In my last article, I said that we live in a beauty-starved culture and one overlooked aspect of sharing our faith is appealing to the beauty of God and the beauty of the Christian story. Beauty is one of the three primary virtues, along with Goodness and Truth. Each of these is grounded in God's existence. When we talk about what is moral or immoral, we necessarily assert an objective starting point. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, one cannot call something crooked unless one knows what a straight line is.
Is beauty something objective like morality or truth? Most people have been taught to think it isn't. We've heard phrases like "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," and assumed that it means there is no objective standard, no "Straight line" against which to judge something as beautiful. We've assumed that the statement "that is beautiful" is the same as "I derive pleasure from experiencing that."
Nothing could be further from the truth. There is an objective nature to beauty and it is common to all humanity. Can you even picture anyone across time who would gaze at a prismatic sunset and be revolted? Is anyone of the people who come from around the world to take in the vistas of the Grand Canyon repulsed at the sight? All cultures have approached pattern, color, and art to beautify their lives in common ways.
Disinterested InterestThe primary difference between personal pleasure and beauty is that the beauty of a thing lies in the existence of beauty in itself, instead of just what we can get out of that thing. Roger Scruton makes this distinction well. He points to Immanuel Kant's use of the idea of an "interested approach" versus a "disinterested approach." An "interested approach" is when we are interested in a thing when we use that thing to satisfy our own desires. For example, we are interested in a roller coaster because of the thrill it conveys when we ride in it.
But a disinterested interest is something different. That's when we are interested in the thing for nothing more than the thing itself. Scruton explains:
Animals have only 'interested' attitudes: in everything they are driven by their desires, needs and appetites, and treat objects and other animals as instruments to fulfill those things. We, however, make a distinction in our thinking and behavior, between those things that means to us, and those things that are ends in themselves. Towards some things we take an interest that is not governed by interest but which is, so to speak, entirely devoted to the object. (Emphasis in original).1No one looks to a sunset as a means to another end. To experience a glorious sunset is to experience the beautiful. Even though the experience itself gives one pleasure, it isn't the fact that looking at the sunset is pleasurable that makes it beautiful. Imagine a man who has just been fired from his job. His wife calls him outside to look at the beautiful sunset and he obliges, even though he doesn't feel like doing so. Staring at the sky, he doesn't experience the joy that she does. He's too depressed. However, no one in such a position could honestly define the sunset as ugly. One may not be able to experience the transcendence of beauty because of one's emotional state, but even in this situation, one recognizes that it is a beautiful site.
That's what I mean when I say there is a disinterested interest in beauty. The beauty of the sunset didn't change subjective to the man's experience of it; the man simply missed the joy that comes with appreciating the beautiful, just has if he stayed inside. If pressed, he would admit the sunset is beautiful but he can't "get into" it right now.
Beauty is objective. It is not a means to an end; it is to be enjoyed for its own sake. That makes the pursuit of the beautiful, like the pursuit of the good and the true valuable. As human beings, we know this intuitively, which is why beauty permeates all cultures.
In my next article, I will show how the fact that beauty is objectively real points to the existence of God.