Pankalia: The Catholic Vision of Beauty

Peter Chojnowski
Reproduced with Permission

Since the Renaissance, when, for the first time in the history of Western Civilization, the "artisan" (artifex) was distinguished from the "fine artist," the reality of the beautiful, its power and force, its moral demands, and its enticing pull as "end" and "goal" has been increasingly diminished, narrowed, and enervated. Whereas, in the ancient Greek world, as in the Catholic Middle Ages, the "beautiful" (kalon) was fostered in craft, gymnastics, moral life, and education, the Renaissance, with its practical deification of the genius of the "fine artists," increasingly relegated the domain of the beautiful to that of the arts (e.g., painting, sculpture, music) that had as their object the production of a work of art that could "be appreciated for its own sake," without any reference being made to the works relevance for some practical endeavor. The notoriety of the fine artists of the Renaissance, and the anonymity of the "craftsmen" (i.e., those who created objects, which were meant for some practical employment, as opposed to those that were meant for aesthetic enjoyment alone), helped to establish and perpetuate this "house arrest" of the beautiful.

Even as the great artistic geniuses of the Renaissance, DaVinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael are examples, established an artistic cult of the beautiful, nevertheless, they increasingly regulated the manner in which the beautiful was "allowed" to emerge. For Leonardo DaVinci, it was from a visual space ordered according to the mathematical laws that characterize nature that the rightly proportioned beautiful was "allowed" to emerge. Moreover, it was the artist with scientific acumen who could so express the mathematical laws of nature on canvas, so as to enable the balance, the geometrical regularity, and the 3 dimensional substance of the beauty of things to emerge for the appreciation of the viewer. With Michelangelo, even though he rejected this relegation of the beautiful to that which was in accord with the laws of mathematics, he, nevertheless, appeared to restrict a real insight into the beautiful forms latent in the, as yet, unformed "stuff" of matter (e.g., a slab of unformed marble), to the genius of the fine artist who, like Plato's demiurge spoken of in the Timaeus, can both grasp the ideal form as such exists in the spiritual and perfectly real world, while, also, identifying the imperfect manifestation of that form as it is "encased," waiting to be liberated, from the inert, unformed, heaviness of matter. As Michelangelo himself states, when attempting to describe his conception of the work of the sculptor, "The greatest artist has no conception which a single block of marble does not potentially contain within its mass, but only a hand obedient to the mind can penetrate to this image."1 Also, "After divine and perfect art has conceived the form and attitudes of a human figure, the first-born of this conception is a simple clay model. The second, of rugged live stone, then claims that which the chisel promised, and the conception lives again in such beauty that none may confine its spirit."2

After seeing the "pursuit of the beautiful," relegated to elite artistic circles, we find the Romanticism of the 18th and 19th centuries enclosing the beautiful within the "moment" of aesthetic experience pursued and possessed by the aesthete. The Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard identified this type of man, of which he saw many examples in his own day, as one who does not evaluate actions, situations, or choices in terms of "good" and "evil," but rather, in terms of the "beautiful" and the "ugly." His orientation in life was to strive after the possession of discrete aesthetic experiences that could be captured and enclosed within a beautiful moment. For the aesthete, his life was the accumulation of beautiful moments. As Kierkegaard states, his life lacked continuity and coherence. The pursuit of the beautiful had fragmented the aesthete's personality rather than being a "call" (kalein) to unity, as Plato would have it. One of the results of Romanticism was that the beautiful was now thought to be within the category of the subjective. Beauty "was in the eye of the beholder" and needed to be attached to a subjective feeling of contentment. This gradual "hijacking " of the phenomena of the beautiful by the artistic elite only ended when that same elite violently rejected the concept of the beautiful as heteronomous, that is, imposing an objective standard on the autonomy of the artistic mind, therefore, oppressing that mind and repressing the originality and subjective choice of the artist. Since the artistic elites have sent the beautiful into exile in the 20th century, it has wandered into the realm of the maudlin, the sentimental, and the "pretty." Such a concept cannot move, drive, and overpower.

A) Beauty as a Property of All Being

Nihil est quod non participat pulchro (St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Divine Names, IV, 5). How different is our contemporary pathetic conception of the beautiful from the unfathomable richness of the above statement of St. Thomas Aquinas, "There is nothing that does not participate in the beautiful." Here we find St. Thomas articulating, as he normally does in many different philosophical domains, the collective wisdom of the perennial philosophical tradition. This nihil est is the Latin expression of the classical Greek idea of pankalia, the understanding that everything which is is beautiful. What we have here is a simple statement asserting the convertibility of being and the beautiful. To be is to be beautiful.

To understand why St. Thomas would make this reference to being as always, and in every case, "beautiful," we must understand a few things about the "being" to which beauty necessarily attaches itself. In treating this question, in his De Veritate, St. Thomas mentions that the reality of being is that which the intellect first conceives and which it can reduce all of its concepts to. Being is what fecundates the intellect; it gives it substance and subject matter to operate on. Moreover, since being is that to which all things can be reduced, or they could not be thought, being must be what all concepts are reducible to. This brings us to a problem when we try to conceive of a way of saying something about this "being" that is the subject matter of all thought. How can you predicate anything of being, since nothing can be added to being as though it were something not included in being.3

What St. Thomas draws from this analysis is that being is, therefore, not a genus, because it transcends and includes all genera. What follows from this is that nothing can be predicated of being in an adjectival sense. We can immediately grasp the absurdity of saying something like, "Being is blue" or "Being is cheaper by the dozen!" What can we say, then, about this most important reality? In the same text, the De Veritate, St. Thomas states that there do exist certain properties which, it might be said, can be added to being (dicuntur addere supra ens) in the sense that they express a mode of being which the term "being" (ens) does not make explicit. Here we find properties of being, which do not apply to a particular set of beings, like "colored," but apply to every being in so far as they have being (ita quod modus expressus sit modus generalis consequens omne ens). In philosophy, those terms, which express the very core and value of being, are referred to as the "transcendental properties of being." When presenting the list of these properties, which are present wherever things exist, St. Thomas relies on the classical list of transcendentals, unum (one), ens (a being), bonum (good), and verum (true), along with the additional properties that had been added to the traditional list by the Arab commentators on Aristotle's Metaphysics,4 res (a thing), and aliquid (something). Here we see the origin of the great idea that served as the main thrust of the Dominican attack on the Albigensian heretics of the 13th century. In opposition to the heretics who declared material reality to be evil by its very nature, the Dominicans, St. Thomas included, proclaimed the "goodness" of all things. "Goodness," as a transcendental property of being, added nothing to being, nor did it diminish it or limit it in any way. Rather, goodness, as a transcendental property of being, applicable to all things insofar as they exist, is simply a way of looking at being "from a different angle." By speaking of being as "good" and "true," we indicate that being as such is rich in significance, depth, and character, it is desirable and intelligible in its entirety. This Thomistic understanding of being and, hence, all of reality, is in direct contradiction to the nihilists who would desiccate being by depriving it of intrinsic meaning and value.

The question that arises for us, however, is whether or not the predicate "beautiful" can be applied to all beings insofar as they exist. Is it the case that St. Thomas Aquinas held to this view that "beauty" (pulchrum) is a property "coextensive with being?" This question concerning whether or not beauty is a property coextensive with being is important on account of the fact that if such is the case, two very fundamental consequences would follow from this fact. First, God, who St. Thomas preeminently recognizes as "Being-Itself" or "Self-Subsistent Being" (Ipsum Esse Subsistens), would necessarily gain a new property. Second, the universe would acquire a new perfection. This perfection, since it would be grounded in things in so far as they exist, in all of their concrete reality, would acquire an objectivity and dignity, which it would not have if it was simply "in the eye of the beholder." So just as there is nothing ontologically evil (i.e., evil in the very roots of its being), so too the apparent deformities and dissonances in the universe would be resolved within a resplendent beauty that shined forth insofar as it stood forth out of nothingness.

When considering the works of St. Thomas Aquinas that deal with the whole topic of beauty and, especially, with the beauty of all things, we must turn our attention to the text in which he most directly addresses this aesthetic topic. It was in his Commentary on the Divine Names, written by the 5th century Syrian monk known as Pseudo-Dionysius, were we find St. Thomas directly addressing this issue of beauty as the property relates to created and to uncreated things. That he should give his most unified and concerted exposition of his thought on the topic of the beautiful, while commenting on the work of a Neo-Platonic philosopher (who, by the way, is the most quoted authority cited by St. Thomas in the Summa Theologica) and theologian, is not surprising in light of the fact that St. Thomas first dealt with the topic of the beautiful when he was attending the lectures on Pseudo-Dionysius given by St. Albertus Magnus (1248-1252) at the University of Cologne.

B) The Divine Beauty

It is in Chapter 4 of Dionysius' The Divine Names, that we find his exposition of the beautiful as a quality preeminently applicable to God. "Beauty-Itself" is properly another name for God. God is Beauty, whereas creatures simply "have" beauty in a certain limited way. In this chapter entitled "Concerning the Good, Light, Beauty, Eros, Ecstasis, and Zeal," Pseudo-Dionysius presents the realm of being as a hierarchy of goodness and being. A thing's degree of perfection depends upon its degree of participation in the qualities possessed, in a preeminent way, by the most perfect Being, namely God. Just as goodness and being belong to God and to creatures in a distinctly different way, so too does the property of beauty belong to God and to creatures in a distinctly different way. The words that St. Thomas and Pseudo-Dionysius use to describe the beauty of God obviate any understanding of the beautiful as a form of mere "prettiness." God is supersubstantiale pulchrum and hyperousion kalon or "supersubstantially beautiful" and beauty "beyond being." By predicating the term "beautiful" of God, we not only unfold another attribute and perfection of the Creator, but we, also, expose a difficulty that will require us to consider the beautiful in the light of metaphysics, rather than, merely, in the light of aesthetics. How can both God and His creatures be "beautiful," since one is self-sufficient, infinite, eternal being, and the other is contingent, limited, and constantly changing being? Are we speaking in a completely equivocal way when we apply the term "beauty" to both simultaneously?

The answer to this is, of course, no. The type of predication we can speak of here is an analogical predication. There is a certain likeness between the way in which God is "beautiful" and the way in which creatures are "beautiful." The question arises, however, what is being shared and how is it being shared? The most obvious way, in which we can uncover this shared property of the beautiful, is by acknowledging the basic fact that the Beauty of One is the source of the beauty of all the rest. As St. Thomas states in his Commentary on the Divine Names, I, 2), "Everything that exists comes from beauty and goodness, that is from God, as from an effective principle. And all things have their being in beauty and goodness as if in a principle that preserves and maintains. And they turn toward beauty and goodness and desire them as their end. . . . And all things are and all things become because of beauty and goodness, and all things look to them, as to an exemplary cause, which they possess as a rule governing their activities."5

In this passage, we find the hardiness and universal-reach which St. Thomas will attribute to the "beautiful." To speak in philosophical terms, St. Thomas states that beauty, along with the good, can be considered the formal, final, efficient, and exemplary cause of created things. Everything which exists, in so far as it comes from God Who is Beauty-Itself (i.e., self-subsistent beauty), possesses beauty as a mark which it receives insofar as it comes forth from the creative hand of God. Therefore, Beauty is the efficient cause of all things insofar as all things are generated in beauty. It is, also, the formal mark (i.e., cause) that the Creator places on all things, thereby bringing order and harmony to the thing in its very being. To quote St. Thomas again, "its is always the case that whatever creatures may have in the way of communion and coming together, they have it due to the power of beauty."6 The God, who is perfectly proportioned, perfectly integral, and superabundantly radiant, immediately impresses order upon the whole of the interior constitution of a being. There is nothing that "escapes" from the inner form, which regulates the being, the acting, and the very movement of a creature. When it comes to man, he mimics the divine creative action when he shapes all of his actions according to the dictates of "right reason." Here we can begin to see the relationship between the beautiful and the rational.

When we speak about the relationship between reason and beauty, we must first remember that reason, and those actions that are guided by reason, are always goal oriented. Here we see how St. Thomas can speak of the beautiful as both the final and the exemplary cause of things. Following the lead of Pseudo-Dionysus, he reiterates the idea behind the old play on words, which Plato was known for. He would always speak of the kalon, the beautiful, as a kalein, a "call." It is the beautiful that "calls" us to the perfect and the divine. Much of Aristotle's cosmology, so easily poetized by Dante, depended upon this erotic attraction to the beauty and ultimate perfection of God. For Aristotle, as for St. Thomas and Dante, the attractive Beloved, teasing the aesthetic and moral passion of the Created Order with its shining vestiges of form, incites all to breathless anticipation of the fullness of union.

C) The Three Criteria of the Beautiful

The entire question of the nature of the "beauty" of God becomes even more difficult to comprehend when we consider two aspects of the traditional understanding of the beautiful. Both are referenced by St. Thomas when he considers the topic. First, is St. Thomas' statement that, pulchra enim dicuntur quae visa placent (Beauty is said to be that which when seen pleases).7 Second, is St. Thomas' articulation of the ancient, universally accepted criteria as to which characteristics or qualities must be present in order for something to be considered "beautiful." Here we find that if a thing does not possess right-proportion, integrity, and clarity or splendor, "beauty" cannot be attributed to it. That St. Thomas would make such a statement should not surprise those who understand the ease and naturalness with which St. Thomas handles the realities of human existence. Just as Aristotle always insisted on taking into consideration, when making his philosophical investigations, "what people said" about a certain aspect of human life, so too does St. Thomas makes such "ordinary" statements as "for we call things beautiful when they are brightly colored" (unde quae habent colorem nitdum, pulchra esse dicuntur). Here, St. Thomas not only reveals for us the appreciation that the men of his own age had for simple and bright color, warm tones, and brilliant illuminations, he, also, refuting those who would accuse the Medieval Catholic Mind of boorishness and relegating beauty to the domain of a metaphysical abstraction, affirms the concreteness of the beautiful and the immediacy of its attractiveness to the eye. We moderns, who pride ourselves on our "attentiveness to the real world," have difficulty appreciating the naturalness and joy that characterizes St. Thomas' statement that, "Beauty or handsomeness arises when clarity and due proportion run together… So, beauty of body consists in this, that a person has well-proportioned limbs, together with a certain requisite clarity of color."8 Since, for St. Thomas, beauty was very much a thing of and for the senses, we should not be surprised when he locates those two senses that can detect the beautiful. The two that he identifies are the senses of sight and hearing. The form, which I see, can be beautiful as can the sound, which I hear. No one would say, for example, that this steak tastes "beautiful" or that the perfume smelt "beautiful," unless we were using the word in a very loose and imprecise way. Beauty involves form; visible form can only be detected by sight and hearing. Touch, of course, involves an encounter with surfaces but not with intelligible "form" as such. With regard to the two senses involved in the detection of the beautiful (can you really "see" beauty or do you see a beautiful thing?), St. Thomas states that they are maxime cognoscitivi (i.e., the ones most relating to the realm of cognitive intelligibility). Even though St. Thomas himself was a great cultivator of the beauty of music, we see in the various texts that refer to the beautiful a marked propensity to take sight to be the faculty that is most related to the appreciation of form. "It is of the nature of the beautiful that by the sight or knowledge of it the appetite is allayed."9 With this quotation, we can see the affect that the beautiful, apprehended by sight and known by the intellect, has on the soul taken as a whole. The beautiful form "allays" the rational appetite, it is an ecstatic act that leaves self-interest and crabbed conceit behind in the rapturous outgoing to the form and order that marks the beautiful. It brings peace and contentment to the soul on account of the affinity that man has to all that which is in accord with the perfection present in the Divine Mind, from which, he too issued. The momentary glance that "catches" the beauty and splendor of a visible form turns away from it, with tears of joy, lest the indwelling in perfected form unleashed the heart, encouraging man to pursue that which cannot yet be attained. It is a quiet, tearful yearning for paradise lost or for the celestial vision yet to be gained. But, what is more heartening to us wayfarers than tears that are the fruit of the beautiful. These are the tears of hope, for no man weeps for that of which he is in despair. Perhaps, we can then say, when beauty and tears meet the essence of our human lives is expressed.

D) The Beauty of the Son

It is not without reason that St. Thomas treats most extensively of the three traditional criteria for judging the beautiful in an article in the Summa Theologica dedicated to the question, "Whether the holy doctors have correctly assigned essential attributes to the Persons [of the Trinity]?" In the course of this article on the "attribution" of qualities to each of the Divine Persons, St. Thomas states that Beauty is a quality that is most fittingly attributed to God the Son. The Son is the Beauty of God; He is Beauty-Itself. In order to verify the fittingness of this attribution of Beauty to God the Son, rather than to the other two Divine Persons, St. Thomas considers, more extensively than in any other place in his writings, each individual attribute that must be possessed if a thing is to be considered beautiful.

Of all the criteria of right-proportion, integrity, and clarity, it is most difficult to understand how "right-proportion," so obviously an attribute of beautiful physical things, can apply to a Divine Person, Who as Divine Person, is not extended in space and, therefore, has no physical parts to be in proportion to one another. Proportion or consonance (proportio sive consonantia) was the most widespread aesthetic concept in the whole of antiquity and the Middle Ages. It was the only one to be accepted universally and understood in a univocal sense. For the Greeks of antiquity, it was Polyclitus' Canon, also called the Doryphorus (Spear-Bearer) sculpture, which exemplified this fittingness of form and the harmony of parts, one to another. This statue of a young boy, but manly-looking, was described by Galen in the following, "Beauty does not consist in the elements but in the harmonious proportion of the parts, the proportion of one finger to the other, of all the fingers to the rest of the hand, of the rest of the hand to the wrist, of these to the forearm, of the forearm to the whole arm, in fine, of all parts to all others, as it is written in the canon of Polyclitus."10 By applying this criterion to God the Son, St. Thomas indicates clearly that we are not to think of proportion solely in terms of symmetrical shape of parts, but we can understand proportion in a deeper sense, a more intellectual sense. We can discern in things the God-given proportion between a things form and its matter, its essence and its act of existence. In the Son, we find "rightness" or convenientia in the highest degree because He is a clear image of the Father (imago expressa Patris). Moreover, we can find exemplary proportion in God on account of the perfect symmetry and accord, which exists between His Intellect and His Will. God is, therefore, "rightly-proportioned" to a preeminent degree.

Integrity (Integritas) or the unity of parts in a whole is, also, applicable, in a preeminent way, to God the Son. Here we read in St. Thomas that, the Son possesses integrity because He possesses the full nature of the Father truly and perfectly within Himself. He is perfectly and substantially one with the Father, without any confusion of Person. According to St. Thomas, the integrity of a thing's form may be infringed by default or by excess. The forms of things are like numbers in that any change, any addition or subtraction, confounds the nature of the species and transmutes it into a different one. A thing must be one in order to be beautiful. That which is mutilated or characterized by superfluity is, for that very reason, distorted and ugly.

E) The Splendor of Form and the Divine Radiance

Of all the three criteria for identifying the beautiful, it was that of Claritas, which most enticed the minds of the Ancients and Medievals. When trying to explain what they mean by this most extraordinary and, perhaps, unique characteristic of the beautiful, we can only offer the words, "luminosity," "splendor," "radiance," or "clarity of form," "to be brightly colored" in an attempt to locate the reality, which they knew with such intimacy and regarded with such awe. That there has always been the understanding that light, brightness, and luminosity were associated with beauty, in fact were the specific expression of the well-proportioned and harmonious physical object, cannot be doubted. When we consider the text that was so foundational and evocative for St. Thomas, The Divine Names of Pseudo-Dionysius, we find beauty analyzed by what can only be described as a "metaphysics of light." In Book IV, chapter 7 of this text, we read, "That, beautiful beyond being, is said to be Beauty -- for it gives beauty from itself in a manner appropriate to each, it causes the consonance and splendor of all, it flashes forth upon all, after the manner of light, the beauty producing gifts of its flowing ray, it calls all to itself, when it is called beauty." It is not just a light that radiates from a surface of appropriately balanced and shaded colors, the beautiful, also, radiates an intelligible splendor. It appeals to the expectations and hopes of the mind. It is the momentary expression and ray coming forth from that Sun, which can never be extinguished. St. Thomas states that God the Son can have attributed to him claritas since he is the Intelligible Word of the Father, the "light and splendor of the [Divine] mind." "The Son of God, then, is a perfect image, an entity adequate to his own nature, harmoniously in accord with the Father, and resplendent with an expressive life -- for He is the Word -- which is profoundly rational, a splendor intellectus."11

To liberate the reality of beauty from the aesthetic constraints placed upon it by those who thought they could master it, that is the task to which we are called. How far are we away from the Greeks who regularly spoke of the kaloskagathos, the beautiful and good man, the man of moral excellence, the "beauty" of whose virtues shone through in the decorum, nobility, and fetching vitality of his actions. It is such a beauty, a form and clarity that dismisses all shadow doubt, one which lays to rest all temporal ambiguity, which can bring tears to the eye and yearning to the heart of man. One might say that the entire effort of culture has been to bring the human heart to these moments, these moments of transfixion and transverberation. We are pierced and "split open" by the shaft which can only come from a divine and perfect source. A source, which fears not to bring man to exaltation; a source that knows not envy. It can only be from a Word, ever the light of man, Who has embolden the flesh with divinity, that we can expect with certainty the outpouring of grace and truth.


1 Cf. Anthony Blunt, "Michelangelo's Views on Art" in Readings in Art History, vol. II, ed. Harold Spencer, p. 116. [Back]

2 Blunt, p. 117. [Back]

3 St. Thomas Aquinas, De Veritate, 1, 1. In this regard, St. Thomas states, "Illud autem quod primo intellectus concipit quasi notissimum, et in quod conceptions omnes resolvit, est ens….Unde oportet quod omnes aliae conceptions intellectus accipiantur ex additione ad ens. Sed enti non possunt addi aliquo quasi extranea per modum quo differentia additur generi, vel accidens subiecto, quia quaelibet natura est essentialiter ens." [Back]

4 Cf. Aristotle, Metaphysics, III, 3; IV, 2; V, 6 and 7; X, 2. [Back]

5 Omne quod est, est ex pulchro et bono quod est Deus,sicut est principio effectivo; et in pulchro et bono est, sicut in principio contentivo vel conservativo; et ad pulchrum et bonum convertitur, Ipsum desiderans, sicut ad finem…et omnia quaecumque sunt et fiunt, propter pulchrum et bonum sunt et fiunt et ad Ipsum omnia inspiciunt, sicut ad causam exemplarem quam habent ut regulam suae operantionis. [Back]

6 Universaliter omnes creaturae, quantamcumque unionem habent, habent, ex virtute pulchri. [Back]

7 ST, I, Q. 5, Art. 4, ad 1. [Back]

8 Ad rationem pulchri sive decori concurrit et claritas et debita proportio….Unde pulchritudo corporis in hoc consistit, quod homo habeat membra corporis bene proportionate, cum quadam debita coloris claritate. (ST, I, Q. 39, Art. 8) [Back]

9 ST, I-II, Q. 27, Art. 1, ad 3. [Back]

10 Citation from Umberto Eco's The Aesthetics of St. Thomas Aquinas (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 74. [Back]

11 ST, I, Q. 5, Art. 5. [Back]