A plate garnished and well seasoned, a garden bed of blooming flora, the yawning archways of a grand cathedral, and the eyes of a lover: all have the shared attribute of beauty. Yet the essence of beauty can neither be limited to a single creative outlet, nor can it be defined by the whims of personal taste.
Beauty is something that extends beyond the confines of such labels. It belongs to that realm of transcendentals championed by the classical Greek thinkers. Truth and goodness are its immediate contemporaries, and it is placed within a classification system, perhaps to be filed away. In this way, it is known partially and only then by comparison. The persistent question of what actually constitutes beauty is often hard to nail down.
Beauty always attracts. We are drawn to it. We desire it. We express it. And, ultimately, we aspire to it. Nevertheless, it is debatable whether people are more readily able to define truthfulness and hail someone as being good before they can give a convincing explanation of beauty. A charitable woman might be called good. A man who gives an accurate account of an event might be called truthful. But when something is acclaimed as beautiful, the claim can bring controversy rather than clarity.
Pontius Pilate’s weighty inquiry, “What is truth?” would be no more significant than asking “What is beauty?” Both questions come with philosophical and moral implications. These very issues, with special regards to beauty, are addressed in John-Mark L. Miravalle’s work Beauty: What It Is and Why It Matters. In doing so, the author pulls from the Greek fathers of a priori philosophy to St. Thomas Aquinas, from G. K. Chesterton to Hans Urs von Balthasar and C. S. Lewis, from papal documents to the Scriptures. The greatest thinkers have honed in on particular manifestations of beauty, all of which are the handiwork of a master Craftsman. Naturalist and environmental advocate John Muir summed it up nicely in so many words: “No synonym for God is so perfect as beauty.”
In a tangible appraisal of this most elusive transcendental, Miravalle’s book gives two criteria that must be present in anything that is to be called beautiful. First, beauty requires order. Such an order is fulfilled in the melody of song or the visual aesthetics of painting. Second, there is meant to be an element of surprise or even mystery. This can come through unique presentation, unanticipated imagery, and other methods.
Stunning examples of surprise can be found throughout nature. Biologists continually discover new species of organisms, and some of their capabilities and body structures are truly surprising. The platypus is a mammalian creature that lays hard-shelled eggs, a trait primarily given to reptiles; it’s an anomaly among the animal kingdom. The horned lizard’s defense mechanism is to squirt blood from its eyes. Mathematicians have discovered the Fibonacci numerical sequence in the spiral geometries of sunflowers and Nautilus shells. These facts pique our interest. They add to our fixation on the beautiful, let alone to the argument for intelligent design.