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Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

—Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

waterfallThese famous lines of Keats have charmed and delighted readers for 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 one other category 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 to be purely relativistic concepts, and one of the goals of the conservative and religious educator must be to contradict the prevailing relativism, which is practically taken for granted even by many Christian 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 aesthetic 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 some 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 the standards of beauty are subject to social and personal variation. (As I say when disagreements arise with my friends, “These are differences in taste: I have good taste, and you have bad taste!”)

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.

In this essay, I would like to give a very brief recounting of the history of aesthetics, with a particular focus on literary theories, to see how major thinkers have addressed the issue. It is a bit absurd to attempt this, but, as Alexander Pope said, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” For those who would like to explore the topic in greater depth, let me recommend two excellent recent books: Beauty for Truth’s Sake by Stratford Caldecott, and Beauty: A Very Short Introduction by Roger Scruton.

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 as 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 Platonic 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 Christian theologians in the Middle Ages and down to the present. 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 seems to me to be the 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 intellectual—that it is a kind of knowing. Perhaps he was the first to make this distinction between beauty, which has a 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. Traditional Christian 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. 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 is a carving in marble of the Annunciation, a 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 concordant 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. Sidney compares poetry to philosophy on one side and history on the other: “The philosopher therefore and the historian are they which would win the goal [of teaching moral behavior], the one by precept, the other by example.” He argues that the philosopher’s precept, or “bare rule,” is too abstract to inspire virtuous action. The person who follows only philosophy will be “too old before he shall find sufficient cause to be honest.” On the other hand, the historian teaches by giving examples and is tied “not to what should be but to what is, to the particular truth of things and not to the general reason of things.” Sidney isn’t really wanting to start a fight with philosophers and historians—and neither am I! He is positioning poetry between the two and arguing, “Now doth the peerless poet perform both…he coupleth the general notion with the particular example.” The poet, he goes on to say, “yieldeth to the powers of the mind an image” and that image strikes or pierces what Sidney calls “the sight of the soul.” Here is, I think, a really profound and profoundly true idea: The arts form particular images that are taken from the physical world yet able to convey abstract ideas, and by presenting those ideas through images the arts touch more than our reason—they engage the “sight of the soul,” which I take to be something like our intuitive reason. Sidney shows that art touches not just our minds but our hearts, and is thus better at moving us to virtuous deeds than philosophy alone. We have all experienced this: A novel or poem or play touches our hearts with moral truths and we come away from the experience wanting to be better persons. (Sometimes that feeling doesn’t, unfortunately, last too long: If someone crosses us shortly after, we find ourselves reverting to our normal irascibility. Still, some impetus to goodness remains active in our hearts and minds.)

By the way, Sidney’s 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, I think, did some damage to the union of matter and spirit that is at the heart of beauty. Some of the more radical Protestant movements denied the sacraments, which tended to rip apart the beautiful incarnational conjunction of the physical and spiritual worlds. These same sects were also iconoclastic, outlawing art as well as ritual in the churches. They denied a common awareness expressed thus by Roger Scruton: “we recognize that the beautiful and the sacred are adjacent in our experience.” At about the same time that some reformers were separating the beautiful and the sacred, 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 radically took a materialist approach. 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. 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 pseudo-scientific 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 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. The question, however, is whether all meaning is linguistic and thus arbitrary. Even if the connection between certain sounds and the objects to which they refer is arbitrary, those words do point effectively to particular objects, ones which everyone has experienced, and thus the meanings are not arbitrary. Moreover, there are non-linguistic natural symbols that convey universal, stable meanings. Saussure himself admits this momentarily, speaking of “completely natural signs,” or “symbols,” and acknowledging that “One characteristic of the symbol is that it is never wholly arbitrary,” and giving as an example the pair of scales used to symbolize justice and, as he says, “could not be replaced by just any other symbol.” But Saussure undercuts this reality by arguing that natural signs are determined by social convention. He gives as an example the Chinese custom of bowing nine times to the emperor. Here Saussure fails to distinguish between the conventional element of the custom (the number of bows required) and the natural symbolism of the gesture itself—for a bow is universally recognized as a gesture of submission and respect. Having given this slipshod two-paragraph analysis of the issue, he forgets about it completely.

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.

At this point, I cannot resist saying a few words about the post-structuralist movement. It is founded on the structuralist practice of establishing meaning by setting up binary pairs. For instance, the “minimal pair” of cat and bat demonstrates that the sounds k and b are meaningful in English. The post-structuralist concludes quite illogically from this that language works through the difference between words, not through the reference to objects and actions in the world. This illustrates a practice that has become very common, of taking a partial truth and making it absolute. The post-structuralist denial that language is referential effectively eliminates the world itself: All meaning happens in our minds, and all meaning is linguistic. Actually, as everyone knows, language is always referential and would be useless if it were not. Toddlers do not learn to speak by setting up minimal pairs: They ask (over and over and over again until their parents’ patience is exhausted), “What that?”

The postmodern falsehood is influenced by Nietzsche, who wrote, “We believe we know something of the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, snow, and flowers; and yet we possess nothing but metaphors of things, which do not at all agree with the original entities.” Again, a partial truth—that words do not give us complete knowledge of the things they signify—is turned into an absolute statement, that words “do not at all agree with the original entities.” Stated in this absolute manner, it is quite obviously false, and if it were true language would never have been invented because it would have been perfectly useless to our hard-working ancestors. A more recent influence is Heidegger, who says, “Language is not a mere tool, one of the many which man possesses; on the contrary, it is only language that affords the very possibility of standing in the openness of the existent. Only where there is language is there world.” This pure reversal of the obvious truth is one in which the post-structuralists delight, for they are anti-realists. The realist position is that the world exists regardless of my knowledge of it, but these belated and benighted modern thinkers assert that the world does not even exist until I speak. Where the realist believes that God spoke and the world came into being, they claim that the world does not exist until Martin Heidegger speaks. The leading disciple of Nietzsche and Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, announces that the search for truth, presence, origin, center, or end is over; all we have left is a free play of signifiers with no reference to an objective world. Of course, the joke is that at the end of a long day of deconstructing, Derrida calls Dominoes to have a pepperoni pizza delivered, and the one who brings it had better have a pepperoni pizza and not something else. Suddenly language becomes referential again!

In any case, what the post-structuralists are doing is to deny the validity of all three of our categories of value: truth, goodness, and beauty. One result of this attitude is a change in the curriculum. At my institution, Grand Valley State University, a majority in the English Department voted recently to stop requiring surveys of British and American literature and instead require a course on literary theory (by which they mean Freudian, Marxist, feminist, gender, and deconstructionist theories). The new theorists reject the idea that there are great writers everyone should read. Before they came forward with their proposal to change the curriculum, the Jacobin professors at GVSU had already altered the survey courses by removing many of the canonical texts. During one of our debates, I asked whether we would not all agree that every English major should read Chaucer. A colleague said she would instead teach Margery Kempe (a medieval Englishwoman who wrote an interesting by artistically negligible spiritual diary). When I said that Chaucer was a far greater writer, she replied that all such judgments were “utterly subjective.” (This is just the type of absolute statement that these relativists often make.)

As an answer to the meaningless worldview of the materialists, existentialists, and structuralists, we might go back to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 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 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 four seasons, the four elements, trees, and sky and mountains and sea and stars—these 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 Russell Kirk, who 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 of Eliot’s:

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 descendant 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.

Kirk’s theory of imagination has much in common with the one C.S. Lewis proposes in The Abolition of Man. In this book, 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. 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 objective realities.

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 world. And it is this approach which I am urging all of us to take up again: Let us lead our students to 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). The natural law is determined by right reason (and 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, at one level, no accounting for taste and one must partially accept the old saying, chacun 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 particularly among the Puritans, distrusted beauty and removed it from churches and from worship services. We must 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 incarnational.

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.”

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay was originally given as a lecture at The Free Enterprise Institute’s Summer Institute for Educators 2016. 

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4 replies to this post
  1. This is a great and important essay. Personally, I consider this topic to be the most important, since, not unlike Eliot, I really feel like we have lost most everything in the political realm. To turn that around, we need a much deeper cultural (indeed spiritual) awakening.

    Accordingly, in light of the importance of this topic, I’d like to offer a few slight counterpoints; most degrees of emphasis.

    First, and in no particular order, certainly the Puritans contributed much negatively to the history of aesthetics. But not entirely. There is much in their poetic output which is inseparable from them being Puritan, and certainly their prose is spectacular. I think we have to take their phobia when it comes to drama with a grain of salt. Certainly the theater was an unsavory place back in the day in many respects; I suspect that most aesthetically minded conservatives nowadays would tend to agree with them were they dropped back to the theater of their day. Moreover, their critiques of theater contain some extremely insightful psychological observations about just how appropriate it is for one human being to pretend to be another human being. These insights are worth hanging on to; we need not throw out the baby with the bath water, but still, they are spot on in this regard. They took human dignity seriously, and all we have to do is think of the tragedy of Heath Ledger in his Dark Knight portrayal to wonder, what did we miss here (collectively) which could have perhaps avoid this catastrophe? Anyone interested in how the Puritans took seriously human dignity in a way that others were simply unable to do, should watch the film The Madness of King George. The Puritans are the only real human beings in the film. The others are all clingers to the make believe world that the King was really someone special. In this regard, the Puritan achievements are very real. They have something positive to contribute to the history of aesthetics. And again, the poetry of Milton, Anne Bradstreet, John Dryden, etc. (not to mention the prose of John Winthrop, etc.) speaks volumes.

    Second, in the spirit of Tolstoy’s pretty good little book, What Is Art?, I think we can come up with better categories than objective/subjective, or relative/transtemporal. It just doesn’t seem that these categories illuminate much. Clearly, we as perceivers/observers/readers/contemplators, bring a whole lot to a work of art. This is in fact what Eliot invites us to do in Four Quartets. Moreover, seeing as the universe is clearly much larger and vaster than we are capable of taking in (ie, there are frequencies that we can’t hear), clearly, what we as human beings think of as “objective” is very clearly in a real sense already qualified by our limitations (ie, our subjectiveness)…so again…anytime we discuss anything that we perceive, we are already talking about something that is radically qualified by us as human observers, as well as by us as individual observers who have a lifetime of experience which serves as amplifier, filter, etc. In this regard, all perception is clearly “subjective”…but also “objective” in that it comports with something “out there” in the universe, ie, it is happening b/c of some artifact in the universe be it created by God or by man. So it seems that all perception, including aesthetic perception, is at all times, already both objective and subjective. So I’m just not sure that these categories help us much. We do understand that as conservatives we want to avoid the chaos and moral calamity of what we call moral relativism at all cost. And certainly I have encountered at least a thousand times conservatives who are opposed to (what they call) “modern art” …because they are (rightly) opposed to Roe v. Wade. I think that’s a big mistake, and it feeds into a conservatism which is not imaginative, which is only critical, and which is only against…never for. And that is a loser. Dead conservatism which is stagnation leads to death, as does mere innovation (especially in the political realm) which is separated from deeper realities which have organically emerged over time and generations. Imaginative conservatism fares forward always (you can’t ring a bell backwards….) but listens intently to the voices of the past. And we should talk about aesthetics using terminology which helps us both to see and create both, continuity and innovation; or innovation within tradition. Or vice versa…this is where greatness and civilization lies.

    In this regard, I don’t think it is helpful or accurate to state things like “…intervals such as the octave and fifth in music…are all transcultural and transtemporal, giving pleasure to all people in all times and places.” As a matter of history, the fourth and the third have enjoyed as much of a diverse history as the fifth, and indeed, it could be argued that the fifth is, broadly speaking, both a Johnny Come Lately…and perhaps even passe. (That would be silly…but still…from the vantage of the 20th century, it could be so argued…). The point being: musical intervals are not at all permanent. To say this is to be overly restrictive and to argue as Adorno did that the dimished seventh is passe, merely a petty bourgeois hanger on rooted in sentimentality. This is dangerous territory and we must avoid it. Musical intervals, in the long sweep of history (and we are only at the beginning….) will come and go (and then again). What is emerging as something pretty close to “eternal” humanly speaking is a concept of tonality. Tonality remains, but the details will vary over time…which is a good thing…and there will be some stretching of the concept in especially creative and turbulent times. That is why we need Stravinskys. They save their arts from stagnation. But we also need to not mess up our metaphysics when we are talking about aesthetics. Certainly tonality is not eternal in any meaningful metaphysical sense, seeing as it is tied to 1) auditory hearing, and 2) cognitive hearing. Music itself can’t be separated from human experience and perception. It cannot be lumped into the same metaphysical category as the law of non-contradiction. If we do that, we hurt both metaphysics, and aesthetics.

    Third, back to Protestantism, but not just to the Puritans. Protestantism makes a unique contribution to the history of aesthetics, and an extremely positive one. The fundamental contribution is simply one of freedom. Protestantism, simply put, said that art must not be under the control of the church, because when that is done, you simply turn art into propaganda. The Council of Trent pushed back in a way which sounds not unlike Soviet condemnation of non-proletariat art in the 20th century. In this regard, Protestantism (well, the early stages at least….recently, not so much) is on the right side of history. Moreover, Protestantism declared the whole universe, big and small, grand and simple, to be aesthetically accessible and opened up all things to aesthetic contemplation. When Rembrandt (and later van Gogh) painted “normal people” as portraits without all the “let’s pretend” costuming, this was a revolution of freedom. And so on. It is difficult to imagine to art of Albrecht Duehrer (and many others) apart from teh spirit of Protestantism. In the early stages of Protestantism, the whole world (natural, human, imaginative) became the object of aesthetic contemplation and achievement and this led to a great flourishing. In short, the Protestant achievement in the history of one of freedom, and anti-propaganda. This is a good thing.

    Finally, and again, in no particular order, I think the thing that rightly bedevils conservatives when dealing with aesthetics is the question of how to distinguish the good from the better, and the best from the worst? This is all fair game and Roger Scruton, in particular, has given us great insight into how that works. It is something like this: we recognize that there is a community of interest in every aesthetic endeavor. There are those who live and breathe this stuff, and they have worked to develop proper taste (ugh…i hate relying on that word…) and they have set forth, over time, exceptionally good reasons why something is aesthetically successful. As conservatives, we certainly do defer to authority and so we defer to the tradition in this regard and we study, think, contemplate and observe and to the extent we can, we adopt their reasons as our own and then we begin to experience things aesthetically for ourselves, and even to give our own reasons – and we recognize that our personal experiences play a large role here, and we embrace that and note that in our reasons. So, in this sense, yes, aesthetic standards are 1) objective (in that they are rooted in something more sophisticated than my mere immediate reaction), 2) meaningful (in that the community of interest gives good reasons), 3) non-arbitrary (in that the community of interest gives good reasons), but also 4) subjective (in that I experience them with my own strengths and weaknesses, preferences, priorities, experiences and personality). The subjective element also emerges in that everyone will have favorites, and that is absolutely ok. There is not a “right” answer to Bach, Beethoven or Mozart? Listen enough, experience enough, and most likely you will have a different favorite every few years anyway. So our job is to continue in the great tradition, partake continually so that as we experience, we are doing so in an ever increasing reservoir of aesthetic experience as well as human experience (ie, we read history, and have our own history).

    Finally…any essay that cites Dante and Four Quartets is, well, pretty much spot on…..So much more could be said here, and this conversation should continue, and our explorations should continue, without ceasing….

  2. 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.

    And so it stands to reason that if a man declares he is actually a woman, it is the greatest of modern transgressions to dismiss him as a lunatic.

  3. Dear Professor Lockerd:

    Thank you for your splendid meditation on the moral imagination.

    Early in your exposition, where you consider various definitions of beauty, you declare your preference for Saint Augustine’s: “[beauty] is a harmonizing of parts in an ordered whole. This definition seems to me to be the best and most comprehensive. Beautiful works have a complexity of parts resolved in an integral wholeness.”

    I think that’s probably right: harmony, integrity, integration, wholeness. Indeed, your search for a precise as well as complete definition of beauty sent me on a search of my own. I got to thinking of synonyms and closely related philosophical concepts that might flesh out an explanation of beauty: congruity, accord, concord, chime, and, in my novel noun form, jibe (as in “a jibe of elements” in a work of art).

    Then, however, absorbed in my reading of selections from the vast oeuvre of George Santayana, another term occurred to me: “concinnity,” meaining the skillful and harmonious arrangement, interarrangement, adaptation, fitting together, and reinforcement of the various parts of a whole work of art or of those parts to one another. I don’t believe that I’ve encountered the term in Santayana’s writings, but the ideas in them put me on its scent.

    What do you think? Could you use “concinnity” in any future discussion of beauty and art?

    One last thing: I simply can’t resist asking how in heaven’s name you’ve survived in the English Department at Grand Valley State University in Michigan — or, for that matter, in any humanities or social-science department in any university or college in any state of the Union. In your essay you share your personal experience of a meeting with the “Jacobin professors at GVSU” (you’re not speaking hyperbolically, I know) in which one such “Jacobin” stated, unashamedly, her choice of Margery Kempe over Chaucer, and then got tangled up in her own illogic.

    How have you not lost your head (I ask the question in both the figurative and literal senses)? How can you, with the best will in the world, work with the numberless herd of such “Jacobins”? They make Thomas Gradgrind look like an inspired genius.

    I got drummed out of the academy thirty years ago, and consequently haven’t been able to support myself or provide for my family. The Jacobins — or sans-culottes or levelers or Philistines, as I have alternately referred to them — have manifestly taken my livelihood from me. Needless to observe, when I was in grade school I was a thousand times the scholar, thinker, artist, and man that these nudniks are (which, admittedly, isn’t saying much). I remember being not merely humble and terrified as a twenty-three year old college teacher but positively embarrassed about my position, thinking myself utterly unqualified to instruct students only a few years younger than I was. Yet I was infinitely better read at that age than tenured professors are nowadays. It’s a travesty.

    And millions across the country continue to fall for it and to get ripped off.

    So how have you survived? What’s your secret? I’m not kidding: I’d really like to hear your (horror) story.

    You’ve written a wonderful piece here. I hope that you can keep your head long enough to write several more.

    Good luck.

    Sincerely yours,

    Meridian Man

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