“Everything beautiful,” writes the philosopher Simone Weil, “has a mark of eternity.”
It’s a reality I am made aware of every time I go for a walk in nature. Yet there is more to beauty than mere recognition. It is more than an appreciation of attractiveness. As Weil continues, “In everything which gives us the pure authentic feeling of beauty there is really the presence of God. There is, as it were, an incarnation of God in the world, and it is indicated by beauty. The beautiful is the experimental proof that the incarnation is possible. Hence all art of the highest order is religious in essence.”
For Weil, beauty has both a physical and spiritual depth to it. Beauty, therefore, is not transitory but transcendent. It registers deep within us causing the object of beauty to draw us in to the beauty of this world and giving us a longing for the greater beauty of the next. Beauty reveals that life and death are connected: that death is not an end but a continuation of the same path. To gaze on beauty is to gaze on eternity.
Is it any wonder that the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote in his novel The Idiot, “Beauty will save the world.” Certainly that is a bold statement and one that was questioned by another Russian novelist, Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn, who asked, “How could this be possible? When in the bloodthirsty process of history did beauty ever save anyone, and from what? Granted, it ennobled, it elevated – but whom did it ever save?”
What answer did Solzhenitsyn arrive at upon pondering this question?
“There is, however, a particular feature in the very essence of beauty—a characteristic trait of art itself: The persuasiveness of a true work of art is completely irrefutable; it prevails even over a resisting heart . . . a true work of art carries its verification within itself: Artificial and forced concepts do not survive their trial by images; both image and concept crumble and turn out feeble, pale, and unconvincing. However, works which have drawn on the truth and which have presented it to us in concentrated and vibrant form seize us, attract us to themselves powerfully, and no one ever—even centuries later—will step forth to deny them.
So perhaps the old trinity of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty is not simply the decorous and antiquated formula it seemed to us at the time of our self-confident materialistic youth. If the tops of these three trees do converge, as thinkers used to claim, and if the all too obvious and the overly straight sprouts of Truth and Goodness have been crushed, cut down, or not permitted to grow, then perhaps the whimsical, unpredictable, and ever surprising shoots of Beauty will force their way through and soar up to that very spot, thereby fulfilling the task of all three.”
It’s interesting that he connected beauty with truth and goodness, which the Greek philosophers also believed that beauty was associated with moral goodness. Beauty was always traditionally counted among the ultimate virtues along with goodness, truth and justice. The Greek word for beauty is kalon and means “ideal perfect beauty in the physical and moral sense.” It was the subject of Plato’s Symposium which stressed this connection between beauty and the divine.
Plato was not alone, as Pythagoras conceived of beauty as as useful for a moral education of the soul. Pythagoreans conceived of the presence of beauty in universal terms, as existing in a cosmological state. One of the areas where Pythagoras found such mathematical beauty was in the harmonic scales. Is it any wonder then that Albert Einstein once said, “Mozart’s music is so pure and beautiful that I see it as a reflection of the inner beauty of the universe”?
In his De Natura Deorum, Cicero connected to the beauty of a creator. To see the beauty in the creation was one of the ways of revelation of a god. Creation is a revelation of its Creator. Saint Ignatius of Loyola also wrote of finding God in all things, as did Meister Eckhart.
“The beautiful,” wrote Simone Weil, “is something on which we can fix our attention.” Like all spiritual disciplines, beauty requires awareness and attention. That’s why many train themselves to study a painting for hours. Behind all is the divine revealing itself: not through a burning bush but through an artist’s brush. That’s why we find ourselves connecting to the great masterpieces.
The Bengali polymath, in a conversation with Albert Einstein, once said, “Beauty is in the ideal of perfect harmony which is in the Universal Being; Truth the perfect comprehension of the Universal Mind. We individuals approach it through our mistakes and blunders, through our accumulated experiences, through our illumined consciousness – how otherwise, can we know the Truth?”
Beauty as a way that leads to Truth.
How many of us begin to grasp at the ineffable when we hear a piece by Bach or see a painting by Matisse or see a play by Shakespeare or read a novel by Jane Austen or see a film by Andrei Tarkovsky? In fact, Tarkovsky once said, “Art is . . . striving for truth, and truth is always beautiful.” The aesthetic and the ethical meet in beauty.
This means that beauty is necessity: not simply because it enriches our lives but because it nourishes our souls and leads us to Truth.