Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Beauty and virtue

Reposted from June 2014. The old comments are strictly for masochists only, though they illustrate some of the confusions I am trying to address in this post.



My philosophical interlude about fashion continues: part 1 is here.

In the last post about fashion, Queen of Puddings said that if we focus on beauty, modesty will follow. This was qualified by noting that the judgments about beauty we should be making are judgments by people who value modesty. To put the matter more simply, what is at issue is a correct understanding of beauty. It will take into account all the things relevant to the object at issue. 

The commenter Timothy Graham (here) makes a good point, that in our theological sources 'modestia' is not primarily about avoiding sexual sins. (That would be 'continentia.' The contrast would be with 'luxuria', whereas the contrast with modestia is 'vana gloria'.) Of course avoiding giving scandal to others, causing them unnecessary temptation, is an issue in this fallen world, where we are afflicted with sinful concupiscence: the desire for sinful pleasures, which Adam and Eve did not have. (Which is why they had to be tempted by the Devil, and not just by their own desires springing from within.) The point is that, where clothes are concerned, the 6th and 9th Commandments are only a part of what we should be thinking about, and while setting limits to what we can wear, it is not the most important issue. The most important issue is how the clothes make us look. Will anyone disagree with this? Once we exclude clothes which excite lust, we choose clothes which are appropriate and becoming, for the occasion at hand.

What makes one thing beautiful does not make another thing beautiful. As Plato observed, if you think purple is the most beautiful colour, you still shouldn't try to beautify a statue by painting the eyes purple. 'Euphronsia' keeps telling us that the naked body is beautiful. It certainly can be. But it would be out of place at a cocktail party. In that context it does not have the beauty we are concerned about.


Catholics are concerned with beauty in this complex sense. There are many things which are beautiful in some contexts which are not appropriate to the liturgy, for example - such as operatic styles of music. We can even say that such music is not beautiful in the liturgy. This is perhaps best expressed by saying that it doesn't accord with good taste. A flower in the wrong place is a weed.

So we can talk about beauty, in this complete sense, and put it into the driving seat when we think about clothes. It has a certain relationship with the customs of the day, because we don't want to appear outlandish: what is outlandish lacks good taste. We can make generalisations about it in a number of respects. But we can't codify it. That is, you can't write a complete and self-interpreting rule-book.

This may be a disappointment to Catholics who want concrete guidance; the only genuine guidance will be vague and incomplete. This isn't because we need to read (or write) a bigger book, but because of its nature. Being able to get it right is being able to exercise a skill, which is also a virtue. The same is true of all the natural virtues: of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, or indeed courage and friendship. You don't get them out of a book, but from training, practice, habituation: ideally, in the course of a good upbringing.


If natural virtues are cultivated by practice, in the case of good sense about clothes, this involves taking notice of clothes, learning about them, seeing what others wear and what works and what doesn't work, and thinking about why, and by following good example. We don't have to be rude to anyone, but we must allow ourselves to be discriminating.

No one became a great artist by looking at every painting and saying 'sure honey that's nice' and turning back to his newspaper.

One thing Traditional Catholics have certainly got right about modesty is that it is a moral issue. It is part of the moral life, and it is not just about 'what feels right to you'. But it is possible for Catholics to slip into the idea that important moral issues are simple ones, because we can appeal to a number of absolute moral prohibitions. There are some in the area of modesty - 'Don't go out naked' would be an obvious one. But these prohibitions are not the whole of the moral life, and in many situations give very limited guidance. The moral agent lacking prudence (practical wisdom) is going to make a lot of mistakes however tightly he grips his copy of a pre-Conciliar handbook of moral theology.

Prudence takes time to develop; it includes many practical skills and knowledge specific to our particular circumstances. There is prudence about money; there is prudence about relationships. It would be pretty surprising if there were not a prudence about clothes.

To return to the beginning, prudence in the area of clothes is about beauty rightly understood. It is being able to find the right clothes for the occasion, clothes which are beautiful - or, you prefer, just 'nice'. Readers who think this means highly elaborate or decorated or formal or expensive clothes, are reading something in here which I have not said. Such clothes would be out of place in many situations, and thus ruled out. Simple, inexpensive, and practical, need not mean ugly.


To reiterate something emphasised more than once before in this series, the attitude we wish to oppose comes from an ideology of ugliness. The ideology which says that if you've made the effort to put on nice clothes, you can't be relaxed, you can't be cool, you can't be an authentic person. The problem is not people not having the money to buy nice clothes. It is not a lack of beauty by accident which is the big problem, it is the lack of beauty on purpose.

I have said the same about liturgy, and the parallel is worth remembering. We want the best for the liturgy. That doesn't mean that poor liturgy which is the result of a lack of resources and skills shows a moral failure on anyone's part. If they have struggled against the odds to do as well as they have, this may have greater merit than many more splendid celebrations, as was certainly the case with many Masses in concentration camps. But those who say that it is the effort and not the result which is important actually imply that the effort wasn't worth it. The outward beauty is the objectively appropriate form for the liturgy and we approximate it to the best of our abilities, we make the effort. Poor liturgy which results from people not making the effort is offensive to God.

If we reject the cult of ugliness, we need to start thinking about beauty. If we want to do something about it, we need to develop a prudence, a practical wisdom, about clothes which will take time and effort - just like the time and effort needed to make beautiful vestments, to sing Gregorian Chant well, or to make 
nice food for one's family.


Photographs from the celebration of Corpus Christi in SS Gregory & Augustine's in Oxford. High Mass was celebrated in the Presence of the Blessed Sacrament exposed, and it concluded a celebration of the 40 Hours devotion. Mass was followed by a procession and other devotions. It was about as splendid a celebration of Mass as is possible.


  1. Hello Dr. Shaw,

    Thank you for initiating this series of posts on fashion, beauty and modesty.

    As tradition steadily returns to the life of the Church, one hopes that it will be at liberty to really begin to take beauty seriously, not merely just preserving it, but even creating it anew. Assuming of course, that it doesn't complete its reemergence just in time for us all to flee to the catacombs.

    But I can and must believe that it will happen. As Jacques Barzun once put it, "If civilization has risen from the Stone Age, it can rise again from the Wastepaper Age."

  2. Dr. Shaw,

    If I may honestly put it, I think you are much learned that your own learning is perhaps getting in the way of the trivial issue at hand.

    Modesty, whether partly or in full, requires that a person take in to consideration the issue of concupiscence. To take in to consideration the issue of concupiscence, as you seem to hint you are aware, has nothing to do with beauty. In fact, the factor of concupiscence REQUIRES that one CURB the DISPLAY OF OBJECTIVELY BEAUTIFUL THINGS.

    Do you agree with that or no?

    If you agree with that, then your insistence that there are no concrete rules or standards is just your own state of denial. Any society overtime develops standards and rules for their particular form of dress based on what is tempting and what is not. These rules are not for you to throw out or criticize based on your ill formed concept of "striving after beauty is what is key".

    Also, you have not addressed or even accepted that your initial assumption that the opposite of beauty is ugliness which is a natural evil is incorrect.

    By your logic, the modern mass which is objectively speaking a deliberate movement away from something that was very beautiful is a NATURAL EVIL. That alone should make you stand still and think for a bit.

    This is going to be my last post unless you are going to start addressing my arguments. The only thing you have done is just write essays trying to build your position without addressing any of the counter arguments against your assumptions. That is obviously a flawed way of building your position anyway.

    I think you should also ask yourself if you are too fixated on trying to remove the idea of standards and rules that you are actually missing the trivial reason for them to exist. Any person that has lived in a society that still values modesty will tell you that you premises are confused in that modesty deals with giving standards and rules on how to and how not to express ones beauty.

    I already pointed out to you in my previous comments how even your warning to "not dress in a way that draws too much attention" has to fall back in to some cultural values which are pretty much the same values of modesty.

    So in short, unless you are willing to address counter-arguments against your position, it doesn't matter if you write a thousand posts trying to build your case.

    1. Eufrosnia: Your difficulty is still that you have the wrong understanding of what beauty is. In particular, your statement that "the factor of concupiscence REQUIRES that one CURB the DISPLAY OF OBJECTIVELY BEAUTIFUL THINGS" is quite clearly false, given the definition of beauty which we are working with. It's great to see you wrestling with this, as we all must. However a lot of your points show that either you haven't read the posts properly, or haven't understood them, as a lot of your questions have already been answered.

      Don't give up the struggle! But do take the time to read everything through carefully, if you can.

    2. Thank you, Q of P.

      An example of Eufronsia clearly not reading carefully enough is that she keeps saying, as if I had denied it, that social conventions (rules) on clothing are relevant. This is something I (and Q of P) have no difficulty with.

      Another example is her continued insistence that modesty is solely about sexuality when I have just shown that this is not what 'modestia' in the writings of the Fathers and Doctors means. If anyone doubted this, he need only consult a good Latin dictionary.

      I wish Euphrosnia more luck re-reading these posts after removing whatever distorting lenses have hindered his or her understanding up to now.

    3. Queen of Puddings,

      But can you or someone please address the argument I presented then?

      (1) The nude form of the human being is beautiful
      (2) But it is improper to display it publicly because it leads to temptation for others (generally speaking)
      (3) Whether or not something leads others to temptation to sin does not make it ugly
      (4) Therefore, beauty is hidden in this example from the human eye for a reason other than ugliness/beauty i.e. it leads others to sin

      Now which of the above premises is false?If none of them is false, then the conclusion is obviously true?

      Either Dr. Shaw for some reasons known to him wants to strive to broaden the definition of beauty to include (3) inside of it or I fail to even see what is the point in him criticizing standards.

    4. Dr. Shaw,

      I find it a bit dishonest on your part to say that you didn't criticize the rules and conventions. You indeed did criticize it by associating it with ideas that didn't even directly followed from having such rules.

      In your own words-

      "For the reasons set out above it should be clear that starting by drawing up detailed rules for what to wear is a blind alley which we should avoid."

      (The reasons by the way, were simply a rant on why you find it hard to reconcile various differences withing the position and therefore your erroneous conclusion that that must be therefore a blind alley)

      "Additionally, we should avoid drawing up rules which dictate that Catholics should all dress in a certain way. Never in the past have Catholics been required to wear any kind of uniform or dress identifying them with their religion"

      (The above is another classic example of you setting up a straw man position. You implicitly conclude and sell it to the reader that having a set of rules on how every Catholic should dress means there is a "Catholic uniform". This is just blatantly false because as I said before to you, there is ample room to play around inside of the standards)

      I can keep picking things and pointing them out to you like the above. Oh and lets not forget your weird conclusion below the picture of the Muslim dress that it is not Catholic. While it doesn't fit your sensibilities, the culture in which it developed may have its practical as well as reasons from modesty. There is nothing intrinsically "non-Catholic" about the dress as well.

      So as I said many times before Dr. Shaw, I might be the most ignorant woman in town when it comes to beauty. But you to my natural reasoning capabilities, defy many logical rules of inference and arrive at conclusions without any rigor.

      Then you lie that I misunderstand you and are looking at your work with a distorted lens. Either you don't read the things you write or have a short memory span but otherwise that was just plane dishonest. I stand by every comment I wrote on everyone of your posts.

      I don't think reading your articles many times is beneficial since there really isn't any logical argumentation. There is simply a statement of conclusions and association of what you don't like with positions that give negative connotations i.e. puritanism, uniformity, rigorist, "not-Catholic" etc.

    5. "While it doesn't fit your sensibilities, the culture in which it developed may have its practical as well as reasons from modesty. There is nothing intrinsically "non-Catholic" about the dress as well."

      The culture - religion - in which that mode of dress developed treats women worse than cattle.

    6. Athelstane,

      True, but my point was that one cannot simply say the particular clothing is "not-Catholic". Unless the particular fashion has aspects which one would consider to express truths that violate Catholic morality, the particular dress itself cannot be condemned.

      Frankly, the dress in the image is not very far off from the dress many early Christians would have worn.

      So while the gut reaction might be to say "oh this dress is associated with Islam and therefore must be non-Catholic", it is not accurate. In fact, if the art form used in the dress does not translate to expressing something contrary to Catholic doctrine in our own artistic tradition, then even a Catholic can certainly wear it.

      For a more detailed elaboration by what I mean by art form in regards to dress, please read my comment below to Dr. Shaw.

  3. Also Dr. Shaw, please consider the following.

    It is my view after reading all your posts from the day you started posting about this issue that you have mistaken modesty with the art of designing clothing. What I mean is that you have done something like identify the issue of what are good Catholic books with the issue of what are masterpieces of literature. They are not the same.

    Any art form is based on a language to express certain truths. One has symbols in the language that a good artist will use to communicate what he wants to express about a thing. One can then evaluate the work he produces in terms of how well he uses the arts to communicate the truths he wants to express.

    So in this sense, one could write a master piece using the art of language on the Protestant heresy in positive terms. It would be a masterpiece depending on how well he uses the art of language and how he succeeds in expressing the precepts Protestantism holds as true. So in terms of beauty, it is a piece of art. But it does not make it good reading material for a Catholic.

    Same with dress. One can use the art form with respect to making clothes to express truths about the person, their thoughts, as well as the situation they are attending. So we have something like a mourning dress for an example which uses symbols of color and suppression of any celebratory cues from the dress. Or we have a wedding dress which has symbols of flowers and other festive things to accessorize it to communicate the festive occasion. Or as a simple example, clothes used to be designed in a way where one can identity if the wearer is a man or a woman.

    But just as with literature, one can create a fabulous clothing design that is beautiful (in the sense that it uses the language of clothing really well) but fails at adhering to the points regarding what things should not be revealed.

    So if your group of articles was a condemnation of the current fashion industry for failing at fashion, I agree with you that you are on the mark. The current fashion industry does not actually have much of a language of expression other than appealing to the senses or the function of attracting a mate. So the fashions are incredibly primitive, dull and yes, it is also immodesty.

    From the CCC, Modesty is described as

    2521 Purity requires modesty, an integral part of temperance. Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden. It is ordered to chastity to whose sensitivity it bears witness. It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity.

    As you can see, the definition does not take in to account anything to do with beauty or art forms. So modesty in this sense would be something that the clothing designer should already be versed with from the start apart from the art forms they have studied. The culture would have informed the designer before hand that "these are the rules" which if you break lead to immodesty.

    It is similar to an author of a book being informed of Catholic truths. Then they know that if they were to express anything contrary to it no matter how beautifully, they have done wrong. So same with clothes.

    So once the designer is informed of the rules, they use the art forms to play within those rules of modesty to produce a Catholic dress which is fashionable.

    If you want another example, think of builders. They know the art forms. But the Engineer tells them what can be built in that space and gives them the rules which they can't violate. The builder then proceeds to play within these rules to bring about the final product.

    What I feel you have done Dr. Shaw is remove this distinction and disregard the need for the prior rule set (when it comes to dress at least). In your analysis, there is only beauty and you are now postulating that beauty is sufficient at fulfilling modesty.

    I hope this explains things in more detail.

    1. Just to highlight this distinction.

      If one fails at the art form, it is not exactly a sin most of the time. A person could build a modernist looking Church, or wear all the wrong colors or designs for a dress for a funeral, or make a liturgy that lacks expression. All of these are not necessarily sins and no grave damage is done.

      But one can violate the rules and then grave damage is indeed done. One can write a good book on Protestantism (positively). Or one can dress in a very expressive dress that is also immodesty.Or one can make a beautiful building without paying attention to the engineering. All of these lead to grave harm and is a sin (though the third one was an exaggeration on my part :) )

    2. Eufronsia. What you need right now is not for me to read all your screeds and reply to them in great detail. What you need is a cup of tea and a lie down.

    3. Sigh!

      Well, I do drink tea and have had a good night sleep :)

      I will leave you with the following quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (which I believe you probably didn't read in my reply above because you thought I was mad)

      /// Start of quote

      2521 Purity requires modesty, an integral part of temperance. Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden. It is ordered to chastity to whose sensitivity it bears witness. It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity.

      // End of quote

      I think if one were to read that quote and understand it, and also consider my argument to the Queen of Puddings, I think anyone can see why your philosophical interludes are perhaps mistaken.

      Since you haven't given me a single comment in reply with anything of value (other than saying first that I have a misunderstanding of beauty, lying that you never criticized having standards and I was failing to understand you), I fail to see the merit of continuing this discussion with you.

      When and if you feel like actually having a discussion (rather than stating your philosophical interludes and expecting everyone to just agree with you), then I would be happy to continue.

      Till then, I hope you are following the same advise you have given me throughout your replies to me.

  4. Dear Dr Shaw/guest blogger,
    Have you factored in recent (~ last 30 years) scientific information about the incidence of vitamin D deficiency and its effects eg. seasonal affective disorder, for first world (office worker) populations, and the implications of this for the framing of the question? Surely recognition of SAD changes the circumstances of the question, and possibly, by virtue of changing the intention of exposing skin and its circumstances (and thereby perhaps the 'embodied intention' in certain clothes), it changes the range where the mean is between too-much and too-little vis a vis what is virtue, and how to frame whatever rules one wants to frame (preferably with lots of circumstantial latitude)? I am thinking of something like jogging gear that allow sun on the shoulders. One could argue these allow a woman to get a decent amount of sun when jogging, and so trump whether or not one thinks they display too much. Looking forward to your provision of an integrated account of the virtues where physical health & preservation of mental health as matters of prudence/justice get oriented in relation to preserving other people's temperance/fortitude with regard to lurking concupiscence.

    1. And then there's skin cancer.

    2. mormorador,

      Dr. Shaw has missed the boat because he believes the following

      "The commenter Timothy Graham (here) makes a good point, that in our theological sources 'modestia' is not primarily about avoiding sexual sins."

      This is at odds with what the CCC teaches

      2521 Purity requires modesty, an integral part of temperance. Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden. It is ordered to chastity to whose sensitivity it bears witness. It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity.

      The problem here is that Dr. Shaw doesn't understand the difference between modesty and beauty. He is on a crusade to convince everyone that modesty and beauty are the same. So his main point is that if you aren't dressing beautifully, you are dressing ugly. Immodesty in Dr. Shaw's mind is therefore primarily ugliness and in a minor way, deals with sexual sins.

      Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to be aware of the above from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. So he concludes (or agrees with the idea) that "if we focus on beauty, modesty will follow". That is false.

      Beauty is expressed within the boundaries of modesty. Modesty may very well require that one not display beauty in certain ways. This trivial point is what Dr. Shaw doesn't want to accept.