I recently started reading Awakening Wonder: A Classical Guide to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. (I just added the Oxford comma to the title. Because, hello? I’m pretty sure the same people dispensing with morality are the ones dispensing with the Oxford comma.)
I had told myself I was not, not, not going to start another Classical Academic Press book until I finished the one I was already reading on John Milton. But then Ashley went and told me that Awakening Wonder talked a lot about the objectivity of beauty.
The subject of the objectivity of beauty was first drawn to my attention in C.S. Lewis’ collection of essays, The Abolition of Man. I accepted that Lewis was right because he was ten million times smarter and wiser than me.
I could never fully grasp it.
I was like that kid trying to catch the fly ball in the outfield.
I got it! I got it!
I don’t got it.
So when I heard that this book was going to help me
win an ongoing debate with my husband understand the objectivity of beauty, I had a lot more trouble resisting it as it called to me from my teetering book pile.
The only way to justify this level of promiscuous book reading is to blog my way through the book. Hence this post.
Yesterday, when we were doing school at the park, I got a chance to read the first chapter. It was a lot to take in, so I read it again, and then later I read a few parts aloud to myself to see if that helped.
There are a number of ideas that have helped me a bit. First is the proper way of thinking about objectivity. It isn’t a reference to that cold disinterestedness that is so highly valued in scientists, newspaper reporters, and others who are expected to act as if they had no soul. It is, instead, the sense of there being a created order that preexists me — even preexists the world. My personal feelings or responses to Truth, Goodness, or Beauty have no bearing on their reality.
Another is the idea that Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are a trinity — they go together. As a Christian, it is fairly easy for me to say that Truth is objective. (Please note that this doesn’t mean that I think I can even come close to understanding it perfectly — I’m only saying here that it exists objectively.) Likewise, it is pretty easy for me to accept that Goodness is objective — that it is the character of God, who is Good, that defines what Goodness is.
But somehow, even though I know that God is Beautiful, it has been very hard for me to grasp exactly why that makes Beauty objective. Maybe I consumed a few too many of those teen magazines that made statements about beauty being in the eye of the beholder? Is the ubiquity of that statement not evidence enough that as a culture we have swallowed whole a subjective, personal standard for beauty?
Tying Beauty back up into its trinity, rather than isolating it, has helped quite a bit.
Another thing that helped was taking the idea of subjective beauty to its logical conclusion. Turley does this when he says:
[W]e cannot relegate Beauty to personal preference and then feign shock when we encounter a urinal as part of an art exhibit.
It’s true — I find urinal art distasteful (shock!), and my rejection of it feels something like morality. So I see that deep down inside myself, I must have some objective standards for Beauty, even if they are simply Lines Which Art Must Not Cross.
The last idea is that, historically speaking, we’re the anomaly. Even the Christless Greeks, says Turley, believed in a world in which there was a divinely ordained reality to which it was humanity’s duty to conform. Turley calls this “cosmic piety”:
For the Greeks, there was a profound sense that one was truly human only to the extent that one lived in a harmonious relationship with the cosmos.
I think it’s easy for us to think that “living harmoniously with the cosmos” is something akin to hugging trees and singing Kumbayah. But he goes on to explain that this is a form of morality (which is why he called it piety before) — humans were obligated to submit to the created moral order. Of course, when Christ came, this doctrine was refined in light of the Truth that the Word had become flesh, and all that this implied.
Turley reminds us that we’ve allowed all three — Truth, Goodness, and Beauty — to become subjectively defined. And then he says this amazing thing: that Jesus is the answer to the problem. That the Incarnation is how these objective transcendentals that exist somewhere out there become real in this world.
But before we try to restore what has been lost, I think it’s good to go where Turley take us, which is the recognition that something has been lost.
And apparently we can blame science. And also math.
Truth, Goodness, and Beauty cannot be proven using the scientific method. There is no algorithm that will tell us about them. And since we have allowed those things to become the standards of what is real, Truth, Goodness, and Beauty have become unreal to us. They’ve been privatized. Two and two may make four, but the idea that murder is always wrong has become a personal value of my society that was invented in order to help it survive — it’s personal and local, not objective and universal.
And that’s frightening. Turley reminds us that C.S. Lewis tells us that in a world where this is viewed as reality, the only thing left is manipulation — there will be those who are manipulated, and those who do the manipulating, and none of that really matters because in a world where algorithms reign supreme, everything else is technically meaningless anyway.
The good news is that the Good News is real, whether science believes it or not … which is why I look forward to reading more.
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