What is it that makes something beautiful? I'll be using some images I've created along with the insights of Gerard Manley Hopkins to explore this idea.
People have differed greatly on this topic. From antiquity, some have argued that beauty is based on symmetry, number, and proportion. Others argue that beauty comes from a creative spark, the inspiration of genius. In our contemporary context, many dismiss beauty as relative, purely a matter of cultural norms. The rule is de gustibus non disputandem: there's no accounting for taste.
“I've never been quite satisfied with de gustibus,” remarks Hopkins, the great Jesuit poet, in his platonic-style dialogue, On the Origin of Beauty. My learned colleague Adam Hincks, S.J. has already commented on Hopkins' unique insights on the beauty of nature. I hope to add to this discussion by noting Hopkins' insight on the nature of beauty.
In his writing, Hopkins carefully examines the case for symmetry and proportion. He observes that if beauty is only symmetry, then the more perfect symmetry should be the more beautiful. But compare two abstractions of a chestnut leaf. The first is numerically symmetrical, while the second has symmetry, but is numerically asymmetrical.
Is the second one more beautiful than the first? I think so. So, beauty has symmetry but is not only symmetry. There's an element of asymmetry, a lack of uniformity that helps things be beautiful. Non-uniformity is not the same as randomness. Consider these two splashes of colour. The first is a uniform, rich red. The second is contains a gradation of colours from dark to light.
Most people agree that the second image is somehow more beautiful. So, have we got the formula? We're getting close. There's a mixture of symmetry and non-uniformity. We need both elements. But non-uniformity cannot just be anything. It cannot be a spot on the canvass, as in this next image of a sunset. There needs to be an element of balance to the symmetry and non-uniformity. The second image balances out the sun with the weight of a foreground tree. This second picture shows how the elements of symmetry and non-uniformity balance one another.
We've discovered that there is a lot of subtlety to how symmetry, number, and proportion contribute to beauty. But what about the romantic spark of genius? The emotional expression. Where does that fit in? Most people think of formula and balance as the opposite of romance and spark. But for Hopkins, they are two sides of the same coin. The deep expression of the beauty of things in nature is a sort of falling-in-love. When we are merely infatuated with someone, we tend to ignore that person's faults and put them on a pedestal. We may even be uninterested in facts about the person. On the other hand, when we truly fall in love, we are aware of the beloved's simple and ordinary ways, the facts and formulae that make them up. We see such facts as contributing all the more to that person's specialness.
So, for Hopkins, beauty is neither a collection of facts nor the fond wish of perception. It is the sublime experience of goodness. Facts express the truth of goodness while perception delights in the love of goodness. We can improve our appreciation of beauty by learning its formulae as well as by opening ourselves to its emotional impact. For Hopkins, things really do have an inscape. God really does labour in all things to bring forth beauty in every tiny aspect of creation. You might say that the experience of beauty is the experience of being in love with the real. Hopkins saw beauty everywhere because he was a man especially in love with that which is the most real.