Beauty: So Much More Than We Think

One of the more vapid mistakes of our culture is its constant equating of beauty with prettiness. Certainly, a thing of beauty might be called pretty. But prettiness, likability, and shininess make a thing beautiful as throwing glitter on a pile of feces makes it art.

This is beautiful:

This, not necessarily so:

To elevate eye-candy to summit of beauty is to render it unable to give evidence of the supernatural in Nature, limiting it to the cute, the sexy, the shiny, and the otherwise miserable. Allow me to speak, like a nail in a coffin, my negative thesis: Beauty is not a conglomeration of likable traits.

The truth about beauty is far more mysterious, mystical, and life-changing. The experience of beauty is an experience of the beautiful object as simply being. We know this innately. We naturally let beautiful objects simply be.

We cringe when a man uses a Van Gogh as a symbol of wealth. We wince when a poem is read solely for the sake of an essay, turned in solely for the sake of a grade. It is an offense to simply use Hopkins’ lines for academic or girl-impressing achievement…

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings…

…without appreciating them insofar as the simply and wonderfully are. We are offended when a beloved mountaintop is blown up by a coal company that has never lived in its shadow. We are saddened when sublime music is ignored.

It seems to me that there are only three ways to view an object:

1. As simply being.

2. As being useful for an end outside of itself.

3. As not-being (as when we ignore an object).

None of these views are good or bad in themselves. It’d be silly not to treat the wrench as being useful for an end outside of itself (like building the world’s best tree-fort). It’d be similarly silly not to treat the black lines framing a widescreen movie as not-being. But we are naturally offended by the beautiful object being used for some other end, or being treated as not-being. Our natural response to beautiful objects is to let them be.

The implications of this simple truth are phenomenal. The fundamental truth about any object in existence (the truth that must be known to us before we know any other truths about that object) is that the object is. (You cannot know your wife is angry before you know your wife is, nor your car keyed before the existence of your car.) Beauty then, insofar as it informs us that an object simply is and demands we treat the beautiful object as simply being, is a certain shining out of the very being of that object to our intellect. As Jacques Maritain puts it:

“The Beautiful is that which gives joy, not all joy, but joy in knowing; not the joy proper to the act of knowing, but a joy abounding and overflowing from this act because of the object known. If a thing uplifts and delights the Soul by the very fact of being granted to its intuition, it is good to lay hold of, it is beautiful.”

To experience beauty is to know being. It is not to know prettiness, or shininess or likability. It is to know the radical, fundamental truth that the object percieved is, and to delight in it.

Thus we naturally disassociate “beauty” from our sense of taste or smell.

Think about it: Few would call the smell of a steak “beautiful” in the same manner a sunset is called “beautiful” without using the word as a generic substitute for “good” or “pleasing”. There would be something odd about it.

Here’s why: The smell of an object is not an experience of knowledge of the being of that object. If I smell an unknown fruit, I will not know the fruit. We cannot name a smell as we can name a sight. We can only describe a smell. To give a thing a name is to recognize its being as an object — this dog, that hydrogenated corn starch, this liturgist, etc. Smelling is not a sense capable of recognizing an object. It can recall an object, as the smell of an apple will recall an image of an apple, but it cannot know an object.

The experience of beauty, because it is essentially an act of knowing the being of the beautiful object, is an experience disassociated with our senses of taste and smell, which cannot on their own know the being of an object. Thus you’ll rarely hear: “Hot damn, these potatoes taste beautiful.” Make sense?

The amount of meaning this understanding injects back into the world is infinite and ineffable. When you recognize an oak tree as beautiful, it is not because you just happen to have a unexplained affinity for oak trees. It is because you are a creature that delights in the fact that things are. When you tell your beloved she is beautiful, you are not telling her she did her makeup well, or that she’s doing a great job losing weight, or even that her dress looks good on her. You are delighting in the fact that your beloved is. You are rejoicing that she exists.

Understanding the truth about beauty frees man to slaughter both his soul-sucking relativism and his idiotic academicism. There is no objectively beautiful woman that all women should try to conform to. There are women, and they are beautiful insofar as we dare to recognize them as being. Beauty is not relative, in the sense that the artist can drop a crucifix in urine and say “it’s beautiful to me!” Beauty is honesty. Beauty is the shining out of the being of the crucifix, the what-it-is, made apparent to our intellect. The crime of the blasphemous artist is first and foremost a crime of poetic incapacity, of a particular idiocy in his ability to contemplate being.

There exists in this cosmos the strangest of sights: Man-as-beauty-lover. Of all the protons and neutrons ever to conglomerate and be called individual, only one takes delight in the fact that things are. Only one creature on this rock-hurtling-through-space will pause at the foot of a mountain and delight not in how he can use it, but in the fact that it is. He picks flowers, because flowers. He loves fields, because fields. He lays on his back and gazes on the stars for no other reason then the stars, shining. It’s almost as if — if I might be so inhumanly stupid as to suggest it — the cosmos is made for him.

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  • Leif Christensen

    All of these articles on Beauty are excellent. I hope you will write one about Beauty’s role in culture and in the Church, and why ugly, horrible art is so common.

  • Lauren G

    Excellent post. My one problem: I have probably said something along the lines of “hot damn, these potatoes taste beautiful.” But I can live with it.

  • Sam G

    You’re social commentaries have more weight but never the less a quality post

  • Sam G


  • Cal-J

    That picture of Barbie is perhaps one of the most soullessly ugly things I’ve ever seen. Children should not be allowed to look at it.

  • dmac

    I think beauty can be recognized with the sense of smell but it is less common than through sight. The smell of home, the smell of spring, and a loved one’s familiar scent can all allow a person to experience their being and find joy in it.

    • jake

      I think the whole point is that beauty does not necessitate joy.

  • Justin B

    I loved the post but it left me with a question, what about blind people? Can they experience or perceive etc. beauty?

    • Melia

      Can blind people still listen to music? :)

    • Laura

      A man and his wife can renew their wedding vows with their eyes closed, and yet it can be an expression and experience of great beauty.

  • Frederick

    The first image featured on this essay was grotesque.

    Would you put it in your bed room, your living and/or dining room, your child’s or toddlers bedroom? Or even in your church? Of course not!

    Then of course there is this image from a film which was at the time hyped as a superb missionary tool

    Not much beauty to be found there, or the film altogether in which the “hero” is systematically beaten to death. As is the case with all sado-masochistic snuff/splatter films.

    John Keats summed up the situation quite succinctly.
    Truth Is Beauty – Beauty Is Truth.

    More radically – God IS The Beautiful

    Only men and women who are full of intrinsic pleasure are capable of knowing, and Being the Truth. And thus of Living the Truth in all relationships and in all circumstances.

    Platos Symposium was one of the great considerations of Beauty. In the Symposium Socrates speaks of the matter of beauty – how you find your lover beautiful and how that discovery must be extended to all experience.

    One of the fundamental themes of the Symposium then, is you find your lover beautiful, and that is GOOD. You have finally got something to talk about. You are involved with something that truly moves you. You are moved emotionally, aesthetically, sensually, humanly. It makes you feel life-positive.

    It is all about “you find your lover beautiful” This consideration is about looking at other things that are like that, that feel like that, and then finding other kinds of things that are likewise beautiful. Examine beautiful things, the experience of beauty altogether. What is that experience, essentially. Enter into it more and more profoundly until you achieve, realize, or identify Beauty Itself.

    What else is of interest? What else is Reality? What else is Truth?

    What else are YOU up to?

    Meanwhile we live in a dismal “culture” in which there is not even the slightest hope of rising above the bed! No ecstasy. No beauty. No beautiful. Ecstasy outlawed. No Realization of The Beautiful permitted

  • Sam O.

    Really interesting – my thanks! I wonder something though: aren’t there objective standards of beauty? Genetically humans are hard-wired to appreciate certain proportions in people and symmetry in both people and nature, i.e. Corinthian columns being based on human proportions. Certainly we can recognize the beauty of a person apart from, say, how proportionate their facial features are but isn’t there also a somewhat objective standard that we just can’t help but see? And if so, would you merely name that “pretty”? How could that fit into your conception of beauty (as being)?

    • Travis Carroll

      > Certainly we can recognize the beauty of a person apart from, say, how proportionate their facial features are but isn’t there also a somewhat objective standard that we just can’t help but see?

      The husband finds his wife beautiful through all ages. Though her objective beauty (prettiness) is lost to the world, he will always see her true beauty, just as God will always see ours. This is what Mark is saying, that beauty is the recognition and subsequent “thank you” spoken from the heart to the universe when beholding an object. Just imagine that cliche scene where the husband sees his bride walking down the isle and has that “punched in the gut” feeling. He is not biologically reeling from her asymmetry and his bodies response to mating cues, he is not overcome with an emotional recognition of the even about to take place (wedding), in that moment it is just him and her. Those milliseconds to everybody else turn into minutes of gazing at this wonderful object that for some stupid reason is about to graft herself unto him.

      When one has this grasp of beauty, no matter what the object may be (wife, flowers, fields, mountains), it is not a process of rationalization of qualities that make it greater than the sum of its parts, it is instead a regression of rationality that causes one to step back into the time of childhood wonderment where things are good just because they are. I think this may be where some confusion lies in this matter; where science and rationality focus on the detail and try to explain in terms of digestible chunks, emotion and beauty is purposefully “biting off more than you can chew” and then letting yourself be suffocated by the object.

  • FakeDodge ViperGuy

    how about orgasmic beauty? not only sexual but also anything experienced to the highest degree. this includes the best heroin or cocaine high, the feeling of adrenaline when spiraling down a roller coaster, or when winning a sporting event. that experience is what the body finds beautiful but it’s not tangible or viewable. it’s something about feeling the beauty of being alive at the right time.

  • Claude

    There’s a difference between art and kitsch? Roger.

    I have certainly called a steak “beautiful.” But did Andres Serrano ever say that “Piss Christ” was beautiful to him? I doubt it!

  • Ana

    I thought this was really great (as almost all of your writings are), but the it seems to me that you /can/ taste or smell things as beautiful. Sight is a powerful sense, it’s true, but apple is not just what I can see of it. We can sense that it is there, or know it is, through sight, but we can do the same through smell, or taste. Surely people who are blind and deaf can know beauty? Maybe not as fully, but they can still know it.

    Sorry if I’m not begin clear in what I mean. But am I missing something?

  • Ce Gzz

    and you had to use Caravaggio’s work!! great!

  • Mick

    Why in the hell would you pick that painting as an example of beauty? I don’t think most people would consider it beautiful. An attractive person is a reflection of the beauty and creative power of God.

    • Kell Brigan

      Yeah, almost as much as an ugly person.

  • Chris

    You state, “There is no objectively beautiful woman that all women should try to conform to.” I suggest that there could be, in a certain sense: the virgin Mary, mother of God’s children. What do you think of this?

    • Kell Brigan

      That remark demeans both Mary and every other woman in existence. You really think the Woman who helped set us free wants women to be Stepford Saints?

      • Chris Vance

        Hi, good to see you’re reading Bad Catholic. First of all, please know that it was never my intention to demean anyone. I do not see how it does demean women. I think that this woman, pure and free from sin, humble and loving to the utmost, is an example worth following. I think that this woman would love for us all to become saints. What do you mean by “Stepford Saints”?

  • Montague

    If beauty is no different from knowing being, then I think taste, touch, and smell should be capable of knowing being. One is capable of the same sort of wonder or comfort in resting in a taste or touch or warmth or scent, as in seeing or hearing some beautiful artwork. Or is it merely a grammatical difference based on the idea of art, such that only art can reveal reveal God’s beauty through itself? Perhaps, only things with a worldview are called beautiful (art has worldview by definition, while food not as much.)
    If you eat something you never saw before, it is not based on a reference any more than a new song is not new because it uses old notes.

    There is IS-ness in heat or taste.

  • Kevin Weiss

    Not only is beauty a reflection of the eminent IS of the being, it is also a vital recognition of the truth contained within the fulfillment of the being. A woman donning a wonderful gown, elegant jewelery, and whose face is tastefully madeup shows forth the beauty she contains by her very nature in a more explicit way. Although she is equally as beautiful, by virtue of her very existence, when she is tired after a week of 14-hour days and reclining on her sofa late at night with a pint of super, triple, coma-inducing, choclately-chocolate overload, brownie explosion icecream and beginning her fifth watch of the Notebook this month, her beauty shines forth when she, without enhancing it in anyway, presents her beauty more aptly (this is why the best guys are able to witness beauty even in the harshest moments of a woman’s life).

    Art, therefore, is beautiful because of its resemblance of real being, of the truth as is only contained in nature. Granted, through irony and juxtaposition, beauty can be shown in privation, that is through the obvious absence of due beauty in the representation at hand.

  • Nathan Calvino

    Interesting post, and certainly on the right track, yet it is incomplete. Beauty is objective, and something is beautiful insomuch as it is understood as good. Because it is possible for something to be more closely conformed to God (a human soul vs. sunset) the one participates more fully in his Being than the other. It is therefore more beautiful. Just so, one human soul can reflect more fully the Being and Beauty of God than another. A case in point is the Blessed Virgin Mary. Both morally and metaphysically, she is the most beautifully woman to ever exist.

  • Kell Brigan

    I think Leonardo DeFilippis is a lousy actor. Does this mean I’m going to hell?

  • pennyfarthing1893

    This is marvelous! You put in words things I often try to express when I’m arguing with people (I am a lonesome artist trying to stand against a wave of relativism and ugly art that has to “say something”). However, I have on more than one occasion actually been deeply moved by sublime food. I actually cried in front of the chef who made a steak and enchilada just last month. I was transported. Granted that was totally subjective, but it really was beautiful.