The intriguing story of the discovery of 'The Beautiful Princess" - an extraordinary painting by Leonardo da Vinci - prompted me to ask friends questions about the meaning of beauty especially since PBS published a documentary on the discovery under the title "Mystery of a Masterpiece" in 2009 which has been repeatedly broadcasted since then and may still be found on the Web today at Canada's CBC program "The Passionate Eye" here. Many friends provided useful feedback and links which I gratefully use here
Why is it intriguing? First, you watch a painstakingly collaborative effort by top art scholars and scientists using the latest technology in order to authenticate the painting. In spite of competition and professional criticism, scholars from top European and American universities are helping each other complete the missing pieces in order to find the historical truth. Second, people love stories that reveal mysteries whether fiction or real especially if they include adventure and emotion, but more so, if the story is about beauty. We seem to be always in search of beauty. Third, seeing the untold physical suffering that old people go through, a nice-looking lady asked us recently: how can one regain her youth physically? How can she then cope with the gradual loss of her physical beauty? Cosmetic surgery does not really stop aging. Ads on TV target viewers to live a healthier life-style which may help in weight-loss but does not reverse the aging process. And in 2006, I had asked a friend who is research director in a big pharmaceutical firm whether regaining youth is possible, but he responded it was not possible.
Second: Scientific Findings
It was interesting to have recently watched Matt Ridley speak about the development of ideas through sex here. Is beauty about sexual desire? How about natural hormones that the brain releases to express bonding and love? We see this in Oxytocin the so-called "love hormone." Recent research in a number of disciplines seem to converge on the importance we assign to beauty.Why we embrace beauty will be discussed too.
Dr. Irene Elia at Cambridge University found that in humans it is not enough to have beautiful bodies, but attributes such as fertility, health, social status and above all collaboration, and even temper quality. Delightful children are more loved by their mothers and are likely to find mates easier than less-attractive ones which eventually results in more offspring. The most intriguing finding is this: There seems to be an evolution of facial beauty to nicer-looking ones as humans mate and raise their children successfully - This immediately shows the importance of the family and the economy to survive and protect the vulnerable children; Correlate it to the pro-life stance of the Church to protect the unborn from abortion which if sustained would allow the fetus to grow as a child in a loving family; Correlate it too to the importance of global redistribution of wealth and resources especially to the poor and most needy nations (See The Economist here.).
2. Complex Systems
If beauty is indeed the result of a development in neurobiological complex collaborations of organisms, then we may as well describe another fundamental development in complex systems that may shed light on the mind's perception of beauty: The uniqueness of modern homosapiens (humans). In my Master's studies in information systems, I wrote about complex systems and projects such as those of NASA in space and the reason why they succeed in a collaborative team work. But the most complex system we know is the human mind with over 100 billion neurons and neurotransmitters. In 2009, Marc Hauser, at the time professor of psychology, human evolutionary biology, and organismic and evolutionary biology at Harvard University, proposes what he calls “humaniqueness” as properties of the distinctive mind of humans that sets it apart from the minds of other creatures. Hauser shows the following characteristics of the human uniqueness:
a. Generative computation: the ability to create a virtually limitless variety of “expressions,” be they arrangements of words, sequences of notes, combinations of actions, or strings of mathematical symbols
b. The capacity for the promiscuous combination of ideas. We routinely connect thoughts from different domains of knowledge, allowing our understanding of art, sex, space, causality and friendship to combine. From this mingling, new laws, social relationships and technologies can result.
c. The use of mental symbols. We can spontaneously convert any sensory experience—real or imagined— into a symbol that we can keep to ourselves or express to others through language, art, music or computer code.
d. Only humans engage in abstract thought. Unlike animal thoughts, which are largely anchored in sensory and perceptual experiences, many of ours have no clear connection to such events.
We alone ponder the likes of unicorns and aliens, nouns and verbs, infinity and God. “Indeed, mounting evidence indicates that, in contrast to Darwin’s theory of a continuity of mind between humans and other species, a profound gap separates our intellect from the animal kind. This is not to say that our mental faculties sprang fully formed out of nowhere. Researchers have found some of the building blocks of human cognition in other species. But these building blocks make up only the cement footprint of the skyscraper that is the human mind. The evolutionary origins of our cognitive abilities thus remain rather hazy. Clarity is emerging from novel insights and experimental technologies, however.”
Hauser thus establishes the basis of a different mind in humans. It shows a profound gap between us and animals, or as the well-known paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. put it, there is a leap from the biosphere to the noosphere which is the sphere of the human mind that can ask himself about himself. The complexity of the human mind, unmatched by that of any other creature has been confirmed by much recent research. Hauser gives this example: “One of our most basic tools, the No. 2 pencil, used by every test taker, illustrates the exceptional freedom of the human mind as compared with the limited scope of animal cognition. You hold the painted wood, write with the lead, and erase with the pink rubber held in place by a metal ring. Four different materials, each with a particular function, all wrapped up into a single tool. And although that tool was made for writing, it can also pin hair up into a bun, bookmark a page or stab an annoying insect. Animal tools, in contrast—such as the sticks chimps use to fish termites out from their mounds—are composed of a single material, designed for a single function and never used for other functions. None have the combinatorial properties of the pencil.” This is true too if you look carefully at the layers of pictures of the "beautiful princess" drawn through laser technology. Layers can be dissected to find harmony. (Cf. Scientific American article on the origins of the mind - September 2009 issue)
3. Mathematics: For scientists, beauty and elegance far surpass the physical appearance of organisms. In geometry, art, and architecture, symmetry is found in attractive human faces and beauty can be generated in the so-called Golden Ratio present more precisely in the shape of the Golden Rectangle.
4. Chaos Theory: This magnificent beauty can be seen in complex systems as with computers now we can decipher the beauty of nature. Watch this brief clip.
6. Mimetic Theory:
René Girard has written volumes on imitative or mimetic desire that may destroy entire nations because of rivalry for possessing the beautiful and attractive or build those nations if properly brought to light. In his research, Girard found the origin of victimization which he relates to the Christ event. You may wish to read my blogspot here; read here some of the most illuminating work in his research in anthropology, or simply watch this interview with him.
Beauty is found too in the mother's love of her children both born and unborn. Research by Dr. Alfred Tomatis and his team showed that listening exists in the womb of a pregnant mother. See, for example, St. Gianna Beretta Molla who was a physician in the 20th century. Her love of her beautiful children did not prevent her from loving her God but on the contrary illuminated it. Add to her St. Rita of Cascia; a greatly popular saint who was a mother and spouse in the 15th century but her devotion made her beautiful; and in the 19th century a Melkite Catholic Palestinian Arab woman Mariam Bouardy, a mystic who experienced God's beauty, has been beatified by the Church.
"The First Degree of Love: Love of Self for Self's Sake
Love is a natural human affection. It comes from God. Hence the first and greatest commandment is, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God." But human nature is weak and therefore compelled to love itself and serve itself first. In the human realm people love themselves for their own sake. This is planted within us for who ever hated his own self?
The Second Degree of Love: Love of God for Self's Sake
God, therefore, who makes everything that is good, makes himself to be loved. He does it as follows: first, God blesses us with his protection. When we live free from trouble we are happy, but in our pride we may conclude that we are responsible for our security. Then, when we suffer some calamity, some storm in our lives, we turn to God and ask his help, calling upon him in times of trouble. This is how we who only love ourselves first begin to love God. We will begin to love God even if it is for our own sake. We love God because we have learned that we can do all things through him, and without him we can do nothing.
The Third Degree of Love: Love of God for God's Sake
In the first degree of love we love ourselves for our own sake. In the second degree of love we love God for our own sake, chiefly because he has provided for us and rescued us. But if trials and tribulations continue to come upon us, every time God brings us through, even if our hearts were made of stone, we will begin to be softened because of the grace of the Rescuer. Thus, we begin to love God not merely for our own sakes, but for himself.
The Fourth Degree of Love: Love of Self for God's Sake
Blessed are we who experience the fourth degree of love wherein we love ourselves for God's sake. Such experiences are rare and come only for a moment. In a manner of speaking, we lose ourselves as though we did not exist, utterly unconscious of ourselves and emptied of ourselves.If for even a moment we experience this kind of love, we will then know the pain of having to return to this world and its obligations as we are recalled from the state of contemplation. In turning back to ourselves we will feel as if we are suffering as we return into the mortal state in which we were called to live.
Can We Attain the Fourth Degree of Love?I am not certain that the fourth degree of love in which we love ourselves only for the sake of God may be perfectly attained in this life. But, when it does happen, we will experience the joy of the Lord and be forgetful of ourselves in a wonderful way. We are, for those moments, one mind and one spirit with God.I am of the opinion that this is what the prophet meant when he said: "I will enter into the power of the Lord: O Lord I will be mindful of Thy justice alone." He felt, certainly, that when he entered into the spiritual powers of the Lord he would have laid aside self and his whole being would, in the spirit, be mindful of the justice of the Lord alone."
The leap from matter to spiritIn the 20th century, the great theologian and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin connected matter to the spirit in his outstanding research from cosmogenesis to Christogenesis and particularly in his evolutionary thought in which the end in Revelation is crowned by Christ the Omega Point in presenting saved humanity to his Father (Certainly more can be found online here thanks to William Ockham). Much has been written about his work including the writings of such giants as Henri de Lubac, S.J., Karl Rahner, S.J. and our much-beloved missionary Henri Boulad, S.J. who visited us in Toronto in June 2013.
On beauty too and influenced by his mystic friend Adrienne von Spyer, the great Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote masterpieces on beauty. In his writings von Balthasar relates beauty to the crucified Christ carried by his blessed mother in his death. It seems that not only in the Resurrection but also in death Christ's beauty is revealed to his lovers. Read this recent article by John Cihak here.
Fourth: Closing Thoughts
The "New Atheist" and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins shares the same concerns and hopes that we have for a better and more humane global civilization. No single rational person can deny the necessity of love for our thoughts and actions to shape civilization. Beauty is a gift to help us love and return love regardless of the malicious will of anyone. I see beauty in the innocent looks and smiles of children, in the serene sight on mountains, and in the far horizon of the sea and the Sunset. Yet beauty is a glimpse into the eyes of a person giving something that is dear and precious out of love to another person. Beauty was seen by three Apostles in the transfiguration of Christ when his face shone like the Sun and his clothes became as dazzling white as the light (Matt. 17: 2). The painting here was painted by Raphael around 1519.
Beautiful is the act of the Crucified whose trust in his Father is stronger than death. This is, to a limited imagination like mine, a form of beauty that reflects utter selfless love; the love of the holy Trinity in one God. How will we learn to love takes much good will and patience.
I can find nothing more beautiful to end with other than the words of St. Gertrude the Great, a mystic who talked with the Beautiful One Jesus Christ in her 13th-century revelations as recorded by her followers:
"Then I understood the meaning contained in those sweet and ineffable words: 'God will be all in all' (1 Cor. 15:28); and my soul, which was enriched by the presence of my Beloved, soon knew, by its transports of joy, that it possessed the presence of her Spouse. Then she received these words with exceeding avidity which were presented as a delicious beverage to satisfy the ardor of its thirst: 'As I am the figure of the substance of God, My Father, in His Divinity, so also you shall be the figure of My substance in My Humanity, receiving in your deified soul the infusion of My Divinity, as the air receives the brightness of the solar rays, that these rays may penetrate you so intimately as to prepare you for the closest union with Me'" (Cf. The Life and Revelations of St. Gertrude the Great, Translated by The Poor Clares of Kenmare, TAN Books, 2002. P. 83).
And then the words of our God and Saviour Christ himself:
"Search the scriptures; for in them you think you have eternal life: and they are they who testify of me." (John 5: 39).