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Can Beauty Save the World?


St. Thomas Aquinas did not bequeath to the world extensive treatises on the topic of beauty.


However, he did provide posterity with a simple definition of beauty consisting of four words that, according to the great Thomistic scholar Jacques Maritain, "says all that is necessary." For Aquinas, beauty is id quod visum placet, "that which pleases upon being seen."

In order to be faithful to the meaning of Aquinas' words, we must understand the specific meanings of the words visum and placet. The former connotes more than meets the eye. Its meaning is closer to our understanding of the word "vision" (as opposed to "eyesight") and refers to an intuitive knowledge that includes the senses. The two senses that are involved in the apprehension of beauty are what St. Thomas calls "the senses of knowledge," that is, sight and hearing.

The word placet means more than a mere sensual pleasure. It is better rendered as "a delight for the soul." This delight is conferred when a person beholds a beautiful object by means of an intuitive knowledge that incorporates either sight or hearing.

Intelligence, therefore, which is our capacity to know, plays an indispensable role in the apprehension of beauty. This is a most important factor because it means that beauty is not merely subjective (or "in the eyes of the beholder," as many claim), but is objective inasmuch as it is an object of knowledge. Beauty has it roots in reality.

The Splendor of Beauty

St. Thomas offers us another important insight into the nature of beauty when he informs us of the three elements that constitute it. Beauty, for the Angelic Doctor, includes unity, proportion, and clarity. The traditional notion that beauty is "diversity within unity" is an integration of the first two of these three elements. The third, however, claritas, is the most elusive of the triad.

The American Thomistic philosopher Mortimer Adler renders the word claritas as "effulgence," a flowing out from the beautiful object to the perceiver. It is a kind of "radiance" or "splendor" that cannot be reduced to anything that is scientifically analyzable. Beauty confers delight through its shining clarity, this je ne sais quoi, "I know not what," that separates the beautiful from the mundane.

John Paul II entitled one of his encyclicals Veritatis Splendor, "The Splendor of Truth." It is said that truth has a certain splendor because it is a fitting and natural object for human intelligence. Its splendor is recognized in the natural way in which it greets the human intellect. Similarly, beauty has a certain splendor that flows out to the person with such a naturalness that it confers delight. Thus, Maritain can say that "the beautiful that is connatural to man is the beautiful that delights the intellect through the senses and through their intuition."

Plato once remarked that if wisdom were visible, the whole world would fall madly in love with it. Although wisdom is not visible, beauty is. And this is why, for Plato and many other philosophers, in loving beauty, people are moving in the direction of wisdom. The important implication here is that we human beings simply cannot do without beauty. The Russian existentialist philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev once said, "Beauty will save the world."

The Illusion of Glamour

Glamour is more glitter than light, more glitz than depth, more glisten than glory. True beauty has depth and flows out from the depth of that which is beautiful.

An undeniable indication of beauty's immense popularity and desirability is our national obsession with the "beautiful" people of Hollywood. Yet, what often passes for beauty in Tinsel Town is nothing more than glamour. We may define glamour as a substitute for beauty that moves in a direction away from wisdom. It is a contrived, synthetic kind of beauty that does not go beneath the surface. It does not flow out from a center. Glamour is more glitter than light, more glitz than depth, more glisten than glory.

True beauty has depth and flows out from the depth of that which is beautiful. A person may adorn himself with expensive jewelry or take a stylistically attractive photograph. But this is glamour and not beauty.

Beauty is a divine name. God is beauty in a preeminent way. As St. Thomas points out, ex divina pulchritudine esse omnia derivatur—"the divine beauty is that from which all being is derived." Therefore, God seals each being He creates with its own secret mark of beauty. Love helps us to discern the beauty—and the dignity—that God has placed in each soul.

Elevating Image

The noted American historian Daniel J. Boorstin produced a landmark study in 1961 called The Image in which he documented America's growing fascination with media images. Boorstin was utterly intrigued by his compatriots' curious inversion of the metaphysical order of things: "The American citizen thus lives," he observed, "in a world where fantasy is more real than reality, where the image has more dignity than the original."

Boorstin presents the essential message of his book in a simple exchange between a mother and an admiring friend. "My, that's a beautiful baby you have there!" said the friend. "Oh, that's nothing," the mother retorted. "You should see his photograph!" The baby is merely real—the technologically improved photograph is the preferred "version" of her own child.

While Jack Ruby was serving out his life sentence in a federal penitentiary for killing Lee Harvey Oswald, he begged his portrait artist to give him a little more hair. Ruby did not want to be remembered as being as bald as he was, his notorious murder of John F. Kennedy's assassin notwithstanding.

Dennis Helfer is a farmer who lives 75 miles southeast of Edmonton, Alberta. His daughter Tricia was named the Ford Agency's Supermodel of the World in 1992. But in the true spirit of a father, he sees all of his four daughters through the eyes of love: "I don't see Tricia as any more beautiful than my other daughters," he says. "It's just that after she has her picture taken, it turns out nice." What a wise father! We might say, if the reader will forgive the pun, that this father's love is "kin deep."

Adjusting the Lens

If beauty will save the world, it is because beauty presupposes love and points in the direction of wisdom.

In his book Love is Stronger than Death, Peter Kreeft describes a deeply personal experience that illustrates how the lens of love can allow a parent to see the beauty of his child that the lens of the camera cannot begin to suggest. His 5-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, had just undergone surgery for the removal of a brain tumor. When he and his wife received the good news that she was alive, that the tumor was benign and had been completely removed, they "just grinned for eight straight hours":

We stared smilingly at her beautiful living form. It was perfect, absolutely perfect. It looked like a turkey, with puffy eyes, shaved hair, and all sorts of tubes stuffed into her; yet never has anyone ever looked so beautiful to me. Nothing more was needed, nothing could be added; she was perfect.

"Beauty is that which pleases upon being seen." Yet we must not forget the role that the eyes of love play in helping us see the true beauty that exists beneath the skin of every human being. If beauty will save the world, it is because beauty presupposes love and points in the direction of wisdom.

This is J. Fraser Field, Founder of CERC. I hope you appreciated this piece. We curate these articles especially for believers like you.

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Donald DeMarco. "Can Beauty Save the World?" Lay Witness (November/December, 2009): 16-17.

Reprinted with permission of Lay Witness.

Lay Witness is the flagship publication of Catholics United for the Faith. Featuring articles written by leaders in the Catholic Church, each issue of Lay Witness keeps you informed on current events in the Church, the Holy Father's intentions for the month, and provides formation through biblical and catechetical articles with real-life applications for everyday Catholics.

The Author

Heart-of-VirtueMany Faces of VirtueDr. Donald DeMarco is Professor Emeritus, St. Jerome's University and Adjunct Professor at Holy Apostles College. He a former corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy of Life and author of forty-two books, including How to Remain Sane in a World That is Going MadPoetry That Enters the Mind and Warms the Heart, and How to Flourish in a Fallen WorldHe and his wife, Mary, have 5 children and 13 grandchildren.

Copyright © 2009 Lay Witness

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