Aquinas the Beautiful

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The Heavens Declare the Glory of God, and the Sky above Proclaims His Handiwork – Psalms 19:1

Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know

concludes Romantic poet John Keats in the final lines of  his renowned Ode to a Grecian Urn.[1] The role of beauty in the world, as in the philosophical triumvirate “the good, the true and the beautiful” introduced by Plato and the Greeks, and discussed by many a philosopher since – what exactly is it good for?

The role of beauty in fact plays a significant role in medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas’s cosmological argument for the existence of God …

aquinas gkc

Aquinas’s case for the existence of God draws from several strands of thought about the world, mostly empirical observations coupled with a sense of logic.  To exist and function, the world needs some sort of origins in the form of a Prime Mover, an uncaused (or self-caused) cause, and something whose existence is enduring and necessary.  These all culminate in the concept of an enduring and existence-providing entity, or God. But Aquinas adds two more  criteria to his ‘cosmological argument:’ the need for an ordering principle, call it purpose or intelligent design (or from the Greek, a telos or the teleological argument), and then a quizzical argument from ‘gradation.’

Admittedly not a pretty term, ‘gradation’ in fact gives rise to what might be called the argument from beauty – though it gives rise as well to arguments from goodness, justice or a host of other virtues.   Aquinas’s observation goes like this: we observe certain qualities in the world, such as things being more or less hot, more or less good, more or less just, more or less pretty, and the list goes on. Things that are warm (or not) are judged according to the degree to which they are influenced by the ultimate grade in the class of heat – to the medieval and ancient mind this was fire, the fire (of the sun) that warms the water in the Greek communal baths, or the flame that warms the medieval mutton chop. The thing that is highest in a class (fire, compared to all other warm items) is considered to be the cause of that property in all the considered items. So, there is a nobility that exceeds and provides for all other instances of nobility, a justice that exceeds and provides for all other forms of justice, a goodness, a truth, a beauty, and the list goes on.

While at first blush a somewhat pedestrian observation, this argument from gradation in fact gives rise to some of the more moving and powerful arguments for the existence of God.  For instance, the argument from morality, the idea that there is an absolute and universal standard of justice, is a form of this argument from gradation. From Immanuel Kant’s stating how he was profoundly moved by “the starry skies above and the moral law within”[2] to C.S. Lewis’s argument for a universally acknowledged ethics (he calls it ‘the Tao’),[3] the idea of being more or less just in a given situation is extrapolated to posit a universal notion of justice.  The case of justice appears to be a mix of the classic philosophical categories of truth and goodness; but what of beauty?

aquinas3

But it is with the idea of beauty in the world that perhaps the strongest apologetic for the Christian perspective has been argued.  C.S. Lewis describes “arrows of Joy (that) had been shot at me ever since my childhood”[4] that he later came to understand as “valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer.”[5]  Lewis is perhaps the most clear and explicit about the experience, however, when he describes the experience of life harboring “the secret which pierces with such sweetness” that we “take revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence.” Lewis continues: “our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that settled the matter… but all this is a cheat … the books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them.”[6]

The ‘argument from gradation’ from Aquinas in the thirteenth century thus comes to life for us in even the twenty first century.  And Aquinas was not even the first Christian philosopher to argue in this fashion: Anselm of Canterbury writing in the eleventh century argued in much the same manner, positing God as “that than which no greater can be imagined.”[7]  But the case of beauty in our times is not typically so theologically grounded. Beauty, joy, pleasure and desire are typically marketed and pursued as ends in themselves. In that case, beauty typically serves as but “good images of what we really desire” and get “mistaken for the thing itself (and) turn into dumb idols.”[8]   Nevertheless, recent theologians and Christian writers have made increasing use of arguments from beauty, such as David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite, Hans Urs von Balthusser’s series The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics and Louis Markos’s Restoring Beauty: The Good, the True and the Beautiful in the Writings of C.S. Lewis.

Aquinas’s simple argument from gradation, based on the simplest of observations, thus opens up our perspective on the world and God to grand and glorious heights. The nature of goodness, beauty and justice, among many other qualities, can be employed to point from creation to its Creator.  “And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it” as stated in Isaiah 40:5. Aquinas’s simple observation and argument from gradation provides for the riches of this approach, and should not be overlooked in discussing the case for God.

References

Aquinas, Thomas. “Proof of God’s Existence. Summa contra Gentiles, 1, 9-14 (1259).“ In Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings, edited by Ralph McInerney, 243-256. London: Penguin Group, 1998.

Anselm. “Proslogion” in Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, edited by Brian Davies and G.R. Evans. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Balthusser, Hans Urs von.  The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics. San Francisco: T&T Clark Ltd., 1989.

Hart, David Bentley. The Beauty of the Infinite. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003.

Lewis, C.S. The Abolition of Man. New York, NY: Collier Books, 1955.

Lewis, C.S. Surprised by Joy.  Glasgow: William Collins & Sons, 1955.

Markos,Louis.  Restoring Beauty: The Good, the True and the Beautiful in the Writings of C.S. Lewis. Colorado Springs, Colorado: 2010.

Notes

[1]    John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in Poems, 1820.

[2]    Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, 1788.

[3]    C.S. Lewis, “The Way,” in Abolition of Man, (New York: Collier Books, 1955).

[4]    C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (Glasgow: Collins, 1955), 184.

[5]    Ibid., 190.

[6]    C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, ed. Walter Hooper (New York: Macmillan, 1980),6-7.

[7]    Anslem, “Proslogion,” in Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works,” ed. Brian Davies and G.R. Evans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 88.

[8]    C.S.Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, ed. Walter Hooper (New York: Macmillan, 1980), 7.

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