One of the transcendentals that ancient philosophers talked about, that brings about the greatest degree of health, happiness and human flourishing, is beauty. Or pursuing perfect beauty, to be specific. Love, goodness, and truth are some of the others, but beauty is really interesting to me. How can beauty lead to greater well-being? Is it really in the eye of the beholder? After doing a little digging into the true nature of beauty and the philosophical definition, I realized just how profound and important beauty is.
So what exactly is beauty? Beauty, in the classical sense, is a clear revelation of the ontology of a thing, or its ontological reality. Ontology is the study of being. So beauty is a revelation about something’s being or existence.
Whenever we talk about being or existence, we inevitably introduce differences, or hierarchies. And this is based upon the nature of things. Objects in reality have certain characteristics that reveal their nature: where they came from, what they are like, what’s the color, big vs small, fast vs. slow, round vs square, etc. Something can be more beautiful when it is more closely representing its true nature or a higher degree of its characteristics.
Anything that exists in reality participates in beauty because it’s revealing it’s ontological reality. So everything that exists has beauty to some degree. And that’s why it’s objective in the traditional sense. The degree of beauty is in proportion to the perfection of being. The more perfect something is in being, the more beautiful it is.
Subjective vs. Objective
Now, beauty requires a perceiver. So there is a subjective and objective relationship. Where subjectivity comes into play is the degree of being which people debate. Or if that even matters to somebody. Two people could look at the same thing and disagree on the degree to which that reveals its ontology. But nonetheless, beauty exists in the nature of that thing, not our opinion of the degree of ontology. Beauty is an object of the intellect and not of emotion.
You can look at two churches, for example, one that’s very modern looking and one that’s very classical with cathedrals and ask yourself, “Which one one is more beautiful”? Both can be beautiful, and one person who likes classical design could argue with and differ from someone who likes modern design. But the church that reflects more “churchness” is more beautiful. From an objective, intellectual point of view, whichever church has more church-like characteristics, like stained-glass windows, archways, pews, alters etc., is more beautiful. If one church is missing some of the central components of “churchness” then that church is objectively less beautiful than the other.
Increasing Well-being by Increasing Beauty
This ultimately goes back to God. God is being itself and beauty itself (see any one of my other Philosophical blog posts on God for a deeper dive). Specifically, perfect being and perfect beauty. Anytime we participate in the act of being, we are participating in the nature of God. That nature includes things like love, goodness, rationality, virtue – all unique to our nature and existence. So the higher degree in which we participate in these acts of being, which are rooted in the nature of God, the more beautiful we become or we are. And the greater health and well-being we manifest (as evidenced by scientific and psychological research, I might add).
So, we are all beautiful just through our very nature and existence. But we can (and should) create and exhibit greater beauty in our lives by participating in the act of being to a higher degree. Be more loving and empathetic. Be more expressive and compassionate. Eat better. Exercise more. Sleep well. Be a better human being, and you will become more beautiful, which will benefit your life and the lives of others.
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