Some years ago, in 2011, I read an article in the summer edition of the National Trust Magazine, by the philosopher A. C. Grayling, on Beauty. He was writing primarily about the natural beauty, but went on to say that “There is beauty in ideas, in the effects of sound (think of music, laughter, falling rain) and light (think of stars at night, sunlight among trees, lamps glowing along wet streets); there is beauty in the objects made by high skill, from pottery to buildings; there is beauty in a lichen-covered tree trunk and a distant range of mountains; there is beauty in the movements of a dancer and the power of an athlete. As this suggests, we find beauty mainly in things we see and hear, but stories and actions can be beautiful, too, and in these cases we experience it in our emotions.”
Beauty intrigues me. What is it? I don’t find it easy to define. I sought a dictionary definition and found: ‘A combination of qualities, such as shape, colour, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight.’ That may be right, but for me there is something missing. It doesn’t capture what I think of as the energy and power of beauty, and the way that it moves me.
Grayling went on to say: “One reason why we are so refreshed and uplifted by natural beauty is that we feel, even if obscurely, our connection with the great scheme of life on our planet and its deep imperatives. This is proved not just by the majesty of great tropical forests and the mighty oceans, not just by rolling green countryside and gardens blossoming with flowers. Every crack in a tarmac road has a plant forcing its way up to the light; every derelict building is swathed in ivy and moss, with buddleia sprouting triumphantly from the eaves. This insistence of nature is proof of life, and we find life beautiful and meaningful.”
I’m not sure that we do necessarily ‘find life beautiful and meaningful’ but I certainly agree that beauty goes a long way to making it so, and it’s not alone in doing that. For me beauty stands in line with other ‘eternal verities’ like truth, peace, hospitality, friendship, justice, and many others, which seem to share certain common characteristics. They are not easy to define other than in ways that often seems to suck the very energy out of them; yet there is general agreement about what constitutes them; we reckon that we’d recognise them when we saw them; and while expressions of them may vary, knowledge of them seems to be common across all cultures. Now why should this be so? And why do they make life seem beautiful and meaningful’? That is what has been puzzling me.
When I sit in my shed and look out of the windows I see the beautiful garden that Sylvia, my wife, has created. It is stunning, and full of things that appear beautiful to me, by virtue of their shape, colour and juxtaposition. And I wonder to myself if perhaps ‘Beauty’ exists in its own right, independent of these flowers and shrubs: if there might be an independent objective thing ‘Beauty’. Rationally I don’t see how I can answer that question. But perhaps I can ask the question in another way? ‘Suppose that it is true that Beauty does exist in its own right, and that what you see are simply expressions of it, incarnations of it even. What difference would that make? Would life be more meaningful and rich or less? And I have found that life is richer and more meaningful. Not least because I notice Beauty more often.
I walked slowly down the lane to church this morning, and I was aware of Beauty manifesting itself in the brown ploughed field, the body of a white horse, the emerald green of another field, and the little brightly coloured flowers in the churchyard. The congregation was tiny in number but each person present was beautiful in their own way, and together, hospitable. On the pillar next to where I usually sit I encountered Beauty in some of the stone work, as I did in the words of the liturgy and the music played on the organ. I was surrounded by Beauty on all sides and the experience was Beauty-full: God felt very present. My morning was unquestionably richer and more meaningful as a consequence, and I am therefore inclined to take the idea of Beauty seriously.
Were others in the congregation aware of Beauty being present? Quite possibly not. So you might conclude that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, its something I conferred on what I saw. But I think otherwise: that Beauty was present and that I was blessed by being able to see and name it. Another day I wont be able to do so.
I think that I can say much the same about each of the other ‘eternal verities’ that I named: giving them each a capital letter and asking myself if doing so makes life more or less meaningful, elicits the same answer. It’s a bit like turning the lights on and seeing the world in colour rather than black and white. Its like entering ‘another world’, which is there always, mostly un-noticed, but a source of wonder.
I don’t think that this is saying anything very different from what A. C. Grayling was writing about.
But I want to go further and suggest that if these are Eternal Verities then they must be characteristics of God inevitably imprinted upon God’s Creation. And if we humans have the ability to recognise and respond to them, then I sense that that’s because we have memories of them from the time in the beginning, long before our births, when we were with God, and that this ability thus forms part of God’s image in each of us..