The fourth of St. Thomas Aquinas’ “Five Ways” shows, once again, that we think about the world in a different way than the medieval person did. We tend to look for physical causes for everything, because the success of the sciences, especially physics and biology, have shown how valuable that way of thinking is. We tend to look at abstract properties like goodness, nobility, and beauty as subjective opinions, not something that actually exists in the real world. This is what we mean in the famous saying, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
The medieval mindset saw meaning, purpose, and symbolism in everything, because they saw God at work in everything. They saw goodness, truth, and beauty as objective, not subjective. Something is more or less good, true, and beautiful based on how well it compared to the ideal in the mind of God.
The argument goes something like this. Some things are more or less good, true, noble, beautiful, etc., than other things. Something is more or less good (noble, beautiful, etc.) as compared to something that is the maximum, the most good, as something that is hot is more or less hot compared to fire. Anything that isn’t perfectly good must get its goodness from something outside of itself that causes it’s goodness. Therefore, there must be a Perfect Good which causes goodness in other things, and this we call God.
If we believe that goodness, beauty, and other attributes like that are completely subjective, then this argument isn’t convincing, and it may even seem naive. Does beauty depend entirely on our opinions whether something is beautify or not? Certainly, my experience, education, and preferences have an effect on what I think is beautiful, and what I think is beautiful someone else might think is ugly. However, I don’t think that our opinions are the standard of beauty, because they depend on our experience, education, and preferences.
For a long time I couldn’t see the beauty and eloquence in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. I simply didn’t like it. Then, I had a teacher who helped me to see the play in a new light, to understand the deeper themes and the genius of the writing, and to appreciate Romeo and Juliet for the masterpiece that it is. My personal preferences didn’t change, and it’s still not my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays, but I came to see that beauty that was already there. That wasn’t based on my opinion. The beauty was there whether I saw it or not, but once I saw it I couldn’t deny it. It reached out and took hold of me. That’s what beauty, truth, and goodness have in common. We can deny them, but they don’t depend on our opinions, and once we see the beauty in a piece of art, the truth in a proposition (like 2 + 2 = 4), or the goodness in another person, we can no longer deny it. So, if beauty, truth, and goodness really exist, then they must come from somewhere, “and this we call God.”
Fr. Bryan was pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes from July 3, 2017 to June 2022.