This question has caused many an aesthetic philosopher to break out in a sweat. For all the lofty height of their academic attainment, they find it hard to come up with a better answer than anyone else.
And that anonymous individual will probably reply with the cliché “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, or its variant, “I can’t define it, but when I see it I know it.”
Now, since the world houses some eight billion beholders, each with a pair of eyes, either definition effectively means that beauty is anything anyone says it is. That makes beauty undefinable for all practical purposes because it lends itself to eight billion different definitions.
We are none of us nominalists who insist that abstract concepts have no reality whatsoever, other than the names attached to them. If that’s the case, then beauty doesn’t exist.
Yet we know it does, don’t we? We can see it, touch it, hear it, even smell it. The definition may be elusive, but the sensation certainly isn’t.
Enter Ralph Waldo Emerson, who came up with (or at least hinted at) the only definition that makes the concept intelligible. “Beauty,” he wrote, “is God’s handwriting”. The same idea can be expressed less epigrammatically, but the meaning will be the same: beauty is a creation of God and, as such, it’s objective and independent of any individual perception.
Therefore, what’s in the eye of the beholder isn’t beauty, but the ability to recognise it. That ability is otherwise known as taste, a rare commodity these days.
Emerson’s idea of God lay outside any known religion. His contemporary Dostoyevsky, a devout Christian, approached the same definition from another angle. “Beauty will save the world,” he wrote in The Idiot.
Now, Christians associate their hope for salvation with God only. That means that, to Dostoyevsky, beauty was an aspect of God, not just his creation. This he confirmed in many of his other works by treating the beautiful, the true and the good as an inseparable divine whole.
Tolstoy, the greater artist than Dostoyevsky, but, unlike him, a mediocre thinker at best, wrote that any association of beauty with goodness was a delusion. This only goes to show that adhering to any other than the Christian cognitive methodology can make even a brilliant Westerner sound inane.
Divorcing beauty from God also divorces it from intelligibility, turning any aesthetic philosophy into nonsensical speculation. That Tolstoy proved in his writings on the subject, such as his essay What Is Art? Art, according to him, is something equally accessible to everyone. If it isn’t, it isn’t real art.
Thereby he reduced art – and beauty – to the same common denominator to which he reduced everything else: the saintly Russian peasant. So never mind highbrow chaps like Mozart and Beethoven – according to Tolstoy, it’s only simple village songs that qualify as art.
That saves us the trouble of indulging in reductio ad absurdum. Tolstoy managed to reduce his theories to absurdity all on his own. (If you are interested in this subject, look up my book God and Man According to Tolstoy.)
For brevity’s sake, let’s reduce beauty to art only, its tiny part, and see how Emerson’s and Dostoyevsky’s definitions tally with our own observations.
Any suggestions along the lines of “you like Schubert, I like rap; both are beautiful, if different, art” run headlong into the same problem I mentioned earlier: if art is anything anyone says it is, it doesn’t exist. And since we know it does exist, we dismiss such egalitarian statements as intellectually feeble.
However, if we accept that beauty is an aspect of God, then the definitions click into place. Art’s job is to uncover and discover metaphysical beauty the same way that natural science uncovers and discovers the physical plant of life. The better art is at that job, the better art it is.
God can never be knowable completely (Si comprendis, non est Deus, as Augustine put it). But that’s not to say that God is completely unknowable. Variously close approximations are possible, and logic suggests that the closer art comes to God, the better it uncovers the essence of beauty.
The examples of Emerson, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy show that different people and different civilisations have their own notions of God. Yet our Western civilisation was brought to life by one: Christianity. (This isn’t to say there were no other inputs. But they were absorbed into Christianity and baptised by it the way, according to Chesterton, Aquinas baptised Aristotle.)
That’s why, unbeknown to themselves, even rank Western atheists often think about serious matters along Christian lines. Now I’m in the quoting mood, that’s what the poet Mandelstam meant when he said, “Today, every cultured man is a Christian.”
If imitating Christ is the ideal towards which a Christian life strives, then art, even if it’s not overtly religious, has to gravitate towards that ideal. In other words, it has to be true, beautiful and good in both content and form.
Nor can we separate the two: the Incarnation showed that God and man can co-exist in the same breast. Hence the greatness of art is contingent on its ability to approach a perfect symbiosis of content and form. The closer it gets, the more powerful and elevating is its effect on man.
That explains why music expresses the essence of our civilisation more comprehensively than any other art. In music, the link between form and content is absolute and direct, unmediated by words, as in literature, or by images, as in painting and sculpture.
That’s why only in Christendom did music rise to its dizzying height, both formal and spiritual. Thus, comparing the busts of Greek philosophers or Roman emperors with, say, the portraits of French nobility sculpted by Houdon in the 18th century, one can’t say that sculpture progressed no end in the interim period.
Yet a comparison between what little has survived of Graeco-Roman music and the works composed by, say, Bach in the same 18th century will show more than just progress. It will show a gigantic upward shift in both culture and civilisation.
Sculpture is limited by the human form, which can change its size but not shape. Music, on the other hand, has no such limitations – it can climb one plateau after another on its way to infinity, elucidating our understanding of beauty every step of the way.
While elevating itself, real music also elevates man by showing how he can soar to greater and greater heights of subtle spirituality and noble feeling. That’s where pop fails: it appeals to the human spirit at its crudest, coarsest and most primitive. If real music pulls man up, pop pushes him down.
Logically then, the closer other genres come to music, the closer they approach absolute beauty. That explains why poetry, the closest relation of music among art genres, is a higher and more enduring literary genre than the novel.
The novel was only born in the 18th century and, if you believe many experts (which you don’t have to do), it was already dead by the late 20th. Even at its best (Tolstoy comes to mind again), the novel can’t clarify the essence of beauty as well as, say, a Shakespeare sonnet can.
A quick article is a wrong format for delving deep into such complex subjects as the essence of beauty. Scratching the surface is the best one can hope to do. My purpose was more modest: to show that only Christological cognitive methodology can make our civilisation intelligible.
If you take exception to this observation, try to define beauty in any other way. See how far you get.