Class today was surprisingly fulfilling. I thought for sure that ‘Search for Beauty’ was going to be the class I’d drop, but now I seriously doubt that. Dr. Redick came out swinging as soon as the clock hit 4:00. I barely had time to pull out a pen before he told the class to write down an answer to the question “What is beauty?”; a task that I could easily take a half hour to think through before writing anything down. Alas, Kip gave us one minute. The rush pushed me to write with minimal consideration. My response was spontaneous and based solely on stream of conscious. I would not consider my answer simple, for any definition or explanation of beauty cannot be simple; beauty itself is not a simple thing, though simplicity can be beautiful. My answer was unfortunately, inappropriately, and necessarily short. Inappropriately, because I believe beauty, like love, cannot possibly be explained by mere men with any sense of brevity. Necessarily, because it would have been impossible for my answer to be any longer than it was. Dr. Redick commanded us to put our pens down as I finished writing my last words. Unfortunately, because I would have continued writing for several more minutes, as I am doing now. My response was as follows:
“Beauty is the inherent good within something. It is a natural, recognizable right that can be expressed or viewed in many different ways.”
That is an insufficient answer. It falls short by even my own philosophy, much less the true reality of what beauty is. However, it was all I could submit at the time. Here, of course, I am not going for the kind of beauty young people strive for. I consider beauty to be a higher, more other-wroldy quality than mere physical attractiveness.
We were then asked to close our eyes and picture the first thing that came into our heads when we thought of beauty. My mind instantly looked back to sunsets over Lake Vermillion. Dr. Redick then asked for us to explain why we thought that thing was beautiful and how our mental image aligned with the explanation of beauty we initially wrote down. I proceeded to write down…
“When I see a sunset on Lake Vermillion, it instills a sense of awe in me. While visually pleasant, there seems to exist a deeper, more profound acknowledgement occurring in my being. The physical, quantifiable phenomena of a sunset seems to point to a greater, higher standard or desire within me. I recognize the ‘good’ or ‘right’ in the sunset.”
Again, that was a rushed and rough attempt to summarize my thoughts. My words were far from clear. I remember thinking to myself as I wrote how envious I was of C.S. Lewis’ ability to articulate exactly what he wanted to communicate. Even now, as my fingers stumble over my keyboard, I am jealous of his God-given talent. As class continued and Dr. Redick asked each student to read what they had written, I had a few more minutes to refine my views.
First, I had to address the question of objectivity versus subjectivity. Put simply, is beauty universal or individual? Well, this is difficult to answer. It is obvious that some people find X beautiful, while others abhor X and instead find beauty (quite provocatively) in Y. This, of course, drives those who prefer X mad. Both groups, however, agree that Z is undoubtedly atrocious while W is unquestionably beautiful. What the heck am I saying? Some beauty seems to be subjective, but certain things either have universal beauty or un-beauty (whatever the opposite of beauty is). So what might the answer be?
I tried to reconcile beauty’s duel appearance with a compromise of sorts. I argue that beauty is objective; it is an ultimate standard or desire. Beauty in itself is perfect and constant. Humans, on the other hand, are not. Human perception of beauty is, to a certain extent, subjective. Some people can see beauty in things like snakes and spiders, creatures I see worthy of extermination. But who am I to say they are wrong? Is there anything inherently wrong with a spider or snake? No. I simply don’t like them for whatever reason. Yet, there are things no sane person would ever consider beautiful. No witness to a murder has ever described their horrific scene as beautiful. Nor does any individual or culture allow for any recognition of beauty in rape or theft.
So, beauty is objective and man’s perception of beauty is at least slightly subjective. Next, I needed to distinguish between emotional, physical, or spiritual sensations when experiencing beauty. Several explanations posited by my fellow students described beauty as an outpouring of positive emotions in response to sensual experience. I find a few faults in such an explanation. To start, not everything I consider beautiful is experienced through my senses. Would memories be considered beautiful? Perhaps when people say a memory is beautiful, they really only mean that the past event was beautiful then and the memory itself does not currently contain the memory’s former beauty. Fine. Would imaginations be considered beautiful? Events we conjure in our minds that have never occurred in reality are often labeled as beautiful, yet lack any true sensual interaction. I would argue there is beauty in imagined things, whether or not our senses are involved in perceiving the imagination.
Additionally, when I find myself before something I consider beautiful, I would not dare describe my emotional reaction as strictly positive. One student mentioned the ‘numinous’ when Dr. Redick probed at the emotional philosophy. It looks like I’m not alone in emulating C.S. Lewis. I was also thinking along the same lines. While many of my emotions are positive—happiness, calmness, rest, etc—I also felt emotions few consider pleasant—longing, loneliness, shallowness. Though unpleasant emotions accompany my experience, I never doubt the beauty of what I behold; on the contrary, these pains increase my surety that what I behold is truly beautiful. In fact, emotions do not contain the full breadth of my experience.
Perhaps a clear example may be of help here. Let me return to describing the beauty of a sunset. As I gaze into the blazing sky of color, from brilliant clouds glowing pink to the fiery red of the western horizon to the deep violet of the sky’s zenith, a deep sense of peace fills my being. Emotionally, I am at ease. Physically, I feel relaxed. Spiritually, (if you allow me to use that word, or if not, than ‘in my deepest sense’) I seem to be recognizing this ‘good’ or ‘right’ that I can hardly describe. Along side with peace, I have joy. Emotionally, I am happy. Physically, I am experiencing a sense of pleasure. Spiritually, this ‘good’ is gladly acknowledged and welcomed.
Amidst peace and joy, another sensation is seizing my being. It is harder to label, but obvious to describe. Emotionally, there is a longing in my heart. Physically, a slight tension plays in contrast with my ease and pleasure. Spiritually, the ‘good’ I recognize seems to be out of reach. In the face of beauty, I become uncomfortably aware of my own inability to grasp the entirety of beauty. The depth and richness of present beauty exposes within my heart my own shallowness, smallness, and lack of beauty. Along side this hollow sensation, I experience a deep sense of isolation. This loneliness is felt most strongly, as you would guess, when I am alone. One student in class recited a quote from the author of ‘Into The Wild’ which succinctly summarizes such a feeling: “Beauty is meaningless unless it is shared.”
Let me break this down. While beauty brings about peace and joy, any exposure we have of it is accompanied by discontentment. All encounters with beauty seem to only be teases. Why is this the case? Stay with me. I’m going to go back to C.S. Lewis. Let’s think about desire. Human beings desire beauty. I don’t mean humans desire to be beautiful, i.e. look attractive. I mean there is a deep desire in all our hearts to watch the proverbial sunset forever. We desire to not only witness beauty, but also partake of it. We wish to share in beauty eternally. Not only that, but we wish to engage beauty fully with others. The beauty we sensually experience in life has two significant problems: it is temporary and limited. Sunsets are beautiful, but they are not beautiful enough to satisfy what we long for. The sun inevitably sets, and we can never see the entire extent of the sky or horizon.
I agree again with C.S. Lewis (shocker) when he suggests that humans do not have desires that cannot be fulfilled. Every hole we seem to have in our innermost being has a perfect fit that fills the void completely. For beauty, there must be something that satisfies our longing. Things we call beautiful only contain traces of the real Beauty, or maybe act as pointers back to that ultimate puzzle piece our spirits lack.
Some may stop here and question the implications of the conclusion I point to. If there is some ultimate, eternal sunset, who is to say it will always captivate us? What if we grew tired of constantly staring at the sky? What if its effect wears off, or our hearts grow a tolerance to the perfect beauty? I doubt these questions have merit. Like I said, the beauty we long for is eternal and ultimate. I don’t think it would be possible to exhaust something infinite. If we were able to tire of this beauty, I feel that means we had experienced everything the beauty had to show or offer. The nature of infinity does not allow for us to understand its entirety. If someone were to suggest to me that a thousand finite beauties were better than one infinite beauty, I would suggest that person weigh a thousand to infinity.
As I have gently asserted, I believe there is an ultimate Beauty. It is some noun that perfectly satisfies our insatiable thirst we discover we have after seeing a sunset. If your mind is anything like mine, language like “ultimate noun” hints at God. In class, Dr. Redick asked me if I knew what Beauty was. Ashamedly, I replied “I don’t know.” After taking time to reflect, I now know without a doubt. In class, I was confused whether or not Beauty was God Himself or something of the Lord’s creation, some distinct entity that satisfied our longing and pointed us to God. The latter option seems unnecessary and unlikely. If God were to create some thing that perfectly met our desire of Beauty, we would only recognize that it was beautiful because it reflected the perfect, holy, ultimate God. In other words, we would only know it was beautiful because God was beautiful, thus making God our standard of beauty. Additionally, I cannot imagine a place where man could encounter both this theoretical creation called “Beauty” and the Lord, and focus on anything other than God the Father.
I realized that what I was attempting to do with separating “Beauty” from God was make “Beauty” God in its own right. I was simply renaming God. Instead, I should have realized that God is Beauty, and not try to make Beauty God. For God is far more than beautiful; He is also loving, just, powerful, wise, and all the other qualities we attribute to Him.
So then, what to make of all of this? Beauty seems to be some sort of recognizable inherent good man perceives either through his senses or his mind. We recognize and label something as beautiful because deep within our own spirits, we long for beauty. Our longing, however, cannot be satisfied in the simple beauties we perceive in this life. Rather, each encounter with beauty seems to strengthen our longing and certainty in something ultimate and eternal, something wholly outside of our own experience. The things we perceive to be beautiful, then, are not meant to meet our desire, but instead act as pointers to something that will. That ultimate “Beauty” is, in fact, God.
Is any of this new? What am I writing that hasn’t been written before? If there is any truth in my rambling, it is ancient and well established. Did not the psalmist write “The heavens declare the glory of God,” (Psalm 19:1)? Even in the time of King David, it was known that any earthly beauty acts as a messenger and herald of the Lord. Did not Paul state in his letter to the Romans “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse,” (Romans 1:20). And is not the spirit of man and the wonder of consciousness unique to humans beautiful because we are the image bearers of the Most High?
These are all only thoughts that keep me up at night. I have no claim to profound wisdom. What I say is either wrong or borrowed. Any truth I may have declared comes solely from the Holy Spirit, for I take no credit in knowing great truths. This is the first time I’ve ever put thought into what beauty might be. I assume my philosophy will be reworked and refined over all the years of my life. Let it be so.
All of this is in response to a three word question my professor told me to answer at the beginning of our first class. I have a feeling this will be a long semester. I look forward to it. It’s good to be back at school.