by Marc Hays
In The City of God, Augustine of Hippo wrestled with the problem of evil. Augustine summarized his thoughts with the now famous maxim: “Evil has no positive nature; but the loss of good has received the name ‘evil.’” Evil is not a thing; it is a privation—a lack of a thing, namely goodness.
The qualities of being have been aptly summarized in classical philosophy in the triad commonly referred to as the “transcendentals”—namely “goodness, truth, and beauty.” Augustine has relegated the definition of evil to a privation of the good; the very existence of evil is ultimately contingent upon the existence of the good, for evil cannot describe any act except the one that does not attain unto goodness. Consider for a moment an extension of Augustine’s maxim to the other two of the three, ancient transcendentals: truth and beauty.
Truth is often considered under the realm of knowledge, and most of us hold to the notion the truth is “that which corresponds to reality.” We also know, however, that truth can be embodied, enfleshed, and incarnated for Jesus Christ said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” So truth is more than a logical correspondence with reality, but it is nothing less than that.
Continuing with Augustine’s idea of privation, a “lie,” would be a description of that which does not correspond with reality. There is no category for “lie” unless there is a “truth” to be misrepresented, twisted, corrupted. Borrowing Augustine’s axiom, a lie would be a privation of the truth. A lie stands between the knower and that which is to be known, casting a shadow.
Following this line of thought, the third of the transcendentals, “beauty,” ought to be considered within the same category of goodness and truth, while “ugliness” would fall into the category of evil and falsehood. Following Augustine again, that which is ugly is a description of that which does not attain unto the standard of beauty.
There is no apt description of ugly unless beauty is the canon, the standard, the rule. There is nothing easier than to believe with our culture that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” We have replaced “beauty” with “preference” and we sleep easy at night believing that the transcendental triad is fine as a duo. We fight for objective goodness, and we fight for objective truth, all the while affirming with the spirit of our age that beauty is up for grabs. The longer the church affirms that there is no such thing as objective beauty, the more ugliness will be preferred, both within the church and without.