Comments Off on What is the Definition of Beauty? …Will the Real St Thomas Aquinas Please Stand Up
I had a friend once who used to teach philosophy to undergraduates at Cambridge. He told me that for him philosophy was all about the phrase: ‘ it depends what you mean by….’. He was joking but what he was getting at was that just about anything can be true as long as you make the words fit the meaning that you want them to.
Consider now what might be a good definition of beauty? How about this: ‘that which pleases upon being seen (or perceived)? To give it some medieval authenticity here it is in Latin – id quod visum placet. This, is regularly presented as definition of St Thomas Aquinas. I am no philosopher (and so am happy to consider that the problem could be mine), but my first reaction is to be troubled by this definition for two reasons. First is that it didn’t seem to take into account the possibility of error in judgement. If I disagree with someone on whether or not something is beautiful (and this has happened plenty of times), and if beauty is an objective quality and not merely a matter of opinion, then one or both of us must be in error. It always seemed to me that the only way of reconciling this with the definition was to say that it depends what you mean by “seen”; and it depends what you mean by “pleased”. Maybe this is relying on the fact that to apprehend beauty I have to see in the sense of apprehend clearly, as the pure see; and maybe also it is true if we consider only a genuine pleasure that which is derived from what it truly good. For all I know this definition probably also depends on what you mean by ‘that which’. Simple though the expression is, if we have to struggle with the definitions that much to make it fit ordinary experience then does it have any real use? Couldn’t someone clever come up with a better definition? Is the goal here to discover truth or to make Thomas Aquinas true I wondered?
The other reason that I struggled with this was that I read this definition first in a book by Jacques Maritain, (Art and Scholasticism, I think) The problem I had with the whole book was that after wading through hundreds of pages of difficult text he finally applied his theories and ‘proved’, …read more