6.1. Transcendental beauty

We are now in a position to discuss a question that has caused controversy in philosophy ever since the time of Plato: Is beauty a "transcendental property of being" or not? The issue is no longer one of burning concern; but I think its answer can shed some light on what beauty is.

DEFINITION: A transcendental property of being is a property any being has simply because it exists. It is not a property that is confined to some type of being, but "transcends" all the various categories that you can separate realities into. Traditionally, "one," "good," and "true" were the transcendental properties; but some people added "beautiful" and some didn't.

So the question is whether we can call something beautiful only if it is a certain kind of existence (or activity), or whether the mere fact that it is active is what would allow it to be called beautiful.

The answer, according to this theory of beauty, is that, since every perceptive experience necessarily has an emotional overtone, and since any emotional overtone is capable of being related somehow with at least some other emotional overtone, then it follows that anything capable of producing a perceptive experience of any sort will also produce an emotional overtone--which can be the basis for an esthetically understood fact about it.

Hence, any object at all will have some esthetic property, which would mean that it is beautiful for anyone who is willing to accept its presence in the object. Therefore, beauty is a property of any being at all, or is a transcendental property of being.

That is, it is always the fault of the observer if he finds no beauty in the object, because there always is some esthetic property in it, and an esthetic property is "beauty" once it is recognized as "belonging" in the object.

There are a couple of things to note here, however. First, those who conclude that beauty is a transcendental property seem also to conclude that the higher the level of reality, the greater the beauty: so that God is the "most beautiful" of all beings, angels and pure spirits next, man next, animals next, plants next, and inanimate objects least beautiful.

But something like Michelangelo's David is an inanimate object (a block of marble); and it seems silly to say that this is "really" less beautiful than a deformed cockroach; and Beethoven's ninth symphony is just vibrations of the air--so it would seem to have much less beauty even than the David.

Obviously, there is a flaw in the reasoning somewhere.

The flaw is that the degree of beauty does not depend (as we will see shortly) on the degree of reality of the thing in question, but on how intense an emotion it can cause, how complex a set of emotions it produces, and so on. But the intensity of the emotions depends on our instinct's survival-program, not on the degree of reality of the object.

That is, I react with terror to any large object moving swiftly in my direction, because it can crush me. This emotion occurs whether the large object is a car (inanimate) or a horse (animal). If the object is small (a dog), the emotion is apt to be less intense. Hence, the esthetic experience will be more or less intense in a way that does not vary with the variation in level of being of the object.

Similarly, while an animal or a human being may be capable of many complex emotionally-charged effects on me, this is true of any object. A scientist who studies atoms (a very low form of being) forms many different perceptive experiences of them; and each of these has its own emotional overtone--and so he can get an esthetic concept (if he wants to) fully as complex as any ordinary person contemplating an animal or a human being.

Perhaps this line of reasoning can be clinched with the notion of God, who is the greatest being. For most people, God is known very abstractly, as "the supreme being," and, known as such, not very intense or complex emotional overtones occur when they think of God. Hence, he cannot be very beautiful to them; many other things are more beautiful than God.

Therefore, even though every being is beautiful, the degrees of beauty do not vary with the degrees of being of the object.

The second thing to note is that even non-realities can be beautiful. We can imagine as well as perceive; and acts of imagination also have emotional overtones. But acts of imagination, as we said, have no object; and so the "non-objects" have a kind of beauty, which can be very intense and very complex.

"What's Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba that he should weep for her?" says Hamlet. And Hamlet himself, as Shakespeare pictures him, is imaginary; yet he causes very intense and complex emotions. Now of course, for us, it is the play and the actors that cause the emotions and the esthetic experience; but for Shakespeare, it was the purely imaginary character that did it--and he existed in no meaningful sense of the term.

But the puzzle is easily solved by noting that it isn't the "non-object" Hamlet in Shakespeare's mind or imagination that "caused" his feelings (because there isn't any Hamlet even in Shakespeare's mind; he isn't a picture Shakespeare produced inside himself), but the act itself of imagining. That is, this particular act (whose form is that of "imagining in a Hamlety way" had the emotional overtone in question.

So the reality of the act of imagining is what had the beauty in question, not the Hamlet "inside" the act. It had the beauty Hamlet would have had if he had existed and caused an act like that.

To explore this further would get us into the vexed question of "possible being"; but let me leave the subject here.

6.2. Degrees of beauty

But the mentioning of the fact that things are thought of as more or less beautiful than others means that we should explore how beauties can vary in degree, so to speak.

In the strict sense, esthetic properties do not have degrees as such; and so "more and less" are used only analogously with forms of energy, which in fact do have degrees. But this does not mean that "more beautiful" is a meaningless term, nor that it is not objective. What is the basis of the analogical use of "more and less?"

6.2.1. Intensity

The first and most obvious variation in beauties is that of intensity.

DEFINITION: A beauty is more intense than another insofar as it causes a more intense emotion.

This characteristic is what is often meant by "powerful" when referring to a work of art. The Spiritual, "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord," for instance, is very simple; but it evokes the horror of the crucifixion quite vividly, partly by not trying to describe it; and as such it tends to be more intensely beautiful than other artistic expressions of the same event.

It is often the case that complex esthetic objects are less intense than simple ones; but this is not invariably so. Some of Shakespeare's plays, which are very complex, are also extremely intense; and certain symphonies or operas (Die Meistersinger comes to mind) can be very intense indeed, for all their complexity. "Catharsis"

If the intensity is very great, it can sometimes be overwhelming, producing tears. It is almost as if the world splits apart and you look into the face of God: it is so beautiful that you can't stand it; you want it to stop--it has to stop or it will kill you--but you want it to go on, even if it does kill you.

People (like C. S. Lewis) have drawn all kinds of theological implications from this experience; but its explanation is, I think, much more mundane. You are having a very intense emotional experience--perhaps even, as when viewing a tragedy, an intensely unpleasant, even horrible, experience. But in and through the emotions of the experience, you understand the true meaning of what is happening. And since the fact understood satisfies the mind, it itself intensifies the emotionality of the experience in the direction of desirability ("It is a good thing, Lord, for us to be here"), and you think that the secret of the universe has been revealed to you.

That is, when we discover anything new, there is the "Eureka!" kind of joy we have; when the thing we have discovered is through an intense emotion, this added joy can be overpowering, and we can tend to think that we have learned the meaning of absolutely everything.

There is a particular application of this to tragedy. To be an art, a tragedy must not simply produce emotions (as Aristotle mentions, those of pity and fear); but it must show by emotional overtones a fact about the lives of the characters who are involved in the drama. That is, the lives of the characters make esthetic sense precisely through the disasters that awaken our pity and fear.

Thus, the pity and fear become vehicles by which we understand the meaning of a life that, if simply experienced, would be horrible and meaningless. And it is truth understood by the emotions that elevates the emotional experience into one that is desirable and not horrible. So, for instance, in Hamlet, you see esthetically why all the deaths at the end were "right." So the play is beautiful, because what it says is recognized as esthetically true.

Aristotle called this elevation of the unpleasant emotions "catharsis," which means what happens after you take a laxative. His theory was that, experiencing the pity and fear by watching actors and not real life allowed you to have the emotions while you knew that the thing wasn't really happening, and so you could "purge" them out of your system. An interesting theory; but I think my view is closer to the elevation actually experienced.

6.2.2. Complexity

Another way in which an object can be more beautiful than another is in complexity.

DEFINITION: One object is more complex in its beauty than another when there are more elements related with more subordinate relationships.

This in itself is obvious, but several comments are in order. First, since (as we saw) our mind, as relating, seeks to include all the elements into a single relationship, then the assumption is that there will be an overarching single relationship, no matter how complex the object is; any multiplicity of relationships will be subordinate to (and relate to) the overarching unifying one. Thus, however complex are the esthetic relationships in Bach's St. Matthew Passion among the parts of the music, between the music and the text, and the text and the events it refers to, these will all have to fit together into some esthetic grand design, or the piece will not "work" esthetically at all.

Secondly, a given object can simultaneously be more and less beautiful than a given other object. It can be more beautiful in esthetic complexity and less beautiful in esthetic intensity; and disputes about whether, say, Beethoven's last string quartets (which are very complex, but not excessively intense) are more beautiful than his third symphony (which isn't so complex, but is more intense) depend on whether you are a "cerebralist" and focus on the intricacies of the pattern, or a "romantic" and focus on the strength of the emotion.

Obviously, disputes such as these are silly. Who cares whether one is more beautiful than the other? It is like asking whether Einstein's relativity theory has more meaning in it than Aristotle's metaphysical theory. They say something different; and the question is whether they are true, not whether there is a greater quantity of meaning. Nevertheless, it is because beauties can vary in different respects that we can get into disputes. Internal and external complexity

Thirdly, the complexity of an object can be either internal or external or both. Internal complexity deals with the emotional overtones of perceived parts of the object and their interrelations; external complexity deals with the other objects referred to or suggested by the object, together with their emotional overtones and the relations between these and the object.

The Spiritual "Were You There" is internally simple, with a single melody, and words that simply ask a question and make a remark: "Were you there when they crucified my Lord [nailed him to the tree/ laid him in the tomb]? Sometimes it causes me to tremble." But they make a person picture the crucifixion and the remark causes a new look at what one knows about it; and so the external complexity can be enormous--one discovers new emotions in imagining the events.

Bach's St. Matthew Passion is a work that has enormous internal and external complexity. First, there is the interrelation of the emotions directly produced by the music itself; secondly, there is the relation between the emotional tone of the music and that of the text it fits; thirdly, there is all of the emotional complexity of the events referred to by the Gospel narrative used as part of the text; fourthly, there is the esthetic complexity of the interpolated poetry reflecting on the events just narrated; fifthly, there is the external complexity of the congregational hymns interspersed, with their associations, not only with the Passion itself, but with the other times they were sung in church. And all of these fit together into one esthetically meaningful statement. It is no wonder that some works of art need to be studied.

People who look for what a painting "looks like" and can't appreciate modern abstract art are interested only in the external reference of the art object, and not in its internal esthetic complexity. Abstract art shows that art can have a meaning without "talking about" anything other than itself.

In this respect, abstract art is like pure instrumental music (i.e. music that doesn't have a "program," in which it is "about," say, a day in the country like Beethoven's sixth symphony). In this kind of music, the sounds have a direct emotional impact, and the meaning of the music is the interrelation of the sounds through their emotional overtones: the logic of the piece itself.

As the Bach passion reveals, music can have more than this kind of esthetic meaning; but as Beethoven's fifth symphony reveals, it need not have. All the "statement about life" talk when "explaining" the symphony is is an attempt to give the music an external reference, when in fact it just says what it says. "Inexhaustibility"

Connected with complexity is a characteristic that many people have noted about beauty, especially the beauty of "great art": it seems that there is something new every time you approach a work of art; some fresh meaning you didn't see before emerges, so that the work seems somehow "infinite."

This, like the experience of being overwhelmed, makes art seem supernatural, but the explanation is actually down-to-earth. Since beauty affects the emotions, and since the emotional response is based, not only on the esthetic property, but on the state of the observer, then it is unlikely that an observer will be in exactly the same state when he confronts a work of art.

If the work is not simple and obvious, then his emotional condition will make him more responsive to some aspects of the work at one time and more responsive to other aspects at other times; as his mind integrates these different emotions into a unified whole, the meaning he understands will be different. Of course, it will only be somewhat different, but often it will be different enough to be remarkable.

The reason this happens with "great" works more than lesser ones is because of their complexity, and because the artist could integrate the possible emotional effects skillfully--so that the different states of the observer will not work out to his seeing a contradiction, but a new and valid meaning.

6.2.3. Clarity

Another way in which something can be more beautiful than something else is that it can be more clear in the way it expresses what it wants to express.

DEFINITION: One object is clearer in its beauty than another when there are fewer irrelevant elements and when the logic is presented in a way that follows the natural progression of ideas.

I said earlier that the mind wants to interrelate everything it perceives into an understood unit. Insofar as it can do this, it is more satisfied than if there are loose ends that it can't exactly fit in.

A work of any complexity, whether esthetic or perceptive, will have some elements that either don't exactly fit, or elements that the observer can't fit in (because of some bias of his own). No statement is ever absolutely clear, for the simple reason that it is a material expression of something spiritual; and in translating the spiritual to the material realm, something is bound to be lost.

Nevertheless, the goal is to get the concept across as well as possible; so the objective is to minimize extraneous elements and make the logic as simple to follow as possible, consistent with the complexity of the subject.

A work can say something accurately, but be unclear, as we see in the perceptive realm from legal language and other cases of technical jargon. In the effort to be unambiguous, the language is tortured into shapes that make it hard to follow. The same can happen esthetically; and that lessens the esthetic experience, because it adds the annoyance of confusion to it. Ambiguity

Ambiguity is supposed to be a characteristic of poetry and art; and this would seem to militate against what I am saying. For instance, the last stanza of Frost's Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening:

"The woods are lovely, dark and deep;
but I have promises to keep,
and miles to go before I sleep--
and miles to go before I sleep."

by the repetition of the last line makes "sleep" ambiguous. Does he mean sleeping tonight, or death?

The answer is, of course, that he means both. The poem is perceptively ambiguous, because all it appears to mean is looking at woods on a peaceful evening, and then the last line makes the woods a kind of symbol of death as a release from responsibility. But the poem is esthetically clear, because the emotional overtones of the woods allow us to understand esthetically a true meaning of death and life. In the "prosy" descriptions, "His house is in the village, though," we feel that death (after we have read the whole poem through once and found out what it was about) is not necessarily something terrifying, but matter-of-fact, and desirable, except for the fact that there are things to do in life first.

Note that to say that "Death isn't something really to be afraid of; but it sometimes has to be postponed until we fulfill our responsibilities" doesn't get the idea across as well as Frost; it is much less "believable" than when it is understood in the more complex way Frost presents it.

So "ambiguity" does not refer to esthetic ambiguity, where you couldn't understand through the emotional overtones which of several possible meanings was intended. The perceptive ambiguity we are referring to here can be coupled with esthetic clarity. Unclear logic

I mentioned that one component of clarity is clear logic. This is esthetic logic, of course. A set of statements may be logical, but may be so arranged that the logic is hard to follow; and this can happen both in the perceptive and esthetic orders.

For instance, the syllogism:

All German Shepherds are dogs, and nothing that whinnies is a German Shepherd; and therefore some dogs do not whinny. is confusing. Does the conclusion really follow from what was said earlier? (Keep in mind that in logic "some do not" does not imply "some others do").

The syllogism is logical, but the way the terms are arranged, you expect that the conclusion is going to be talking about German Shepherds. If you arrange it clearly, it is easier to see that it follows: Some dogs are German Shepherds, and no German Shepherds whinny; therefore some dogs do not whinny.

So there is a difference between being illogical and having one's logic be unclear. What is illogical is false; what is unclear may be true, but is confusing.

Esthetic logic is, as I mentioned, the rules of art. When they are not followed, then one of three things is possible: either the object in question is illogical and esthetically false, the object is esthetically unclear, or the object is following a newly-discovered logic.

It is not always easy to decide which is right, especially with a new departure in art. The logic, however, is in question when the observer says, "Now why did he put that in this place?" That is an indication that for the observer, it doesn't "fit" emotionally--either because the observer hasn't learned the logic, or because the artist didn't do a good job in presenting it. In general, for one who is trying to understand a new type of art, an object with clear logic might seem unusual, but it will be seen that "there is something there."

6.2.4. Precision

Finally, some remarks should be made about the variations in precision of esthetic concepts. It is sometimes thought that "good writing" is always concrete and individual, and that writing in generalities is bad.

Like most rules, perceptive as well as esthetic, this is true only in some cases. It depends on what you are trying to say whether it makes sense to be specific. I remember a philosopher talking about Josiah Royce (or his philosophy) as "two eucalyptus trees." Why two? Why eucalyptus? Maybe he had some perceptive or esthetic concept that could be expressed only in this way; but I suspect that it was just because he knew that writing should be concrete and that "an oak tree" is trite. But the fact that I remember this analogy and nothing at all else about the paper he delivered is an indication that if you get too concrete you can call attention away from the point you are trying to make.

Since esthetic experiences depend on emotions, there is a greater need, as I said, for concreteness when expressing esthetic concepts, because you have to awaken the emotions in question. Abstract words like "scary" don't produce the emotion of fear; and so if you want to make a person understand esthetically the meaning of some frightening experience, you can't say, "it was terribly terribly frightening."

Nevertheless, sometimes you don't want more than a generalized esthetic concept; and the esthetic version of the two eucalyptus trees can get in your way. Notice the line in Shakespeare's poem I quoted some chapters ago: "Death's second self, that seals up all in rest." That's pretty trite; but he wanted it that way, because he didn't want the reader to think of death as horrible or to get too excited about it, since the point was to reinforce the notion of the irony and the strength of the love, not the horror of extinction.

Precision or preciseness, of course, means saying exactly what you want to say, no more and no less; but being too concrete can sin against precision as much as being too general.

I think that these ways in which object can be more and less beautiful will conclude the discussion of beauty as such. It is now time to pass on to the attempt to express something beautiful: art.