What is on your playlist? On my phone I have a selection of my favorite music; it includes performances and compositions by Eric Clapton, Dave Brubeck, Waylon Jennings, Mozart, the monks of the Monastery of St. John the Theologian on Patmos, Vince Guaraldi, Handel, and many others (including the four lads from Liverpool). Why do I like all this music? The short but incomplete answer to that question is that I find beauty in them. That answer is incomplete because it begs the question, “What is beauty?” Although any answer to that question will be at least partially subjective, students of aesthetics have discovered that our sense of beauty is not purely idiosyncratic; our aesthetic sense appears to provide a bond that is a common heritage of humanity.
In the October 2015 issue of the BBC Music Magazine, Marcus du Sautoy (Professor of Mathematics and Fellow of New College, Oxford) discusses the relationship between music and mathematics. What we find appealing in music corresponds to mathematical constructs in remarkable ways. The elements of the Fibonacci Sequence are integral to the rhythm of Indian music and are evident in the works of Bartók and of Debussy. Olivier Messiaen composed a piece (Île de Feu 2) whose chromatic structure corresponds to the symmetry of an eleven-dimensional object (the Mathieu group M12). Although its definition may be elusive, “beauty” is real; perhaps “beauty” resides in the vicinity of the number eight!
As suggested by Du Sautoy and Messiaen, one element of beauty is symmetry. In a work dedicated to the reigning emperor, Augustus Caesar, Vitruvius identified symmetry as one of the fundamental principles of architecture (On Architecture 1.2.1). According to Vitruvius, beauty in architecture is present “when the appearance of the work is pleasing and in good taste, and when its members are in due proportion according to correct principles of symmetry” (On Architecture 1.3.2; Oxford University Press, 1914). A perceived correspondence between the symmetries of the human body and the appropriate symmetries of a temple (On Architecture 3.1) is reflected in Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawing known as “Vitruvian Man.”
An interest in symmetry has infiltrated the scientific wing of the academy. In a study published in 2008, British researchers determined that people find more symmetric bodies to be more attractive (“Fluctuating Asymmetry and Preferences for Sex-Typical Bodily Characteristics,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 5, no. 35 [Sep 2, 2008], pp. 12938-12943). If “attractiveness” is deemed too subjective to establish the fundamental character of symmetry, a moment in the history of particle physics relieves such concerns. In 1962, after examining the properties of a set of nine particles exhibiting SU(3) symmetry, Murray Gell-Mann predicted the existence of a tenth particle, needed to confirm/complete the symmetry of the set. “Shortly thereafter the new particle, called the Ω–, was indeed discovered” (Stephen M. Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, 99).
Does the pervasiveness of symmetry demonstrate an underlying metaphysical quality of the kosmos? The scientists who established the connection between symmetry and the perception of attractiveness offered a mundane evolutionary explanation for their results. They suggested that a more symmetrical body is perceived (unconsciously) to be more healthy and, therefore, the more symmetrical potential mate is identified as a more desirable partner in terms of the number and survival potential of offspring (“Symmetrical Bodies Are More Beautiful to Humans,” National Geographic News, August 18, 2008, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/08/080818-body-symmetry.html). While that explanation might account for their experimental findings, evolutionary concerns would seem to have no relevance to the prediction and discovery of the Ω– particle. This structure of the “system” of subatomic particles led Stephen Barr to suggest that when we encounter symmetry and beauty in art and in the laboratory we are perceiving “the mind of an artist at work far above the level of our own minds” (Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, 104).
N. T. Wright, New Testament scholar and retired Bishop of Durham (Church of England), arrived at a similar conclusion. In the opening chapters of Simply Christian, he discussed four concepts: justice, the spiritual sense that seems common to much of humanity, the necessity of human relationships, and the appreciation of beauty. He identified each of these matters as the “echo” of a distant voice that is seeking to communicate with us. According to Wright, if we will attend to that voice, we will discover that we are encountering God.
I lack the musical sophistication to explain why I find beauty in Beethoven and in bluegrass music; nevertheless, I know the sense of awe that accompanies a direct encounter with beauty. Once, during an overnight stay in Vienna, Austria, I entered St. Stephen’s Cathedral, a Gothic edifice in the heart of that city. Though I had visited the cathedral previously, on this occasion I found myself speechless. White cloths had been draped from floor to ceiling along the nave, enhancing the sense of symmetry in the appearance of the sanctuary and emphasizing the perception that the walls soared up to heaven itself. A similar sensation occurred on my first hearing of Samuel Barber’s “Agnus Dei.” Reflecting on such moments, I am reminded of the words of the psalmist:
Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth
(Ps 46:10, NIV 1984)
The substantial reality of beauty in the kosmos can be debated; like faith, a recognition of beauty cannot be imposed on another person. The essential reality of beauty in Creation cannot be denied; ktisis transcends kosmos and the beauty of Creation is a whisper of the presence of the Creator in his ktisis.