Beauty, Goodness and the Way Things Are Supposed to Be

At the Conference on Medicine and Religion which I attended in Houston last month, John Eberly, a theology and medical student at Duke Divinity School and the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, presented one of the more interesting papers entitled “Beauty and the Re-Enchantment of Medicine.”  As he says in his abstract beauty constitutes a “sense of wholeness which moves toward the way things should be.” The loss of this sense by modern medicine’s emphasis on materialist/reductionist science has led to “the disenchantment of the world with . . . the current and troubling trends of burnout, suicide, and depression within the medical community.”  He illustrates this disenchantment with a some arresting 20th century paintings:

Jose S. Perez: The Surgeon (1993)
Max Oppenheimer: Operation (1912)

He concluded with an account of beauty that “re-enchants medicine by cultivating wonder, awe, a descent into ugliness, and a longing for the way things should be.”  He had no examples from art to illustrate his point, but told a story of the beauty he found in his family’s caring for his grandmother in the extreme ugliness of her final illness.  Instead of being disenchanted and repulsed by the ugliness of her condition, he was re-enchanted by the beauty displayed in the very midst of that ugliness.  Eberly’s presentation was quite moving and itself an illustration of the re-enchantment by beauty that it was meant to convince us of.

I was particularly struck by his use of the phrase “the way things should be” as characteristic of beauty and the re-enchantment with medicine it can engender.  In characterizing beauty as a “sense of wholeness which moves toward the way things should be” (and ugliness as what lacks this) Eberly, I think, echoes how St. Thomas Aquinas explains that goodness, as what is desirable, is the perfection of a thing’s nature, and evil as a privation of good.  It reminded me of a paper I had presented a few years ago in which I argued that Aquinas’ acknowledgement of an objective human nature, in contrast to modern materialist/reductionist science, is necessary to identify disease and dysfunction as natural evils, departures from how things are supposed to be.  Ultimately, in order to recognize physical disorders as natural evils (and so problematic vis-a-vis God’s goodness), one cannot (consistently) embrace a reductive/materialist scientism that rejects objective natures as part of an atheist worldview.  In a medical context, I would extend that to entail that one must recognize objective human nature, and functions and activities perfective of it, in order to identify diseases and dysfunctions as natural evils, privations of the perfections of “how things are supposed to be.”  If you’re interested in how I get there, continue reading.

The notion of good, for Aquinas, is fundamentally grounded in the notion of existing:

Existing itself chiefly has the nature of being desirable, and so we perceive that everything by nature desires to conserve its existing and avoids things destructive of its existing and resists them as far as possible.  Therefore, existing itself, insofar as it is desirable, is good. . . .  Therefore, evil, which is universally contrary to good, is necessarily also contrary to existing.  (Disp. Quest. on Evil 1, 1)

The good, Aquinas tells us, is essentially what is desirable, but this is relative to the thing in question.  What is desirable for each and every thing is its own existing.  He makes this clear in the Summa Theologiae (ST) and ties it to the notion of perfection:

The essence of goodness consists in this, that it is in some way desirable. [And] a thing is desirable only in so far as it is perfect; for all desire their own perfection. But everything is perfect so far as it is actual. Therefore it is clear that a thing is perfect so far as it exists; ST 1.5.1)

Brian Davies in his book Aquinas on God and Evil (Oxford UP 2011) elaborates to indicate the role nature has in defining good:

Aquinas is not here saying that something is good only insofar as somebody desires it.  His meaning is that something is good insofar as it possesses what is desirable for it considered as what it is by nature (32). . . . On [Aquinas’] account, a perfect X lacks nothing that it could have in the way of attributes or properties fulfilling it (perfective of it), considered as what it is (33).

And a thing is what it is in virtue of its nature.

            In case it is not clear that Aquinas is thinking that a thing is good as it exists according to the kind of thing it is, i.e. its nature, he makes the connection in terms of form in

Since everything is what it is by its form (and since the form presupposes certain things, and from the form certain things necessarily follow), in order for a thing to be perfect and good it must have a form, together with all that precedes and follows upon that form. . . . But the form itself is signified by the species; for everything is placed in its species by its form. . . . Further, upon the form follows an inclination to the end, or to an action, or something of the sort; for everything, in so far as it is in act, acts and tends towards that which is in accordance with its form. (ST 1.5.5)

A thing’s good is what is or contributes to its functioning well.  This well-functioning is determined by the sort of thing it is, i.e., its nature, what it is.  And to the extent it tends toward that perfection, or desires it, it is not in full possession of that perfection.  Hence, the perfection which is the good for a thing according to its nature (the sort of thing it is) is how a thing of that sort is supposed to be.

Evil, on the other hand, opposes what is good, i.e. desirable, and what is most or fundamentally desirable is a thing’s existing.  But, again, a thing exists as a being of a certain sort, as having a certain nature, which nature is perfected by being able to function in characteristic ways.  An animal with eyes is supposed to see, and its perfection consists in seeing well (or at least as well as things of that sort can)..  A thing is what it is supposed to be to the extent that it does what it is supposed to do.  On the other hand, what is evil for it opposes that thing’s being as the kind of thing it is. An evil opposes a thing being and acting according to its nature, and thus prevents it from doing what it is supposed to do, and so being what it is supposed to be.  Eyes with cataracts are diseased and dysfunctional precisely because they do not function as they are supposed to, i.e. see; to this extent, they have suffered a physical evil.

Aquinas explains that this is what is meant by saying that evil is opposed to a thing’s being as a privation of good.  A thing suffers a natural evil when it lacks what it supposed to have according to its nature, the kind of thing that it is.  But in saying that evil is a privation, he is not saying that there are no evils, but that a thing suffers an evil when it is without something.  But, he is also saying that not every “being without” is evil.

[N]ot every absence of good is evil. For absence of good can be taken in a privative and in a negative sense. Absence of good, taken negatively, is not evil; otherwise, it would follow that what does not exist is evil, and also that everything would be evil, through not having the good belonging to something else; for instance, a man would be evil who had not the swiftness of the roe, or the strength of a lion. (ST1.48.3)

Only when a thing is deprived of a good, when it without what a thing of that sort is supposed to have, has it suffered an evil. “The absence of good, taken in a privative sense, is an evil; as, for instance, the privation of sight is called blindness.” (ST1.48.3)

As Davies comments “For Aquinas, badness or evil is not the absence of some good period.  It is the absence of a good that belongs to an existing substance by nature.” (36). Evil thus is the privation of good, i.e. it is the lack of a due good, and goods are due according as they constitute or contribute to the perfection of something in its nature. Not every lack or privation is evil: unseeing rocks are not called blind, and do not suffer an evil. Only what is supposed to see (and doesn’t) is called blind and suffers an evil.

            Nature, then, is essential to the notion of evil as determining what is supposed to be there, but is not.  Unless a thing has the nature that is supposed to have a certain perfection, the lack of that perfection is not a privation, and so is not evil.  The other side of that coin, if a thing is recognized as evil, it is so recognized as having a nature that is supposed to have a perfection it does not.  So, those who deny nature (as scientific materialist must) will consistently deny the reality of evil (and good).  Thus Richard Dawkins shows uncharacteristic consistency in denying that goodness and evil are objective realities:

In a universe of physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice.  The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference (Dawkins, River Out of Eden (New York: Harper Collins 1995), 132-133)

The scientific materialist’s denial of nature, however, would also entail the absurd consequence about how or whether the world could be better.  To deny nature, one would have to say everything in the world is just as it must be (and so, I suppose as it should be).  That is, the world is just as physical constituents, their properties and the forces between them have determined them to be according to the necessary physical laws.  (Such a position Dawkins seems to embrace.)  There cannot, then, really be any reality to the notion of defect, dysfunction or deficiency, nor that the world does not contain more evil than it should – everything that happens (blindness, anencephaly, cancer, genocide, child rapists) happens just as it should (or cannot help but) happen.

The quite natural reaction to defect, dysfunction and deficiency, I should think, is to wonder at the goodness, power and/or knowledge of anything that might have produced it, but certainly not regard it as neither good nor bad, but merely inevitable.  It seems unnatural in the extreme not to recoil at the thought that children being born with major body parts missing, or the wanton and cruel slaughter of innocent human life is as the world must, and so should, be.

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