What is Beauty and Why does it Matter?
The rise of classical Christian education is representing nothing less than an educational renewal throughout our nation. And at the heart of this renewal is recovery of the classical values known as Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, which have not fared very well in our current public education industry. But they are flourishing in classical Christian education, and I wanted to take this opportunity to introduce you to the classical notion of Beauty and show you why it’s so important to the educational life of our students.
Now there are few notions that I’ve introduced to my students that have made such a considerable impact on their lives as that of the classical notion of Beauty. They, my students, in fact find the classical notion of Beauty as irresistibly beautiful; which means that they’re enamored by it, they love it; they are attracted to Beauty, as is entailed in the concept itself. I’m repeatedly told by my students when they’re seniors that their favorite class of mine was Aesthetics, the study and encounter of Beauty. And what I find is that they’ve always felt that something critical was missing from their worldview training; and when they find Beauty, they go: “That’s it! That’s what’s been missing!”
So what is Beauty? Well basically, the way I like to introduce Beauty to people is through understanding its relationship to Truth and Goodness. The terms Truth, Goodness, and Beauty (alethia, agathos, and kalos) were already pretty well established in the Greek world by the time of Plato. In the fifth century BC, the upstanding citizens of the polis, the Greek city-state, were designated as the kalos kai agathos, the beautiful and the good, which was later contracted into a single term, kalokagathia.
But it is not until Plato that you get this systematic interplay between Truth, Goodness, and Beauty as macrosmic values on the one hand and the human soul as a sort of microcosmic replication of those values on the other. Because human beings are created in the image as it were of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, we also have a three-fold characteristic to our souls: the intellectual, moral, and emotional or aesthetic, made popular by Aristotle’s three modes of rhetorical persuasion: logos, ethos, and pathos.
The Greek term alethia (truth) literally means to reveal or disclose; it’s the negation of lethein (to conceal); and what truth does is it reveals the nature of reality to our intellectual capacities, our logos.
The term agathos (good) connoted “the excellence of a thing or person,” and was eventually developed by philosophers to designate the goal, purpose, or meaning of existence. And so I have a good marriage if I am living out the purpose of marriage; I have a good watch if my watch fulfills the purpose of watches. And while Truth reveals reality to my intellectual capacities, goodness reveals reality to my volitional and moral capacities (thymos or ethos).
But what is perhaps most stunning in this micro-macrocosmic relationship is the role Plato ascribes to kalos or Beauty, particularly in Diotima’s speech in his work entitled The Symposium: “Beauty is the loveliness, the radiance, the delightfulness of the True and the Good that draws the human person toward Truth and Goodness by directing our eros, or a loving desire within the human person.”
It is important to note here that Beauty is a physics in the classical world. This is why we associate Beauty with ‘attraction’; through Beauty we are drawn to the True and the Good, the divine source of life, by the awakening of our desires. We desire whatever we find beautiful.
So this is the first thing we want to make sure we’ve got nailed down; Beauty is a physics; Beauty in the classical world functions like the law of attraction; it’s a gravitational pull like the tractor beam in Star Wars. Beauty draws me somewhere, and by definition of the Beautiful it must draw me to the True and the Good.
But wait a minute! A moment’s reflection will reveal that not everything I find beautiful is True and Good. Right?
And that leads us to the indispensable role of Beauty in shaping and molding our students, particularly as that involves the ordering of their loves.
Now, the fascinating thing about Beauty is that even the pagan Greeks recognized that we are not attracted only to the True and the Good; we can be attracted to very false things. So when we look at Genesis 3, what do we see? We see Eve attracted to the fruit; we read: “When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise…” Do you hear the emphasis on the desires and the affections?Now right here, we have a major roadblock in front of us when we are trying to teach Beauty; this is where our understanding of the fundamental difference between the classical Christian vision of the world and the modern secular vision of the world comes in.
The classical and Christian age believed that the world was filled with divine meaning and purpose. What they would describe that divine meaning and purpose, in terms of the cosmic values of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, and the goal of education, was to align the student’s affections and desires and loves with those cosmic values, so that they love what’s truly lovely and desire what’s truly desirable and hence experience human flourishing. Because of its devotion to scientific rationalism, our modern secular age does not believe the world is filled with divine meaning and purpose; instead, the world operates solely by biological, chemical, and physical causal laws. That is the Truth, Goodness, and Beauty of the modern age: biology, chemistry, and physics, which are by definition value neutral. Thus there are no longer any cosmic values by which the students’ affections can be rightly ordered and arranged. And so what we value, what we desire and love, is rendered completely subjective and person relative.
This is what our students are breathing in when they come in to the classroom and say: “Who are you to define art? Who are you to say what’s good music and what’s bad music?”
To counter that kind of secular skepticism, we have to offer our students a fundamentally different world, one that is filled with divine meaning and purpose and therefore obligates us to conform our lives into a harmonious relationship with it. And this is where St. Augustine talks about a conception of virtue known as as ordo amoris, the right ordering of our loves. We learn in Genesis that God has created a world that is good; every time God creates something, he eVALUates it; he ascribes to that thing an objective value or goodness, and that goodness has an order to it; in other words, while all things are good as God created them, he created an economy or order to that goodness. You will notice in Genesis that when God creates mankind, it’s the first time he said, ‘And it was very good.’ Notice the superlative: all things in creation are good, but humanity is very good.
Now what Augustine in his notion of ordo amoris is pointing out is that this orderly goodness in the world provides an objective model by which we are able to order our affections, since it is a world that merits our praise. So, for example, it is good to love a baby, and it is good to love a ham sandwich; but if both the baby and ham sandwich were falling off a ledge and I rush to save the ham sandwich, that is bad; something has gone wrong with my loves. The order of my loves has been dislodged from the economy of goods that God has created. And for all the men who are listening: no, it doesn’t matter what kind of ham it is!
So how does Beauty fit into shaping our loves in accordance with God’s economy of goods?
One of the ways I like to illustrate how Beauty fits into this is with the Greek mythology of the Muses and the Sirens: the Muses are the daughters of Zeus who inspire Beauty and Truth, while the Sirens are water nymphs that lure sailors to their death through their bewitching songs.
Both involve using what appears to be Beauty, but with very different outcomes: one leads to life, while the other leads to death. The key to the difference is found in discerning what such attraction evokes in our souls: Beauty awakens a desire to surrender oneself to the object of attraction; whereas false beauty awakens a desire to control the object of attraction. Beauty awakens love; false beauty elicits lust. Truth attracts, lies seduce.
I once heard an excellent lecture on a theology of sexuality by a scholar who is also a Catholic nun. She asked the audience, “What does a prostitute get paid for?” And the audience is kind of chuckling and not knowing what to say, and you know how she answered it? To leave. The prostitute does not get paid for the sex; the prostitute gets paid to leave. Love surrenders itself to the object of its attraction; lust dominates and controls it. This is the difference between nudes in an art gallery and nudes in a porn magazine.
So when our students are attracted to something they find beautiful, we have to teach them to discern what it is they are being attracted to by asking: Is it True and Good? For example, Lady Gaga music videos may attract me, but they do so in drawing me to something, namely, a world devoid of meaning and purpose that is there to be conformed to my needs and desires. This is why she is always at the center of the screen in her videos. Her artistry celebrates the emancipation of the sovereign self.
Of course, this is not to say that there is nothing True or Good about Lady Gaga’s music. She is, after all, situated within 2,500 years of a musical tradition that was preserved and perfected by the church. It is to say, however, that the student needs to develop discernment when listening to her music so as to be able to approve of the Good and reject the lies.
So the first thing we need to get is Beauty is a physics; it’s a gravitational pull that draws me to the True and the Good. And secondly, it draws me to the True and Good by awakening a self-emptying love within me that seeks to serve the object of my affections rather than control and dominate it.
This is the indispensable role of Beauty in shaping the lives of our students, and it is this role that has reawakened with the renaissance of classical Christian education throughout our land, and indeed, in many parts of the world.