On Being Beautiful

In philosophy, we consider being under three different aspects that we call the transcendentals. They are the true, good, and beautiful (verum, bonum, et pulchrum). As being is knowable to our intellects, it is true; as being is loved by our wills, it is good; as being appeals to our emotions and aesthetic sense, it is beautiful.

God is true, good, and beautiful. He is, in fact,Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. All that has being participates in these three transcendentals to some degree or another.

Here I would like to consider only beauty, for reasons I will soon explain.

There are different definitions of beauty. Splendor ordinis (the splendor of order) is one. Just as peace is the tranquility of order (not a mere absence of war), so, too, when order is present, it radiates to the senses as beauty. A beautiful statue, piece of music, or flower is said to be so because everything is in the right place. It is put together well. Splendor formae (the splendor of form) is another definition of beauty, and this was the one preferred by Father Feeney.

St. Thomas once defined beauty as id quod visum placet, “that which, being seen, pleases.” We can replace the sense of sight in this definition with any of the external senses, for beauty is perceived by them all.

Women should be beautiful. God made them to be so. It is only right. While all beings — including male and female humans — participate in the transcendental attribute of beauty, in our species, unlike hummingbirds, peacocks, or mallards, it is the female who radiates beauty more. Saint Paul well knew this when he said “the woman is the glory of the man” (I Cor. 11:7).

This makes beauty quintessentially feminine.

Of course, when I say that women should be beautiful, I do not mean seductive. I do not mean that ladies ought to ensnare men, as it says in Ecclesiasticus 9:9, “For many have perished by the beauty of a woman, and hereby lust is enkindled as a fire.” The virtue of modesty must restrain the feminine desire to look pleasing to men, for in seeking to please others we must never sacrifice our moral code.

But when we speak of spiritual beauty, of the beauty of virtue, there is no reason to conceal it. As St. Paul says, ironically, “Let your modesty be known to all men” (Phil. 4:5).

In various pieces I have written about fatherhood and manhood, I have emphasized manly virtue, masculinity, and the need of the father to function fully in his capacity as head of the family. This piece is intended to be something of a feminine complement to those. It is also an effort, in part, at answering the question I have been asked, “what ought women do to improve things, especially when the men are not doing their duties?”

By cultivating a supernaturalized version of the humane and beautifying virtues like kindness, civility, meekness, courtesy, etc., ladies can get the good things they rightly expect from men. Do you want your man to do the right thing? Be beautiful. Do you want your children to be good, to keep the faith and not be constantly peevish about the strictures of Catholic living? Do your part in making Catholic family life happy (which it must be) by being beautiful to them.

The female beauty I am advocating is not bodily beauty, but something far more transcendent. To call it “spiritual,” which it is, risks making it too abstract. The beauty I speak of is of the mind, the will, and the heart. It is rational but it at once makes a chaste and uplifting appeal to the emotions, too. It is what the first Pope was driving at when he said that women’s “adorning” should “not be the outward plaiting of the hair, or the wearing of gold, or the putting on of apparel: but the hidden man of the heart in the incorruptibility of a quiet and a meek spirit, which is rich in the sight of God” (I Pet. 3:3-4).

Virtue should attract. It should not appear haughty, boorishly moralizing, or ungenerous. This point is well made in a book by Dr. Mitchell Kalpakgian, The Virtues We Need Again: 21 Life Lessons from the Great Books of the West. In a chapter on courtesy, Dr. Kalpakgian says,

St. Thomas Aquinas described the beautiful as “the attractive aspect of the good,” the part that reminds us that virtue in itself is never drab, but finally charming, winning, and irresistible. Good morals express themselves in gracious manners, and beautiful manners reflect a noble mind, a kindly heart, and the thoughtfulness that leads us to please and honor others. When goodness becomes pompous, priggish, or censorious, it loses its beauty and repels when it should allure. (Pg. 99)

And further, he adds,

Virtue loses its radiance when it appears petty, niggardly, or economical at the cost of charity or magnanimity. Christ’s love knew no limits and abounded in the generosity of miracles — for example, the miracle of the five loaves and the two fish, which resulted in “twelve baskets full of the broken pieces that were left over” (Matthew 14:20). Mary Magdalene’s lavish anointing of the feet of Christ with rare perfumes earned her the praise of God: “She hath loved much.” (Pg. 101)

One cannot denude the Catholic Faith of its essential beauty or proper attractiveness without somehow detracting from its truth and its goodness. Rudeness, coarseness, incivility, and cruelty do not match our creed. Where missionaries evangelize a brute people, they begin a gradual program of civilization that will, hopefully, fructify into a genuine Catholic culture.

Orestes Brownson, the famous convert and apologist, once wrote of a Catholic lady he knew as being “frightfully pious.” The goodness, largesse, magnanimity, and kindness of the faith were not seen in her, only its more austere elements. The saints, while they could be severe at times — especially with themselves — were not such bores.

Read Saint Francis de Sales — quoted several times by Dr. Kalpakgian on courtesy — and see the refinement of a matchless Catholic gentleman wedded to his requisites as a Doctor of the Church, eminens doctrina et insignis vitae sanctitas (i.e. an eminent learning and a high degree of sanctity).

We might repel people from evil with a horror of hell, but if we do not implant in them a desire for heaven, then our religion is merely religion of revulsion — one without an actual content of goodness, but a mere lack of badness. This is something of a vacuum, which supernature abhors just as much as nature does. Such an unbeautiful religion does not satisfy man’s noblest desires.

Jesus and Mary are called beautiful in the Scriptures, or at least the Church in her liturgy applies to them various verses of the Old Testament Wisdom literature to that end:

  • “Thou art beautiful above the sons of men: grace is poured abroad in thy lips; therefore hath God blessed thee for ever” (Psalms 44:3).
  • “Thou art all fair, O my love, and there is not a spot in thee” (Cant. 4:7).
  • “All the glory of the king’ s daughter is within in golden borders, clothed round about with varieties. After her shall virgins be brought to the king: her neighbours shall be brought to thee” (Psalms 44:14-15).

Let us get back to Saint Thomas’ definition of beauty: id quod visum placet.

Saint Paul says wives seek to please their husbands. “And the unmarried woman and the virgin thinketh on the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But she that is married thinketh on the things of the world, how she may please her husband.” (One verse earlier, he says that husbands must please their wives.) Being pleasing to her husband is a duty for a wife. Given Saint Thomas’ definition of beauty, cited above, we may conclude that being beautiful is a wifely obligation.

Let us consider this in light of the doctrine of grace. Saint Paul writes to the Hebrews that “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6). But do we really please God, or is that some pious exaggeration on the Apostle’s part to make a point? It is no exaggeration or figure of speech; strictly speaking, grace truly makes us pleasing to God. In fact, grace is said, by the most doctrinaire of theologians, to “beautify the soul.” Let us put in practice this great doctrinal truth.

There is a “romance” between God and his (essentially feminine) creation. It is the nuptials between Christ and His Spouse, Lady Ecclesia, the Church. Read the Canticle of Canticles to see that romance extolled poetically.

There are beautiful Biblical women that come to mind, like Ruth, or the ideal wife mentioned by Solomon’s mother in Proverbs 31. Judith, who “dressed to kill,” was even more beautiful inwardly than she was in her external appearance. She is a type of the Blessed Virgin, both as beautiful and as terrible.

Another scriptural heroine, Queen Esther, was described as “exceeding fair and beautiful” (Esther 2:7). She saved the Jews from the machinations of Aman by appealing to King Assuerus at great personal risk to herself. She is a type of Our Lady. Read what is related in Chapter 15 of that book and witness a successful feminine appeal to a powerful man. She does not boss around like a feminist. While I would not expect wives to swoon before their husbands as Esther did (consider the circumstances), the lesson can be applied mutatis mutandis.

Queen Esther’s brave yet vulnerable feminine appeal to her husband reminds me a little of a story Sister Marie Therese told me about Sister Marie Louise (RIP). When the Sisters were at an airport in Texas and had the problem of having to lug heavy boxes of books out of the baggage carousel, Sister Marie Louise told the others to “look helpless.” Presently, a strapping man in a cowboy hat sallied forth and announced, “let me get that for ya, ma’am.” Problem solved. And Sister Marie Louise was not a bit helpless. Like other good, strong women, she knew how to appeal to a real man’s sense of chivalry.

Consider Saint Clotilde, Saint Margaret of Scotland, and so many other royal saints who became the heart and soul of their respective Catholic nations. In many cases their virtuous feminine beauty was instrumental in converting whole nations. They were not matriarchs or feminists, but saintly Catholic women whose charms did not ensnare but elevated those around them. In a word, they were — and still are — beautiful.