The Gracious Nature of Beauty

Modernity’s insistence upon the quantifiable and its suspicion of anything that existentially intrudes upon the clean lines it believes are necessary to achieve the life well–lived is unsettled by the beautiful; it strikes a challenge to the utilitarian nature of the secular. Beauty is an affront to the natural recoil that is experienced when one is confronted by beauty amidst tragedy and like modernity’s rejection of the very idea of a loving God in the face of evil, beauty is rejected as a brutal and empty promise placed upon the wounds that experience in the world inflicts upon the soul.

Beauty seems to promise a reconciliation beyond the the contradictions of the moment, one that perhaps places time’s tragedies within a broader perspective of harmony and meaning, a balance between light and darkness; beauty appears to absolve being of its violence. But in an age when, by and large, a philosophical decision has been reached — correctly — that the violence of experience must not be placed within a context of transcendent reconciliation, but must simply be met by an earnest and wary ethical vigilance on the part of reflective intellects, beauty — conceived as a  gracious stillness artificially imposed upon the surface of the primordial ontological tumult — mocks the desire for justice; beauty is really no more than a diversion from the spectacle of worldly suffering, philosophy would be excruciatingly remiss not to assume the aspect of a kind of Brechtian theater, impatient with beauty’s charms and the mystifying ministry of the beautiful. And frankly, there is from a strictly theoretical standpoint an infuriating imprecision (though one might prefer to say richness)  in the language of beauty; the modern disenchantment with the beautiful as a concept reflects in part a sense that while beauty is something whose event can be remarked upon, and in a way that seems to convey a meaning, the word “beauty” indicates nothing; neither exactly a quality, nor a property, nor a function, not even a subjective reaction to an object or occurrence, it offers no phenomenological purchase upon aesthetic experience. And yet nothing else impresses itself upon our attention with at once so wonderful a power and so evocative an immediacy. Beauty is there, abroad in the order of things, given again and again in a way that defies description and denial with equal impertinence.

David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite