The very idea of beauty makes many sophisticates cringe nowadays. It seems utterly out of touch with postmodern ambiguity, since the notion of beauty implies absolute standards widely agreed upon that address an objective reality: "That is beautiful." Even the Encyclopaedia Britannica (not renowned for its postmodern skepticism) affirms that "almost anything might be seen as beautiful by someone or from some point of view."
Yet, despite the difficulty of defining beauty, the concept nonetheless is making a comeback. And it is doing so in at least two realms we normally do not associate with beauty: theology and science.
Roman Catholic author Thomas Dubay discusses these ideas at length in The Evidential Power of Beauty: Science and Theology Meet (Ignatius, 1999). Borrowing heavily from theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dubay seeks to awaken his readers to the presence of beauty in the world, especially as seen through the lenses of science and theology.
Dubay notes that many scientists judge a theory at least in part by aesthetic criteria. James Watson, for instance, who helped discover the double helix of DNA, suggested that "a structure this pretty just had to exist." Physicists Werner Heisenberg, Richard Feynman, and Murray Gell-Mann insisted that the elegance of their equations pointed to the truth of their theories. Likewise in theology, Dubay continues, beauty—whether the beauty of the earth, of human artifacts, of saints (as "paragons of virtue"), or of God himself—can move us to grateful recognition that God reveals himself in beauty.
Here the Enlightenment meets Romanticism. We need to be accurate, comprehensive, and logically rigorous to properly perceive the way things are. But we should also pay attention to the aesthetic qualities of both things and the theories that describe them. Since the world itself is beautiful, a beautiful theory that describes it is more likely to be correct.
Unfortunately, Dubay does not help us to see exactly how beauty and truth are related. Indeed, he occasionally confuses the objectively beautiful and true with his own tastes and convictions—as when he dispenses with all rock music as ugly, or when he champions papal supremacy as the beautiful center of beautiful ecclesiastical unity.
Dubay's strength lies in celebrating beauty, and he joyfully catalogues examples from the natural world and from the lives of the saints. He turns ultimately to the beauty of God and divine things, and concludes his long meditation in an unembarrassed "Afterglow" (as he names his last chapter). We would do well to follow him in such a doxological tour of the beautiful. Still, Dubay fails to provide the promised apologetic, showing how beauty points beyond itself to its Model and Source.
From Beauty to Social Justice
Harvard professor Elaine Scarry, in her brief On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton University Press, 1999), gives us more to consider. Scarry's unusual project is to show that the sincere and genuine apprehension of beauty helps us become more just. She celebrates beauty for its own sake, to be sure, warning us that "the absence of beauty is a profound form of deprivation." But she goes on to show that beauty can lead us to justice in several ways.
First, beauty displaces the observer from the center of things, even from the center of his own life. One can, of course, merely ingest beauty as a pleasant commodity, chewing on it selfishly. But Scarry maintains that when we encounter beauty, we tend to welcome beauty and give way to it. Thus in consenting to beauty's commanding presence—its "glory," we might say—we displace our self-centeredness. Such a willingness to "step aside" for beauty can displace our egos. It can also dispose us next to displace our egos for others—including the needy.