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Confessions: On The Beautiful And The Fitting

Well, I set my mind to it, and I began to see that there inhered in material objects one quality that’s a sort of whole, which is beautiful for that reason; and that there’s another quality that’s attractive because it’s well adapted to fit something else, like a part of the body in its relation to the whole body, or a piece of footwear in relation to the foot, and so on with other examples.—Saint Augustine, Confessions 4.20

In his younger years, Augustine was infatuated with what he called “lower beauties.” Noting that we do not love anything unless it is beautiful, he asked himself “What is beautiful? And what is beauty?” (4.20.1) for it is the attractiveness of what is seemingly beautiful that pulls us toward it like gravity.

He concluded that objects are beautiful because they have two qualities, the first being that the object is a “sort of whole”, in other words, it requires nothing else; it stands alone. Like the beauty of the sun, and the stars. The second quality is that they are “well adapted to fit something else” (4.20.2). Like a part of the body in relation to another or a shoe in relation to a foot or a glove in relation to a hand.

Both these qualities describe what is truly beautiful. A perfectly crafted good is “whole” all on its own and needs nothing else to make it beautiful. Yet what is it about the craftsmanship that gives it this quality? Augustine would argue that it is how all its parts fit together perfectly. Consider all of creation, how everything is beautiful all on its own yet fits together perfectly.

Augustine went on to write two or three (Augustine could not remember) volumes titled “On the Beautiful and the Fitting.” By the time he wrote his Confessions, the books would be lost. However, the Confessions maintain the general thesis of his work: beautiful things stand alone and fit together perfectly.

The heavens declare the glory of God;

the skies proclaim the work of his hands.—Psalm 19:1

Lord, open my eyes to see the beauty around me.

Note: These are my daily reflections as I go through Saint Agustine's Confessions. Unless otherwise noted, I am using Sarah Ruden's translation of the original text, and the NIV.


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