Beauty is in the Form

Professor Edward Feser quotes a sarcastic passage by Isaac Asimov and asks why plastic objects cannot eventually be admired as antiques.  (“The metaphysics and aesthetics of plastic”  Feb. 14, 2014)

Elsewhere, a commenter quoting from a David Gerrold novel compares moral integrity to that of a plastic balloon, lost when the balloon is destroyed by a pinhole. Philosopher and novelist John C. Wright answers that forgiveness is better than asking for perfect integrity. (“Why the Rats Conquer Empires”, Feb. 27, 2014 )

I looked into the matter in Plato and Maritain.

Perception of form

Beauty, Plato said, is in the form. It is not in the philosophical prima materia, that cannot exist without an essential form. Contrary to Plato’s theory, though, separate forms of material beings do not exist either, except as concepts. For example, human form, or nature, does not exist apart from actual human beings.

Form differentiates individuals only in beings who are pure forms (God and angels). There are as many angelic natures as there are angels. But physical beings are differentiated by matter, and all individuals in a species share a common form.

By the fact it has a form actualized in matter, every physical being, particle, element, compound has the same degree of intrinsic beauty that the form lends to matter. Although an unlearned observer may not perceive anything interesting and pleasing about, say, subatomic particles, an observer possessing even a small knowledge of the thing certainly does.

Beauty and truth

Knowledge – and love – is the answer to the question.

Plato said that beauty is the splendor of truth. Love of beauty is indeed also love of truth and love of the good, since the transcendentals (passiones entis) are convertible.

Truth is conformity of the intellect with what is, with extra-mental beings (material or not), whose form (essence) it apprehends in its first operation. The intellect then judges in its second operation what the thing is in actual or possible existence*.

The expression “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is true and poetic in this sense of conformity of the intellect to the object. However, it is often taken falsely when used as a universal proposition pretending that beauty is not intrinsic to beings, thus not objective.

Knowledge of transcendentals is partly connatural and partly acquired by reason. It is not the product of sense impressions, that are vehicles of information, nor emotions, that are consequences. Tastes and personal preferences are derived from emotions and reactions: those obviously cannot alone lead to objective knowledge.

Where there is true knowledge of the object in itself, grounded in reason as well as in connatural love, opinions and reactions are similar. Widely different reactions are a sure sign that knowledge or moral judgment, or emotional balance, is wanting in certain observers.

Material integrity

If ancient art and architecture masterworks are still considered beautiful by most observers, despite a sometimes considerable loss of integrity, this is because their form is still perceivable through materials that survived the ravages of time. But every material being’s integrity is by definition imperfect and subject to entropy. The integrity of plastics, particularly, is very fragile, this is why we do not expect from plastic objects a great beauty and a long life. Accordingly, they come at a low cost.

Integrity of form

On the other hand, the true form of plastic, which is its molecular form, is relatively durable, and might be a burden and eyesore if we do not take proper care of the waste.

The form, or essence, is the source of any being’s integrity. A human at a development stage where he does not yet look human, or in such a physical or mental state that he does not seem human anymore, is certainly human in both cases. Moreover, his immortal soul keeps all its beauty to Christian eyes.

Moral integrity

Destruction of moral integrity is the only thing that can attack a spiritual being’s nature and make it a fallen nature. A fallen nature is separated from its proper end, and eventually definitively severed from its origin and its ultimate end by the terrible power of free will.

As it is impossible to obtain perfect integrity in a material creature, we cannot expect perfect moral integrity in man, for his development is subject to time. During his earthly life, he does not have like angels the perfect knowledge to make an instantaneous and irrevocable decision about anything.

A plastic balloon is already full of minuscule holes through which the gas filling it will leak over a few hours or a few days. All that can be demanded is that the holes should not be large enough to let the air out too fast and shorten the balloon’s life unduly.

What is demanded of a man is merely to distinguish the holes in his moral conscience and try not to aggravate the damage. Repair is not in his power, except as a collaborator to the work of grace, through repentance.


* Note on existentialism:  Saint Thomas Aquinas’ moderate realism is a truly balanced existentialism, that does not exaggerate the importance of essence or existence over one another. Sound realism is the remedy to idealism, called ideosophy by Maritain: the term applies to all philosophies pretending that man’s mind is not measured by extra-mental reality, but is the measure of all things.