In Defense of Beauty

It’s said that the three marks of the divine–that which is transcendent–is beauty, goodness, and truth. That which is beautiful, good, or truthful points towards God. This is why Catholic churches have traditionally been built with rich artwork and soaring architecture.

Modern society is at battle with these marks of transcendence. Not only is popular culture seeking to make goodness and truth relative, it also seeks to destroy beauty in favor of efficiency. We see examples of this with the literal destruction of beauty in Catholic churches across the country: high altars ripped down, intricate altar rails thrown away, detailed stained glass imagery replaced by abstract colors, beautiful vestments replaced by schlocky polyester sheets, and many more examples. Secular life has many examples too; most modern buildings favor high-efficiency materials to produce cookie-cutter strip malls dotting our roads, deep and meaningful music, artwork, and literature exists but seems to be harder and harder to find. Gone are the days when someone who cherished authentic beauty in society is to be regarded civilized.

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The soul’s longing for beauty may be hard to easily satisfy in today’s world but those who seek to live a counter-cultural, authentic, better and joyful life need to try. One must ask of everything surrounding their life, “does this reflect goodness, truth, or beauty”? It’s not the most efficient way of living, but it does produce better results. This point is reflected over and over by Rod Dreher in his book Crunchy Cons, “beauty is more important than efficiency”:

Appreciation of aesthetic quality–that is, beauty–is not a luxury, but key to the good life

In my now-heightened awareness of the lack of beauty plaguing both our churches and culture, I found the recent article by Paul Krause particularly edifying. He more eloquently states the same point while citing ancient thinkers such as Cicero and Platinus and their impact on classic Christian philosophy. These notions were once obvious to Christians. This unfortunately is no longer.

What’s hopeful, however, is the recent “re-renovations” of previously destroyed churches, the formation of architectural firms specializing in traditional beauty, and priests interested in offering reverent Masses (especially the TLM).

Quoting only parts from A Defense of Beauty and Excellence from the Classical Tradition (emphases mine):

There are many serious problems facing moderns, but one of the most troubling—and worrying—is the loss and degradation of beauty, not just in the arts, but in society as a whole. Classical Greek philosophy, to which Catholic philosophy largely inherited and preserved, maintained that beauty and morality were intertwined with one another. When Christianity began to spread, the Christian encounter with Greek philosophy was largely positive. However, over the last two centuries, the widening chasm between aesthetics and virtue, and the postmodern assertion that aesthetics is oppressive (and therefore needing deconstruction), has brought immeasurable harm to culture and society.

Culture means life. And for life to be truly flourishing in a teleological sense, Greek, Roman, traditional Jewish and Christian philosophy, always affirmed beauty as an integral aspect of the good life. In his masterpiece, Enneads, Plotinus opened his most famous section—on beauty—by writing, “Beauty addresses itself chiefly to sight; but there is a beauty for the hearing too, as in certain combinations of words and in all kinds of music, for melodies and cadences are beautiful; and minds that lift themselves above the realm of sense to a higher order are aware of beauty in the conduct of life, in actions, in character, in the pursuits of the intellect; and there is the beauty of the virtues. What loftier beauty there may be, yet, our argument will bring to light.”

More…

[Plotinus stated] “Then again, all the virtues are a beauty of the soul, a beauty authentic beyond any of these others.”… As Plotinus explains, the ugly lacks a proper cultivation of reason, torn by lust and discord, lashes out and destroys beauty in the process—which also destroys harmony. It is interesting to note that Plotinus associated the ugly soul with the person preoccupied with only material things.

Catholics, best of all, understand the importance of the union of aesthetics with arête. Beauty, itself, demands a value judgement. There is nothing harsh or unfair with proclaiming this truth. That which is beautiful is good, and that which is ugly, as Plotinus recognized, is neither beautiful nor good. There are natural gradations of beauty. As Augustine explained, the gradations of beauty lift one up closer to Heaven and the Supreme Beauty that is God. This follows the insights of both Plato and Plotinus who recognized that the experience of even low beauty awakens an innate desire for greater beauty that drives one to greater excellence in search for beauty.

Cicero equally noted that people in their folly, are prone to destroy things beautiful and admirable. Nihilism is the end result of anti-intellectualism and relativism, not just the mere absence of values but the abject negation—destruction—of beauty and values.

The quote above is great. Relativism of beauty, truth, and goodness has an end result of not just the simple absence of each mark but a destruction of each. What did we see bishops and priests do in the 70’s? They didn’t just simply start making ugly new churches, they quite literally destroyed the beauty of old churches. The “art” that replaced traditional sacred art in many suburban parishes are kitschy felt banners and horrendously cheesy guitar music. Gross.

It is the inheritance of the classical marriage of aesthetics and moral excellence that had historically been a cornerstone of not just Catholic philosophy, but Western philosophy more generally—inspiring all aspects of culture: art, music, engineering, and literature, to reflect the highest excellence demanded of beauty itself. And in that beauty there exists an irresistible draw for the virtuous to defend all that is beautiful. The compulsion to defend the beautiful, itself, reflects the moral excellence of the person.

…in Confessions, Augustine stated that reading Virgil and Cicero had brought him to belief in God. Beauty is the brilliance of truth, and as Augustine said, “All truth belongs to God.” And we know where that road ultimately ends.

We all should start discerning what is beautiful in our homes and lives. Then we should slowly start surrounding our minds, bodies, and souls not only with what is truthful and good but also is beautiful. ☩

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