“Beauty is not only a terrible, it is also a mysterious thing. There God and the Devil strive for mastery, and the battleground is the heart of men.” -Dostoyevsky
So much is made of beauty in our day. CNN, the ultimate arbiter of truth in 2017 (Hillary was supposed to be our President, right?) intimates that our nation’s definition of beauty is changing. Apparently darker skin, fuller lips, and curvier bodies are the order of the day in the USA. So many things are wrong with that statement that it is difficult to evaluate on its face value; but as usual, let us not be deterred by that.
Totally apart from the sexism, progressivism, and objectification that is latent in that proclamation: How arrogant it is to suppose that less than five percent of the people who live in the world may enact, on behalf of all of them, a standard to define beauty! It is true enough that as Americans we have more than our share of the money, technological ability, and creature comforts available in the world.
But how can we not realize that beauty is one of those blessed qualities that so completely transcends the common elements of life that we heap up around ourselves in search of fulfillment?
Even the economic definition of value (simple scarcity) ought to tell us that beauty is a thing beyond the reach of even our most admirable financial and industrial efforts. Beauty is a child walking along the seashore and stooping to pick up a shell that for whatever reason is more pleasing to the eye than all the others. It is the businessman stopping his car alongside the highway to take in the last moments of the sunset’s grandeur. It is a literary critic spilling his coffee and reaching for the tissues because of the piercing poignancy of the last pages in a novel that portrays the truth about human experience. And the breadth of locations in which beauty may be found in the world is an argument against the idea that it can be manufactured, still less that it can be laid claim to, by any particular people group. It is easy to find out where to dig if you want gold; it is impossible to know where you will next experience beauty. It could be in art, in literature, in nature, in the sacrifice of a friend, in the touch of a lover, in the calm resignation of one who has endured many years, in the surprised laugh of one who has yet to see their first; in a word, beauty is to be found in life.
I think as postmoderns we labor under the delusion that we have a copyright on beauty because we have learned to so easily replicate it. In 30 seconds I can create a profile on Spotify and listen to a vast selection of music from all different genres. I can google “famous paintings” and instantly view all the best of Rubens, da Vinci, Picasso, and anyone else I like. Does this facility of access not make us of all civilizations the most infused with beauty?
Certainly not. Human beings have known for aeons that an experience of beauty is not in the least commensurate with ownership of it. Ask any frustrated lover, who has yearned unceasingly for their beloved for years, but never got so much as a sideways look in return. Or ask any artist who has painted the most glorious landscapes or revealing likenesses what they would do if they had been born blind, or if that landscape or that subject had not been there in the first place to be painted. The pain of the rejection comes from the knowledge that the person to which you were so irresistibly drawn is not the one for you; the greatest of the artists will tell you that they are merely drawing aside the veil so their audience is able to see what they knew was behind it.
It is that veil, then, that is primarily of interest in the study of beauty. Why does it seem that it is distributed so carelessly? (if you doubt that this is true, tell me why Britney Spears is so good-looking) Why is beauty so irretrievably caught up with loss? (if you doubt that this true, you are not old enough to know it yet) How can it be that we each of us are created beautiful in our way, and yet must perish into dust? (and all of us know deep within us that this is true)
These questions have characterized every civilization on the face of the earth. They are shown in the glance of the maiden who wants to be desired; they are shown in the resolve of the man who desires her more than any other; they are echoed in the cry of the jealous; they are unmistakable in the conclusion of the philosopher. Is there a conflict on the face of the earth that cannot somehow be traced back to the desirability of something and the precipitation of war over its possession? Beauty awakens something within us that, having wakened, stirs into wild flight the wings of thought that for so long lay folded and silent, brooding over the brokenness of this darkened pool of a world we live in.
With Augustine we realize that the beauty of the earth and the heavens is not just a proclamation of the glory of God, but a very articulate reply to the question we have been asking all our lives. Let us awaken swiftly, for the battle lines are forming, and that which we most love will ultimately have mastery over our hearts.