Love and Beauty, the “Forgotten Transcendental,” in Thomas AquinasD. C. Schindler
Beauty’s place in the thought of Thomas Aquinas is a disputed question: while on the one hand he appears to accord beauty a great dignity, he does not explicitly mention it alongside truth and goodness in his most substantial account of what we might call the “relational” transcendentals, the universal properties of being that come to expression specifically in relation to the human soul.1 The ambiguity in beauty’s status characterizes not just Aquinas’s work, but in fact may be said regarding the period of the high Middle Ages in general, so much so that Etienne Gilson was able to refer to beauty, famously, as the “forgotten transcendental.”2 If there have been a number of scholars in the past century who have sought to set into relief the importance of beauty in Aquinas, there are always others who respond with efforts to deflate their claims. Recently, one of the more respected intellectual historians on this theme, Jan Aertsen, concluded his assessment of the evidence, pro and con, with a sober judgment: “discussion of beauty occupies a marginal place in [Aquinas’s] systematic works.”3 However much one might want to defend beauty, it is difficult to dispute what Aertsen says here, at least as far as first impression goes. It is simply not possible, for example, to imagine Aquinas’s philosophical theology without the notion of truth, goodness, or unity; if any of these were missing, the very foundation of his thought would be compromised and the entire edifice would topple. If, by contrast, we were to remove any reference to beauty from the pages of his works, it would at least appear to be the case that, though it may have lost some of its ornamentation, the building would nevertheless remain standing, just as solid as before.
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1. Thomas Aquinas, De veritate, 1.1.
2. See Etienne Gilson, Elements of Christian Philosophy (New York: Doubleday, 1960), 159–63.
3. Jan Aertsen, Medieval Philosophy as Transcendental Thought: From Philip the Chancellor (ca. 1225) to Francisco Suarez (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 173.