Beauty in the Thought of St. Thomas
St. Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican theologian of the middle ages. He was a quiet student, and as such was called the “dumb ox”. However, day by day, God was pouring incomprehensible knowledge into his heart and soul. One of the great testaments to this is his writings, most notably the Summa Theologica. This great work allows us to journey through the many mysteries of our faith. St. Thomas, who has been referred to as the “Angelic Doctor” appears to be writing about these mysteries from a very organic perspective; each piece ebbs and flows from all the others to create a whole picture rather than fragments. This sense of thoroughness has always appealed to me, since I knew I could go to the Summa for any topic. Then one day, the unimaginable happened: St. Thomas failed to answer a simple question, namely “What is beauty?”
As I pondered this unfortunate omission, I began to realize a more profound answer to my question. Instead of seeing a need to articulate the qualities of beauty in a concise question format, St. Thomas allowed it to be integrated into everything he wrote. It was proof to me that, in the middle ages, beauty was understood as an objective reality which elevated man to the infinite. As such, there was no need to explain it to scholars in a concise question and rebuttal format. This, however, would make my work of discovering his thoughts on beauty more of a challenge. I took the challenge, and was amazed at the simplicity I found: St. Thomas identifies three constituent elements of beauty: integritas, consonantia, and claritas. These three elements form the foundational definition of objective beauty in finite things, but also in terms of our infinite God.
Integritas (integrity). This is the component which conveys the ontological reality of a thing, that is the reality of a thing, as created by God. It is an element which indicates what it takes for a thing to be whole/perfect as that which it is. For instance, if a dog is true to his ontology, he will radiate “dog-ness”. This requires certain qualities to be present (e.g. four paws, a tail, ears, nose, etc). These are the elements necessary for there to be integrity in this dog. Integrity also conveys what is fitting for a given thing. If we return to our dog example, it would not be fitting for a dog to be working as a secretary to the CEO of some big organization. It would not indicate the perfection of dog-ness, and therefore would betray the integrity of our pup.
Consonantia (proportion). It is through proportion that we come to understand the order and unity within a given thing, as well as the order and unity it exhibits towards its final end. If a finite object has an infinite end (such as a human being), it should behave in a particular manner which befits such a high calling. Betrayal of this end-oriented disposition creates a living monstrosity, which abandons itself to finite pleasures, to the detriment of eternal salvation. This is so often witnessed in our modern society, which in turn makes our society one which is lacking elements of beauty. Disproportionality is the premise of comedy, and is thus easily observable. Let us return to our integrated dog. If he is physically disproportionate (e.g. he has a large body and stubby legs), he will appear comical. However, if he is well proportioned, with all his physical elements in proper sizing, he is considered a well-created animal.
Claritas (clarity). This element of beauty holds great power as it has the ability to impress or reveal the ontological reality of a given thing. It is through clarity that we can answer the question, “what is it?” with precision and understanding. It also helps us determine what is being conveyed. For instance, if I look at Michelangelo’s Pieta, I can clearly see that it is an image of an agonizing mother holding her deceased son. If I look closer, I can find clues that will lead me to understand who these people are. Claritas allows me to receive the self-revelation, so to speak, of the thing.
But how can all this makes sense in relation to beauty? Simply put, all three are necessary for objective beauty to be present. If even one is missing, the object may be pleasant, but not truly beautiful. Only objective beauty can bring delight. Explanation by way of a few examples will be helpful at this point in our discussion.
Take for instance the following two objects: a whole apple, and an apple core.
Which is more beautiful? Naturally, we want to say the whole apple, but why? St. Thomas can help us to understand that towards which our nature compels us. The whole apple contains all its necessary parts for apple-ness (color, skin, shape, fragrance, a stem, etc). Integritas is maintained. Next, a nice apple is well-proportioned, with a small stem, large fruity part, and small internal seeds. Also, the apple is appealing to a human or animal, who desires to help it fulfill its end: to nourish life. As such, claritas is exhibited. Finally, since the apple has the necessary elements of color, shape, size, etc, it clearly conveys what apple-ness should look and feel like. It does not betray me by being a wolf in sheep’s clothing. And so, we have our final element, claritas. It can therefore be said that an apple is a beautiful thing.
But what of our lowly apple core? The core lacks some elements of apple-ness, since someone has taken chunks out of it. This creates a rift on the integritas level, which would dictate the need for certain elements which make a thing perfect. Furthermore, by missing a lot of its flesh, it is not able to show order and unity of all its parts. The consonantia (which literally means “all parts working together”) is broken. Finally, if one were to try and understand what an apple is, based on the core alone, one would walk away with a false notion of apple-ness. This would betray claritas, since it would not allow for the full self-revelation of our beautiful apple.
The above example, although comical at times, does prove an important point: beauty is not just based on personal tastes or likes/dislikes. It is an intricately woven tapestry which the hand of God mysteriously imprinted on our hearts. By taking a thing “apart” and seeking out these Thomistic elements, we are able to understand true beauty, as created by Truth Himself. This leads us to a sense of awe at His Goodness. And suddenly, all three transcendentals are made manifest. Authentic beauty leads man to God, whereas subjective “beauty” can often lead him away from God.