instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The good, the bad, and the ugly of the beautiful

Disclaimer: This post is terminologically sloppy.

The human intellect is able to derive a concept from a percept of an object. It makes sense of what we sense. If it does this correctly, the derived concept is true, it corresponds in some way to the object that we perceive.

There are a couple of ways the intellect can use this newly minted concept. It can use it speculatively, to derive further concepts, including ideas about things we do not or even cannot perceive. It can also use it practically, in the process of deciding what we should want to do.

Using this model, then, there are three areas where the intellect can make a mistake: in deriving concepts from precepts; in deriving concepts from concepts; and in directing the will. Mistakes in the first two areas are falsehoods; mistakes in the third area are sins.

In the post below, I proposed that making a certain kind of mistake regarding the beauty of a perceived object -- of deriving a concept of a useful good rather than of a pleasurable good -- is relatively common. I also suggested that, since this sort of mistake generally leads to many other mistakes (especially in directing the will), some people wind up mistrusting perceivable beauty.

But there's nothing in this model of the intellect that requires the concepts to be concepts relating to beauty. They can be concepts related to race, or to risk, or to toxicity. An absolute mistrust of perceivable beauty -- of that which is beautiful -- amounts to an absolute mistrust of perceivable creation, which ought to be unthinkable for a Christian. There is no barb in beauty, unless the Author of Beauty placed it there.

It may be, though, that a mistrust of the human intellect, a recognition of the frequency with which it makes mistakes regarding beauty, is expressed as what might be called a prudential mistrust of beauty. If we can't make the intellect work better, we can at least avoid giving it things it works poorly on.

There's not much to say in general about prudential matters. If someone is sanctifying himself by never looking upon created beauty, more power to him. I do question, though, how common is the temperament that can be sanctified in this way.

Because, returning to the model, the areas where mistakes can be made are also areas where the correct thing can be done. Speculating on beautiful objects can lead us to the concept of divine beauty. Adding concepts of beautiful objects to our prudential reasoning can lead us to choose what is better for us.

The problems of materialism are evident to most of us, but I think we should be careful about the opposite problems of angelism, which in this context arise from thinking created beauty is never to be desired for itself. Creatures are beautiful in themselves, just as they are good in themselves, and taking pleasure in the beauties of creation is one means in which we give glory to God, by enjoying the beauty He in His wondrous love has given us to enjoy.