Second Meditation: On Beauty

Note: This is just a series of loose thoughts written out more or less as they come, presented in the hopes that someone will find something worthwhile within them. 

Our society despises beauty. This may sound surprising, given how much we hear about overvaluing of physical appearance, impossible beauty standards in media, and the rest of it, but that sort of thing isn’t an overvaluing of beauty, but an extension of our bonobo-like obsession with sex; it is ‘hotness’ we value, not beauty. Granted, beauty and sexual attraction, in women, often overlap, but they aren’t the same thing.

Once this distinction is clear in our mind, examples and proofs pile up almost faster than we can describe them. Female fashions are designed to emphasize and draw attention to the bodily form, as opposed to earlier fashions which were meant to adorn it. Compare a woman’s frock from the 1930s, with its patterned dress and accompanying hats with a modern body-hugging dress or pants. It isn’t just a matter of being more or less revealing, but a matter of how much the dress itself was meant to look pretty compared to how much it was meant to draw the eye to the woman’s body (this distinction occurred to me watching an episode of All Creatures Great and Small, where I realized that the dress of the protagonist’s wife was doing something very different than a modern dress would).

Also, if our culture valued beauty as such, we would prize it in our art, architecture, music, and so on. We do not. This is almost a truism; no one looks at modern architecture or modern art and praises it for its beauty. Even people who like the stuff like it for other reasons. In architecture we either go for bland utilitarianism or self-indulgent absurdism.




This is supposed to be a Cathedral, by the way.


We further denigrate beauty with grotesque blasphemies such as “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” trying to render the whole thing subjective, either in an excuse to provide poor work or out of misguided compassion (looking at you, Mr. Serling).

All of this, as I see it, is a concerted effort by modernity to try to shut down the one thing it can’t successfully lie about or explain away. G.K. Chesterton exposed this dilemma of the revolutionary in The Loyal Traitor:

“We can rise up ignorance against science and impotence against power, but who is going raise ugliness against beauty?”

Against truth, the revolutionary can assert a lie, and the lie may be convincing. Against nobility, the revolutionary can assert liberty and license, and they are appealing. But against beauty he can only offer sophistries and evasions, because beauty is unanswerable. You can give someone a false idea to fall back on, but you can’t stop him from seeing it if he has any humanity left.

Of the three great pillars of goodness – Truth, Nobility, and Beauty – beauty is the easiest to perceive and that hardest to define. You cannot exactly say what constitutes it; it is not evenness (trees are beautiful), nor size (flowers and mountains are both beautiful), nor vision (music and poems and even ideas can be beautiful). The only way to really describe it is a thing being as it ought to be. In short, beauty is the raw perception that the thing before us is good.

This is why beauty leads to love, and why talk of love is so often couched in terms of beauty: perception of goodness leads easily to willing that goodness to continue, and consequently to the desire to subordinate oneself to it.

This is also the reason for the ‘beauty equals goodness’ trope, which was never as universal as some like to claim, but it a venerable practice: storytellers make the good people beautiful as a shorthand way of showing their goodness, and the reverse for the bad guys. In visual media, it encourages us to be on their side from the beginning. Beauty is raw perception of goodness, at least in terms of form and appearance, so it is helpful as a means to lead audiences to perceive other good qualities about the heroes.

If beauty is the raw perception of goodness, then we may say that, in our experience of beauty, we have a dim image of how God perceives creation. God saw that creation was good; that is, creation affected God after the fashion a beautiful object affects us. Had mankind never fallen, no doubt his ability to perceive beauty would have been greatly increased, as would his ability to produce it in his own work.

What is more, beauty, as I said, is a perception that a thing is as it ought to be. Thus, the notion of objective beauty contains within it something akin to the notion of intent in creation, something akin to the Platonic forms, the essential concept that there are ideas behind real, physical things we encounter. That is, if we perceive beauty, we perceive that that beautiful object conforms to its pattern or its concept. But that means there is a concept that precedes the object, as the concept of a machine precedes its invention.

There are two ways to understand this; the progressive claims that the concept comes from us; that our perception of beauty depends on how well it fits our own pre-conceived notions of the object. Thus, a woman is beautiful is she fits the ‘standards’ of the (male) observer. The traditionalist, on the other hand, would say that the concept comes from God, and that we perceive that the beautiful object, insofar as it is beautiful, fits the perfect idea of it in the mind of the Creator. We are able to perceive this because we are made in His image and likeness and thus have minds akin to His, if infinitely lesser.

The problem with the progressive approach is first that we may perceive beauty in things we are seeing for the first time, and which we had no conception of before hand. A traveller from the Navajo who ended up in Paris would be able to perceive beauty in Notre Dame Cathedral though he’d never seen a stone building before. A boy raised in the Sahara would not be blind to the beauty of a snowfall merely because he’d never imagined one before (indeed, this is the opposite of our experience; totally new perceptions of beauty strike us more forcefully than ones we are familiar with).

Another problem is one that progressive thought runs into constantly; the problem of origin. If beauty is socially constructed, it is hard to see where the concept came from in the first place. That is, if our perception of beauty is only our perception of the preconceived notions we have been taught by social pressures to apply, then whence can these notions and to what purpose? Who was it that decided Mozart and Bouguereau ought to strike the senses as they do and why?

You see, if our conception of a given object, and hence of its beauty comes from ourselves through social pressures, there must be an origin point at which this process began. And it is hard to imagine either how that would happen or why it would be applied to such completely irrelevant objects as stars, landscapes, and music, but not to more survival-crucial factors such as food or tools (for beauty is so far not utility that the two concepts are almost opposites: very, very few things are valued both for their beauty and their utility).

Now, I am sure some explanation could be offered that was more or less plausible (off the top of my head, a common conception of beauty fosters group cohesion. Though I severely doubt primitive peoples, or really anyone prior to the modern world even thought in those terms, let alone formed quiet conspiracies to enact them. Considering how incompetent we, with our ‘scientific’ understanding of these phenomena are at creating such things, I doubt our ancestors even bothered trying). The point is that beauty requires an explanation, and more than that, if it isn’t going to end in what might be termed a traditionalist view – of objective values, supernatural origins, and teleological creation – it has to be explained away. Beauty, as an objective reality, does not fit into a progressive view of the universe.

Yet even when intellectually explained away, it can’t be avoided except through maiming the soul. Jaded high school students raised on ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ will still stop and gaze at a Bouguereau painting. People still flock to the Grand Canyon and still stargaze, and you can still pack an auditorium to hear the music of Mozart. Beauty is unanswerable because it is simply perceived, as a color is. You can quibble about the definition of green, but you can’t argue a man into seeing red. You can explain beauty away, but you can’t stop someone from seeing it. Beauty, in the last resort, is the final snag that links a man to God.

That is why modern, progressive society hates it so much. That is why we try to scrub it as much as possible from our lives, why we insist on subjectivity, why we insist that ugly works of art are just as good – nay, better – than beautiful ones. That is one reason we lay so much stress on the sexual aspect of female beauty. That is why the Catholic liturgy has been gutted and Catholic churches defaced by their own congregations.

Beauty leads to love, and to love anything for its own sake is to take one step away from the progressive mindset that the end goal is the greatest thing and one step closer to loving God, from whom all good things flow.


First Meditation: God the Creator

Note: This is just a series of loose thoughts written out more or less as they come, presented in the hopes that someone will find something worthwhile within them. 


Most of the truths of our faith have become truisms through repetition, so that we fail to appreciate their meaning. To say that God created the Heavens and the Earth, and that through Christ all things were made seems to us, at the end of two millennia of Christian teaching, to be simply what a god does. We hardly even remember that the pagan gods, by and large, were not creators. At best, they were artisans making new things out of what already was. Zeus was not the creator. Odin the all-father himself had fathers. But God, the God of the Hebrews, is Creator of all, including of the devil himself, and He made them out of nothing, through His word alone.

It is an interesting point that: In the Beginning was the Word, through Whom all things were made. And God, in Genesis, creates by word, merely by commanding it to be. God speaks, and the world was made.

That raises a question: what is a word? Is a word not an idea made manifest? If I say ‘chair,’ well you and I have an idea of what a chair is. The word conveys the idea through sound or symbol, yet neither sound nor symbol contain within themselves the idea (as shown by the fact that other sounds and symbols can and are used to manifest the same idea: hence the variety of language).

A word is an idea made manifest. When God speaks His word, His ideas are made. It might almost be said that, as setting up sound waves are our method of speaking, so Creation is God’s.

That means that everything that is corresponds to an idea within the mind of God. These ideas may be said to correspond with what Plato called the Forms (if I read him correctly): the deeper reality that physical things are the reflection of.

All this world we live in came direct from the mind of God, yet is external to Him, as a spoke word is external to the speaker (the image in The Silmarillian of God and the angels singing creation into being is a very fitting one). Moreover, God called the world good, and we know that He loves the world, and especially mankind. If He loves it, then we are to love it as well.

But what of the unlovable parts of Creation? Sin and pain and suffering and the like?

Part of that I think may be that nature, in the sense of non-human physical nature, was never meant to quite correspond to rational values. Just what she is or what her purpose is, we do not know. Perhaps before the Fall we did, but not now. But she is separated from us in a way she is not from the other animals: the rules for lions and deer and insects are not those for us. Yet, as both come from the same mind, we must be able to find parallels and illustrations between them: they are not absolutely different.

More importantly, however, is the reality of sin: that is, the creature rebelling against the creator and refusing to correspond to the perfect idea in the mind of God, even though it is only in such correspondence that the creature can experience what is called happiness.

I don’t know whether nature herself can sin, but a rational being, one aware of itself and its creator, certainly can. This follows from God making all things good. The creature, contemplating itself, sees that itself is good. It is thus aware of two goods; itself and God. Whenever two or more goods are presented, it is possible to choose one or the other. Yet God cannot make anything that is not good, and as it is better to choose freely than by compulsion, His goodness would require Him to grant free will to His creatures, which being themselves good and reflections of Him, must tempt them to choose themselves apart from Him.

Sin, thus, is perhaps a necessary, not condition or even consequence, but possibility of the world God has made. The very goodness of goodness itself creates the possibility of evil.

This we see in our own experience: everything good can potentially be turned to evil. Anything good can be abused, and the better the thing is, the worse the abuse. Creation was good; perhaps the best thing there is apart from God (well, by definition it must be, as those are, broadly speaking, the only two categories in existence), thus it has the potential for evil.

Does God, who is all good, therefore have the potential for Evil? No, because evil means choosing the self or some other good besides God. Obviously, God Himself cannot do that.

Creation, therefore, by its very goodness creates the possibility of evil. It also spreads God’s own goodness and reflects it. Why did God create, if creation brings with it the possibility of Evil? It seems to be that He wished to share the goodness that He is; to give it to others. Creation is a pure gift of goodness; when we gaze on the night sky, or enjoy the taste of food, or spend time in nature, or listen to music, or make love with our wives, we are sharing in the goodness of God. We are experiencing, in a minor key, a taste of what He experiences eternally and offers to share with us.

I don’t know whether non-rational creation experiences anything like this; certainly there is some measure of happiness found in animal life, such as dogs or horses, and perhaps there is something akin to happiness in nature herself. Wordsworth described every flower rejoicing in the air it breathes, but I wonder whether what is actually happening is not more like the entirety of nature herself has some form of spirit, which experiences something like happiness. Or perhaps God’s idea of each species and each type of plant and stone and ocean has its proper spirit or angel to partake in its share of the goodness of God. Or perhaps these things exist for the sake of the rational creation, and experience happiness only through man. The example of domestic animals might seem to indicate this: a dog achieves its full state of happiness, if that is the correct word, only through the love and training of a kind master.

But this is speculation. What we do know is that God created all things through His Word, which is Christ, the second person of the Trinity. All things, therefore, are good to the extent that God made them.

And what of the evil things of creation? Cancers and diseases and the like? I think we can say these things were not made that way by God, but twisted by the Devil. For instance, the little bacteria that causes Bubonic Plague was created innocent by God. It was Satan that took it and twisted it to be the vector of disease. Viruses, those little un-living bundles of protein, may have been created direct by the Devil as a mockery of life. Cancer too is not a creature itself but a misprogramming of the body. Such things are not the work of God, but corruptions or distortions. Disease is the Devil’s creation, as seen by Christ casting it out wherever He goes, together with the demons who are the Devil’s minions.

But we are not like that. We were made direct by God and in His image and likeness. He made each of us individually, and knew us before He formed us in our mothers’ wombs. Each human being corresponds to a particular idea in the mind of God: each man has his own proper Form.

These ideas are what God means for each of us, the pattern that He intended us to be. He does not create to no purpose, and He expects something specific from each one of us (see the parable of the Talents). None of us, save Our Lord, Our Lady, and perhaps St. John the Baptist, has ever fully matched the Idea God had of us in His head. Those of us who make creative work will recognize that the ideas we have never seem to measure up to the reality: perhaps this is God’s way of conveying His frustration to us.

And why do we not fit the pattern when we have a perfect creator? Because, in a staggering condescention, God does not act as sole creator. He permits us to have a hand in our own creation. He provides the baseline: our time, our appearance, our sex, and so on, and guides our hand through the rest, but we are the ones He wishes to create according to His pattern: to build upon what He provides us.

It is since the initial fall and the onset of original sin – like the familial tremors that make it so hard for me to write neatly – that this co-creation has become impossible. We can’t help missing the line or twitching the pen out of position, and that’s when we are trying to follow the pattern. When we decide to freestyle on the idea we can make something better than God, we end up with a complete mess. We make ourselves into things that are no longer even akin to what God intended, fitting outselves for nothing but the rubbish heap.

For never forget: we are made in God’s image. These selves we are creating are little portraits of our Divine Creator. An image of God that conveys a lie, or a slander, or a caricature of Him is unacceptable, even in the interest of the ruined man himself. To be eternally proclaiming a lie is no happiness and does no good to anyone. Thus enters Hell: the repository for lies and broken images. To be made in the image of God contains within itself the requirement of Hell: for if an image turns false to its subject, it ceases to be an image at all.

God created the world, but He allows us to help create ourselves. Our lives are the creation process: in fact, we do not know what it is like to be in a finished creation, only in an ongoing one. That state of completion, of having it said of us “It is good,” is what we call ‘Heaven.’

Thus, properly speaking, our lives are a single, continuous creation, like the lines in a picture make up a single image. The revelation of Our Faith is in the Life of Christ, and before that the Life of Israel the nation: not in any one formula or set of statements (though these are used to clarify and understand revelation). God speaks through creation, and the life of a man is a single element of Creation. Thus, the Life of Christ is, in its totality, God’s statement to mankind.