Transcendental Beauty – Specifically in Church music.

What in the above video was beautiful? Was there beauty in it? My answer is yes. In this article I hope to share some of the reasoning behind why this piece contains beauty, and why other pieces of music, art, and architecture, even of a questionable nature can draw the heart and mind to things not of this world, to things of beauty…

This year at Bruté one of my philosophy classes is “The Introduction to the Philosophy of Being”, otherwise known as Classical Ontology, or Metaphysics. There are three branches of Metaphysics that we study in the class.

1. The first is the study of “being as being”, this can be explained by not studying the shape, size, color, or function of the macbook I am currently using to post this post, but rather it is studying the existence of the Macbook itself. In a sense I am asking: “What makes it something rather than nothing?”

2. The second study is of general principles of being, or things that are true of all things whatsoever. The philosophers of the Medieval period, such as Aquinas or Duns Scotus, characterized things that are a feature, or character of all of the different kinds of entities that exist in our world as being a transcendental. Existence, unity, truth, and goodness are examples of things that are transcendental. You could say that everything that makes up something (atoms, persons, number, property of, etc.) exists in a unity, and is thus one entity. This entity is thus true and good.

3. The third study is of the fundamental categories or kinds of existing things. (categories, persons, substances, property, physical objects, etc.) This is different from a transcendental in that an existing thing, may or may not be a substance, relation, physical object, etc.

There is a group of three major transcendentals that tend to stick together: goodness, truth, and beauty. In this post, I wish to focus on the later of the three. That is, beauty.

We commonly ask ourselves: “Is object(x) beautiful or not?”

We believe that goodness is objective. (We search for actions or objects that are morally good. things like feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, helping the orphaned, etc.) But the question is: does this precedent hold the same for beauty? Is beauty objective?

Surely, there are objects that are undoubtedly beautiful… Mount Everest, Niagra Falls, roses, etc. Why can’t we form a common ground on what beauty is then? We do not normally label a rat, or dirt, or a screwdriver as beautiful. Therefore, the argument can be made that, beauty is probably not (or if it is real, is not knowable)

This argument seems to hold only if we consider “beauty” as a property that is either held or not held by things. If however, it is transcendental, it helps us solve the problem as to why we believe some things are beautiful and we have difficulty in choosing the things that  define this property.

The above argument seems to hold only if we consider ‘beauty’ to be a property that is contrarily either had or not had by things. If, however, it is a transcendental as classically understood, this both accounts for the fact that we think some things actually are beautiful and for the fact that “nailing down” this property is difficult. Why? Because beauty is not the kind of thing that is either had or not had, like roundness or whiteness. Rather, it is had by everything to some extent or another, like existence or unity.

Beauty as a Transcendental 
Like any other transcendental, beauty is predicable of every existing entity. Roses are not only beautiful, but they exist, and exist as a unity. Chairs likewise are unities, have existence, and have some predication of beauty, and so on.

This produces a set of new conundrums, but solves the basic problem of the seeming slippery identity of beauty.
For instance, is a dead rat beautiful? The answer must be a qualified “yes,” in the sense that a dead rat has a greater share of beauty than, say, a dead and decaying horse… (For the sake of maintaining a sense of decorum, I’m not going to continue in that direction.) But a dead rat has far less a share of beauty than a living animal, which has less a share than a human being. Someone might jump in and ask, “Which humans are the most beautiful?” This is an interesting question, but I prefer to focus the idea of beauty toward another thing. The church. With beauty as a transcendental, we can expect a) that every existing thing has some share, more or less, of it’s qualities, and b) that with enough education and training, we will be able to scientifically determine which objects are more beautiful and which are less so, with a fair degree of specificity, is possible. Just as mathematicians can discover true equations and more elegant and clear true equations, so aestheticians, assuming they exist, can instruct us about beauty.

The Catholic Church has been known for centuries prior to the 20th as being the leading producer of the BEST Sacred and Classical music in the world. This all ended, sadly as changes in culture and the church occurred. The good news though, is that music that invokes pathos (involves the emotion, has artistic merit, has beauty) is on the rise again in the church. Composers such as Kevin Allen, Fr. Samuel F Weber OSB, James Macmillan and others are slowly bringing the idea of beautiful works of music back into the church culture. Granted, there are other songs that are of different genres in church music that are still beautiful and are able to invoke pathos, but it is something that is not as frequent as it once was.

This blog post, is the first of many in a series regarding transcendental beauty in regards not only to music, but to the authentic beauty that exists in the Roman Rite’s Ceremonies, Liturgies, Architecture, and the like.

The following is a video of James Macmillan’s “Tu Es Petrus” that was used for Benedict XVI’s visit to Britain. It is an excellent example of the type of music that used to be created by the church, but is now being created using modern methods, and a host of instruments. It is a beautiful and very powerful piece!


Published by Father Corey D. Bruns

I'm a Priest of the Diocese of Owensboro, KY and Parochial Vicar of Saint Joseph Catholic Church in Bowling Green, KY.

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