Form, Beauty, Evil

The Aristotelian teaching on form becomes evident in beautiful artwork. A beautiful painting is more than just the sum of its parts. As St. Augustine tells us, “in each separate kind of Thy work, when Thou didst say, ‘Let them be made,’ and they were made, Thou didst see that it was good. I have counted seven times where it is written that Thou didst see what Thou hadst made was ‘good.’ And there is the eighth time when Thou didst see all things that Thou hadst made and, behold, they were not only good but also very good; for they were now seen as a totality. Individually they were only good; but taken as a totality they were both good and very good. Beautiful bodies express this truth; for a body which consists of several parts, each of which is beautiful, is itself far more beautiful than any of its individual parts separately, by whose well-ordered union the whole is completed even though these parts are separately beautiful” (Confessions, 13.28.43). Therefore a beautiful painting is made beautiful by the sum of its parts and the harmony existing between them, which can be spoken of as the form of the painting. We can add to this thought in two ways.

Firstly, not only the existence, but also the unity of form can be glimpsed through the example of artwork. It is evident to anyone who has ever seen a beautiful painting or heard a lovely song that its harmony transforms all of its parts, and no longer is any part what it once was when isolated. As Plotinus says, “When Idea enters in, it groups and arranges what, from a manifold of parts, is to become a unit; contention it transforms into collaboration, making the totality one coherent harmoniousness, because Idea is one and one as well (to the degree possible to a composite of many parts) must be the being it informs. In what is thus compacted to unity, beauty resides, present to the parts and to the whole” (Ennead 1.6.2). And this shows that the form pervades all of its parts.

In contrast, consider how a disordered painting does not have anything ‘added to it’ to make it disordered. Rather, it is almost as if the default state of the parts is being disordered – they are disordered until they have form added to them, which transforms them into a totally new creation. There are infinitely many ways for parts to be disordered, but few ways for parts to be arranged beautifully. This is the same in how there are many falsehoods but only one truth. And it is the same as how there are countless ways to act evilly, but few ways to act virtuously. And here we can see why the philosophers say that evil is an absence of good, rather than the other way around.

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