My roommate and I have a tapestry hung in our living room that declares, “Be your own kind of beautiful.” This implies that the meaning of beauty varies, and even that each person creates his or her own definition of beautiful. Furthermore, we ascribe beauty to a number of images that draw contrary emotions. We behold an idyllic landscape and call it beautiful, then a novel wrought with sorrow, and even a suicide.
Are we applying the term too broadly, or does it simply have a broad meaning?
Culture, it might be argued, affects what a community accepts as beautiful. Standards of beauty change with history, as in China where bound feet once represented feminine beauty. From this perspective, beauty has meaning over subjectively; we adopt a “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” stance. What, then, becomes of beauty’s position as a transcendental element?
Philosophers through the ages have recognized three transcendental attributes of being: truth, goodness, and beauty. To call an element transcendental is to place it outside time and place, root it in reality, and use it as a measure of all things in existence. In essence, it makes the element an objective quantity. If we meet a person, painting, or other entity and ask about its truth, goodness, and beauty, we ask to what degree they measure against real, not variable or culturally-bound, standards of truth, goodness, and beauty.
Among the theses on the transcendental attributes that my philosophy professor presented on the first day of class, a few related to this question stand out to me (edited to address only beauty):
- Beauty is objective and exists independently of man.
- Just because beauty cannot always be defined precisely does not mean that they do not have an objective standard.
- Just because people disagree about beauty does not mean that there is not an objective standard.
Reverend Charles Coppens, S.J., in A Brief Textbook of Logic and Mental Philosophy, defined beauty as “the perfection of an object viewed as a source of pleasure.” To speak of perfection, of course, suggests that a model of perfection exists. Plato proposed the idea of the Good to explain this awareness of perfection. By his theory of Forms, what the common man sees in his daily life are like shadows cast on the wall of a cave, of the ideal. Outside the cave exists the light and, therefore, knowledge of the Forms or Ideas, which express the perfect manifestation of the shadows and stem from the Good.
Put in another way, we know a tree is a tree because it looks like a tree. No, more than that, according to Plato we know a tree is a tree because we possess abstract conceptual knowledge of what constitutes the ideal tree. The object in question is associated with the idealized representation of the tree, and thus called tree. In the real world nothing achieves the perfection of it Form, but the degree to which it draws close to the Form determines its degree of beauty.
In a Christian worldview, the standard for perfection is God. He serves as the ultimate source of beauty and is Himself beauty; it is a manifestation of His character and work. For an object to be beautiful, it should reflect God’s nature, speak to His character, and be a signpost or an arrow to beauty.
Going back to the transcendentals: The three attributes are interrelated so that everything that is beautiful should also accord with truth and goodness. More questions arise: If something is beautiful is it also true? Is it also good? In this age the objectivity of truth and goodness falls under as much scrutiny as that of beauty. Culture encourages creation of one’s own truth and cultivation of one’s own good. Thus the discussion is further complicated.