When I first decided, many years ago now, to become an artist, I wanted to know how to create beautiful art. Given this goal, it seemed obvious, along with all the other aspects of my formation, that I should start reading about beauty itself.
However, to my surprise, I found very little to help me from Catholic writers. Books on aesthetics talked at length about the nature of beauty - and some seemed true (although many didn't) but barely anyone seemed to offer anything that was of practical use to an artist.
Everyone told me to read Jacques Maritain. I'm probably going to commit a heresy that will offend Thomists here, but I wasn't at all convinced by him either. As I read through Art and Scholasticism, which was admittedly, full of complex reasoning about the nature of beauty, I still wanted to ask the question: and how do I use all of this to help me judge what is beautiful? I am an artist, how is all this going help me to decide whether or not to direct the brush to the left or to the right? But there was very little there to help me.
Finally, right at the end of the book, he told us that the embodiment of all that he had been describing was in the paintings of Braques and Picasso. You have to be joking, I thought. I knew that their work was designed so as to promote an anti-Christian worldview, yet he seemed to be unaware of this. After pages and pages of proofs justifying the objectivity of beauty, in the end, even for Maritain it came down to an arbitrary application of personal taste to tell us that beauty is what he happens to like. Why not just forget the first 300 pages, I thought, and tell us that the answers to what is beautiful, is that it is what clever philosophers say it is? This principle of elitism was no different from any university in the country, where the intellectuals use wordy arguments to tell you what they like is good and you're a Philistine if you think differently.
Although many Church Fathers had written about beauty, they didn't treat the subject separately and so it was difficult to know where to find references to it if they were sprinkled across the whole corpus of the writings. St Thomas is one of these.
I was faced with the prospect of reading volumes and volumes of ancient works, in the hope of finding the occasional nugget of wisdom or hope that someone else had done it first. Strangely, the best anthology I could find was a coffee table book, lavishly illustrated, by an atheist who didn't even believe in objective beauty, but nevertheless knew how to represent the arguments clearly - Umberto Eco. The book was called A History of Beauty. It had short quotations bu very little explanation.
Now, finally, we have a course by a Catholic that gives you a thorough survey of the way that beauty, along with its sisters, goodness and truth from which it can't really be separated. It is better than anything I have seen before - taking you from the ancient Greeks right the way through to awful moderns in a systematic and clear presentation.
A Survey of the Philosophy of the Good, the True and the Beautiful is offered as part of Pontifex University's Master of Sacred Arts program and it is taught by Dr Carrie Gress. Some of you may know her through her bestselling book, The Marian Option, or through her regular articles on various websites such as the National Catholic Register. Dr Gress is also an accomplished philosopher, who obtained her PhD in philosophy from Catholic University of America. She has done all that reading that I was baulking at! And has put it all together for the benefit of all in a stimulating and clear presentation.
Dr Gress's wonderful online course will give you an understanding of the different ways that the great and influential figures of the past - Plato, Aristotle, St Bonaventure, St Thomas and the medievals, for example -understood what beauty is. Through this you will be able to form your own view - there is no single Catholic definition by the way, however much we might like it to be the case. Furthermore, by taking the full Master of Sacred Arts program you will understand how to apply what you learn in your own lives and work.
This an introductory philosophy course. The approach is to assume high intelligence but not necessarily a background in philosophical principles. Therefore, anyone can learn from it. She takes the trouble to explain everything from the foundation of first principles and from there guides you right up to the high peaks!
Incidentally, though clearly very important, St Thomas is not the only contributor to this story! There are many people with important and different things to say on the subject. And as Dr Gress is an expert on Jacques Maritain, you can listen to her explanation of his work and decide for yourself what you make of him - you don't have to adopt my point of view!
You can take it as part of the Master of Sacred Arts program or as a stand-alone, for credit or audit. www.Pontifex.University. It is a recorded online course, so you can register at any time, and take it at your own pace.
The painting below is Raphael's famous School of Athens. I suggest that given Dr Gress's course goes from Athens right up to the present day, there isn't a wall big enough to illustrate all the philsophers she talks about!