Beauty: A Gentle Introduction

   In speaking of this desire for our own far off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness… I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence … We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

– CS Lewis, Weight of Glory



Blaue Blume / Langtans Blaa Blomma (Blue Flower of Longing) from wooden flower arrangement from recent local Octoberfest vendor;

Wanderer on the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich, 1818, German Romantic

Often the wanderer pleads for pity / and mercy from the Lord; but for a long time             Sad in mind, he must dip his oars / into icy waters, the lanes of the sea                                  He must follow the paths of exile: fate is inflexible – The Wanderer (Anglo-Saxon poem)


fna anglo saxon

The Anglo-Saxon World Anthology: Oxford Classics


Restarting this paper at an early hour of the day, I must admit to having felt the need of something beyond simply the truth, or even the goodness, of the topic to jolt my mortal soul and frame into action.   The advice of the late World Chess Champion Mikhail Tal (champion during the year 1960) came to mind: “I tell a new joke at the beginning of each training session.” A spirit of (confident, kingly[1]) joviality certainly helps, and some fellowship[2] is certainly a factor, not to mention some, however slight, intellectual stimulation.[3] But in this case, including some pictures and poetic passages, it was the lure of the Beautiful, more so than that of the True or the Good, that I found most stirring.  This is the value of the Fine Arts. From Mr. Keating’s proclamation in The Dead Poet Society that

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”[4]


to C.S. Lewis’s statement that

“Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art…. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”[5]

the (fine) arts are of no mean consequence. Beauty itself, while a recent Pope has stated somewhere that it is the visible form of the Good, has a role in leading us, somehow, to that Good. Simone Weil states

“When we possess a beautiful thing, we still desire something. We do not in the least know what it is. We want to get behind the beauty, but it …like a mirror sends back our own desire for goodness. It is a … mystery that is painfully tantalizing.”[6]

fna bright shadow

Bright Shadow of Reality: Spiritual Longing in C.S. Lewis by Corbin Scott Carnell, Eerdmans, 1974

Even Kant stated that

“Now I say the beautiful is the symbol of the morally good, and that it is only in this respect that it gives pleasure with a claim for the agreement of everyone else.”[7]

Scruton introduces the basic distinction between fine and useful arts, a distinction arising in the eighteenth century:

“Useful arts, like architecture, carpet-weaving and carpentry, have a function, and can be judged according to how well they fulfil it. But a functional building is not, for that reason, beautiful.”[8]

The “work of art,” by contrast, is “a thing whose value resides in it, and not in its purpose.”[9]  The subject of fine arts can encompass beauty as found in the human subject, in nature, in everyday objects and scenes, though not in the prevalent, abundance of cultural “kitsch.” Instead, “Art stands on the threshold of the transcendental,” Scruton reminds us, continuing “it points beyond this world of accidental and disconnected things to another realm.” This realm makes sense of suffering, and indeed, “nobody who is alert to beauty, therefore, is without the concept of redemption … in an age of declining faith, art bears enduring witness to the spiritual hunger and immortal longings of our species.”[10]

Scruton suggests that a definition of beauty (i.e. fine arts) begins with the notion that “we call something beautiful when we gain pleasure from contemplating it as an individual object, for its own sake, and in its presented form.”[11]  Thus including the Kantian notion of contemplation beyond mere sensory pleasure, Scruton’s suggestion further introduces the idea that we appreciate an object of art “for its own sake.”  He dates this observation to the third Earl of Shaftesbury, who in his Characteristics of 1711 (an early work of the modern era in aesthetics) explained how a judgment of beauty is best made when, like an impartial and disinterested courtroom judge, our perception is directed to the object itself.  Beauty is typically discussed along with its companions goodness and truth.  But while the good and the true are entirely upright fellows, beauty’s character may easily be called into question: for instance, the beautiful song of the Sirens which would lead Ulysses to his demise. As Scruton observes, “from Kierkegaard to Wilde the “aesthetic” way of life, in which beauty is pursued as the supreme value, has been opposed to the life of virtue.”[12] But, Plato held that beauty consisted the ability of objects to move us to contemplate the eternal forms, and in the Enneads Plotinus argued that beauty along with truth and goodness were the means by which the divine communicated with the soul.  Further, the Christian Aquinas saw truth, goodness and unity, as well as beauty, as “transcendentals … (belonging) to every category” of being, and thus also how the supreme being was made manifest to our understanding.[13]  Aquinas also held that beauty and goodness communicated different aspects to us rationally.

Kant follows Scruton in declaring the mechanical arts to be those “merely seeking to actualize a possible object to the cognition of which it is adequate, (and) performs whatever acts are required for that purpose.”[14]  A parallel can be made to “servile arts” such as mechanics or accounting compared to “liberal arts” which include humanities, music and mathematics.[15]  Kant advances next to “the agreeable arts” – a cocktail party and its activities of ennui is his example – which involve pleasures (sensory or otherwise), including “play of every kind which is attended with no further interest than that of making the time pass by unheeded.”[16]

But the fine arts Kant defines as an aesthetic art, also including a social component and with an accompanying sense of  pleasure (both included in the “agreeable arts,” also aesthetic and not merely cognitively oriented as the mechanical arts), but it is a pleasure of rationality and not just the senses which accompany an object of the fine arts.[17]  The social component transcends, as it were, that of the agreeable arts, in that it is a “mode of representation which is intrinsically purposive.”[18] a work of fine art nevertheless does not so much convey an agenda – it is “devoid of an end” – as it does beckon its audience to reflect, with “the effect of advancing the culture of the mental powers in the interests of social communication.”[19]  The fine arts involve the sensations’ perception of beauty, but necessarily involves the intellect rather than mere feeling, as Kant states “Hence aesthetic art, as art which is beautiful, is one having for its standard the reflective judgment and not bodily sensation.”[20] Summarizing Kant, then, we can say that the aesthetic fine arts go beyond mere sensation or pleasure (though they are requisite) and go beyond being simply a matter of cognition for the understanding to discern, but has “reflective judgment” – imagination – as the standard by which it is assessed.

“Forever lost in desert lands, one learns to disbelieve the sea.” – Genesis, Trick of the Tail Time for a break from so many consecutive Kant paragraphs

Kant’s formulation follows that of his predecessor in Enlightenment and empiricism, Edmund Burke, and holds out for a possibility of universal judgments of beauty, however complicated.  For the empiricist Burke, the ground of all perception is the senses, and the imagination (“understanding” for Kant) works solely with what is presented by the senses.  Above the senses and imagination lay the realm of reason, of which judgment avails itself; taste is a matter of both imagination and judgment, and can vary in degree but not in kind between individuals.  We are to train ourselves to have good taste and making fair judgments, just as we are to avoid debauchery and college football binging to avoid blunting our senses and imagination.[21] There is a democratic yet elite element for Burke, as well as for Kant, as all men have at their disposal the same fundamental powers and observations, though some obviously are more well-trained and disposed in the area of taste than are others.  Kant echoes Burke in this, stating that “a judgment with objective universal validity is also always valid subjectively,” noting further that “the aesthetical universality which is ascribed to a judgment must be of a particular kind” – not a matter of logic and ascribing predicates accurately to subjects – but one of “an aesthetic quantity of universality.”[22]

To understand Kant’s case for the possibility of a universality of taste, we must review the overall project of his Critique of Judgment.  In the Introduction to his Critique of Judgment, Kant reminds us that there are but three capacities of the soul: the faculties of knowledge, desire, and pleasure and pain.  The faculty of knowledge pertains to the world of nature,  allowing us through the understanding to make scientific sorts of judgments; his Critique of Pure Reason (1781) explains this.  The faculty of desire pertains to the realm of freedom and morals, allowing us through reason to make moral judgments; Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason (1781) and Metaphysics of Morals (1797) explain this.  But in between these two higher cognitive faculties lies the world of pleasure and pain, tied to both sensation and intellect, serving as an intermediary between the understanding of nature and reason of morality, between knowledge and desire, allowing us to make aesthetic, reflective judgments of matters; Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790), our source here, explains this.  But while Kant argued for objective universal validity in the realms of nature and morality, where logical implications of concepts could be made clearly, in the realm of judgment, he could hold only for subjective universal validity.  Beauty is not a matter of correctness of concepts, so “there can be no rule according to which anyone is forced to recognize anything as beautiful.”[23]  Instead, we can claim that “we believe ourselves to be speaking with a universal voice … in respect of delight that is not mediated by concepts; consequently, only the possibility of an aesthetic judgment capable of being at the same time deemed valid for everyone” is possible. [24]


Fine arts took on a more historically aware definition with Hegel.  Kant was pivotal for Hegel, finding in the mind, epistemologically and not so much in nature or the nature of the objects themselves, the principles by which aesthetic judgments are formed and justified.  But Hegel took part in a Romanticization of Kant to an extent, following in particular Schiller in fusing subject and object, and bringing reason down from its Platonic perch into the development of (human, for the most part) consciousness.  Schiller felt that the Ancients (Greeks) had a more natural humanity, a unity of the senses and the rational that had been lost, and that modern education needed to aid culture in restoring this, mostly through the arts.  Without much giving too much detail, Schiller somewhat levelled the playing field between the rational and the sensual (Kant still gave preference to the formal, with the reflection reason ultimately guiding aesthetic judgment), treating each as play drives, and declaring that it is in art and culture that the formal, rational Apollonian drive and the sensual, emotional Dionysian drive are allowed to “play.” In this play, beauty (via the fine arts) helps fuse the formal and sensual, reintegrating feeling and thought.[25]

Hegel follows very much in the footsteps of Schiller, but weds the rational even more thoroughly with sensual, completing, in a sense the Romanticization of Kant.  Following Kant, Hegel differentiates aesthetic art from matters of beauty found in nature, as it is “beauty that is born … of the mind,” the mind being higher than nature, which is the highest form of beauty.[26]  This aesthetic art, or fine art, Hegel places on a par with religion and philosophy as “a mode of revealing to consciousness and bring to utterance the Divine nature, the deepest interests of humanity, and the most comprehensive truths of Mankind.”[27]  As it is “in works of art that nations have deposited the profoundest intuitions and ideas of their heart,” fine arts then provides “the key … to the understanding of their wisdom and their religion.”[28]

It is in how fine arts are generated that Hegel’s unique views on the Ideal and the sensual become apparent.  Granting the existence of both “a supra-sensuous world” “into whose depths thought penetrates,” and an “external, sensuous and transitory”, works of fine art are generated by the mind as “the first middle term of reconciliation … between nature with its finite actuality and the infinite freedom of the reason that comprehends.”[29]  Concretely, Hegel sees three historic phases of the fine arts: the symbolic, the classical and the romantic.  In the symbolic phase, matter is manipulated “in conformity with relations of abstract understanding” (symmetry, reason), but “the ideal as concrete spirituality does not admit of being realized.”[30]  Architecture is the typical achievement of this (Ancient) stage, creating space to inspire a spiritual experience, but lacking the power to infuse the spiritual into the material.  This infusion is achieved in the second phase of the fine arts, the Classical. In the Classical, the realm of Idea infuses itself into matter (which hence becomes “the Ideal”), as in sculpture, where the inward spiritual nature of the being is incarnated in matter.  At this point, it behooves to mention how closely Hegel’s system follows the Christian Trinity.  That the first phase of art does not involve physical incarnation, Hegel notes, shows why religions of the Jew and the Turk (Islam) remain abstract and unable to be represented; by contrast, Christianity does have a human form of God (and similarly, Greeks have their own human forms of god(s)). Further, with the Holy Spirit, the Christian god goes beyond incarnation (Jesus is gone, but leaves his spirit to the popular consciousness), the second and highest form of art, just as Hegel will claim that the Romantic stage of fine art will be a decline from the incarnational Classical.

Beauty in Sculpture, Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” 1917, which later inspired common object art such as Andy Warhol’s soup cans

Even the most modest of doses of Kant and Hegel require some Keats memes as medicine

More from John Keats

and, catch the movie version (Nicholas Sparks was not actually involved, however)

earning his stripes as a Romantic … and still no actual kissing

Keats’ versatility endures to the modern era


Thus, we reach the third stage of Hegel’s evolution of the fine arts, the Romantic.  Here, the sensuous embodiment of the Idea is transcended (“the romantic form of art destroys the completed union of the Idea and its reality”[31]), just as Jesus was replaced (on Earth, to humanity) by the Holy Spirit.  While the incarnation of Idea as Ideal, the “sensuous immediate existence of the spiritual,”[32] has now past, this is replaced by a more spiritual level of knowledge, in which “the true medium for the reality of this content is no longer the … human bodily shape, but self-conscious inward intelligence.”[33]  The Idea thus frees itself from the limits of the incarnational level, though it can yet incarnate itself back into the physical, dialectically moving along the thesis-antithesis-synthesis elevating epicycle, as it were.  Art becomes more self-conscious, able to critique and thus transcend itself.  As such, the romantic arts move beyond sculpture, and into more abstract (“spiritual”) realms such as painting (though limited by its material), music (more abstract but yet limited by temporal constraints) and poetry (“not tied to find its realization in external sensuous matter, but expatiates exclusively in the inner space and inner time of the ideas and feelings.”[34])

Scruton; Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 “Fountain” art of the everyday

Andy Warhol took some inspiration, 1960s productions

If Schiller and Hegel can be said to have “Romanticized” Kant – taking his epistemological approach to beauty (however Platonically privileging the rational) and fusing it into everyday, sensuous experience – we can say that Wagner cast the fine arts as nothing more, nor less, than human drama.  Wagner defines the fine arts along these liens when he states “the true Artwork can only be engendered by an advance from imagination into actuality, i.e. physicality.”[35]

Focusing on opera, Wagner finds a constant battle between the Poet, who articulates the central human drama, the melody as it were, and the Musician, who provides the harmony, context and rhythm.  The Musician has nearly drowned out the Poet, Wagner charges, declaring that “the error in the art-genre of Opera consists herein: that a means of expression (Music) has been made the end, while the End of expression (the Drama) has been made a means.”[36] Instead, the Poet is tasked to “display the battle”[37] (there, the battle between the individual freeing himself from state and religious dogma), provide a “conscious individuality,”[38] or when poetry issues from the Mythos of an entire people, “expound it,”[39] as “the Creator of Art” expressing his “own-est essence: the god-creative essence.”[40] The musician then, like a proper woman (Wagnerian ‘sic’), surrenders herself to the drama of the poet, while providing the harmony to the poet’s (verbal, story-telling) melody.  This harmony, the music is yet essential, as it allows the poet’s drama to be felt, not just understood: “the return from Understanding to Feeling will be the march of the Drama of the Future”[41] Wagner exclaims. Wagner paints the relation between Poet and Musician with “the Poet, driven onward by his yearning for a perfect Emotional-expression … found his verse reflected on the mirror of the sea of Harmony, as Musical Melody.”[42]

See how much of Tolkien’s One Ring was um presaged by Wagner’s Ring Cycle

watch all 16 hours online, at

or just read from someone who has already figured it out, mostly:

“Wagner’s music is better than it sounds” – Mark Twain, one may want to keep in mind

More readings from the course in Fine Arts which begat this short paper

[1] See

[2] See Anselm’s Monologion for the fellowship inherent in the Trinity, and foundational for humankind.

[3] In The Chronicles of Narnia, perhaps Magician’s Nephew where some animal not only tells the first joke, but is the first joke, Lewis noted how a joke is typically a word from one context being applied in another ill fitting context.

[4] Dead Poet Society, Touchstone Pictures, 1989.

[5] C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (a chapter on Friendship ostensibly, my copy is currently AWOL).

[6] Simone Weil, Waiting for God, translated by Emma Crawford (New York: Putnam’s, 1951), 165. Quote found in Corbin Scott Carnell, Bright Shadow of Reality (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 28,

[7] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement (Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 2008), 44

[8] Roger Scruton, Beauty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009),  17.

[9] Ibid., 18.

[10] Ibid., 188.

[11] Roger Scruton, Beauty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 26.

[12] Roger Scruton, Beauty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 3.

[13] Ibid., 4.

[14] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement (Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 2008), 59 “Beauty as the Symbol of Morality,” (p.180).

[15] James V. Schall, Life of the Mind (Wilmington Delaware: ISI Books, 2008). Chapter 3: “Artes Liberales” in particular.

[16] Kant, Critique, 44 (p.135).

[17] Kant, Critique of Judgement, 44 (p.134).

[18] Ibid., 135.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Louis Markos, From Plato to Postmodernism: Understanding the Essence of Literature and Understanding the Role of the Author (Springfield VA: The Teaching Company, 1999), Lecture 9: Burke on the Sublime and the Beautiful. Audio lectures, available online .

[22] Kant, Critique, 46. Section 8 “The Universality of the Satisfaction is Represented in a Judgment of Taste Only as Subjective.”

[23] Kant, Critique, (8) p.47.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Louis Markos, From Plato to Postmodernism, Lecture 11, Schiller.

[26] Georg W. F. Hegel, Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics (New York: Penguin, 2004), 4.

[27] Ibid., 9.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid., 11.

[30] Ibid., 90.

[31] Ibid., 85.

[32] Ibid., 86.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid., 96.

[35] Richard Wagner, Opera and Drama, translated by W. Ashton Ellis (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 120.

[36] Richard Wagner, Opera and Drama, translated by W. Ashton Ellis (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 17.

[37] Ibid., 195.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid., 191.

[40] Ibid., 155.

[41] Ibid., 200.

[42] Ibid., 375.

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