On Beauty: The "Forgotten" Transcendental

Newly Established Claritas Initiative Holds Inaugural Event

Beauty is much more than a "cosmetic or superficial phenomenon" that might lead to "a skin care or lipstick recommendation." That's what several hundred attendees to the University of St. Thomas' inaugural event for its Claritas Initiative on Beauty, Goodness, and Truth heard from guest lecturer Dr. Jennifer Newsome Martin of University of Notre Dame.

Drawing from philosophers Plato, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Elaine Scarry, and many others who describe beauty as a "transcendental," Martin maintained that beauty is part of the structure of reality itself. And in fact, Martin said the beauty that so deeply permeates reality comes from the Beautiful (capital "B") source of all that exists, namely, the God who is Beauty.

Martin used the example of the striking sunflowers in her garden that make her heart soar, but also make her heart sore because of their eventual decay. When encountering something beautiful, one is inspired by it while simultaneously one feels a certain anguish at the thought of losing it. Beauty, therefore, awakens desire, while also making painfully clear that our longing will not be fulfilled by anything in this world, she added.

"What else does beauty say to us," she said, "except that we are supernatural creatures with a transcendent vocation destined for glory?"

St. Thomas panelists responded to Martin's lecture from their distinct disciplinary perspectives. Prof. Lisa Schiltz from the School of Law connected beauty to human dignity and in so doing established its importance for the practice of law; Dr. Katherine Acton from the School of Engineering discussed the role of beauty for engineering as it responds to human needs; Dr. Rosemarie Monge from the Opus College of Business suggested that the crucial place of beauty is unsettlingly undermined by contemporary economic and political structures; Dr. Mark Spencer from the College of Arts and Sciences described the power of beauty to rescue one from the meaninglessness that haunts the human condition.

Students and alumni also shared their perspective.

"I think the best way to characterize my response would be wonder," said Mitchell Zaic '22. "Specifically, Dr. Martin's seminar was a fascinating dive looking at beauty as transcendental throughout many different time periods and cultures. Despite the differences between when each philosopher operated, Dr. Martin was able to identify key threads and ultimately tie it back to Christianity as the ultimate fulfillment of those ideas. Both the ideas and the way they were presented invoked a sense of awe."

Zaic encourages others to attend future events in the series. "Don't worry about the content being too intellectual or esoteric," he said. "No matter what discipline you come from, there's something for you there. I'd be lying if I said I understood every portion of every speaker's talk, but the talk is formatted so that anyone can positively interact with it."

One takeaway for Zaic, he said, was, "Dr. Martin's idea on our responses to beauty to be particularly significant. She described those as a combination of both positive and negative feeling. Positive, as we observe the beauty, appreciate it, and attempt to reproduce it. Negative, in the fact that we know the beauty is destined to fade. It won't be around forever no matter how hard we try to maintain it. I know this observation is true, but I'm still wrestling with what my proper response should be."

NOTE: This event was held on September 19, 2023.

Scenes from the Event

speaker gesturing with their arm panel of speakers onstage at the event person taking notes during the event attendees talking in small groups before the event president rob vischer speaking group of four people talk animatedly before the event

Guest Lecturer Dr. Jennifer Newsome Martin

The panel of speakers onstage during the event

A member of the audience takes notes during the discussion

Attendees gathered for a social hour before the event began

President Rob Vischer shared his remarks during the event

Attendees talked animatedly during the social gathering