Summer has become a season of strange and stark irony. While it brings forth the beauty of the world, it also brings forth the ugliness of the age. The warmth and light are invariably attended by trashy fashion and tattooed flesh. These dog-days, there is hardly a street or a store without people who appear to be strumpets or savages, to say nothing of those wardrobe decisions that go no further than torn jeans and a wife-beater. The glories of summertime now go hand-in-hand with the sloppy, the slinky, and the uncivilized with studs and gages punctuating permanently-inked eyesores. The temptation often arises to proclaim the words of Shakespeare’s Polonius: “the apparel oft’ proclaims the man.” Pause there. The strangest thing about those who surrender themselves to ugliness is that they are oblivious to the ugly—which is at once a mercy and a tragedy to the blind victims of the age of the ugly.
The standards of personal appearance have fallen from what has been traditionally held as beautiful. St. Thomas Aquinas defined beauty as the result not only of due proportion or harmony, and brightness or clarity, but also of integrity or perfection (Summa Theologica, I, 39, 8). Accepting this definition, ugliness would be applied to all things that are disproportionate, and to forms that St. Thomas called shameful insofar as they were impaired or diminished. This diminishment in perfection is a lack of the good, of light, and order. By all appearances, current modes of public presentation are along the lines of darkness and jarring disorder. Shock value seems more valued now than aesthetic value. To be “cool” is now more desired than to be comely. Tattoos are becoming more prevalent, more extensive, and more outrageous. Bizarre facial piercings are quite common. Short shorts are on the rise. Clothing trends are trending towards nudity and grunge. Indeed, the croon of Macbeth’s weird sisters may well provide the motto of modern style: “Fair is foul and foul is fair.”
This decline in personal appearance has been parallel with a decline in social morals, especially in the millennial generation. The rise of relativism has rendered the common Christian code of conduct obsolete. Virtue and vice are now terms that are up for individual discernment and definition, no longer subject to magisterium or tradition. As people lose their conscience, they also become less conscious, for ethics—the principles of accepted human behavior—are an orienting influence. Granted that a rebellious subculture is certainly often involved in such exhibitions, there is hardly anything left to rebel against, leaving the populace expressing itself in its confusion between right and wrong, good and evil, beauty and ugliness.
Without a behavioral dogma that goes beyond basics like theft and murder, men and women are left largely in the dark, lost in an existence where freedom is merely license and souls are shackled to sin. With this spiritual breakdown has come the similar breakdown of that which signifies interior disposition and state: exterior comportment and countenance. The informality of the late 1900’s has degenerated into the amorality of the early twenty-first century, often encapsulated by the brash and brutal statements of certain bodily markings and bodily trappings. Such self-imposed ugliness is the result of a blindness caused by darkness, by evil, for ugliness is a manifestation of evil. Though no one can be said to desire ugliness in itself, being a species of evil, in the absence of illumination ugliness will be rampant and even mistaken as meaningful. Couple this with the failure of education, a crumbling culture, and the loss of knowledge of any aesthetic value (despite its relativity) and there arises an inability to identify ugliness. Modern architecture alone is a striking and more widespread demonstration of the dominance of the ugly.
Though the quality of ugliness is, to a large extent, relative to the age—what was unacceptable once may be acceptable now—there remains in every age a quality of beauty that is not relative. Though some evolutions of visual taste may find beauty in imagery that defies classical paradigms, there is still a cultural duty to retain some grasp of that beauty which is objective, transcendental, uplifting, illuminating, and reflective of the good; and thereby retain the contrast between the ugly and the beautiful—between the darkness and the light; the very aesthetic contrast which has been lost. Ugliness and beauty have become simply different from one another; neutral forces where the so-called beauty of some Hollywood actors is just as respected as the so-called ugliness of some rock singers. The modern ideal is a farrago of “tolerance.” True discernment and true taste have been mislaid in the moral murk. Tattoos and piercings were once seen as a sign of degeneracy. Today, few recognize any contradiction between appearance and societal placement, although “sagging” fads are linked to prison garb where belts are prohibited. Overall, the problem of ugliness goes hand in hand with the reign of relativism and the consequent blindness to beauty.
The desire to self-express through outlandish means is a further sign of this significant cultural and religious loss—and therein lays the tragedy. People inherently desire to belong to something, to be accepted and appreciated. But when there is no higher principle or being to belong to in union with everyone else, the result is the assertion of self: to become dissimilar from everyone else, to stand out and seek approbation and self-worth through mere attention. Ugliness, by this shortsighted psychology, becomes, in a perverse way, something to rest in, something beautiful to the blind. Pause again with words from Isaiah 5:20: “Woe to you that call evil good, and good evil: that put darkness for light, and light for darkness.”
The popular positions demanding the right to self-express—to be transvestite, transgender, transhuman, or what have you—has brought about the loss of any clear distinction between true proportion, between the ugly and the beautiful. In such a climate, nothing is sacred and the human body is no exception. A culture of nihilism—of zombies, punks, pagans, and atheists—becomes a manifestation of the hidden ugliness (which is no less appalling) that is involuntarily expressed through extreme forms a self-expression and self-mutilation that disregards dignity. Spiritual ugliness is invisible, but never inert. Some manifestation is visible to the eye, however, be it overwhelmed by darkness or not. All depends on the soundness of the eye. “The light of thy body is thy eye. If thy eye be single, thy whole body shall be lightsome. But if thy eye be evil thy whole body shall be darksome. If then the light that is in thee, be darkness: the darkness itself how great shall it be!” (Matthew 6:22)
Yet, for all this blindness to ugliness, there remains a true sensitivity to particular forms of ugliness. People are yet repulsed by murder, starvation, crimes committed against children, torture, and rape. People with terrifying tattoos are yet terrified by the threat of terrorism. Some sense remains, amid mass blindness, of the reality of the ugly. Compassion, indignation, and philanthropy have not been swallowed up by the barbaric tendencies infecting fashions, physiques, and philosophies. However, these costumes of our age reflect an alarming degree of desensitization and even a rooted fatalism, or surrender, to rampant evil, confessing submission—and even fascination—towards the ugliness of a world that has lost its way. Life devoid of eternal meaning is an ugly thing.
In his essay, “Learning How to See Again,” Josef Pieper says that when there is too much to see, the capacity to see decreases, and so too does “the spiritual capacity to perceive the physical reality as it truly is.” Reconnection to the world that God made good is requisite before any awakening to ugliness can be achieved—a movement away from the blind and banal narcissism of the selfie and social-media cyberspace. The capacity to see must be restored. Man needs eyes to see before he can “Come forth into the light of things,” as Wordsworth beckons—and that light is Christ. Until then, the iconography of the modern human tragedy will continue to be imprinted indelibly on human flesh, telling a tale of sadness and shame that can only be redeemed by beauty. As the ancient Greek poet Sappho wrote, “What is beautiful is good, and who is good will soon be beautiful.”
*The featured image is retired professional basketball player Dennis Rodman photographed in the Philippines during an exhibition game in 2012. (Photo credit: Romeo Ranoco / Reuters.)