Esthetics, Moral Objectivity, and the Logic of "What Is"

    Esthetics, strictly speaking, is the study of beauty. For Aristotle the beautiful was a universal value that formed the basis for man in his role as maker. Beauty was essential to any artificial product.  A product's worth would be judged by its beauty both in terms of usefulness and enjoyment.

    C. S. Lewis opened his book entitled The Abolition of Man reflecting upon the matter of beauty. He described a school textbook for children which quoted the well-known story of Coleridge at the waterfall. Two tourists visiting the waterfall had differing perspectives.  One described it as "sublime"; the other described it as "pretty." Coleridge endorsed the first judgment but rejected the second with disgust. The authors of the children's textbook, however, commented as follows: "

When the man said that is sublime, he appeared to be making a mark about the waterfall. . . Actually he was making a remark about his own feelings. What he was saying was really "I have feelings associated in my mind with the word 'Sublime,'" or shortly, "I have sublime feelings."

The authors did not stop with that comment, however, but proceeded,

This confusion is continually present in language as we use it. We appear to be saying something very important about something: and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings (1962, 13-15).

    Lewis commented that the schoolboy reading that passage would believe two propositions: (1) that all sentences predicating value are simply statements about the emotional state of the speaker; and (2) that all such statements are unimportant.

    When universal values are denied, language is stripped of all meaning, beauty exists only in the eye of the beholder, and art becomes non-art violating Aristotle's law of non-contradiction in the realm of esthetics. Art, classically defined, however, does possess elements of objectivity. In fact there are three essential elements that define art: (1) symmetry; (2) contrast; and (3) proportion. The great masterpieces of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci are characterized by these elements. Michelangelo's statue of David can hardly be rivaled for its proportion, just as Leonardo's Last Supper is a study in symmetry. Other notables provide vivid contrast through the use of light and shade.

    With the rise of humanism in the Renaissance, man became one of the chosen subjects of art in keeping with a statement found in the opening sentence of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola's remarkable oration on the dignity of man. The statement was that of of Abdalla the Mohammedan found among the monuments of the Arabs. Having been asked what could be seen on the earthly stage that was most to be wondered at, Abdalla replied that "nothing could be seen that was more wonderful than man" (Zwingli 1526, 159). Leonardo must have had such a statement in mind when he sketched his drawing of the Vitruvian Man. This sketch is a remarkable study in proportion and symmetry. The only problem is that the beauty of this work is limited to man's external dimensions.  It does not touch the mind, the immaterial aspect of man. 

    If art only deals with the material part of man, it cannot be considered beauty in that eternal sense which the mind or the soul seeks after. But there is a beauty that involves the rational and volitional aspects of man, which Aristotle called excellence or virtue. And we can be thankful to Someone that this is the case. For not all males could measure up to the physical standard of Leonardo's Vitruvian man any more than all school girls could measure up to the standard of the American Barbie doll. What is this internal standard of beauty which Aristotle called excellence? America's first philosopher called it consent to Being in general by which he meant consent to the sum total of being, created and uncreated, or the Creator (Durant 1926, 365; Edwards 1879, 98).

    Now this principle of internal beauty is just as axiomatic as the geometric principle that the part is never greater than the whole. Man is only excellent or virtuous to the degree that he stands properly related to Being in general. Of course, there are the logical positivists such as Comte, and materialists such as Karl Marx, who claim that there is no such thing as either uncreated being in the sense of a Creator or created being and claim that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In their case, man becomes a statistic or mass of protoplasm, and art becomes non-art. History has already demonstrated that the human spirit will not be denied in the face of such an approach. Witness the internal collapse of the modern Communist states.

    Occasionally there comes along a pitiable soul who finds it impossible to acknowledge, much less consent to, any being greater than himself. From Aristotle's perspective, that person stands deluded and in opposition to his own being and to all excellence. He is a mathematical, ontological contradiction imagining that he is something when he is nothing.  A does not equal non-A.

    For Aristotle, uncreated being included God as Pure Form and all matter that possessed form. Since matter was eternal, there could be no metaphysical category of created being. But given the comparative difference between form and matter, and the fact that form could exist without matter while matter could not exist without form, God who was Pure Form would be infinitely more valuable than matter (Adler 1978, 180, 187-188). Uncreated being, therefore, even in Aristotle's case, was practically tantamount to the Supreme Being. But if we acknowledge the reality of uncreated being as either Creator or Supreme Being, then what? Then we must consider the relative worth or weight of created being and the Creator or Supreme Being.

    When you really think about it, there could hardly be a comparison between created being and uncreated being. Since uncreated being, or the Supreme Being, would have to be the architect and governor of the universe, all the nations, when laid on one side of the scales (if we could imagine such a scales), would be as a mere handful of dust, or less than nothing, when compared to the Being on the other side of that scales. In fact, the supreme Being Himself would have to be the one holding the scales (Brand 1991, 87). Consequently, when the principle of proportion is considered, the beauty of the inner self would consist of man the creature yielding the entire consent of his being to the Supreme Being--infinitely the greatest and most excellent of beings.

    The principle of symmetry would be expressed in the creature's yielding his consent in a fully balanced way, e.g., with due regard for God's eternal justice, on the one hand, and His eternal mercy, on the other hand. To speak in Aristotelian terms, if man's moral duty was to pursue his own happiness, he could not find it in the ultimate sense, unless he found it by yielding the consent of his mind and will-- indeed his heart--to the One who was the very foundation of his being. If man would truly love himself, or have proper regard to himself, therefore, he must first love and properly regard that Being whose highest virtue consists in a love of Himself. For the Supreme Being to regard anything else outside His own Being as His highest good, would represent a departure from what is truly the highest good. Only as that Supreme Being makes Himself His own highest good, in accord with what is true, does He bestow infinite good upon those creatures who seek the same good as He seeks (Edwards 1879, 126-127).

    As for the element of contrast which is also essential to a work of beauty, it stands to reason that those who so yielded their consent to the Supreme Being, i.e., those who supremely love Him, would have a commensurate hate for anything that stands contrary to their yielding their consent. And they would come to appreciate and highly esteem the infinite contrast between evil and their highest good, realizing that the beauty of everything that stands properly related to the Supreme Being is made more vivid as it stands in contrast to the ugliness of everything that stands in opposition to the Supreme Being.

    This element of contrast may be illustrated, rather imperfectly of course, by the fact that whenever chaos threatens the civil order, we come to a new appreciation of the value and beauty of a well-ordered society and of the regard we should have for those charged with maintaining that order. Or when cancer challenges the life of a father or mother, we suddenly rise to a renewed awareness of the special privileges that were ours when we lived under their authority and protection--though we may have chafed under it, or resented it as being intrusive of our rights at the time.

    If the Supreme Being represents the highest good of man's inner being, then He represents the highest good of man's total being, as the picture with the frame is more valuable than the frame by itself. If the Supreme Being represents man's highest good in a total sense, then it follows, when the matter of proportion is further considered, that man's beauty or excellence must consist also in a love and special regard for those who similarly make the Supreme Being their highest good and yield to Him the consent of their Being. For in giving these creatures special regard, they reinforce their mutual consent to their highest good (Edwards 1879, 123).

    And if it could be found that such a Being had a Book, such as the Linksens had a book, in Thomas D. Davis' fictional story entitled "The Land of Certus," in his introductory book on Philosophy (1993, 76), and if that Book could somehow make the Supreme Being and His will more fully known to those who seek Him as their highest good, then it follows that their happiness on earth, and ever after, would be in proportion to their knowledge of, and consent to, what was written in that Book. And if there was a regular gathering of those people who studied that Book and who yielded their consent to such a Being as described on its pages, to neglect such a gathering could only serve to diminish their happiness, even though those who refused to yield their consent to Being would surely gloat as if they themselves had achieved something special in observing their fellow humans' diminishment.

    Accordingly, we see how in the study of philosophy, its respective branches of esthetics, ontology ( as part of metaphysics), and ethics can relate in a rational way,

Reference List

Brand, David C. 1991. Profile of the Last Puritan. Atlanta: Scholars Press.

 

Davis, Thomas D. 1993. Philosophy: An Introduction Through Original Fiction, Discussion,   

          and Readings. Third Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.

 

Durant, Will. 1926. The Story of Philosophy. New York: Touchstone

Edwards, Jonathan. 1879. The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Revised and corrected by Edward         Hickman. 2 vols. 12th Edition. London: William Tegg & Co.

Lewis, C. S. 1947. The Abolition of Man. New York: Collier Books.

Zwingli, Huldrich. 1526. [1922] On Providence and Other Essays. Durham, NC:
        Labyrinth Press.