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St Augustine on beauty and order in creation.

These selections from St Augustine's works were collected together by Walter Shewring under the title of The Beauty of Animals, in Good Work, Official Bulletin of The Catholic Art Association, Vol 27, SPRING, 1964, pp 36 to 43. Cambridge, Massachusetts.


"And God said: Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds--four-footed things and creeping things and beasts of the earth. And it was done so. And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds, and cattle according to their kinds, and all things that creep on the earth according to their kinds. And God saw that they were good (Gen. 1:24-25)."

It is usual among the Manichees to raise a further question. "Why need God have made," they ask us, "so many creatures in earth or sea which are not necessary for mankind, and many of which are harmful and dangerous?" They speak without understanding how all things are beautiful to their artificer and creator, who uses them all in the ordering of that universe which he governs with his sovereign law. If some uninformed person goes into an artists workshop, he sees there a quantity of tools whose purpose he does not know and, if he is very foolish indeed, he imagines them to be superfluous. Then if in his carelessness he falls against a furnace, or handles some edged-tool clumsily and so cuts himself, he thinks that a number of these things are dangerous and pernicious. But the artist, who knows what the tools are for, laughs at this witlessness, pays no regard to fatuous words, and continues to use his workshop as before. Yet how unreasonable men are! There are those who with a human artist would never make criticism of things that they did not understand, but would take it that what they saw must somehow be necessary and must be adapted to some purpose; yet in this universe whose creator and governor is proclaimed to be God, they venture to blame thing after thing whose purpose escapes themselves, and with the works and the tools of this artist who is omnipotent they are anxious to seem to know what they do not know.

For myself, I confess that I do not know why rats and mice and frogs were created, or flies, or worms; I only see that all such creatures are beautiful in their own kind, though because of our sins a great number of them seem inimical to us. I cannot look at the body and parts of any animal without perceiving that the proportions and rhythm and ordering all make for a harmonious unity; nor can I find any source for these qualities except in the sovereign proportion and rhythm and order which have their being in the changeless eternal majesty of God. If those hasty and foolish critics would give their minds to this, they would cease to harass us and would turn instead to survey all manifestations of beauty, highest and lowest, and praise in all of them God their artificer; and since reason itself is shocked by none of these things, they would explain any shock there may be to physical sensibilities not by any defect in the things themselves but by the conditions of our mortal existence.

Certainly all animals are either useful to us, or harmful, or superfluous. Against the useful, the Manichees have nothing to say. As for the harmful, through them we are either punished or disciplined or we are warned by fear of them not to love and long for this present world with its many trials and many hazards, but that other and better world where trials and hazards are unknown, and to merit this by virtuous living. As for the superfluous, what business is it of ours to ask? Why lament that for you they serve no purpose? Be grateful that they do you no harm. Though they may not be useful to your house or my house, they help to complete the wholeness of the universe, something vaster and better far than our own house, since God governs it in far better fashion than any of us governs what is his. Use, then, whatever things are useful; guard against the harmful; leave the superfluous to themselves. Yet in all these things let the sight of proportion, of rhythm and of order lead you to seek the maker of them. You will find none but that maker in whom proportion and rhythm and order exist in the highest mode; this is God himself, of whom it is said most truthfully that he has ordered all the things there are in proportion, in rhythm and in poise (Wisd. 11:21). And then, perhaps, you will reap more abundant fruit when you give God praise for the lowly ant than when you cross a river upon some lofty steed. (De Gen. c. Man. I, 25-26).


"All things were made through him, and without him nothing was made (St. John 1:3)."

Brethren, do not take this to mean that what is nothing is something. There are many who do so misread the words ... Certainly sin was not made through him, and it is clear that sin is negative--it is nothing--and that men when they sin negate themselves--they become nothing. Again, an idol was never made through the Word; an idol has the shape of a man, but though man himself was made through the Word, the human shape in the idol was never made through the Word; and it is written. We know that an idol is nothing (I Cor. 8:4). Such things as these, then, were never made through the Word; but everything made in the way of nature, every particular among created things, all the things fixed within the sky, all that shine above, all that fly below, everything that moves in the whole of nature, creation itself universally; I will put it more plainly, brethren, to be sure that you understand me--everything from the angel to the worm. What is nobler than the angel among created things? What is lower than the worm among created things? Yet the angel's maker is the worm's maker too, though the angel is meant for heaven and the worm for earth. He who created things is also he who gave each its place.


The movement of every living body has principles that owe nothing to human contrivance or human will. Who can be so blind as not to attribute these to the power and providence of God? Can it be by chance that the various parts of the tiniest creatures are shaped to such final and exquisite proportions? If one dare not call it the work of chance, must it not be the work of reason? If we contemplate the whole range of nature, and admire the pattern of this thing and that thing in which human skill has had no share, can we be so foolish and so presumptuous as not to assign such things to the inscrutable judgment of God's majesty? "Yes," our opponents may complain, "but this very thing raises endless questions. Every part of a flea is duly placed and is marvelous in its articulation; but life as lived by human beings is overflowing with unaccountable accidents which disorganize and confuse it." Well, on the same principle--suppose a man to be so short-sighted that when he looked at a tessellated pavement he could see no more of it at a time than one tiny piece. Such a man might criticize the artist as ignorant of design and composition, supposing the pattern of little stones to have somehow gone wrong because he himself could not embrace in one glance the inlaid units which harmonized in an integrated beauty. The same thing happens with uninstructed men whose imperfect intelligence cannot grasp in one view the coherence and meaning of the universe as a whole; something shocks them, and because this looms large in their own ideas, they imagine that ugliness looms large in the visible world itself...

In this world of sense, we need to keep clearly before our minds the implications of time and space, so that if something here and now delights us in a fraction of time or space, we must understand that the whole to which that fraction belongs is something far better. Again, if something distresses us in the part, an instructed man will be aware that the only reason for that distress is our failure to perceive the whole with which--in some wonderful way--the part is in harmony; but that in the intelligible world every single part is as beautiful and as perfect as the whole. (De ord. 12: II 51).
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Publication:Catholic Insight
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2015
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