By Fr. Bud Grant
Recent protests in Turkey began when a group of young professionals blocked a bulldozer from destroying a tiny park in central Istanbul. They risk their lives to protect a scrap of green space. I’ve been to that park and it is beautiful. But isn’t beauty subjective? In a word, no.
“True beauty consists of a fitting adjustment in each part and in the whole, so that the charm in each part and the full appropriateness of the form in the completed work are worthy of commendation” (St. Ambrose of Milan, Exameron II.5.21).
Ambrose could be talking about a sculpture, a building, a human body, or a park. His definition of beauty includes proportionality: various parts harmonizing. The massive façade of St. Peter’s, for example, is so well proportioned that viewers are deceived as to its size until, say, someone steps out onto the central balcony and asks us to pray for him. It isn’t perfect (Maderno’s elongated nave diminishes the intended impact of Michelangelo’s dome), but Ralph Waldo Emerson, no slouch when evaluating beauty, called it “an ornament of the earth,” and “the sublime of the beautiful.”
Aristotle’s principle of entelechy is another element of theological aesthetics; this means that a thing is “the complete realization of whatever it is that it is supposed to be.” (Umberto Eco, The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, 99). Thomas adds clarity (claritas) as the third basis of aesthetics. This has to do with light, which Arnold Berleant suggests is the link between the viewer and the viewed. Beauty, then, is neither in the object nor “in the eye of the beholder,” but the relationship between the two.
Ambrose, Thomas and others agree that God’s Creation is beautiful. Alan of Lille called nature “mother of Creation, bond of the universe, bright gem, light-bearer …” In fact, nature’s beauty is its good … its justification for being and our motive for saving it.
This may seem self-evident: we all appreciate a June gloaming, lightning bugs blinking, breeze-dipped willows, cut-grass aroma. Our ancestor cultures found beauty in such modified nature as the hanging gardens of Babylon. Divinities haunted the hallowed pools and mountain crevasses.
But it is peculiarly American to recognize wild nature as beautiful. Prior to Emerson, wilderness was generally perceived of as a chaotic mass symbolic of chaos and evil, to be bulldozed and replaced with something more obviously ordered. Primed by the English Romantics such as Wordsworth, Keats and Shelly, it was left to Thoreau to exclaim that “in Wildness is the preservation of the world.”
John Muir, a poet, and Thomas Moran, an artist, were instrumental in creating the world’s first wild park, Yellowstone. Americans taught the world to revere unblemished wilderness. Pioneers in ecology, from Thoreau and John Wesley Powell to Fredrick Clements all the way to E.O. Wilson and Wes Jackson add crucial scientific perspectives: the more deeply we investigate the subtleties and nuances of nature the more complexity and diversity we discover in it. A healthy ecosystem is beautiful in its form and function.
Yet the argument is far from over. In 1981 Secretary of the Interior James Watt defended oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on that grounds that: “look, I’ve been there. It’s ugly!” Another Interior Secretary, Gail Norton, called it a “Godforsaken mosquito-infested swamp shrouded in frozen darkness …” Ouch. Such subjective (and prejudiced: both wanted to drill, baby) assessments violate the wisdom of our theology and the insights of science.
To recognize the beauty of a place is to respect it; to discern traces of its creator is to revere it. Pope Francis tells us that our mission is to be “protectors of creation, protectors of one another and of the environment” (March 19). The Istanbul protesters stand between God’s creation and those who would bulldoze it for the short-term advantage of the few.
(Father Bud Grant is an assistant professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)