On Transcendent Beauty and Human Action

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The purpose of this post is not to definitively argue for a certain position. It is to propose an idea that has been rattling around in the author’s head for some time.

It seems to be commonly taken that beauty is merely in the eye of the beholder. Such a position tends to hold that beauty is whatever pleases one’s sensations, and is entirely a matter of opinion.

The author, however, would like to set forth a different perspective which holds that there is indeed a transcendent sense of beauty, and the reality of this kind of beauty demonstrates the necessity of a deity.

We must first entertain the possibility that the word “beauty” is often abused and conflated with other concepts that we just thoughtlessly label “beauty.” The abuse of the word “beauty” is similar to the current state of the word “love.” I do not love pizza, my mom, and my friends in the same way. Even though we call the thing I hold for all of these things “love,” we are really talking about something different (though maybe similar).

I would like to suggest that beauty as we speak of it has different meanings in different contexts as well. For example I do not think my girlfriend, my favorite music, a sunset, and a galloping horse are all beautiful in the same way (though there may be more similarities between some of these things than others). Therefore it is important to distinguish beauty as something that merely pleases me from the more transcendent kind of beauty. The former is entirely a matter of opinion, and the latter transcends opinion.

Nobody seems to contest the sense of beauty as something that I find pleasing. The controversy will be in demonstrating that a transcendent kind of beauty even exists, and there are two arguments to achieve this.

The first of these arguments is that it is possible to be convinced that something is beautiful. For example I was never inclined to be a fan of Shakespeare. But when I learned of the complexity of Shakespeare’s writing, the messages he masterfully conveys, and the themes he upholds throughout his literature I gained an admiration for Shakespeare’s work which led me to see beauty where I had not seen beauty before. Ultimately, I was persuaded that Shakespeare reached a certain standard, and once I saw that reality I recognized the beauty of Shakespeare’s work.

One could argue that my taste had simply been changed to form a favorable opinion of Shakespeare, but that is not necessarily the case. The second argument for transcendent beauty is that I recognize beauty in things that I don’t “like.” To this day I detest opera. But I still recognize the beauty of a good opera performance (even if I would rather be elsewhere during the performance). The same could be said for practically any genre of anything in which an artist performs with excellence, and beauty can be recognized even though one might not actually like said genre.

The fact that beauty can be found even in situations that do not fit the typical definition of something that is pleasing to the senses suggests that there is indeed a standard of beauty that transcends human opinion and preference.

The question, then, is what this beauty is. The best answer I have found comes from the Aristotelian tradition out of the Nicomachean Ethics. In the Sachs’ translation, Joe Sachs gives an excellent definition of Aristotelian beauty.

From the Nicomachean Ethics: Sachs’ entry on beauty:
The good that is chosen for its own sake (1176b 8-9), and hence the highest form of good, taking precedence over the advantageous and the pleasant; the end that determines all virtue of character (1115b 12-13, 1122b 6-7). The word is usually translated elsewhere as “the noble” to avoid “aesthetic” implications, but the Greek uses the word in exactly the way we might say “that was a beautiful thing you did,” and Aristotle is emphatic that such a thing can be recognized only by sense-perception (aisthêsis; 1109b 23, 1126b 4). The beautiful is what makes an action right, in the same sense in which a painting or poem or musical composition might get everything exactly right. Aristotle considers the recognition of things well made by the arts to be a special case of the more precise and primary recognition of work well accomplished and action well performed (1106b 8-18), in which the quality of what is done is not separable from that of the person doing it (1105a 26-31).Aristotle (2012-07-12). Nicomachean Ethics (Focus Philosophical Library) (Kindle Locations 5475-5481). Focus Publishing/R. Pullins Co.. Kindle Edition.

Essentially, for Aristotle, beauty is what happens when something is done exactly as it should be. For example, Michelangelo’s David is beautiful not just because some find it aesthetically pleasing, but because Michelangelo’s mastery is displayed in his art which is exactly as it should be.

This kind of beauty is often referred to as beauty of artifact. It requires that a thing that is done is exactly right in that the doer is exactly right, the method is exactly right, the substance of a thing is exactly right, and the purpose of the thing is exactly right.

Such a concept of beauty explains why I can be persuaded that something is beautiful. It is because it appeals to a standard that goes beyond mere preferences in which case something is exactly as it should be.

Of course, the question of whether a thing is exactly as it should be is a complex question, and that is why there are different senses of a thing being beautiful. If the standard is merely my standards of personal preference, then of course beauty is entirely subjective. If, however, a thing should be a certain way regardless of my preferences, then there is an objective sense of beauty.

The interesting question is what standard makes human action beautiful. Aristotle claims that human action is beautiful when we are acting as reasonable creatures in accordance with virtue. Aristotle takes virtue to be the mean between the extremes of things. For example, the virtue of charity is the mean between being too generous or too stingy. Or courage is the mean between recklessness and cowardice.

Aristotle observes that human nature is such as that we are happiest when we behave in virtuous ways. Because humans ultimately do everything for the end of happiness in the deepest sense of the word, and it is virtue that truly makes us happy, the nature of humans is to act virtuously and attain the happy life. When a human is acting according to this nature, he is exactly as he should be and is therefore beautiful.

The question is why it is the case that human nature is such as that it is virtue that makes us happiest, and therefore beautiful when we act virtuously. There are two possible reasons for this. The first is that nature blindly made mankind that way with no particular intent or preference for virtuous action. The second option is that mankind was intentionally made such as that he is beautiful when he is virtuous.

If the former is true and mankind is only beautiful when he is virtuous because of the blind forces of nature, then it is possible that nature could make mankind any other way in the sense that nature could blindly produce men that are most fulfilled when they are the opposite of virtuous. Aristotle would claim that such a person could never truly be happy. However, it is possible and demonstrated that people can be born who find the greatest joy in causing and experiencing pain. A psychopath who only feels fulfilled when they take the lives of others is conceivably quite happy acting anything but virtuously as they go on a murderous rampage. Is such a person then beautiful? They are doing what makes them happiest, and are acting in accordance with their nature. If they are exactly as they should be according to their nature that guides them toward their end, then are they not beautiful by the same standard that makes someone who is happiest when they are virtuous beautiful because they act virtuously?

The natural response is to say that something must be wrong in the psychopath. The question is by what standard. No human comes out of the womb and decides that they will be virtuous or unvirtuous creatures by nature. No human has the power to do so. If nature alone is all that determines under what circumstances a person is truly happy, then all paths to that happiness are just as beautiful. If that is the case, both Mother Theresa and Hitler were beautiful in their actions if they were both acting according to their nature and achieving happiness through the fulfillment of that nature.

If, however, we want to say that there is something wrong with someone who is happiest when they are not virtuous, and if we want to say that human action is only beautiful when it is virtuous, we must appeal to some standard placed upon mankind such as that mankind is only exactly as it should be if he is virtuous. Nature does not have the intentional ability to do this on its own, therefore there must be something capable of creating humans with the end of being virtuous in mind.

Such a thing must have creative power, intentionality, and moral characteristics in order to create things that are only exactly as they should be when they follow certain moral precepts. Therefore, if we want to say that human action is only beautiful when it is virtuous, there must be some sort of deity that created mankind to be that way.

Just as The David is beautiful because it is exactly as its creator intended it to be, mankind is beautiful when it is acting as it was intended to act. If the appearance of beauty in human action is a transcendent reality, then mankind must have been created to be a virtuous thing in his actions.

If, however, mankind was not created with the intention that he would be a virtuous thing, then Mother Theresa may find it beautiful to be charitable, and the Nazis may find it beautiful to conduct genocide, and both would be equally right in what kind of human action is beautiful as long as they are both acting according to what makes them happiest.

But if we are to recognize transcendent beauty in human action such as that only virtuous action is beautiful, we must recognize that the beauty is there because mankind is acting exactly right because he was intended to be that way by a creative, virtuous deity.

Kyle Huitt
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Kyle Huitt

Part of the multitude that has lost their faith, but part of the few that has returned to it. This blog is my attempt to describe why I returned to the faith, and to maybe prevent somebody else from leaving it in the first place. Studying philosophy and history at Hillsdale College. Member of Delta Tau Delta fraternity.
Kyle Huitt
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