On Beauty: Q&A with Fr. James Jackson, FSSP

Why are we attracted to beautiful things?

This is an essential question. It may be answered first by a practical explanation. The ancient Babylonians and later the Greeks came up with notions about a “golden ratio” and a “golden rectangle.” It makes for some fascinating reading. Few read about these things; they see credit cards and television screens and books and iPods shaped in rectangles, but rarely question why some many things are in that shape. Researchers have noticed that people process information inside rectangles – like text in a paragraph – readily and efficiently. They speak of a lighter cognitive load, so a book looks to us as if it is easy to read.

This is also all over nature. Fractals – irregular and self-similar geometry – occur everywhere in nature, from coastlines to snowflakes and leaf veins. They are even in our lungs. We respond to these patterns so well that just looking at them can reduce our stress levels as much as 60%.

But there is great complexity in this. Scientists cannot find one driving principle behind this attraction. So we must turn to other modes of knowledge to go deeper into the question.

St. Augustine made a sharp distinction between the creation of God (ex nihilo or from nothing) and the creation of artists (ex materia or from existing material). And natural beauty, which was made by God, is a mere shadow of God’s beauty, rather than fully actualized beauty. In a sense, God’s beauty emanates out to natural things through His act of creation. The framework for this idea had its source in Neoplatonic philosophers, particularly Plotinus. God created matter, which was initially formless, “without any beauty” (Augustine, Confessions, Bk. 12.3). The earth occupies the lowest form of beauty, and things become more beautiful as they possess more form, and less of the void. God is supremely beautiful, since only God possesses perfect form. Augustine, therefore, believes in a hierarchy of beautiful things, based on how much form they possess or lack.

So, as we were born to love God with all our heart, strength and soul, our attraction to beauty is our longing for union with God. He sees all things in the light of revelation; the reason we are attracted to dramas about people falling into mistakes and sins is because we fell in the Garden.

What makes them beautiful and ugly things ugly?

Again, let’s consider what St. Augustine wrote. Beauty has certain elements to it in his thought: unity, equality, number, proportion, and order. He doesn’t present these systematically; they are found throughout his writings.

First, everything exists as a separate whole unit; therefore, each thing has unity. Simply put, something cannot have the potential to be beautiful, unless it exists. And if it has existence, it will also be a unified whole. Thus, unity is a necessary element of beauty. The more unified something is the more beautiful it will be.

Second, concerning equality (or likeness), the existence of individual things as units, the possibility of repeating them and comparing groups of them with respect to equality or inequality, gives rise to proportion, measure, and number.

Third, “Number, the base of rhythm, begins from unity” (De Musica, xvii. 56). Number, for Augustine, measures rhythm. Since rhythm is based on number, which Augustine believes is immutable, then it follows that rhythm is likewise immutable. Fourth, “in all the arts it is symmetry [or proportion] that gives pleasure, preserving unity and making the whole beautiful” (Of True Religion, xxx. 55). Fifth, Augustine asserts, “everything is beautiful that is in due order” (Of True Religion, xli. 77). Moreover, Augustine says, “Order is the distribution which allots things equal and unequal, each to its own place” (City of God, XIX, xiii). In short, the degree to which things are in their proper place is the degree in which they are beautiful.

Are some things inherently, intrinsically beautiful?

If St. Augustine is correct on the above, then yes, it follows that beauty is inherent, and not in the “eye of the beholder.”

Consider now what St. Thomas Aquinas wrote on the subject. He too does not have a systematic treatise on beauty; his thought on it is in different places. But he did give a definition: “Beauty is that which gives pleasure when seen.” (ST, I-II, 27.1) This seems entirely subjective at first reading. But that’s because we equate seeing with a glance, or taking notice of something, which is passive – something that just happens to us.

Instead, seen is closer to the activity of reflection or even contemplation, so knowing beauty is an activity of the mind. Take looking at a flower as an example. I see the flower, and then it begins to exist in my mind. Then I can contemplate its form and discover its beauty. This can happen very quickly by the way. I see the flower passively, but think about it actively. Beauty is caused by the form of the flower, and our apprehension of this is the result of cognition, or thinking.

So sight and hearing are the ways in which we receive the form of the object, and for St. Thomas these are the most important senses to perceive the beautiful. So beauty is in the object, and it is not a concept in the mind that the beholder imposes on a given object. If beauty is objective, then there must be some criteria by which we can discover it.

The criteria are not however precise formulae as we might find in chemistry. Instead, they are more like guideposts to help us perceive beauty. These guideposts are actuality, proportion, radiance and integrity. They do not have to be all present for and object to be considered beautiful, and the presence of just one does not guarantee that the object is beautiful. And remarkably, St. Thomas centers the guideposts on the relationship of the Holy Trinity, especially in reference to the Son. The Son has integrity insofar as he “has in Himself truly and perfectly the nature of the Father.” The Son has proportion “inasmuch as He is the express Image of the Father.” Lastly, the third property [radiance, brightness, or clarity] is found in the Son, as the Word, “which is the light and splendor of the intellect.”

So the above is a long answer to the question. The short answer is “Yes, beauty is inherent.”

The three transcendentals are the true, the good, and the beautiful. Can the beautiful lead us to the true and the good?

Yes it can. Turning again to St. Thomas, transcendentals are properties of being as such (that is, every being). Each transcendental is convertible with being. In other words, the transcendentals are present wherever being is present. However, just like being can be found in varying degrees, the transcendentals can also be found in degrees. For example, every being is not perfectly or completely good, but every being is good to a degree. So, Aquinas’ list of transcendentals consists of the following: thing, one, something, true, and good. He did not include beauty.

However, St. Thomas writes “They [beauty and goodness] differ logically, for goodness properly relates to the appetite (goodness being what all things desire); and therefore it has the aspect of an end (the appetite being a kind of movement towards a thing). On the other hand, beauty relates to the cognitive faculty; for beautiful things are those which please when seen. Hence 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, just as is every cognitive faculty. Now since knowledge is by assimilation, and similarity relates to form, beauty properly belongs to the nature of a formal cause.” (ST  I.5.4)

So, commentators such as Jacques Maritain on St. Thomas try to show that he saw beauty and goodness as conceptually different, but metaphysically identical. If this is true (I think it is), then beauty could count as a transcendental property of being. Therefore, in answer to your question, yes, if you see real beauty, you will invariably be led to goodness and truth. I heard a child (about six years of age) once say of a Mass “It wasn’t pretty. That wasn’t a good Mass.” Very young children can get this connection.

Is it important for the liturgy to be aesthetically beautiful? Why?

Henri Charlier once wrote, “It is necessary to lose the illusion that the truth can communicate itself fruitfully without that splendor that is one nature with it and which is called beauty.” The Church is the Bride of Christ. It is both natural and expected that the Bride should adorn herself for her Groom. Beauty is of one nature with truth and goodness. The lack or even opposite of the transcendentals cannot reflect the nature of God. So if a liturgy is chaotic (not one), false (riddled with heresy), evil (liturgical abuse) and ugly (monstrous disproportion say), then it cannot lead to God. It will only lead in an opposite direction.

How can the beauty of the liturgy, specifically, lead us to God, and teach us Truth?

A book was written by a monk of Le Barroux, and in it is this passage: “Take a group of Japanese tourists visiting Notre Dame in Paris. They look at the height of the archways, the splendor of the stained-glass windows, the harmony of the proportions. Suppose that at that moment, sacred ministers dressed in orphried velvet copes enter in procession for solemn Vespers. The visitors watch in silence; they are entranced: beauty has opened its doors to them. Now the Summa Theologica and Notre Dame are of the same era. They say the same thing. But who among the visitors has read the Summa? The tourists who visit the Acropolis in Athens are confronted with a civilization of beauty. But who among them can understand Aristotle?”

“And so it is with the beauty of the liturgy. More than anything else it deserves to be called the splendor of the truth. It opens to the small and the great alike the treasure of its magnificence: the beauty of psalmody, sacred chants and texts, candles, the harmony of movement and dignity of bearing. With sovereign art the liturgy exercises a truly seductive influence on souls, who it touches directly, even before the spirit perceives its influence. But it is a delicate art, diametrically opposed to a certain kind of post-conciliar liturgy “rendered opaque and boring, thanks to its taste for the banal and the mediocre, to the point of making one shudder.” (The Ratzinger Report)

Many people love the Traditional Latin Mass because of its beautiful aesthetics. What about this do you think draws people in?

Part of the answer may be found in the ugliness of our cities, of the advertisements, clothing, degraded music and speech. Entering a beautiful church with a TLM well celebrated is leaving that ugliness for a while. True, this can be done out in nature, where you find a lovely little stream to sit bay and admire the sound of the water on the rocks. But the little stream is not the Sacrifice of the Mass. To make a good confession coupled with the beautiful worship of God is be shriven of interior ugliness as well.

And at the TLM you can experience integrity on a level that is extraordinarily hard to accomplish in the Novus Ordo. That is, no one would argue that Gregorian Chant and polyphony do not belong in the TLM, but it is easy to find those who argue that our Latin heritage has no place whatsoever in the N.O. If you walk into a modern church with the high altar left over from earlier times serving as a plant stand, you might think that it’s a better use of the altar than demolition. But no one would think that a gothic high altar really goes with the N.O. So there is a sense that everything fits together – the high altar, the silence, the incense, the chants, Latin…all of it. The sense of integrity reaches to deep levels in those attending the TLM.

On the other hand, many people love the Novus Ordo because to them it feels more personal, more “homey.” Is there beauty in this, as well?

Yes. We are creatures of habit! On the whole, elderly Catholics who made the switch to the N.O. in the vernacular are usually quite opposed to “going back” to the TLM. But I’ve seen plenty of Masses in the N.O. where there is a great deal of beauty, from the decorum of the celebrant and the servers to a quality chalice. It’s just that even the best of these Masses is weighed down by things like a translation which sounds as if it were done by the International Committee for the Abolition of Poetry.

Has the beauty of the liturgy played a role in your own faith throughout your life?

Yes. My first experience of the Mass was as a young college student (not Catholic – I’m a convert) at the Benedictine abbey of Notre Dame de Fontgombault in France. There I heard Gregorian Chant for the first time in my life, and the guy next to me (he wasn’t Catholic either but later converted) leaned over and said “I don’t know what this stuff is, but it’s real holy.”

I couldn’t have agreed more.

Fr. James Jackson, FSSP is stationed at Littleton Colorado, where he serves as pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church. He is also the author of Nothing Superfluous, An Explanation of the Symbolism of the Rite of St. Gregory the Great

August 24, 2020