Not everything that appears to be beautiful is true

A Short Reflection on Beauty

 • August 15, 2017

It is common to link the good, the true, and the beautiful; this is proper because truth is beautiful and a very high good. But as with most insights, some distinctions are necessary, because while truth is always beautiful, not everyone or everything that appears to be beautiful is thereby true.

St. Augustine comments on this, saying,

Beauty is indeed a good gift of God; but that the good may not think it a great good, God dispenses beauty even to the wicked (The City of God, XV, 22).

Essentially, St. Augustine is distinguishing physical beauty from spiritual beauty, teaching us that we can become too focused on lesser beauty and thereby neglect higher beauty and goods.

Physical beauty, though defined somewhat differently by different people, does exist and is a gift of God to behold. It is possible, however, to esteem it too much, failing to realize that spiritual beauty — truth, goodness, holiness, and God Himself — is a far greater gift. God signals the limits of physical beauty by sometimes bestowing it on those who seem undeserving, in order to teach us that it is a limited and often transitory good.

Scripture cautions, Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord is praised (Proverbs 31:30). Both men and women are cautioned that charm and physical beauty, while pleasant, can easily deceive us into concluding too much. In our highly visual and noisy culture we are too easily influenced by the views of movie stars, singers, sports figures, and others among the cultural elite. Swayed by the fact that they are attractive, or sing beautifully, or act well, we too easily ascribe intellectual and moral authority to them which they have not merited.

St. Augustine continues,

And thus beauty, which is indeed God’s handiwork, but only a temporal, carnal, and lower kind of good, is not fitly loved in preference to God, the eternal, spiritual, and unchangeable good.

The problem is not with beauty but with us.

So, Augustine adds,

When the miser prefers gold to justice, it is through no fault of the gold, but of the man; and so with every created thing.

Enjoy the good things of God, but never in preference to the very God who made them. In our fallen condition, we are easily deceived by beauty. As St. Augustine notes, the problem is not in the beauty; the problem is in us. Stay sober, my friends!

And of course beauty

“And of course beauty: the beauty that was for him the link between the ships and the woods and the poems.  He remembered as though it were but a few days ago that winter night, himself too young even to know the meaning of beauty, when he had looked up at a delicate tracery of bare black branches against the icy glittering stars: suddenly something that was, all at once, pain and longing and adoring had welled up in him, almost choking him.  He had wanted to tell someone, but there were no words, inarticulate in the pain and glory.  It was long afterwards that he realized that it had been his first aesthetic experience.  That nameless something that had stopped his heart was Beauty.  Even now, for him, ‘bare branches’ was a synonym for beauty.”  (Sheldon Vanauken, A Severe Mercy)

Full cloud inversion in the Grand Canyon

Wait for it.

“Millions of visitors a year come to Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park, one of the seven natural wonders of the world and the most visited national park in the western United States. However, on extremely rare days when cold air is trapped in the canyon and topped by a layer of warm air, which in combination with moisture and condensation, form the phenomenon referred to as the full cloud inversion. In what resembles something between ocean waves and fast clouds, Grand Canyon is completely obscured by fog, making the visitors feel as if they are walking on clouds.”

Skirts of Alice blue

In an Iridescent Time

My mother, when young, scrubbed laundry in a tub,
She and her sisters on an old brick walk
Under the apple trees, sweet rub-a-dub.
The bees came round their heads, the wrens made talk.
Four young ladies each with a rainbow board
Honed their knuckles, wrung their wrists to red,
Tossed back their braids and wiped their aprons wet.
The Jersey calf beyond the back fence roared;
And all the soft day, swarms about their pet
Buzzed at his big brown eyes and bullish head.
Four times they rinsed, they said. Some things they
starched,
Then shook them from the baskets two by two,
And pinned the fluttering intimacies of life
Between the lilac bushes and the yew:
Brown gingham, pink, and skirts of Alice blue.

“In an Iridescent Time” by Ruth Stone from What Love Comes To: New and Selected Poems. © Copper Canyon Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

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