The Mystery of Beauty
“A Mystery in short is an invitation to the mind. For it means that there is an inexhaustible well of Truth from which the mind may drink and drink again in the certainty that the well will never run dry, that there will always be water for the mind’s thirst.” Frank Sheed, Theology and Sanity
Beauty is a mystery. A mystery is not a problem to be solved, but the reality that there is something greater than us that we cannot ever fully grasp, but into which we may enter. As Aquinas recognized, there are levels of imperfection and perfection in both our knowledge and its corresponding object; we either strive for perfect knowledge of imperfect, or lesser, things, or for imperfect knowledge of perfect things. Thus, scientific enquiry (perfect knowledge) is directed toward that which is less than human (imperfect things, such as plant cell structures), and therefore that which is fully comprehensible to our minds; psychology takes one step away from “mere matter” into the uniquely human, that which is body and mind together, and thus psychology is part science, part philosophy, part perfect knowledge (about neurology/physiology) and part imperfect knowledge (motives and desires); finally, philosophy is the discipline of the more than human, of such things as the reality and nature of beauty.
Just as we ourselves are mysterious, much more so is beauty. Beauty transcends even the human mystery into a greater, perhaps infinite, mystery. We cannot define beauty in totality by offering propositional statements, “Beauty is A, B and C, and nothing else!” No, we can only describe it and intuit it, but we can never deduce it as if it were a mathematical proof waiting to be discovered (there is nothing which is its equal). Frank Sheed, quoted above, also offers this metaphor: a mystery is not a series of rungs on a ladder to be climbed, but a gallery to become lost in, falling deeper and deeper, including the mystery of beauty. This means that in entering into a mystery we will begin to lose ourselves, but in doing so will somehow come to understand all mystery more clearly. This includes the mystery of the human self, where we are both producers of and participants in beauty.
There is nothing here to conquer, only to know and love. As Dostoevsky wrote in The Idiot, “Beauty will save the world,” which, like a teenager, is so terribly concerned with only itself; beauty will teach us how to leave self-concern behind us, and therefore save us. Any reader of Dostoevsky’s will know that we are all saved from ourselves by this principle, which he calls love, or the total identification with another who is more perfect than we are. Beauty leads us to love beyond the self, and through self-denying love we will be able to see ourselves and each other clearly for the first time. And then, perhaps, if we are not yet completely happy, we will at least see joy’s peak upon the dawn horizon, a beckoning silhouette whose true form and power is greater than we ever before imagined. As you read, step into beauty with your whole mind, heart and soul; anything you keep for yourself might just be lost forever.
In Unity, We Find Beauty
Some of the more practical things I have ever done involve spending evenings listening to very good music, music that could send me through the entire range of human experiential response, both intellectual and emotional. This included symphonies by Beethoven (5th and 9th, of course) and Tchaikovsky (6th) to modern masters such as Sufjan Stevens or Sigur Ros, or even the liturgical music of the Eastern Orthodox Church. And, yes, I said practical. This was music which affected me, which has stayed with me day after day, moving my thoughts constantly back to its beauty, producing a paradox: I gained both emotional satisfaction from the music and an anxious desire to return to it. This paradox is resolvable because I know that when I return to the music, my desires will be continually fulfilled in a healthy and life-giving way, and this knowledge only serves to heighten that satisfaction. This is the objective effect of the beautiful, that it draws one out of oneself and towards, or into, itself. This is a perfectly natural and fundamental aspect of reality: human, animal, molecular, physical, spiritual—all obey to a greater or lesser extent the principle of unity, of desiring union with the desirable.
We by necessity desire unity, and as Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval philosopher mentioned above, wrote: there is no fundamental desire in the world for which there is not a satisfying reality (CS Lewis said much the same). Hunger has the reality of food, sex has the reality of a mate. We desire unity because it is the most logical solution to the fundamental problem of existence, which goes something like this, in two parts:
Existing is an active thing, which means that I cannot choose whether to interact with the world. For example, I am sitting on a chair which is not myself, thinking about ideas of which either most, or more probably all, have begun outside my mind and have found their way into it. Existence is activity, never passivity. I must interact with other people: ideas, emotions, bodies and souls. I can avoid someone or avoid a choice, but as a smart sitcom mother probably said, “To avoid choosing is still a choice.”
On the other side, I cannot help being me. I can imitate someone or through love find my identity in other things and people, but I am all the while an individual, me. Existence means being active and seeking our identity in others; being a person means being unique and indivisible.
Unity, our solution, is not two things. It is not sameness, which is the attempt to lose one’s self entirely, to give up one’s personhood, as this is impossible. Objectively you are always you, no matter whose you are subjectively or what you take part in.
Secondly, beauty and unity are not, and strive against, individualism, defined as any activity which does everything with the focus on the good of the self. If existence means activity, then it means always refusing to be nothing, consciously or unconsciously, and thus always moving oneself away from the darkness of nothingness towards other people and things. These are the only directions towards which we can move: outward.
To eschew others completely is to attempt to do the impossible: both to get what you want from the world and avoid what you do not want from it. But no one is ever really alone. Every time you see a billboard, an idea comes into your mind and you must fight it or accept it. Even reading this essay is, in one manner, an act of love, by which you seek out something which is not yourself. You found me here, or a piece of me. We have shared something, entered into communion. Whether this is comforting or terrifying depends on whether you are open to others or closed to them (and on what you might know about me), which is a vital thing to know about yourself. Unity creates peace through the acceptance of a person’s value, love to the point of wanting them to be better, and the employment of an individual’s unique expression of self-giving, but all towards a common end; therefore, the whole transcends the part without the loss of individuality. In fact, the individuals find themselves more fulfilled by giving up some of their individual desires to fulfill their greatest desire: unity through love.
This is the greatest principle one can learn from a Beethoven symphony: that beauty means diversity in unity. Diversity in unity, at the most practical and human level, includes the meaningfulness of every part, no matter how small it is, no matter how random or sudden it appears to us, how slow or quiet—in a symphony, nothing is random, it only seems so, and this is part of the greatness of the experience; we need not to know everything in order to enjoy something to the fullest extent. Beauty, therefore, needs weakness as much as strength, the low as much as the high, the male as much as the female. The symphony, as beauty incarnated in small, teaches us that it is foolish to always prefer the strong or always prefer the weak, but there is reason to insist absolutely on the both together.
In the same way, a society must not be or seek to be all men, nor all women (remembering gender is really not the most fundamental thing about a person), nor all some third thing in the version of “equality” which is really sameness, but must be both together working perfectly in unity of purpose, but by nature working differently. Again, to insist on sameness at any level (physical, intellectual, emotional, or personal) is to do away with an integral part of beauty. Man and woman are not nothing alike: our commonality of human nature and existence amidst our differences is the basis for unity, for comm-union. We are much more similar than we are different. But it is this diversity in nature in cooperation which is beautiful because it does not dissolve into chaos, but works itself out from the past to the future.
Diversity in Cooperation
This diversity in cooperation is a principle which ultimately cannot be violated if we are to experience the true love or happiness, which are found in that which is very much not us, in the other, but also in that which can align in union with us. Can an oboe ever be a clarinet? No, they are different in inherent and necessary ways, especially in reed type, despite similarities of function and purpose. Can an oboe player ever be a clarinet player? Surely! But this presupposes a community-focused, rather than simply individual-focused, aspect and choice: that the whole orchestra will make arrangements either to successfully fill the spot now vacant, or that they will by creative means overcome that which is missing and make space for something new. We cannot be different on our own. Finding our place in life means learning how to be different in a way that is the most beneficial to society and to us.
Diversity in cooperation, then, also necessitates creativity, another obvious aspect of any symphony. Creativity gives purpose and beauty to change, to those who are different. It wraps its arms around the different and creates a whole new space for it; a unique space for a unique individual. It highlights both the inherent individual beauty, but also sets the individual in a place where she will flourish within the purpose of the whole, therefore gaining both objective and subjective meaning, meaning which the individual knows and feels. Creation is a divine act, and is seen by all people as good. Creativity engages our whole being—our intellect, our sensitivities and talents, our bodies and souls (who we really are)—and it gives us joy when we overcome change through new solutions. It is not a stability summited through sameness, but through commonality in purpose and in the humility (adaptability) of its members. It is neither same form nor function, but common ultimate purpose, goal, end.
Practical Consequences of This Theory of Beauty: Meaningful Suffering
If giving meaning to every person, weak or strong, damaged or whole, is not practical enough for you, then I will finish by going a step further; feel free to agree or disagree. What can we learn about pain and suffering through beauty? What can we learn about the place in society of those with disability or disease, who are so often cast aside?
Perhaps most importantly, can such an abstract idea as beauty save those who need most to be saved?
When we experience great joy in listening to a symphony, we suppose the meaningfulness and worthwhileness of a great amount of suffering: the suffering of the listener in his part spending the requisite years studying music so that he might appreciate it to its fullest extent; the suffering of the musician, who has been practicing to perfection his or her part, in spite of the personal hardships or even tragedies which occur; the suffering of the musical author during the creative and refining processes. (Beethoven was almost completely deaf by the time he wrote the 9th, and yet he did not stop creating and participating in the beautiful for its own sake, just to save himself the effort and stress).
If all of these come together, then the product is worth the pain. Ten poor concerts are eclipsed and forgotten after a very good one. If we never spend time practicing, we can never expect to experience the greatest joy. If we never spend the hard effort of practicing virtue, individually and with others, our lives will never become the symphony they were meant to be. An initiate glances the Mona Lisa and moves on, receiving little of worth. The woman who has spent her life contemplating and studying artistic beauty will look at it for days on end and not grasp the totality of its beauty. Just so, the moral initiate will see the quick gratification available and take it without another thought, supposing it to be happiness. The man who has spent his lifetime cultivating virtue will give his life joyfully to save one small child, or even one cruel and unappreciative man.
Can we really believe that a society is not better for having most of its people willing to give their lives for one another, that it is really better to have a society where people are only concerned with themselves? Most will say, “Yes, it is better,” but fail to see that the lofty ideals are only reached by starting at the lowest step and with the minutest task.
There is a small child whom my fiancé spends time with every other week who has Down syndrome, a genetic disorder which causes developmental and intellectual delays. He carries with him the label “special needs.” If you know anything about Down syndrome children, they are often incredibly sweet and happy. Some have a habit of running up and hugging strangers, sometimes to the fright of their parents. I heard of one boy recently who ran up to a homeless man and hugged him, and the homeless man began to cry. Why? Because the boy longed to share himself with that which was inherently beautiful, and created beauty itself in that moment.
The Questions We Ask
We as a society are asking these questions: Why is this child like this, when he did nothing wrong? Can this child ever really be happy, especially if most of his or her life is spent in constant pain? Should we abort children who we know are going to have special needs?
For the last question, we should see by now that even existence itself means self-giving, and thus to take life, no matter how we classify it, does not obey even our essential human nature (nature, in philosophy, is that which makes us real and human). If we think physical suffering is enough reason to cease living life, then we have again missed the point of the beautiful. Beauty teaches us that true joy is not in the absence of suffering, but comes when suffering is given meaning, when we believe subjectively and objectively that suffering serves a greater purpose, even if we cannot see all of it, for beauty is ultimately beyond us.
If we wish to give people joy by getting rid of suffering, that is simple: all we have to do is get rid of all people and all life. However, every child, as every adult, or even every microbe, is meaningful in life’s symphony. The weak by effortless existence teach the strong the beauty and value of life. The strong, in turn, create new spaces for people to find their purposes and express their individualities in ways which are meaningful and beautiful to the whole. Each finds joy, and freedom, through service. The idea is not to be free from one another, but to free ourselves of the addictions and attachments which keep us from being free for one another.
Beauty teaches us, no matter who we are, that our purpose is the same: to give ourselves to and for one another, to love. A very Dostoevsky-like principle is this: We are saved or damned by what we love, because we become most like what we most love, whether material possessions, people, or our idea of God. Beauty shows us a way out of ourselves, and is therefore teaching us how to truly love in a way which will perfect our human nature and experience, and which makes each small part, each breath we take above the waves of struggle, both meaningful and beautiful.