What possible value can the study of beauty deliver? Isn’t this fiddling while Rome burns, counting daffodil petals while barbarians lay siege to the city? In times of apostasy, false teaching, deception and darkness, shouldn’t aesthetics go to the bottom of the priority-pile?
When caricatured as effete aestheticism, then yes, beauty will seem to be of little value. But when understood as a deep property of being, something like God’s glory, beauty has nearly unsurpassed value as a study. We can easily suggest four questions that beauty answers.
First, beauty deals directly with the nature of reality. Is the universe essentially material, an impersonal collection of atoms that accidentally produced minds, or is the universe essentially personal: a meaningful and therefore beautiful communication from the eternal Mind to ours? Beauty cannot be consistently upheld in an atheistic worldview. Atheists may agree that beauty exists, as they might agree that goodness exists. But they have no real basis in reality for such things: a sterile universe doesn’t have rules, and a dead cosmos doesn’t try to please and delight. Beauty, if it exists, is essentially supernatural: a pattern of pleasure and harmony from Designer to His creation, where both the message and the ability to read it are placed there by the Creator.
Second, and consequent upon the first point, beauty deals with morality, ethics, and evil. Beauty and morality are not separate domains, but deeply intertwined. Good souls love beautiful things; depraved ones love what is despicable. Think of the horror of people loving torture, rape or child pornography. Yet people do: they even film it, laugh at it and share it. Such people are finding pleasure in what is wicked and ugly. Sin’s deforming power leads souls to love what is ugly, and to even despise what is beautiful. For them, ugly has become beautiful, beautiful has become ugly: they love darkness, for their deeds are evil (Jo. 3:19).
True beauty humanises the soul, and to the degree that one is growing in Christlikeness is the degree to which he loves the beautiful (Phil. 1:9-11). The kind of judgement one uses for ethical judgements is very similar to the kind used for aesthetic judgements. Indeed, the problem of evil (where evil came from, why it exists, why God allows it) is best explained in light of beauty: the most beautiful angel (Ezek. 28:12) seeking glory that belongs to the Beautiful God. The creature with greatest original beauty becomes the most deformed one of all, his love becoming more and more corrupt and corrupting. His temptation and deception of the race made in God’s beautiful image is his way of turning an effigy of God into an ugly parody of God’s beauty.
Third, beauty explains the problem of knowing. For the last 500 years, the West has struggled with how subjects can know objects outside of themselves. How do we know what we know, and how can we verify anything we know? Should we use reason, experience, tradition, faith, imagination or authority to know certainties? Can we know anything objectively, or is all knowledge purely subjective? Beauty actually provides a compelling answer. On the one hand, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. On the other, that can be the fault of the beholder: beauty exists and some fail to perceive it. This shows that reality is both independent of observers and yet rightly or wrongly perceived by those observers. When the heart possesses the fear of the Lord, it is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom. Beautiful souls will perceive the beauty that is there.
Finally, beauty appears to be at the heart of motive. Human action has beauty at its core: people are moved and inclined towards what they think is beautiful. That is not to say that all agree on what beauty is. Indeed, this comes back to ethics: bad people are motivated by evil things (Ro. 1:32). However, if beauty is that which provides most pleasure, that which best harmonizes and unites sense experience, and that which seems most real (true) and good (best), then one can easily see how beauty is at the heart of all action. People pursue what they think will bring them pleasure. People are moved by what they think is best. People are motivated by what they think is the most comprehensive explanation of reality. Once again, the nature of the heart will then determine what is pleasurable, real, good, and symmetrical. In other words, the love will correspond to the idea of beauty. However grotesque, however bizarre, however irrational, the behaviour of a human can be explained by some inner idea of something as beautiful.
Each of these four is worth considering in a little more detail. We’ll deal with these in turn.