Beauty and Theology: The Self

We are continuing to explore the role of beauty in the understanding of being, ontology. We have seen that beauty derives from the nature of the Triune God, and that it helps us to understand the world around us. But beauty also helps us understand our own being. Aesthetic judgments play a role in self-knowledge, as we ascertain the ways in which we fit within culture. Nature plays its part, but so do our own conscious and unconscious choices. We can sense this most notably in the word “style.” We communicate something of ourselves through our fashion, our home decor, and through our general manner of life. Each of the aesthetic choices we make about the way we live help to communicate both to others and to ourselves how we fit in the world.

Scruton gives an interesting example: a table setting. There is a jug full of wine in the center of the table. What do we make of this? Why is there wine there? Why is it in a jug? Why in the center of the table? These simple, even routine choices of a hostess, place her in a certain context. Scruton notes:

The jug alludes to a certain form of life: a Mediterranean life in which rough wine is in plentiful supply, and in frictionless relation to both work and play. That is why the hostess chose a jug of naively decorated earthenware, and why she put it in the middle of the table, signifying the easy-going use of it in which we help ourselves.[1]

The aesthetic choices signify something. We more readily recognize this in the use of fashion. What we wear, whether intended or not, communicates something of ourselves. The teenage boy in all black with black finger nails and eye liner is communicating a certain set of values. The choices we make about the shoes we wear and the jewelry that accompanies an evening gown all intend to communicate something of ourselves.

We may do this with precise intentionality or we may do it simply out of habit, but all our aesthetic choices matter. Beauty reveals us to ourselves and to others. With regard to our fictional hostess, Scruton writes:

These may not be conscious choices. The hostess is herself discovering, in the aesthetic endeavor, the meaning that she wishes to convey. The example suggests indeed a role for aesthetic choices in promoting self-knowledge – in coming to understand how you yourself fit in to the world of human meanings.[2]

These every day choices about beauty that we make in real life significantly impact the way we understand ourselves.

Furthermore, beauty plays a vital role in the formation of character. Previous generations of “gentlemen” knew this. Writing in Crisis Magazine, Jared Silvey says:

Once upon a time in the Western world, exposure to “the beautiful” was an important element in the development and formation of men. The ideal man was also an educated man, and an educated man knew something about, and appreciated, good art, good music, good literature, and good taste (and perhaps also good wine). The Romantics of the nineteenth century added to this resume a man who had the capacity to be intoxicated by the beauty of nature. Many of the great works of art and music of that time period reflect this.[3]

Beauty has long had a role in character development and education.

Silvey notes several particular ways that it plays a shaping role. For starters, it directs “the male drive to aggression and fighting to a worthy end.” The beautiful directs a man to fight for whatever is good and true, he argues.[4] “Beauty also teaches men to appreciate the being of things,” he says, “rather than merely their utility.” Silvey writes:

A man who has been pierced by the beauty of his bride will die for her not because his death will be of any practical use to himself, but because through her beauty (not just physical but also personal and spiritual) he has seen through a window to her intrinsic value and to the fact that she is worth dying for simply because she exists and is who she is.[5]

Beauty helps men to behold, not merely use, another significant character-shaping-power. Finally, Silvey believes that beauty connects us to the spiritual. It moves us to see beyond this moment and this life. When beauty is understood within the ontological reality of the character of God then this makes sense.

Beauty is essential to understanding reality. It helps us not simply understand our world, but to understand ourselves and our place in that world. Without it we lose something significant and influential to our lives.


[1] Scruton, 77.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jared Silvey, “The Role of Beauty in the Formation of Men as Men.” Crisis Magazine. Dec.18, 2004. . Accessed 8/27/2015.

[4] Note how often the three transcendentals are assumed as interrelated in popular scholarship. I think this is right.

[5] Silvey.

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