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What is Beauty?

by Richard Lines

Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn

Keats wrote his famous ode after looking at books of drawings of ancient Greek art in the studio of the painter Benjamin Haydon. To call something beautiful (kalos) in Greek was simply to call it good, or desirable, or something to be admired. In Plato the theory of beauty is connected primarily with sexual love (eros), and then with ethics (his pupil Aristotle says of a noble action that it is done for beauty's sake), and thirdly with the theory of knowledge, as that which leads us on the quest for truth. Another Greek word for beauty is kosmos. From the verb kosmeo (beautify) we derive our words cosmetic (something that appertains merely to the surface of things) and cosmetics (the means by which the human body, and particularly the face, is beautified). On the other hand, the word cosmos in modern English refers to the entire universe. We describe something as cosmic if it is of universal significance.

Swedenborg tells us that beauty is the outward form taken by truth derived from good: Arcana Caelestia (AC) 10,500. Here he refers to earlier numbers in the same work where this somewhat arid proposition is fleshed out. At 3080 he explains the meaning of Genesis 24: 15,16, where the girl Rebekah is described as very good looking. A girl means affection that has innocence within it. The reason very good looking girl means beauty is that all beauty derives from good in which innocence is present. What arouses our feeling that the face is beautiful is not the face itself, but the affection shining from it. It is the spiritual within the natural that stirs our affections, not the natural on its own. Swedenborg goes on to tell us that those who love what is good are stirred by young children whom they see as beautiful in the measure that the innocence which goes with charity is present in the children's faces, actions, and speech. I am sure that this is something that most of us will recognize easily enough. The reverse of this occurs where, for instance, a paedophile (for whatever reason) does not love what is good and hence his love for young children is sinister.

At 5199 Swedenborg tells us about the meaning of the words beautiful in appearance. While spiritual beauty is essentially an affection for interior truth, appearance refers to faith, so that beautiful in appearance means an affection for the truth of faith. But it is not the truth of faith that produces beauty but the affection within that faith that springs from good. Beauty provided solely by the truth of faith is like a beautiful face in a painting or a sculpture, but where beauty derives from affection for truth coming from good it is like the beauty of a real face full of life imparted to it by heavenly love;. It is love that provides the form that we call beautiful. The appearance of the angels is indescribably beautiful. Their faces are radiant with the good of love and the truth of faith. Those in hell, on the other hand, are horribly ugly and look like monsters rather than human beings.

In real life we do not fall in love with a portrait (as Tamino falls in love with Pamina's portrait in The Magic Flute), but with a flesh and blood person. Yet the skill of the artist (or composer, poet, or author) may be such as to arouse our deepest feelings and hence help us to appreciate the work of art we are experiencing.

We have seen enough to know that for Swedenborg beauty is not cosmetic, but is something spiritual, or the outward manifestation of love. In the next life, we are told, angels are forms of charity (ie love) which is visible to the eye and perceptible to the mind: AC 553. Those who have lived in faith and charity become forms of beauty in the next world. We cannot in this world experience the beauty of the spiritual world directly, as Swedenborg did, but I think we can do so indirectly through works of art.

In his poem The Guardian Angel Robert Browning describes his own reaction to a masterpiece of Baroque art, the painting LAngelo Custode by Guercino, which he and his wife Elizabeth saw on a visit to a church in Fano on the Italian Adriatic coast in July 1848. The painting shows a winged angel hovering above a child who is kneeling on a tomb in a church and teaching him to pray. The poet is so moved by the picture that he wishes the angel would turn his attention to him:

Dear and great Angel, wouldst thou only leave

That child, when thou hast done with him, for me!

The painting works its healing power on the poets own dis-ease and he recognizes how he will see the world afterwards with different eyes:

O world, as God has made it! All is beauty:

And knowing this, is love, and love is duty.

What further may be sought for or declared.

The Brownings were so impressed with Guercino's angel that they visited the church on more than one occasion:

We were at Fano, and three times we went

To sit and see him in his chapel there,

And drink his beauty to our souls content

--- My angel with me too:

After their return to Florence Robert Browning wrote his own little masterpiece and helped to immortalise a neglected seventeenth century artist. His beautiful poem gives us a vivid picture of the painting, as well as the poets reaction to it. But what is important are the feelings aroused in the reader. We can share Browning's feelings of awe and humility in the presence of Guercino's angel. We can appreciate the beauty of the language, but above all we can appreciate the thought and affection that lie behind it. Both the seventeenth century painter and the nineteenth century poet were Christians, one a Catholic, the other a Protestant (who had, for the record, been reading Conjugial Love that year). In Swedenborg's terms, the painting and the poem are outward forms of truth derived from love. The genius and skill of the two men gave us these works of art, but I think both of them would have recognized the truth of these words of the twentieth century English novelist Charles Morgan:

We create nothing; we receive all things; even the phrase creative art is a superficiality, for, as I once wrote elsewhere, all perfect art is a likeness of God in the sleep of the artist.

Swedenborg explains how God (divine love) works through the mediation of his divine wisdom to produce beauty. Applying the doctrine of discrete degrees, of end, cause and effect, he shows how beauty is the effect, truth (or wisdom) the cause (causa efficiens), and good (or love) is the end or origin (causa causans). Beauty is the form that loves affection takes. Both Guercino and Browning were motivated by love to produce their works. Their skill with paint and words respectively enabled them to produce an effect, a work of beauty. Without love there would be nothing.

If there were no affection, or what amounts to the same, no love, there would not be any discernment: AC 3336.

When we look at a painting, read a poem, or listen to a piece of music we bring affection (or love) to it and this is what moves us to enjoy it. Sometimes we may be so moved emotionally that we are brought to tears. If we had no love in us, there would be no tears. If we bring affection to our reading of Swedenborg, we will find, not dry as dust theological texts, but works of beauty. We are moved by his descriptions of the life of angels in heaven, by his account of true marriage love between man and woman, because they engage our affections. I am sure this is why Swedenborg has so often appealed to imaginative writers and other artists. One of those who appreciated Swedenborg most keenly was the American poet, critic and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson. Describing his writings as prose poems, he declared in his lecture The Poet (delivered in 1841/42):

After Dante, and Shakespeare, and Milton there came no grand poet until Swedenborg.

In his own poem Solution he ranks him alongside Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe. Our word poet comes from the Greek word meaning maker. Swedenborg was a maker. He was inspired by Gods love to reveal the secrets of the heavens and the inner meaning of the Scriptures. The wisdom and the immense knowledge he had gained as a scientist were applied to the writing of his visionary and theological books.

John Keats, who was inspired by his affection for the beauty displayed in a picture of an ancient Greek vase to write his great ode, was only partly right. Beauty and truth are not all we need to know. Without love they would be nothing. Without love there would be no life, no art, and no beauty.

Richard Lines, a Barrister, is a Past President of the Society and has a strong interest in Swedenborg’s influence on Literature.

Published in Things Heard and Seen, the Newsletter of the Swedenborg Society, London, No. 10 (Spring 2003) pp. 1-3.

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On Being Useful
Providence and  Evil
Getting Rid of Evil
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Life on Other Planets
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What is Beauty?

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