“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”
- JRR Tolkien, “The Return of the King”
I rarely re-watch movies, and I practically never re-watch documentaries. But I’ve watched Roger Scruton’s “Why Beauty Matters” twice now, and I’ll probably watch it again. You really ought to set aside an hour to enjoy it. At the very least, watch the first 3 minutes.
This post will draw somewhat heavily from Scruton’s documentary, but will also include my own thoughts – from more of a “hey-watch-as-I-attempt-to-relate-this-to-Christianity” perspective. Starting with:
1. Beauty in Nature
As alluded to in the Tolkien quote, I find it comforting that the beauty of the natural world is ultimately beyond the reach of man’s corruption. We might do our utmost to despoil the beauty of our immediate environment, but the sprawling majesty of the universe stands by unfazed.
I sometimes talk to atheists & agnostics who point to the sheer size of the universe, and claim that our smallness and apparent insignificance is evidence against the existence of God. I’ve always thought to myself, in response, “what better way for an infinite, all-powerful Being to express Himself to us, than to surround us with mind-numbing vastness and beauty?”
When we look upon the night sky…a mountain landscape…a blazing sunset…a wind-whipped prairie…we stop to appreciate these things for their mere existence. They stir something within us, drawing our attention to a craving, within ourselves, for a Higher Beauty that nothing in this universe can quite satisfy.
“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20, NIV)
2. Beauty in Things
If mountains are beautiful because they are created by God, then sculptures and poems are beautiful because they are created by people. Robert Frost creates beauty by describing a forest, even if the poem is, perhaps, eclipsed by the natural beauty of the forest itself.
Man is unique among creatures not only in his ability to appreciate beauty, but in his ability to willfully create beauty for beauty’s sake. In concurrence with Dr. Scruton, I would argue that for a thing to be beautiful, it cannot be created primarily for utility, or for mere self-expression. Beautiful things often possess these qualities, but they must be secondary.
“All art is absolutely useless. Put usefulness first, and you lose it. Put beauty first, and what you do will be useful forever.” - Oscar Wilde
Also: simply calling something beautiful doesn’t make it so! That kind of absurd relativism might be permitted in modern art museums, but not on this blog.
3. Beauty in People
At the risk of sounding repetitive, a person possesses beauty for the simple fact that they exist. This is best illustrated by the perplexing phenomenon of Otherwise Articulate Adults Making Interesting Noises in the Presence of Babies.
Infants are useless in the truest sense of the word. They’re essentially poop machines, incapable of providing us with any tangible service or benefit. Yet babies evoke an emotional response precisely because of their uselessness. When utility is stripped away, we find ourselves reveling in the mere fact of existence of another human person.
This also comes into play when contrasting feelings of romantic love with feelings of lust. The man overcome with romantic love desires nothing more than the flourishing and well-being of his beloved…even if it comes at his own cost…and even if he will never be able to personally take part in her life. He would gladly throw himself in front of a train, rather than see his beloved suffer pain, shame, or disgrace. He will daydream about performing acts of heroic sacrifice on her behalf (rushing into a burning building, diving in front of a bullet, etc.).
The man overcome with lust is primarily interested in how the other person can be of use to him. The object of his lust is an instrument to be used and discarded.
“Pornographic images reduce the person being lusted over to body parts only. There is no dignity when the human dimension is eliminated from the person. In short, the problem with pornography is not that it shows too much of the person, but that it shows too little.” – Pope John Paul II
I believe that the human experience of beauty provides strong inductive evidence for the central claims of Christianity (namely: the existence of High Beauty, original sin, and our subsequent inability to grasp this Beauty unaided). Three observations, in closing:
Firstly: We recognize beauty and know that it’s good…even if we have difficulty defining it.
Secondly: We perceive that our desire for beauty can be tantalized, but never truly fulfilled.
Thirdly: We yearn for Something, unseen, that can fulfill our unfulfilled desire for “more beauty”.