A good reader of the blog and a good friend of mine recently wrote to me about my blog series on what I meant by saying that things are beautiful in themselves.
It’s a good question and an important question. Too often in these kinds of discussions, we can get to the point where we sometimes use terminology and forget it’s not always being understood. I believe in deep thinking, but I also believe in keeping your terminology as simple as possible.
So what do I mean by “Beautiful in themselves?”
Suppose you are sitting on your porch one evening and I happen to walk by. As you sit on a chair out front, I take a chair next to you and you’re watching the sunset. I hear you say “Beautiful, isn’t it?” What is it that you are really saying?
Are you saying that it is beautiful to you? If that is the case, then does it really matter what I think? Am I going to argue that you don’t really find that beautiful? Or, are you wanting me to acknowledge that you are making a truth claim and you say that that thing you see out there is beautiful and you have really discovered the beauty in it instead of pushing beauty onto it.
Let us suppose you also say you have a date tonight with your beautiful girlfriend. In fact, she is coming over and you are going out for dinner. (Yeah. I know it’s not typical for the lady to come over and the guy take her out, but bear with me.) If she shows up and I see her, you will be insulted if I do not agree with you that she is beautiful.
There is no doubt now that there is a subjective element to beauty also. It is we who are experiencing the beauty and we who have an experience of it. It is also we who have opinions of what is beautiful and what isn’t. It is also the case that in every other area, some opinions are right and some are wrong simply because we are dealing with truth claims. If something is a truth claim, it is either true, false, or meaningless.
For instance, if I say 2 + 2 = 74, that’s not a meaningless claim, but I hope we all know it isn’t a true one! On the other hand, if I say “Colorless green dreams sleep furiously,” that is a meaningless term. There is no content to that that we can say anything about.
What if we make the same about claims of beauty though?
“That is a beautiful lady!”
That statement could be true or false. What makes it meaningless is that the terms have no meaning. Does it mean anything to say something is beautiful then? It must mean that it relates to some concept of beauty. What if that concept is entirely subjective though? Then you’ve told me nothing about the thing itself. You’ve only told me how it relates to you.
If you’re not telling me about the object itself, then it’s really a meaningless term. (I mean as object of the sentence. I don’t mean women are objects just to be clear.) Now it could also be sadly that the term is false. A lot of women today have really damaged themselves to lose beauty. A lot of them don’t like me saying that, but I believe it’s true. It could even be the ones most people consider to be beautiful. They just show themselves so much and have such a character that they have lost beauty.
Thus, let us suppose that you and I did not exist. Let’s suppose there were no human beings. We only had this planet. Would it still be beautiful? Yes. It does not rely on our experience. It relies on its participating as it were in the beauty of God by reflecting that. There is even a place in Aquinas’s writings where he equates God with beauty.
What if nothing is beautiful in itself? Then friends, the only conclusion I can reach is that nothing is beautiful. It is simply an idea we push on something but it is not an attribute of the thing itself. If that is the case, then we are not speaking truly. We can say that it is beautiful to us, but we have not said anything about the object but about our reaction to it.
I hope this clarifies it. If need be, I can give further reasons for thinking beauty is objective, but I will say that if beauty is not objective, then nothing is beautiful.