Beauty reconciles opposites: It adheres to objects themselves, and yet it calls to each of us in the depths of our psyche. Only beauty blocks out the outside world and focuses our attention on the work of art. This is, perhaps, its danger. But it is also its power.

I will confess that, of the three transcendentals, beauty gives me the most trouble, largely because I scarcely understand what it is. I respond to things that I experience as beautiful, but, like the Swiss theologian Denis de Rougemont, I am uncomfortable constructing an aesthetic theory out of such reactions. He wrote in 1950 that the capacity of a work of art to produce individual reactions proves, or at least suggests, that “beauty is not a specific property of the work of art. We can describe anything as beautiful. It is a subjective qualification, a term convenient but vague, an exclamation.”[1] Rougemont prefers to think of the artist as communicating truth in her work, and I am sorely tempted to agree with that preference.

And yet I do think there are reasons to be skeptical of Rougemont’s subjectivizing beauty, turning it into a quality we ascribe to “whatever one loves with intensity.”[2] It’s generally true that a person’s view of the transcendentals is holistic, that is, that the route we take in understanding one of them will block off certain routes to understanding the others. In other words, people who subjectivize aesthetics will probably eventually subjectivize ethics and alethiology, too. It’s no coincidence that David Hume treats both ethics and aesthetics as being based on a kind of taste; nor is it an accident that his heir and rival Immanuel Kant sees the good and the beautiful as the objects of cold and emotionless contemplation. So while I share Rougemont’s skepticism about beauty, I also recognize that the modern forces that go into that skepticism also advocate a skepticism about ideas I’m substantially less skeptical about. As C.S. Lewis notes in The Abolition of Man, “Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it—believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt.”[3] None of this proves that Rougemont’s skepticism about the objectivity and meaningfulness of aesthetic judgment is misplaced, of course—but it does give me reason to be skeptical of the skepticism, at least long enough to work up an objective definition of beauty that may be accepted or rejected. The alternative, not to belabor the point, would be to accept what Alasdair MacIntyre, speaking of ethics rather than aesthetics, calls emotivism, the view that our moral judgments can be rightly reduced to expressions of approval or disapproval. If that’s a dangerous view when it comes to goodness, we must at least entertain the notion that it’s also dangerous when it comes to beauty.

It shouldn’t surprise us that Plato’s understanding of beauty is objective. An object is beautiful inasmuch as it participates in the eternal Form of Beauty, which, like all Platonic forms, is more real than the physical world because it is immutable and eternal. This conception famously leads him to dismiss art, which he conceives of as necessarily mimetic, a copy of the physical world, which is itself always already a copy of the (more real) world of forms. Why should we waste our time with a copy of a copy when philosophy, properly understood and applied, can get us to the Real Thing? Art is pernicious because it teaches us to settle for lesser beauty and lesser truth (which are probably the same thing for Plato). “Things which look bent under water,” Socrates says to his audience near the end of the Republic,

appear straight when taken out of the water, and the same objects look either concave or convex, owing to mistakes of another kind about colours to which the eye is liable: and clearly there exists in the soul a kind of utter confusion of this sort. And it is just this natural infirmity of ours which is assailed with every species of witchcraft by the art of drawing, as well as by jugglery and the numerous other inventions of the same sort.[4]

Art is a sort of nasty parlor-trick that has little to nothing to do with real Beauty; to the degree it is beautiful at all, it has stolen that beauty from the object it imitates, which itself has only borrowed it from the forms. Real Beauty is apprehended intellectually, and artists create by going into a kind of trance; there is thus little intellect in what they do.

One of the deep ironies of intellectual history is that, while Plato excludes the poets from his ideal society, he has been beloved by poets and other artists for centuries. Partly this afterlife is due to the influence of the later Neo-Platonists, who tend to downplay his negative remarks about art and emphasize his positive theory of beauty as participation in the eternal. Art has a role in this participation, even if it is still the lowest manifestation of beauty. For Plotinus, the greatest of the Neo-Platonists, the beauty we encounter in a work of art can be the first rung of a ladder that we can ascend until we reach Beauty Itself, the Form of Beauty. By loving the beauty of the art object or of the physical world, we might learn to love Beauty in its truest form. A person “must be led to the Beauty that manifests itself through these forms; he must be shown that what ravished him was no other than the Harmony of the Intellectual world and the Beauty in that sphere, not some one shape of beauty but the All-Beauty, the Absolute Beauty.”[5] Thus Plotinus builds a bridge, however unsteady, over the abyss that Plato placed between artist and philosopher.

The sixth-century theologian who has come down to us as Pseudo-Dionysius the Aeropagite inherits this Platonic/Plotinian understanding of beauty and gives it a mystical Christian spin. Beauty, like the other forms, is for Dionysius an aspect of God, though God, strictly speaking, is a simple substance (an entity without parts) and does not exactly have “aspects.” Everything in the universe participates in Divine Beauty to one degree or another, and they are more or less beautiful according to their participation. Like everyone else I’m discussing in this essay, Pseudo-Dionysius is essentially saying that Beauty is an intrinsic aspect of Being itself:

From this Beautiful (comes) all existing things—that each is beautiful in its own proper order, and by reason of the Beautiful are the adaptions of all things, and friendships, and inter-communions, and by the Beautiful all things are made one, and the Beautiful is origin of all things, as a creating Cause, both by moving the whole and holding it together by the love of its own peculiar Beauty; and end of all things, and beloved, as final Cause (for all things exist for the sake of the Beautiful), and exemplary (Cause), because all things are determined according to It.

He goes so far as to say that even things that don’t exist are beautiful, not so much on their own as because they fit into God’s plan for creation. In choosing not to create, say, basilisks, God has made our universe more beautiful.

The Beautiful and the Good are for Dionysius (and for many other theologians and philosophers) essentially two names for the same thing. What they have in common is their elevating effect on the human soul: Through our encounters with beautiful and good things, we are raised, slowly and dialectically—as if climbing a spiral staircase—to knowledge of Beauty and Goodness itself, that is, to knowledge of God. From this it follows that the artist has an important theological function, although Dionysius does not directly discuss it. As the catechism puts it, art fulfills its sacred task by “evoking and glorifying, in faith and adoration, the transcendent mystery of God—the surpassing invisible beauty of truth and love visible in Christ.”[6] A truly beautiful piece of art, even if not explicitly religious in its subject matter, teaches us to know God, Who is Beauty Itself.

The great twentieth-century theologian and aesthetician Hans Urs von Balthasar gets at something like this in his three volumes devoted to “the glory of the Lord.” He began publishing these books about a decade after Denis de Rougemont complained that beauty is not a biblical category, though as far as I can tell, Balthasar is not responding directly to him. Only a cynical modern, Balthasar says, could discount the existence and importance of beauty. “We can be sure,” he writes, “that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past whether he admits it or not can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.”[7] Beauty is central for Balthasar because it binds truth and goodness, the other transcendentals, together; without it, we will think of goodness in utilitarian terms and of truth in scientific terms, when in reality all three of them are primordially theological.

The other influential aesthetic theory from ancient Greece belongs, of course, to Aristotle. If he ascribes less danger to beauty than his mentor, Plato, does, that’s at least partially because his examination of it is more dispassionate and scientific than Plato’s. While agreeing that beauty is objective, he looks at it as a craftsman, not a metaphysician, might. Beauty, he says, does not depend on a connection to some abstract and ultimate Form of Beauty; beautiful objects are collections of parts that “must not only be orderly arranged but must also have a certain magnitude of their own; for beauty consists in magnitude and ordered arrangement.”[8] Magnitude, for Aristotle, means that a given object is neither too large to be perceived, nor so small that it can be taken in at a single glance, metaphorical or literal. In this sense, magnitude is the handmaiden of order: An art object can be beautiful only if it is the right size for us to contemplate the ordering of its parts.

Order, then, is paramount, and in fact, Aristotle’s Poetics is a kind of handbook for poets and playwrights, in which he sets out rules for properly ordering their work. Because Aristotle’s approach to beauty is primarily intellectual, he asks that beauty be well-thought-out and calm, although, as we will see, he does not ignore the role of our emotions in our experience of art. This means that he has little patience for works that seem disorderly to him; for example, he says that “if a man smeared a canvas with the loveliest colors at random, it would not give as much pleasure as an outline in black and white.”[9] Such a formulation would likely exclude a great deal of abstract expressionism from the realm of the beautiful—though perhaps Aristotle would grant that most of these works are not random. Thus Aristotle’s theories will be difficult to import into the modern world without condemning the bulk of modernist and postmodernist art.

Aristotle’s aesthetics are Christianized, as so much of his thought is, by Thomas Aquinas. Connecting the quality of beauty to the Second Person of the Trinity, Thomas gives three qualifications for something to be considered beautiful. First, it must have integrity—that is, it must be complete by its own interior logic. A realistic portrait of a woman does not have integrity, for example, if it violates its own rules of realism and portrays the woman as having three eyes. A cubist painting of that same woman, however, could have integrity even without looking like her, because it follows its own interior logic; and a surrealist painting could be otherwise realistic but contain some sort of shockingly unrealistic element (like an extra eye). A sonnet that had seventeen lines of varying lengths has no integrity—unless, of course, it makes no claim to be a sonnet at all.[10] A work of fantasy like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings has integrity provided it does not violate the interior rules of the universe in which it is set.

Second, Thomas demands that a beautiful object have “due ‘proportion’ and ‘harmony’.”[11] This standard hearkens back to Aristotle’s criteria of magnitude and order, but it also designates a certain realism: If a painting depicts something, it must do so truly; a play must give us real human beings in fictional form—not in the sense of the pièce à clef, of course, but in the sense that they feel real to us. This means that something can be beautiful “if it perfectly represents even an ugly thing.”[12] The ugliness must be proportionate to the whole work, however; if the artist overemphasizes ugly things, it can turn the whole work ugly, as, perhaps, the films of Harmony Korine turn ugly.

Finally, Thomas says that beautiful things have “clarity” or “brightness,” “whence things are called beautiful which have a bright colour.”[13] This last criterion is apt to strike us as overly pragmatic and narrow, but Thomas’s explication of the brightness of Christ might make his meaning clearer. Brightness, he says, “agrees with the property of the Son, as the Word, which is the light and splendor of the intellect.”[14] So Thomas’s understanding of the clarity of the beautiful thing has to do with its presentation to the intellect: what it is or what it means. We must be capable, in other words, of apprehending and understanding it, at least on some level and to some degree.

Thomas’s greatest modern heir and interpreter is Jacques Maritain. In Art and Scholasticism, he stresses art’s connection to craft, suggesting, in effect, that the sculptor carving out a statue is not that different from a cooper making a barrel. Neither of them works primarily to express his individuality, but to create something of value for his community. In the sculptor’s case, that value has to do with delight, because “The beautiful is what gives delight—not just any delight, but delight in knowing; not the delight peculiar to the act of knowing, but a delight which superabounds and overflows from this act because of the object known. If a thing exalts and delights the soul by the very fact that it is given to the soul’s intuition, it is good to apprehend, it is beautiful.”[15] The artist’s task is thus simply to create things that delight her audience.

In this way, Maritain tempers modern art’s more messianic pretensions, but he leaves plenty of room for the expansion and development of art; to say that the artist is like the cooper is not to say that Guernica and The Rite of Spring are bad art because they are not immediately delightful to everyone who encounters them. As Maritain puts it, “however beautiful a created thing may be, it can appear beautiful to some and not to others, because it is beautiful only under certain aspects, which some discern and others do not.”[16] But once we learn to listen to modernist music, Stravinsky is as delightful as Mozart.

The Thomist emphasis on the intellectual aspects of beauty bring out its historical opposition to the similar quality of sublimity. It appears inchoately in Aristotle’s Poetics, which famously identifies the play’s ability to create katharsis in its audience and thus to drain them of unpleasant and antisocial emotions like pity and fear. But it’s first fully explicated a few centuries later in Longinus’s treatise On Sublimity, where it is presented as anti-intellectual, in the sense that it sweeps us away without making an argument as such. Longinus is primarily interested in rhetoric in this treatise, and I won’t go into the specific techniques that he recommends for producing the effect. Suffice it to say that sublimity dwarfs us, often (though not always) through “The stimulus of powerful and inspired emotion.”[17] When I think of sublimity, I think of the second verse of U2’s song “If God Will Send His Angels,” which features a sample of a hi-hat, slowed way down and reversed, which literally overwhelms the rest of the music. What does it “mean”? Probably nothing—but it moves me tremendously.

Longinus treats beauty and sublimity as too closely connected to really separate; at one point, he refers to “sublimity in all its truth and beauty.”[18] They’re not fully separated until the late 18th century, when two philosophical treatises—Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful and Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment. Burke’s text is in some ways the philosophical foundation for the Gothic novel and the horror movie. The sublime, he says, is “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror.”[19] When we watch a horror movie, as when we ride a roller coaster, we momentarily lose control of ourselves and imagine that we’re going to die. But because know that we’re not really at the Overlook Hotel with Jack Torrance wielding an axe next door, and because we trust that the good people at Disneyland inspect Space Mountain every morning, our fear is controlled, wrapped in a soft layer of security. Pain becomes pleasure—not necessarily in a sadistic sense (though there are certainly horror movies that encourage sadism in the viewer), but in the sense that, as Richard Harland puts it, we “enjoy dallying with the prospect of our own annihilation.”[20]

Kant’s understanding of the sublime is certainly related to Burke’s, but it takes on quite a different tenor. The sublime is, as he puts it, that “in comparison with which everything in nature is small.”[21] In this sense, an object is sublime if it violates Aristotle’s criterion of magnitude: The sublime overwhelms us because we can’t take stock of it, to the point that Kant suggests that no object of the senses can truly be sublime, because the sublime necessarily goes beyond our senses. “For no sensible form,” Kant writes, “can contain the sublime properly so-called. This concerns only Ideas of the Reason, which, although no adequate presentation is possible for them, by this inadequacy that admits of sensible presentation, are aroused and summoned into the mind.”[22] In other words, when we can’t wrap our minds around something, we are simultaneously horrified by and drawn to it, specifically because we can’t adequately wrap our minds around it. Sublimity is thus connected with the notion of the infinite: the infinitely large, the infinitely difficult, the infinitely complex. It gives us the pleasure we feel when we know that we are small. I remember reading Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan for the first time as a college sophomore and feeling a certain pleasure in the feeling that it was too difficult for me to understand. I suspect that my pleasure was the pleasure of the sublime.

Both Burke and Kant depend, for their analysis of sublimity, on a definition of beauty as decorous. Sublime things, Burke tells us, are enormous, rough, dark; beautiful things are therefore smaller, smooth, light. Kant’s explanation of beauty is especially illuminating. The most important aspect of beauty, as he presents it, is its disinterest. That is, if I say that a painting is beautiful, I set aside considerations like morality, usefulness, and price; all I’m ultimately saying is that my contemplation of it brings me pleasure. As Roger Scruton explains, our aesthetic taste is bound up in our rationality: Non-rational animals have no response to beauty, which may be why my cat seems so annoyed when I play the piano:

A rational being, by contrast, takes pleasure in the mere sight of something: a sublime landscape, a beautiful animal, an intricate flower, or a work of art. This form of pleasure answers to no empirical interest: I satisfy no bodily appetite or need in contemplating the landscape, nor do I merely scan it for useful information. The interest is disinterested—an interest in the landscape for its own sake, for the very thing that it is (or rather, for the very thing that it appears).[23]

Kant would thus seem to stand in a vaguely Thomist tradition, and yet there’s a certain coldness to his aesthetics, one made possibly by his shunting the emotional response to the sublime off to the side.

The weirdness of Kant’s aesthetics becomes clearer if we look at his formalism—because beauty is purely about form, as he sees it. Indeed, he says that it’s barbarous to base our aesthetic judgments on the emotions that something stirs up in us. But he also condemns aesthetic judgment based on what he calls “charms,” merely agreeable elements that can reinforce beauty but more often distract us from it. (Kant seems to believe that only hopelessly unrefined people need charms to help them appreciate beauty.) What are charms? Kant identifies the colors of a painting and the tone of the instruments in a musical composition, suggesting that beauty lies in the design in the first case and the composition in the second. All of this is curiously abstract to the point of bloodlessness—it’s as if Kant doesn’t want to actually encounter a painting or a concerto, but just close his eyes and think about them.

I will suggest that Rougemont’s antipathy to the category of the beautiful has a lot to do with Kant’s sundering of the beautiful and the sublime. To exclude the rational aspects of beauty, to emphasize merely the spectator’s emotional response, certainly risks surrendering the category to relativism and emotivism. But to exclude emotional response altogether is to make beauty trivial, something reserved for rationalist philosophers—and it doesn’t save it from subjectivism anyway, given that Kant says an aesthetic judgment is a subjective judgment that takes the form of an objective one. (Here, as in his metaphysics, he tries to rescue pre-Humean philosophy from Hume’s skepticism, only to erect a new and more unassailable skepticism in its place.) So why separate the two? It’s clear to me that emotional response is a valuable component of our experience of beauty, though the experience cannot be reduced to emotional response.

An example: A few years ago, at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, I came across a really remarkable installation by the Korean-American sculptor Do-Ho Suh, called Some/One. It’s in the form of a suit of medieval Asian armor, slightly larger than life-size, and open and empty. As you approach it, you realize that it’s made of thousands of dog tags, arranged like fish scales and glued or welded into place. The inside of the suit is lined with mirrors. It’s easy enough to explain the truth of the piece: Without explicitly telling us what to think, it reveals the truth of the military, that it involves thousands of individuals sacrificing their individuality (and probably their lives, given the social resonances of dog tags during the Vietnam War). Its goodness, likewise, consists in teaching us to love the poor anonymous souls who have died in all these wars, useless and useful alike. But what does its beauty consist in? Certainly there is something pleasing about the form, but the piece wouldn’t be as beautiful if these weren’t dog tags—because a great deal of its beauty consists in the feelings it evokes in us. Whatever beauty is, then, it must consist of an internal effect that is not merely subjective. Without the internal effect, it collapses into mere formalism, the sort of disinterested and intellectualized contemplation that makes Kant’s aesthetics so baffling. But if the internal effect is merely subjective, there’s no sense in talking about an object being beautiful at all. It’s a function of the individual psyche, easily assimilated into the basest sort of materialism as a series of chemical and electrical reactions.

I was genuinely stumped by this problem, I’ll admit, until I read a 1920 essay by Gabriel Marcel called “Reflections on the Nature of the Musical Idea.” Marcel examines—and praises—the work of the French composer César Franck, which he loves for its “aesthetic certitude.” The phrase is strange, if not paradoxical, as Marcel himself admits, but he uses it to refer “to an inner experience of which there could be no question of purely and simply rejecting.”[24] Beauty is thus, for Marcel, something that calls to me in such a way that I cannot refuse the call without betraying something essential in myself. And this something is essential not just in myself but in the structure of the world, because the notion of aesthetic certitude “helps us to understand what is, without a doubt, the most important distinction that can be made in the aesthetic order: the distinction between what exists and what doesn’t exist. The non-existent is what does not possess in itself any power of affirmation and consequently has no authority over us. Hence one sees that the beautiful idea must be the real idea, the idea that counts.”[25] Something beautiful—the waterfall in Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, Franck’s string quartets, Suh’s remarkable statue—thus constantly calls out to all those who have ears to hear the call.

Here’s my definition: The beautiful is what calls out to me to love it for its own sake, without immediate regard to its goodness or truth. The phrase “for its own sake” is essential, because if we demanded goodness and truth from every beautiful thing, it’d be very hard to talk about the beauty of, say, instrumental music. But I do not mean this “for its own sake” to suggest a kind of absolutizing aestheticism, like that of the late-19th-century decadents. The artist is by no means excused from considering the truth and goodness of her work—but the calls made by the true and the good are different sorts of calls, related, perhaps, to the call of the good but nevertheless distinct from it. Something beautiful can be evil or untrue, in addition to making no claims for itself or being morally neutral, and for this reason there is a seductive sort of beauty that can lead us astray—the beauty, for example, of Nietzsche’s prose or of a certain sort of semi-pornographic film—but which is nevertheless beautiful.

One corollary of the definition of beauty as a call to be loved for its own sake is that I am capable both of failing to hear the call of the genuinely beautiful and of mistaking the charm of the merely pleasant for genuine beauty. We’ve all, I suspect, had this experience: we’ve all encountered some work of art that failed to speak to us—or more accurately, whose call we failed to hear, since the failure is ours, not the work’s—only to return to it later and discover that it was beautiful all along. And we’ve all had the opposite experience, as well: something appeals to us immediately, but the longer we live with it, the more we become aware that its appeals are superficial and short-lived. These experiences demonstrate how faulty our tastes can be and the extent to which they need to be developed. I remember showing a group of students Wim Wenders’s art film Wings of Desire, which clearly went over many of their heads, leading them to snicker and make snarky comments under the breath. “You know,” I said somewhat pompously, “if people who have spent their lives with these things tell you that something is beautiful, and you disagree at nineteen, you might begin by assuming the failure is on your side, not theirs.” This was not the most charitable way for me to put it; I might have mentioned that I first saw Wings of Desire, at my own volition, at 23, and that I utterly failed to appreciate it, scarcely even paying attention to it. I might have even mentioned that I had similar trouble with a movie as accessible as Vertigo. I had to learn to appreciate the beauty of these movies, and I also had to learn that movies that I once thought great—for whatever reason, I am thinking particularly of the ham-handed satire of evangelical culture, Saved—were not even good.

Marcel warns us that this is true. Speaking of music, he says that a truly great idea is “rarely . . . accessible on the first encounter,” or at least not “absolutely accessible. The idea that we grasp immediately is the one which we are already capable of assimilating. It has no distance to travel in us; we can expect nothing of it.”[26] This observation prompts at least two further observations. First, beauty develops over time, at least in our relationship with it. The work of art thus has a living quality to it; it reveals itself to us gradually, as it gets to know us better. Even works that are immediately accessible, if they are truly beautiful, have qualities and depths that take us time to truly appreciate. Second, and consequently, critics and teachers have an important role to play in aesthetics. I suspect we’ve all had the experience of a work’s being opaque to us, only to have someone walk alongside us, introduce us to it, and point out its beauty to us. In this sense, art criticism is less about gatekeeping than about appreciation. If a work speaks to the critic—especially if it is a work that the bulk of her audience does not know or understand—her job is to help us to see its beauty, to help to remove the various blocks that keep us from hearing and responding to its call.

Beauty reconciles opposites: It adheres to objects themselves, and yet it calls to each of us in the depths of our psyche. It is thus neither truly objective nor truly subjective. It wants to be loved, but it is frequently aloof, not speaking immediately and certainly not revealing its whole self right away, perhaps ever. It cannot be pinned down, but it insists on itself, calling us to love it uncritically even as criticism can help us to understand it. This aloofness is the reason why there can be disagreement about the beauty of a particular work. It can take us time, even centuries, to recognize beauty that is genuinely there. If the term is vague, as Rougemont complains, it is vague as human beings are vague: its genuine qualities are individual and cannot be easily quantified, perhaps not even qualified. And yet in some ways beauty is the most authentic quality of a work of art, even if at various points in human history artistic schools and movements have downplayed it. When we label something good or true, we value it for its relation to something outside itself. Only beauty blocks out the outside world and focuses our attention on the work of art. This is, perhaps, its danger. But it is also its power.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

Works Cited:

Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by W.H. Fyfe. Loeb Classical Library, No. 199, edited by Donald A. Russell, pp. 1-141.

Balthasar, Hans Urs von. The Glory of the Lord 1: Seeing the Form. Ignatius, 2009.

Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Oxford UP, 2015.

Harland, Richard. Literary Theory from Plato to Barthes. Palgrave-MacMillan, 1999.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Translated by J.H. Bernard. MacMillan, 1914.

Longinus. On Sublimity. Classical Literary Criticism, translated by Penelope Murray and T.S. Dorsch. Penguin, 2000, pp. 113-166.

Marcel, Gabriel. “Reflections on the Nature of Musical Ideas: The Musical Idea in César Franck.” Music and Philosophy, translated by Stephen Maddux and Robert E. Wood, Marquette UP, 2005, pp. 71-83.

Maritain, Jacques. Art and Scholasticism and Other Essays. Filiquarian, 2007.

Plato. Republic. Translated by John Llewyn Davies and David James Vaughan. Wordsworth, 1997.

Plotinus. Enneads. Translated by Stephen Mackenna and B.S. Page. Larson, 1992.

Pseudo-Dionysius. The Divine Names. Translated by John Parker. CreateSpace, 2011.

Rougemont, Denis de. “Religion and the Mission of the Artist.” Translated by Stanley Romaine Hopper. The New Orpheus: Essays Toward a Christian Poetic, edited by Nathan A. Scott, Jr., Sheed and Ward, 1964, pp. 59-73.

Scruton, Roger. An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture. St. Augustine, 2000.

Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologiae. Emmaus Academic, 2012.


[1] Denis de Rougemont, “Religion and the Mission of the Artist,” trans. Stanley Romaine Hopper, in The New Orpheus: Essays Toward a Christian Poetic ed. Nathan A. Scott (London: Sheed and Ward, 1964): 64.

[2] Ibid., 65.

[3] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001): 14-15.

[4] Plato, Republic, trans. John Llewyn Davis and David James Vaughan (Hertfordshire, London: Wordsworth Editions, 1997): 602c-d.

[5] Plotinus, Enneads, trans. Stephen Mackenna (NY: Larson Publications, 1992):1.3.1.

[6] Pseudo-Dionysius, The Divine Names, trans. John Parker (CreateSpace, 2015): §2502.

[7] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2009): 1.18.

[8] Aristotle, Poetics, trans. W.H. Fyfe (Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library, 1995): 1450b.

[9] Ibid., 1450b.

[10] I’m at a loss as to what to do with John Updike’s “Spanish Sonnets.” They all have fourteen lines, arranged in the traditional octave-volta-sestet form—but they are not in iambic pentameter. Are they sonnets without integrity, or are they something else entirely, called “sonnets” only to evoke a history and tradition? I honestly don’t know, and perhaps this is a way that modern art undermines Thomist aesthetics.

[11] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae,1.39.8.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism and Other Essays (Filiquarian Publishing, 2007): 27.

[16] Ibid., 32-33.

[17] Longinus, On Sublimity, trans. Penelope Murray and T.S. Dorsch (London, UK: Penguin, 2000): 8.1.

[18] Ibid., 7.4.

[19] Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2015): 33.

[20] Richard Harland, Literary Theory from Plato to Barthes (London, UK: Palgrave-MacMillan, 1999): 54.

[21] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. J.H. Bernard (New York, NY: MacMillan, 1914): 125.

[22] Ibid., 446.

[23] Roger Scruton, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2000): 35.

[24] Gabriel Marcel, “Reflections on the Nature of Musical Ideas: The Musical Idea in César Franck,” trans. Stephen Maddux and Robert E. Wood, in Music and Philosophy (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2005): 71.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., 75.

The featured image is “A Painter” (1855) by Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier (1815-1891) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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