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Posts from — November 2016

Beauty, Truth, and Goodness 2016

Deconstructing an Ugly Election

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
| John Keats, Ode On a Grecian Urn

Truth, Goodness, Beauty 2016
Daphnis and Chloe by Pierre Auguste Cot

Regardless of our political, educational, economic, or philosophical differences, no doubt we can agree that there is such a thing as beauty, and that regardless of whether or not we agree that a particular thing is beautiful, there will be little disagreement about what we mean by the word. That is, we likely can agree that beauty is that quality that uplifts and stirs the soul, that it is pleasing to the senses, that it inspires, embodies balance and proportion, and so on. As an example, John Keats’s famous poem, quoted above, directs our attention to an ancient Grecian urn, whose voluptuous symmetry has withstood the punishment of centuries. Its static beauty calls us into a state of wonder about the images painted on the urn’s stony surface—a group of men pursuing a group of women, two lovers lying in a glade, some villagers on their way to an anonymous destination, leaving us with questions of whence and whither and wherefore the answers to which we can never know because the urn, both timeless and frozen in time, is mute. Yet, its beauty lays a claim on us and by doing so, offers us a profound insight into human nature possessed by the Greeks—that the only enduring truth we can know is the truth of beauty, such that in the end, what is not beautiful cannot rightly be said to be true, and to this equation the Greeks added a third quality—goodness (arete), which encompasses both excellence and virtue.

If, like the Greeks, we regard this equation today as describing three facets of one sublime reality, it doesn’t take much to do the philosophical math. What isn’t beautiful is false. What isn’t true isn’t good. Any ugly act, because it is necessarily both false and bad, will lead to bad outcomes. Beauty, in this most practical sense, isn’t limited to aesthetic evaluation. Rather, it is a light we can shine on any act, choice, or direction to illuminate it and discern its nature, a sanctuary that falsehood and disinformation cannot enter, and a compass heading for making wise decisions. Whatever honors truth, beauty, and goodness expresses the divine and invites the favor of the gods, while falsity, ugliness, and evil, as acts of hubris that defy the divine, unwittingly sow the seeds of their own destruction.

This ancient wisdom seems particularly timely here in the United Sates in the wake of a national election that it is safe to say most voters would agree was ugly, a brawl devoid of beauty in any form—generosity of spirit, civility, kindness, candor, self-possession and tasteful restraint, discourse unsullied by self-interest, respect for others, or even the most inarguable and basic standards of decency. While we have had elections before that called voters to choose the lesser of two evils, this time was different, because for both leading candidates, fundamental character was so much in doubt that nearly half the electorate stayed home on voting day, in many cases because they were unable to reconcile either choice with the dictates of conscience. Now that the debacle is over, we must wonder what the results say about the state of the soul of the nation, and many rightly fear what will follow from a contest in which beauty in both character and conduct was thrown to the dogs. What we have grounds to expect is not encouraging, for when beauty is forsaken, what is true and good has nowhere to stand.

The ancient Greeks extolled the virtue of qualities that were for many, shockingly absent during the primaries and the debates leading up to the election: prudence, temperance, and self-control (sophrosyne), lights of the “well-ordered soul” that shine in stark contrast to the dark impulsiveness of hubris, which, in willfully flouting the standards of beauty, truth, and goodness, sooner or later lead to tragic consequences under the watchful eye of the gods. There is no time off from these standards, and no exemption from their authority in human affairs. Kings and presidents and dictators are bound by them as surely as are commoners, and no victory that does not bow to them will be sustainable for long. It is a supreme tragedy that, for all the suffering that human hubris has inflicted throughout history, we insist on discounting what the Greeks knew two millennia ago. The rhetoric of hate, at the end of even the longest day, is the rhetoric of fools, and no seemingly convenient lie, no cover-up, no amount of “spin” changes the truth one whit. In the Gorgias, Socrates reminds us that the truth cannot be refuted. It is exactly for this reason that those of us committed to living life beautifully must be vigilant in our responses to the grotesque remarks shamelessly made by the candidates as though they were the most normal thing in the world, so that we are not drawn into ugliness ourselves. Rather, we must deepen our resolve to live a personal ideology that is predicated on beauty, and so, intrinsically, on what is true and good.

Voltaire writes, “It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong.” The current political reality in the U.S. has yet to unfold, but already we are seeing at the highest levels of government the same rancor, divisiveness, wanton self-interest, and abdication of high thinking that debased the campaigns. It is a sober reminder for thoughtful people everywhere, for those committed to self-examination and the improvement of their character, who know that there is no greater truth than kindness and compassion for others, and who eschew belligerence and scapegoating in the awareness that ultimately, on this rare and beautiful planet we inhabit, we either all win or we all lose. For now, we may take comfort in the confidence that the pendulum of history swings only so far before it returns, and that what follows next is in the good hands of the gods, whose ways are subject to the will of no man.

November 25, 2016   Comments Off on Beauty, Truth, and Goodness 2016