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What makes something beautiful?

We worship a God who is said to be "Beauty Itself." But in a culture that thinks all claims are simple expressions of emotion (Emotivism), we think any claim to something being beautiful is equivalent to saying, "I like it, it makes me feel good feelies." Thus we dogmatically assume "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Unfortunately this dogma is at odds with the God who is Beauty. The Catholic Faith does not allow one doctrinally to be a relativist in regards to Beauty or beautiful things. Sorry. Likewise the principle of non-contradiction prevents this popular idea from being logically true.

Why Beauty Cannot be in the Eye of the Beholder

If I attribute "beauty" to a painting, and you say "it's not beautiful," we can't say the painting both is and is not beautiful, anymore than we can say it is and is not made of wood or is and is not existing.

The purported solution to this problem by the Relativist is to say "it's beautiful to me," which is a way of steering the conversation away from the object being discussed. We're now talking about ideas in our respective heads, and not the painting. We replaced one objective object, with two subjective objects. How about that for a sleight of hand?

What's at stake?

If you've ever had an argument about whether something is beautiful or not you know it can become heated.

To remain "polite" in an Emotivist culture with a relativistic world view we must then jettison Reality out of conversation. Barbara said the Tower was beautiful and Katherine said it wasn't. Whew, this might turn into a cat fight, unless we resort to relativism. What's left is "pleasantries" in which we express whether something is or is not beautiful "to me."

If Beauty is God, and we don't have a common understanding of Beauty, then we're really disagreeing about who God is. Pleasantries or Truth, social grace or social suicide. This is the modern dilemma concerning beauty. What's at stake is whether we continue to meetly and rightly. Is our disposition as worshipper open to be amazed by and to desire Beauty? Or do we wish to put reins around Beauty as if it were a play thing to be led around by a leash? Beauty cannot be contained because it is God.

What is Beauty?

Beauty is that which being seen, delights.

At least St. Thomas thinks so. But why trust him? It would seem "to delight" is simply a fancy way of reasserting the emotivist claim: "to say an art piece is 'delightful' is only to say whether 'I like it' based on whether or not it evokes an emotion." But this is not it at all. To "delight" is for a thing to be apprehended by the Intellect; it's not an emotive reaction or a movement of the passions proper. But why? We delight for three reasons:

  1. Integrity: a thing being whole, "simple" qua being one as itself

  2. Consonance/Proportionality: a things parts are in harmony towards its integrity

  3. Splendor/Clarity/Radiance: a thing's inner logic or form is intelligible and presses upon the perceiver

Following this criteria then, we might find things which correspond to what we mean when we sing, "All Things Bright and Beautiful."

How Catholics Fall into the Trap of Relativism toward Beauty

The Protestant "Jesus Movement" of the 1960's popularized American pop and rock in Christian Communities (Protestants gathered into groups or denominations). This music quickly became known as "Contemporary Christian Music" which even some Catholics drank deeply from. As a result, the grammar of these communities taught our people to say "Christian music." We thus began to think there was "beautiful" or "good" music relative to Christians. Suddenly we were okay with relativism, as long as it applied to Christians, and protected our own. We relativized beauty like any other secular humanist, but since it purported to be for God, we didn't bother to think if God would support such a thing. Liturgical music in Catholic churches and praise 'n worship music in Protestant communities suddenly became relative to the worshipper's "taste," rather than whether it objectively glorifies God by giving beauty back to Beauty, "All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own do we give thee."

Christian Music then breeds Christian Art, and pretty soon there's Christian Kid's Music and Christian Kid's Art. These categories function as a way to make their beauty relative to a certain group. So if Christians "like" this or that music, or if children "like" this or that art, we call it by those names. This is just relativism.

Ironically the Jesus Movement's founder left to become an Orthodox Abbot of a monastery. Equally ironic is some Episcopal Church attempt to declare themselves part of a "Jesus Movement" as if this is a new thing. Most of its youth are unaware of this history. In effect its Babyboomer Protestants trying to get their youth to like their music, to replace liturgical music (which is a thing!) with "Christian music." Getting your kids to enjoy your generation's music is not inherently wrong, but disguising it as inherently "Christian music," is inherently wrong because it's a lie. Thus "Christian music" is an oxymoron that breeds relativism, and thus is a great enemy to the intellectual habits of a faithful Catholic.

Identifying Beauty by Example Jim Hawkins, Long John Silver, and his Parrot by N.C. Wyeth (above)


I say "This painting is beautiful."

My friend Bill says, "Absolutely not! There's no integrity! Look, he's missing a leg! And that mangy parrot, don't get me started..."

I remind Bill that integrity is to display the whole of the substance to be displayed. Captain Long John Silver is famously a one-legged man, and thus to keep the integrity, the wholeness of the man, we must make him one-legged. If we made him two-legged he might be some kind of "ideal man," but the man depicted wouldn't be ole Long John. Further, the integrity is supported by the presence of his parrot Captain Flint, and Jim Hawkins. This painting depicts a scene, a whole moment or the whole relation, between these three. It thus has integrity.

"Well," says Bill, "the thing is not simple a'tall. It has three characters, a litter of furniture, buckles and pans and smoking pipes, the bird's cage up top. The thing is far too complicated to be simple enough to have integrity."

I respond, "Well Bill, being simple is not opposed to there being many. For instance, God is one substance yet three persons. As Catholic Buccaneers we most certainly cannot believe simplicity and complexity are opposed. God is simple because He's one, but that oneness is infinitely complex, so we can't very well say that God's complexity is contradictory to His simplicity. Furthermore, if "simple" meant oneness without complexity or parts, then only a canvas with, say, the color orange could be beautiful. The second we painted it as an orange fruit with a rind and a top and bottom and glare depicting depth it would be not beautiful since you think complexity defeat simplicity. But this is simply not so. Many painting are complex in that they are detailed, yet they are beautiful in that they depict one scene. The problem is if someone is trying to do two things in a single piece of work. What we don't see is an attempt to depict the storming of the palisade on the beach and Jim discoursing with Silver on the ship. To try to throw those two together would be disharmonious and thus it would lose its integrity as one.


Bill takes a second gander, and grumbling, concedes the point. "Ah!" he shouts, "but it has no proper proportionality! Look! The sides of the walls are all bent at bizarre angles; it's as if the whole room were standing 15 degrees off center. Furthermore, the room taken up by the two men is not proportional, part of Jim's leg is blocked by Long John's good leg.

"Ah yes," I reply, "but they are on a ship, a thing much shaken and moved by the waves of the sea. The picture captures this well with the angle. Now if the characters were standing at 90 degrees while the floor was at 15 degrees without bowed legs of any sort, which would show their strain to remain standing, then we'd have disproportionality. But as it stands the painting shows Jim leaning back to keep balance and Long John allowing himself to lean with the ship into the wall for support. The elements are consonant for two men out at sea.


Bill closes one eye, eyeing me suspiciously with the other. Well I don't see where this scene is taking place. It seems vague.

"Well," I say, "As we said before, the angle of the furniture reveals it's probably on the ship. Likewise the two are conversing and Jim is at ease so we know this is before Silver's real identity as a mutineer and buccaneer is revealed. Furthermore, the pans on the wall, the kettle on the stove, and the fact Silver is in a white shirt rather than his captain's blue navy jacket shows Silver is still fronting as a mere ship's cook. All this points to a certain form working upon my intelligence as I view the object. It seems clear where this occurs in the story."

"Ahh, but what if I ain't read the story?" replies Bill.

I reply, "Now there, Bill, you have a point. It would seem the form of the ship is all too vague. How must we evaluate this? Is the goal to always depict a thing as it appears in reality? By no means, otherwise the camera would have defeated all art, if arts purpose (telos) was simply to ape nature. But the thing being depicted does seem to be a ship scene with the two getting along. To this effect Wyeth seems successful, but not terribly so. How might the form of the ship come out more through the matter of the paint? The Hispaniola, the ship, is depicted as vague, abstract, and with not enough character. Yet this ship is a major component of the story, and I imagine that the purpose of this painting is to depict the story. A fine job has been done for Jim, Silver, and the Parrot, as the title indicates, but the form is never simply the name. The name is made to try and articulate the what it's all about, but artists can do this better or worse.""Ignorance doesn't mean a thing is not beautiful, only that you're unaware of it being beautiful and/or why it is beautiful. It may be that not all art is meant for everyone. For instance, this piece is clearly meant for someone who either has read or knows about Treasure Island." "Well, what about them dark shades of brown all about? The table top Silver's left elbow leans upon is evidently a table, what everything below it is just smathers of brown paint. It looks no different than the walls or floors around them, whose material is all too vague. Is the ship plaster, boards, something else? There seem no distinct marks to signify what it's made of."

Final Analysis

"So then?" Bill asked. "I might say it is a fine painting, perhaps not entirely beautiful, not amazingly beautiful or wonderfully beautiful, but beautiful nonetheless. It could be better, but it meets the criteria of beauty, it delights in the proper way. But whatever criticism we may find here, it's of a matter of the degree of Radiance/Splendor. The intelligibility of the form is clear upon sitting with it for a while, but nothing screams "ship" until you notice the angle or some of the objects on the stove. It's good, beautiful that is, but "nothing to write home about."

P.S. Concerning beautiful people we might be inclined to think it's all about physicality, per (1) Integrity & (2) Proportionality. But lest we forget (3) Splendor, let us not forget that some people with malice or shallow words have made many say, "I thought they were good looking until they opened their mouths" or "until I realized what kind of person they were." Whether the form shines through the matter, that is, the soul radiates its virtues or vices through the body and the person's actions, largely influences whether a person is beautiful or not.

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