Augustine On Beauty

The Birth of Venus, by Sandro Botticelli, 1486. Uffizi, Florence

What is Beauty?

It would seem that “beauty” is, as the famous saying goes, “in the eye of the beholder.”  However, if that saying is true, then perhaps beauty is only in particular persons or things, and that beauty is not a universal property of persons or things, not something that could be communicated beyond the individual “beholder.”   So, maybe there are some realities which are universally beautiful? If this isn’t true, then we could never be any agreement on any type of public art or architecture. Or, we could think of the universal interest in beauty, just by the sheer variety of magazines about beauty at any supermarket checkout stand, or beauty products and whole industries dedicated to it or “beautiful people,” models, photography and their respective industries.  If beauty was the most important thing in life, then it would seem that all the “beautiful people,” celebrities and the like, would be the most happy people in the world. However, we can see by the gossip in the tabloid news that beauty and happiness do not always go together.  Plus, beauty can be found also in nature, horses, for example, and all types of animals, even landscapes, mountains, waterfalls and cloud formations et cetera. From Augustine’s Confessions, (Trans. Gary Wills, Penguin Classics; Deluxe Edition edition, January 31, 2006) he ponders this perrenial question of “what is beauty” and comes to conclude that that which is beautiful is something that cannot be seen with our eyes at all, but we can know more clearly than sight: it is the knowledge of the very source and creator of all beauty, God Himself through light of faith and virtue.

One of the beautiful things about Augustine’s Confessions is how painstakingly clear he reveals his slightest most whimsical thought or fleeting feeling, all of which are tethered together by the logic of the love of God, and the question of “beauty” is no different. Augustine says, “How can we love anything but the beautiful?  What, then, is a beautiful thing, or beauty itself? Can anything compel us that is not beautiful and fitting?”(p.75)  These are good questions!  We are repulsed by what is disfigured and “ugly” or gory.

Augustine says, “This was my plight at the age of twenty-six or twenty-seven, when I wrote that book, hugging to me my own conceptions of the physical world, which filled my ears with their outer noise while I was trying to hear your inner music, my sweet truth.  By dealing with beauty and decorum, I was trying to lift up and listen to you, gladdened by the call of my spouse, but I could not–the noise of my errors pulled me outside myself, while the weight of my pride sank me below myself, where you could not grant me ‘news of real happiness and joy,’ so my bones could not be lifted up because I had not lowered myself.”(p.78)  Here, Augustine very honestly confesses his dissatisfaction with himself, whom he could not help, without the help of God.  He says, “…my bones could not be lifted up because I had not lowered myself”, possibly implying that he was missing God’s invitation to true joy and true happiness because he sought “the beautiful” from himself and for himself, rather than from God and for God.  Because of his own errors, his puffed up pride and his pursuit of the physically beautiful, Augustine admits that he was severely distracted from discovering the beauty of God in his spiritual soul.  He says, “Man is a great abyss.  Though you ‘number the hairs of his head,’ missing none, yet the moods and attractions of his heart far outnumber the hairs of his head.”(p. 76)  How true it is that our emotions change all of the time, in an instant, even, and our moods creep up on us unaware, many times in one day, and countlessly over a lifetime.

Clearly, Augustine discovered that he couldn’t make himself happy by himself and for himself.  He discovered that the only way to climb out of the abyss of his own selfish world once he sought the light of the love through faith in Jesus Christ and that paradoxically, once he forgot about himself and lived for others, he discovered the beauty of his own life now united to someone much greater than himself, the infinite beauty and light and life of God Himself.  Augustine admits, “See how listless the soul lies when not supported by the solid truth.  It is blown abroad and twisted about, turned and re-turned, by whatever gabble the light-minded bother to puff from their lungs, to cloud the light and obscure the truth, though it be staring us in the face.”(p.76)  Again, that very famous line of Augustine from this book, “My soul does not rest until it rests in You O Lord,” also rings true in a different way here, our soul cannot rest until it assents to the truth, rather it is “listless,” unsettled, full of anxiety, like the atheist Existentialist, though daring, cannot rest because he pridefully tries to fit the infinite knowledge of God and all beings and life into his finite mind.  The person of faith humbly dares to admit that this is a futile enterprise for himself to attempt, denying the Faustian mind, and rests assured in the hope that God will maintain all life, all things in being and in order.  As such, beauty has its place, beauty temporarily exists to attract and raise its perceiver to a higher order of being, to reflect the beauty of its originator, the Creator of all beauty, God Himself.

True Beauty

Augustine reflects on his discovery of true beauty in persons who are virtuous.  He says, “I was drawn to the peace I found in virtue, and repelled by the rancor I found in vice, attributing the former to unity, the latter to division.”  We can discover this to be true in your own life, virtuous people just seem easier to be friends with; they tend to put others first and themselves last.  Whereas, the person who lacks virtue is often difficult to be friends with, hard to be around, critical and a source of division.  He continues, “Unity was the sphere of the ordered mind, of real truth and the highest good, while in division I thought I saw some status of the disordered mind, of the highest evil as a reality, having not only a state of its own but a life as well…I called unity the Monad, pure mind without gender, and division I called the Dyad, pure anger to hurt and lust to despoil.  It was my ignorance speaking, since I had not grasped or been told that evil has no reality of its own and mind is not the highest and changeless good.”  It is much easier to destroy than to create, to divide than to unite, to criticize than to praise, to create chaos than to maintain order, so too in our own lives.  Our minds can change!  This is a great thing, but the fact that our mind can change itself is also a sign of our inherent lack of unity of the mind, with our body and soul, all of which yearn for balance, order, the ideal, and the truth in order to achieve interior peace of person, overall. We need to start with peace in our soul in order to have order in our mind and body.  Augustine says, “You, Lord my God, ‘light a lamp for me to bring light into my darkness.’ For ‘we all partake of your fullness,’ since you are ‘the true light, giving light to every man who comes into this world.  In you ‘there is no alteration or dimming by time.’ (p.78)  Physical beauty is subject to time, experiencing deterioration.  That which is not altered by time is holiness.  Holiness is eternal.  Holy people are the most beautiful people because their holiness is beauty.  Holiness is not subject to deterioration because because our soul is extracosmic, our soul is outside of time, our soul is that divine stuff within us.  Augustine found that through faith and virtue even he could reflect the origin of all beauty, of all holiness, and that is God Himself.

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