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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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