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Good Letters

Painting of Socrates standing in the center of a nondescript area, with his arm raised. He is lecturing to a crowd of men who are gathered around him, some lounging, others standing, but all looking towards Socrates in the center of the circle. They are wearing togas. The following is a response to Morgan Meis’s letter posted yesterday.

Dear Morgan:

I’m enjoying this conversation but at times I worry that you’re playing Glaucon to my Socrates. In other words, just egging the “master” on. I want to be sure you’re not just tossing up softballs for me to take a swing at. You’re a professionally trained philosopher; I’ve never taken a philosophy class in my life. So don’t hesitate to take a real swing…at me!

Now I don’t want to bog the conversation down in quibbles but I worry that semantic differences and definitions may be getting in the way. You’re getting at this when you accuse me of doing a “bait and switch” in defining beauty—messing with the “registers.”

My point about Donatello’s Mary Magdalene was that the work of art can take what is ugly—a ragged, gaunt, old woman—and transform that ugliness into a form of beauty—a simultaneous perception of spiritual beauty inhering in outward brokenness.

That’s why Greek tragedy and The Cross are able to reveal beauty truthfully—without denying the fallen condition of the world, something you rightly insist upon. Donatello’s Magdalene is a beautiful work of art, even while it depicts ugliness. Art can reveal the inner beauty of the human spirit, wounded and yet possessed of dignity and desire.

I conceded that the Greek sensibility was dominated by the “pull,” as you put it, toward the ideal. But are you really approaching the question “What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?” in Tertullian’s scornful tone? Is this really an eternal Manichean struggle, never to be resolved? Have you put all your cards on the table?

In short, is it not possible to find a synthesis that still respects the tension? The Christian Humanist in me wants to believe that it is possible to see this tension in terms of paradox—paradox as something fruitful and generative, not merely deconstructive.

In The Vindication of Tradition, Jaroslav Pelikan writes:

The tension and complementarity between Athens and Jerusalem has been a recurring theme, a sort of melodic counterpoint, of our tradition. And it must still be, for us as descendants of these two grandmothers, with that melody we learn to sing, and from that counterpoint we go on to compose melodies of our own.

I would be the last person to deny that our Greek grandmother still speaks strongly to us: just look at any magazine rack or the vast majority of Hollywood films. We remain obsessed with outward, physical beauty. It sells.

But that is not the highest truth—the truest melody—of our tradition. And it is precisely here where our religious tradition offers us the antidote.

In his address to the Catholic lay movement, Communion and Liberation, then-Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), addresses the tension between Jerusalem and Athens on matters of goodness, truth, and beauty.

He cites two scriptures that are seemingly in conflict with each other. Psalm 44 says: “You are the fairest of the children of men and grace is poured upon your lips.” But Isaiah 53 says: “He had neither beauty, no majesty, nothing to attract our eyes, no grace to make us delight in him.” Ratzinger then quotes Augustine as speaking of this paradox as the “two trumpets” of revelation.

Ratzinger goes on to note that Augustine “knew that a paradox is contrast and not contradiction” and concludes:

Whoever believes in God, in the God who manifested himself, precisely in the altered appearance of Christ crucified as love “to the end” (John 13:1), knows that beauty is truth and truth beauty; but in the suffering Christ he also learns that the beauty of truth also embraces offence, pain, and even the dark mystery of death, and that this can only be found in accepting suffering, not in ignoring it…. In the Passion of Christ the Greek aesthetic that deserves admiration for its perceived contact with the Divine but which remained inexpressible for it, in Christ’s passion is not removed but overcome.

If this is true, then the synthesis already exists in the Gospel itself and not just in the efforts of later theologians and philosophers. In The Cross the ugly becomes beautiful.

As for the nature of creation: well, I guess that’s not a gently tossed softball! You ask: “Is creation good because it is beautiful (i.e., we like it and take pleasure in it) or beautiful because it is good (harsh, ugly, and aesthetically unpleasant though spiritually fortifying)?”

Something about the way you formulate the question feels wrong—a false dichotomy? Or maybe it’s a trick question!

Anyway, surely Augustine needs to come to the rescue again, right? Isn’t this where we turn to his understanding of evil—shorthand for harshness and ugliness—as a diminution of goodness? Evil as a mange on the skin of a good creation? If creation itself is harsh and ugly, that would, in fact, amount to a Gnostic approach to reality.

The Gnostics, as you know, believed that the created universe had been created by a bad god, demi-urge, what-have-you. For the Gnostics, beauty was disembodied spirit, not matter—the goal was to escape “creation” entirely and get to the purely spiritual realm.

Greek philosophy and the Western religions affirm the goodness of creation, which is the source of its beauty. The goodness of the world can be ravaged by evil but at root all of creation is good, even if it is diminished and marred. St. Paul’s image of creation as a pregnant woman in labor remains compelling: all of creation “groaneth” for restoration of its ultimate beauty.

In the meantime, we must come to appreciate the paradox of “broken beauty,” which both attracts us and keeps us tethered to truth. But such a vision takes into account the whole truth, not just one aspect of it. Contra the Gnostics, we can still see beauty shining forth from this wounded world.

But, hey, if I need to be disabused, go for it!

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Gregory Wolfe

Gregory Wolfe, the founder and editor of Image, is currently Senior Fellow at the Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture at Seattle University. He edits a literary imprint, Slant Books, through Wipf & Stock Publishers. He served as the founding director of the Seattle Pacific University MFA in Creative Writing program. Wolfe’s books include Beauty Will Save the World, Intruding Upon the Timeless, and, most recently, The Operation of Grace. Follow him on Twitter: @Gregory_Wolfe.

Above image is Nicolas Guibal's “Socrates teaching Perikles,” used with permission under a Creative Commons license, via Wikimedia Commons.

1 Comment

  1. Santiago Ramos on April 5, 2017 at 9:10 pm

    I think that the Jersualem-Athens dichotomy is not the right one for framing this debate. There two others that make more sense:

    Mainstream Greek culture (i.e., Homer) v. Plato: In Homer there is, as Morgan says, a tendency to equate physical beauty and moral greatness … and poverty and suffering are seen as ugly and not morally purgative, as they are for Christians (e.g., the depiction of Thersites in the Iliad). But Plato’s dialogues contain perspectives that are critical of this point of view. The dialectic in the Symposium involves Alcibiades’s physical beauty and inner poverty, and Socrates’s physical ugliness and inner divinity. And Plato did not even oppose the two, necessarily, but saw them as a part of a continuum, or a “ladder” to the Form: human bodies and laws and sciences are all beautiful, and beauty itself is both a feature of appearance and not a feature of appearance. Plato is fond of the proverb, “Beautiful things are difficult”; that is, no matter what type of beauty we are talking about, it draws us in… there is maybe a paradox there.

    The other dichotomy is between beauty as aesthetic, and beauty in the erotic, platonic sense above… this is Kant v. Plato. But again, I don’t see an absolute difference, Beauty affects the viewer by forcing her to changer her attitude toward an object. The aging Magdalene *appears* beautiful in part because our own attitude toward what she looks like has been changed by the aesthetic context.

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