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Monday, January 8, 2018

What is beauty?

What is beauty?

A medieval "definition" of beauty that I recall from my days in philosophy is "pluchra sunt quae visa placent." "Things are beautiful when seeing them gives pleasure."

This has never satisfied me. First of all, it is not a definition. It does not say what beauty IS. It describes what happens when one sees a beautiful thing. And second, it limits itself to the sense of sight. Things we hear can be beautiful, as well as things we touch or smell or even taste (though we don't usually describe tasted things as beautiful).

So what IS beauty?

Beauty is something that is in an object outside oneself. We say "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Well, not exactly. We perceive beauty as something coming from outside ourselves. Beauty is not produced by oneself, it is given.

So the first piece of a definition of beauty is that beauty is a gift.

I like this. Beauty is a gift. When I see a beautiful sunset, or a beautiful sculpture, I am receiving a gift. A gift implies a giver. Who gives sunsets? God. The existence of beauty may be the most satisfactory "proof" for the existence of God in our day.

Beauty is a gift experienced through human senses. When I say human, I not only say that there is a giver, but that there is a receiver. If there were no humans, would there be beauty?

But lots of things are experienced through human senses, and not all of them are beautiful. What makes a beautiful experience beautiful?

Hormones. Something happens to my hormones when I experience something beautiful. The medieval definition uses the word placent. It give pleasure. Pleasure is a hormonal thing. I don't know enough about hormones to say which hormones are operating--I let that up to the biologists. I just know that there are hormones involved, and that the hormones give delight.

So, my definition: beauty is a delight-producing gift to human senses.

We spend money on beauty.

I drive along Interstate 88 approaching Chicago. I pass remarkable buildings, obviously designed by professional architects, and the buildings are surrounded by professionally designed landscapes. Corporations spend millions to make their headquarters look beautiful, Why? They want people to perceive the corporation as a giver of beauty. If the corporation gives beauty, people will assume it will also give other good things.

Look at what people spend on the architecture of their homes. I drive through wealthy neighborhoods and marvel at how important the people living there must think beauty is. Then I wonder how often the people living in those homes are able to enjoy the beauty. They might be working 16 hours a day and never come home in the daylight. They might be undergoing a divorce, and cannot see the beauty because of the pain they are suffering internally.

I drive through poor neighborhoods and am sad because beauty is so often absent. Things are ugly, the opposite of beautiful.

Though not always. Some years ago two photographers went around Quincy, where I live, and took pictures of tiny pieces of beauty, especially in architecture: a cornice on a building, the brickwork on a chimney. One that sticks in my mind is a picture of a garbage can placed in a carefully sculpted niche in a building. Someone made the garbage can's location into a gift that could cause delight.

When I was interviewing people in Chicago for my dissertation, I sometimes went into one of the "projects," the terrible high-rises designed by misguided city planners back in the 1950s and 60s. In spite of the disastrous public spaces (urine-smelling elevators that quit working, leaving people to climb 16 flights of stairs to their apartments), the people living in those places often succeeded in making their private spaces beautiful. They were not in control of the public spaces, but where they could make beauty, they made it.

I once toured Hannibal with a restorationist, a man whose profession was to restore beauty to old buildings. He kept pointing out houses and saying, "Look at what a gift that house is to the street!" A gift.

Every hospital I have visited in recent years has been a  marvel of architectural development. The hospital started out years ago with a modest building, and each addition became more elaborate and beautiful. Corridors and private rooms are hung with art work. Perhaps it helps us to deal with the tragedies of illness when we are surrounded with beauty.

Beauty is God's gift to us as humans. By helping to make the world more beautiful, we come closer to God.