Is Beauty a Sense of Belonging, or an Object of Desire?

I attended a conference called “The Power of Beauty” at Franciscan University of Steubenville a couple weeks ago.

There’s no other way to say it: I am always searching for beauty. I don’t mean for a set of deep eyes and wavy hair. I mean for beauty of every kind, from intriguing tattoos to Rodin to the intricate patterns of Chilean pottery.

So naturally I heard about this conference in August, and counted the days.

Ah, Roger Scruton. So English. So passionate about beauty. So nostalgic for those golden Renaissance days he never knew.

And those are just some of the reasons why, when I left his keynote talk, I wanted to cry. Not because I was moved, but because I was painfully disappointed by his superficial lecture on beauty.

Roger Scruton defines beauty as a sense of belonging, or “being at home in the world.”

But how does this definition of beauty reconcile with reality? With the human experience?

There is beauty all around us, certainly. But we desire beauty because it is something we all long for, and in some respect, don’t have. If beauty is simply a matter of belonging, we need only find our little shelves of beauty in this world, and voila, we’ve arrived. Whatever doesn’t “belong” in our world isn’t invited. We build bunkers, and we avoid work.

It’s Utopian. It insists that a perfect city can be found or built here. The Kingdom of God only needs four walls and a roof, right?

No, not quite.

It Stands Out Even When It’s In

Even our architecture reminds us of our transient, temporal presence in this world. Mr. Scruton longs for classic architecture, and with good reason. But its vaults, arches, domes, and towers still reach like empty hands to the constellations. I can understand if the horizontal lines of the De le Warr Pavilion look like a land invasion, but how do the vertical lines of Westminster Abbey make a “home”? Shouldn’t they make us gape in awe?

The other problem with Scruton’s definition is that it places beauty in the remarkably vulnerable position of commodity, as something to be used. The moment beauty becomes a matter of “belonging”, then she becomes a gallon of paint for the living room walls, or style of dress; her purpose is to facilitate a feeling or perception of “belonging”, of comfort. I can put her on like a warm coat and take her off when mood or temperature changes. She’s convenient. She’s polite. And I’m inclined to believe I own her in some way.

She’s no longer beauty, but charm, and has all the radiance of a plastic smile.

And so Anthony Blanche leads Charles Ryder into a louche basement bar, where he stutters a fatal observation:

“Charm is the great English blight…It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art; I greatly fear, my dear Charles, it has killed you.”

It worries me that Scruton (and many others at the conference) assumes beauty is synonymous with “belonging”. Life, while it is indeed beautiful, is also full of darkness, deserts, and suffering. And those things are beautiful, though maybe not in the way we would think.

If beauty is one of the transcendentals, it deserves to be treated as such: to be pursued for its own sake, and not because it serves some utilitarian function.

Let’s Talk ‘physics

Anyone familiar with Dostoevsky has probably heard his line: “Beauty will save the world.” There’s good reason for this. For example, Etienne Gilson spends an entire chapter in his book The Arts of the Beautiful talking about metaphysics.

Why spend an entire chapter demonstrating the intimate relationship between the arts and being? Because “beauty is a property inseparable from being,” Etienne Gilson says in Forms and Substances in the Arts. Beauty is being, and while being isn’t more important than truth and goodness, it is primary in the sense that we couldn’t know them without it.

Without being, there would be nothing to be known as true, and nothing to be cherished as good. The good and the true might be beautiful – they may be attractive and desirable – but they are not beauty itself.

Gregory Wolfe often shares a provocative quote by von Balthasar in his lectures; I’m going to steal from his playbook:

“Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself as least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past…can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.”

We would rather know only the truth. We would prefer to convince others by argument. We would prefer to have all questions neatly taped up in a definitive sentence or treatise. Mystery is problematic. Beauty isn’t easily pinned down. When they appear, it’s like having a homeless man show up at your family reunion. You would dearly prefer he not be there.

Being is, after all, an untamed and wild thing. The ocean is full of sharks and salt, the swamp of mosquitos and water lilies, and the mountains of wolves. Being manifests itself in many strange forms, all wonderous, all beautiful, and some even hostile. The temperature here has dropped below thirty degrees fahrenheit, and I’m shivering; my sister was bitten by a terrier. How do I reconcile my existence with these elements and animals?

Only by recognizing that beauty isn’t a mere sense of belonging, but more like a reminder of pilgrimage, an object of desire and pursuit, a call to deep communion. We aren’t supposed to look for an earthly paradise or to rebuild the Garden of Eden. What we can do is practice good stewardship, reach for perfection, and welcome the ultimate reckoner, Death, who will (hopefully) lead us to Beauty Himself.