One day, one of my favorite professors came into class, sat down and asked us what we all thought beauty was.
Although he’d actually had a lesson plan for the day, and we needed to discuss the French essays we’d written for that class meeting, we spent the next 50 minutes debating definitions, forms and different theories of beauty presented by philosophers both in and outside of the Core. And yes, I’m aware of what a stereotypical University of Dallas moment this was.
One thing I learned from this conversation was that I despised Thomas Aquinas’ definition of beauty: that which, when apprehended, pleases. At the time, I wasn’t sure what bothered me so much about this definition; I just believed that while Aquinas gave us a good starting point, we could do so much better than this foundation.
More recently, I’ve changed my mind about Aquinas a bit, due to one word in his definition: “apprehended.” To me, this implies that beauty comes to us through experience, which I can believe. Based on this, I’d like to suggest another definition of beauty: that which, when experienced, moves us to love.
Why should we use love as a standard, and why do I think it’s important to talk about love right now?
I say beauty is linked to love because as C. S. Lewis, another UD favorite, says, “do not merely want to see beauty; we want to be united with beauty, to pass into it, to become part of it.”
I think this desire for unity with beauty parallels the desire for unity with the people we love. Achieving this unity of love, as Lewis suggests regarding the unity we seek with beauty, requires something more than sight. It requires action, and specifically in the case of love, the action of choosing to understand.
This brings me to one of the reasons I think it’s important to talk about love and beauty now. Across the board, the 2016 elections were in so many ways both fueled and followed by hate, especially the kind of hate that stems from a lack of understanding, from people choosing to misinterpret each other. The lack of love I see arising from this lack of understanding is staggering.
I want to suggest that we can overcome this in ourselves through experiences of beauty, experiences that move us to love the world, ourselves, each other.
Amidst the chaos of the election and the semester, when’s the last time you took a walk through the Art Village, listened to the silence of the library, laughed with your friends at an inside joke? Have you recently bought yourself a Cap Bar drink, read a favorite poem, eaten dinner with someone you want to get to know better?
Each of these is an experience of internal and external beauty that can move us to love. Like all experiences of love, however, they require us to move outside ourselves in some way, to let ourselves be moved and touched by things and by persons. It should be a challenge, one I hope we’re all brave enough to take on. Let your guard down; the world and the people out there in it might surprise and — dare I take Aquinas at his word — please you.