Tuesday, September 25, 2007

De Forma Humana, Pt. 2

I recently hit upon another way in which to look at human beauty. By way of recapping what I wrote before, I noted that we tend to polarize beauty and say that it is either a physical property or that it is a spiritual property of a person. I take issue with both of these positions, but not because I think either completely wrong. Rather, I think they need to be brought together, not separated. I also noted that beauty is traditionally placed together with goodness and truth, and thus, to the Christian, there can be no more of an individual standard for beauty than there can be for truth. Thus, the classic line, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," is disqualified to the Christian (or anyone who believes in absolute universal truths).

My thoughts at present are to continue down the path of thinking of beauty in the same way we think about goodness. Morality is, I think, is what started this new thought exercise. There are two components to being a truly moral person: rightly believing and rightly doing. One cannot be truly moral without both. For example, if I do not believe that stealing is wrong, I obviously am not going to be regarded as too terribly moral a person. Additionally, if I do believe stealing to be wrong, but do it anyway, we achieve the same result. There is another level of possibility, and that is if one does the active aspect of morality and abstains from stealing, but does not actually believe stealing to be wrong. Perhaps this person simply believes it to be a social convention and fears reprisals, and for this reason as well, simply acts so as to appear moral. However, because the belief is not present, I am hard pressed to call him moral, at least in this instance.

What has this to do with beauty? If beauty is something of a composite of both physical traits and non-physical elements, we can conclude that, if beauty is in fact like goodness, that both an outward aspect, as well as an internal aspect, must be present. Simply maintaining good flesh does not entail beauty, nor, by this reasoning (as harsh as it sounds), does the presence of that ineffable "internal" stuff. Again, all of this rests on the assumption that we can think about beauty in the same way we can think about goodness.

In terms of what this looks like practically, I am again at a loss to give an example grounded in reality. I realize that I am approaching this topic in a fairly "detached" manner, and I realize that there are serious human concerns involved. Indeed, I understand that many people struggle with self-worth, and often their appearance is a major factor. To these people, what I have been saying might seem rather disheartening, if it is true. Currently, I am not willing to die on the hill that I have been building, and so I am very much open to other ways of thinking about beauty, that avoid the "mere" traps of "merely physical" or "merely inner" and abstain from relativism. It is a high set of criteria, but I think these are essential elements of the conversation and I'm a little more willing to fight for than the hill.

By way of a final observation, it has occurred to me that I have been approaching this subject in a fairly humanistic manner, starting with myself and what I can see and know. A safer way of reasoning would be to start with what we know of God and His revelation and work down to man from there. Perhaps this is a more excellent way.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

De Forma Humana

(or Concerning Human Beauty)

Over the summer, I heard many people talking about several movie and pop stars and how beautiful they are (or were, in the case of Audrey Hepburn). I was asked at one point who I admired, and I honestly could not give an answer. Reflecting on this has raised some interesting questions about the nature of beauty.

An important thing I realized is that I find the women I worked with on staff to all be far more beautiful than whatever I see in Hollywood. I think the reason as to why this is has to do with the fact that the ladies on staff are, to me, real people. I do not know any movie stars and maybe if I did, I could speak otherwise about them, but they all seem fake and phony. The obvious moral here is that beauty is about more than proportioned flesh. Much like love, beauty has been reduced to basic physical algorithms in our culture. Instead of "I feel this way around him/her, therefore I am in love," you have "I see these things I like about his/her body, therefore he/she is beautiful." The case I make here is that there is something more to beauty than this, just as there is more to love than feelings. Just as love is based on a commitment, perhaps beauty can be considered as being based on something else?

The second thing of note is that if beauty is anything like goodness and truth, then it most certain is not relative. One's axiology (theory of values) is either referential or relative. Either values such as goodness, truth and beauty have an independent source or they do not. "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" is a common line tossed around by many. This is hardly the case, I think, if you are trying to be a consistent Christian. Again, either are values are subject to our wills or independent of them. Since I know that truth and goodness are sourced outside of my opinions, I am inclined to think that beauty must be as well.

While it is fairly easy to come up with armchair definitions, it is very hard to actually apply them to real life. How do we decide if a person is beautiful or not? Assuming for the moment that we actually should try to discern human beauty (which certainly could use some justification itself), how do we do it? Cultural wisdom has the easy answer of "each man is his own critic," but if we are committed to beauty being absolute, along with truth and goodness, then we cannot write it off as a matter of taste. That said, we cannot deny that different people find different things (and people) more beautiful than others. Now, simply because something happens to be a matter of fact does not mean that all facts ought to be the case. Simply because some people find different things morally permissible that others do not does entail that morality is up to the individual.

The best I can come up with at this point in my thought exercises on this topic, is that beauty isn't something physical and it isn't something that is "on the inside." Rather, it is both. There is a physical and, dare I say it, a metaphysical element to beauty. In my senior thesis, I looked at Aquinas' understanding of the soul and body. The human, in his view is both material and immaterial, but the soul, while immaterial, is located in that physical place. Soul and body are not two separate things, but they make one complete thing. Perhaps thinking about beauty in a similar way will be beneficial. There are physical elements and non-physical elements of beauty, and neither can be exalted over the other. To do so would cause us to become materialists or gnostics. To stay in the saddle, we need to acknowledge both.

So when I look at movie starts, yes, maybe they demonstrate some physical elements that compose beauty, but they, over all, lack that metaphysical element that the poets seem better equipped to talk about than philosophers. Thus, I sit myself down and await the parade of poets to enter and complete the puzzle.