One of the recurrent themes throughout St. Augustine’s Confessions is the nature of beauty and how beauty leads Augustine toward truth, goodness, and wisdom. Beauty is a gateway to truth, and no one better reflected this in his writings than Augustine. The rejection of beauty in our contemporary society, including from within the Church, has been terrifyingly effective in chipping away at the imago Dei and our innate sense of wonder of the sublime which calls us, as Augustine wrote, “to that peace which is high above all.” The loss of beauty and its ramifications are self-evident: it turned us away from the call to excellence and pivoted our attention “to the sheer depths” of disordered desire and the continuous attempts at the extinguishment of the innate sense of the sublime through its suppression.
In the second book of Confessions Augustine recalls one of the more shameful and peculiar moments of his youth—the stealing of a pear from a neighbor’s pear tree in the company of his friends. Augustine goes through his usual analysis as to why he engaged in the action that he did. He contemplates that he could have committed the action for some greater good, for honor, or for power, but soon realizes that he engaged in sin with the company of others to share the burden of sin and to get a thrill from the momentary action.
Augustine maintains in the Confessions, as Catholic doctrine proclaims, that happiness is the end to human existence—this is what our restless heart and soul seeks. But in reflecting upon his actions, Augustine concludes that the stealing of the pear and throwing it to the pigs “brought [him] no happiness.” He is also very candid as to why it brought him no happiness: “[there was] no beauty because it was a robbery.” Augustine links the beautiful with the good, and he openly cries out that he stole the pear in a moment of unrestrained and disordered desire. Augustine acted without reason which subsequently negated the beautiful. In contemplating this incident, Augustine realizes that his actions weigh on him because there was no beauty in what he had done.
Beauty is something that calls us to higher heights. As Augustine states in his commentary over Genesis 1 at the end of Confessions, it is the beauty and sublimity of the creation from God’s love, wisdom, and truth that is principally to be understood as being embodied in the phrase that the “Spirit moved over the deep.” Augustine poignantly stated, “But in our love of that life where all care is banished, the holiness of your Spirit raises us aloft, so that we may lift up our hearts to you, to the place where your Spirit moved over the waters.” Beauty also calls us to participate with it in its splendor and brilliance.
The participation with beauty is the participation with the Logos; the participatio Trinitatis that Augustine and other Latin Fathers speak of in their writings. Augustine asserts that the Spirit that moves over the deep fills us with a sense of the sublime that calls us “to that peace which is high above all.” He continues to state that through this participation “our hearts are set on an upward journey, as we sing the song of ascents.” Those songs of ascent are also meant to be the hymns and chants of the Mass, a soothing and majestic invitation back to order rather than the chaotic and unorderly “melody” of songs that unleash nothing but pure desire and emotionalism—something that Roger Scruton calls “the tyranny of pop music.”
Augustine instinctively knew that the call to participate with beauty is a call to participate with Logos, the Word that is Christ. It is also the call to participate with the “creative reason” that Pope Benedict XVI spoke of that is open to those who are “truly rational.” Beauty is a call to reason, contemplation, and an ordering to one’s life—it plays an integral role in the restoration of the imago Dei.
The great rhetorical misdirection of our time is that we live “in the age of reason.” That is undoubtedly not the case. We live in the age of disordered desire and the age of suppressed rationality which rejects Logos in favor of concupiscence on the wrongheaded belief that we can be the judges of right and wrong, goodness and beauty, happiness and wisdom. After all, this is why Thomas Hobbes and the liberal philosophers of the seventeenth century had to destroy transcendent moral order and beauty through their promotion of the social contract which invented “that island … to guarantee the possibility of a materialistic and mechanistic philosophy or science, without forcing one to assume a soul or mind that is irreducible to moved matter.”
Hobbes and the English empirical tradition swept away Logos, the voice of moral reasoning within all humans, and substituted true rationality—which is the call to participate with the Word—with nothing but concupiscence wrapped around the veil of “reason” and “self-advancement” with a devilish and guileful smile. Augustine even warned us that rhetoric is used either to enslave humans or is a reflection of Divine Speech that leads us to truth—and the truth will set us free. The new prophets of “reason” are nothing more than prophets of concupiscence detached from reason cheering us on as we sink into the dark depths of alienation while claiming this to be that which is “reasonable” and “beautiful” much like how the Romans cheered on Lucretia’s suicide and claimed her suicide to be a beautiful reflection of Roman virtue.
Since the understanding of beauty is innate to us, as we are imago Dei with an appetite for wonder, beauty also calls us ever higher to the highest Good. This is why Church structures rise into the skies, directing one’s faculties up to Heaven. It is not merely a symbolic call, but it literally redirects one’s attention to the transcendent beauty of the higher order of the stars and Cosmos. It is an invitation to sing those songs of ascent and to cultivate a habit that orders our desires with reason to participate with the creativity of Wisdom itself. Beauty is demanding precisely because it has to be. To negate the beautiful and call barrenness beauty is exactly what Hobbes and our contemporary Hobbesian culture desires because the wonder of beauty is a call to virtue more than anything else. As Augustine reminds us, contemplation over the beauty of creation, in part, helps lead to the “renewal of the mind” and the calling back to the beatific vision which is the renewal of the imago Dei and the soul’s pathway back to God.
Dietrich von Hildebrand, one of the most important Catholic philosophers of the twentieth century, also recognized the deep struggle within our souls for beauty. Like Augustine, Hildebrand understood beauty as both temptation but also the pathway to wisdom and righteousness. Pure carnal beauty destroys the mind if the mind is off guard; the off guard mind is the mind that doesn’t link the absolute goodness and beauty of the body (or rest of the world) as a sign pointing back to God, but instead gets lost in its own desire now detached from Logos and is dragged down to those sheer depths of torment and alienation. But beauty, as Hildebrand knew—taking cues from Augustine—is also the sign that invites contemplation, care, and union which directs one back to the Author of Beauty itself. Beauty allows for a moral re-awakening and is available to all since it is linked to the Spirit calling us to sing those songs of ascent.
We do not live by bread alone; we also live by art and beauty because beautiful art is life-giving. Art, which embodies beauty, also embodies the Word that calls us to participate with it. But our contemporary culture and its “artists” push death and disorder into our minds and force us to “accept” them as artists and their work as art. This is but another rebellion against the Logos—it is what Augustine described so poignantly as “the weight of concupiscence drag[ging] us down into the sheer depths” of hell. But Augustine also reminded us that it is the beauty and love of God that “raises us up through [the] Spirit” to see “the light in him … [that] perfection, splendor, and bliss.” Beauty awakens the soul from its stupor. Aesthetical goodness is what Hildebrand called the “beauty of the second power” which “shines out in the beauty of moral value.”
Catholics mustn’t be afraid to defend the good and beautiful, it is our very birthright as Augustine reminds us. It is the call of the Spirit, the invitation to cultivate virtue and to participate with the creativity of life itself that creates ever greater beauty. It is pertinent for the salvation of our souls and the struggle for the future of our culture to be awoken from our moral malaise by the brilliance of beauty.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail of “Saint Augustine Between Christ and the Virgin” painting by Bartolome Esteban Murillo.