Truths and Errors Concerning Beauty
Philosophers with justice define beauty as the harmony of diversity, and they properly distinguish beauty of form from beauty of expression, as well as the beauty of art from the beauty of nature; similarly, it has been very justly said that the beautiful is distinguished from the useful by the fact that it has no objective outside itself or outside the contemplation of which it is the object, and also that the beautiful is distinguished from the agreeable by the fact that its effect surpasses mere pleasure; and finally that it is distinguished from truth by the fact that it is grasped by immediate contemplation and not by discursive thought.(1)
On the other hand, one cannot maintain unequivocally, as some people have done, that beauty of expression is always more important than beauty of form, for this is either to underestimate beauty of form or to overestimate the importance of the moral factor on the plane of aesthetics. It is true that expression has priority over form when an interior beauty coincides with an exterior beauty, but the case is different when it is superimposed on ugliness, for then it belongs to the sphere of morality rather than to that of pure aesthetics. It may also be admitted with good reason that expression takes precedence over form when a loss of beauty in one sense gives rise to a new kind of beauty, as is the case with old people-when age has simply transferred a preexisting beauty on to another plane, or has even created physical beauty. Lastly, the primacy of expression can again be acknowledged in the case of the artistic representation of living beings, where beauty is affirmed through a distorting stylization which is far removed from nature, and where form has not got to copy the specific beauty of life.(2)
But as a general rule form takes a higher place, aesthetically speaking, than expression— unless the latter is deliberately concerned with stressing ugliness—in the sense that its normative character and thus its regularity of substance and of proportions constitutes the prime condition of aesthetic value; for wherever harmony or balance are lacking in the form itself, beauty of expression no longer appears as a decisive factor in the order of sensible beauty, this order being by definition that of formal perfection or of truth in form. Beauty of soul can indeed enhance that of the body, or even assert its supremacy to the point of submerging or extinguishing the corporeal, but it cannot purely and simply replace the beauty of the body as though the body did not exist and did not itself have a right to the perfection which is its existential norm.
If it is wrong to attribute beauty, because of some favorable prejudice, to things that are outwardly disharmonious, it is no less wrong to deny it, for analogous but inverse reasons, to things that unquestionably possess it. In the first case one should say to oneself that ugliness is but an earthly shadow, and in the second ease that beauty, even when its bearer is an unworthy creature, praises nevertheless the Creator and belongs to Him alone.
A moralist would no doubt maintain that the expression of a face, even of one that is well proportioned, is ugly when the individual gives way to the passions; but this apparently acceptable opinion is in serious danger of being wrong in reality, for in the young the expression is often beautiful, thanks to the cosmic beauty inherent in youth; it is then, strictly speaking, youth itself, and not a particular creature who happens to be young, that manifests beauty. The passions readily take on the impersonal and innocent beauty of the forces of nature, but they are limiting and privative, since we are intellectual creatures and not birds or plants; our personality is not restricted to bodily beauty nor to youth, it is not made for this base world, but is condemned to pass through it. It is for this reason that beauty and youth desert man in the end; he is then left with nothing, if he has identified himself with his flesh, save physical degradation together with the ugliness of greed and hardness of heart, to which are added the vanity of regrets and the emptiness of a wasted life; but in all this the real beauty possessed by man has no place, any more than has the Creator whose Beatitude this beauty reflects. Attempts to moralize beauty and ugliness must be opposed, however convenient confusions of this kind may be from this or that relative point of view.(3)
Another very widespread error, not moralist this time but relativist and subjectivist, suggests that beauty is no more than a mere question of taste and that the canons of aesthetic perfection vary according to the country and the period; or to put it the other way, that the variations which in fact occur prove the arbitrary and subjective character of beauty, or of that which has come to be called beauty. In reality beauty is essentially an objective factor which we may or may not see or may or may not understand but which like all objective reality or like truth possesses its own intrinsic quality; thus it exists before man and independently of him. It is not man who creates the Platonic archetypes, it is they that determine man and his understanding; the beautiful has its ontological roots far beyond all that is within the comprehension of sciences restricted to phenomena.
Beauty, even the beauty of a simple object, of a modest flower or a snowflake, suggests a whole world; it liberates, whereas ugliness as such imprisons. The words “as such” are necessary because compensations can always neutralize ugliness, just as, the other way round, beauty can in fact lose all its luster. Under normal conditions beauty evokes the limitlessness and at the same time the equilibrium of concordant possibilities; thus it evokes the Infinite and also, in a more immediately tangible way, the nobility and generosity which derive there from, a nobility that disdains and a generosity that scatters its gifts. There is nothing niggardly in beauty as such; in it is neither agitation nor avarice nor any constriction of any sort.
The archetype of beauty, or its Divine model, is the superabundance and equilibrium of the Divine qualities, and at the same time the overflowing of the existential potentialities in pure Being. In a rather different sense, beauty stems from the Divine Love, this Love being the will to deploy itself and to give itself, to realize itself in “another”; thus it is that “God created the world by love.” The resultant of Love is a totality that realizes a perfect equilibrium and a perfect beatitude and is for that reason a manifestation of beauty, the first of such manifestations in which all others are contained, namely, the Creation, or the world which in its disequilibriums contains ugliness, but is beauty in its totality. This totality the human soul does not realize, save in holiness.4
Thus beauty always manifests a reality of love, of deployment, of illimitation, of equilibrium, of beatitude, of generosity. On the one hand, love, which is subjective, responds to beauty, which is objective, and on the other hand, beauty, which is deployment, springs from love, which is illimitation, a giving of self, an overflowing, and thus realizes a sort of infinitude. In Being the Universal Substance, the materia prima, is pure Beauty; the creative Essence, which communicates to Substance the archetypes to be incarnated, is the Divine Intelligence, of which Beauty is the eternal complement.(5)
Beauty, being essentially a deployment, is an “exteriorization,” even in divinis, where the unfathomable mystery of the Self is “deployed” in Being, which in its turn is deployed in Existence; Being and Existence, Ishvara and Samsâra, are both Mâyâ, but Being is still God, whereas Existence is already the world. All terrestrial beauty is thus by reflection a mystery of love. It is, “whether it likes it or not,” coagulated love or music turned to crystal, but it retains on its face the imprint of its internal fluidity, of its beatitude and of its liberality; it is measure in overflowing, in it is neither dissipation nor constriction. Human beings are rarely identified with their beauty, which is lent to them and moves across them like a ray of light. Only the Avatara is a priori himself that ray, he “is” the beauty that he manifests corporeally, and that beauty is Beauty as such, the only Beauty there is.(6)
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Although taste does not create beauty, yet it has a natural part to play by reason of the fact that it indicates an affinity, not with the beautiful as such, but with some modality of the beautiful, so that it is perfectly possible to be aware, in a particular case, that the aesthetic ideal is elsewhere than in the object of our personal choice, and to know that this choice is determined, not by a maximum of beauty, but by a maximum of complementary typological relationship. Affinity, which determines the choice of a complement and thus of a harmonious opposite, is explained by our factual limitation to a given type which by definition must exclude something.
It is normal for man to choose conformably to his need, for equilibrium, for plenitude, or for perfection, but intellectually it is not legitimate for him to confuse that which stabilizes his nature, or that which compensates his limitations, with perfection itself. It is psychologically possible to have tastes without objectivizing them abusively, that is to say, without making the mistake of deciding, either that some particular form alone is beautiful, or that no form is beautiful in an objective sense.
In an analogous order of ideas, the affirmation that “the beautiful is the useful” is doubly false. In the first place, what is it that determines in an absolute way the utility of an object or of its purpose, if it is not that spiritual hierarchy of values which the utilitarians entirely ignore? In the second place, if only the useful is beautiful, what of the decorative art which for thousands of years has everywhere been applied to tools, and what of the stylization which transfigures crude objects and which, being universal and immemorial, is natural to man? In a world that lives by the creation and maintenance of artificial needs, the notion of utility becomes singularly arbitrary;(7) those who ill treat that notion at least owe some explanation, not only of the ornamental arts already mentioned but also of the figurative arts, not forgetting music, dance, and poetry, for they too are beautiful without being useful in a crudely practical sense. The arts are in no way identifiable either with practical work or with any kind of tool, and they therefore go beyond the narrow sphere of the “useful”; even architecture and the art of clothing are almost nowhere reduced to mere utility alone. There is no question here of denying that a tool as such possesses, or can possess, a beauty arising from the intelligibility of its symbolism, nor are we maintaining that ornamentation or stylization are conditions of its aesthetic value; we are simply rejecting the assertion that the beautiful is the useful. What must be said is that the useful can be beautiful, and is so to the extent that the tool meets a need, whether this be simply normal and legitimate, or exalted in the hierarchy of values and functions.
At the opposite pole to this utilitarian sophism is situated another error, which paradoxically resembles the former in its exaggeration and intolerance, and has even contributed to its development in conformity with the undulatory movement of so-called progress, and this is “classical” and “academic” aestheticism.(8) According to this way of looking at things, there exists a unique and exclusive canon of human and artistic beauty, an “ideal beauty” in which beauty of form and of content and of kind coincide. This third point is contestable, if not wholly false, for the “kind,” in direct proportion to the elevation of its rank, comprises a whole scale of perfect types, diversified so far as their mode is concerned, but aesthetically equivalent. There can be no question, therefore, of a combing out of individuals so as to obtain a single ideal type, either within humanity as a whole, where the point is self-evident since the races exist, or even within a single race, since the races are complex. The “canons of beauty” are either a matter of sculptural or pictorial style, or a matter of taste and habit, if not of prejudice. In this last case, they are connected more or less with the instinct of self-preservation of a racial group, so that the question is one of natural selection and not of intelligence nor of aesthetics; aesthetics is an exact science and not the mental expression of a biological fatality. These general remarks apply, mutatis mutandis, to the whole domain of the beautiful, and they have a bearing even beyond that domain, in the sense that there may be affinities, and a need for complementary compensations, on every plane of intelligence and of sensibility, and notably on the plane of spiritual life.
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It has been said that beauty and goodness are the two faces of one and the same reality, the one outward and the other inward; thus goodness is internal beauty, and beauty is external goodness. Within beauty it is necessary to distinguish between appearance and essence. A love of beauty, from the point of view adopted here, does not signify attachment to appearances, but an understanding of appearances with reference to their essence and consequently a communication with their quality of truth and love. Fully to understand beauty, and it is to this that beauty invites us, is to pass beyond the appearance and to follow the internal vibration back to its roots; the aesthetic experience, when it is directed aright, has its source in symbolism and not in idolatry. This experience must contribute to union and not to dispersion, it must bring about a contemplative dilatation and not a passional compression; it must appease and relieve, not excite and burden.(9)
Some people doubtless think that beauty, whatever merits it may possibly possess, is not necessary to knowledge. To this it may be answered first that strictly speaking there is no contingency that is in principle indispensable to knowledge as such, but neither is there any contingency totally separated from it; second that we live among contingencies, forms, and appearances, and consequently cannot escape them, not least because we ourselves belong to the very same order as they; third that in principle pure knowledge surpasses all else, but that in fact beauty, or the comprehension of its metaphysical cause, can reveal many a truth, so that it can be a factor in knowledge for one who possesses the necessary gifts; fourth that we live in a world wherein almost all forms are saturated with errors, so that it would be a great mistake to deprive ourselves of a “discernment of spirits” on this plane. There can be no question of introducing inferior elements into pure intellectuality; on the contrary, it is a case of introducing intelligence into the appreciation of forms, among which we live and of which we are, and which determine us more than we know. The relationship between beauty and virtue is very revealing in this connection: virtue is the beauty of the soul as beauty is the virtue of forms; and the Angels or the Devas are not only states of knowledge but also states of beauty comparable to the phenomena we admire in nature or in art.
Under normal conditions spiritual life is plunged in beauty for the simple reason that the environment is unbrokenly traditional; in such a framework, harmony of forms is omnipresent like air and light. In worlds like those of the Middle Ages and the Orient man cannot escape from beauty,(10) and the material forms themselves of every traditional civilization—buildings, clothes, tools, sacred art—prove that beauty is wholly unsought, that is to say that in such a civilization the question of seeking it does not arise; an analogous observation could be made concerning virgin nature, direct work of the Creator. The aesthetic environment of traditional man plays an indirectly didactic part. It “thinks” on his behalf and furnishes him with criteria of truth, if he is capable of understanding them, for “beauty is the splendor of the true.” In a word, for traditional man a certain beauty that can be thought of as a mean is part of his existence, it is a natural aspect of truth and of the good.
One might conceivably hold the opinion that the question of beauty is secondary from the standpoint of spiritual truth, an opinion that is both true and false, but it would be quite impossible to shut one’s eyes to the strange absence of beauty from an entire civilization, namely the civilization that surrounds us and that tends to supplant all others. Modern civilization is in fact the only civilization that resolutely places itself outside the spirituality of forms, or the joy of spiritual expression, and this must clearly have some significance. It is also the only civilization which feels the need to proclaim either that its own ugliness is beautiful or that beauty does not exist. This is not to say that the modern world in fact knows nothing of beautiful things or that it totally repudiates them—or that traditional worlds know nothing of ugliness—but it only produces them incidentally and relegates them more or less completely to the realm of luxury; the serious realm remains that of the ugly and the trivial, as though ugliness were an obligatory tribute to what is believed to be “reality.”
Every normal civilization is “romantic” and “picturesque,” words which in our eyes have a perfectly honorable meaning. If in the present day these words are used in a pejorative sense, like “folklore” and other notions of this kind, this is because of the need people feel to console themselves as best they can, and because of the temptation that always exists to make a virtue out of an inevitable misery. The same is also true of “aestheticism : so long as it is not exaggerated, it is sufficiently explained and justified by an elementary need for beauty or even, in certain cases, for intellectual satisfaction.
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Beauty and goodness, as we have seen, are two faces of one and the same reality, outward the one and inward the other, at least when those words are understood in their most ordinary sense. From another point of view, however, goodness and beauty are situated on the same level, their inward face then being Beatitude; and Beatitude is inseparable from the knowledge of God. “Extremes meet”: it is therefore understandable that the notion of beauty, which is attached a priori to the appearance or the outwardness of things, reveals for that very reason a profound aspect of that which is situated at the antipodes of appearances. In a certain sense, beauty reflects a more profound reality than does goodness, in that it is disinterested and serene like the nature of things, and without objective, like Being or the Infinite. It fleets that inward release, that detachment, that sort of gentle grandeur that is proper to contemplation, and so to wisdom and to truth.
To speak of “interior Beauty” is not a contradiction in terms. It means that the accent is placed on the existential and contemplative aspect of the virtues and at the same time on their metaphysical transparency; it underlines their attachment to their Divine Source, which by reverberation invests them with the quality of being an “end in themselves,” or of majesty; and it is because the beautiful has this quality that it relaxes and liberates. Beauty is inferior to goodness as the outward is inferior to the inward, but it is superior to goodness as “being” is superior to “doing,” or as contemplation is superior to action; it is in this sense that the Beauty of God appears as a mystery even more profound than His Mercy.