Contemplating Beauty

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Beauty is mentioned alongside goodness and truth as something for which all men yearn; yet of the three, beauty itself is most enigmatic. We want to know the truth—that is, we want what we think of reality to actually correspond to reality—and we want to pursue or acquire the good—our actions should thus be ordered to this end. But what about beauty? We long for it, but not necessarily as guide for thought or action: rather, we only want to contemplate it and appreciate it. There is a certain sense in which beauty is a synthesis of goodness and truth, so that beauty rests upon goodness and truth as a foundation; and at the same time it is bound to love, perhaps more effect to cause than cause to effect.


Seeking Goodness and Understanding Truth

“The Birthmark”: What happens when beauty is sought without regard to truth and goodness?

Often discussions of “the true, the good, and the beautiful” tend to focus on the first two and ignore the last of this trio (save perhaps discussions of art, architecture, or music). And why not? It seems to me that there are those who order their lives to the good and the true, and who then get beauty as a part of the bargain; and on the other hand those who go for beauty first to the exclusion (and often the inverse) of these, who then consequently lose all three, or else get a twisted and marred beauty [1].

Thus, goodness and truth stand as a pair of “prerequisites” of sorts to beauty, so that beauty ought not be sought at the expense of these. Yet at the same time, truth and goodness are easier to summarize briefly than beauty. After all, a true statement is one which conforms to the way things are, and so truth exists in the mind when the mind agrees with reality; and goodness is found in those things which satisfy our desires [2]. Beauty is a little harder to get at: after all, truth and goodness go with knowing and desiring—or with thinking and acting—which would seem to cover the possible interaction between man and his environment.

Beauty then is a synthesis of these, and it has elements of both truth and goodness to it—or, more appropriately, of knowledge and desire.


Understanding Truth and Contemplating Beauty

The act of contemplation is similar to that of knowing, in that neither contemplation nor knowledge destroys, exhausts, or really even alters the object known or contemplated. I may contemplate a sunset, or the words of a poem, or the artsmanship of a sculpture without destroying any of these things: indeed, inasmuch as I am aided in my contemplation by beholding these things, I may more easily contemplate them without destroying them. Thus, we can enjoy beauty while sharing it with outs, just as we might understand truth while sharing it (e.g. passing it on) to others.

Their other motto is “veritas.” Also, “Contemplari et Contemplata Aliis Tradere.”

It is indeed not only possible for us to to share both truth and beauty with other, but often it actually helps us to enjoy the one and understand the other more deeply. A truth which I alone may know can become a burden, a frustration; beauty which I alone can behold becomes a haunted obsession or a melancholy treasure. Both truth and beauty want to be shared with others if they can. At times we are frustrated in our desire to do this [3], but this attests to the fact that we desired to share these in the first place. That beauty involves a special kind of knowledge can make it even more difficult to share, yet we want to share it all the more.

In his own discussion of beauty—found in How to Think about the Great Ideas—Dr Mortimer J Adler writes of beauty that

The knowledge involved in the experience of beauty is also a special form of knowledge just as the desire that is involved in beauty is a special form of desire. The knowledge involved in the experience of beauty consists in comprehending, almost embracing, it object…Beauty exists in the object of an intuitive knowledge and an intuitive apprehension of the individual thing as a whole. That is why we ordinarily speak of the beautiful as involving an aesthetic intuition and use the word intuition to mean this special kind of knowledge which can’t be expressed in statements or in words.

The knowledge involved in beauty is intuitive—which means that it is difficult to express—perhaps impossible to express—using mere statements or words.


Contemplating Beauty and Pursuing the Good

A couch is a sort of terminitive good, though perhaps not one to die for.

What about the good? Generally speaking, goods are those objects which satisfy our desires (wants and needs). If I am hungry, then I want food, and so food the the good which satisfies the desire of hunger. Most goods are things we acquire in one form or another. I acquire food when I eat it. I acquire a virtue when it has been inculcated in me so that I practice it whenever the opportunity arises. So generally a good is something I acquire to satisfy a desire.

Some of these goods are goods which I can obtain and then need not further pursue: these are terminitive, and so once they are acquired, I won’t lose them by not pursuing them further. I buy a couch for my living room, and then I have my good, a place for my friends and I to rest; I need not go purchase another couch tomorrow. Others goods are attainable only by pursuit: these are normative goods. Perhaps I wish the honor of being known as a hard worker; this I can gain only by being a hard worker—but if once I am known as a hard-worker, I then allow myself to become lazy, I will lose this reputation, that is, I will lose this good [4].

On the other hand, we have a desire for beauty, that is, a desire to enjoy that which is beautiful. Need we acquire beauty to appreciate beauty? I answer that we do not, but rather that we need only contemplate it. Our desire for beauty is not so much a desire to obtain beauty as much as a desire to contemplate and appreciate and adore it: a desire for a good which is not acquired. We do not need to use up or consume or deplete beauty to enjoy it—and in fact by doing these things we destroy beauty and deprive ourselves of its further enjoyment.


Knowing and Loving

The desire we have for beauty is therefore in some sense akin to cherishing. And the intuitive knowledge, the contemplation of the beautiful is similarly nearer to appreciation and understanding than to the ordinary knowledge or comprehension reserved for facts, indeed for most truths in general. In other words, the responses to beauty are to know it and to love it: that is, it calls upon the two highest activities of which we are naturally capable, our two highest natural ends, to know and to love. Indeed, beauty calls us most especially to love. It cannot be used, without being corrupted and ruined—and use is, as Pope John Paul the Great tells us, the true opposite of love.



[1] For the former, see Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Birth Mark;” for the latter, see for example the film Seven.

[2] Hence, a “disordered” desire is one which seeks a lower good at the expense of a higher good, e.g. By seeking pleasure at the expense of virtue or honor at the expense of holiness.

[3] And as a physics instructor for non-majors, I can attest firsthand to this fact.

[4] Note that the distinction here is not necessarily “temporary good” vs “permanent good,” since (for example) the couch which is a terminitive good may nevertheless need to be replaced eventually.

[0] The post images sources are: 1) The sunset in the mountains, a picture I took a few years ago while standing on the deck of my Aunt and Uncle’s house in central Oregon; 2) “The Birthmark,” based on a short story of the same title (see below), which I obtained from this site; 3) the seal of the Order of Preachers, commonly called “Dominicans”, of which my wife and I are lay members; and 4) I found the coffin-couch here.

Nicene Guy

Nicene Guy

JC is a cradle Catholic, and somewhat of a traditionalist conservative. He earned his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Texas at Austin in the summer of 2014. He is currently a tenure-track assistant professor of physics at a university in the deep south. He is a lay member of the Order of Preachers. JC has been happily married since June of 2010. He and his lovely wife have had two children born into their family, one daughter and one son; they hope to have a few more. He has at times questioned – and more often still been questioned about – his Faith, but he has never wandered far from the Church, nor from our Lord. “To whom else would I go?”

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