Orders of beauty: In accordance with nature (2)

Let us remind ourselves of what we have said.

1. The best human life is one that is lived in accordance with nature.

2. To live in accordance with nature is to bring into harmony the good, the true, and the beautiful.

3. First metaphysics. Nature (or reality) reveals itself in its three aspects: finitude, totality, and infinity.

4. Now ethics. The salient virtues of an excellent human life can be ‘read off of’ the aspects of reality.

It is time to turn to beauty.

There are two orders of beauty. First-order beauty is adverbial: it is said in the form of ‘-ly’ or in that of the ‘with P.’ Second-order beauty is prepositional: it is the proper ordering of the salient virtues. In both respects, beauty elevates virtue.

Let us return to the finite aspect of reality to inquire: when do the finite things go well? For the finite things can go well, or they can go poorly. When, e.g., does water flow well? Water flows well when it flows smoothly. It is a question of propriety (neither too much nor too little, neither too much nor too little force, neither overly responsive nor underly-responsive) as well as a question of the rate of movement (neither too fast nor too slow). Water may flow adequately (hence, be virtuous), but it may not flow optimally.

So too a human life. A virtue such as patience may be exercised with competence but not yet with ease and grace. It is first-order beauty that makes a virtue optimal by elevating it to its completeness or perfection. Just as one swallow does not make a summer, so one act of patience does not make one patient. Hence, excellence is a disposition. Yet unlike a competently patient man who is patient by exercising restraint, a beautifully patient man is patient by exercising patience with grace and lightness. He is patience personified.

In brief, first-order beauty, following the best tune hummed by the finite things, elevates virtue by adjusting the way that something is done, said, or demeaned. E.g., said carefully, put elegantly, conducted gracefully, given lightly, demeaned gently, performed softly. In the education of the spirit, one needs to perceive as well as cultivate whatever ‘style’ makes humility beautiful (rather than ugly, blasé, or heavy).  This is, we say, beauty ‘in the way of…’

Now, let us consider the second aspect of reality: totality. Totality is all there is of the finite things. What is perceived through the right form of perception is wholeness. Therefore, to live in accordance with this aspect of reality is also to be whole.

Second-order beauty, accordingly, is an ordering of the salient virtues (of humility, patience, temperance, etc.).  Hence, it elevates by ensuring that the salient virtues are in harmony with each other.  Earlier, I said this order of beauty is prepositional and in this sense: this is beauty of character (or soul).

A clumsy soul has not achieved first-order beauty: an act of compassion, e.g., poorly performed. An ugly soul is distorted (cf. propriety of measure) or is full of vices (cf. impatience, cowardice, etc.), or is full of conflicts of virtues (lacking discernment). A beauty soul not only experiences no such ‘frictions’ but goes on naively, chiming with wholeness, in the sense of second nature.

Conjointly, first- and second-order beauty are ways of going along with nature well while at the same time ‘singing true’ with the whole. Perhaps, we call call this elevated way of being quietness, or perhaps we had better not give it a name but simply appreciate it.