Except for mystics, the goal of Western philosophers and theologians has been to find the right ideas, whereas Eastern thinkers seek the direct grasping of the first principles and the inner essences of natural things. I wish to suggest that the Western and Eastern paths to the true, the good, and the beautiful can be fruitfully combined…

For us Westerners, ideas are paramount, for we are people of the book, and our history begins with the Hebrew Bible. “Though first intended pejoratively, ‘People of the Book’ in Jewish tradition came to be accepted with pride as a legitimate reference to a culture and religious identity rooted fundamentally in Torah, the original book of the Law,” explains David Lyle Jeffrey, a religion scholar.[1] Later, the book became the combined New Testament and the Hebrew Bible, what Christians call “The Bible.” The Protestant Reformation replaced the authority of the Church with the individual believer and his Bible. As a result, the Bible was published in the common languages of Europe. Christian missionaries to Africa and Native America put enormous effort into devising written languages for indigenous oral cultures in order to translate the Bible into a text that could be read and studied.

Except for mystics, such as Plato, Plotinus, Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckart, and Thomas Merton, the goal of Western philosophers and theologians has been to find the right ideas. For instance, Thomas Aquinas, in his masterpiece, Summa Theologica, gave convincing arguments for a Creator, the immortality of the soul, and eternal salvation. In contrast, the principal spiritual text of the Eastern Orthodox Church is Philokalia (Love of Beauty), a collection of texts written by spiritual masters of the mystical hesychast tradition. Philokalia is a practical guide to contemplation (theoria, in Greek), not a collection of right ideas about God, the soul, or salvation. Depending on the depth of a person’s spiritual growth and development, contemplation has two main stages: either the direct grasping of the first principles and the inner essences of natural things or, at a higher stage, an experience of God that is simultaneously aware that in His essence God transcends contemplation.

Father Raymond Braga, a Romanian Orthodox Priest, speaks of his road to God following both the Summa Theologica and the Philokalia. Interred in a Communist prison for eleven years, he says that before his solitary confinement, “I was a priest, I was a monk, and I’m ashamed to say that God, my God, was the God of the Book. But God is alive, is experience, is personal experience.”[2] Father Braga implicitly tells us that merely reciting the Creed in church, reading the Scriptures, and performing the correct rituals, many of which are cultural, does not make the interior life flourish or draw a believer closer to God; the idea of God often replaces the experience of God.

I wish to suggest that the Western and Eastern paths to the true, the good, and the beautiful can be fruitfully combined. First, let us consider beauty, and begin where everything in the modern Western world begins, with science.

The Beautiful

Einstein gives the three elements of scientific beauty in a single sentence: “A theory is the more impressive the greater the simplicity of its premises is, the more different kinds of things it relates, and the more extended is its area of applicability.”[3] Simplicity, then, is the first element of beauty. The “different kinds of things it relates” means how the theory harmonizes disparate things. Thus, we may label the second element harmony. And the extended applicability is a theory’s brilliance, that is, how much clarity it has in itself and how much light it sheds on other things. Simplicity, harmony, and brilliance. Each of these calls for a brief explanation.

Simplicity. There exist today other theories of gravity besides Einstein’s general relativity, but because they lack simplicity, none are taken seriously. “Most rival theories are convincingly disproved,” observes mathematician Roger Penrose. “The few that remain having been, for the most part, contrived directly so as to fit with those tests that have been actually performed. No rival theory comes close to general relativity in elegance or simplicity of assumption.”[4] All rival theories of gravity lack what Werner Heisenberg called “frightening simplicity and wholeness.”[5] Without wholeness, or unity, a theory is a collection of disconnected ideas and observations that often borders on the frighteningly ugly.

Harmony. “Without the belief in the inner harmony of the world there could be no science,” Einstein declares.[6] Heisenberg defines harmony as the “proper conformity of the parts to one another and to the whole.”[7] In any science, a good theory will harmonize many previously unrelated facts, for without the harmony of its parts, a theory lacks unity. Harmony also implies symmetry. There is a pleasing symmetry to all the laws of physics. “Every law of physics goes back to some symmetry of nature,” observes physicist John Archibald Wheeler.[8] Heisenberg adds, “The symmetry properties always constitute the most essential features of a theory.”[9] Newton’s third law is a well-known example of symmetry in physics: To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction. A different mirror symmetry is found on the subatomic level, where to every kind of particle there corresponds an anti-particle with the same mass but with opposite characteristics. In fact, this symmetry successfully predicted the existence of many subatomic particles.

Brilliance. A theory with brilliance has great clarity in itself and sheds light on many things, suggesting new experiments. Newton, for example, astounded the world by explaining falling bodies, the tides, and the motions of the planets and the comets with three simple laws. Physicist George Thomson states, “In physics, as in mathematics, it is a great beauty if a theory can bring together apparently very different phenomena and show that they are closely connected; or even different aspects of the same thing.”[10] The beauty of science becomes universal when we hear Stephen Daedalus, the protagonist of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, argue that the three qualities of beauty in the arts are wholeness, harmony, and radiance, his translation of Aquinas’ integritas, consonantia, and claritas.[11]

Oddly, Einstein, Joyce, and Aquinas missed the fourth element of beauty, enunciated by Francis Bacon: “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.”[12] What Bacon calls “strangeness in proportion,” we will call “fitting surprise.”

The surprises of special relativity—time dilation, length contraction, and the equivalence of inertial mass and energy—follow as inevitable consequences of the principle that the velocity of light is the same for all inertial (non-accelerating) observers. Einstein’s 1905 paper that introduced relativity is a series of fitting surprises, not unlike what is found in the great music of Mozart and Beethoven.

Music conductor Leonard Bernstein’s comments on Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony apply equally well to Einstein’s 1905 paper:

The element of the unexpected is so often associated with Beethoven. But surprise is not enough; what makes it so great is that no matter how shocking and unexpected the surprise is, it always somehow gives the impression—as soon as it has happened—that it is the only thing that could have happened at that moment. Inevitability is the keynote. It is as though Beethoven had an inside track to truth and rightness, so that he could say the most amazing and sudden things with complete authority and cogency.[13]

The truths of relativity, or quantum physics for that matter, are stranger than we imagined, but their inevitability convinces us that Nature is that way.

Great mathematics, too, possesses a “high degree of unexpectedness combined with inevitability,” according to Godfrey Harold Hardy.[14] The truths of relativity, or quantum physics for that matter, are stranger than we imagined, but their inevitability convinces us that Nature is that way. If fitting surprises are stripped away from science and art, then beauty is reduced to monotonous unity, mechanical symmetry, and uninteresting predictability.

We have reached a point in our discussion of beauty where there are two diverging paths in front of us; we can follow the spirit of either the Summa Theologica or the Philokalia. The path of Summa Theologica demands that we clarify our musings, perhaps by first noticing that we used simplicity and wholeness interchangeably, as well as brilliance and radiance. We must seek and order the right ideas, so no ambiguity occurs, and all possible objections are answered.

In fairness to Aquinas, we should note that shortly before his death, he had a mystical experience when celebrating the Mass, and as a result, he left the Summa Theologica unfinished. When urged by Reginald of Peperino to explain the radical change in his religious position, Thomas simply said, “Everything I have written seems like straw by comparison to what I have seen and now what has been revealed to me.”[15] Scholars agree that the story must be true, but every Thomist I have known brushes the story aside of no consequence and focuses on the true doctrine of the Summa.

The path of the Philokalia declares that our discussion of beauty is probably good enough, for our philosophical investigation was meant to deepen the experience of art, nature, and the transcendent, not to capture reality in a verbal net—an impossibility. Words about beauty are not the same as the direct and immediate apprehension of beauty. With this outlook, we turn to beautiful objects, perhaps to the second movement of Beethoven’s Eroica to hear for the first time its three great surprises. Or maybe to Euclid’s elegant demonstration that the prime numbers cannot be tabulated in a finite list, where a person initially feels the tension between ignorance and truth, but in six lines of text, exhibiting unity, brilliance, and a fitting surprise, a timeless truth suddenly appears. Or perchance to a rose in bloom, from a cluster of dark green leaves, a stalk with spiraling thorns terminates with a burst of red, soft petals that also form a spiral: sharp thorns, soft petals; earthy green, radiant red; a perfect execution of simplicity, harmony, and radiance.

Philosophical analysis, often verbal gymnastics, is a shadow world compared to the intensity and certainty of personal experience; yet, we humans are born ignorant, misguided by culture, and too often rest contented in received opinion, so we need a philosophical inquiry that challenges mindlessly acquired opinions, conventional viewpoints, and current intellectual fashions, so reality can shine forth in all its splendor.

The Good

In evolutionary psychology, ethics is a shared illusion of humans, fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate. Our biology makes us think that an objective higher moral code exists, to which we are all subject because natural selection has disposed human beings to be altruistic and to show guilt, anger, and resentment in just the way they would if the universal moral claims of religion were true. Sociobiologist Edward Wilson and philosopher Michael Ruse assert that the belief in the Golden Rule is merely a biological adaptation to further reproductive ends.[16] Wilson and Ruse assume that morality is a set of rules that can be written down in a book, like those in Leviticus—“You shall love your neighbor as yourself”[17]—or in the book of Matthew—“Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them,”[18] or in Immanuel Kant’s Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals—“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law,”[19] what Kant called the categorical imperative.

If we were perfect, rational beings—always heeding A=B, B=C, therefore, A=C—we could easily execute the categorical imperative. But human life is messy. We Americans acquire culturally instilled habits of thinking, feeling, and acting that direct us to pursue self-interest instead of altruism. In grade school, we are taught that competition is a universal law: To succeed in life, we must surpass others and thrust them aside, if need be. I watched my best friend in the sixth grade, Joey Prinko, cry after he missed a “stupid” word for the Spelling Bee Championship. Shirley Divine won the spelling bee, and everyone held her up as a winner; from the smile on her face, I knew she felt good about herself. Joey’s failure was his problem, not hers. In the schoolhouse, winners are taught to look to the good they have gained and ignore the unavoidable, emotional damage caused to the losers. The goal in a competitive society is to win without violating the rules. That is how the game works in America, and that is how the natural empathy young children feel for the pain of others is squashed by competition.

In high school, Shirley Divine confessed to me that she had learned the Golden Rule in Sunday school, at home from her parents, who were devout Lutherans, and from family daily readings of the Bible, and yet she could not follow Matthew 7:12. She felt pain whenever she tried to give to a classmate something of value to her without getting something of greater value in return. Her reason told her one thing, and her emotions another. From a Protestant perspective, Shirley repeatedly failed morally; to save herself, she had to strengthen her will. From the standpoint of traditional philosophy, she had a character defect—a bad habit—that could be changed.

Aristotle, in his Nichomachean Ethics, claimed a person becomes courageous by performing courageous acts, or generous by performing generous acts. Since we become the way we act, a person can become a different kind of person by acting as if he or she were already that kind of person.[20]

Anthropologist Ashley Montagu cited his own life as an example of the soundness of Aristotle’s claim about how to replace a bad habit with a good one. He was “brought up as a stiff, stuffed-shirt Englishman who considered that any exhibition of emotion was low class. To be very cutting in one’s wit no matter how unpleasant it was, how denigrating it was to another person, was correct behavior.” Montagu says he changed from a nasty, hostile, aggressive creature simply by acting as if he were a loving human being. He recommends, “If you’re not yet a loving human being, what you have to do in order to change is begin to act ‘as if’ you were by demonstrative acts, by communicating to others, by throwing your arms around them, by taking them by the hand, by putting an arm around their shoulders. It’s enormously important to remember that ‘as if.’ You behave ‘as if’ you were a loving human being. If you go on behaving ‘as if’ you were a loving human being, one day you’ll wake up and find you’ve become what you’ve been doing.”[21]

The morality of the book directs a person to please God by adhering to a rigid moral code, a seemingly impossible demand for anyone. Few of us are saints, so failure and guilt are inevitable. “We daily sin much, and indeed deserve nothing but punishment.”[22]

A morality that looks to concrete human living directs a person to acquire habits to live well within society. “Man, when perfected, is the best of animals; but if he is isolated from law and justice he is the worst of all.”[23] To fulfill our social nature, we should avoid any habit that disconnects us from other people.[24] For instance, a person quick to anger will not only anger those around him but will be unable to judge irksome situations accurately. A short-tempered person often gets angry with the wrong people under the wrong circumstances and afterwards may feel regret.

Just as the short-tempered person is avoided by others, so too is the grouch. No one desires to be around a man enveloped in gloom and doom, or to associate with a woman who sees only shadows and what is wrong with others. The constant complainer refuses to put up with anything, no matter how trivial, and as a result is quarrelsome.

If a person cannot share, he or she is cut off from others; so, clearly, stinginess and greediness are to be avoided. Stealing and cheating are worse, for the thief and the cheat cannot disclose their activities for all to see, and consequently have cut themselves off from humanity. Similarly, the known liar will not be listened to by others. The liar deprives himself of the full use of language and reason, two faculties that differentiate human beings from the animals.

Thus, short-temperedness, quarrelsomeness, stinginess, greediness, and deceitfulness cut us off from others; but friendliness, a cheerful disposition, generosity, and truthfulness connect us to others.

If truthfulness is extended beyond truth-telling to include the capacity to see things exactly as they are, freed from subjective distortions, then truthfulness also means to see oneself exactly for what one is, neither more nor less. Such self-awareness is humility. Objective sight reveals that underneath the faults and weaknesses of one’s neighbor lie suffering and a profound unknown. Compassion flows from seeing that one’s neighbor is essentially no different from oneself.

The True

That right idea in science is that “the universe, including our own existence, can be explained by the interactions of little bits of matter,”[25] a concrete representation of the philosophy of materialism, which holds that every object as well as every act in the universe is matter, an aspect of matter, or produced by matter. The Theory of Everything envisages a small set of equations from which everything follows: the race horse Man O’ War, the creative genius of Einstein, the five boroughs of New York city, the near collapse of the world economy in 2008.

Materialism is a philosophy of the book, although experiment obscures that science is founded on an idea, not direct experience of nature. No scientist has ever seen, or will ever see, with his or her own eyes a neutrino, the helical structure of DNA, or the background radiation left over from the Big Bang. Scientific instruments touch nature, and the physicist, the chemist, or the biologist reads the numerical outputs, analyzes the data, applies theories, and eventually discovers the real constituents of nature—subatomic particles, molecules, and genes. For example, ALICE, a detector at the CERN Large Hadron Collider, touches a quark-gluon plasma, a state of matter that probably existed just after the Big Bang, and physicists in a control room read the output of ALICE. For the enormous size of ALICE see the illustration, note the human figures in the lower left.

Materialism fails to account for our concrete sensory experience. Carl von Weizsäcker, a physicist, establishes that the interactions of little bits of matter cannot explain how we see: “Light of 6,000 Å wavelength reaches my eye. From the retina, a chemicoelectrical stimulus passes through the optical nerve into the brain where it sets off another stimulus of certain motor nerves, and out of my mouth come the words: The apple is red. Nowhere in this description of the process, complete though it is, has any mention been made that I have had the color perception red. Of sense perception, nothing was said.”[26] Weizsäcker, of course, does not deny that to see a person needs an eye and a visual cortex; however, brain function alone does not explain the perception of red. The same argument holds for the sound of middle C, the smell of a rose, the taste of chili, and the feel of cashmere. Mechanical, chemical, and electrical changes in the brain are not thoughts, desires, and emotions. The toolbox of physical science is limited to air pressure, chemical changes, electrical impulses in nerves, brain cell activity, and other measurable properties of matter. Science is mute about the interior life of a human being, and the reason is obvious: Perceptions, emotions, and thoughts cannot be touched, smelled, tasted, heard, or seen, and thus are nonmaterial.

Love and hate, hope and despair, freedom and enslavement cannot be measured on a meter. The experimental method renders science, itself, mute about meaning, purpose, and value. Existence is vastly greater than the results of measuring apparatus, and thus the world of science is exceedingly small.

No one lives in the world of quarks and leptons, not even a physicist, who erroneously claims that we are “essentially bundles of simple quarks and electrons;”[27] no one lives in the realm of neurons, not even a neuroscientist, who falsely asserts that we are “nothing but a pack of neurons;”[28] no one lives in the kingdom of our ancestors in Africa two million years ago, not even an evolutionary psychologist, who speciously proclaims that our “stone age mind” was “designed by natural selection to solve problems that our ancestors faced during our species’ evolutionary history.”[29] We live in the nonmaterial world of love, hope, and freedom.

As soon as we emerged from the womb, we looked for a human face [30] and listened for a soprano voice.[31] Nature directed us to seek our mother. Ideally, our mother’s unconditional love taught us that we were wonderful, just because we were. Then, unconditional love prompted us to say to ourselves, “It’s good to be alive; it’s good to be surrounded by such good things.” Erōs, the natural desire for full existence, caused us to join ourselves to other persons, to truth, and to beauty.

As we travelled through life, perhaps we learned that “there is but one veritable problem—the problem of human relations.”[32] Some of us as adults still wonder how birds fly, why the trees turn color in the fall, or how ants find their way back home. If a person is truly alive, then everything in nature evokes wonder, especially the human being, the strangest creature of all, who in some mysterious way can grasp all creation.

The happy few directly grasp the fundamental truth of human existence—“Thou art that,”[33]—“God’s ground is my ground and my ground is God’s ground.”[34]

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now


[1] David Lyle Jeffrey, People of the Book: Christian Identity and Literary Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: B. Eerdmans, 1996), p. xiii.

[2] Raymond Braga, Interview, John Paul II: The Millennial Pope, produced and directed by Helen Whitney, PBS Video.

[3] Albert Einstein, “Autobiographical Notes,” in Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist, ed. Paul Schilpp (New York: Harper & Row, 1959), p. 33.

[4] Roger Penrose, “Black Holes,” in The State of the Universe, ed. Geoffrey Bath (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), p. 128.

[5] Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Beyond: Encounters and Conversations, trans. Arnold J. Pomerans (Harper & Row, New York, 1971), pp. 68-69.

[6] Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld, The Evolution of Physics (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1938), p. 313.

[7] Werner Heisenberg, “The Meaning of Beauty in the Exact Sciences,” in Across the Frontier (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), p. 167.

[8] John A. Wheeler, “The Universe as a Home for Man,” American Scientist 62 (Nov.-Dec. 1974): 688.

[9] Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy (New York: Harper & Row, 1958), p. 133.

[10] George Thomson, The Inspiration of Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961), p. 18.

[11] James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (New York: Huebsch, 1916), p. 248.

[12] Francis Bacon, “Of Beauty” in The Essayes or Counsels, Civill and Morall, ed. Michael Kiernan (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985), p. 132.

[13] Leonard Bernstein, The Infinite Variety of Music (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1966), p. 198. Italics in the original.

[14] G. H. Hardy, A Mathematician’s Apology (London: Cambridge University Press, 1941), p. 113. Italics in the original.

[15] Aquinas, quoted by Bernhard Lang, Sacred Games: A History of Christian Worship (New Have, CT: Yale University Press, 1997), p. 323.

[16] See Michael Ruse and Edward O. Wilson, “Evolution of Ethics,” New Scientist, 17 (October 1985): 51.

[17] Leviticus 19:18. RSV.

[18] Matthew 7:12. RSV.

[19] Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, 3rd ed., trans. James W. Ellington (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1993 [1785]), p. 30.

[20] See Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Bk. I, Ch. 4, 1105a20-1105b19.

[21] Ashley Montagu, interview Dennis Wholey, Discovering Happiness: Personal Conversations About Getting the Most Out of Life, (New York: Avon, 1988), pp. 37, 38.

[22] Martin Luther, The Small Catechism.

[23] Aristotle, The Politics of Aristotle, trans. and ed. Ernest Barker (London: Oxford University Press, 1958), p. 7.

[24] Our social nature is part of our spiritual nature—the capacity to be connected to all that is. See George Stanciu, “Wonder and Love: How Scientists Neglect God and Man.”

[25] H. Allen Orr, “Awaiting a New Darwin,” The New York Review of Books, 60, No. 2 (February 7, 2013).

[26] C. F. von Weizsäcker, The History of Nature, trans. Fred D. Wieck (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949), pp. 142-43.

[27] Murray Gell-Mann, “Let’s Call It Plectics,” Complexity 1 (1995/1996), no. 5.

[28] Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, (New York: Scribner’s, 1994), p. 3.

[29] Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, “Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer.”

[30] See Robert Fantz, “The Origin of Form Perception,” Scientific American 204 (May 1961).

[31] See Daniel G. Freedman, Human Infancy: An Evolutionary Perspective (Hillsdale, New Jersey: Erlbaum, 1974), p. 30.

[32] Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wind, Sand and Stars, trans. Lewis Galantiere (New York: Harcourt, 2002[1939]), p. 27.

[33] Chandogya Upanishad, Ch. 6.

[34] Meister Eckhart, Sermon Thirteen (b), in Meister Eckhart, The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart trans. Maurice O’C Walshe, (New York: Crossroads, 2008) p. 109.

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