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The experience of beauty.

SOME MEMORIES are kneaded into our lives. These memories reappear with a smell, color, or tone of voice that makes them as present to our minds as if we were living them again. A friend of mine recently wrote to me with one of those memories: it was an experience of beauty.
  I was in a dull hospital room painted cream and maroon, looking at a
  woman in a green shimmy. Her face was puffy, her body spread over the
  sheets, her wrist marked with a plastic hospital bracelet. She had
  suffered polio as a child, and carried the marks through her forty
  years of life. Then cancer had hit, twice. The day I visited was the
  first that she had eaten solid food since she had been interned, a
  week earlier, after a serious reaction to the medicine she was taking

  As I had come up in the elevator, I did not know what to expect. Of
  course I wanted to make her comfortable and to cheer her up.
  But--what would I talk about? What would she say? What would she look
  like? And could I cope with that?

  These doubts nagged me down the hospital corridor as I peered at the
  numbers on the doors. I finally came to hers, knocked, and walked in.

  "Oh, what a nice surprise," she said, and invited me to sit down.
  And she began to tell me about her day. What she'd had for lunch:
  "I had peas today; they were well cooked ... just the way I like
  them ... It was good to have peas. I haven't been eating for a
  fortnight." And then her view. She pointed to the window: "What a
  wonderful day it is outside. And I'm so lucky to have a view like
  this! God is good to me. Sometimes I see the birds winging their way
  across from one building to another, or to the trees that I know are
  down in the garden." I looked out the window. I could see a dash of
  sky that banged against another tall, concrete ward.

  We talked for a little while longer. She grew tired; it was time for
  her to sleep. I went back to the elevator. I felt as though the
  ordinary bleariness of life had suddenly refocused, and I had
  glimpsed the beauty of the tiny things of life: a drop of sky, a
  well-cooked pea. I wondered why I could not perceive the incredible
  wonder of life like her. And it's funny: on the way to the car, it
  seemed like the noise and rush suddenly blinded me to those moments
  of clarity.

My friend asked herself why this woman could perceive beauty more clearly than she did. She felt that she had seen the beauty of the world as it really was in that dull hospital room, and had been almost blinded, she wrote, when she entered back into ordinary life. It seems to me that this is a common experience. Why? Isn't our world looking for beauty? Doesn't the quest for the beautiful drive the plastic surgery industry, shopping sprees, and myriad diets?

Yes and no. Yes, because we all want to be beautiful, but no, because it seems that we do not know how to find true beauty in the world around us. Hans Urs von Balthasar says that we are broaching a world "without beauty":
  In a world without beauty--even if people cannot dispense with the
  word and constantly have it on the tip of their tongues in order to
  abuse it--in a world which is perhaps not wholly without beauty, but
  which can no longer see it or reckon with it: in such a world the
  good also loses its attractiveness, the self-evidence of why it must
  be carried out. ... In a world that no longer has enough confidence
  in itself to affirm the beautiful, the proofs of the truth have lost
  their cogency. (1)

This introductory passage, part of Balthasar's "theological aesthetics," suggests three reflections. The first is phenomenological. We find ourselves in a world that does not know how to recognize what is truly beautiful: we become confused in a mass of sensations and experiences. The second reminds us of the metaphysical relationship of beauty, truth, and goodness in our perception and in our action. Since we no longer recognize authentic beauty, says Balthasar, we are no longer attracted to the splendor of truth and moral goodness. If good is just a duty, something neutral or unattractive, then why do it? If truth is sometimes unpleasant, then why seek it? We end up, in fact, drawn to ugliness. And this leads to a third reflection: we need to educate ourselves to recognize the truly beautiful more readily.

The Experience of Beauty

Beauty, according to Josef Pieper, is "the glow of the true and good irradiating from every ordered state of being, and not in the patent significance of immediate sensual appeal." (2) Pieper, then, sees beauty as the attraction of truth and goodness within an object or person.

This definition should be understood with the philosophical sense of truth and goodness. Truth is threefold. First is truth in being (existential truth)--an object has an essential nature and fulfills that nature--it is "true to its nature." Second, there is truth in words (logical truth): when we make an assertion about an object, we point to its participation in its specific essential nature. Third, there is truth in action (moral truth). In other words, an object behaves in accord with its essential nature.

Goodness is essentially the desirable, in a metaphysical sense: all things strive for, and thus desire, the good. The good for which all things strive is their fulfillment and completion, that is, their perfection. When we speak of goodness in a moral sense, we continue to have in mind the connection between goodness and being: a good action is one in which a person acts in accord with what he or she is meant to be as a perfected human person. Going back to Pieper's definition with an understanding of his terms, when he speaks of the glow of truth and goodness irradiating from every ordered state of being, he means that when a thing or person is what it is supposed to be, or behaves according to what is desirable for its nature in word and action, that thing or person is beautiful. It attracts us to itself.

This way of comprehending beauty encompasses all forms of the authentically beautiful. A person can be beautiful physically because of the "truth and goodness" of his or her proportions. And he or she can also be beautiful in his or her moral life, in other words, the truth and goodness of his or her acts and intentions. Internal beauty eventually is manifested on the external features of a person. If the external beauty is there, but the internal is lacking, the external is damaged or lost. In The Portrait of Dorian Grey, Oscar Wilde gives a compelling description of how vice destroys beauty.

However, beauty is not merely the smell of a heady blend of truth and goodness. Beauty, says the document concluding the Pontifical Council on Culture's 2006 Plenary Assembly, "means more than the truth or the good. To say that something is beautiful is not only to recognize it intelligible and therefore loveable, but also, in specifying our knowledge, it attracts us, or captures us with a ray capable of igniting marvel. Moreover, as it expresses a certain power of attraction, beauty tells forth reality itself in the perfection of its form." (3) In other words, beauty reveals that a thing or person has become what it was made to be.

This reflection is true on the physical level of beauty: the more symmetry a face has, in other words, the more true to what it was made to be, the more beautiful it is. The perfection of the face makes it physically beautiful. On a moral level, this holds even truer. Pope John Paul II, whose life was authentically given for others, lived in the truth of who he was in his words and actions, and he lived by goodness. His encounters with the faithful in World Youth Days, general audiences, and other large-scale events provoked deep emotion in all who met him, even as his body grew weaker. In the crowds around St. Peter's in the days following his death, I met many people who told me their experience of John Paul. They recalled his gaze. In his eyes, they had found gratitude, trust, and hope. They had felt that they were known and loved, personally. It was an experience of beauty.

So we can say that beauty shows the perfection of a desirable reality, both on a physical and moral scale. And beauty convinces us by the route of the heart. It attracts us to the goodness and truth that we have encountered in a thing or person. Therefore, learning to experience beauty becomes a bridge toward rediscovering truth and goodness.

How? Why does beauty capture us? Joseph Ratzinger, commenting on Plato's theory of beauty, answers this question: "Plato sees the encounter with beauty as the salutary emotional shock that snatches man out of himself and 'carries him away.' Man, he says, has lost the perfection that was originally intended for him. Now he is forever in pursuit of the healing primordial form. Memory and longing set him searching, and beauty wrests him from the contentment of everyday life. It makes him suffer." (4)

Ratzinger points out that beauty has an element of longing that reminds us of the perfection for which we were made. Our experience of beauty is like a scene from Lois Lowry's futuristic novel The Giver. The inhabitants of a sheltered, controlled community have lost the capacity to see color. All is shades of grey. One day, however, the protagonist sees something different in an apple as he tosses it to a playmate. He glimpses its redness. He is mystified by the experience. He feels that he is seeing things the right way, the way they should be. He tries to repeat the experience: he steals the apple, takes it to his room, and passes it from one hand to another, hoping to see color. But when he forces the conditions, he sees only grey. The apple's color escapes him. As the novel progresses, however, the protagonist gradually learns to recognize color. Lowry suggests that his recognition of the true color and of beauty in his world comes, not from a forced experiment, but with growth in distinguishing right and wrong.

Perceiving beauty is like the flash of red in a world of grey. Whether or not we see it, the glow of truth and goodness of a thing or person is present. However, our experience of beauty comes spontaneously. It gives us pleasure or joy when we recognize it. We try to hold on to it, but cannot possess it or control it. That is part of the suffering of beauty. It "wrests us from the contentment of everyday life" because the experience of beauty does not belong to us. It is a promise and a reminder that we are made for an eternally beautiful world.

A World without Beauty

So, is the world without beauty? In as much as there are sunrises and sunsets and art and music and men and women who love unselfishly, it is not. Beauty objectively exists in their truth and goodness.

But the world can be without beauty if we are speaking of our capacity to recognize its presence. We run the risk of no longer knowing how to see beauty itself; we tend to mistake it for the pleasure it gives. We suppose that, as Jeremy Bentham suggested in his utilitarian philosophy, pleasure and pain are just names for certain kinds of sensations. These sensations vary only in number, intensity, and duration. So we attempt to increase pleasurable sensations and decrease painful ones, to get an "artificial flavor" of beauty. We try, in other words, to force the conditions where we can see beauty, and we have no more success than the protagonist in The Giver.

Neither the number nor intensity nor duration of pleasures or well-being can recreate the authentic taste of beauty. That emanates only from things and persons that are true and good. Essentially, we know that. We value it in ordinary life: artificial flowers or real ones? Naturally derived flavors or chemically produced imitations?

The problem is that even when we can recognize the "real thing" when we see it, we don't see why we value it. We are missing, as John Paul says in Fides et ratio, the move from the phenomenon--what strikes us as attractive or beautiful--to foundation--the true source of beauty that lies in truth and goodness.

Our attachment to the phenomena of beauty comes because we no longer trust the foundation of beauty. "Too often in recent years," notes the Concluding Document from the 2005 Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council on Culture, "the truth has been instrumentalized by ideologies, and the good horizontalized into a merely social act (II.1)." It is no wonder, then, that we see truth as something to be manipulated and good as conventions to be kept, if necessary. But convention and manipulation cannot be the source of beauty.

The detachment from beauty's foundations makes us rely on phenomena. Jose Ortega y Gasset, a Spanish vitalist philosopher, refers to phenomena as "impressions" and gives an example of what happens when we lose sight of the foundations and rely on impressions. In Meditations on Quixote, he looks at the same forest scene (an oak tree, a brook, and an oriole) from two perspectives. The first considers the fullness of the reality before him, which he calls its "depth and latency" (its full reality, or its truth and goodness). He focuses on the scene: the brook's gentle "complaint" ebbs and flows around the liquid sounds of the oriole. But then, Ortega y Gasset takes us to the same scene from point of view of impressions (phenomena). The sounds are lost in the midst of all the other forest noises, where they are stripped of their former brilliance. "It is a sound like the previous one, but more halting ... less rich in inner resonance, somewhat muffled, blurred, and sometimes not strong enough to reach my ear." (5)

True beauty can be lost in the midst of all the other noises in the world because we have difficulty focusing on the clarity of a single experience of beauty and then following it along to value the next. We are caught up in the ebb and flow of thousands of impressions. And all these impressions are felt in different ways by different people. Thus we conclude that beauty is about individual tastes or subjective experiences and that the gamut of beauty runs from titillation to genuine, spontaneous joy. Since we are lost in the phenomena, it even seems that there is no moral difference between beauty and mere subjective impressions.

This interpretation of beauty inevitably affects our choices. If we feel attracted by the sudden impression of a squalid pleasure, and if the accumulation of sensations makes pleasure, then why shouldn't we indulge ourselves? We tend not to ask whether what we are considering is a truly desirable reality--if, in other words, we are drawn to its truth and goodness. Often, the only question we ask is what we feel about it: "If I want to, why not?"

Our choice-making has also been mixed with another everyday phrase coming from, of all places, quantum physics: "Everything is relative." Through a deformed version of this concept, we assume that all values are relative to the act of choosing and derive their value from that act. After all, if the pleasure of beauty is just an accumulation of sensations, we have no grounds for discriminating among sensations with respect to whether they are worthy of being chosen.

There is, however, a deeper cause for no longer seeing or reckoning with beauty. It is that we have allowed evil to become attractive, as though what is ugly, false, and wrong is needed to be fully human. This makes ugliness seem an almost desirable reality. Albert Schonberg, a leader of atonal musical composition and part of the Vienna School in the early years of the twentieth century, is quoted as saying that his search to rid music of the traditional elements of melody and harmony would give him the possibility to express ugliness. Melody and harmony were too restrictive, he said. You could not show the full gamut of human life with them.

We inherit this idea of ugliness' necessity to express the full gamut of human life from Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche rejects the traditional division of light and darkness, good and evil, truth and lies. For example, in Thus Spake Zarathustra, he poses the problem: "the unhappiness of being able to be only Light, and a thirst for shade, and solitude." Later, with the coming of Zarathustra, comes his solution: "Light is united to darkness." (6)

If the "truly human" is when light, darkness, good, and evil merge, then humanity is a grey mass whose desires for goodness and beauty are just personal whims that inhibit freedom. Nietzsche logically concluded that the Ubermensch, "Overman", uses his freedom because he is free, not because he is attracted to one option or another. Freedom is the ultimate goal of human existence. Why? To be free.

His thought affirms a sneaking suspicion inside us. What if, we wonder, the natural delight in goodness and beauty that springs up in our hearts, the "surprise of joy" as C. S. Lewis called it, is really a deception? As Joseph Ratzinger writes in "Wounded by the Arrow of Beauty," we wonder whether beauty is just a trap that pulls us into the empty ugliness, and if reality is, in the end, just a shade of grey without any flashes of red.
  The message of beauty is called into question by the power of
  falsehood, seduction, violence and evil in general. Can the
  beautiful be true? Or is it not ultimately just an illusion? Is
  not reality perhaps basically evil? The fear that it is not the
  arrow of the beautiful that brings us into the presence of
  truth, after all, but instead that falsehood, ugliness and
  vulgarity might actually be the truth has in every age caused
  people anguish. (7)

As Benedict XVI, he refers more directly to this question. Nietzsche did not create it: he only gave it words. The root of our fear and doubt is original sin. It leads us to wonder, like Eve, if tasting the forbidden fruit will give us greater knowledge of good and evil and who we are as persons. We ask ourselves if we can feel fully human and "ourselves" without the possibility of sin. The paradox is that, as Benedict says, we are terrified that reality is evil, ugly. But yet, we feel that we need a little evil in our lives to express who we are. And we are afraid that we are full of ugliness, because we find the tension St. Paul speaks of inside of ourselves: we want to do good, but we find ourselves doing evil. "So, then, I discover the principle that when I want to do right, evil is at hand. For I take delight in the law of God, in my inner self, but I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind, taking me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Miserable one that I am" (Rom 7:21-24).

Paul's honesty about his personal struggle takes away our pretense that having a little evil in our lives is healthy. "After all, it's just this once. It can't hurt. I wouldn't do it on an ordinary day, but today's a special case. We're only human, aren't we?" says the little devil on our shoulder, who is always painted as being more attractive than the sweet angel whispering in our other ear. But those excuses only mask our weakness before the pull to evil we feel.

Deep down, we know that sin is ugly, not healthy, and that we were made for beauty. So our confusion about beauty and ugliness has both come from and led to great moral confusion. It is no wonder that we are indifferent to goodness: we no longer know what is good or bad, because we no longer know how to distinguish between what merely seduces us and what is beautiful.

The Fullness of Being and the Experience of Beauty

Do we need evil to experience the fullness of being to make beauty more stimulating, or will exposure to ugliness open our eyes to the deep desirability of beauty?

On one hand, Nietzsche's argument has a certain attraction, and not only because it appeals to the "lurking suspicion" inside of us. Don't we need a little darkness to enable us to recognize the light? So how could light exist apart from darkness? And in the case of beauty, would we be able to see beauty if we weren't exposed to ugliness?

Light and darkness are limited images for beauty and ugliness or good and evil. As natural realities, they are separate but mutually complementary. The question of beauty and ugliness is a little different. The simplest way to bring out the crucial distinction is to imagine a world that is pure beauty. Surprisingly, we can.

Can we think of a purely ugly world? We can imagine the scenes we have seen on television of war, violence, destruction, famine, and hatred. Yet this is not a purely ugly world, because we can always find a trace of beauty hidden in the ugliness. That is the power of photography from war zones: they find a heroic act in the midst of destruction that symbolizes the force of beauty in the midst of ugliness. If there were not even that left, we would find the beauty of our own compassion. We cannot imagine a purely ugly world, because ugliness is emptiness, and we cannot imagine pure emptiness. There will always be a spark of beauty hidden in our hearts, unless we blast it out of ourselves by choosing ugliness. That would leave a hole inside called hell. It cannot be imagined, only lived.

Nonetheless, reality is often marred by ugliness--especially the moral ugliness of corruption, war, violence, lies, or manipulation. Ugliness is part of our lives, and through our encounters with it we recognize that we live in a fallen world, one in need of redemption. So can beauty be found in a world that carries the mark of ugliness? Or will we find it only in a perfect world, in a redeemed world?

Let's return to the story with which I began this article. It is not situated in the depths of moral ugliness, or squalor, but it is still a situation of suffering; an ugly situation. And yet this woman has the capacity to perceive beauty despite the limitations of her body, her hospital bed, and her view. The tiny beauties of her life are magnified and made sharper and brighter because she was able to focus on them as gifts. She was certain that her life had value and that the small joys she found were consolations from God, signs of God's companionship.

Another, more dramatic situation: Immaculee Ilibagiza, a young Tutsi in Rwanda, whose family has been brutally murdered, hides in the narrow bathroom of a Hutu's home with six other women. She remains there for three months. She has little food and no privacy. She must be silent all day, in case the other members of her protector's household discover her presence. The Hutu militia is searching for her. Sometimes they enter this house, since it was the last place that she was seen, and search it, calling out the evil they will do to her if they find her. Even her protector begins to doubt whether he should continue hiding them. He has been swayed by the constant propaganda he hears on the radios; he wonders if these Tutsis deserve a hiding place. It is a foul situation. But she finds beauty in it: not in her circumstances, but in the beauty that she is made for. She discovers that she is God's cherished daughter, made to be with him outside of the circumstances of time and place, and that she can, with him, forgive her family's murderers. She finds the beauty of her soul at peace with God. (8)

These stories remind us that beauty is not found in circumstances or sensations, be they pleasant or squalid. It is found by going past the categories of pleasure and pain to discover who we are as human persons, and who we are made for. This, says Plato in the Symposium, is to step from sensation (beautiful bodies) to action (beautiful pursuits and practices) to principles (learning) until the person can reach "Beauty itself."
  To mount for that beauty's sake ever upwards, as by a flight of
  steps ... from all beautiful bodies ... to beautiful pursuits and
  practices, and from practices to beautiful learnings, so that from
  learnings he may come at last to that perfect learning ... of that
  beauty itself, and may know at last that which is the perfection of
  beauty. There in life, and there alone, my dear Socrates ... is life
  worth living for man, while he contemplates Beauty itself. (9)

Practically speaking, how do we mount the steps toward beauty itself? First, says Plato, we let go of our attempt to force our experience of beauty through "beautiful bodies," through the impressions and phenomena that fill our lives. This does not mean that these impressions no longer touch us. It means that they touch us, but we are able to discover the fullness of what they are and what they mean in our lives. We judge them by their actions (pursuits and practices) and say this impression is good, truthful, according to what is desirable for me and for the person (or thing) it comes from. This leads us to "that perfect learning" of beauty: how it is a glow of the truth and goodness of a person or thing. For example, we see a painting. We are drawn to the colors, the shapes, to the contrast. The impression strikes us. Then we look at what is depicted in the painting and we ask: Is this respectful of the subject? Is this respectful of me? Here we come to see the action of the painter. And then, finally, we can come to the principle, "beautiful learning." We can judge: this is a truly beautiful painting. Or perhaps we have to say this is a beautifully arranged painting with a less than beautiful subject matter.

This is the education of our sense of beauty. Ideally, it should begin with children, because it is a slow process. But it is needed to discover the full sense of our humanity. As Plato says, only when we know how to find true beauty will "life [be] worth living." When we have begun to recognize beauty more spontaneously, it will begin to surprise us, to jump out at us and draw us immediately in to truth and goodness. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, when receiving the Nobel Prize for literature:
  So perhaps that ancient trinity of Truth, Goodness and Beauty is not
  simply an empty, faded formula as we thought in the days of our
  self-confident, materialistic youth. If the tops of these three
  trees converge, as the scholars maintained, but the too blatant,
  too direct stems of Truth and Goodness are crushed, cut down, not
  allowed through, then perhaps the fantastic, unpredictable,
  unexpected stems of Beauty will push through and soar to that very
  same place, and in so doing will fulfill the work of all three. (10)

The experience of beauty sometimes surprises. Sometimes it invades. But it always brings us a new clarity of vision so that we can see our lives in their true perspective.


(1.) Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, A Theological Aesthetics, Volume I: Seeing the Form (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1982), 18-19.

(2.) Josef Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1966), 203.

(3.) Pontifical Council on Culture, "Via pulchritudinis," Concluding Document of the Plenary Assembly, 2006, II, 2.

(4.) Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, On the Way to Jesus Christ (San Francisco: Ignatius Press) 34.

(5.) Jose Ortega y Gasset, Meditations on Quixote (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000), 65.

(6.) Henri de Lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1995), 489.

(7.) Ratzinger, On the Way to Jesus Christ, 38-39.

(8.) Immaculee Ilibagiza, Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust (Carlsbad, CA: Hayhouse) 2007.

(9.) Plato, "The Symposium," Great Dialogues of Plato, trans. W. H. D. Rouse (New York: Mentor Press, 1956) 106.

(10.) Alexander Solzhenitsyn,
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Author:Camarero, Patricia
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
Date:Mar 22, 2011
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