Friday, February 17, 2023

Beauty as the Good

Bellinzona, Switzerland is a place of extraordinary beauty.

Alice C. Linsley

What follows is a general consideration of beauty as the Good. The topic is addressed from different cultural perspectives and time periods. Doubtless, the reader will decide whether the concept of “beauty as the Good” is important, substantial, and valuable. Richard Hooker, a bright light of the English Renaissance, holds our human reasoning in high regard. He wrote, "Of things created, the noblest and most resembling God, are creatures indued with the admirable guifte of understanding." (The Dublin Fragments; V: The creation and governance of the world not yet considered as being evill. And touching the first beginning of evill in the World.) It is hoped that the reader will employ that admirable gift.

Is beauty simply a physical attribute? Or is there a spiritual dimension to beauty that is perceived as good? Can the arts: poetry, painting, sculpture, etc. fully capture the essence of beauty? 

Around 600 B.C., the Greek poet Sappho asserted that “what is beautiful is good” but Plato argued that poetry is inferior to Beauty as a Form. The German poet Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) wrote that “physical beauty is the sign of an interior beauty, a spiritual and moral beauty.” Yet as history proves many physically attractive people have shown themselves to be quite evil.

When Plato speaks of beauty, he is not referring to that which is physically appealing or attractive. He is speaking of an Ideal or a Form. The Form is eternal and unchanging. Therefore, beauty is not subjective or dependent upon cultural norms. It is something other, and a testimony to eternal realities.

Plato conceives of rational inquiry into the truth and the good as superior to the arts. Sculpture and poetry are good in a much as they have the potential to point to eternal realities. Plato encourages consideration of beautiful things because such contemplation can point to the soul’s eternal nature, a very Greek concept. For Plato, there is pleasure in such contemplation of the eternal.

The Hebrew mindset also finds pleasure in the contemplation of beauty. In the Hebrew Scriptures beauty is equated with glory, purity, honor, and pleasantness. In the Bible, beauty has a direct reference to God. The Hebrew delight in the “beauty of holiness”.

Clearly, there is a cultural difference between the Greek and the Hebrew understandings of beauty. For the Greek, beauty is the preoccupation of the soul. For the Hebrew, beauty is righteousness. Both conceptions are well defined within their immediate cultural contexts. Both generally agree that beauty has certain qualities: balance, symmetry, harmony, luminosity, etc.; qualities which are also ascribed to Goodness.

Christian theology contributes to this discussion by asserting that all truth is God's truth; all goodness is God's goodness, and all beauty is God's beauty. In this view, truth, goodness, and beauty have God as the point of reference. This cannot be proven by empirical observation. Further, there is the danger of slipping into pantheism or panentheism. 

For the modern person there is no aesthetic value in the soul or in righteousness. Instead, aesthetic value is linked to what gives the individual pleasure or satisfaction and therefore is highly subjective. It becomes freedom from moral constraints and duty, as Friedrich Schiller claimed. Or in the thinking of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) the value lays in art as an instrument for improvement of the self or society.

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