September 18–Beauty: The Nature of Things

In his work De Veritate Religione, the 4th century Christian theologian, Augustine asks:  “Is a thing beautiful because it gives delight, or does it give delight because it is beautiful?”

That can be said to sum up the philosophical argument over beauty for the last nearly 3000 years in western civilization.  Is beauty a given, inherent quality in things, or is beauty in the eye of the beholder.  Of course, one can argue in favor of both perspectives. Human beings tend to agree very often about what things are beautiful (which implies that those things come with inherent beauty), and individuals disagree about whether some things are beautiful (implying that beauty is what the individual mind of perception makes of it).

In these days when we seem capable of arguing about everything, even those things that more recently we would seem to have had near universal agreement on, I don’t want to argue about the nature of beauty.

I do want to point out what happens when we fail to perceive beauty.  If beauty is subjective, then a failure to perceive beauty implies that we are failing each other, at least from one generation to another in pointing out beauty in the many places that we might find it. If beauty is inherent in things, then a failure to perceive it implies a disconnect between humanity in general and the nature of things.

When we fail to perceive beauty, regardless of its nature, we participate in the devaluation of things in general.  Nature.  All things belong to nature.  All objects belong to nature.  All people belong to nature. I think we see this devaluation all around us.

Why does the opioid crisis suddenly get national attention when it was just an inner city problem, we did not mind?

How can we see rising water temperatures and water depths, a huge increase in the number of storms and the mass die-offs of birds and continue to deny climate change?

How can we see the continual disproportionate number of suicides and murders among LGTBQ youth and not see that our cultural practices toward them are killing them?

How can white people still say with impunity that “we don’t see color” when not seeing color is a vehicle of racism?

I suspect you could add to the list.  The list is of those places in the human community where we fail to see beauty, where we collectively experience a failure to perceive what is beautiful in nature.

By the way, in the fourth century, Augustine concluded that we delight in things because they are beautiful.  Look what we do when we fail to see that.

Bob Patrick

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