Thursday, February 23, 2012

Beauty and Being according to Aquinas


 In the Summa Theologica, II-II Q. 145 Art. 2, St. Thomas Aquinas argues that honesty is synonymous with spiritual beauty. He explains his position by professing that “beauty or comeliness results from the concurrence of clarity and due proportion”[1], and “spiritual beauty consists in a man’s conduct or actions being well proportioned in respect of the spiritual clarity of reason. Now this is what is meant by honesty.”[2] Of these two aspects of beauty, clarity and proportion are easy to understand, but what does Aquinas mean when he calls beauty proportioned? The aim of this paper is to explore Aquinas’s belief that beauty is proportionate. To do this, one must first understand how Aquinas defines beauty by drawing on his previous writings. After this, a firm grasp of Aquinas’s understanding of proportion will be helpful to conclude what Aquinas implies when he claims that beauty consists of “due proportion.”
The first component in understanding Aquinas’s argument is to analyze what he understands to be the nature of beauty.  In I-I Q. 5 Art. 4, Aquinas states that “beautiful things are those that please when seen.”[3] Although he uses the Latin word “visa”, which implies seeing with the eyes, as opposed to “intellegere”, which means to comprehend, Aquinas does not refer to “visa” in regards to sensation or perception. Rather, Aquinas declares that “beauty relates to the cognitive faculty,”[4] that is, it is our intellect that responds to beauty. This does not imply that physical things do not partake in beauty, for Aquinas says that without perception there is no cognition. Rather, the phenomena of sensation, perception and cognition are unified in the experience of beauty. The experience of beauty is not purely disinterested aesthetics, nor is it sensualism, but a synthesis between the two, unifying the powers of the human person. Aquinas himself wrote many beautiful poems and hymns such as Adoro Te Devote, expressing through the beauty of poetry his spiritual convictions. Man delights in beautiful things for their own sake, though his delight is not a kind of delight that must be measured by moderation.
It is true that a virtue is a mean between extremes according to Aquinas, based on the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, but one would never speak of mediocrity in virtue as being good.  There can be no excess of good or of virtue, only lack. In the same way, beauty is virtuous, for “if a thing is perceived to be beautiful as soon as it is apprehended, it is taken to be something becoming and good.”[5]  A saint is not honored for mediocrity in virtue, likewise, one should never pursue mediocrity in the pursuit of beauty, for “God is said to be beautiful, as being the cause of the harmony and clarity of the universe.”[6] In the pursuit of beauty, man pursues virtue itself, given that “honesty is the same as virtue”[7] and “the honest is the same as the beautiful.”[8] To an extent, all of creation is beautiful because it shares in the beauty of the divine essence, a state known to the Greeks as pankalia, the beauty of all things. Beauty as implied by Aquinas is therefore transcendental, and is not only synonymous with honesty but with all of virtue, as well as being a pursuit of the entire human person, body and soul, and should be pursued relentlessly.
Recalling that beauty results from the concurrence of clarity and due proportion, it is now fitting to analyze Aquinas’s understanding of proportion. “Beauty consists in due proportion; for the senses delight in things duly proportioned, as in what is after their own kind – because even sense is a sort of reason.”[9] A thing may be proportionate in two ways. In the first way, a thing can be proportionate to itself, as an arm is proportionate to a body or the blade of a sword is proportionate to the weight of its guard. In the second sense, a thing may be proportionate to a rule or principal, as positioning keys in a flute in order to harness the laws of acoustical physics, or the development of a child’s body according to the dictates of their biology. In both terms, Aquinas cannot mean mathematical proportion, or else one could not possibly speak of spiritual beauty, which can be spoken of in either sense. Perhaps, then, his measure is not mathematical, but rather expresses adherence to some sort of metaphysical form. If this is so, then proportion means participation in the divine essence, for every form participates in the brilliance of God. The natural law and the supernatural law are operations of God’s Wisdom, and to the extent to which one adheres to the workings of Wisdom, one participates in the Divine Nature. Harmony, or consonance between different persons, things or ideas, also finds its root in the hierarchy of all things bending to the supremacy of God. In this manner, beauty is consistent with the second meaning of proportion.
As stated above, beauty participates in the divine because God is Himself the source of all beauty. If beauty is indeed cognitive, then to pursue beauty is to pursue knowledge. This statement implies not just any knowledge, but knowledge of virtue and goodness, knowledge of wisdom, and finally knowledge of God.  Because beauty concerns itself with being, or existence, it concerns itself with forms, and therefore concerns itself with proportion. What the meaning of beauty as proportion is in application, however, may be obscure; one must measure beauty in a thing specific to its nature. One would not judge the beauty of a painting based on the same criteria as one would judge the beauty of the female form. Rather, proportion is specific to the thing, idea or spiritual quality. In this way, beauty is consistent with the first sense of proportion.
In conclusion, Aquinas’s condition that beauty be proportionate is nearly synonymous with his idea that beauty is that which pleases. Beauty is honest because it is proportionate, both with regard to itself and with regards to Divine Wisdom, and because it speaks with clarity about the nature and splendor of God. To be virtuous, or good, is to be beautiful, and therefore the virtuous life is appealing and desirable to the human person. To be honest also means to speak the truth, and therefore Aquinas sees a synthesis of truth, goodness and beauty. All of these are concerned with being and point directly to God who is Himself existence. Therefore, in the pursuit of beauty, one pursues God Himself.


[1] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, vol. 3. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benzinger Bros, 1948), 1774-5
[2] Ibid. 1774
[3] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, vol. 1. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benzinger Bros, 1948), 26
[4] Ibid. 26
[5] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, vol. 3. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benzinger Bros, 1948), 1775
[6] Ibid. 1774
[7] Ibid. 1773
[8] Ibid. 1774
[9] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, vol. 1. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benzinger Bros, 1948), 26

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