The Divine Brilliance: Recovering the Platonic-Thomistic (or Christian) Tradition of Beauty
The latest issue of Credo Magazine focuses on Christian Platonism. The following is one of the issue’s featured columns by Alice Ramos. Dr. Ramos is Professor of Philosophy at St. John’s University in Queens, New York.
In his work On Music, St. Augustine of Hippo asks, “Do we love anything but the beautiful?” (6.13.38). This question is not surprising for anyone who knows Augustine’s thought and has read his Confessions, where we find the following:
“Late have I loved Thee, O Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved Thee! And behold, Thou wert within and I was without. I was looking for Thee out there, and I threw myself, deformed as I was, upon those well-formed things Thou hast made” (X.27.38; emphasis mine).
What Augustine says here should give us pause to think. Beautiful things, living beings, all have the potential to elevate the mind to God. They can however also become an obstacle in our path to God, to that Beauty “so ancient and so new,” for we may begin to idolize those beautiful creatures or even to mistreat them in acts of aesthetic iconoclasm—instances of which have occurred in contemporary culture—because our vision and our affections are such that we, perhaps well-formed on the outside, have become deformed on the inside.
Form and Beauty
The language of form in relation to beauty that Augustine uses above is reminiscent of the Platonic tradition, with its emphasis on the transcendent world of forms that serve as models for things in the sensible world. Augustine’s language on well-formed or beautiful things and on the interior deformity or ugliness of the human person also influences in great part what St. Thomas Aquinas will write in the thirteenth century about form—that it is a participation in the divine brilliance, brilliance being a constitutive element of beauty, and that form is divine.
Moreover, Aquinas places the Platonic forms in the mind of God, in the Logos or the Word through whom all things are made; and to the Word are attributed all the features of beauty: integrity or perfection, due proportion or harmony, clarity or brilliance. All that is created will therefore participate in the beauty and brilliance of the Word. Not only is the Divine Word beautiful or Beauty itself but the Word also serves as the model or exemplar of all things made; creatures are thus images or traces of the Word, of God’s beauty and wisdom. Among creatures a special place is accorded to the human person who is made in the image of God and yet like all other creatures needs to acquire perfection, which for the human being means becoming like God and so acquiring a greater participation in beauty and in goodness.Not only is the Divine Word beautiful or Beauty itself but the Word also serves as the model or exemplar of all things made; creatures are thus images or traces of the Word, of God’s beauty and wisdom. Click To Tweet
In reading Plato’s Symposium we find Aristophanes’ description of the human being as having been cut in two and thus wounded in its nature; humans are then seeking their other half. Aquinas’ thought can be brought to bear on this rather enigmatic way of conceiving the human being, for it is plausible to think that the other which will complete the human being is precisely its archetype, that is, the Divine Word, maximal Beauty, and ultimately the human being’s standard or measure. For Plato, then, we are divided selves whose deepest desire is for completion, for wholeness, and in fact for beauty, and this desire for unification can only be brought about by love. In the Symposium the ascent up the “ladder of love” requires a disciplined pursuit of beauty—rising from lower sensible beauties to higher forms of beauty such as moral beauty, and lastly to the contemplation of the divine, of the beauty that transcends all other beauties. In order to gaze upon Beauty itself, the human being needs to purify his or her vision and loves.
Much like the prisoners of the cave in Plato’s Republic, humans must leave behind the shadows of reality, emerging from the cave of their disordered loves which imprison them and blind them from seeing what is truly real, and thus finally arriving at the light of the sun where they will see the realities of which in the cave they only saw the shadows. The contemplation of Beauty and in fact of reality with its splendid intelligibility and original goodness comes therefore at a cost to us: we must embark in the cultivation of virtues in order to see and love rightly. It is therefore the case that the character we forge through virtues, the moral dispositions we acquire, will enable us to love true beauties and finally to gaze on Beauty itself.
Both Plato and Aquinas provide us then with the resources to recover first the objectivity of beauty, that is, beauty as belonging to the real, as an ontological category, and not merely an aesthetic category or a matter of feeling, thus reducing beauty to a subjective experience, and second, to recognize the human desire and love for the beautiful in terms of the contemplative end of the human person—an end which requires the constant moral task of purification and conversion.It is therefore the case that the character we forge through virtues, the moral dispositions we acquire, will enable us to love true beauties and finally to gaze on Beauty itself. Click To Tweet
Such a rich conception of beauty in relation to reality and to the human person and the person’s ultimate good can therefore serve as an antidote to the decline of authentic beauty in our culture with its idolization of bodily beauty and of appearances, the so-called look, and to contemporary attempts in the arts to spoil beauty or to flee from it in acts of aesthetic iconoclasm. Just as religious images have been destroyed in the past, there are cases of opera producers who show little or no respect for the original convictions of the composers and thus drown out the beauty and message of the music with lascivious acts on stage, as in the 2004 production of Mozart’s Abduction of the Seraglio in Berlin, or in the 2009-2010 production of Puccini’s Tosca in the New York Metropolitan Opera.
The task of recovering the Platonic-Thomistic (or Christian) tradition of beauty is currently underway not only in philosophy but also in theology and in the arts and is needed to counteract the relativism and nihilism present in our culture. It is to be hoped that this recovery will resonate in the minds and hearts of so many who desire and love authentic beauty and not the false or deceptive beauties to which our culture so often subscribes, thus reminding us of the transcendent dimension of reality and of the final perfection of the human person—that perfection which consists in the contemplation of the God who is Beauty itself.