(Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join Benjamin Lockerd as he examines the importance of the moral imagination in learning the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.—W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher)
Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
— Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”
These famous lines of Keats have charmed and delighted readers for nearly two centuries, but skeptics have scoffed at his claim, especially as beauty is well known to be wholly subjective, a value found only “in the eye of the beholder.” Even those of us who are inclined to agree with the poet’s bold statement have been known to wonder whether this is really all we need to know. Surely we must add at least two other categories to the formula, for philosophers have long considered three subjects of contemplation to be paramount: 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.”
In my experience, these students are more likely to grant me metaphysical claims than claims about morality and beauty. If I say that the universe is not merely atoms and void, not merely matter, they tend to agree. It becomes more contentious if I say that there are universal moral truths. If I give as an example the claim that it is always wrong to enslave another person, they will readily agree, but if I say it is wrong (on essentially the same principle) to use human embryos for scientific research, I will have an argument with some. If I say that it is also wrong (still largely for the same reason) to bring about the conception of a human being in a laboratory in order to help an infertile couple have a child, I may meet with incredulity or even be denounced as a heartless disbeliever in the sanctity of motherhood.
Of the three terms, however, beauty is the one that has most thoroughly succumbed to relativistic thought. If I make any claim whatsoever, my students are likely to look at me blankly; if they find I am serious about it, they are likely to confront me vociferously, maintaining what everyone knows, that judgments of beauty are purely subjective. What one person thinks beautiful, another will think ugly. And of course there is a great deal of truth to this view, since there is indeed great variation in taste when it comes to music, or art, or architecture. Let us admit from the outset, then, that standards of beauty are subject to social and personal variation. But, having allowed that there are socially conditioned tastes, let us nevertheless maintain that there are universals in the realm of aesthetics as well as in ethics and metaphysics. Let us take on the charge of relativism where our defense seems most vulnerable and thereby demonstrate the strength of our general belief that the universe has been created in a particular way by almighty God so that certain things in the universe are always true, good, and beautiful in themselves. Furthermore, let us help our students cultivate a rich imaginative sense, in the confidence that it will help them really see and feel the truths of the moral law.
Aesthetics is as old as philosophy itself. 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. Here are shapes that are indeed everywhere regarded as beautiful and that are found at the basis of more complex forms (such as Renaissance paintings in which the main figures in a composition form a triangular shape). However, there are a couple of problems with Plato’s approach. First, as a thoroughgoing idealist, he regarded the forms of the physical world as pale and imperfect copies of the eternal forms, and at times he seems to regard artistic representations as even further removed from true beauty. In the Republic, Socrates famously states that poetic mimesis is thrice removed from ideal reality, concluding that poets must therefore be banned from the state. Many Plato scholars regard the entire utopian scheme of this dialogue as ironic, for it begins with Socrates’ interlocutor insisting on luxuries in the ideal state and the master acquiescing and agreeing to think of an ideal government for a “feverish” society. Nevertheless, the question had been raised as to whether the arts could present truth or were only good for pleasure (a pleasure which might, according to Socrates, merely encourage irrational passions). The other problem with Plato’s aesthetic theory is that his ideal forms are indeed universal but of a limited range. It is not clear that geometry can really account for all the beauty of the world and of the arts.
Aristotle took a more balanced view of the physical and spiritual worlds, asserting that matter cooperates with form rather than obscuring it. For him, the physical world is not an illusory and deceitful copy of the ideal world, but is real and meaningful. Here Aristotle seems to intuit something approaching the Christian view of created matter, and it is largely for this reason that he became the favorite of Catholic theologians. 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.
St. Augustine was sometimes nervous about the power of art. For instance, he became concerned if he found himself too caught up in the music of the liturgy. At the same time, he gave one of the enduring definitions of beauty, namely that it is a harmonizing of parts in an ordered whole. This definition of beauty seems to me to be that best and most comprehensive. Beautiful works have a complexity of parts resolved in an integral wholeness. They exhibit multiplicity in unity. Augustine also asserted that judgments of beauty could be objectively valid.
St. Thomas Aquinas similarly argued that beautiful things have integrity, an integration of separate parts, as well as proportion and harmony (which seems to me to be another word for integrity or wholeness, since harmony is a resolution of different elements). Aquinas also points out that the true experience of beauty is not only sensory but also intellectual—that it is a kind of knowing. Perhaps he was the first to make this distinction between beauty, which has this cognitive element interfused with sensory experience, and simple physical pleasure, which is exclusively sensory. This is another way of saying that beauty has to do with truth, not just with entertainment. St. Thomas wisely admits, however, that the term “beauty” is difficult to define and has different senses when applied to different things.
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. According to the Christian view, everything in the world is a creature of God and a reflection of one part of His infinite goodness. The universe itself is the ultimate work of art, exhibiting to an astonishing degree that integration of parts within the whole. Thus the beautiful orderliness of the world is itself a reflection of God and a proof of His existence. Our sacramental theology insists that the most profound spiritual moments are experienced in and through the physical world. Baptism requires water; Communion, bread and wine; other sacraments, oil. The sacraments are perfect works of art, for their physical elements not only symbolize but really embody or enact spiritual realities. A sacrament is, by definition “a symbol that effects what it signifies.” The water of baptism signifies spiritual cleansing and effects spiritual cleansing. The bread of communion signifies the body of Christ and is the body of Christ.
The greatest poet of the Middle Ages was inspired by these beliefs. Dante saw the Divine Comedy as allegorical, that is, as having meaning at several levels—but with all those levels springing from the literal level of the poem. This most spiritual poem is at the same time intensely physical and piercingly beautiful. Many find the Inferno the best part, but the Purgatorio and Paradiso are powerful as well. In fact, the whole work may be read as a meditation on the interaction of the physical and spiritual. Inferno is filled with physical, bodily images, while Paradiso uses ethereal and even mathematical forms to hint at the mysteries of the Godhead. Purgatorio is in between, and it is here that the reader encounters that in-between phenomenon, art. Everywhere there is singing and poetry, and in one striking example there are carvings in marble of the Annunciation, sculpture so good that the poet feels as if he hears the angel saying Ave. The Purgatorio is also full of rituals, for both art and ritual unite immediate physical experience with transcendent spiritual meaning. Though the Paradiso must necessarily be more abstract, it is full of beautiful images of light, turning wheels, and the cosmic dance. Since we believe in the resurrection of the body, Dante envisions a physical reality even in heaven. The final canto begins with a reminder of the incarnation, with the poet addressing Mary as figlia del tuo figlio, daughter of your son. Though she transcends time in this paradoxical relationship, it is through her that the Lord enters the temporal world. The canto ends with a vision of the blessed Trinity as three circles of light reflecting each other, and then with a sudden glimpse of “our human effigy” in the second circle. The highest vision is not of a completely immaterial deity but of the incarnate Lord. It is that perfect union of spirit and matter that makes objective beauty possible and inevitable.
In the Renaissance there arises a new formulation of the old definition of beauty as a whole that fully integrates separate parts. The Italian humanist Pico della Mirandola writes that harmonia est discordia concors, harmony is a condordant discord. We immediately recognize the truth of this profound statement, for everyone knows that harmony is created by playing different tones at the same time. We also know or can easily learn that some notes played together are never harmonic but are immediately and universally experienced as discordant or dissonant, which is strong evidence for our claim that beauty is (at least in part) objective. The pleasure of hearing notes an octave apart (or at other set mathematical intervals) is transcultural, built somehow into the nature of things and into our minds. Renaissance art and poetry are replete with images of discordant concord. One recurrent conjunction of opposites, for instance, is the Marriage of Mars and Venus, symbolizing the union of masculine and feminine principles.
One of the most famous treatises on poetry in the Renaissance was Sir Philip Sidney’s Apology for Poetry, written in response to Puritan attacks claiming that all poetry was essentially immoral. Sidney engages the relation between aesthetics and ethics, between the beautiful and the good. Following Aristotle, he argues that poetry reveals universals and is therefore deeply philosophical, deeply true. But he goes farther, asserting that poetry is a better ethical teacher than philosophy, for poetry touches our emotions and moves us to moral action, while philosophy can teach us what is right but not move our hearts to act on that knowledge. By the way, this argument is later echoed by Shelley, who says that imagination allows us to experience life from the perspectives of others and is thus essential to love itself.
Now, Sidney’s dispute with the Puritans brings us to the Protestant Reformation, which did damage to the union of matter and spirit that is at the heart of beauty. In proclaiming the doctrine of sola Scriptura, the revolutionary notion that the Bible was the only way we had of knowing God’s will, the Protestants denied the continuing action of the Holy Spirit in guiding the Church. In denying the sacraments, they ripped apart the beautiful incarnational conjunction of the physical and spiritual worlds. In denying Church authority and asserting the authority of the individual Christian, they inaugurated the movement toward modern individualism and subjectivism that has resulted in denials of objective truth, goodness, and beauty. The Reformation took hold at about the same time that Descartes introduced in philosophy a radical split between matter and mind, and the coincidence of these two trends in theology and philosophy is significant.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, subject and object tended to separate entirely, with an apparently unbridgeable chasm between. A new sort of objectivity appeared as some thinkers took a radically materialist approach. Various scientistic ideas (such as logical positivism) exemplify this pole of the modern duality. Two objectivist notions swept the intellectual world: Marxist “realism” treats all inner experience as an illusory Überbau (superstructure) entirely reducible to material causes; Freud similarly considered all mental or spiritual or artistic phenomena as sublimations of physical, erotic impulses. On the other hand, there arose radically subjective notions, which effectively treated the world of objects as insignificant, assigning ultimate authenticity to the inner world of the mind, which gave meaning to its surroundings according to its arbitrary whim. Thus we have existentialism, which denies that there are any objective essences and claims that reality is composed inwardly, in the existential moment: there are no essentia, only esse. Heidegger perhaps best exemplifies the subjectivist view when he claims that we experience a “thrownness into being” (Geworfenheit ins Dasein), a state in which we can find no foundation but must name ourselves and the world into being through language. His idea has been, of course, violently attacked by Marxists (such as Georg Lukács). Thus the thinkers of the twentieth century found themselves called upon to take sides, to choose either a radical objectivism or an equally radical subjectivism. The center, as Yeats put it, could not hold.
Another strong influence on the loss of meaning came from the new science of linguistics. One of the founders of modern linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure, distinguished between the “signifier” (the sound image, or word) and the “signified” (the concept indicated by the word), and he asserted that “The bond between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary.” Saussure is speaking primarily of linguistic signs, of words, and anyone who considers the fact that there are different languages will admit that particular words are not integrally connected to the objects to which they point. However, Saussure goes on to give an example of a non-linguistic sign, which he also claims is an arbitrary sign with conventionally determined meaning, the Chinese custom of bowing nine times to the emperor. He acknowledges that bowing is to some extent a “natural sign,” but he nevertheless insists that “every means of expression used in society is based, in principle, on collective behavior, or…on convention.” This example is revealing because, as Saussure half admits, the gesture of bowing is natural and universal (though the particular number of bows one gives to a Chinese emperor is obviously determined by local custom). His unexamined assumption that all collective behavior is conventional and arbitrary may be challenged. Saussure decides to avoid the term “symbol” because, as he says, “One characteristic of the symbol is that it is never wholly arbitrary; it is not empty, for there is the rudiment of a natural bond between the signifier and the signified.” Here we find the father of modern linguistics admitting that some symbols are at least partly natural but deciding simply to avoid using the term. His followers have felt free to use the term “symbol,” redefining it simply to mean “sign” (which is, by their definition, arbitrary). For instance, the introduction to one recent linguistics textbook gives as an example of a wholly arbitrary sign the wedding ring. When such unproven claims are made so authoritatively, we are left to protest feebly that the meaning of the ring is partly a matter of trans-cultural physical experience: the gold never tarnishes and hence naturally represents the ideal endurance of the marriage vow. Moreover, the circular shape is a universal symbol of eternity found in virtually all cultures. But the structuralist and post-structuralist linguists—caught in their (de-centered) circular reasoning—are not listening.
As an answer to the meaningless worldview of the materialists, existentialists and structuralists, we might go back to Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the Romantic period, who writes that a symbol “always partakes of the Reality which it renders intelligible.” Symbols are not chosen randomly but point to an abstract meaning naturally because of what they are physically. Water symbolizes cleansing because it cleanses. The rose symbolizes beauty because it is beautiful. T. S. Eliot makes the same point when he says that “It is essential to the doctrine which I have sketched that the symbol or sign be not arbitrarily amputated from the object which it symbolizes…. No symbol, I maintain, is ever a mere symbol, but is continuous with that which it symbolizes.” (K&E, 132) One more recent theorist who acknowledges the reality of symbols is Paul Ricoeur, who begins with what he calls the “non-linguistic dimension of the Sacred” found in religious ritual. Ricoeur outlines the way a sacred view of the world entails a belief in symbols that are united with that world:
Within the sacred universe there are not living creatures here and there, but life is everywhere as a sacrality, which permeates everything and which is seen in the movement of the stars, the return of life of vegetation each year, and the alternation of birth and death. It is in this sense that symbols are bound within the sacred universe: the symbols only come to language to the extent that the elements of the world themselves become transparent. This bound character of symbols makes all the difference between a symbol and a metaphor. The latter is a free invention of discourse; the former is bound to the cosmos. (Interpretation Theory, 61)
Natural symbols, unlike Saussure’s arbitrary linguistic signifiers, are essentially non-linguistic symbols bound to the physical world. Ricoeur’s description of the sacral cosmos bears comparison with a passage in East Coker in which Eliot describes country people participating in an ancient celebration of the seasons, dancing around a bonfire in a circle (that purely conventional circle again, like the wedding ring!), “Keeping time, / Keeping the rhythm in their dancing / As in their living in the living seasons….” Perennial symbols such as the fours seasons, the four elements, trees, and sky and mountains and sea and stars—these symbols are, as Ricoeur says, bound to the cosmos.
Since symbolic meaning is derived from the cosmos, it has the possibility of being objective and of conveying objective truth. These truths, as Sidney says, have the advantage over truth abstractly expressed in that they move our hearts to right action. This idea was given a name by Edmund Burke. It was not in his treatise on the sublime and the beautiful but rather in one of his political essays that Burke spoke of the “moral imagination.” The phrase might never have gained much currency had it not been for a great American writer, Russell Kirk, who (in his book Eliot and His Age: T. S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century) defined and elaborated Burke’s concept. By the “moral imagination,” Kirk says, “Burke meant that power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and events of the moment.” This definition is a challenge to the notions of relativism and “cultural constructionism” that rule much of the Academy today, asserting that our thoughts can never go beyond “the barriers of private experience and events of the moment.” Kirk defines moral imagination in contrast to what Irving Babbitt called (in reference to Rousseau) the “idyllic imagination,” which ignores the tragic experience of the past and concocts visions of human perfection to be brought about by rationalist ideological programs. As Kirk puts it later in his book on Eliot, “Like Burke, Eliot came to dread not the intellect itself—certainly not to dread right reason—but rather to dread defecated rationality, arrogantly severed from larger sources of wisdom.” The idyllic imagination ignores fundamental human limitations in concocting its schemes of social perfection, but these utopian schemes tend to result in massive slaughters whenever they are forced on the populace.
In Christian dogma, the sense of human limitation essential to the moral imagination is expressed in the doctrine of Original Sin. In his memoir, The Sword of Imagination, Kirk quotes a statement Eliot made in 1933:
With the disappearance of the idea of Original Sin, with the disappearance of the idea of intense moral struggle, the human being presented to us both in poetry and in prose fiction today, and more patently among the serious writers than in the underworld of letters, tend to become less and less real…. If you do away with this struggle, and maintain that by tolerance, benevolence, inoffensiveness, and a redistribution or increase of purchasing power, combined with a devotion, on the part of an élite, to Art, the world will be as good as anyone could require, then you must expect human beings to become more and more vacuous.
Besides Rousseau, one of the culprits in the shift from moral imagination to idyllic imagination was Emerson (who had particular importance to Eliot, a descendent of the same New England Unitarian Brahmin class that produced Emerson). Kirk quotes Emerson as saying “I never could give much reality to evil and pain.” Along with belief in evil and in Original Sin went the belief in Hell, and Kirk quotes Kathleen Raine’s statement that “Mr. Eliot gave hell back to us… The shallow progressive philosophies both religious and secular of our parents’ generation sought to eliminate evil from the world. Mr. Eliot’s visions of hell restored a necessary dimension to our universe.” The dark visions of Eliot’s early poetry, which were taken by many (and still are taken by some) to be expressions of nihilistic despair, were in fact a dramatic acknowledgment of the existence of evil and the incapacity of one person or one generation to vanquish it.
Yeats says somewhere that no writer who lacks the “vision of evil” can be great, and the finest writers of the twentieth century all describe that vision in their various ways. We find it in Flannery O’Connor, Evelyn Waugh, Robert Frost, William Faulkner, Graham Greene, Walker Percy, and others. The great writers of fiction and poetry seem to ignore or even attack the modern faith in progressive enlightenment and state-managed social improvement. Where are the great works of poetry and fiction written by progressives? Kirk notes that the great liberal literary critic Lionel Trilling admitted the lack of such works in his book The Liberal Imagination (1950):
Our liberal ideology has produced a large literature of social and political protest, but not, for several decades, a single writer who commands our real literary imagination… So that we can say that no connection exists between our liberal educated class and the best of the literary minds of our time. And this is to say that there is no connection between the political ideas of our educated class and the deep places of the imagination.
Kirk implies that the imagination of a great writer sees and describes the truths of nature and of human nature, whereas liberal political ideology tends to ignore those hard truths. Trilling’s forthright admission has apparently not given more recent liberal critics pause. They still seem to assume that their world view is complete and consistent. I would add, by the way, that modern secular liberalism has not only failed to produce great imaginative writers, but also has failed to produce great philosophical minds. If one wants to explore the fundamental principles of a traditionalist view of life, there are many great thinkers to turn to: Edmund Burke, Cardinal Newman, Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, Christopher Dawson, Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, G. K. Chesterton, T. S. Eliot, Jacques Maritain, C. S. Lewis, Russell Kirk. Who are the thinkers on the left who have examined their foundational principles the way these have? Lacking positive texts to admire, champions of relativism often devote their efforts to discrediting writers like Eliot, who has been accused of being a Fascist, an anti-Semite, a misogynist, and so on. But in their efforts to take the moral high ground these critics reveal their simplistic and incoherent notion of morality, which substitutes a pale and vacuous tolerance for a living, breathing charity.
Kirk’s theory of imagination has much in common with the one C. S. Lewis proposes in The Abolition of Man. In this book, perhaps his greatest, Lewis argues that good imaginative literature trains the heart to respond with ordinate emotions appropriate to the object presented. Lewis begins the book rather innocuously, as a book review of an English textbook. He calls the book The Green Book and the authors Gaius and Titius. This promises to be one of his professional literary critical essays, then, but Lewis soon shows us the connection between literary study and theology.
Gaius and Titius set Lewis off by debunking a statement once made by Coleridge. Having overheard two tourists talking about a waterfall, Coleridge disapproves of the one who calls it “pretty” and approves of the one who calls it “sublime.” Gaius and Titius correct Coleridge, pointing out matter-of-factly that neither word really has anything to do with the waterfall: the man who called it sublime “was not making a remark about the waterfall but about his own feelings.” This is one of those dangerous half-truths (or quarter-truths) which, when pushed far enough, become monstrous falsehoods. Lewis asserts that
The schoolboy who reads this passage in The Green Book will believe two propositions: firstly, that all sentences containing a predicate of value are statements about the emotional state of the speaker, and, secondly, that all such statements are unimportant. (19)
Notice the coupling of value and emotion here: one thing he is pointing out is that all values are fundamentally emotional (though they may and should also be rational). Part of the sleight-of-hand of modernist thought is to notice that values are emotional and then to assert that they are therefore totally subjective and should not be made normative for the culture as a whole—especially if the values are religious ones, which are apparently the most emotional and subjective values of all. What Lewis will do is to argue that there are objective emotions, rightly ordered emotions, that respond properly to true values. Such emotions must be normative (must be ensconced in education and law and custom) if a culture is to remain healthy. Lewis foresaw the debates of today, when we are being told that our personal religious views should not determine the law of the land—even if they are the views of the vast majority of people in a democratic country.
Gaius and Titius go on to debunk an advertisement for a cruise that promises to take people “across the Western Ocean where Drake of Devon sailed,” pointing out the phony emotional appeals in the ad. I used to do such exercises with my own students, teaching them to read critically, but at some point I quit, perhaps because I vaguely sensed what Lewis points out here, that this critical approach will develop into mere cynicism in the young if they are not taught to love great literary works that also appeal to our emotions but in a truer, deeper way. The student of Gaius and Titius (and of Lockerd in his younger days) will have imbibed “the belief that all emotions aroused by local association are in themselves contrary to reason and contemptible.” Have you noticed that the word “nostalgia” has become a negative term today, that our love for the places and people and smells of our childhood is seen in intellectual circles as somehow defective? Lewis was observing the early stages of that trend. He concludes that “Gaius and Titius, while teaching [the schoolboy] nothing about letters, have cut out of his soul, long before he is old enough to choose, the possibility of having certain experiences which thinkers of more authority than they have held to be generous, fruitful, and humane.”
Having begun with the particular case of this poor textbook, Lewis points out that it is merely an obvious example of a much wider trend in modern thought toward subjectivism and relativism of one type or another. He outlines the fundamental difference between traditional thought and modern thus:
Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it—believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence, or our contempt. The reason why Coleridge agreed with the tourist who called the cataract sublime and disagreed with the one who called it pretty was of course that he believed inanimate nature to be such that certain responses could be more “just” or “ordinate” or “appropriate” to it than others. (27-28)
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.” (28-29) It is this concept of objectively proper or “ordinate” emotions that is being lost in the modern (and even more in the postmodern) world. And it is this approach which I am urging all of us to take up again: let us make our students like and dislike what they ought!
Lewis is backing into a philosophical discussion, and he soon introduces the philosophical approach which derives from and supports the traditional view he has been describing, “natural law” philosophy. He notes that this idea is not limited to western thinkers but is universal, and to emphasize this universality, he uses in place of the western word “nature” the eastern word Tao, the way. What is common to traditional philosophy, whether occidental or oriental, is “the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of thing we are.” (31) This is a fine definition of the natural law concept, which claims that both external nature and human nature are made in certain ways and necessarily conform to certain laws. Natural objects follow their laws automatically, but human beings, whose nature includes free will, are able to act in ways that are contrary to the natural law and therefore harmful to them. If I steal something, it is not just the rightful owner of the stolen object who is harmed: I have done damage to my own human nature. The natural law is determined by right reason (and, as Lewis does not say to the broad audience he is addressing here, is confirmed by revelation), 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. (Notice that we are right back to Philip Sidney’s claim for poetry.) 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 are in danger of becoming “Men without Chests” (the title of this chapter), whose emotions have not been taught to value what is objectively and rationally valuable. They have been taught to disregard the truth of beauty.
Lewis presents the idea of the educated moral imagination in one of his own imaginative works, Perelandra. The hero, Dr. Ransom, is a philologist (probably modeled on his friend, Tolkien), who has been called upon to become the defender of truth in a new world in which the new Eve is being tempted by the arguments of a modern scientific rationalist, Dr. Weston. In the midst of the debate Ransom realizes that Weston (who has been possessed by the Enemy) is winning by simply wearing down the Lady’s resistance. Then the thought enters Ransom’s mind that he might have to fight the demonically possessed Weston physically. He quickly rejects this thought, telling himself, “It stood to reason that a struggle with the Devil meant a spiritual struggle…the notion of a physical combat was only fit for a savage.” (143) But he quickly catches himself in the midst of this rationalization, and the narrator says that “The habit of imaginative honesty was too deeply engrained in Ransom” for him to accept the rationalizations as final. As Ransom thinks further and more honestly about it, he considers that the division his rationalizing mind insists on between spiritual and physical combat is “part and parcel of that unhappy division between soul and body which resulted from the Fall. Even on earth the sacraments existed as a permanent reminder that the division was neither wholesome nor final. The Incarnation had been the beginning of its disappearance.” Here Lewis brilliantly presents a dramatic moment that embodies the moral imagination and its connection to sacramental, incarnational theology.
Well, what can we conclude after this rather rapid review of the history of aesthetics?
First, the relativists are right to some extent. Certainly there is no accounting for taste and one must partially accept the old saying, chaque’un à son goût, to each his own. Taste clearly changes from one generation to the next and from one place to another.
Second, it is a grave error to totalize that relativistic declaration and propose that there are no universally recognized beauties. Plato’s circles and triangles, intervals such as the octave and fifth in music, natural objects such as mountains, streams, flowers, birds, sun, moon, and stars—these are all transcultural and transtemporal, giving pleasure to all people in all times and places. Moreover, there are general principles of aesthetics that seem to be universal. Beauty always involves a sense of multiplicity in unity, a harmonic discordia concors, a conjunction of opposites, an integral wholeness of parts. A beautiful garden is not merely a long stretch of grass, but a combination of several different plants of various shapes, heights, textures, and colors (and perhaps rocks and sculptures and benches as well) that somehow works, somehow looks all of a piece. Even a modern fragmented work such as Eliot’s poem The Waste Land hints at certain threads of meaning that make it whole—somewhere beneath the shifting surface of the poem there is a grail quest that is eventually achieved, or at least potentially achieved.
Third, beauty 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.
Fourth, we find that we must object strenuously to those who maintain that all signs are arbitrary and that all meaning is either existentially or culturally constructed. There are in fact many natural symbols that mean the same thing to all people because all have the same experiences of the physical world. One may reasonably object that the rose is a western symbol, while eastern art refers instead to the lotus, but both are quintessentially beautiful flowers that convey the same objective meaning. One may reasonably object that some traditional symbols are ambiguous. Color symbolism, for instance, is notoriously ambiguous, and Herman Melville spends an entire chapter of Moby-Dick meditating on the fact that the color white sometimes means purity and sometimes means death. What we are talking about here might be termed the valence of the symbol: it can be either positive or negative. Yet white always symbolizes something total and unmixed—the utter purity of the communion dress or bridal dress; and alternately the utter finality of death. Eliot speaks beautifully of this matter of valence when he describes the rocks sticking up out of the sea off the Massachusetts coast, the Dry Salvages:
And the ragged rock in the restless waters,
Waves wash over it, fogs conceal it;
On a halcyon day it is merely a monument,
In navigable weather it is always a seamark
To lay a course by: but in the sombre season
Or the sudden fury, is what it always was. (Four Quartets)
The rock is always solid and unmoving, which can be good for setting a course but very bad if one’s boat is driven on it by a storm. The rock has opposite valences but both derived from the same objective meaning. Christian doctrine teaches us that the world around us is meaningful because the Father created it with order and completeness. He created us in such a way that our minds are capable of grasping the significance of the objective world. The world itself is sacramental.
Finally, we maintain that our human imagination is capable of grasping truth and goodness in ways that move us passionately to live in those objective realities. The answers to the errors of modern times need to be given in philosophy and theology, but it is essential that our students also experience the truth imaginatively. Moral imagination may even be found in works by writers who did not fully accept the very truths they described. For instance, Aldous Huxley was not a believer, but his novel Brave New World remains one of the most powerful indictments of the modern movement to deny Original Sin and enforce happiness on all. In the utopian society he envisions, sex is fully separated from procreation. Human beings are genetically engineered and cloned to ensure their perfection, and “mother” is considered an obscene word; sex is purely recreational. Anyone who momentarily feels unhappy simply takes the drug called Soma. The hero is an Indian who grew up outside this utopian society. He was born naturally and lived in a very imperfect society. He read Shakespeare (old-fashioned literature which is banned in the utopia), and there discovered the nobility of human suffering. He eventually rejects the happiness that is offered him, an artificial happiness which requires that he sacrifice his humanity. The moral imagination is thus our best defense against what C. S. Lewis called “the abolition of man.”
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in May 2012.
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