they could attain beauty through the fulfilling of their ends.
Nobody looks at a sunset and says that it is pleasant to them. Nobody looks at an act of selflessness and says it suits their taste in human actions. Nobody looks at a timeless work of art and calls it aesthetically appealing. We call these things beautiful.
We recognize the excellence of the artist as the art suits the highest end which he intended for it. We recognize that the highest end of a human is to act virtuously, and we recognize that a sunset attains excellence in how it is formed. The highest good of a human requires that such an end be placed upon him in his creation, and this could only be done by a creative being who appreciates virtue Himself. And a sunset could only be done with excellence if there is excellence for it to attain, and excellence cannot be attained unless there is a being behind it to do excellently.
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