The Metaphysics of Beauty

No Comments | May 9, 2022

Dr. Richard Meloche serves as the president of the Alcuin Institute for Catholic Culture.

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Dr. Richard Meloche serves as the president of the Alcuin Institute for Catholic Culture.

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“When men have a longing so great that surpasses human nature…it is the Bridegroom who has smitten them with this longing. It is he who has sent a ray of his beauty into their eyes…. The beautiful wounds, but this is exactly how it summons man to his final destiny”


—Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ


Fyodor Dostoevsky’s main character in The Idiot famously claims that “beauty will save the world.” Ever since its publication in 1869, and increasingly in recent years, this enigmatic phrase has been used to express an enduring hope in the possibility of restoring an authentic Christian culture in an modern, increasingly secular society. But is this hope well founded? How can beauty go about saving a world that is so obviously marred and almost entirely defined by its ugliness and brutality?

Thankfully, Dostoevsky proposes a ready answer to this perplexing problem. In the same novel, he introduces an intriguing character named Ippolit, a young man dying of tuberculosis. In one particular scene, Ippolit, reflecting upon his encounter with the painting The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by the famous German-Swiss artist Hans Holbein, comments:

It seems to me that painters are usually in the habit of portraying Christ, both on the cross and taken down from the cross, as still having a share of extraordinary beauty in his face; they seek to preserve this beauty for him in his most horrible suffering. But in [this] picture there is not a word about beauty; this is in the fullest sense the corpse of a man who had endured infinite suffering in the cross…. [I]t is nature alone…. Nature appears to the viewer of this painting in the shape of some enormous, implacable, and dumb beast, or, to put it more correctly, much more correctly, strange though it is — in the shape of some huge machine of the most modern construction, which is senselessly seized, crushed, and swallowed up, blankly, and unfeelingly, a great and priceless being — such being as by himself was worth the whole nature and all its laws, the whole earth, which was perhaps created solely for the appearance of this being alone! … The people who surrounded the dead man, none of whom is in the painting, must have felt horrible anguish and confusion on that evening, which at once smashed all their hopes and almost all their beliefs.

Ippolit’s response to the painting of the dead Christ draws into clear focus the crisis under consideration and suggests, at least indirectly, a response. Modern culture is very much like the painting by Holbein. The effects of sin upon our world have distorted and disfigured — so it seems — every inch of it; just as every inch of Christ’s body, in Holbein’s painting, is defaced. Like Ippolit, we perceive only a disfigured and dismantled “corpse;” a dead thing, where once existed a living, virial, life-giving and beautiful culture. Faced with such ugliness, advanced and magnified by technology (aka the “machines” referenced by Ippolit), it becomes difficult to see the truth of things; to see the beauty that is beyond and hidden within the fallen created world.

Importantly, not all who gaze upon Holbein’s dead Christ see what Ippolit sees, namely, fallen “nature alone.” Through the gift of faith, some can — with some effort — contemplate the painting and see beyond the suffering and scandal — the mere destruction of a body — and see the sublime love that moved Christ to die such an ignoble death. This capacity to see rightly — to be able to see the hidden beauty that animates and moves all things, even sin and suffering — must be developed and cultivated. We must be taught “how to look” and thus receive the saving power of beauty in the midst of sin and suffering.

This raises the question: how does one begin to look rightly? How is it possible to discern and experience the truly beautiful in a sinful and dreadful world? It would seem that the first thing that must be done is to acknowledge that there exist counterfeit forms of ‘beauty.’ A ‘beauty’ which, according to Josef Ratzinger, “is deceptive and false.” Such false forms of beauty aim merely to “dazzle” and “lock … [man] entirely into himself … with the desire for power, possession and pleasure.” In contrast, Ratzinger argues that authentic beauty always draws man out of himself and awakens in him the longing for the “Ineffable” (cf. Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, “The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty,” Aug. 2002). In other words, true beauty always leads outward and upward, to some good beyond the beholder, while false forms of beauty merely tantalize and entice man to remain within himself.

Once we grasp this important distinction and resist falling prey to false forms of beauty that merely “delight the eyes,” we can then begin to see beauty and experience its salvific power. Looking rightly requires more than the use of our aesthetic senses (principally sight and hearing, since the other senses are too deeply immersed in matter). We must implore the use of our intellects. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the beautiful is “that which pleases when known.” In contrast to that which is simply experienced unreflectively, the truly beautiful must be understood. We must use our cognitive power to discern three essential elements of a thing in order to experience its beauty. We must actually do work in order to enjoy the beautiful.

The first thing that must be done is that we must intellectually grasp a thing’s “integrity.” Everything that is beautiful has an organic wholeness or an interior unity that is pleasing when perceived and understood. Imagine, for example, gazing upon a magnificent Southern Live Oak (Quercus virginiana). Such a species of tree, with its twisting and sprawling array of enormous branches, has an interior unity, a grandeur in its totality. Its branches and leaves are an integral part of a splendid whole. If that tree were to be coppiced (trimmed down to its trunk), its integrity would be spoiled and its beauty destroyed. Perceiving and understanding a thing’s wholeness is an essential element of a thing’s beauty.

Secondly, we must train ourselves to see a thing’s relation both to God and to other things. St. Thomas calls this the discernment of “right proportion.” The truly beautiful is always rightly proportioned to God and to others. This is why we can gaze upon the life of Mother Theresa, for example, and exclaim with confidence that there was a beautiful woman! Her life exhibited a proper relation to her Creator and to the poor souls she encountered in her ministry. In contrast, think of the disproportioned life of the drunkard or the womanizer. They relate proportionally neither to God nor to His creatures and thus live a truly disproportioned and ugly life.

Lastly, in order to see correctly, we must be able to discern the intelligibility of things. Everything beautiful has a certain “claritas,” or splendor of form. This splendor of form radiates through a thing’s matter and makes it intelligible to the viewer. For example, we can gaze upon a handsomely constructed wooden chair and understand immediately its purpose. Its form clearly communicates to us what we should do with the thing. We ought to sit in a chair. The clarity of purpose is easily discernible by a thing which is truly beautiful. Again, in contrast, much of modern abstract art lacks such intelligibility. One could gaze for hours at a painting by Kandinsky (not recommended) and have no idea what you are looking at. It lacks intelligibility or claritasand is thus deemed, rightfully so, ugly.

Hence to “see” the beautiful, we must be able to understand a thing’s integrity, right proportion, and intelligibility. As mentioned, this takes some intellectual effort. In discerning these essential elements within things — even things that have become corrupted and distorted through sin — we begin to train ourselves not only to see and delight in authentic beauty, but, more essentially, we begin to move beyond the beauty of the created order and perceive the utmost integral, proportioned, and intelligible good, namely God Himself. Beauty properly understood is transcendent. It moves us to Beauty itself. And it is this Beauty, contemplated and adored, that has the power to save us and the whole world.

Dr. Richard Meloche serves as the president of the Alcuin Institute for Catholic Culture.

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