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A Working Definition of Beauty

How would you define beauty? It's actually really hard when you start thinking about it. I'm reading a book at the moment called The Beauty of the Infinite The Aesthetics of Christian truth. It's written by a man with a bigger brain than I'll ever have. It's the kind of book which, when you read it you can tell that he has so much to say he almost doesn't know where to start - or when to stop - and eventually ends up telling you more than perhaps he intended to. Not a criticism, just an observation. He won't go down as one of the great writers of our time, but he's absolutely one of the deepest thinkers. Anyway, he says this of beauty: "the modern disenchantment with the beautiful as a concept reflects in part a sense that while beauty is something whose event can be remarked upon, and in a way that seems to convey meaning, the word "beauty" indicates nothing: neither exactly a quality, nor a property, nor a function, not even really a subjective reaction to an object or occurrence, it offers no phenomenological purchase upon aesthetic experience".

He then proceeds to explain how beauty is a category indispensable to Christian thought, followed by six ways to describe what beauty is, spanning ten pages. Not bad for something which indicates nothing.

He's got a point, though. Beauty is a hard to pin down concept. And perhaps the word "beauty" does indicate nothing specific without a context to wrap itself in. But I'd like to have a go at a working definition. Perhaps another time I'll then have a go at thinking through why it is a category indispensable to Christian thought. But the entire blog is pretty much for that end.

It's worth saying that the dictionary does a decent job, actually, of defining beauty:

"The quality present in a thing or person that gives intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind, whether arising from sensory manifestations (as shape, color, sound, etc.), a meaningful design or pattern, or something else (as a personality in which high spiritual qualities are manifest)".

That's a highly practical definition that touches on the most observable factors behind a beauty experience. But I think we can go into even more detail. So here's my attempt.

In one of my previous posts on the beauty of the Church, I wrote the following:

"If we say that what we perceive as beauty is: the relationship between the moral and aesthetic dimension of a thing, beauty becomes eminently important and useful in that everything that is, is moral and aesthetic. This is why we can say that everything is beautiful. Thus, our understanding of how beauty exists serves as a framework of understanding of everything.

The relationship between the moral dimension and the aesthetic dimension is vitally important. In fact, the aesthetic dimension depends upon there being a moral dimension and cannot exist without it. A moral dimension can exist without an aesthetic and actually, necessarily precedes an aesthetic. Yet the moral desires an aesthetic. And its value (beauty) depends upon, in large part, achieving an aesthetic expression (though not always, and not entirely)"

The seed of the actual definition (of sorts) is contained within the first sentence, so let me refine the proposition: beauty is the satisfying harmony of relationship between a moral entity and its counterpart aesthetic expression.

You can see why David Bentley Hart decided the word beauty indicates nothing. My definition doesn't necessarily refer to anything specific, either. It's laden with possibility, however, and the value of such a definition is in its ability to help us discern beauty anywhere. It teaches us to look for the satisfaction we can derive from the perceived harmony of relationship between the moral and aesthetic qualities of a thing - anything. Of course we can discern and define beauty in the moral and aesthetic dimensions separately. But the definition I have put forward urges us not simply to gorge ourselves on mere aesthetic qualities (which can end up giving a quick fix pleasure kick, then very quickly become disappointing), but to seek the highest and best beauties there are, by considering an aesthetic alongside its moral counterpart in order to discern their true value and rank thems correctly. This is useful because it is when we begin to discern and appreciate aesthetic beauty apart from moral beauty, that we can become prone to deception! (More on that deceit in another post). Indeed, the moral and the aesthetic together are important, because that is where beauty most accurately perceived and pleasure most honestly experienced. The interesting thing about this is that since a moral component is necessarily born from intelligence and is, by nature, for the benefit of intelligence, we learn that what we can describe as beautiful is that which prospers intelligent relationships and promotes intelligent flourishing. And if that can happen anywhere, as my definition of beauty allows, then we begin to understand - I think - what the created order is all about. God and people.

Well, I wonder what you think of that. I'm clearly still getting to grips with how broad and comprehensive, if not elusive, this word is. But it's always fun to have a go, I think.


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