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Is Beauty a Transcendental?

Perhaps you have heard of Bryan Johnson, the wealthy man spending millions of dollars per year on a routine designed to reverse his age.  This routine requires absolute conformity: every day of his life is controlled by the program titled “Blueprint”, which comprises routine measurement and treatment of: heart, brain, lung, the gastrointestinal tract, his hair, skin, eyes, ears, his oral health, sleep, bone marrow, pancreas, prostate, cardiovascular system—and which commits him to a strict diet, supplements, and exercise regimen.  It runs his life 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  He looks far younger than his 45 years.  He also looks rather effeminate.  He insists that he is happy, living a life controlled by precise measurements and prescriptions.

Measurement and Beauty

Bryan Johnson’s life may exceed mine in every quantifiable metric.  But the unquantifiable?  Can a life dictated by numbers be beautiful?  Some would, doubtless, say yes.  And certainly, beauty can be observed in and through numbers, especially as they settle into a proportion.  One may think of the Fibonacci sequence: of itself, that 4+6=10 and 6+10=16 and 10+16=26 may seem insignificant.  But apply this to font sizes:

Is this proportionality alone, however, sufficient to render something beautiful?  It is necessary; but it is not sufficient.  As Thomas Aquinas writes in his Summa theologiae:

In order that there be beauty, three things are required: First, integrity or perfection, because those things which are fragmented are, by that fact, rendered ugly.  And second, due proportion or consonant harmony.  And third, clarity, for which reason those things having a bright color are said to be beautiful.

The fitting proportion of our font sizes would be marred by unsuitable words (whether because they signify crass objects or signify objects in a crass manner; or because they make no sense)—and, similarly, if the words were all nonsense, we might say that the font is attractive, but we’d not call the passage beautiful.

Beauty: A Transcendental?

Some may, and for good reason, cite this as an argument against the beautiful being listed as a transcendental.  Conventionally, predicates are regarded as being transcendental if they are “cross-categorical”: that is, if they can be said of something which in itself is found in any of Aristotle’s ten categories (substance, quantity, quality, relation, time, place, vestition, posture, action, and passion).  Within the Thomistic tradition, this has led to a commonly-accepted list of transcendentals: being (ens), unity (unum), the good (bonum), and truth (verum).  Astute readers of Aquinas’ Disputed Questions on Truth will know that he there, also and importantly, includes “thing” (res) and “something” (aliquid).  This list is divided in two: some pertain to beings as they are in themselves, and the rest to beings as related to others.  Those which are transcendentally predicated of beings as they are in themselves (in se) are being, unity, and thing; while those concerning relation to another (ad aliud) are good, true, and something (which, in its Latin etymology, is broken into aliud quid, i.e., “another ‘what’”).

The in se predicates concern us less, here, than the ad aliud.  For certainly, if beauty is to be a transcendental, it would seem to fall into this category: beauty seems somehow to consist in its admiration, its attractiveness, and something can be admired by and attractive to only that which is other than itself.  But, as Aquinas says elsewhere in the Disputed Questions on Truth (q.22, a.1, ad.12), the beautiful object as desirable is none other than the good (and peaceful!) object as desirable.  That “good” is a transcendental follows from the revelation of every object as somehow desirable (just as “truth” follows from every object as somehow signifiable by our minds).

But there are other passages in Thomas Aquinas, particularly in his commentary on the Divine Names of Pseudo-Dionysius (and even in his questions on truth), that impart a unique significance to “beauty” and the “beautiful”—and, as I would like to suggest this evening, this unique significance consists in the intersection of the transcendental relativities of both good and true.

Further Reading

Thomas Aquinas:

The Point Magazine:


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Trauma, Sorrow, and Beauty: Maritain and Rouault on Art

On 13 April 2023 at 7pm ET, Dr. Thomas Hibbs (see event times around the world) will present the Annual John Deely / Jacques Maritain Lecture for the Deely Project at Saint Vincent College, in Latrobe, PA: “Trauma, Sorrow, and Beauty: Maritain and Rouault on Art” (Zoom link).

In his work on the crisis of the visible in contemporary culture, the philosopher Jean-Luc Marion argues that images typically operate as idols rather than icons. The images we encounter are “proportionate to the expectation of desire.” Such a culture excludes images that would engage us so as to transform our desires and lead us out of ourselves to transcendence. We need more than simply a reorientation of our vision. The new pedagogy of images cannot be straightforward or initially affirmative, since it must make us aware of our disorders, sorrows, and traumas. It will offer hope not through facile transcendence but through otherwise hidden paths at the margins of mainstream civilization. In the philosophy of art of Jacques Maritain and the art of his friend Georges Rouault, images take on the evils and afflictions of this world, its manifold traumas and sorrows, and trace a path toward beauty, gratitude, and joy.

Abstract of the Presentation

Thomas Hibbs is currently the J. Newton Rayzor Sr. Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University, where he is also Dean Emeritus. Hibbs has published more than 30 scholarly articles and seven scholarly books, including three on the thought of Thomas Aquinas. He has also published two books on film and co-authored a book, Soliloquies, with the Japanese-American artist, Makoto Fujimura. A new book, Theology of Creation, is set to be published in August of 2023 by Notre Dame Press. He also has a book on Justice as Solidarity under contract with Word on Fire publications. Hibbs has published widely in the popular press, with more than 100 reviews and discussion articles on film, theater, art, and higher education in a variety of publications including First Things, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New Atlantis, The Wall Street Journal, and National Review. He writes regularly for The Dallas Morning News.

About the John Deely / Jacques Maritain Lecture

The Annual John Deely / Jacques Maritain Lecture strives to make better known the work of these two great thinkers in the Poinsot-inspired tradition of Thomistic philosophy. Jacques Maritain wrote many insightful works on art. Indeed, I am reminded (as Dr. Minerd quoted from it recently) of this fascinating passage from “Sign and Symbol”:

in a work of art are found the speculative sign (the work makes manifest something other than it is) and the practical sign (it communicates a stimulation, an appeal); not that the work of art is formally a practical sign; it is rather a speculative sign which by superabundance is virtually practical… In the work of art… we meet with what can be called the direct sign (indicating an object) and the reverse sign (making manifest the subject).

Maritain 1937: “Sign and Symbol” in Ransoming the Time, 253.

Two things catch my attention here. First, the superabundance of the work of art that makes it virtually practical. Second, the notion of the reverse sign, which manifests the subject. I believe one sees this latter clearly in the work of Rouault. Trauma and sorrow appear in his faces. He shows beauty in a certain simplicity. This should be a fascinating lecture and Q&A!

For all those unable to attend in person, the session can be watched live on Zoom: “Trauma, Sorrow, and Beauty: Maritain and Rouault on Art”.