For centuries, the Western tradition of thought conceived of beauty as a symmetry, harmony, or proportion between different elements of a thing. It was most likely the sixth-century B.C. Pythagoras, Greek mathematician and philosopher, with his school, who first argued that the origin of all things lay in number, which marked the birth of an aesthetic-mathematical view of reality. For example, the Pythagoreans were also probably the first to study musical sounds as proportions, correlating different lengths of strings to different notes or different levels of water in jars to different notes. As Umberto Eco notes, it was with the Pythagoreans that “the idea of musical proportion (or mathematical ratio)” became “closely associated with all rules for the production of the Beautiful.”
Later, medieval Christians would adopt and extend this view to all created reality, believing that the universe represented a cosmic harmony instituted by God. These Christians believed that the entire universe, on every level, was bound by a single mathematical and aesthetic rule. This rule was manifested supremely in a belief in “the music of the spheres,” which, according to Pythagoras, “was the musical scale produced by the planets, each of which, in rotating around the motional world, produces a sound whose pitch depends on the distance of the planet from the earth.”Pythagoras claimed that though these cosmic spheres produced the sweetest sound in the universe, our natural and unaided ears were inadequate for hearing it. We can see this view metaphorically referenced as late as the twentieth century in the words of Maltbie Davenport’s hymn “This is My Father’s World”:
This is my Father’s world,
And to my listening ears
All nature sings, and round me rings
The music of the spheres.
This aesthetic conception of cosmic harmony and Pythagorean proportion was to appear in all sorts of variations throughout Western and Christian thought and art through the centuries, so much so that the late historian of thought Władisław Tatarkiewicz referred to it simply as “The Great Theory of Beauty.” He notes, “there have been few theories in any branch of European culture which have endured so long or commanded such widespread recognition, and few which cover the diverse phenomena of beauty quite so comprehensively.”
But, by the eighteenth-century, the Great Theory of Beauty was put under attack. Tatarkiewicz claims that this was due to a combined pressure from dominant philosophies of the time as well as romantic trends in art. It seems to me that this pressure simply represented a reaction to the overly intellectual and abstract mathematical nature of the Great Theory. Eighteenth-century aesthetes seemed to be saying, “Perhaps proportion and harmony are associated with beauty. But shouldn’t beauty move us? Shouldn’t beauty stir our souls?” In essence, eighteenth-century aesthetics were reacting to the dry and abstract nature of what had seemingly become the traditional view of beauty. And I think they were partially correct.
Theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), quite apart from any worries about aesthetics, developed one of the most robust theories of beauty ever conceived, and he did so by focusing upon the God of Scripture. Edwards largely held to the conception of the Great Theory of Beauty. He clearly argues for this in an early essay, claiming that beauty was constituted by symmetry, harmony and proportion. But given that Edwards believed that all created reality, including created aesthetic reality, was simply a reflection of the good and wise Creator of the Bible, he believed that God himself was the true and ultimate Beauty. And Edwards believed that experiencing this beauty was more than simply intellectually assenting to dry facts about proportion and harmony.
In his 1734 sermon, “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” Edwards argues “there is a difference between having an opinion that God is holy and gracious, and having a sense of the loveliness and beauty of that holiness and grace. There is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness. A man may have the former, that knows not how honey tastes; but a man can’t have the latter, unless he has an idea of the taste of honey in his mind.” In other words, natural knowing is simply a purely intellectual understanding of truth, but an experiential knowing is a heart-felt rejoicing in that truth. What does this have to do with beauty? Edwards believed that this distinction applies to knowing beauty as well:
So there is a difference between believing that a person is beautiful, and having a sense of his beauty. The former may be obtained by hearsay, but the latter only by seeing the countenance. There is a wide difference between mere speculative, rational judging anything to be excellent, and having a sense of its sweetness, and beauty. The former rests only in the head, speculation only is concerned in it; but the heart is concerned in the latter. When the heart is sensible of the beauty and amiableness of a thing, it necessarily feels pleasure in the apprehension. It is implied in a person’s being heartily sensible of the loveliness of a thing, that the idea of it is sweet and pleasant to his soul; which is a far different thing from having a rational opinion that it is excellent.
So, it seems that Edwards would claim that the Great Theory of Beauty is, in essence, correct. But he would probably add, one can know this beauty in two different but related ways: one can have a purely intellectual understanding of something being beautiful because it is proportionate and harmonious—a natural knowing. Or, additionally, one can have a deeper, richer, and more heart-felt and joyful understanding that a thing is beautiful, regardless of whether or not one clearly understands that the thing or person in question is harmonious or symmetrical. In short, Edwards seems to be sympathizing with the complaint that the Enlightenment critics had of the Great Theory of Beauty without actually repudiating that theory. Beauty should move and stir us. And Edwards knew this because encountering the ultimate source of Beauty, the God of the Bible, had moved and stirred his heart.
This is one of our goals here at Bethlehem College and Seminary. We do not simply want our students to have a mere intellectual knowledge of God, but a deep heartfelt appreciation of the beauty of Him and His great plan of the gospel in Jesus Christ.
James C. McGlothlin, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Philosophy and Theology
Associate Director of College Programs
- Pray that God would grow in each of us an appreciation of His beauty.
- Pray for our students and faculty as they return from Spring Break that they would be rested and motivated for the rest of the semester.
- Praise the Lord with us for his faithfulness and pray that he would provide the remaining funds for our On The Double match.
 Umberto Eco, ed. History of Beauty, trans. Alastair McEwen (New York: Rizzoli, 2004), 63.
 Ibid, 82.
 See <https://hymnary.org/text/this_is_my_fathers_world_and_to_my>. Accessed on March 16, 2023.
 Władysław Tatarkiewicz, “The Great Theory of Beauty and Its Decline,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 31:2 (1972), 167.
 Ibid, 169.
 See his essay “The Mind” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 6: Scientific and Philosophical Writings, ed. Wallace E. Anderson (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1980): 332–386.
 “A Divine and Supernatural Light, Immediately Imparted to the Soul by the Spirit of God, Shown to be Both a Scriptural, and Rational Doctrine (1734)” in in A Jonathan Edwards Reader, eds. John E. Smith, Harry S. Stout, and Kenneth P. Minkema (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 112.