Aquinas: The Esthetic Aspect of the Universe

The Philosophical System of Thomas Aquinas, by Maurice de Wulf, edited and adapted for the web by Jonathan Dolhenty

XVII. The Esthetic Aspect of the Universe

A. Art, Nature, and Beauty

Themselves contemporaries of a tremendous artistic development, which ranks the thirteenth century among the great creative epochs, the Schoolmen did not neglect the study of beauty in art. Any external product of man may possess beauty, — that of an artisan who makes furniture just as much as that of a painter of pictures or a builder of cathedrals. There is no essential distinction between arts and fine arts. If a man transforms preexisting realities, then he is an artist, and the work of art is, says Dante, by reason of this act, a godlike creation.

Nature also is beautiful. St. Bonaventure compares the universe to a magnificent symphony; Duns Scotus likens it to a superb tree. For the universe realizes and expresses order and purpose.

But beauty is not studied from the special point of view of nature or of art. Scholastic philosophy considers it in a general way, and esthetics becomes a department of metaphysics and psychology. Let us select therefrom some special points.

B. Objective and subjective aspect of beauty

Above all beauty is real and has an objective aspect: it is not a mere mental attitude. Beauty belongs to certain external things. Where is it found? In those things which realize and manifest an order variously described as the commensuratio partium elegans by Albert the Great, aequalitas numerosa by Bonaventura, debita proportio by Thomas Aquinas. Multiplicity of parts, variety, and unity of plan which combines the parts into one coherent whole, — such are the elements of order found in all beauty. The beauty of a being is the flowering of the reality which it ought to possess according to its nature, and which is called its natural perfection. Accordingly the unity which beauty expresses is a function of the specific principle to which each real being owes its fundamental determination, and which we have called its form (IX, D). “The beautiful unites everything it touches, and it is able to do so thanks to the form of the being, which it sets out in relief” [1]. Perfection and form are both teleological functions. That is why the beauty of one thing is distinct from the beauty of another. An artist who wishes to paint the image of Christ “must reveal in the face the light of his Divinity” [2].

But not everything ordered is thereby beautiful. Order becomes esthetic only when it speaks clearly and with no uncertain voice to a human intelligence by means of sensations, and thus brings to the mind the pleasure of disinterested contemplation. Only the intelligence, which has being as its object, is able to penetrate through to the ‘form,’ and discern it in the midst of the sense impression and material data in which it manifests itself. Here once more scholasticism asserts its intellectualism.

Thus the objective aspect of beauty is completed by the subjective aspect, or the impression which the beautiful produces within us. The order of things is necessarily adapted to an act of mental contemplation of which it is the content and terminus. Or, as the Schoolmen would say, order, and above all the form of the being, must shine forth to the mind. This relationship between the beautiful object and the knowing subject is seen in the theory of the claritas pulcri, or brilliancy of beauty. The more the form shines out, the greater and deeper will be the impression upon the human soul. It will be the ‘substantial form’ bursting through the perfection of a type or a species, as for instance when a Greek statue represents a typical human being; or more often some ‘accidental form’ may shine out [3], as for instance an attitude of a mother smiling to her child. The brilliancy of the form is a principle of unity freely chosen by the artist in the work of art.

Beauty therefore does not belong exclusively to things as the Greeks thought, nor to the subject alone who reacts and enjoys, as some contemporary philosophers maintain. But it is as it were midway between object and subject, and consists in a correspondence between the two.


  1. Albertus Magnus, Opusc. de pulcro.

  2. In Davidem, Ps. 44, 2.

  3. Albertus Magnus, Opusc. de pulcro. Notio pulcri, in universali consistit in resplendentia formae (accidentalis) super partes materiae proportionatas, vel super diversas vires vel actiones.

The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at The Moral Liberal. The Moral Liberal has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.