Beauty has been one of my greatest solaces in this year of my grief. I’ve spent a lot of time in the woods in order to immerse myself in beauty. I’ve also started doing some reading on the subject, and my first stop was the Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donoghue’s book Beauty: The Invisible Embrace (listen to an interview with him). His subtitle expresses my experience: beauty is Nature’s comforting embrace telling me there is Some Thing More to the world than meets the eye.
What is beauty? Is beauty something objective, present in certain objects and absent in others? Is beauty subjective, something “in the eye of the beholder”?
What I have learned this year, and found confirmed in O’Donoghue’s book, is there is a third possibility: Beauty is an essential part what is.
The ancient Greeks thought this way. Plato considered Beauty to be one of the Ideal Forms that constitute the true reality behind our physical world of space-time. Medieval philosophers believed there were five ‘Transcendentals’: Being, the One, the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. These transcendentals are the foundation of the universe. These five principles underlay everything. This means that no matter where you look, if you have eyes to see, you will see the transcendentals. A whole book could be written on what this means, but I want to stay focused on beauty. What this means to me is that Beauty is at the essence of everything.
O’Donoghue quotes another writer, Francesca Aran Murphy, on this point:
Part of what it means to be, is to be beautiful. Beauty is not superadded to things: it is one of the springs of their reality. It is not that which effects a luscious response in perceivers; it is the interior geometry of things, making them perceptible as forms.
I love the phrase ‘the interior geometry of things.’ This is like the Medieval philosopher’s belief that the transcendentals form the superstructure of the universe. Is this why ‘sacred geometry’ is so beautiful? Why mathematicians talk about the beauty of an equation?
I have written in earlier blog posts about perceiving ‘bounteous beauty’ in nature; what I meant by that is this ‘essential beauty.’ It doesn’t mean seeing an object that I subjectively experience as beautiful, like a flower or sunset, but seeing the profound, awe-inspiring experience that ALL is beautiful. It is precisely the all-embracing nature of this beauty that points me to something beyond the physical.
O’Donoghue agrees with this conception of beauty as an aspect of being [‘ontological’ means questions concerned with ‘the nature of being’]:
Ontologically, beauty is the secret sound of the deepest thereness of things. To recognize and celebrate beauty is to recognize the ultimate sacredness of experience, to glimpse the subtle embrace of belonging where we are wed to the divine, the beauty of every moment, of every thing.
In the 18th century European philosophers began to question the idea of objective beauty; they argued that beauty is also subjective. As time went on the conception of beauty moved farther and farther into the realm of subjectivity; today it seems that many people in our culture believe that there is no such thing as objective beauty.
Of course there is an element of subjectivity in my response to the beauty (or perceived lack) in a particular object. For example, you and I might disagree on the beauty of a painting. I may find the work of Jackson Pollack frivolous and you may find his paintings works of sublime beauty. That’s the subjective level. What modern philosophers are saying (I think) is there is no objective standard that can definitively settle our disagreement.
But the Beauty that O’Donoghue and I are talking about is at a deeper level. This level is embedded in the beingness of things in the world. At a level below that of subject and object.
O’Donoghue had this to say about the concept that beauty was subjective:
We have often heard that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This is usually taken to mean that the sense of beauty is utterly subjective; there is no accounting for taste because each person’s taste is different. The statement has another, more subtle meaning: if our style of looking becomes beautiful, then beauty will become visible and shine forth for us. We will be surprised to discover beauty in unexpected places where the ungraceful eye would never linger. The graced eye can glimpse beauty anywhere, for beauty does not reserve itself for special elite moments or instances; it does not wait for perfection but is present already secretly in everything. When we beautify our gaze, the grace of hidden beauty becomes our joy and our sanctuary.
When your eye is filled with beauty, beauty is all you see.