What is Beauty? by Lydia Maria Child

“Then had I all sorts of strange thoughts, which would hardly have agreed with sense. It was as if the secret of Creation lay on my tongue; how God, by the power of his voice, had called every thing forth, and how music repeats in each breast this eternal will of Love and Wisdom.” — Bettine.

The two creative principles of the universe are LOVE and WISDOM. Their union, and perfect proportion, constitutes BEAUTY.In common modes of speech, this word is, obviously enough, applied to mere forms of Love and Truth, in which the perfect proportion is at once felt, rather than seen, and we instinctively name it harmony. But I am now striving to define the abstract and universal Idea; and this I believe to be a harmonious proportion of the two great Creative Principles.

From a healthy union of Affection and Thought flows Energy. When we love to do that which we perceive it right to do, we cannot otherwise than embody it in earnest action. This is moral beauty.

When truth is perceived through the transparent medium of affection for it, it embodies itself in intellectual beauty, and the productions of such states are spontaneously and universally acknowledged as beautiful. Hence, genius ever works with unconsciousness, and is a mystery to itself. The harmony is so complete, that thought does not attempt to analyze affection, or affection to question thought. Being one, they are unconscious of each other’s presence. The spiritual life then flows in freely, and men call it divine mania, inspiration, intuition, genius.

Beauty of recitation is the adaptation of the tone to the word spoken. The word is obviously an embodiment of thought, and tone, of affection. There is the same subtle union, and mysterious significance, in the expression and the proportions of a statue.

Musicians say there are three primal notes, without which music cannot be; and there are three primal colors, without a due proportion of which painting wants harmony .Pictures by the old masters show a knowledge of this; or rather an intuition, that transcends knowledge .

An artist once suggested to me that the triple elements of form were the Circle, Straight-line and the Undulating. I at once saw that it must be so; because they represent the spiritual tri-une, of Love, and Wisdom, and Beauty. Space evidently relates to Love, and time to Truth ; for love is infinite, and truth is eternal. The circle represents infinity, and the straight line eternity; the combination of both is a succession of curves—the line of beauty. This undulating line is, as it were, a map of the spiral; the spiral represented on a horizontal plane. None, but the Omniscient can comprehend the full significance of the spiral; for it contains the universe—from the smallest pebble, to the throne of Jehovah. The ancients
had glimpses of this, and therefore that line is so often found among the most sacred symbols in their temples. Forever revolving and ascending, it combines the circle, the straight line, and the curve. Are not these, like the three primal notes and colors, forms of Love, Wisdom, and Beauty, or Affection, Thought, and Energy? This eternal trinity creates and re-produces all things in its own image.

The perfect and constant harmony of Love and Truth constitutes the Divine Mind. The separation between them, with the power of occasional union, and glancing revelations, from within and without, of a final, perfect, and eternal marriage, constitutes human nature, with all its marvelous spiritual phenomena. Its hopes and its aspirations are but a recognition of the Divine Union by which it was created, and a prophecy of the Divine Harmony toward which it tends.

Wherever the soul catches a glimpse, in any form, of a perfect union of Love and Truth, it rejoices in the radiant marriage-vesture, and names it Beauty. In all these forms, the soul sees the face of its Parent. It is reminded of its home, and drawn thither. Hence, next to the word “harmony,” “a joyous perception of the infinite” is themost common definition of Beauty.

Beauty is felt, not seen by the understanding. Mere analysis never attains so high. It can dissect, but it cannot create beauty, or perceive it; because it is thought standing alone, and therefore in self-consciousness. A primal note is wanting, and its tune is ever defective. A primal color is gone, and its painting is deficient.

All evil is perverted good, and all falsehood is reversed truth. Therefore, the tri-une mystery, that pervades the universe, is embodied in shapes of evil, as well as of good. Hatred, Falsehood, and Force take an infinite variety of forms, as do Love, Truth, and Energy. If the proportion between falsified truth and perverted affection be harmonious, the product has power to charm. It has been truly said, “There is a sort of beauty in a wicked action, provided it be well done.” Much of Byron’s intellectual power has this origin. Milton’s Devil wears it like a robe of fascination. The same law shows itself in ultimates, in the material world; hence the beauty of the tiger, the leopard, and other destructive animal.

The Dial: A Magazine for Literature, Philosophy, and Religion
(April 1843) pp. 490-492