Beauty's resting place: Unity in St. Augustine's sensible aesthetic

Matthew Joseph Hayes, Marquette University


This dissertation answers two unresolved questions regarding Augustine's theory of the beauty of sensible objects (specifically, of seen and heard objects) and our experience of that beauty. First, commentators traditionally allege that sensible beauty is, for Augustine, unworthy of appreciation, consideration, and study. They draw this conclusion from his ascensional aesthetic (the belief that one should rise from lower to higher forms of beauty), from his contention that sensible beauty is used, from Augustine's supposed moral principle excluding the enjoyment of sensible beauty, and from his notion of curiosity. By pulling together passages from Augustine's major works, and by carefully examining his ascensional aesthetic, his use-enjoyment distinction, and his notion of curiosity, I demonstrate that, contrary to the traditionally held view, Augustine considers sensible beauty to be worthy of appreciation, consideration, and study. The second unresolved question involves Augustine's account of the natures of sensible beauty and sensible aesthetic experience. Commentators generally agree that formal aesthetic properties ultimately account for aesthetic value in Augustine's system, but no consensus exists as to which property, or set of properties, is primarily responsible for beauty. The likely candidates include unity, number, form, similarity, equality, proportion, harmony, and order. By examining the textual evidence, and by making explicit an implicit theory in Augustine's writings, I show that the property of an object that fundamentally accounts for its beauty, the primary aesthetic property, is unity. To state this strongly, there is no beauty without unity, and there is no unity without beauty. All other formal properties are aesthetic properties only insofar as they bring about unity in an object. Finally, after answering these two unresolved questions, I show that certain problems still exist for Augustine's aesthetic of unity. These problems are not, however, the same difficulties that commentators typically allege. Augustine, as I make plain in this dissertation, values sensible beauty and sensible aesthetic experience, and unity is the primary aesthetic property.

Recommended Citation

Hayes, Matthew Joseph, "Beauty's resting place: Unity in St. Augustine's sensible aesthetic" (2003). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI3093142.