“Beauty Will Save the World—But How?” will be presented in four parts, on consecutive Tuesdays.

A Definition of Beauty 

In Catholic circles today, there are a lot of appeals to beauty but not much discussion on the nature of beauty. There’s no one better with whom to discuss this topic than Dr. Denis McNamara, the director of the newly-created Center for Beauty and Culture at Benedictine College and a member of the podcast The Liturgy Guys. It was my pleasure to spend some time in conversation with him, expanding on beauty—identifying its elements, looking at its history, and learning about the ways it enhances liturgy and can even transform our devotions. Here is Part I of this multi-part series.

Robert Mixa: To start off, I’m going to ask you, Denis: What is “the nature of beauty”?

Dr. Denis McNamara: Good question. John Paul II wrote an encyclical called Veritatis Splendor, which translates as The Splendor of the Truth, which is precisely one of the definitions of beauty. It is that about the truth which we find splendid, radiant, and delightful. Beauty in the modern world is often thought of as something that I like, something that causes an emotion in me that makes me shed a tear. One of the ways that I like to talk about beauty is through Thomas Aquinas, and by extension to Aristotle in what is called the realist tradition, or the objective view of beauty. It simply means that things have a revelatory nature outside of whether anyone is perceiving them. In that sense, the beauty is “in” the object, so to speak, that we know a thing precisely because of the material thing which gives that revelation to us. To summarize numerous Thomistic philsophers, in this system, we call a thing beautiful when it reveals its ontological reality through matter to the senses of a perceiver.

The way of describing a thing as beautiful when it “reveals its ontological reality” might be difficult for some to understand. Can you define ontological?

Sure. Ontos in Greek is the word for being, and the suffix –ology indicates a study of something. So the questions then follow: What is being? What is existence? What is the nature of a thing that exists, the quidditas or whatness of something? And so when the thing reveals what it is as understood in the mind of God most fully and completely, we call that “beautiful.” So a beautiful thing actually gives us a shortcut to the mind of God, which is an amazing thing when you think about it. Through matter, we begin to know as God knows.

So that’s why Bishop Barron so often stresses evangelizing through beauty and beauty as the attractive power of the truth? 

Right. The way the truth is often presented today is not that interesting. Somebody wags a finger at you and says, “Do this or else you go to hell.” There was a time when fear worked with people, but that doesn’t really work that well now. So, how do you persuade somebody to do anything, whether it’s buy your product or believe your political stance or accept the divinity of Christ? You have to present something in such a way that the truth is so inevitably delightful to accept that people tell you “I’ll believe that. I’ll choose that, I’ll do that. I desire that.”

And beauty what makes something splendid, attractive, and desirable. Sometimes I like to say, “beauty is to truth, as deliciousness is to food.” Deliciousness is its own motivation. If you offer someone free sample of flavorless gruel, who’s going to take you up on that? But if you offer a free sample of something delicious, people will desire it on their own. Instead of truth being forced down somebody’s throat, the truth becomes something that’s perceived as delightful and attractive and good for them. And then that becomes something that people feel free to choose to believe in and make the defining feature of their lives. Beauty stirs desire for the good, and the “movement of the will toward the good” is one of the classic definitions of love. So beauty makes you love things. And when you love them, they are not a threat to you but a blessing.

So, anything that exists partakes in beauty in some way, is that correct?

Right, because existing is participation in God’s existence. So even the lowest little slug has some beauty, but it has beauty proper to a slug and it’s a relatively small amount of beauty. But anything that exists participates in beauty because it participates in existence and reveals itself. The only true ugliness is to go out of existence.

So you can even say that demons have a certain amount of beauty. They still have intellect and will and different capacities. They share in being. They exist, but their existence is all confused and disproportionate. And so they have a certain trace or memory of beauty, but it’s a beauty that’s less, because it’s not as full and proportionate as it should be.

When you talk about degrees of beauty, I can’t say something’s positively ugly, is that what you’re telling me?

Nothing is truly ugly, because the only true ugliness is to go out of existence. But some things are less beautiful than others. So imagine if I were an artist, and I made a beautiful clay bust of a beautiful face, and everything’s right, and then someone comes along and punches it and puts a little fist marks in it — and the nose is over here and the ear is over there — that’s less beautiful than it was before, although it’s still participates in beauty in some way. A rock has a certain beauty by the fact that it exists, but it doesn’t have intellect and will and locomotion like a human being does. So we can say a person not only has a beauty different from that of a rock, but also more beauty, that is, greater participation in being itself.

That reminds me of a story sculptor Alexander Stoddart recounts in Sir Roger Scruton’s BBC documentary on beauty, which is similar to what was happening at my sister’s art school. The school had these really talented students, but a professor was telling them to basically make something beautiful only, in the end, to deform it. There’s something irrational about that. 

Defining beauty as the revealing of a thing’s ontological reality is novel today. I’ve heard you talk about the constitutive elements of what makes something beautiful, so can you elaborate what those elements are?

Sure, this is pretty well known, and Bishop Barron talks about this a lot. To make a beautiful thing, you must reveal what it is at the level of its nature, that is, how it is known perfectly in the mind of God. So first an artist has to somehow come to know that reality as well. So, if I said to you “make a beautiful something,” an artist would first ask, “what is that something?” Here knowledge—that is, truth—precedes the making, and therefore precedes the beauty.

In Thomas Aquinas’ system, there are three constituent elements of beauty. The first one is called wholeness, or integritas in Latin, which means the fullness of reality, or, more precisely, perfection in being. Sometimes people only think of wholeness in an earthly way, that it has all the parts that it needs, but it speaks more properly to perfection in being.

If a thing has perfection in being, it will reveal that perfection and therefore in some way reveal the mind of God. So if you’re trying to show somebody a car and you take off the doors, the wheels, and the steering wheel it can’t reveal car-ness very well. So, it has to be a whole in order to be known fully, and therefore reveal its ontological reality.

The second one of Thomas’ constituent elements of beauty is consonantia or proportionality. So not only does a thing have all of its parts, but all of those parts are in right relationship. Say you’ve made a beautiful sculpture, and everything’s in the right place. The nose is where the nose should go, and the eyes where the eyes should go. And then you punch it, and suddenly the eyes are up here and the nose is over here. Well, that’s out of right proportion from part to part and parts to the whole. The word itself comes from “con,” meaning together, and “sonare,” meaning to make a sound. So really it means harmonious, proper relationships, like music where notes sound good together.

But there are a million kinds of proportionalities in the world. If you have a door that’s only a half inch high and a half inch wide, it’s not proportional to a person and therefore to its use. A wedding dress is proportional to a wedding day but not to a day at the beach.

Similarly, things must be proportionate to their telos or their final end. If you make a chalice that’s not elevated, glorious, with, say, gold leaf, and it doesn’t look like the cup of heaven, it’s not proportionate to the Blood of Christ or the nature of the liturgy.

And then the last constituent element of beauty is called claritas, sometimes translated as “clarity” but that’s not precisely right. It means that a thing has the power or the capacity to reveal its ontological reality. I can’t drive a car unless I have the capacity to drive a car. It’s pretty straightforward. A thing can’t reveal its ontological reality unless it has the capacity to do so. To be beautiful a thing has to be intelligible, and to be intelligible, it has to be able to reveal itself. So anything that’s invisible by definition, doesn’t have the power to reveal itself.

So those are the three constitutive elements of beauty and each one is about the revelation of the inner reality of a thing. Integritas means it is all there to be revealed, consonantia means that everything is proportionate to the perfection of the thing, and then claritas means it has the capacity to be reveal itself. And together, the earthly object then becomes “transparent” to the perfection of heaven, and we rejoice in knowing it. We see its splendor and delight in it.