Commenting on a recent post about Beauty, Shenpen suggested that I had got terribly mixed up about the difference between the map – our feelings of beauty – and what’s really out there, which we feel is more or less beautiful. He said two quite disparate things, at and to make quite different points in his argument:
… what can [it even] possibly mean that beauty is objectively real? That a pretty flower objectively has the same physical properties we think it has?
… “beauty” is not even a property of things, but a property of sensations in our minds.
These two statements resonated together in my mind, after I had read and responded to his comment. Their conjunction got me started.
There are two alternatives only: either beauty subsists only in our subjective consciousness, or else it subsists somehow also outside our awareness, as a real feature of reality that is not existentially dependent upon our sentience.
The former alternative is a non-starter. If beauty is only in the eye of the beholder, then what we call the beautiful is not really beautiful in fact, and in itself, but rather only seems so. In that case, our apprehensions of beauty are not verisimilar; they are, to put it bluntly, false. But if all our apprehensions of beauty are false, beauty is not real, but only an illusion, a mere phantasm. To say that beauty is only subjective then is tantamount to saying that it does not exist – or, at most, that it has the same sort and degree of existence as the delusions of a madman.
That dog won’t hunt. We experience everything as more or less beautiful; whatever else it is, experience per se is an evaluation. And you just can’t get very far with a theory that says, “everything you experience is wrong.”
Whether or not it exists in our own minds, then, beauty must exist independently of us. It must be an objective character of reality, every bit as concrete as mass or energy. More, even, perhaps; mass and energy might be species of beauty, given that, since being is the forecondition of all other subsidiary goods, and is thus the good of all goodness, therefore whatever exists is ipso facto somehow beautiful, to some minimal degree.
Is mass a species of beauty? Pick up a rock, and heft it. Is there not something strangely pleasant in its weight, and resistance? Think of a rock too heavy for you to lift. Is there not something noble in its greatness? If having failed to lift it you then went and trained with weights for a few months so that you were able to come back and succeed at doing so, it would be a noteworthy achievement, which would feel grand, no? Whence that grandeur, if the mere mass of the rock were not itself inherently grand, so that overcoming it was therefore grander?
As physical aspects of sheer actuality, then, mass and energy would seem to be aspects of sheer beauty.
Our feelings of beauty then may be simply what it is like to apprehend the actuality of something. Such feelings might be intense because we apprehend something extraordinarily actual in itself – i.e., unusually excellent, consequential, powerful, sublime, important, significant, large, immaculate, etc. – or because we pay extraordinarily close attention to something quite normal, thus noticing its excellence, significance, and so forth, better than we usually do. Or both, of course.
Everest would be beautiful, then, even if no one was looking at it. If it was not, then it could not be beautiful to those who do look at it, but rather only “beautiful.”
Everest is beautiful, furthermore, even though there are perspectives from which its beauty is not apparent – such as the perspective of the room where I now sit, in California, or the perspective of an observer in the Andromeda Galaxy. The Andromedan and I cannot see Everest at all; so we cannot see that Everest is beautiful (or anything else). And there may be observers who can see Everest perfectly well, but who are blind to its beauty, or at least to such aspects of its beauty as bear down so forcefully upon us – a gnat, say, or a snake. But that we must look at Everest in a certain way to see its beauty does not mean that the beauty is anywise unreal or merely phenomenal. In the daylight, I can see the orange of the leaf; at night, I cannot. This does not mean that the color of the leaf, the aspects of its being that give rise to my phenomenal experience of its color, are unreal. So likewise with beauty.
Beauty is objective, then. What can this mean?
It must mean that beauty is not contingent upon an apprehension from any particular perspective within any particular frame of reference. It must rather characterize things inwardly, and inherently, as arising along with the other properties that make them just what they are, and from their inmost depths. In no other way could it be really in them, and only if it were first really in them could it then characterize them outwardly.
But this seems an odd thing to say of a mountain. A mountain is not inherently beautiful, surely. Indeed, mountains may not be subsistent beings at all, properly speaking. They may be more like heaps, mere long-lived but temporary agglomerations. Heaps have properties of their own only as functions of the properties of their elements; there is nothing to them aside from those elements. And mountains may be like that. In that case, there would be no such thing as inward properties of a mountain, for “mountain” would then be nothing more than shorthand convenient for indicating this or that pile of stuff.
Tace the perennial animist insistence that the mountain is alive, haunted, inspired (why have animists thus insisted?), tace our own occasional feelings that the animists might be right (a feeling common among outdoorsmen), and say that it were so. Say that Everest was the same sort of thing as the large pile of gravel down at the quarry, just bigger: a heap, nothing more. Where in either of those heaps would such beauty as inheres in them subsist? If there is nothing of them within which their beauty might inhere, then whence any of the beauty that we apprehend in them?
The beauty is not in the heap; the beauty of the heap is not merely in me, or in any other observer; nor therefore can it be found in the agreement of observers – aye, nor even a whole universe of observers – about that beauty; for that beauty is, as we have said, not contingent upon any such observations. The beauty of the heap, this all goes to say, does not derive from any creaturely factors.
There seems to be only one remaining alternative. The beauty of the heap Everest is objective in that it subsists in the eternal Divine evaluation of Everest. God sees that Everest is beautiful, and it is his vision – which, by definition, is the true vision, the vision to which other lesser visions aspire to adequate and to agree – that makes it true to say that Everest is beautiful. God’s perspective on Everest is not particular. It is not the perspective of a certain locus in respect to other things, of a certain frame of reference. On the contrary, it is the perspective of every conceivable locus, and thus perfectly universal, so thereby procuring to creatures the very matrix of possible loci for their eventuation.
These are all straightforward consequences of omniscience. God knows everything you know (and everything else there is to know), and he knows it from your perspective (and from every other). Furthermore, his knowledge of you is a forecondition of you; you could not exist, and feel the way that you do right now, if God did not first know that you do exist and feel that way. God’s knowledge of you is the way that you come to be in the first place. This is how he can be said to know you better than you know yourself.
But is not God’s evaluation that Everest is beautiful the outcome of his observation of Everest? Consider Genesis 1:31: “And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.” God saw. But was it his seeing that made his handiwork good? Or was it good already, when he saw it? How not, since he, himself the Very Good, had made it? The verse does not say that the creation was good because God saw that it was good, but rather that it was good to begin with, as he saw.
NB that none of this talk of “already,” “then,” “first,” and so forth is to be taken temporally, as if God could not see that what he had made “was” good “until” he had made it. God is eternal, and in him there is no temporal before or after; there is for him no period of time when there was as yet no creation, nor any period after he had got it going. To him, it is all one period; and all his knowledge is gained by introspection.
Thus it is not that Everest is beautiful on account of the fact that God has judged that Everest is beautiful, although he has. God’s apprehension of the beauty of Everest is what makes our apprehension of that beauty true, insofar as our apprehension agrees with God’s apprehension; for it is the agreement of our ideas with God’s ideas that makes our ideas true.* But God’s judgement of beauty is not what makes that beauty factual. The facticity of Everest’s beauty is integral with the facticity of Everest itself. And Everest is beautiful for the same reason that Everest exists in the first place: because God makes it. This is no more than to say that Everest is what it is because God is who he is. The facticity of Everest is a participation of the facticity of God, who is the first source of all fact. Thus the beauty of Everest is a participation of the beauty of God.
* Their agreement with creaturely facts, on the other hand, as being always approximate, means that they are never quite perfectly true, but rather, as Plato says, only opinions. Being more or less accurate, opinions may work out more or less well; this being the basis of Pragmatism, which is a natural history of the formation of opinions. The only way we could have a perfectly true opinion about a historical fact is if we were to attain the divine perspective upon it.