Beauty ever Ancient ever New

Those who don’t read St Augustine (whose feast is today) tend to associate him with one thing, and one thing only: his views on sexuality and sin. The more learned may concede that his defence of original sin and his (to us) skewed view of sexual desire had much to do with his battle with Julian of Eclanum, a Pelagian bishop largely forgotten today; but for most people Augustine remains someone who was hostile to pleasure and severe, not to say completely cranky, about sex.

It is not my intention to defend Augustine against his critics, but there is one aspect of his teaching, often overlooked, which to me speaks volumes about the man: his conception of beauty. Augustine was heavily influenced by the neoplatonists, especially Plotinus, and made a sharp distinction between the creation of God (ex nihilo) and the creation of artists (ex materia). God’s beauty emanates out to natural things through his creation, which was originally without any beauty (cf Confessions, 12.3).  The earth occupies the lowest form of beauty. Things become more beautiful as they possess more form; God is supremely beautiful because only God possesses perfect form. And from this supremely beautiful God we derive rhythm, which is so important to mathematics, music and poetry. (cf De Musica) The wonderful thing about this rhythm, which is eternal and immutable, is that it can only be discovered by human beings, never invented.

For Augustine, unity is a necessary element of beauty. Hence, the Church is beautiful because she is united. Equality (or likeness) is another necessary element; and the Church is beautiful because she mirrors her Spouse. Number, proportion and order are also elements of this beauty (cf Of True Religion), for he maintains that ‘in all the arts it is symmetry [proportion] that gives pleasure, preserving unity and making the whole beautiful’ and ‘everything is beautiful that is in due order.’

Where beauty is concerned, I think I am an unregenerate Augustinian and I’m grateful to him for helping me not merely to experience beauty but to think about it and see yet more beauty. A mathematical equation, a musical phrase, a line of poetry, a brushstroke, a fold of the hills: all can speak to us of the beauty of God. But perhaps most eloquent of all is the human person — and, paradoxically, it is Augustine, the north African saint allegedly responsible for all our current anxieties about sex and marriage, who helped us see that.