Sunday, September 24, 2023

Symbols of Beauty


Dr. Alice C. Linsley

Judging beauty is likely to stir controversy. It is difficult to escape the impression that the discernment of beauty is highly subjective. Many philosophers and poets agree on that point. The Irish poet Oscar Wilde wrote, "Beauty has as many meanings as man has moods. Beauty is the symbol of symbols. Beauty reveals everything, because it expresses nothing. When it shows us itself, it shows us the whole fiery-coloured world."

Likewise, David Hume believed that beauty is a matter of one's mental disposition. He wrote, "Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others." (Hume 1757, 136)

Immanuel Kant believed that beauty is known by the pleasure it gives to the viewer. He wrote, "The judgment of taste is therefore not a judgment of cognition, and is consequently not logical but aesthetical, by which we understand that whose determining ground can be no other than subjective. Every reference of representations, even that of sensations, may be objective (and then it signifies the real [element] of an empirical representation), save only the reference to the feeling of pleasure and pain, by which nothing in the object is signified, but through which there is a feeling in the subject as it is affected by the representation." (Kant 1790, The Critique of Judgment, Third Critique, section 1)

Hume and Kant perceived that when beauty is treated as a subjective state, it is no longer recognizable as a universal value. Beauty cannot hold a place among the universal forms of Truth, Goodness, and Order. Beauty subjectively judged is fleeting. Such beauty cannot be an eternal form. 

In the East, beauty has been recognized through the contemplation of icons. Icons give pleasure and spiritual attunement. They speak of luminosity and numinosity at the same time. They are designed to mediate the presence of God through beauty. Eastern Orthodox churches are adorned with icons usually on every wall and the ceiling. The colors are vibrant, and the gold reflects light so that one seems to be standing inside a jewel box.

Following the thought of Plato, perfect beauty exists only in the eternal Form of beauty (Platonic epistemology). He believed that the love of beauty in the material sphere can lead to the love of the Ultimate Beauty. Icons are vehicles for apprehending the Ultimate Beauty of God. They are like windows through which something of the eternal can be seen. In this sense, icons are symbols of beauty.

Related reading: A First Look at Aesthetics, Glimpses of Beauty and Truth; Beauty as the Good

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