The Beauty That We Seek

A Thought From Jonathan Edwards

In the first couple of paragraphs of his essay, The Nature of True Virtue, Jonathan Edwards claims that when we look for virtue in things, we are ultimately drawn to beauty. He wrote

Whatever controversies and variety of opinions there are about the nature of virtue, yet all excepting, some sceptics, who deny any real difference between virtue and vice, mean by it something beautiful, or rather some kind of beauty, or excellency. It is not all beauty that is called virtue; for instance, not the beauty of a building, of a flower, or of the rainbow; but some beauty belonging to beings that have perception and will. It is not all beauty of mankind that is called virtue; for instance, not the external beauty of the countenance, or shape, gracefulness of motion, or harmony of voice: but it is a beauty that has its original seat in the mind. But yet perhaps not every thing that may be called a beauty of mind, is properly called virtue. There is a beauty of understanding and speculation; there is something in the ideas and conceptions of great philosophers and statesmen, that may be called beautiful; which is a different thing from what is most commonly meant by virtue.

Because this "beauty" is somewhat vague - in that it's evidently difficult to pinpoint - we typically have a hard time articulating it to others. Sometimes this even results in a nice little "opinionated discourse". This can be tough. Especially when it's with a fellow brother or sister in Christ. Why does this happen, though? When it gets down to it, aren't we all just trying to get others to join in on appreciating something along side of us?

Beauty Begets Virtue

It's sad when we see beauty in something, but then someone else shoots it down, claiming that thing to be as empty as something like a dank, dark cave. You want them to see the diamond you've found, even if it is just a twinkle. This is where Edwards' essay helps. He offers us a way to have synthesis amongst ourselves. He continues

But virtue is the beauty of those qualities and acts of the mind, that are of a moral nature, i.e. such as are attended with desert or worthiness of praise or blame. Things of this sort, it is generally agreed, so far as I know, do not belong merely to speculation; but to the disposition and will, or (to use a general word, I suppose commonly well understood) to the heart. Therefore, I suppose, I shall not depart from the common opinion, when I say, that virtue is the beauty of the qualities and exercises of the heart, or those actions which proceed from them. So that when it is inquired, what is the nature of true virtue? this is the same as to inquire, what that is, which renders any habit, disposition, or exercise of the heart truly beautiful?

So, the light he sheds on this vague understanding is that true virtue is the beauty presented out from the heart of a person. You might be attracted to, and learn of virtue from some propositional teaching... and that's fine. But behind that, Edwards is saying that it's the beauty that's appealing. And it's beauty, more than propositional truths, that's more easily recognizable, which is through seeing and experiencing, rather than reading "theory of's". In other words, it's more easily accessible.

Two Beauties

He goes on to clarify that

There is a general and particular beauty. By a particular beauty, I mean that by which a thing appears beautiful when considered only with regard to its connexion with, and tendency to, some particular things within a limited, and as it were a private, sphere. And a general beauty is that by which a thing appears beautiful when viewed most perfectly, comprehensively, and universally, with regard to all its tendencies, and its connexions with every thing to which it stands related. The former may be without and against the latter. As a few notes in a tune, taken only by themselves, and in their relation to one another, may be harmonious; which, when considered with respect to all the notes in the tune, or the entire series of sounds they are connected with, may be very discordant, and disagreeable. That only, therefore, is what I mean by true virtue, which, belonging to the heart of an intelligent being, is beautiful by a general beauty, or beautiful in a comprehensive view, as it is in itself, and as related to every thing with which it stands connected.

Maybe these excerpts don't speak to you that much, but I think they actually resonate with insight of the human condition more than might be assumed. I'm just reminded that sometimes we write things off because the immediate impressions they give us - its particular beauty - don't seem appealing. Well, look further into that mine, and find stye sparkle - look for the diamond. This can only be done by stepping back and realizing that the darkness of the mine is not all that there is. But that mines are typically storehouses of diamonds.

The Third and Primary Beauty

You still might be there wondering why you wasted your time here - I hope not! But if you are, here's why. How often do we forsake things that God is giving or doing in our lives because we don't see the "beauty" in it? And so, I end with a charge to see the world as He has made it - not through our tunnel-visioned, particular beauty gazing perspective, but through eyes that seek for His general beauty. His canvas - the meta-narrative all around us - is full of examples of brush strokes of true virtue... true beauty... The Beauty.

So, I conclude with two more excerpts: the first from Psalms 19, and the second from Romans 1 -

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.

and,

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.