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The Aesthetics of St. Augustine:
Whereas Plato and Aristotle approach the arts from a
metaphysical starting point with its implications on the
community in mind (both vertical and horizontal),
Augustines starting point is Scripture (vertical). For
Augustine, he considers the arts in relation to the church
Aesthetics & church in Historical
Appreciation for aesthetic activities (worship) but not for the arts themselves an
expression of the arts. Why?
Impact of Plato (Book X of The Republic)
Artistic activity is concerned with the sensible realm.
The sensible realm can distract us from focusing on God.
The arts were historically linked and seen in relation to the cultures and mythos
of Greece and Rome.
Tertullian (3rd century), for example, rejected studies that were
profane. He characterized literature as foolishness in the eyes
of God.
But other, like Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and Basil the Great
believed that an appreciation of the arts may have a positive use
in education.
The Arts in Christian Context.
Visual arts represented gods and emperors. Thus, they were objects of idolatry, even
demanded by Rome to worship such images. Those who did not worship them, were,
at times, executed for treason or martyred.

But by the sixth century, Gregory defended the arts as necessary tools of instruction
for people. Why? Most people were illiterate. Thus, the arts may be used to lead
people to God.

Under Constantine V, a synod (Constantinople in 754) condemned visual

representations of Jesus Christ. But at Council at Nicaea in 787, under Constantine VI,
reversed the condemnation, declaring honorable reverence of the visual arts in
relation to the religious depictions, cross, and the Gospels.
Thus, the arts became a pivotal part of the Middle Ages, especially seen today with
the phenomenal Cathedrals found across Europe.
From Confessions:
Do we love anything but the beautiful? What, then, is beautiful? And what is
beauty? What is it that allures and unites us to the things we love; for unless there
were a grace and beauty in them, they could by no means attract us to them? And I
marked and perceived that in bodies themselves there was a beauty from their
forming a kind of whole, and another from mutual fitness, as one part of the body
with its whole, or a shoe with a foot, and so on. ~ Confessions IV, xiii.

1. Distinction between that which is beautiful in itself and that which is beautiful in
virtue of being applied to something else.

a. A complex may beautiful in that it is a kind of a whole, and beauty is a property of the
b. Part (e.g., a particular color or a sound) which its not beautiful by itself may be called
beautiful when it is part of a complex whole.
From City of God:
the beauty of the course of the world is achieved
by the opposition of contraries arranged, as it
were, by an eloquence not of words, but of
things City of God, XI, xviii.
Neo-Platonic Worldview:
Augustine assumes a Neo-Platonic worldview. He contends:
1. Unity is the form of all beauty
2. Infinite goodness, truth, and beauty are attributes of God.
3. Platonic Themes:
conception of beauty,
vision of God,
the need for divine illumination,
emphasis on the soul,
purification of the mind as a requirement for understanding
View of evil as corruption,
conception of time and eternity, &
desire for spiritual and intellectual.
Differences with Plotinus:
1. Embraces Tenets of Orthodox Christianity
a. The Incarnation of Jesus Christ
b. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ
c. The Promise of Redemption from Sin through Grace
d. Conception of the Trinity
e. Communion with God through Jesus Christ.
f. Depravity of humanity
g. God is personal, not impersonal.
h. Soul is created, not eternal.
i. Encounters with God is not rare when one knows Christ.
j. Knowing Christ is the rest and permanence for which Augustine
1. What is the purpose of art?
2. What is the function of art?
3. How are to understand artistic
4. How do we evaluate art?
5. What do the Scripture teach us
about the arts?
6. What is the relationship between
God, the Creator, we, the objects
of His affections?
7. What is the mission of the church
and how can the arts assist us to
that end?
Key Themes: 1. Clear distinction in creation of

Creation of God Creation of Man

(ex nihilo): (ex materia)
Theme # 2: God: Hierarchy of Beauty: Beauty is
expressed in the possession of Form:

Instead of mimesis (imitation), Gods creation reflects Himself for Gods

beauty emanates in the things He has made from Him to His creation in

God possesses perfect Form.

He is perfectly beautiful.

Objects possess more form

and less void.

Earth is lowest form of


Where there is no form, there

is no beauty.
Hierarchical Ascent unto God:

Words of Scripture we find statements

about God. Understanding involves
transcending the mere image (not look at
literal sense alone). Scripture is the most
direct knowledge of divine purpose.

Better guide: Objects which do not require

use of sight (least participation in the
sensible). Thus, music is a higher art than

Nature and Art

The use of the arts contributes to our understanding of
God and His ways.
The arts have justification when it coheres with the
truths of the Christian faith and reflects Gods creative
It is debated whether Augustine contends that
sensible beauty is worthy of appreciation, values,
reflection, and study. I conclude that he does value the
arts because it points people to God in both creating
and receiving.
Key Theme # 2: Properties of Beauty:
1. Rhythm: In Augustines De Musica, we discover that he
believes that rhythm is sourced in God for it is eternal and
immutable. How? Augustine likens rhythm to mathematics.
Proof: Rhythm is discovered, not created.
2. Unity.
a. Everything exists as a whole. Thus, each object has unity.
An object cannot have the potential to beautiful, unless it
exists. If has existence, then, it will be a unified whole.
Therefore, unity is a necessary elements of beauty.
b. The more unified, the more beautiful it will be.
If I ask a workman, why, after constructing one arch, he builds another like
it over against it, he will reply, I dare say, that in a building like parts must
correspond to like. If I go further and ask why he thinks so, he will say that
it is fitting, or beautiful, or that it gives pleasure to those who behold it. But
he will venture no further But if I have to do with a mean with inward eyes
who can see the invisible, I shall not cease to press the query why these
things give pleasure He transcends it and escapes from its control in
judging pleasure and not according to pleasure. First I shall ask him
whether things are beautiful because they give pleasure, or give pleasure
because they are beautiful. Then I shall ask him why they are beautiful, and
if he is perplexed, I shall add the question whether it is because its part
correspond and are so joined together as to form one harmonious whole
[De Vera Religione xxxii, 59].
Key Theme # 2: Properties of Beauty:
3. Equality or likeness.
a. The existence of individual things as units, the
possibility of repeating them and comparing groups of
them with respect to equality or inequality, gives rise to
proportion, measure, and number (Beardsley, 94).
4. Number, which is the base of rhythm, begins from unity (De
Musica, xvii. 56).
a. Number measures rhythm.
b. Since rhythm is based on number (which is immutable),
then it follows that rhythm is immutable.
Number: fundamental to both to being &
Suppose there is no actual work in hand and no
intention to make anything, but the motions of the
limbs are done for pleasure, that there will be dancing.
Ask what delights you in dancing and number will
reply: Lo, here am I. Examine the beauty in bodily
form, and you will find that everything is in its place
by number. Examine the beauty of bodily motion and
you will find everything in its due time by number
[De Libero Arbitrio II, xvi, 42].
The term number (numerus) has several meanings for
Augustine: 1) mathematical proportion; 2) rhythmic
organization; 3) fittingness of parts (in both the elements of an
object and the faculties of the human soul); 4) the Divine, i.e.,
the plenitude, unity, law, and beauty of God. Further, the nature
of number is apprehended by man through an experience at first
physical (felt number or rhythm), then intellectual (the number
of thought and memory), and finally innate number (the
judgment of the soul by means of a harmony bestowed upon it
by God). Augustines clearest statement of this metaphysics of
Beauty is to be found in De Musica ~ Philosophies of Art &
Beauty, by Hofstadter & Kuhns, pg. 172-3.
Key Theme # 2: Properties of Beauty:
5. Symmetry:
in all the arts it is symmetry [or proportion] that
gives pleasure, preserving unity and making the
whole beautiful (Of True Religion, xxx. 55).

6. Order:
Order is the distribution which allots things equal
and unequal, each to its own place (City of God,
XIX, xiii). Thus, the more order (proper place), the
more beautiful they are.
Key Theme # 3:
Art is not imitation because animals imitate; they do
not have not art (De Musica I, iv, 5-7).
Aesthetics: From Classical Greece to the Present by Monroe C. Beardsley.
Philosophies of Art & Beauty: Selected Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger,
edited by Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns
Medieval Theories of Aesthetics by Michael Spicher In Internet Encyclopedia of
Philosophy (December 11, 2010).
Perspective in Aesthetics: Plato to Camus, edited by Peyton E. Richter