Saturday, February 07, 2009

The Truth of Beauty

"[B]eauty matters. Radical Protestantism, such as was found in Calvinism generally and particularly among the Puritans, distrusted beauty and removed it from churches and from worship services. A similar attack on beauty has unfortunately arisen in the Catholic Church as a result of a common misreading of Vatican II. We must again strive to offer praise to God with the most beautiful churches and art and clothing and liturgical music we can manage. The modern notion that only the inward matters and that outward forms are impediments to worship is false.

This pertinent quote, which echoes a common theme that is beginning to resound more again even while yet being resisted, comes as one of the conclusions reached in a recent article by Benjamin G. Lockerd, Jr., a professor of English at Valley State University, found in the current issue of the Saint Austin Review.

The entire issue is dedicated to the theme of "Faith & Aesthetics" and looks rather interesting indeed. The quote above-mentioned comes from Lockerd's own contribution to this issue, "The Truth of Beauty" (available online). His piece focuses upon the nature of beauty and its relationship to truth (as the title of course suggests) and is approached by means of a survey of philosophical and literary thought upon this subject:

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.


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.


Aquinas also points out that the true experience of beauty is not only sensory but intellectual — that it is a kind of knowing... This is another way of saying that beauty has to do with truth, not just with entertainment.


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... Our sacramental theology insists that the most profound spiritual moments are experienced in and through the physical world.


[C.S.] Lewis goes back to St. Augustine, who spoke of the ordo amoris, “the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it,” and to Aristotle, who asserts that “the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought.” Here is another way of describing moral imagination, a response to beauty that is true to our nature and the nature of the created world. The natural law is determined by right reason, but it must be felt emotionally if we are to live in accord with it, for it is the emotions that move us to action...As Lewis goes on to say, “because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore, emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason. . . . The heart never takes the place of the head: but it can, and should, obey it”(31–32). Children who are educated in the way of The Green Book [NLM: this is a contextual reference the author set up earlier, speaking of Lewis' work, The Abolition of Man] are in danger of becoming “Men without Chests”, whose emotions have not been taught to value what is objectively and rationally valuable. They have been taught to disregard the truth of beauty.

Of course as Lockerd points out, often a subject such as beauty, not to mention the true and the good, are treated today -- even by Catholics -- as relativistic:
...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.”

All of these certainly relate to some of the very battles we face as part of the new liturgical movement today, which brings us back to the quotation that began this piece:
"[B]eauty matters... We must again strive to offer praise to God with the most beautiful churches and art and clothing and liturgical music we can manage. The modern notion that only the inward matters and that outward forms are impediments to worship is false.

It certainly looks like an article, and an issue generally, worth digging more into.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: