What is beauty?
The beginning of the Rock Music culture in the US is a little difficult to pinpoint, but by the time of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” its presence was evident to almost everyone. With the advent of Rock the youth of America possessed their own music. Their parents dismissed it as dissonant, gyrating wildness and told their children: “That isn’t music!” But the youth—particularly the Baby Boomer Generation—held on to it tenaciously. Rock/Pop has now become the world’s music to the extent that it is heard everywhere and all the time. Now teenagers listening to 100-year old hymns think, “That isn’t music!”
Many post-modern thinkers will probably tell you that the quality of music is a matter of taste, determined by culture and experience. This is a break with how people have thought, literally for millennia. It uses an argument that can easily be turned against itself (you can also say that the proposition “quality of music is merely taste, determined by culture and experience,” is simply a product of culture and experience, and perhaps not valid at all). When we talk about music or art, we also talk about the concept of beauty. I am not telling you a fairy tale when I say that there was a time when people agreed on what is good music, even if they disagreed on style preference. When and how did the change to today’s view of beauty come about? I think the change began slowly with the ideas of Immanuel Kant (and you thought it all started with Elvis, right?).
Something more to life than the strictly objective
To understand Immanuel Kant, one also has to understand the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment produced two groups of philosophers: rationalists (like Descartes and Spinoza) and empiricists (like Diderot). David Hume challenged both groups by pointing out the limits of reason, as well as the limits of scientific proof. Kant said that Hume woke him out of his “dogmatic slumber.” By “dogmatic,” Kant did not mean his own adherence to Luther, Calvin, or the Pietism in which he was reared. Instead he meant rationalist theology. Like other philosophers of the Enlightenment, Kant believed that all knowledge begins with experience. But Kant also proposed a priori knowledge (knowledge “prior to” experience), which affects our understanding.
At the beginning of his Critique of Pure Reason (German version published 1781), Kant proposed that the concepts of time and space are not objective but originate from within our minds. The a priori concepts of time and space create what he calls a “manifold” (one could also accurately use the word “grid”) through which we interpret the entire world as we discover and examine it. The mind creates the pattern and fits the world that the senses experience, into the pattern it has already established. The conclusion is logical: we only see, hear and touch an interpreted world. Beauty, for instance, is our response to what we see, not the quality of the object we see. Whether he knew it or not, Kant borrowed a page from Augustine for one of his ideas, namely, that the notion of time originates from within our heads. In the 1300s, William of Ockham challenged Augustine’s view. Lucky for us, since William’s challenge was necessary for the beginning of modern science. (Ockham argued that time had both objective and subjective existence.)
But was he right?
At this point I want to pull back from being dogmatic. I am not an authority on Kant’s philosophy. When it comes to the a priori concept of space, we have to realize that Kant meant Euclidian space (height, width, depth), exists in our thinking prior to our examination of the world. The Euclidian space in our minds determines how we interpret the world. Albert Einstein observed how many experiments had results which contradicted what one would expect in Euclidian space. Other scientists concluded that something was wrong with the results of the experiments. Einstein surmised that the results were right, but that, in a manner of speaking, time had to be factored into Euclidian space to correctly understand physical events. If Kant was right—that we are predisposed to see a world in certain ways because our minds are hardwired with the idea of Euclidian space—how did Einstein come up with a different idea? I wonder if perhaps those who follow Kant on his concept of Euclidian space inside the head are actually stuck in 1781.
Kant did philosophy a great service by pointing out the error of the empiricists, namely, that the mind begins like a blank slate (tabula rasa). At the same time he proposed a concept that to me contradicts the Bible. Again and again in his Critique of Pure Reason Kant says that no one can objectively perceive time. The Bible, quite to the contrary, says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Matter and space had objective existence before man was created. “And it was evening and it was morning, the first day.” Time and motion had objective existence as well. According to Scripture, the sun, moon, and stars are given to man so that he can objectively mark seasons, days, and years. Prophecy not fulfilled on the day predicted is regarded by the Bible as false prophecy.
For the Bible, time and space are objective entities to be objectively experienced. Kant was not wrong to say that our minds begin by being active, not passive, and that there are understandings which already reside in the mind prior to experience. His conclusion, I believe, was wrong: that we do not objectively perceive time and space. Rather, because man is created in the image of God, he was created with an active mind and a priori understandings, and he is able to rightly comprehend the world as it truly exists (think, for instance how Adam, directly after his creation could converse with God, then afterward to name animals).
Few men who have ever lived have been as brilliant as Immanuel Kant. His explanation of beauty is a world better than that of David Hume and other enlightenment philosophers, who viewed the whole enterprise of writing poetry, composing music and creating works of art as deceitful. But the most uneducated Christian can refute the beginning of Kant’s philosophy by quoting Genesis 1:1-5. Time and space do not begin in our heads, though they exist there. They began at day one of creation, without us. And the fact is, the most avid follower of Kant’s philosophy continues all his life to be convinced about what he saw, or heard, or touched, and its genuine traits. Where does beauty begin? Are beautiful sounds in the ear of the hearer, or does the beauty reside in the sounds themselves? Ask any mother if she treasures listening to her baby cry for a solid hour or two. The mother may be beautiful. She may think her child is beautiful. But the noise coming out of the child just plain is not beautiful.
The Bible and beauty
Contrary to Kant’s view, the Bible assumes that beauty has an objective existence. There are a variety of Hebrew words used in the OT to denote beauty. It was obviously a well-developed theme in the ancient Hebrew mind, and one with which the reader was confronted daily. God told Moses to make the garments of the high priest from gold, linen, blue cloth, etc. and with a particular design, in part “for beauty” (Ex. 28:40). Zion is called “the perfection of beauty” (Ps. 50:2). An adulterous woman may have an alluring beauty, which young men are warned not to lust after (Prov. 6:25). The ministry of the Messiah to Israel will include replacing the ashes of mourners with beauty (Isa. 61:3). The argument of James 1:23-24, that the Bible is like a mirror showing a man his true spiritual self, is based on the assumption that a physical mirror will give its user a true image of what they look like. One gets more the idea from James that it is not our a priori concepts that modify a true image of what we are. Rather, people who disregard the honesty of the mirror walk away maintaining their inward image of themselves. This image is incorrect. If some reading what I write still insist that beauty is strictly in the eye of the beholder, they will need to suppress those shocking moments—perhaps the last time was this morning—when they viewed the unexpected in the mirror and their a priori did a double take.
Aristotle said that beauty is distinguished by “orderly arrangement, proportion, and definiteness.” (Metaphysics, 13.3.11) Beauty is not simply “in the eye of the beholder.” Though we do not analyze beauty in our first impressions, we can, with a further look, notice some quantifiable things about it. A botanist will tell you that there is an incredible orderliness and proportion in flowers. Jesus said that they were surpassingly beautiful in themselves (Matt. 6:28-30).
There is no question that we observe the world in a limited way. Only God sees it in its totality. There is likewise no question that we are inherently biased in our judgments. But these factors do not keep us from experiencing the world truly and objectively. God repeatedly holds human beings to account for what they have seen and heard: “Deliver those who are drawn toward death, and hold back those stumbling to the slaughter. If you say, ‘Surely we did not know this,’ does not He who weighs the hearts consider it? He who keeps your soul, does He not know it? And will He not render to each man according to his deeds?” (Prov. 24:11-12).
We see and interpret reality: usually for exactly what it is. Beauty did not originate in us. It originated in God’s creative idea. It found its expression in the creation itself. If we have a regenerate heart, the world will tell us a great deal about God, and about beauty.
The Painted Sky
(by Jeff Brown)
Azure, silver, grey and white
Edges gilded by the light
Clouds a-sitting in the sky,
Perched above a bed of green:
Hills and trees and fields of grain,
What a genius-painted scene!
And see, the clouds, they glisten!
With colours bright and ever true
He paints each inch in perfect hue.
And brilliant colours all have these:
The sky, the clouds, the grain, the trees.
While gazing at the artist’s strokes
The cloud I notice, slowly moves.
It moves! The cloud, it moves!
Long time, demands and cares of life
Have caused me to forget my right
To look and wonder as a child.
For sunlight, air and heat and wind,
And rain and ice his tools in hand.
No gall’ried portrait is so grand
As this! It’s all around us!
And when you look up high, straight up!
And nothing more than blue can see
You question what is there beyond:
Can I see God? Does he see me?
Though heaven’s still, infinity
Will steal upon your soul and hold it captive.
It’s out there, way beyond me!
Now some say that the sky has holes
And all is slipping out to space
And preaching do condemn our race.
Confessing sin, yet still I ask,
“Are we so able to the task,
To tear apart this great canvas?”
I wonder if they ever look?
A farmer toiling in the field,
Or children walking home from school,
Troubled man and sorrowing woman,
Joyous lover, and unforgiven
All may look and hope again
At this most glorious gift to man!
I find the artist friendly.