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What is Beauty…and Why Does it Matter?

3 minutes

Summary

Jeff Minick draws on the works of three life-long students of beauty to understand its value, appreciate its power, and discover how it makes us more human.

Beauty is a Profound Mystery

We can find beauty everywhere: in the face of a sleeping child, in the laughter of a spouse, in the Mass.

It can range in scope from Michelangelo’s “David” to the potted geraniums sitting on our kitchen windowsill. Beauty has the power to bring tears to our eyes, to take our breath away, to warm our hearts.

Yet if asked “What is beauty and why does it matter?” most of us, I suspect, would find ourselves baffled or fumbling for inadequate words of explanation.

Let’s turn to three life-long students of beauty and see whether they might be of help.

In Beauty Will Save The World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2011, 278 pages), Catholic convert Gregory Wolfe looks at the connections between Beauty and Truth, particularly in our literature, and calls for a revival of Christian humanism.

In Chapter 4, “Christian Humanism: A Faith For All Seasons,” Wolfe begins with this description of a playwright and film writer whose work will be familiar to many Seton families: “It is a curious fact that the artist who produced the most compelling and accessible vision of Christian humanism in the twentieth century was a multiply married, luxury-loving, alcoholic atheist by the name of Robert Bolt.”

It was Bolt who created A Man For All Seasons, a movie beloved by many of its for its powerful depiction of Saint Thomas More. As Wolfe tells us, Bolt later wrote the screenplay for The Mission, the story of Jesuit missionaries in South America.

God truly does work in mysterious ways.

After making his case for Christian humanism, Wolfe concludes the chapter with these words:

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“Allow me to end with two quotations that sum up the heart of Christian humanism. The Catholic writer Gerald Vann once wrote, ‘Today the old adage, “Don’t preach to the starving, give them bread,’” can be given a new application: ‘Don’t preach divinity to the sub-humanized; first give them back their humanity….’ We cannot save others from sub-humanity if we are subhuman ourselves.” And Hans Rookmaaker, the Dutch Calvinist art historian, once said, “Christ didn’t come to make us Christians. He came to make us fully human.”

How We Become More Human

In Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education (Angelico Press, 2012, 168 pages), Catholic author Stratford Caldecott delivers this same idea in regard to a Christian liberal arts education. He writes, “The central idea of the present book is very simple. It is that education is not primarily about the acquisition of information. It is not even about the acquisition of ‘skills’ in the conventional sense, to equip us for particular roles in society. It is about how we become more human (and therefore more free, in the truest sense of that word).”

Unlike Wolfe, Caldecott in this charming book focuses our attention on education, specifically on writing and on the Trivium, or the language arts: Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. Beauty in the Word is not, however, a how-to manual on composition, but instead a Catholic defense of the liberal arts incorporating, among other things, the Liturgy of the Mass, an essay on Wisdom, and as the title suggests, the Word. In his examination of education, truth, and beauty, Caldecott looks as well at figures familiar to many home educators, men, and women such as Charlotte Mason, Maria Montessori, John Senior, and John Holt. In his “Endnotes,” Caldecott reminds readers that beauty, true beauty, is a source of joy. Prior to that, in his “Conclusion,” he takes this example from Hans Urs van Balthasar, which should bring a smile of recognition to many readers of this magazine:

“The infant is brought to consciousness of himself only by love, by the smile of his mother. In that encounter, the horizon of all unlimited being opened itself for him, revealing four things to him: (1) that he is one in love with his mother, even in being other than this mother, therefore all Being is one; (2) that love is good, therefore all Being is good; (3) that that love is true, therefore all Being is true; and (4) that that love evokes joy, therefore all Being is beautiful.”

Vehicles of Our Salvation

Another evangelist for beauty was Sir Roger Scruton, who died of cancer on January 12, 2020, age 75. A philosopher, a commentator on aesthetics and culture, an equestrian and a lover of the English countryside, and a proponent for beauty in everything from literature to architecture, Scruton was also a member of the Church of England, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the British Academy, an accomplished musician who wrote two operas, and the author of more than 40 books on art, aesthetics, politics, and culture.

The loss of this gentle, witty man saddened many of us familiar with his work, but we still have his books and articles, and his online videos. For an excellent introduction both to this man and his ideas, go to YouTube and Google “Roger Scruton Why Beauty Matters.”

Near the end of his life, Scruton was attacked, as so many are these days, for his faith and his conservatism. In a brief article on his website, we find these words written by him just weeks before his death:

“During this year much was taken from me — my reputation, my standing as a public intellectual, my position in the Conservative movement, my peace of mind, my health. But much more was given back: by Douglas Murray’s generous defense, by the friends who rallied behind him, by the rheumatologist who saved my life and by the doctor to whose care I am now entrusted. Falling to the bottom in my own country, I have been raised to the top elsewhere, and looking back over the sequence of events, I can only be glad that I have lived long enough to see this happen. Coming close to death, you begin to know what life means, and what it means is gratitude.”

Scruton’s gratitude was no doubt closely connected to his love of Truth and Beauty. G.K. Chesterton once stated, “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder,” and what else is our perception of Beauty if not “happiness doubled by wonder?”

All grownups know that politics and postmodernism cannot save the world, much less us. But as Wolfe, Caldecott, Scruton, Chesterton, and many others know, Truth and Beauty can be the vehicles of our salvation and that of our culture.

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