This paper was presented originally to the Alcuin Fellowship of the Society of Classical Learning at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI in October of 2014.

When it comes to beauty (pulchritudo, species, formositas, decorum) and the Beautiful (pulchrum) in the medieval world, we can think in two overarching ways: first, we can think of Beauty as metaphysical and, secondly, Beauty as practical.

The first conception of Beauty involves a “Theology of Beauty” which begins in Plato, extends out into the medieval world through Augustine, Boethius, and Dionysius the Aereopagite, into the writings of Aquinas and Bonaventure, and which focuses on the metaphysical and moral nature of Beauty as an attribute of Being. This was the focus of Umberto Eco’s 1986 study, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, which has become sort of a benchmark in studies on medieval aesthetics.

For the medievals, the metaphysical concept of Beauty was inherited from the classical world, but developed into a distinctively Christian complexion, as it was absorbed in new and unprecedented theological, philosophical, metaphysical, and liturgical frames of reference. And one of the most influential visions of Beauty on the medieval theopoetic imagination, if not the most influential, was an early sixth-century writer from the Greek East known to us only under the pseudonym, Dionysius the Areopagite. Most every Latin scholastic, including Thomas Aquinas, wrote a commentary on The Divine Names by Dionysius, such that Dionysius served as the default aesthetic theology of the medieval period. Dionysius identifies the Beautiful as that divine attribute that draws all things into the Good. Following Plato (Cratylus 416c), Dionysius notes the etymological connection between kallos (Beauty) and kalein (to call): “Beauty ‘calls’ all things to itself (whence it is called ‘Beauty’) and gathers everything into itself” (DN IV.7: 701D). For Dionysius, Beauty shares itself, conferring beautiful attributes on all finite contingent things in a hierarchical fashion which by its nature directs and draws all things toward their beautifying source.

Beauty [he writes] is “in itself and by itself … the uniquely and the eternally beautiful. It is the superabundant source in itself of the Beauty of every beautiful thing. In that simple but transcendent nature of all beautiful things, Beauty and the beautiful uniquely preexisted in terms of their source. From this Beauty comes the existence of everything, each being exhibiting its own way of Beauty. For Beauty is the cause of harmony, of sympathy, of community. Beauty unites all things and is the source of all things. It is the great creating cause which bestirs the world and holds all things in existence by the longing inside them to have Beauty. And there it is ahead of all as Goal, as the Beloved, as the Cause toward which all things move… ” (Divine Names IV.7: 701D-704A)

Through influences such as Dionysius, Beauty was widely understood as an attribute of Being in the medieval imagination, which placed it within the development of what has been termed the ‘doctrine of transcendentals’ in Western thought. As represented in the work of thirteenth century scholars such as Philip the Chancellor, Alexander of Hales (hails) (1185-1245), Albert the Great, and Thomas Aquinas, the doctrine of transcendentals involved identifying those properties of perfection in which all things participate in some degree as a necessary condition for their existence.[1] For example, if we have before us a flower, a tree, and a cat, we may observe that all three share something in common: they all exist. And yet, while the flower, tree, and cat, all exist, they do not exhaust that existence; in fact, the only way that they all share in or participate in existence is if existence extends beyond any one of these particulars. Indeed, all particular things that constitute the entire universe are currently participating in an existence that is wholly other than the sum total of all existing things.

The doctrine of transcendentals had established four common and primary notions in which all things participate: Being, Unity or One, the True, and the Good. And the great controversy among modern scholars, particularly in the work of Thomas Aquinas, is whether Beauty was considered a transcendental. The problem is that Thomas and others never list Beauty among the transcendentals, and thus seem to be following Aristotle, who also omits Beauty among the transcendental properties of Unity, Goodness, and Truth (cf. Metaphysics Books 6, 8; Ethics 1). Some scholars, such as Umberto Eco, believe that Beauty was a medieval transcendental. Jacques Maritain (mary-ta) argued, citing Bonaventure, that Beauty was seen as “the splendor of all the transcendentals together.” Others, such as medieval scholar Jan Aertsen has argued that Beauty particularly for Thomas, does not express a mode of Being peculiar to itself, and therefore cannot be considered a transcendental.[2] Instead, Aertsen considers Beauty simply an extension of the Good in Thomas’ thought.

Regardless, the key attributes of the metaphysics of Beauty are its sharing and attractive significance. First, Beauty shares itself with all of creation. There is a general consensus that something is beautiful because it participates in Beauty. Secondly, Beauty shares itself in order to draw us somewhere; it is inherently a physics, a gravitational pull that draws (ductus) the whole of the cosmos towards the Kingdom of God revealed in and through the Incarnation. And in this sense, Beauty is comparable to the movement of the Son in the Incarnation; for it is through the Incarnation that the Son shares himself in creation and incorporates the totality of the cosmos in his transformative life, death, resurrection, and ascension, which even now is drawing the totality of the cosmos into inner-trinitarian life. It is interesting here that Thomas Aquinas, in his exposition of the three characteristics of beauty (proportionality, integrity, clarity), he identifies Beauty explicitly with the Second Person of the Trinity who exemplifies precisely these characteristics (Summa Theologica I.39.8).

So, this is the metaphysical nature of Beauty.

In our next post, we will explore the practical nature of Beauty and how it developed into a distinctively medieval science.

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[1] Aertsen, Medieval Philosophy, 31.

[2] Aertsen, Medieval Philosophy, 337.

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