What Makes Something Beautiful, Anyway?

We all love beauty.

We’ve all had moments where we've stumbled upon something that catches our breath, and in that moment, there are no words — we're left simply in awe.

St. John Paul II said it well in his Letter to Artists, "[This is] a momentary glimpse of the abyss of light which has its original wellspring in God. Is it in any way surprising that this leaves the spirit overwhelmed as it were, so that it can only stammer in reply?” 

It’s human nature to be drawn to the beautiful, true, and good. Beauty has a special place in our hearts because we are creatures made of both body and soul. And while the soul is superior to the senses, the senses nevertheless are capable of pointing to the supernatural. Think of sacraments. God uses matter to bring about spiritual realities. 

So what makes something beautiful? I’m about to get pretty philosophical here, bear with me. St. Thomas Aquinas gives us some requirements: radiance, harmony and wholeness. Of these three, radiance is the most important, he says. 

Why? The radiance of beauty is in the splendor of its form…a thing is beautiful in as much as it exists, as form gives being. However, while form makes a thing what it is, it is not the thing itself. So in material things, there is beauty when the essence of a thing shines through its outer sensible appearance, and the two are in harmony with one another.  

So in simpler terms, true beauty is when the inner beauty is reflected through physical form. So for example, we recognize a beautiful person when we see their virtues shining through their actions and appearance. Or in art, when through the senses, truth is expressed. We find it beautiful because we are seeing something for what it truly is, which goes beyond the senses. 

But true beauty goes even deeper. It's a paradox. (That's a fancy word.) These transcendentals (truth, beauty and goodness) are equal to one another, so something is beautiful in as much as it is true. This is why something can be beautiful, even when it deals with ugliness or pain — because they are true realities of life. 

This is especially true with how we speak of Christ on the Cross as being beautiful. How can something so physically ugly be so beautiful? 

In his Contemplation of Beauty, Joseph Ratzinger talks about this exactly: the paradox of the beautiful being capable of both sweetness and pain.  

He says, “[Beauty is] the emotional shock that makes man leave his shell...attracting him to what is other than himself… Nostalgia and longing impel him to pursue the quest; beauty prevents him from being content with just daily life. It causes him to suffer...we could say that the arrow of nostalgia pierces man, wounds him and in this way gives him wings, lifts him upwards toward the transcendent.”

Beauty, by its nature of being transcendental, lifts man up out of himself and reminds him that there is a Goodness beyond himself. The wound points to a longing that nothing in the world will satisfy, except ultimately, God, and propels man to search after this ultimate satisfaction. 

So true beauty can involve both pain and joy at once. When something deeply strikes a chord of truth, or deals with the Truth itself (such as the Paschal Mystery), it is still beautiful. This is why in stories of hardship that deal with much suffering, there is still beauty; as long as the story shows the hope of redemption, in some way reflecting the Redemption achieved through Christ’s suffering on the Cross, it is true and therefore beautiful. 

So there you have it — true beauty. But there is such a thing as false beauty, too. Fyodor Dostoyevsky said, “The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.” 

We see this war waged everywhere: especially in the form of a hyper-sexualization of the human person, splashed everywhere, in every media outlet. This “beauty” leads us to ourselves and fans our selfish desires rather than leading us beyond ourselves. 

So what do we do? It's similar to attraction versus lust. When presented with beauty, we have a choice. We can look at beauty as a reminder of our Creator.  We can look with eyes that do not seek to possess beauty, with eyes of gratitude — that is the proper response. This is the beauty of attraction.

Or we can look and seek to possess, to take for ourselves, and to reduce especially the beauty of a human person to a means of pleasure for ourselves. 

The world needs true beauty. We need a renewal of beautiful churches that inspire us to pray, of arts that reflect the goodness of God, whether or not it speaks His name. We need people who see with eyes of wonder and gratitude, who live lives that reflect the Beauty of the One who made them.

Pope Paul VI said, "This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. It is beauty, like truth, which brings joy to the heart of man...Remember that you are the guardians of beauty in the world."

Whether or not we see ourselves as artists is irrelevant — there is a special place in every man's heart for beauty. The challenge is to cultivate an awareness of true beauty and how to truly see. The challenge to cultivate the beauty of a life well-lived, and to present that to the Divine Artist as our masterpiece, crafted with His grace.