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On Human Beauty

One. When classicists refer to Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, the Beauty of which they speak is almost always artistic Beauty. Artistic Beauty is a far safer subject to broach than physical Beauty. We enjoy talking of the Beauty of Rembrandt, Botticelli, or Bach. The Beauty of Claudia Schiffer or George Clooney strikes us as a bit tawdry, though. Artistic Beauty is diplomatic and agreeable, while physical Beauty has the power to offend.

Two. It is easy enough to separate physical Beauty from artistic Beauty, and yet all our greatest metaphysical wagers about art are doubly and triply true when it comes to the human visage. David Bentley Hart describes Beauty as “a gratuity of being”, an overabundance of being. Beauty is a lavishness of reality, a surplus of existence. Because Beauty serves no practical purpose, most American Christians find Beauty offensive, and so we try to do away with Beauty by talking of “spiritual Beauty,” which is not really Beauty at all, but simply Goodness or Holiness. We should dwell on the gratuitous nature of Beauty, though, for in limiting Beauty to artistic Beauty (Rembrandt, Bach), we deny ourselves the uncanny, harrowing experiencing of standing before a beautiful human being. Further, when we reimagine Beauty as spiritual Beauty, we deny the power of incarnate things and resist the truly gratuitous nature of Beauty. Spiritual Beauty is not really gratuitous in the same way, for physically ugly people may go to Heaven and physically beautiful people may go to Hell. While we are quick to draw a heavy line between artistic Beauty and physical Beauty, precious little separates the two apart from the immediacy with which either strikes us, and physical Beauty is eminently more impressive, visceral, and humbling than artistic Beauty. Were a human being the likes of Nicole Kidman or Paul Newman to stand on display in the Metropolitan or the Louvre, and were patrons of the museum able to gaze with impunity (not covertly and from a distance, but from point blank range as though the living spectacles were mere portraits) many people would quickly quit the artistic Beauty of Rembrandt and Titian.

Three. Following the Dolce Stil Novo poets of the 13th century, most men I know repeat with obligation, “My wife is the most beautiful woman in the world.” Within the parameters of the “sweet new style,” the claim is right and fitting. At the same time, when a man confesses his wife as “the most beautiful woman in the world,” he is not insulted that his friend says the same thing of his own wife, and neither is he baffled that his wife has not been invited to appear on the cover of Vogue magazine. While claims of having married the most beautiful woman in the world are not without literal merit, such judgments are far more theological in nature than aesthetic. The literal merit of the claim, “My wife is the most beautiful woman in the world,” is, in my mind, deeply in debt to the moral imagination and a nostalgic evaluation of the past. In the same way a man prefers his own bed, his own home, his old friends, and his favorite whisky, so he prefers his own wife. He is aware that there are softer pillows, more sumptuous sofas, and better liqueurs to be had in the world, but no man ever hated his own flesh, but loves and cherishes it. A secure and chaste eros is far more enjoyable than a schizophrenic eros which consumes great quantities without satisfaction. “My wife is the most beautiful…” is an eschatological claim, as well, and looks forward to a virtue which can only be obtained by making the self worthy of such Beauty. However, feigning ignorance of objective judgments of physical Beauty reduces numerous Biblical stories to gibberish. The story of Abram and Sarai in Egypt only makes sense if we acknowledge that Sarai was more gorgeous than the Egyptian women, despite what their husbands might say. Similar claims could be about Rachel, Bathsheba, Abigail, Abishag, and Vashti.

Four. In C.S. Lewis’s fiction, angels often make men feel naked, for the angels are so much more real than men. So, too, beholding a beautiful human being makes the average man feel just embarrassed to be in his own skin. He feels a little naked, a little ashamed of how little being is stuffed into his body. The surplus of reality inherent in the Beautiful makes even the man who is unschooled in metaphysics think of his nature, his existence. When a common man stands before a very beautiful woman, he is reminded of the mystery of is-ness, am-ness, aliveness; he feels small, sublimated, and not by the material facts of the natural world (the Grand Canyon is deep, the Atlantic Ocean is powerful), but by a mutable human body. In my life, I have known only one woman who had the kind of Beauty which embarrassed those born average; when she entered a room, the gravity in the room changed. Physical Beauty is not democratic, but aristocratic, which is yet another reason American Christians feel the need to dismiss its value. Beauty is nature’s most enduring weapon against the delusions of egalitarianism.

Five. Great physical Beauty places a burden on those who bear witness to it. Physical Beauty creates an obligation to declare it has been glanced. If a husband and wife dine in a restaurant wherein their waitress is staggeringly beautiful, both man and woman feel awkward until one acknowledges the fact. Neither would feel as though they could be honest with the other and get on with the business of the meal until one admitted, “The waitress is astoundingly beautiful.” A man is relieved to admit great Beauty has come near, though, and confessing physical Beauty recalibrates reality after it has been thrown askew. Artistic Beauty often elicits a response, though a man does not feel as though he has slighted the Truth for not declaring a certain fresco “divine.” He may sit in silent awe of St. Peter’s Basilica, but silence before human Beauty is simply intimidation.

Six. Physical Beauty is drama. Listen to one man tell a story to his friend. Should the story involve a woman, the man listening to the story will be incapable of paying attention to the narrative until he discovers whether the woman was beautiful. Even if his friend replies that she was “not especially beautiful,” the man hearing the story will imagine the woman as beautiful simply to make the story more intriguing. There is, perhaps, some wisdom in downplaying the Beauty of a woman in a story, for if the storyteller declares the woman very beautiful, her Beauty will swallow up the story and the man listening will wonder if there is a way he, too, can see the beautiful woman in question. A beautiful woman will almost always be more interesting than the story which attends her description, even if the story involves espionage, treason, and black magic.

Seven. Inasmuch as physical Beauty elicits confessions, it is dangerous. We believe anyone may progress toward speaking the Truth, or fight vice and draw close to Goodness, but if a man is not born with Beauty, he will not obtain it in this life. Physical Beauty is a gift of God, and like any talent or skill, God does not grant it equally to all men.

Eight. Unlike Goodness and Truth, Beauty can be seen from a distance, in passing. It might take years to understand that a man is Good, or that a woman is True, but the eye vindicates physical Beauty in a single moment. The readiness with which we recognize Beauty is needful, though, for Beauty is also the manifestation of Transcendence which fades most quickly.

Nine. Ours is a society which has sexualized everything and human Beauty has not gone unscathed. We often feel guilty for acknowledging the Beauty of another, and we do not speak casually or openly of human Beauty for fear of offending our husbands or wives. However, in the last week I have opened up human Beauty as a topic for “academic conversation,” and I have found this sets many people at ease and so they are more willing to talk of Beauty. What is more, I have found people enjoy discussing Beauty, as well as declaring their appreciation for this or that beautiful person. In the same way we feel an intimate knowledge of a man once we know his middle name or have heard him sing solo, we gain a unique knowledge of a man in hearing him bestow the laurels to this or that woman’s Beauty.

Ten. The sheer gratuity of physical Beauty is, paradoxically, most readily understood in Isaiah’s teaching that Christ had “no Beauty that we should desire Him.” Christ might have been born Beautiful, but then Beauty would be revealed as necessity, not surplus. Christ could not reveal the nature of Power without becoming Weak, and He could not reveal the gratuity of Beauty had He not been born Average.

Eleven. “Beauty will save the world,” but don’t tell the Trojans that. “Save the world? Beauty is tearing the world apart!” Any starry-eyed messiah quoting Dostoyevsky from the walls of Troy would have been thrown over. The Beauty of Helen threw the cosmos out of whack. So, too, a beautiful waitress will throw a dinner date out of whack. A beautiful sunbather will throw a trip to the beach out of whack. A beautiful priest will throw Mass out of whack (or confession, for that matter). Beautiful people are a liability.

Twelve. As with Truth and Goodness, our approach to Beauty is rife with contradictions. While the Truth is divine, we enjoy flattery. Goodness is divine, but we kill the prophets. While Beauty is divine, we mock the Beautiful. Celebrity culture has made it ever more difficult to take physical Beauty seriously, for, in our day, many people are famous for their Beauty alone and Beauty does not abate simply because someone behaves like an idiot. The notion that some vapid supermodel shares anything in common with Caravaggio’s The Calling of Saint Matthew offends us, and so we denigrate physical Beauty as deceptive and false. In fact, we will not truly understand Beauty as gratuity and overflow until we marvel that someone as daft as Kim Kardashian is nonetheless quite fair. A society which has traded leisure for amusement, asceticism for consumerism, quality for quantity, Queen Elizabeth for Donald Trump… such a society has an impoverished understanding of genuine abundance. We are clawing the resin of pragmatism from the nearly empty barrel of the Modern Age. Our perspective on human Beauty is skewed by the glut of the Beautiful involved in the entertainment industry; when we think of human Beauty, we do not think of Helen of Troy or King David, but Heidi Klum. The sultry photographed faces gazing at us from the Victoria’s Secret show window have sullied the reputation of Beauty. If one wants to think of human Beauty aright, he ought to imagine a trio of adolescent boys from the 17th century walking twelve miles to get a glimpse of a princess.

Such a journey is not simply allowable, but morally commendable.

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