Aesthetics: The True, the Good, and the BeautifulFrom Classical times down to the modern era, Philosophers have described three qualities of being, known as the Transcendentals. Everything that is, possesses in some degree appropriate to itself, Truth, Goodness, and Beauty (Gilson, 1965). These transcendentals serve both as a way to value a particular thing in itself, and, as the name suggests, their presence in each and every thing points beyond themselves to the fullness of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Nor are these characteristics limited to Classical philosophy, but are recognised across peoples and faiths as diverse as Western Christianity and the Hinduism of India (Venkatesh, 2011). Indeed, as each of these qualities is present in everything, they are thus united. While they are distinguishable, they are inseparable—much like the very God who created all things. The very absolute to which the true, the good, and the beautiful point is indeed God Himself.
The Aesthetical Problem: The Attack on Beauty
The popular saying, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" seems to give the lie to the claim that beauty is a transcendental. In fact, with the rise of naturalistic philosophies since the Enlightenment, the transcendentals have been questioned and denied, relegated, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it, to the status of "a formal outworn formula" (Solzhenitsyn, 1970). Of course, if materialism is true, then there is nothing for truth, goodness, and beauty to transcend to. There is no objective truth, no objective goodness, and no objective beauty. This materialistic denial of the transcendentals has led modern philosophers, aestheticians, and artists to not only deny the value of beauty in art, but to even object to it! Reacting to the perceived abuse of beauty as the goal of art, the Enlightenment saw aesthetics redefined inextricably in terms of taste (Danto, 2003. p. 147). This identification eventually reduced itself to the cliché, "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like." The alleged subjectivity of aesthetics led to its ultimate divorce from art in the 1960s (Danto, 1997).
As well, the darkness of the world led many to reject beauty. The German Dada movement, for example, began specifically as a reaction to the understanding of beauty as indicating or informing morality. When the nations which in Kant's estimation were the most aesthetically and thus morally advanced, ravaged the world in the Great War, many became disillusioned with beauty (Danto, 2003, p. 48).
Ironically, a third attack on beauty came about because people feared that it was too powerful! According to Elaine Scarry, Aesthetics Professor at Harvard University, beauty is attacked by proponents of social justice, who claim that the captivating nature of beauty distracts us from the injustices in the world, preventing us from making necessary changes. Moreover, critics of beauty claim that when we give our attention to a beautiful thing, we objectify it (such as in the case of staring at a beautiful woman) (1999, p. 58). In other words, the arguments claim that beauty cannot be a transcendent quality of being precisely because it isn't objective, doesn't promote the good, and in fact prevents it.
Rescuing Beauty—or Beauty to the Rescue
When a person claims that beauty is subjective, they are rightly pointing out that what one person finds beautiful in a particular context, another may find less so, or perhaps even not at all. There is a degree of subjectivity, of taste, and even of cultural conditioning behind our valuations of beauty. Yet it is also true that there are some things that are universally held to be beautiful, by all people of all cultures at all times. Everyone who can see considers a sunset to be beautiful, or the night sky, or the shape of a woman. According to Denis Dutton, a major survey was undertaken, questioning upwards of two million people about what they found beautiful, across cultures and continents. The answers were shockingly consistent (notably, natural, hospitable landscapes and the colour blue were found to be particularly universal) (Dutton, 2009). While there are individual and cultural variations on the exact particulars of taste, beauty as such remains a truly universal and transcendent quality.
Whether beauty can be equated with the good, i.e., the moral, will be taken up further on in this paper. To respond to the particular criticism of the Dadaists, however, it seems self-evident that just as one can reject the good that one knows and do evil, when that good is laid out in ethical or legal propositions, similarly one can reject any good that he or she may know from beauty in the same or similar ways. If beauty is coterminous with the good, that in no way would guarantee that a culturally-advanced society will not, for various reasons, ignore that knowledge of good or beauty. Just as the Great War does not nullify the validity of ethical teachings, neither should it cause us to reject the reality of beauty. After all, we do not discard the Ten Commandments simply because the nation to whom they were revealed, often followed them so poorly.
What of the third criticism? Beauty certainly is powerful, but does it destroy justice? On the contrary, as Scarry (1999) notes, quoting Simone Weil,
At the moment we see something beautiful, we undergo a radical decentering. Beauty, according to Weil, requires us "to give up our imaginary position as the centre.... A transformation then takes place at the very roots of our sensibility, in our immediate reception of sense impressions and psychological impressions."... It is not that we cease to stand at the centre of the world, for we never stood there. It is that we cease to stand even at the centre of our own world. We willingly cede our ground to the thing that stands before us. (pp. 111-112)Rather than hindering justice by either blinding us to injustice, or by leading us to objectify the beautiful thing, beauty calls us into relationship with the beautiful. We want not only to enjoy it for ourselves, but to preserve and increase beauty so that all people might share in it.
Beauty opens up our hearts and causes us to want to preserve or create more beautiful things, in order to participate in some small way in the transcendent, ourselves. There is something that happens in one's psyche, in one's soul, when confronted with the beautiful. Consider the reaction of so many to the presence of a baby or young child, summarised in the expression, "I could just eat them up!" Considered literally, that is a horrible sentiment! And yet, when placed in that position, enraptured by the innocence and beauty of the child, one finds him- or herself at a loss for how else to describe the arousal of the appetite for beauty. We desire to consume what is beautiful—to take it into ourselves so that we might by doing so, become more beautiful ourselves, and thus to bring more beauty to bear in our world. When I visited Haiti in 2010, and saw the beauty of the mountain vistas, I had a similar impulse for creativity as I exclaimed as I gazed at distant summits verdant with bamboo and banana trees, "I have to paint this!" This creative impulse and response to beauty is universal to all people (even those who have no natural talent for creative arts), and is, in fact, a distinct feature of what makes humans, human.
References for Part 1Danto, A. C. (1997). After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Danto, A. C. (2003). The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art. Chicago, IL: Open Court Publishing Company.
Dutton, D. (2009). The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Gilson, E. (1965). The Arts of the Beautiful. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
Scarry, Elaine. (1999). On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Solzhenitsyn, A. (1970). Nobel lecture. In G. Wolfe (Ed.), Beauty Will Save the World (p. vi). Willmington, DE: ISI Books.
Venkatesh, Smita Khadri (2011, May). Satyam Shivam Sundaram - Philosophy of Indian Art. Retrieved from: http://commentary.kalaparva.com/2011/05/satyam-shivam-sundaram-philosophy-of.html