Beauty and Difficulty

One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.  – Psalm 27:4

I once overheard an artist who, while looking at a detailed and realistic painting done by someone else, remarked that it “was probably very easy to make”. The context of the comment implied that things were more beautiful – or more artistic – if they are harder to make.

There does not seem to be a real causal relationship between difficulty and beauty, though. In fact, the inverse seems to be true. This isn’t limited to art and beauty either.

As an experienced software developer, it is easy for me to write software that works, is easy to understand, and is easy to maintain. It’s objectively better software in every important way to something written by someone who is just entering the field. That makes sense; I should be getting better at what I’m doing over time, making it easier to do.

If this is the case, then the fact it is easy for me to create is not a comment about how good the product is, but how much skill and experience I have. The same seems to be true of any job you can think of. A skilled architect will have an easier time designing a house than someone who has never designed anything.

At the same time, just because the creation of a piece of art was difficult, time-consuming, or tedious, there’s no reason to think the art is beautiful. It takes a long time to write your name 500,000 times; much longer than writing it once. Is doing one rather than the other really more beautiful? It’s certainly more difficult, but I think this is an obvious example where a thing being difficult doesn’t cause it to become beautiful.

Aristotle’s description of ethics is along the same lines. He argued when you want to find a good person, you don’t look for someone who struggles to do good things and, by his will, overcomes the struggle in the end. This effort is admirable, but a good person will not struggle to do good things and avoid evil things. It will seem effortless for him. In neither case is the definition of goodness related to how easy it is for a person to do good things. In the same way, beauty is not related to how much people struggle with it.

We also don’t know how difficult it was to make a piece of art unless we know more details than the art itself gives us. If we are experienced in the technique used, we might know how hard it is to learn the technique and how much effort was applied in using the technique. But we can’t know how hard it was for the person who created the art. That would require us asking them. But it seems we can figure out whether a piece of art is beautiful even if we don’t know the artist or can’t ask him how hard it was to make. Again, beauty doesn’t seem related to how much people struggle with making beautiful art.

So what does make something beautiful?

In looking up the verse I intended to put at the beginning of the article, I found this quote on the generally good Bible Study Tools website when searching on the topic of beauty:

The saying “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder,” goes to say that defining beauty can be tough. However, God’s words can lead us to discover what our individual meaning of beauty truly is and should be; that is deter from looking at physical appearance for God looks at the heart in all people and things. Use these Bible verses to find the real beauty in yourself, others, and what surrounds us.

I think this is incorrect for several reasons, and interestingly, not Biblical given the verses that follow.

The expression “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is less than 200 years old. If beauty is difficult to define (specifically: define), and I agree that it is difficult to do so, it seems strange it would take thousands and thousands of years of human experience to arrive to this insight. In reality, the quote came at a time when beauty had been relativized, in part thanks to the same leveling forces that eventually relativized truth and goodness, too. The quote is intended to make beauty subjective. “In the eye of the beholder” means “according to the subject”. This in contrast to the object.

Biblically, God is beautiful. He is the source of beauty. This means that beauty can’t possibly be subjective – even though our experience of it necessarily is, like all experiences. The quotation from Bible Study Tools is correct in saying that our definition ought to conform to Scripture, and that we can be wrong about what beauty is (this affirms the objective nature of it). However, it is misleading to say that beauty at the physical level is superficial because God searches our hearts. He might search our hearts and know us more deeply than we know ourselves, but He also created our physical bodies and the physical world we live in and all the beauty we can see and hear. This physical world won’t last forever, but it isn’t superficial. It’s particularly misleading when people aren’t concerned with creating beautiful art or with looking as best they can. I don’t think a person can be fully trusted with getting at the inner beauty of things if they don’t even have the right idea or skill at getting to physical beauty.

If you aren’t a Christian, it is still strange to try and say that beauty is subjective. We have art schools training artists all around the world. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then are these schools just teaching popular techniques? What are the techniques for? Why does anyone need technique? As popular as postmodernism and relativism is at art schools, I think the administrators know better than to push this to it’s reasonable conclusion. If they did, the students might realize their time would be better spent not spending tens of thousands of dollars improving their technique at creating things that are totally subjective.

Similarly, it’s strange that we have art museums and art galleries if art is subjective. Why is some art worthy of hanging on the wall in an art museum? Given some of the horrible, insulting pieces I’ve seen (solid-color canvases with a single bar of another color shoddily painted on top), it doesn’t seem much thought goes into determining what should hang on an art museum wall and what should be thrown in the trash. But what really qualifies some pieces and not others? Is it a democratic process? Who says? And where do I get to vote?

As I said earlier, beauty is difficult to define. But it isn’t difficult or impossible to describe. Beautiful things have a symmetry to them. This doesn’t need to mean things are identical when split in half; it is more in terms of weight (e.g. a house could have wide room on one side and a tall room on the other). Beautiful things have emphasis on the important elements, with other elements receding into the background while they complement the foreground. Beautiful things are true; they don’t mislead or glorify evil.

With the issue of difficulty addressed, I’d like to address the issue of ugliness in modern art sometime in the future. I think modern art, in general, is intentionally ugly and insulting. It would be good to talk about it in detail, but it deserves its own post.

The Four Causes

A Little History

Despite attending multiple colleges and universities and obtaining two degrees, I did not encounter Aristotle’s “four causes” until several years after I had graduated. The few philosophy courses I took spent brief moments discussing Plato before moving 2400 years into the future to spend the rest of the time talking about modernism and postmodernism (one class in particular focused on the professor’s own written material).

I’ve since learned how much of a waste those classes were. The real meat of philosophy is in the ancient, medieval, and early modern world. There have been few philosophers since who have contributed anything of the magnitude that their ancestors did, and often their contributions led to errors repeated for generations. If you want to study good philosophy – and to paraphrase CS Lewis, you should want to study good philosophy if only to answer bad philosophy – you should start at the beginning. Not everything Plato or Aristotle or their successors said was correct, but you can learn a lot even in disagreement.

What Are the Four Causes?

Aristotle in particular had a conception of how to explain the nature of anything and everything, called traditionally the “four causes”: material cause, formal cause, efficient cause, and final cause.

Consider the human eye for a moment. The material cause of something is the matter of which it is composed, so the material cause of an eye is the various molecular components which make it up. The formal cause of something is the shape or form it has. For the human eye, this includes the overall eye itself as well as the parts which make it up, from the iris, pupil, and lens to the retina.

An efficient cause is like the history of how a thing came to be. A human eye begins to grow early during pregnancy. The whole story of how the eye came to be where it is at the moment you consider it is part of this efficient cause. Finally and fittingly, there is the final cause. This is the telos or “end” of an object; it’s purpose. The purpose of the human eye is to see.

These four causes constitute a comprehensive explanation for anything you can think of, and virtually anything you can know about an object will fall into one of the categories. While this might seem esoteric, consider a very practical use of this information for a human eye.

In medicine (at least medicine traditionally understood and not the postmodern “choose your own adventure” style we increasingly see in mental health and now even in physical health), the goal is to first “do no harm”, but ultimately to mend things that are not working. A human eye can have any number of defects. To know what constitutes a defect, you first need to consider what the final cause of an object is; in our case, sight. So an eye that cannot see well or is blind to color or blind to everything is unhealthy, for it is not capable of realizing its end. Medicine which corrects these problems and enhances vision (be it surgery or contact lenses; even sunglasses depending on the situation) may be “unnatural” in the sense that it is developed by human beings – being artificial (from Latin artificium; a thing people make) – but it is not “unnatural” in the more important sense of going against the nature of the object in question. Medicine which restores sight to a blind person or which corrects nearsightedness restores natural function, because it enables the final cause of the object to be realized. In this sense, good medicine is eminently natural. Obviously, a good knowledge of the formal, material, and efficient causation of an eye is required to develop medicine as well.

An Interesting Discovery

In his book “Summa Philosophica”, Peter Kreeft answers the question “Whether there are four causes?” in his section on cosmology. He answers in the affirmative, but one of the notes he made helped me realize that even if today we don’t discuss the four causes in the language I used above, we still talk about them in language very similar to it. He proposes this objection to the idea that the four causes exist:

We no longer use the word “cause” to refer to the two internal elements or dimensions that Aristotle called “formal” and “material” causes.

He responds, in part:

We still use the word “because” for all four causes, even though we no longer use the word “cause” for the first two. E.g. we say that an enclosed plane figure is a triangle “because” it has three angles (formal causality), or that paper towels mop up liquid “because” of their capillary structure (material causality).

My entire life, and likely yours as well, you’ve used the language of the four Aristotelian causes and have never even noticed.

A triangle is a triangle because it has three sides. (formal causality)

A bullet pierces because it is made of metal. (material causality

A car is in your garage because you drove it there. (efficient causality)

An eye is healthy because it sees. (final causality)