Saturday, May 14, 2005

Aristotle and the Beauty of the World

The husband of a faculty member has been pestering me for months to read Bud MacFarlane, Jr's novel, Pierced by a Sword.

I struck paydirt on page 132 where Father Chet is explaining to some gentlewoman:

Well, Aristotle and the classical philosophers all pretty much held that Beauty is what they call a transcendental. That's a fancy word for saying that a beautiful thing is a reflection of an absolute principle. I'm butchering this philosophy now, but Aquinas believed that God is All Beautiful, because He is the first principle, or the absolute, of existence, of everything. If there's no God, then nothing exists.

It follows that anything made in His image and likeness is also beautiful. In this sense, even the Elephant Man is beautiful because he was made in God's image. And so are you. In a way, a person who is physically beautiful, like my cousin Helen and you, even more perfectly reflects God's image. Am I getting too deep, here? Just call me on it, Beck.

I don't know anyplace in Aristotle where he says quite what Father Chet presents him as saying. But it is correct that Aristotle saw every life form as beautiful for reflecting divine design--there's a famous quotation that comes close:

We should not childishly complain against the study of the less noble animals, for in everything natural there is something worthy of wonder.
Heraclitus is reported to have said to some visitors who wished to meet him and who hesitated when they saw him warming himself at the stove: "Come in--be bold: there are gods here too." In the same way we should approach the study of every living thing without shame, for in all of them there is something natural and something beautiful." (Parts of Animals I.5).


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