Monday, June 12, 2017

Protestantism and the cult of ugliness

Reposted from June 2014. A footnote to what I write here is an interesting fact I have since learned about 'Puritan' fashions: the Roundheads and Pilgrim Fathers and so on wearing black. The contrast between Roundheads and Cavaliers in the English Civil War derived from two different inspirations: the Cavaliers took their fashions from Catholic France, the Roundheads from the Protestant Netherlands. And where had the Netherlands got it from? Spain: a natural influence because of the Spanish control over much of it. This is of course an historical irony, but even in its Catholic origin it was a statement about rejecting frivolity and licentiousness. (See this section of a Wiki article.)


This is both ugly and glamorous.
Continuing our series on a Catholic approach to fashion, I interrupt the posts of Queen of Puddings with a little philosophical interlude. I promised to say something about how the Protestant attitude is different from the Catholic, something referred to (without being developed) by Tracey Rowland.

Our inveterate commenter 'Eufrosnia' wants to know if there is anything wrong with dressing in an ugly way. Of course there is.

1. Ugliness is a natural evil. (Will anyone disagree with this?)

2. To embody it is bad. (This just follows from 1)

3. To do so deliberately or through negligence is morally bad. (This just follows from 2.)

To build an ugly building is wrong, if it is done deliberately or negligently (when it can be avoided without serious inconvenience). To dress in an ugly way is worse. It evinces a lack of gratitude to God for one's own creation, a lack of respect for oneself, and a contempt of others.  There are even more fundamental issues involved here, as this post will argue.
The trouble with searching for 'Grunge' is that you
get the fashion-industry imitation. The real thing
is a street style and far more extreme.

Dietrich von Hildebrand noted the unfortunate tendency in some of the more rigorist Catholic circles before the Council to disparage natural goods, because they had failed to distinguish them from worldly goods. Worldly goods, like money and worldly honours, have no intrinsic value. To set one's heart on them is to set one's heart on a vanity: on nothing. Natural goods, like beauty, have intrinsic value. Beautiful things were created good by God, or if man-made, they reflect His goodness. To reject natural goods is to reject the goodness of creation and its capacity to reflect God, and lead hearts to God.

Such a rejection is characteristic of Protestantism, and this forms the background, looking at the big picture, of the crisis of fashion we are living through. The Protestants taught that at the Fall nature human became depraved, evil, and by parallel the created world falls under suspicion. The Protestant attack on religious art did not limit itself to devotional images: it included Gregorian chant. Of course it is impossible to exclude the artful use of created things to raise the heart to God completely from religious architecture and liturgy, but Anglicans, Lutherans, Calvinists and Anabaptists settled at different points on this dismal road. The Anglicans smashed the stained glass and abolished the antiphons of Vespers and Compline. The Lutherans insisted that no syllable have more than one musical note. The Calvinists got rid of the organs. All of them created white-washed churches which look like neo-classical meeting rooms instead of holy places.

The Protestant mindset had it that to contemplate a devotional image - a crucifix, say - is to contemplate something other than Christ, to give to the image what we owe to Christ. It is idolatry. By extension, to contemplate any beautiful thing is to focus our attention away from God, onto something else. Something, in fact, which is worthless or even evil, because all created things have been tainted by the Fall.

The Catholic attitude is that by contemplating the crucifix we look beyond it, and raise our minds and hearts to the real Christ. By extension, any beautiful thing can raise the heart to God. Religious and devotional art, of course, expresses all sorts of specific truths, but all art which aims at beauty expresses the Catholic doctrine that God's creation is good even after the Fall. It lost Grace, and was wounded, by the Fall, but it did not lose all its value.

On clothing in particular, the more extreme Protestants adopted a sort of uniform of black and white, without colour or decoration, and with the simplest form. In fact this can look extremely elegant, but the logic of the position would suggest it should not please the eye at all.

Just as devotional images were thought to take the mind away from what they represented, it is easy to develop the idea that clothes distract one from the real person wearing them. The real thing, devotionally, is supposed to be something entirely spiritual: as if the Incarnation had never taken place. Similarly, the real thing in any material thing, including humans, might be thought to be something beneath and separate from the outward appearance. You can see this idea developing in the Enlightenment, in the writings of philosophers imbued with Protestant culture. This is essentially the Heresy of Formlessness which Martin Mosebach talks about, and I make no apology for mentioning this book again. Anyone interested in these issues should read it. 

Applied to the liturgy you get the Novus Ordo. Applied to clothing you get grunge.

In reality, we are incarnated in our bodies, and we express ourselves in our clothes. Garments do not hide us: they clothe us.


  1. as a note: you DO know that the "no color" black and white Puritan/Protestant dress of the Pilgrims was their SUNDAY clothing... in ordinary time they dressed in color.

    1. They lived in luxury and worshipped in penury. - Would that be a fair description?

  2. I'm talking about a tendency within a wide phenomenon (Anabaptists and the like) and it wasn't restricted to Sundays. Black dye was expensive, but fulminations against gaudy clothing were cheap.

  3. Dr. Shaw,

    Thank you for attempting to address my concern. First, my name is Eufrosnia and not "Euphrosnia" :)

    I think you might have a misunderstanding that to not dress beautifully is to dress in an ugly manner. If you read my previous comments to you, I actually did not say anything about dressing ugly. So I presume you inferred by me saying that one does not have dress beautifully that I am requesting that one dress in an ugly manner.

    To convey beauty of a being, as I am sure you know, is to express the ontological truths behind that being. Ugliness as you define as a natural evil would then refer to distorting this ontological truth about a being. That is certainly a natural evil. However, one can choose to not express the particular beauty about a being and that certainly does not constitute a natural evil. So to not dress beautifully is actually not a natural evil most of the time unless one also proceeds to distort the underlying ontological truth.

    This should have been clear to you in the example I presented regarding the nude form of the human body. The nude form of the human body is beautiful. But no one in their right mind with an ounce of modesty would say that to hide ones nude form is therefore a natural evil.

    And contrary to your final statement, garments certainly do hide the nude form and to insist otherwise is just mere word play.
    I hope that settles this issue you seem to have with my claim before that saints did not necessarily dress beautifully.

    Now I would of course like you to address the other objections I made against your own position. To perhaps state my arguments against you in a concise form

    Argument 1

    1) Dr. Shaw states that expressing beauty should be the prime guiding principle behind clothing
    2) But the nude form of the human form is beautiful
    3) Therefore, it would seem that if the primary concern is expression of beauty, not wearing any clothes is good alternative.

    Argument 2
    1) Dr. Shaw states that expressing beauty should be the prime guiding principle behind clothing
    2) Dr. Shaw states that one should not dress beautifully in a way that draws too much attention to oneself
    3) But this implies that there exists certain standards outside of the concept of beauty which determine what things would draw too much attention to oneself and one must pay attention to those standards
    4) Therefore, beauty cannot be the prime guiding principle behind clothing for these other standards must also be considered

    There are other arguments I did make against you in my previous comments but the above two capture the point behind all of them more or less.

  4. Perhaps it is also worth adding the following as well.

    I think you have confused the use of art to express ontological truths about the holy religion with that of the need to express beauty through dress. You seem to be under the impression that if one strives to dress beautifully, they are actually not pursuing some vanity. No, to the contrary, according to you they are evangelizing. They are trying to bring people closer to God through their dress and beauty.

    I think this is where you have things again a bit backward (or perhaps have taken things too far from one perspective). St. Francis of Assisi for an example used to not care much about his beauty or clothing. BUT, he cared much about the vestments of the mass and beauty of worship.

    So there is a distinction to be made between your efforts at beautifying yourself and attempts at communicating Catholic truths in the liturgy or things pertaining to God.

    What you have done Dr. Shaw is in attacking the Protestant sensibilities, you have again drawn the extreme opposite conclusion that all forms of beauty are a MUST! To not pursue it is a natural evil which is ugliness. That is an error just as much as Protestant puritanism is an error.

    It is good to strive tirelessly after things that express the beauty of our Holy Religion. We do that to enrich the faith. But it is vanity to tirelessly strive after figuring out which dress to wear to express ones beauty.

    I think this is an important point that your post above misses as well.

  5. Oh and just in case you are wondering why dressing "beautifully" does not evangelize, it is because most people are not used to the idea of reading ontological truths conveyed. Most people will find a photo in the swimsuit edition more beautiful than a photo of a woman in modesty clothing. This is expected given the factor of concupiscence.

    So the idea of "I strive tirelessly to dress elegantly to evangelize and bring people closer to God through my beauty" is either dishonesty or just plain bad reasoning. Not to mention the other immediate problem where someone might then reason that they are bringing people closer to God (and make them praise God) through their nude photo-shoots for certain magazines.

  6. Eufronsia, I'm not going to engage here in detail but what you are missing is the understanding of beauty which I am going to explain in more detail in the next post.

    1. It is possible Dr. Shaw that I am very mistaken about the notion of beauty.

      But I am not sure how understanding beauty helps. Because at the end of the day, beauty cannot be the prime guiding principle behind this issue.

      Modesty in dress is partly based on the problem of concupiscence. So it follows that there are things beautiful in this world that due to concupiscence cannot be appreciated as such by most humans before they reach a certain advanced stage of holiness.

      The obvious example of this is the nude human body. It is objectively speaking good and beautiful. But to expose it is inappropriate given the problem of concupiscence. But in heaven for an example, we won't have this issue.

      So this is why I feel that my misunderstanding regarding beauty is actually not relevant in this case. I feel that even with my misunderstanding, we must still say that your thesis that elevates beauty as the primary guiding principle is an error. Because your analysis simply does not take in to consideration the issue of concupiscence.

      If you did take in to account the issue of concupiscence, I believe you will realize the need for standards and rules. The standards and rules were formed based on feedback by members in a culture as to what is tempting and what is not.

      To then say that those rules are irrelevant and what matters is beauty misses the point, right?

      I guess what I am asking is this. Is it not true that your analysis here has simply ignored the issue of concupiscence which requires that even certain things of beauty and goodness be covered and hidden?

    2. If it helps makes things easier, could you explain how beauty of clothing guarantees that the particular clothing will not lead to concupiscence? I think if you can do that, then I think it will go a long way toward resolving my difficulties with your position. At the moment, it seems true to me to say that beauty does not guarantee that the clothing is free from causing concupiscence in an average observer belonging to that society.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. Anonymous5:34 am

    That the naked body is beautiful per se most certainly does not mean it is proper for it to be displayed. It is private. That it ought not to be seen by others (generally) is known to us by reason - it is an objective truth. To deny objective truth is ugly.

    1. To display the human body is "ugly" because it violates concupiscence. But it is not ugly in the sense that the display of the nude form is ugly. Do you see the difference?

    2. Also Lynda,

      I think you can see in your writing why Dr. Shaw's ideas are flawed.

      With respect to expressing beauty, it is true to say that display of the nude form is beautiful. BUT, it is improper because our experiences tells us that it is tempting in our fallen state.

      Therefore, what we have here is a case where something beautiful can lead to lust. In other words, it is proof that ones concern should never be just about looking beautiful (whether with clothes, less clothes, or no clothes). There is another major concern that constrains how one displays ones beauty.

      This is what Dr. Shaw seems to miss and it seems to be because he is very adamant about making sure no rules or standards can be presented as "this is how we should dress". Due to this fear, he has labelled having such rules as "uniformity", "ugliness", "puritan" etc.

      In other words, Dr. Shaw is building a thesis without properly understanding the problem and already inventing a solution in his mind to what he thinks is the problem i.e. having strict rules and standards on modesty.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. How to explain the cult(ure) of ugliness in the post-mediaeval Latin church? Sigismondo Malatesta's revolution in ugly ecclesiastical architecture, followed by a succession of even worse monstrosities: Baroque, Rococo and Neo-classical, accompanied by fiddlebacks, Romans and lace albs in rood-screenless, stub-chancelled churces more resembling pagan temples than anything.

  11. How to explain the cult(ure) of ugliness in the post-mediaeval Latin church? Sigismondo Malatesta's revolution in ugly ecclesiastical architecture, followed by a succession of even worse monstrosities: Baroque, Rococo and Neo-classical, accompanied by fiddlebacks, Romans and lace albs in rood-screenless, stub-chancelled churces more resembling pagan temples than anything.