Unity and Beauty

Jan 20th, 2011 | By | Category: Blog Posts

According to St. Thomas, integrity (or perfection) is one of the three marks of beauty. The other two are harmony (or proportion) and radiance (or brightness). 1 The term ‘integrity’ is closely related to and directly implies unity; for without unity, integrity is impossible. We derive the word ‘integrate’ from the word integrity, and integration is nothing but the acquisition of one thing into unity with another.

Moreover, Aquinas follows Boethius in arguing that “unity belongs to the idea of goodness” because “a thing exists so far as it is one” and as St. Thomas explains, both goodness and unity are convertible with being. 2 Thus, along with goodness and truth, unity is one of the ‘transcendentals’ because it is convertible with being. These transcendentals are simply being apprehended under different modes. This complements St. Augustine’s teaching that evil is not its own being but the corruption of being. All things, in so far as they exist, that is, in so far as they have being, are good and they exist in truth and unity.

Harmony or proportion is also closely related to unity. For harmony is a bringing together of two or more things into a unity while maintaining some aspect of their distinctive identity. Proportion is the perfect representation of another thing or conformity to some good. St. Thomas gives the example of the Son as the perfect image of the Father and thus said to be in perfect proportion. 3 Elsewhere he states that God is beautiful as being “the cause of the harmony and clarity of the universe.” 4 He also states that love, which is the most beautiful virtue, is “a certain harmony of the appetite with that which is apprehended as suitable.” 5

Unity and harmony, as qualities of beauty, can be understood when we consider the attractiveness of a complex piece of music (or any artwork) over something simple. All other things equal, the complexity makes the piece more beautiful. This is because the act of harmoniously incorporating additional forms and components into a greater unity approximates truth, beauty, and goodness. The unity of the Trinity is the perfect archetype of harmony and pure oneness (out of something like a plurality). A family is beautiful because of its unity; and a well ordered society is for the same reason. That is all to say that unity and harmony point to not just any truth, but to truth itself, God, as do all things beautiful.

The dissolution of a thing arises from a defect therein. Disunity is an evil because its end is the dissolution of a being in the same way that the end of sin is the dissolution of some good. The ugliness of disunity is evidenced by the pain that accompanies it. St. Thomas quotes St. Augustine saying, “what else is pain but a feeling of impatience of division or corruption?” 6 and goes on to say, “the good of each thing consists in a certain unity” in defense of his proposition that the desire for unity is a cause of sorrow.7

With all of these ideas considered, we followers of Christ ought to sorrow at the disunity of Christians and earnestly pray for the re-unification, the integration, of all Christians into one body: the Church. Unity is beautiful because it is good and Christ intended unity for His Church8 because it is His own body. Our theological differences notwithstanding, I hope that Christians of all backgrounds will join together during this week of prayer for Christian unity to petition the Holy Spirit to move on the hearts of men that we may be unified not only in spirit, but in body, that is, in Church.

  1. Summa Theologica, 1.39.8 []
  2. Ibid., 1.6.4; 2.36.3 []
  3. Ibid., 1.39.8 []
  4. Ibid., 2b.145.2. Aquinas is quoting Pseudo-Dionysius []
  5. Ibid., 2.29.1 []
  6. De Lib. Arb. iii, 23 []
  7. Summa Theologica 2.36.3 []
  8. cf. John 17 []
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9 comments
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  1. I’m still absorbing this post, but I can’t let this go unsaid:

    We derive the word ‘integrate’…

    This is priceless.

  2. Wow, this post is really profound, I like Jeffrey am still trying to absorb it (certainly mind-changing to think about all of Creation this way). I think there’s a certain point that one might make too about the Communion of Saints in Heaven still being part of the Body of Christ and that we still have access to our brothers and sisters in Christ even after they die (because we are all one Body). Perhaps this is something to talk about amongst our Reformed friends. Excellent post!

  3. Steven, I couldn’t agree more.

    Back when I knew I wasn’t Protestant anymore, but I wasn’t Catholic yet, I investigated the Eastern Orthodox. What struck me about the iconography throughout the Church is that it was carefully placed and layered so that everything had meaning. But what struck me more was that all the saints were participating in the mass. The boundary between this world and the next was blurred. We were one Church, separated only by death. Death, while significant, did not divide the Body of Christ. I never quite looked at life the same way after that. I eventually discovered that the Catholic Church had this view also and that in older churches, statues, paintings, and stained glass served the same function of icons and that beauty and unity was still present.

    It’s only in newer, more Protestant-friendly Churches where all hints of the Church Triumphant have been purged. So it’s little surprise that for non-Catholics, it doesn’t look like anything special happens at mass or that Catholics are little different from Protestants except for Marian and Saint devotions and transubstantiation.

    Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi

  4. Steven and Anil,

    Good points – thanks for bringing that up. Before Christ, death was an attack and minor victory over unity because it caused division and corruption. This is related to the concept that desire for unity is a cause of sorrow. Death shatters unity and incites the desire for a re-unification of what was separated, whether an individual body & soul or whether a person and the community/body to which he once belonged.

    But Christ has conquered death hasn’t He? If we say we believe that, then our liturgy ought to reflect it. Yes Anil, Lex orandi, lex credendi indeed! Death was the ultimate force against unity; but after Calvary, even death cannot shatter the unity of God’s people.

    Schisms and heresies like the Protestant Reformation are a kind of death, a direct attack on Christian unity. These do have temporary victories, i.e. temporary wounds to unity. But if even literal death cannot conquer the Church’s essential unity, then neither can man’s sinfulness which is a kind of death. To participate in the sacramental life of the Church is to participate in the unity of the saints; it is to commune with Heaven. To schism from the Church, or to cause such division, is to participate in the disunity of the demons; it is to commune with Hell.

    Satan does not desire unity, least of all Christian unity! Let us keep that in mind when we pray.

  5. Tim,

    So true about Satan and this is why it is so scandalous for Christians to justify disunity by hiding behind agreement in the so-called essentials. May those outside the Church recognize the oneness of the true Chuch and may they enter into the fulness and beauty of the faith of the Church, for in this faith is found the glory of Christ!

  6. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Taylor Marshall and Alissa Gotta, Catholic Christians. Catholic Christians said: Unity and Beauty http://bit.ly/g0Fhmn Thanks @Apologetics […]

  7. My blog friend Owen produced a nice little piece of artwork about true ecumenism and praying for unity that I think people here would like. He was inspired by the prayer of newly Venerable Father Baker of Buffalo.

    The Kind of Christian Unity I Pray For”

    Moderators, I’m not sure how you feel about suggesting links here. I’m not trying to create spam, but if you need to block it, no problem.

    God Bless

  8. Paul,

    Links like that are fine so long as they are relatively on topic. I mean if it’s a link selling Viagra or something, we might have a problem. :-)

    Thanks for the link.

  9. Great post! I dont have comments.

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