STRANGE AS IT MAY SEEM, beauty still needs to be defended. In the history of the West, beauty has played the role of Cinderella to her sisters, goodness and truth. I don’t mean to say that beauty in art or nature hasn’t been appreciated throughout history—though there have been times when beauty has been the subject of frontal assaults—but simply that when we start getting official, when we get theological or philosophical, beauty becomes a hot potato.
The ambivalence about beauty at the heart of western culture begins at the beginning. In Jerusalem, proscriptions against idols and graven images coexist with paeans to the craftsmanship of God and Bezalel, the artificer (described in Exodus) of the desert tabernacle. In Athens, Plato celebrates the divine madness that the poet experiences when the muse descends, but he also kicks the poets out of his ideal republic as unreliable, disruptive sorts.
In theory, goodness, truth, and beauty—traditionally known as the “transcendentals,” because they are the three qualities that God has in infinite abundance—are equal in dignity and worth. Indeed, in Christian thought there has always been a sense that the transcendentals exist in something of a trinitarian relationship to one another. But in practice it rarely seems to work out that way.
The funny thing is that secular and religious attacks on beauty are nearly identical. Beauty is seen as an anesthetizing force that distracts us from the moral imperatives of justice and the quest for truth. There isn’t much difference between a stern proponent of Iconoclasm in the eighth century and a modern Marxist attacking beauty as nothing but an opiate to lull us into acquiescence to the powers that be. Both critics abhor what Wendy Steiner has called “the scandal of pleasure.”
The time has come to bring beauty back, to give it the glass slipper and invite it to the prom.
The thinker who has helped me most along these lines is the twentieth-century theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. His argument—and it is a rather unsettling one—is that of the three transcendentals, beauty is the one that is least troubled by our fallen condition. In a world plagued by sin and error, he says, truth and goodness are always hotly contested. How do you live righteously? What is the truth? As we debate these matters, we have axes to grind.
But beauty, von Balthasar says, is disinterested. It has no agenda. Beauty can sail under the radar of our anxious contention over what is true and what is good, carrying along its beam a ray of the beatific vision. Beauty can pierce the heart, wounding us with the transcendent glory of God.
Von Balthasar’s magnum opus, The Glory of the Lord, is structured in three parts, corresponding to the three transcendentals. He stresses the importance of the order in which he discusses them:
Beauty is the word which shall be our first. Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach since only it dances as an uncontained splendor around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man. We no longer dare to believe in beauty, and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name, as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past, whether he admits it or not, can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.
A quotation as dense with meaning as that is a hard act to follow. But one of the more intriguing suggestions made by von Balthasar concerns that “act of mysterious vengeance.” When you remove beauty from the human equation, it is going to come back in some other form, even as anti-beauty. A good deal of modern art can be understood in this light. In modernity, beauty has been seen as an appearance—ornamentation, sugar coating. Secularists and believers alike have either rejected beauty altogether or argued that beauty should make the pills of truth and goodness go down easier. Beauty must serve some other end; it is not an end in itself.
But the transcendentals were always understood as infinitely valuable, as ends in themselves. When it comes to beauty, however, we are afraid to assert that much. We feel the need to harness it, because beauty is unpredictable, wild.
Here’s how I have tried to comprehend these deep matters. If you think about these three transcendentals in relationship to our human capacities, what are the faculties that correspond to these three transcendentals? Goodness, I would say, has to do with faith, the desire for holiness. Truth is pursued by reason.
We are all familiar with that pairing: faith and reason. That’s standard-issue language in the western tradition. But what about the third element? What faculty does beauty correspond to? I would suggest that it is the imagination. The imagination is the faculty honed to apprehend beauty and unfold its meaning.
How often do we say the Judeo-Christian tradition is a tradition of faith, reason, and imagination? This is what I mean by saying that we treat beauty as the Cinderella. “Go make pretty pictures,” we say to beauty, “but don’t start acting like you are a pathway to knowing the universe.”
Yet this is precisely what the definition of a transcendental means. That’s easy to see when it comes to truth. But the same applies to goodness: when we act justly, we come to know more about reality. And so it is with beauty. Beauty allows us to penetrate reality through the imagination, through the capacity of the imagination to perceive the world intuitively.
Seeing the Form—that is the title of the first volume of von Balthasar’s trilogy. Aesthetics comes from the Greek word for perception, aisthesis. Saint Thomas Aquinas defined beauty as “id quod visum placet”—that which being seen, pleases. A work of art has a flash of radiance about it that we find pleasurable, but the pleasure comes from our recognition of meaning, a pattern within our normally chaotic experience.
The intuitive perception of meaning that art provides helps us to see that imagination is akin to reason: both seek truth through the apprehension of order and pattern. Art employs beautiful forms to generate objects that penetrate reality.
Beauty tends to elicit in us a type of shock. We draw a breath in. Why? If beauty tells us about the eternal verities, whence the surprise? Ezra Pound once said that the artist’s task is to “make it new.” The “it” is the truth of the world. A work of art doesn’t invent truth, but it does make it accessible to us in ways that are not normally available because words and images have been tarnished by overuse or neglect. Art fails when it merely tells us what we already know in the ways that we already know it.
That is why art is so deeply related to the prophetic dimension and the place where it connects to truth. That prophetic shock, that challenge to complacency, that revelatory reconfiguration of the way things are, gives us a truer picture of the way that the world is.
Truth without beauty is fleshless abstraction, a set of propositions. Only beauty can incarnate truth in concrete, believable, human flesh.
Beauty also has the capacity to help us to value the good, especially the goodness of the most ordinary things. The greatest epics, the most terrible tragedies, all have one goal: to bring us back to the ordinary and help us to love and to cherish it. Odysseus encounters Circe, Cyclops, the sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, but his real destination is home and the marital bed that makes it his place in the world.
That is the magic of art. It may spread a huge canvas, it may be bold and baroque, but its essence is to remind us of the everyday and to transmute it into a sacrament.
Beauty tutors our compassion, making us more prone to love and to see the attraction of goodness. Art takes us out of our self-referentiality and invites us to see through the eyes of the other, whether that other is the artist herself or a character in a story. Because beauty endows goodness with mercy, it enables us to see how difficult it is to achieve goodness, how often one good exists in tension with another. Our pursuit of the good is inherently dramatic, and drama is based on conflict.
Thus goodness without beauty is moralism, holier than thou.
At the same time, it is only fair to say that beauty without truth is a lie. Beauty without truth becomes the mask that von Balthasar speaks of, a mask that has no relationship to the face behind it.
Beauty without goodness is frigid and lifeless. It can be pure virtuosity—form without meaning—but then it fails to touch the heart. We admire the acrobatics but fail to see the point.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but any serious discussion of beauty needs to treat it as something more than prettiness. The Greeks, as I have suggested, were deeply divided about beauty. They loved harmony, proportion, symmetry, the ideal form. But they also knew darkness, as their tragedies attest.
To my mind, a deeper understanding of beauty came into being with Christianity. The cross, the instrument of torture and shame, was taken up into a higher vision of beauty. Brokenness and woundedness—the shattering of the ideal—can become the means whereby beauty is revealed. Here is a beauty that is anything but sentimental. It is akin to what Yeats meant by his phrase “a terrible beauty.” Lest we forget, the glorified body of the risen Christ still bears the marks of his wounds.
Beauty itself wounds us, pierces our hearts, opens us up. Let us, then, free it to dance in “uncontained splendor around the double constellation of the true and the good.”
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.