There are some words in our language whose meanings change through the passing of time. Words that, if we want to know the true meaning of them, we must investigate the past. Among this group of words is “beauty.”
People today generally see beauty as anything that pleases the senses, but the word was not always thought of in this way. People in the past thought of beauty as something more than this — something that pleases the mind also, through implication and meaning. Plato, for example, (427 BC – 347 BC) saw beauty as a higher concept which we are not able to fully understand. He taught that what those around him viewed as beauty was merely a taste of the Ideal Form Of Beauty. “Remember how in that communion only, beholding beauty with the eye of the mind, he will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities (for he has hold not of an image but of a reality), and bringing forth and nourishing true virtue to become the friend of God and be immortal, if mortal man may.”
In the Bible, Paul writes that peace will be with the person who thinks upon things which are pure, commendable, lovely, excellent, and praiseworthy. Also James, the brother of Jesus, writes that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of Lights.” John writes, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven.” If it is accepted that beauty is a good thing, then it can be concluded based off these passages that it has been given to us by God, but in a form which is suitable only for our fallen world, just as Plato suggests.
Beauty, just like any other commendable quality, is something people should aspire to. The teaching of this important topic in the educational setting of life lays an important foundation for the way people view the world around them as they grow up. As a Christian, it is ineffective just to think about these things if that person is not practicing them. In regard to this topic, James once again writes, “If anyone is a hearer of the Word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in the mirror. For he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty, and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this man will be blessed in what he does.”
Therefore, those attempting to imitate Christ must do so in action, not just in thought. That is not to say however, that thought does not spark action, and that is what more and more godly English teachers are attempting to promote.
Fiction writers who understand “beauty” at a higher level sometimes attempt to illustrate it through life-lesson stories. One example of this is Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling. In this story, a duckling wanders through life looking different from all his fellow ducks, until later on in his life, he realizes he is a swan. The moments before his revelation were ones of tragedy and depression. He felt like he didn’t fit in with everyone else, and rightly so. But what he learns in the end is that what’s on the inside is what matters. The lesson being, hold on to your life, because you will find your place in the world — just give it time.
Another example of Ideal Beauty, as it has been defined up until now, in literature, is in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. Just as the ancient philosopher Plato craved finding the Ideal form of things around him, Victor Frankenstein and Walton are both looking for extensive amounts of knowledge on their subjects of interest. Although their results are very different, their ambitions, especially to them, are not necessarily evil. To a world that does not believe in a superior being, why would they be? Why would there be any limits on man’s actions and capabilities? Frankenstein, has a legitimate curiosity — he wants to know the secret of life and where it came from. The one thing he didn’t realize was that he was looking in the wrong place and in the wrong way. “Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed? It was a bold question, and one which has ever been considered as a mystery.” He has a good and justifiable reason for his actions, in his own mind. But there is a reason for life, and it’s found in the Bible. There are limits, and each person will one day be judged based on those limits. The beauty in their ambitions, therefore, can be seen through their positive efforts, but not necessarily through their outcomes.
“Beauty is at least as objective as any other concept, or indeed takes on a certain ontological priority as more real than particular Forms: it is a sort of Form of Forms.” – Plato