Beauty Is the Highest
Rev. Douglas Taylor
April 12, 2015
One of the activities that we do during the formal New UU class, held two or three times each year, is called the Four Corners Game. It starts with religious labels: do you consider yourself a Theist, a Humanist, or a Pagan? Each of these three theological perspectives is designated to a different corner. The fourth corner is for everything else: mystics, agnostics, Buddhists, eclectics, and those who are simply confused or uncertain. Then, everyone in the room stands up, locates themselves and moves off to one corner or another. Typically there are a few who try stand between two or more corners. You know the joke: get two Unitarian Universalists in a room together and you’ll uncover three or more theological perspectives!
One point of such an activity is to show the pluralism of our communities. We don’t all believe the same thing, instead we are bound by a promise to encourage each other in the search for truth and in the living of our values.
One of the other questions we ask n for the Four Corners game is “Which value do you hold as highest?” As in, which one is most important? The four options are: Beauty, Truth, Goodness, or something else. The “something else” corner is for you to name a different value, one that you hold closest. Where would you be in this activity? I won’t make you all get up, we don’t have time. But by a show of hands, think about this … which corner would you be closest to? You know where I am going to stand, it’s in the title! How many for Truth? How many for Goodness? How many for Beauty? Over the years in which we have been doing this, I have found most people choose to stand in the corners for truth or for goodness, or at least at that end of the room advocating a mix between those two values. [And we did have a show of hands, and the majority voted for Truth and for Goodness]
You may recognize Beauty, Truth, and Goodness as Plato’s trinity, or the “transcendentals.” Plato posited that these three values are at the core of existence. This gets a little complicated because Plato never actually listed Beauty, Truth and Goodness together in any of his essays. The closest is actually when Plato spoke of the One, the Good and the True (unum, bonum, verum). Yet the notion persists through ages of philosophers that Beauty, Truth, and Goodness are basic to Platonism because while he didn’t line them out systematically or simplistically, it is all in there.
In Plato’s Symposium, for example, at heart a discourse on Love, there is deep reflection on the notions of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness. Plato lines out goodness as a basic drive within all humans. Love arises in the beginning from Beauty, “from then on” he writes, “the ability to love beauty has created all the good things that exist for gods and men.” Plato goes on to say that the essence of the human endeavor, of being, is to be creative and bring forth ‘the beautiful.’ I don’t want to slip too far into the nuances to the philosophy. Mostly I want to highlight that this question of values and virtues is an old and important conversation.
The other significant aspect of the transcendentals I will mention here is that they are ontologically one – that is they are convertible: e.g., where there is truth, there is beauty and goodness also; where there is goodness, there is also truth and beauty; and so on. And most people, when pressed, will agree with Plato that Truth and Goodness are close companions. If something is true, there will also be good in it. And vice versa. This is harder agree when Beauty is added into the mix. Perhaps it is because Beauty is a concept that, in more modern times, has developed as a very thin and surface idea.
“Beauty is only skin deep,” we say. We equate beauty with a pretty face, with youth and romance. Beauty is a distraction or even a disguise and may hide a cruel heart. “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” we warn. The Russian novelist and philosopher, Leo Tolstoy wrote, “It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.” Think, for example, of the ‘femme fatale’ characters who, while beautiful to the eye, bring disaster to those around them.
But I think there must be some other quality wearing the same name of Beauty when Confucius, for example, says “Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.” Or when John Keats proclaims that “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” This sent me haring off on the question of just what exactly is Beauty in this deeper, philosophical or spiritual sense.
Poet John O’Donohue has a book entitled Beauty. It is rather esoteric at times but there are some good gems as well. He opens, for example, with this elegant story.
I was with a friend out of Loch Corrib, the largest lake in the West of Ireland. It was a beautiful summer’s day. Time had come to rest in the silence and stillness that presided there. The lake slept without a ripple. A grey-blue enfolded everything. There was no division any more between earth and sky. Reaching far into the distance, everything was suffused in majestic blue light. The mountains of Conomara seemed like pile upon pile of delicate blue; you felt you could almost reach out your hand and pull them towards you. No object protruded anywhere. Trees, stones, fields and islands had forgotten themselves in the daze of blue. Then, suddenly, a harsh flutter as near us the lake surface split and a huge cormorant flew from inside the water and struck up into the air. Its ragged black wings and large awkward shape were like an eruption from the underworld. Against the finely woven blue everywhere its strange form fluttered and gleamed in absolute black. She had the place to herself. She was the one clear object to be seen. And as if to conceal the source as she soured, she left her shadow thistling the lake surface. This was an event of pure disclosure: a sudden epiphany from between the worlds. The strange beauty of the cormorant was a counterbalance to the dreamlike delicacy of the lake and landscape. Sometimes beauty is unpredictable, a threshold we had never noticed opens, mystery comes alive around us and we realize how the earth is full of concealed beauty. (p 11-12)
A cormorant is a diving bird, with wings better designed for underwater movement than for flight in air. These birds have been known to dive as deep as 45 meters and be underwater for up to 80 seconds. I imagine John O’Donohue knew the bird was in the water when he tells us about his peaceful lake. I suspect the first half of his account is for effect. Many people name beauty as that picturesque calm, that serene stillness – skin deep – as he describes in the first half of his story: Beauty as perfection or a pretty face. The point of his tale, however, is the beauty in contrast or counterbalance. The harsh beauty of the cormorant against the backdrop of the serene, blue, beautiful landscape – the full exchange and interchange is where the deeper beauty resides.
Plato again, in another of his essays, Phaedrus, describes how beauty awakens the soul. He says beauty is the link between the eternal and all that is mortal, between the gods and humanity. Beauty is the path by which we transcend, the interplay between the lake and the dark bird, or between Peter Mayer’s memories of hymns and the singing red-wing bird. Talk of beauty does not always lead to birds, but it happens often enough, I have notice. But the story is not about the bird. The beauty in John O’Donohue’s story of the bird emerging from the lake is not that the beauty is in the bird any more than it was in the lake. The beauty is in the experience.
In her amazing book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard talks about beauty as a form of seeing. She tells a story, of course, about seeing a bird step off the gutter of a four story building in a “Straight vertical descent.”
The Mockingbird took a single step into air and dropped. His wings were still folded against his sides as though he were singing from a limb and not falling, accelerating thirty-two feet per second per second, though empty air. Just a breath before he would have been dashed to the ground, he unfurled his wings with exact, deliberate care, revealing the broad bars of white, spread his elegant, white-banded tail, and so floated onto the grass. (p8)
Dillard writes that she had just turned the corner when the bird caught her eye. She then goes on to talk about the act of seeing is at the heart of living.
The fact of his free fall was like the old philosophical conundrum about the tree that falls in the forest. The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.
This is the heart of that old cliché that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or as H.G. Wells reframed it, in the heart of the beholder. It is in the seeing, beauty exists as a quality of experience. John O’Donohue agrees, saying, “Beauty is quietly woven through our ordinary days that we hardly notice it.” (Beauty p12) Not unlike Peter Mayer’s claim that “everything is holy now,” we recall Confucius saying, “Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.” Or as the reminder comes from the Ann Bowman story earlier (as a reading in the service), the mountain top is there to be seen but you must look higher – above the cloud line – to see it. Beauty is all about how we are looking.
This is the Beauty we would compare with Truth and Goodness. This is the level at which we can talk about the ontological interchange between the three. Beauty is a quality of experience on a par with Goodness and Truth in terms of the heart of living, the essence of the human endeavor on earth.
Emily Dickenson opens a poem with this stanza:
I died for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.
All that is background for where I want to go next. Say ‘Yes,’ Let’s just say that Beauty is worth it – what then? And that is to see the link back to Plato’s Symposium, wherein we read that Love arises in the beginning from Beauty, “from then on” he writes, “the ability to love beauty has created all the good things that exist for gods and men.” The essence of the human endeavor is to bring forth ‘the beautiful.’ And everything beautiful is tinged with love. Think for a moment on anything you would name beautiful. Is it tinged with love? Is there ought that you can do to bring it forth?
To look at it from another angle, acknowledge that Beauty is a quality of experience that arises from our capacity to give our attention to it. It is experienced in relationship between yourself and something or someone else. Beauty happens in relationship. Perhaps not even needing to include a human experiencer! And that is where it begins to get elegantly tangled up with every other relational concept we know.
If beauty is always present waiting to be disclosed to our experience, the element that needs tending is not the beauty but our ability to experience it. In their book, Adventures in the Spirit, the authors write, “The relation of beauty to justice is that God wants all creatures to achieve the maximum intensity of beauty in their lives, not just some of them and by no means only us.” (Clark Williamson and Ronald Allen, Adventures in the Spirit, p56)
If there is a broken link for why Beauty is not seen as an obviously essential aspect of life, perhaps it is here at the place where Beauty and Justice connect. If there is a break – perhaps it is at this spot. Plato said the goal of Love is to bring forth ‘the beautiful’ in our world. But that is about both the bread and the roses, not just the roses. Beauty is not merely a quality of art, romance, and the natural world. Beauty is found in the elegance of mathematics, the sophistication of ecology, the grace of righteous politics. Beauty can be found in the call to justice, for justice is the call to experience the needs and joys of others.
An experience of Beauty hurls us out of our self-focus. Any true experience of Beauty will lead us into awe, it will break through the circle of self-preoccupation. The experience of Beauty is something that lifts us and calls us to raise our eyes above the cloud line to see, to really ‘see;’ it is all about how we see. That is why I say Beauty is the highest, for it borders on the mystical. Beauty is always tinged by love. And so – to love! When we must chose between Beauty, Truth, and Goodness, it is always worth it to find a way to sneak in a vote for Love.
In a world without end, may it be so.