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The Human Person and Beauty

BY Mark Shea

| Posted 11/21/13 at 11:01 PM

 

Another way of approach to God is via our experience of Goodness, including the sort of Goodness we call beauty.

St. Thomas notes that human beings constantly make comparisons between things.  This is hotter than that.  That is bigger than this, etc.  Now whenever we make a comparison, we are measuring things against some ultimate or ideal or else the comparison is meaningless. To call a lit match hotter than an ice cube we are comparing the two to some Ultimate Hot such as the Sun. And so we likewise make comparisons about things being “better” or “more beautiful” or “nobler” than other things.  Of course, a lot of this is subjective and we have to be very careful about making mere aesthetic tastes some sort of iron law everybody has to agree with.  If you like vanilla and I like chocolate, nobody is “wrong.”  But at the same time, we really do tend to broadly agree that, for instance, a gorgeous sunset over the Pacific Ocean is a better and more beautiful and noble thing than a rank and weedy former parking lot with the wind hissing over the dead and poisoned grass outside an abandoned and decaying toilet paper factory in Detroit.

Indeed, humans are distinguishable from all of natural creation in their ability to see and create beauty. In the words of G. K. Chesterton, "Art is the signature of man."  We do not find rough studies of how a wildebeest swings its head sketched in the dirt by the chimpanzees of Africa. Those creatures biologically nearest us in the great dynasties of the animal kingdom—the primates—are still so remotely different from us that there exists an unbridgeable chasm between the rest of creation and our capacity to appreciate and create beauty. Such creativity and love of beauty does not square well with the attempt to claim that there is no real difference between humans and other creatures. It does, however, make a remarkable amount of sense in light of the biblical account of humans as somehow being made in the image of God who creates. We really do see that a Mozart Sonata is beautiful and nails on a chalkboard or the noise of five pianos dropped from an airplane are not.  We perceive that one is better than the other, and therefore measure them both against some ultimate Good which is, again, what everybody means by “God.”  As St. Augustine said long ago:

Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air distending and diffusing itself, question the beauty of the sky. . . question all these realities. All respond: "See, we are beautiful." Their beauty is a profession [confessio]. These beauties are subject to change. Who made them if not the Beautiful One [Pulcher] who is not subject to change?

So we find it is so that not only do beings find their source in Being, beauties find their source in Beauty.  We find that God is the ultimate Beauty, which is another way of saying that he not only exists, but is Good. And so, looking not merely at creation-in-general, but at the strange creature called homo sapiens, we can begin to glimpse, not only that God is, but that, since Man and Woman reflect him as all creatures reflect him, he is more like an artist than mere Mind.