Oh where, where, shall I find you, my truly good, my certain loveliness?Augustine, The Confessions1
Into the yellow of the eternal Rose
that slopes and stretches and diffuses fragrance
of praise unto the Sun of endless spring,
now Beatrice drew me as one who, though
he would speak out, is silent.Dante, Paradiso2
Toward the end of paradiso, Dante experiences a vision of the Empyrean, the highest level in heaven, where among "the great patricians" of the faith, including Sts. Francis and Benedict, sits St. Augustine of Hippo. How fitting it is that Augustine is part of Dante's final vision since Augustine's Confessions offers meaningful insight into Dante's depiction of the redemption of beauty. Lovers of beauty, both physical and literary, Dante and Augustine share a similar need for its redemption.3 Clearly, neither of them would argue that beauty is evil. On the contrary, The Confessions and The Divine Comedy [End Page 32] reveal that beauty is from God and is, in itself, essentially good. A key concept, however, that both men show as necessary to experience the fullness of salvation is that beauty must be acknowledged as coming from God and loved as a vehicle of his grace. Any other kind of love of beauty can lead to damnation, but to follow beauty's lead to the One who created it is salvation. The key to experiencing this salvation—in The Divine Comedy and in The Confessions—is grace; the only way to ascend is through the humility of descent.
Augustine's depiction of himself as a boy and as a youth suggests a sensitive—though as he would say "sinful"—person attracted to the beautiful in both its verbal and physical forms. Physical beauty and physical love distract the young Augustine, despite his ambitious dedication to his studies. "It was a sweet thing," he says in book 3, "both to love and to be loved, and more sweet still when I was able to enjoy the body of my lover" (1.52). When he matures, Augustine takes a mistress to whom he is faithful until the time approaches for his marriage, when she is taken from him in Italy and sent back to Africa. He agonizes over his separation from his mistress, but—unlike her—is unable to remain faithful to her memory. While waiting for his intended wife to come of age, Augustine says, "I found another woman for myself—not, of course, as a wife. In this way my soul's disease was fed and kept alive so that it might reach the domination of matrimony just as strong as before, or stronger, and still the slave of an unbreakable habit" (6.16.133). Though Augustine does not refer to the word "beauty" in these accounts, clearly his attraction to the women mentioned here is physical in nature, despite his mistress having offered him a love that was apparently more than mere physical gratification. Even the converted Augustine struggles against temptations involving "images" from his sexual past, leading to erotic dreams; he says, "These images, though real, have such an effect on my soul, in my flesh, that false visions in my sleep obtain from me what true visions cannot when I am awake" (10.30.237). For Augustine, one of the key things that make a misdirected [End Page 33] love of physical beauty sinful is that it deflects the soul from the love of God. Physical beauty is not, however, sinful in itself.
Augustine makes this point very clearly when he discusses as a temptation even those physical beauties that are not sexual in their attraction. He says, "The eyes love beautiful shapes of all kinds, glowing and delightful colors. These things must not take hold of my soul; that is for God to do. Certainly God made these things very good, but it is He Himself, not these things, who is my good" (10.34.243). For Augustine, the main focus of all love should be God, and anything—no matter how good or beautiful—must be loved only in connection with God. In book 4, chapter 12, Augustine explains how to love...