Is There Beauty Beyond the Beholder's Eye?
A review of "The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness and Beauty in the Western Tradition" by James Matthew Wilson
James Matthew Wilson
Catholic University of America Press, 352 pages, 2017
“Everything I have written seems like straw by comparison with what I have seen and what has been revealed to me.” —St. Thomas Aquinas
It is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, much like there is nothing good nor evil but thinking makes it so. This belief, that beauty and goodness are inherently the product of human reason, and not intrinsic qualities to things, is a very modern one. It would have been exceptionally strange to Plato, for whom the transient and often amoral world we perceive is like a simulacrum of the eternally beautiful and just world of the Forms. St. Augustine agreed, often lamenting in the Confessions that his mind and soul struggles to understand the relationship of time to eternity as he beautifully chronicled a life drawn continuously downwards from the holy to the profane by weakness of spirit.
These examples reflect how many ancient philosophers understood the most fundamental human task: to see beyond the immediacy of experience and desire in order to comprehend a transcendent order, one which invests our otherwise banal strutting and fretting upon the stage of life with immense significance beyond temporary material gratification. One feature of the modern world has been a tremendous sense of loss at the slow decay of belief in this transcendent order and the realization that there is nothing external to us which gives life its meaning. Rather, “meaning” is merely a product of the human will.