Dr. Peter Kreeft: “Beauty is the first thing we notice and love”

The popular author and professor of philosophy discusses the profound connections between beauty, truth, and goodness.

This is an installment in our series on the evangelizing power of beauty. In this series, we are looking at how beauty can bring us to God, convey a sense of the sacred, point us toward the Truth, and even help us know how to be good. Through essays and interviews, this series will examine how the beautiful can lead us to the true and the good.

Dr. Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College and prolific author, has spoken and written on the topic of beauty for decades. He is personally aware of the evangelizing power of beauty; the beauty of Catholic art and architecture played an important role in his conversion to Catholicism. As a child, growing up in a Calvinist home, he was taught that Catholics were wrong. One of the earliest seeds of doubt was planted when his family went sight-seeing in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. He was stunned; he had never seen anything like it before. He asked his father, “If the Catholics are so dreadfully wrong, how can their churches be so beautiful?” He connected beauty with truth.

Peter Kreeft (Image: bc.edu)

I spoke with Dr. Kreeft about beauty, what attracts us about beautiful things, and how beautiful things can help open people up to goodness and truth.

Catholic World Report: Why are we attracted to beautiful things? What makes them beautiful?

Peter Kreeft: This is a surprisingly difficult philosophical question about which philosophers have argued for millennia without coming to much agreement. All that is clear (to me, anyway) is that beauty, like truth and goodness, is divinely designed to be food for our souls; that is why He designed in us an innate and universal hunger for it. As there are truths we can’t not know and goods we can’t not need and will, there are beauties we can’t not love. As to what it is, all answers I know of are partly right but incomplete. Beauty is always more than we can define or explain. Our right brain (intuition) knows it much better than our left brain (analysis).

It is unlike truth in that way. Truth is definable (the correspondence or match between thought and thing, knowing and being) but beauty apparently is not. Goodness also, like beauty, is probably indefinable, as both G.E. Moore and Wittgenstein have argued logically.

Plotinus, in his deservedly famous Ennead on Beauty, goes up the ladder (with Plato in the “Symposium”) from visual, material beauty through immaterial beauties, to Absolute Eternal, Perfect Beauty itself (which is NOT an abstraction!), and notes that at each rung of the ladder we feel a pull out of ourselves, an awe, a “trembling” in the soul. He did not know that beauty is an attribute of the God Who is a Person, a Will, a Creator, a Lover, a Savior, and a Trinity, but he knows some profound things about the divine nature.

CWR: Are some things inherently, intrinsically beautiful?

Kreeft: The only reason I can imagine why someone would deny that some beautiful things are beautiful inherently and necessarily is that they would deny that beauty is objectively real, and say it’s all “different strokes for different folks.” Yet we all know, I think, that someone who finds musical harmony ugly and violent attacks on harmony beautiful, the structure and design of the human body ugly and bodily mutilation beautiful, or Jesus and Mary ugly and Hitler and the Marquis de Sade beautiful, is profoundly wrong, twisted.

People say that silly thing because many things are indeed beautiful only relatively and extrinsically (like tools, the right amount of light, familiar faces, or any work of art that succeeds, with them, in art’s highest purpose—which is to break your heart and elicit tears). But that may well be “Mary Had a Little Lamb” for one and Beethoven’s Ninth for another.

I think that even here, however, the one who sees no beauty in “Mary Had a Little Lamb” is missing something, just as one who sees none in Beethoven’s Ninth is missing something. Beauty is a “transcendental,” i.e., absolutely universal, property. Everything is, in itself, intrinsically beautiful in some way. I remember Father Norris Clarke talking about this and saying that he saw no beauty in mosquitoes (which pestered him) until he looked at one carefully under a microscope.

CWR: The three transcendentals are the true, the good, and the beautiful. How are these all intertwined?

Kreeft: The intertwining of truth, goodness, and beauty is based on being. Non-being is neither true nor good nor beautiful. And neither is destruction, unless it is destruction of falsehood, paving the way for truth; of evil, paving the way for good; or ugliness, paving the way for beauty.

The triad corresponds to the three distinctively human powers of the soul, of course: mind, will, and heart (spiritual feelings, which animals lack). That is why our literature is full of this triad of protagonists: prophet, king and priest. Gandalf, Aragorn and Frodo; Spock, Captain Kirk, and “Bones” McCoy in Star Trek; Ivan, Dmitri, and Alyosha Karamazov; Quint, Hooper, and Brodie in Jaws, etc.

There are dim Trinitarian echoes here, of course. The Spirit is love, thus known by the heart; the Son is the Logos, the Mind of God; and the Father is Life and Will and Being itself, and the first cause and creator of all being. Of course all three Persons always work together, but insofar as we can distinguish aspects of Their work, we can attribute it more especially to one of the Persons. Hindu theology also mentions three attributes of Brahman: sat, chit, and Ananda; infinite being or life, infinite knowledge or truth, and infinite joy or goodness or love. St. John uses three terms for God, especially in his first epistle: light, life, and love. Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Also the three divine attributes that logically entail the startling good news that “all things work together for God for those who love God” are omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence. If God does not lack power, or life, or being, He gets whatever He wills; if He does not lack knowledge, He knows exactly the best way to get it; and if He does not lack love (goodwill), He wants it for all of us who also want it and choose it and allow Him to give us His gift, which is Himself.

In all these cases the one of the three that is always clearly present is the one associated with mind, logos, prophet, knowledge, truth. Love is sometimes classified with the one associated with life and will, and sometimes with the one associated with beauty and love and joy and the heart. Love itself is sometimes associated with the heart and feeling and sometimes with the will and choice. But despite the confusion and fuzziness, there are always three.

CWR: Can the beautiful lead us to the true and the good?

Kreeft: Since beauty is the child of the marriage between goodness and truth, and since babies always in some ways resemble both parents, therefore both truth and goodness are always beautiful (intrinsically, in themselves, necessarily and universally), and therefore beauty always can lead us back to both truth and goodness. All truth is beautiful; scientists often say that the beauty of a mathematical theorem or physical theory is a clue to its truth. And the most beautiful thing in the world is a saint. Mother Teresa’s wrinkles are far more beautiful than a movie star’s vain, shallow, and bratty face. Spirits can manifest more beauty than bodies. Also more ugliness.

CWR: How can beautiful things teach us about God, and lead us to God?

Kreeft: Beauty is the first thing we notice and love. It is the ambassador, or the sales representative, for truth and goodness. That’s why Dostoevsky said it would save the world.

I once had to teach a Sunday School class, kindergarten level, and I was talking about Heaven. A boy asked me how he would recognize God in Heaven. What a question! Only the Holy Spirit could answer it, and fortunately He did. I blurted out: “He will be the most absolutely beautiful thing you ever saw!” The kid said to me, “You’re right.” I was put in my place, and given a passing grade by the real teacher.

All beauty is what C.S. Lewis called “patches of Godlight” in our shadowy woods.

All beauty makes us happy. To people who doubt that spiritual beauty makes you happier than physical beauty, I say: go live with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity for half a day, and you will see a beauty and a happiness that you never saw before in this world, and that you will see even more of in the next if you really want to.

Beauty is irresistible. Truth is easily resistible. We are very good at deceiving ourselves. Goodness is easily resistible. We can shut up our consciences very easily. But we cannot shut up that nightingale in the heart with the heartbreaking voice that demands its food.

CWR: In your recent book Ask Peter Kreeft, you mention that whenever possible you attend the Latin Mass. Is the beauty of this liturgy part of what draws you to it?

Kreeft: Yes, yes, and yes. It’s not just that Latin is a beautiful language, but that the beauty in the souls of the persons who designed the Mass (and I am speaking of three kinds of persons here, human and angelic and divine) comes through the words and inspires the reverence in both the celebrant and the congregation. I read recently that 1-2 percent of Catholics who attend the Latin Mass also participate in the sacraments of our secular society: contraception, divorce, abortion, sodomy, even pornography. It is a startling statistic (like the 1-2 percent divorce rate among those who use NFP), yet not startling at all. In Heaven we will not even be tempted to such evils, and the Mass gets us closer to Heaven. All Masses do, but especially the old one. Its only rival for reverence and beauty is the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, which has also been authorized for Mass, with Catholic changes and additions, in the “Anglican Use Mass” for the ordinariate for Anglicans who become Catholics. Of course it’s beauty that draws me to it, but it’s not just aesthetic beauty but spiritual beauty, “the beauty of holiness.”

CWR: You’ve said that your personal favorite proof for the existence of God is, “There is the music of J.S. Bach, therefore there is a God.” Can you elaborate on this a bit?

Kreeft: No, I don’t think I can. Just listen. Or, if you prefer, substitute Grieg, Wagner, Beethoven, Mozart, Rimsky-Korsakoff, Sibelius, Chopin, Handel, or Tchaikovsky for Bach. Bach was holy and humble; he won’t mind. But don’t even think of mentioning “contemporary Christian rock” in the same breath; it’s an insult to rock as well as to Christianity, and it’s almost as painful as those spectacularly silly, sappy, sloppy, sentimental, shallow, stupid examples of emotional diarrhea called “praise choruses.”

CWR: Has beauty played a part in your own faith throughout your life?

Kreeft: Yes, but like the Holy Spirit, beauty has been humble and anonymous most of the time. He doesn’t say much. He must have inspired Lao Tzu, who wrote, in the “Tae Te Ching”: “Knowing that enough is enough, is enough.”


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About Paul Senz 63 Articles
Paul Senz recently graduated from the University of Portland with his Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry. He lives in Oregon with his family.

12 Comments

  1. Letter CWR beauty 05-01-20

    Kreeft remarks that “the most beautiful thing in the world is a saint.”

    This about that, from St. Gregory of Nyssa: “the man who cleanses his heart of every created thing and every evil desire will see the image of the divine nature in the beauty of his own soul” (Another fine book from Ignatius Press: Hans Urs von Balthasar, Presence and Thought: An Essay on the Religious Philosophy of Gregory of Nyssa, Ignatius, 1995).

  2. While Latin is an element of beauty of the liturgy, it is Gregorian chant that gives the liturgy its palpable beauty. The chants make vivid the words and the actions of the liturgy. Surely, the decline in attendance at Mass is linked to the fact that we have lost much of its beauty.

    • Introducing Gregorian chant to a parish where it isn’t being sung already is a sure way to make attendance at Mass decline even more. I knew as soon as I saw the title of this article that there would be a comment like this one. Gregorian chant, smells and bells, are not silver bullets that trads think they are.

    • William Mahrt ,
      Absolutely. The chant I’ve heard in Eastern churches is beautiful also. The word transcendent comes to mind.

  3. “All that is clear (to me, anyway) is that beauty, like truth and goodness, is divinely designed to be food for our souls” (Kreeft). Exactly. My disagreement is Beauty is not the first thing we notice and love. Ibn Sina correctly says What the intellect first conceives as most evident is being (As cited by Aquinas in De Veritate). The senses awaken us to reality and our desire to know. We come to love what we experience, what we see and touch. It’s things that are beautiful, why Aquinas adds What we discern as good is perceived in things that are good. “Good is convertible to being” (ST 1a2ae 18, 3). “Beauty is irresistible. Truth is easily resistible” (Kreeft). Here Peter Kreeft touches the enigma of good and evil. He is clearly aware of the association of being with beauty, referencing Plotinus’ ascension from beauty to ultimate Being, “from visual, material beauty to Absolute Eternal, Perfect Beauty”. God. Giovanni di Fidanza [St Bonaventure] Aquinas’ contemporary defines the association between beauty and being perfectly, “In his Commentarium in libro Sententiarum St. Bonaventure says that ‘whatever possesses being will likewise possess a certain form, and everything that possesses form will possess beauty also as a necessary consequent following upon the form that gives it being’. He refers to the etymology of the word formosa: Omne quod est ens, habet aliquam formam; omne autem quod habet aliquam formam, habet pulchritudinem (II 34, 2, 3, 6). Everything that is, is also good, and everything that is, is also beautiful” (The Category of The Aesthetic in the Philosophy of Saint Bonaventure, Sr Emma Jane Marie Spargo, St. Bonaventure, N.Y.: The Franciscan Institute, 1953). The vital significance then in placing being first in the order of knowledge is the repercussion of dissecting beauty from being, pleasure from the person, holiness from our thoughts and acts. The axis of sin, whereas recognition of beauty’s identity with being is the entree to recognition of the Author of beauty, that “Beauty is an attribute of the God” (Kreeft).

    • As a postscript God is pure, simple being excluding composition. Thus when we speak of God’s attributes we refer to what ‘we’ attribute to him in our knowledge of him. Insofar as beauty Saint Augustine puts it best, O Beauty, so ancient, yet so new.

    • True enough, Truth (like age!), comes before Beauty. But this too—In a fallen world now tripping over its own fallen-ness:

      Is the path of the One short-circuited by brain-stem infantilism, nothing higher than contemplation of one’s navel (or whatever!), i.e., the Babel of identity politics?
      Is the path of Truth blocked by a pageantry of endless lies and finally weariness with 20th-century ideological fantasies and carnage beyond measure?
      Is the path of the Good blocked by our appetites hyper-marinated in endless personal corruptions of the Good? And so

      Is Kreeft’s remaining path of Beauty, then, the last transcendental thread that might still lead us back to the One, the True and the Good? Yes, it might be that Beauty is not “the first thing we notice” but rather, due to our culture of value extermination, has survivor-Beauty become our last hope? And, in this backward situation that “the last shall be FIRST”!!!

  4. Given the toxic environment of total sentimental/emotional/blinding deception rampant today, TRUE Beauty must be carefully separated from False Beauty in Total Ugliness, in order to truly liberate Beauty from its present use as a socialist/communist/atheist political mask and to truly empower it to do what it does best: save us from ourselves, our worst enemy, and open our hard hearts to God.

    Evil is a total parasite of Goodness, as it has absolutely nothing to offer but Hell, so it impersonates everything good that God has created (John 10:10) by crafting the false copies as very attractive EXTREMES which supposedly must be the real thing because they are so extreme and so viciously, so aggressively advocated for. VICIOUSNESS replacing TRUE BEAUTY, Ugliness as Holiness, Murder as Freedom.

    Embracing True Beauty and rejecting popular, fanatical ugliness, will liberate us from the Pachamama Transgendering Demons, which transform men into cowardly false women, and women into heartless false men. We will then be able to appreciate the immense Beauty that God created in the only two genders that He created and delighted in (Genesis 1:31): men and women, growing in that Beauty and being transformed and divinized in it, regardless of any joys or any sufferings because True Beauty strongly grows in BOTH toward God and into more of his Infinite Beauty. Remember that ugliness, no matter how well disguised and “sanctified”, will not make it to Heaven. Remember!!

  5. God is beautiful. And because an effect is like it’s cause, the whole of creation, which was/is caused by God, is beautiful to some degree. Therefore, everything which exists reflects and expresses the beauty of God. So if we perceive anything in this world, we are seeing something of the beauty of God. St. Bonaventure quoted above is saying exactly that. Beauty takes us directly (almost) to God.
    However, everything which has been created is imperfect. Only God is perfectly beautiful. It is therefore often difficult to see beauty in created things. With special cases like Bach and Mozart and Dante, the beauty is easier to see. But we should also strive to see the beauty which exists to some degree or other, in everything which exists – and especially in every human being, each of whom is God’s work of art.

  6. There’s a website that attempts to blend the answer to the existence of God (truth) with images of nature (beauty).

    It’s Raging-Truth.com.

    There’s a real evangelical imperative for Catholic websites to blend the truth of the faith with audible and visual beauty.

  7. Every mass (unless heresy or even defiance of Christ if present) celebrated by an anointed priest of Jesus Christ is ravishing to me as our Hero-God’s Sacrifice of Calvary is made present on the holy altar and offered to the Most High Eternal Father for the sins of the world and this unbelievable merciful God full of love for us frail creatures feeds us with his most holy flesh, blood, soul and DIVINITY. Nothing more beautiful than that because “He is the only Radiant one” (St Therese). I do enjoy hymns of praise and joy. Thank you to Dr Kreeft for his talk on “Questioning the Eucharist”, 2019 GIven Forum, “The Eucharistic Christ is at the center of creation…into the stomach..our bloodstream… our heart…transforming us into Him”

  8. UNIVERSAL CHURCH ICONOGRAPHY
    Illustrated Creed
    “I believe in one God, the Father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, … And was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin Mary and was made man; was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried; and the third day rose again … and the life of the world to come. Amen.”1

    1. IMAGE/ICON OF GOD AND THE CREATION OF THE WORLD → AT CHURCH ENTRANCE2
    2. SCENES FROM THE COMMON SACRED HISTORY → ALONG ONE WALL/ICONOSTAS, E.G.:
    FALL OF ADAM AND EVE
    NOAH AND THE FLOOD
    SACRIFICE OF ABRAHAM
    MOSES AND THE TEN COMMANDMENTS
    NATIVITY OF CHRIST
    FLIGHT INTO EGYPT
    JESUS IN THE CARPENTER SHOP
    CRUCIFIXION
    RESURRECTION
    DESCENT OF HOLY SPIRIT ON THE APOSTLES / APOSTOLIC COUNCIL OF JERUSALEM
    CONSTANTINE’S EDICT OF 313 / COUNCIL OF CARTHAGE IN 397 AND THE BIBLE CANON
    CHURCH OF SAINT PETER’S IN ROME / OUR LADY OF KAZAN IN SAINT PETERSBURG
    3. SCENES FROM THE LIFE OF A FAITHFUL INDIVIDUAL → ALONG OTHER WALL/ICONOSTAS, E.G.:
    GOOD WORKS – GOOD SAMARITAN / ZACCHAEUS
    PRAYER – REPENTANCE PRAYER OF THE PUBLICAN / THE GOOD THIEF
    SEVEN SACRAMENTS – SAINT LEOPOLD MANDICH / SAINT PIO IN THE CONFESSIONAL
    4. ALTAR RAIL / ANCIENT STYLE LOW ICONOSTAS → IN FRONT OF APSE AND ALTAR
    5. LECTERN PORTABLE → IN FRONT OF ALTAR
    6. IMAGE/ICON OR STATUE OF MARY WITH THE CHILD → LEFT OF ALTAR
    7. THE FIFTEEN SCENES OF THE ROSARY → LEFT WALL OR ICONOSTAS
    8. IMAGE/ICON OR STATUE OF CHRIST THE TEACHER → RIGHT OF ALTAR
    9. THE WAY OF THE CROSS, INCLUDING DESCENT INTO HADES → RIGHT WALL OR ICONOSTAS3
    10. TABLE OF PREPARATION → LEFT OF ALTAR
    11. ALTAR → CENTRE OF APSE
    12. TABERNACLE → CENTRE OF ALTAR4
    13. CRUCIFIX → ON ALTAR
    14. IMAGE/ICON OF LAST SUPPER, THE FIRST EUCHARIST/MASS IN JERUSALEM → IN FRONT OF ALTAR5
    15. IMAGE/ICON OF ETERNAL LIFE DEPICTING THE SAINTS AND GOD → IN CHURCH APSE6
    REFERENCES. Abbreviation: e.g. – for example. 1 Illustrated Creed is a depiction of the entire Creed, from the beginning to the end, thus proclaiming Christian Faith in pictures, including pictures in stained glass windows – a synergy of faith and art, good and beautiful, and a perfect and unsurpassable artistic masterpiece of Christian civilization. The ideal church building, the house of God’s people, is a sacred functional/practical symbol of timeless form and proportion, containing images of sacred persons and events from the beginning of creation to the glorification in heaven. The shape of a church dome may be symbolic of the rainbow from Genesis 9:16 and the cross on its top is a sign of the New Covenant. Simplicity of design in parish churches is helpful for their economical maintenance; symmetrical and well-proportioned design gives beauty to a church building in which Eucharist/Liturgy/Mass and other Sacraments are celebrated for the glory of God and for human sanctification, e.g., churches in Jerusalem, Constantinople, Kiev, Saint Petersburg, Rome, Montréal, Washington, San Francisco and Mexico. 2 This is an original 2013 Slavic synthesis based on Genesis 1:1-31, Exodus 3:14, Colossians 1:16, and Church Tradition, and a correction of theologically-deficient, though artistically excellent, Renaissance painting in the famous Sistine Chapel in Rome, which also lacks scenes from the Rosary and the Way of the Cross, popularized after the 16th century; see Santa Sofia basilica in Rome. 3 The 15th station of the Way of the Cross, Christ’s descent into hell on Good Friday, is an original Slavic-Italian sequel (final) published in 2006. 4 See: Saint Francis of Assisi church in Mississauga, Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Springfield, and others, http://ewtn.com/ library/curia/cdwinoec.htm – the centrality of the tabernacle. 5 See: Saint Francis of Assisi church in Toronto and a multitude of others. 6 This picture, like the 15th station of the Way of the Cross, beautifully and perfectly rounds out the illustrated Creed into a fitting and irreplaceable whole; see: apse of San Vitale in Ravenna, painting of Domenico Ghirlandaio, and many others. See also: http://newadvent.org/cathen/05257a.htm; http://sacredarchitecture.org; Pope John Paul II’s letter commemorating the 12th centenary of Nicea II, Rome, 1987; Paul Evdokimov, L’Art de l’icône: théologie de ta beauté, Paris, 1972; Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, Rome, 1963; Pope John Paul II (promulgator), Catéchisme de l’Eglise catholique, Rome, 1992; Josef A. Jungmann, The Mass of the Roman rite, New York, 1951. Prepared by Slavic Christian Society / Société Chrétienne Slave / Slăviansko Xristianskoe Sŏbranie, Mississauga http://slavxrist.org 1999; originally published in Polish as Uniwersalna Ikonografia Kościoła: Ilustrowane Credo, Mississauga http://kolbe.ca 1999. English edition: (1) Saint Maximilian Kolbe, Polish Roman Catholic Church, Mississauga, 1999; (2) revised according to the 2013 Croatian edition Univerzalno Crkveno Slikarstvo: Ilustrirano Vjerovanje – blessed by Bishop Bogović, published by Knights of Columbus, Council 12922, 1883 King St. E., Hamilton, ON L8K 1V9 https://kofc.org/en 12.2.2016.

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