Tuesday, March 2, 2010

On the Good, the True, and the Beautiful

"Indeed, searching for a beauty that is foreign to or separate from the human search for truth and goodness would become (as unfortunately happens) mere asceticism and, especially for the very young, a path leading to ephemeral values and to banal and superficial appearances, even a flight into an artificial paradise that masks inner emptiness." - Pope Benedict XVI

In AP English IV today, we had a heated discussion of Oscar Wilde’s Aestheticism. The flamboyant dandy deliberately sought to divorce beauty from morality and truth with dire consequences for modern sensibilities. I struggled in vain to articulate the connection between the true, the good, and the beautiful to my students. So frustrating! The Holy Father, as usual, displays a laser-like focus in the passage above that cuts to the heart of the matter. These three attributes of God truly are mutually enriching and reinforcing. The renowned philosopher Joseph Pieper eloquently describes this interconnectedness “Beauty is the glow of the true and the good that flows out of every ordered state of being.”

I do not begrudge my students’ insistence that there is a subjective dimension to our experience of beauty in nature and art, for I readily agree with this proposition; however, there is an objective dimension to beauty as well. My students experience incredible difficulty with this notion because they rightly recognize it as tantamount to acquiescence to authority, and that is something which they simply cannot abide. The very idea of deference to an authority beyond their own opinion seems repugnant to many, though not all, of them. This seems funny to me as many of them accept authority in the context of morality and truth, but they revolt at an aesthetic authority. They feel that this impinges upon their judgment or is somehow an unjust imposition. Why does aesthetics have no right to standards, while moral and epistemic claims do?

In reality, aesthetic objectivity exists in both the particular and the universal manifestations of beauty. Particular instances of beauty in nature and art share some essential properties such as prompting delight, elevating the soul, enlightening the mind, and exhibiting harmony and proportion, while also possessing distinct differences due to their respective contexts and disciplines. For example, the standards as to what makes an epic poem objectively beautiful as opposed to a sculpture or a sonata or a painting are quite varied. You also have to factor in the tenets of particular artistic movements of the various epochs and measure them by their own yardsticks, so as not to hold up one above all the others; otherwise, you compromise any semblance of artistic impartiality. Moreover, there is a plausible range of subjective interpretations about whether or not this or that work does indeed meet the objective standards and to what extent. Works that come to be regarded as masterpieces or classics generally achieve a certain degree of consensus among the artistic community and the general populace. How else do some works arrive in museum displays even as others are rejected and discarded as unworthy of contemplation?

Aesthetic objectivity also exists on the universal scale because all particular manifestations of beauty participate in the pulchritudinous God that is the great I am. We appreciate and crave beauty precisely because we are made in the image and likeness of a God who is Beauty. Beauty and being go hand in hand, which is why a discussion of beauty without any reference to metaphysics or theology seems a doomed enterprise from the outset. What makes a thing or a person good, and true, and beautiful is the degree to which it or he fully realizes its or his ordered existence. St. Thomas once said something to this effect “[Beauty is the splendor] of the goods that each being ought to have according to its nature.” God designed man to be good, to be true, and to be beautiful.

What Christianity added to the Platonic transcendentals – the Good, the True, and the Beautiful – by way of divine revelation, was Love, and specifically a personal love, which unifies these formerly disparate spiritual realities. In his hypostasis of humanity and divinity, Jesus Christ contains within himself the Platonic transcendentals and Love. This conversation has now come full circle, for it ends where it began – with Oscar Wilde. Paradoxically, Wilde, the same devotee of Aestheticism we were discussing today in class, understood Christ as the epicenter of Beauty on some core level and returned to the wellspring of this truth on his deathbed. In the De Profundis, the moving letter he wrote on sorrow and beauty in prison, Wilde characterizes Christ in just such aesthetic terms as I have been describing. I will close this reflection, then, with an extended excerpt from Wilde’s letter that speaks of Christ as Beauty:

Christ's place indeed is with the poets. His whole conception of Humanity sprang right out of the imagination and can only be realised by it…wherever there is a romantic movement in art there somehow, and under some form, is Christ, or the soul of Christ. He is in Romeo and Juliet, in the Winter's Tale, in Provencal poetry, in the Ancient Mariner, in La Belle Dame sans merci, and in Chatterton's Ballad of Charity...It is the imaginative quality of Christ's own nature that makes him this palpitating centre of romance. The strange figures of poetic drama and ballad are made by the imagination of others, but out of his own imagination entirely did Jesus of Nazareth create himself…That is why he is so fascinating to artists. He has all the colour elements of life: mystery, strangeness, pathos, suggestion, ecstasy, love. He appeals to the temper of wonder, and creates that mood in which alone he can be understood…Indeed, that is the charm about Christ, when all is said: he is just like a work of art. He does not really teach one anything, but by being brought into his presence one becomes something. And everybody is predestined to his presence. Once at least in his life each man walks with Christ to Emmaus.

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