Friday, June 30, 2017

The variety of beauty

A crucial part of Diotima’s ladder is the progress from sensible beauty to the non-sensible beauty of mind, law and mathematics. From time to time I’m struck by how very strange it is that such very different things as paintings, faces, poems, minds and theorems have beauty in common.

If one has a view of beauty as that which gives a certain “aesthetic pleasure”, it’s easy to explain this: it is not that surprising that different inputs could give rise to the same kind of pleasure. But that view of beauty is false. (We would not make my preschool scribbles more beautiful than Monet’s mature paintings by brainwashing people into taking more aesthetic pleasure in the former than in the latter.)

Plato’s famous explanation is that all these different things participate in the same form. But that leaves mysterious why it is that a painting that exhibits a certain harmonious play of colors and a theorem that is illuminating and unifying in a certain way both end up necessarily participating in the form of beauty. There needs to be a connection between the configurations that give rise to beauty and the participation in the form of beauty. The historical Plato seems to have thought that there was a common mathematical structure in all these configurations, but this seems quite implausible given the great variability of them.

Perhaps a theistic explanation can make some progress. All beauty is a participation in God. But God is infinitely beyond all else, so this participation is from an infinite distance, and it is not so surprising that the infinite richness of God can be participated in in infinitely many different ways.

The difficulty with this explanation is that beauty is not the only property that’s a participation in God. Every positive property is a participation in God. And some positive properties—say, knowledge—are much more unified than beauty. Perhaps it helps, though, to have the medieval view that beauty, goodness and being are all in some sense interchangeable. So perhaps every participation in God constitutes beauty, and so the great variety of participations in God gives rise to the great variety of types of beauty.


Dan Lower said...

Hello Dr Pruss,

This is... an interesting commentary. I don't know if you're trying to say that varieties of beauty are an empty question, or if the post just won't display in my browser for some reason.

Either way I thought you might want to know what was up.

Mostly-Lurker Dan

Alexander R Pruss said...

Oops, forgot to paste.