Educating the Moral Imagination: The Truth of Beauty
by Benjamin Lockerd
Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
— Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”
These famous lines of Keats have charmed and delighted readers for nearly two centuries, but skeptics have scoffed at his claim, especially as beauty is well known to be wholly subjective, a value found only “in the eye of the beholder.” Even those of us who are inclined to agree with the poet’s bold statement have been known to wonder whether this is really all we need to know. Surely we must add at least two other categories to the formula, for philosophers have long considered three subjects of contemplation to be paramount: the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. These topics give rise to the three prime branches of philosophy: metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics. All three of these are considered by many people today purely relativistic concepts, and one of the goals of the Catholic educator must be to contradict the prevailing relativism, which is practically taken for granted even by many Catholic students, since, as T. S. Eliot says, secularism today “holds all the most valuable advertising space.”
In my experience, these students are more likely to grant me metaphysical claims than claims about morality and beauty. If I say that the universe is not merely atoms and void, not merely matter, they tend to agree. It becomes more contentious if I say that there are universal moral truths. If I give as an example the claim that it is always wrong to enslave another person, they will readily agree, but if I say it is wrong (on essentially the same principle) to use human embryos for scientific research, I will have an argument with some. If I say that it is also wrong (still largely for the same reason) to bring about the conception of a human being in a laboratory in order to help an infertile couple have a child, I may meet with incredulity or even be denounced as a heartless disbeliever in the sanctity of motherhood.
Of the three terms, however, beauty is the one that has most thoroughly succumbed to relativistic thought. If I make any claim whatsoever, my students are likely to look at me blankly; if they find I am serious about it, they are likely to confront me vociferously, maintaining what everyone knows, that judgments of beauty are purely subjective. What one person thinks beautiful, another will think ugly. And of course there is a great deal of truth to this view, since there is indeed great variation in taste when it comes to music, or art, or architecture. Let us admit from the outset, then, that standards of beauty are subject to social and personal variation. But, having allowed that there are socially conditioned tastes, let us nevertheless maintain that there are universals in the realm of aesthetics as well as in ethics and metaphysics. Let us take on the charge of relativism where our defense seems most vulnerable and thereby demonstrate the strength of our general belief that the universe has been created in a particular way by almighty God so that certain things in the universe are always true, good, and beautiful in themselves. Furthermore, let us help our students cultivate a rich imaginative sense, in the confidence that it will help them really see and feel the truths of the moral law.
Aesthetics is as old as philosophy itself. Plato argued that there were eternal forms in the ideal realm that were the source of all beauty in the physical world and then in art. He emphasized the universality of geometrical figures, the circle, the triangle, and the square. Here are shapes that are indeed everywhere regarded as beautiful and that are found at the basis of more complex forms (such as Renaissance paintings in which the main figures in a composition form a triangular shape). However, there are a couple of problems with Plato’s approach. First, as a thoroughgoing idealist, he regarded the forms of the physical world as pale and imperfect copies of the eternal forms, and at times he seems to regard artistic representations as even further removed from true beauty. In the Republic, Socrates famously states that poetic mimesis is thrice removed from ideal reality, concluding that poets must therefore be banned from the state. Many Plato scholars regard the entire utopian scheme of this dialogue as ironic, for it begins with Socrates’ interlocutor insisting on luxuries in the ideal state and the master acquiescing and agreeing to think of an ideal government for a “feverish” society. Nevertheless, the question had been raised as to whether the arts could present truth or were only good for pleasure (a pleasure which might, according to Socrates, merely encourage irrational passions). The other problem with Plato’s aesthetic theory is that his ideal forms are indeed universal but of a limited range. It is not clear that geometry can really account for all the beauty of the world and of the arts.
Aristotle took a more balanced view of the physical and spiritual worlds, asserting that matter cooperates with form rather than obscuring it. For him, the physical world is not an illusory and deceitful copy of the ideal world, but is real and meaningful. Here Aristotle seems to intuit something approaching the Christian view of created matter, and it is largely for this reason that he became the favorite of Catholic theologians. In his Poetics, Aristotle states that poetry has the capacity to present the universal realities of “human action and life.” He goes on to say that “Poetry, therefore, is more philosophical and more significant than history, for poetry is more concerned with the universal and history more with the individual.” Here, for the first time, is the claim that beauty is truth: a good work of art captures universal truths about humanity.
St. Augustine was sometimes nervous about the power of art. For instance, he became concerned if he found himself too caught up in the music of the liturgy. At the same time, he gave one of the enduring definitions of beauty, namely that it is a harmonizing of parts in an ordered whole. This definition of beauty seems to me to be that best and most comprehensive. Beautiful works have a complexity of parts resolved in an integral wholeness. They exhibit multiplicity in unity. Augustine also asserted that judgments of beauty could be objectively valid.
St. Thomas Aquinas similarly argued that beautiful things have integrity, an integration of separate parts, as well as proportion and harmony (which seems to me to be another word for integrity or wholeness, since harmony is a resolution of different elements). Aquinas also points out that the true experience of beauty is not only sensory but also intellectual—that it is a kind of knowing. Perhaps he was the first to make this distinction between beauty, which has this cognitive element interfused with sensory experience, and simple physical pleasure, which is exclusively sensory. This is another way of saying that beauty has to do with truth, not just with entertainment. St. Thomas wisely admits, however, that the term “beauty” is difficult to define and has different senses when applied to different things.
What Christianity added to the ideas of the ancient philosophers on this topic was the assurance that God had created the universe in such a way that it was inherently meaningful. According to the Christian view, everything in the world is a creature of God and a reflection of one part of His infinite goodness. The universe itself is the ultimate work of art, exhibiting to an astonishing degree that integration of parts within the whole. Thus the beautiful orderliness of the world is itself a reflection of God and a proof of His existence. Our sacramental theology insists that the most profound spiritual moments are experienced in and through the physical world. Baptism requires water; Communion, bread and wine; other sacraments, oil. The sacraments are perfect works of art, for their physical elements not only symbolize but really embody or enact spiritual realities. A sacrament is, by definition “a symbol that effects what it signifies.” The water of baptism signifies spiritual cleansing and effects spiritual cleansing. The bread of communion signifies the body of Christ and is the body of Christ.
The greatest poet of the Middle Ages was inspired by these beliefs. Dante saw the Divine Comedy as allegorical, that is, as having meaning at several levels—but with all those levels springing from the literal level of the poem. This most spiritual poem is at the same time intensely physical and piercingly beautiful. Many find the Inferno the best part, but the Purgatorio and Paradiso are powerful as well. In fact, the whole work may be read as a meditation on the interaction of the physical and spiritual. Inferno is filled with physical, bodily images, while Paradiso uses ethereal and even mathematical forms to hint at the mysteries of the Godhead. Purgatorio is in between, and it is here that the reader encounters that in-between phenomenon, art. Everywhere there is singing and poetry, and in one striking example there are carvings in marble of the Annunciation, sculpture so good that the poet feels as if he hears the angel saying Ave. The Purgatorio is also full of rituals, for both art and ritual unite immediate physical experience with transcendent spiritual meaning. Though the Paradiso must necessarily be more abstract, it is full of beautiful images of light, turning wheels, and the cosmic dance. Since we believe in the resurrection of the body, Dante envisions a physical reality even in heaven. The final canto begins with a reminder of the incarnation, with the poet addressing Mary as figlia del tuo figlio, daughter of your son. Though she transcends time in this paradoxical relationship, it is through her that the Lord enters the temporal world. The canto ends with a vision of the blessed Trinity as three circles of light reflecting each other, and then with a sudden glimpse of “our human effigy” in the second circle. The highest vision is not of a completely immaterial deity but of the incarnate Lord. It is that perfect union of spirit and matter that makes objective beauty possible and inevitable.
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