If there such a thing as a ‘science’ to beauty, we derive it from the Greeks, who posited three criteria to this most elusive, yet most evident, concept: Integrity – does a thing have all its parts? – proportion – are these various parts in harmony with one another? – and clarity (or ‘honestas’) – does the thing signify, or shine forth, what it is, and what it is meant to be? Saint Thomas refers to these in his treatise on the Trinity (cf., I, q.39, a.8), and why not, for is not God the most beautiful, and the source of all beauty?
All material creation is beautiful, and just as there is a science of beauty, so too there is a beauty to science, and the study of nature. Kepler’s planetary laws, Maxwell’s electromagnetic equations, Bernoulli’s theorem, are not highly accurate, but also beautiful in their simplicity. When Einstein first examined the mathematical theorem of Father Georges Lemaitre, extending his own General Theory of Relativity, leading eventually to the theory of the Big Bang – the great scientist muttered sotto voce, ‘tres joli, tres, tres, tres joli’ – very beautiful, very, very, very beautiful’.
The pinnacle of material creation, Man and Woman made in His image, conformed to His likeness in re-birth, reflects God’s beauty most of all, far more to be found in or souls, than our bodies.
Hence, the moral life is also beautiful, when lived well and fully. A moral decision, and consequent act, is right when it is not missing anything, when it is proportionate, and when it helps us to be more who we are meant to be. Families, become what you are! cried Pope John Paul II.
Sinful actions are wrong not for so much for what they are, but for what they are not. They are missing something, or disproportionate, or just not what we are meant to do, here and now. Fornication is wrong not because sex is bad – It’s just that missing the commitment and openness to life implied in the marital bond. Lying may have many justifications, but, at the end of the day, it’s a deliberate distortion of the truth. Gluttony is a sin, not because food is bad, but the amount of food is more than we is proper. Sin is always ugly, even if it attract us by superficial attraction. (And don’t get me started on tattoos.)
Evil, in a word, is the privation of good, wherein something is missing or distorted, like a smear of red paint or a funny moustache on the Mona Lisa (or me trying to copy the masterpiece). We may even say that the greater the good, the greater the evil. Corruptio optimi pessima, wrote the poet Juvenal, the corruption of the best is the worst. Satan was once one of the highest of angels. Something has to be very good to be very evil, and very ugly.
So beauty – integrity, proportion, clarity – applies to people, things, moral acts, music, art, cosmological theories, the Sun and everything under it, and, yes, ultimately, to God, the source and exemplar of all things beautiful.
Dostoyevsky said that beauty suffering will save the world. Perhaps so, for that may be the only way people can recognize it. By realizing what they have wounded and lost, they may with repentance heal and gain back, before it is too late.