“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” wrote John Keats in 1819. This celebrated line, still admired as poetry, rings somewhat untrue today. In an age when beauty is often achieved by untruth – Photoshop editing, misleading camera angles, manipulated statistics – and when truth is often not beautiful – the world’s hunger, meaningless tragedies – the connection Keats noticed between truth and beauty seems today tenuous at best.
Still, our idea of beauty carries a direct relationship to our ethics. Contemporary eco-philosophers have noticed, for example, that though a person may appreciate the beauty of a mountain range, or of an endangered tiger, this appreciation of beauty does not necessarily lead to a desire for conservation of one’s idea of beauty. If we think of beauty only in terms of our own subjective experience, and not in terms of beauty being embedded in something outside ourselves (i.e. the animal, or flower, or mountain range), the act of preserving beauty turns in on itself. Beauty becomes only subjective. Our primary concern is to sustain our experience of the sublime, not to promote life outside of us.
A different perspective arises when we appreciate beauty as something given to us, not arising from inside ourselves. It generates a consideration of beauty which does not get lost in its own subjective sphere, but which also propels us outward, to active engagement in the world. In a dense but interesting comment on a passage by theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, David Moss observes,
Where we can no longer read the language of beauty so, for Balthasar, the witness of creation as created becomes untrustworthy and open to abuse… In short, those transitory experiences of the truth, goodness and beauty of the cosmos are intelligible only by way of reference to a transcendent order of Being that is absolutely true, good and beautiful.[i]
In other words, only when we recognize objective beauty, truth and goodness in the world, beyond our own subjective experience of it, can we really be moved to preserve it and to admire the work of their creator.
Among the wide variety of theories of beauty competing for our attention (and operating underneath many contemporary cinematic plotlines), one can make a good case for the “wheels coming off” when social understandings of beauty ceased being based on knowledge of a creator God. The celebration of beauty which remains possible within a nihilistic understanding of the world is deeply problematic, and as Moss suggests, open to abuse and even untrustworthy. To affirm God’s act of creation of the world, with all its beauty and ugliness, provides a stability for beauty that allows us to appreciate it in the context of love and relate beauty to truth.
[i] David Moss, “Hans Urs Von Balthasar: Beginning with Beauty”, in David Horrell et all., Ecological Hermeneutics (London: T & T Clark, 2010), 202. In case you’re curious, here’s the passage by Hans Urs von Balthasar (a contemporary Swiss theologian) that inspired Moss: “the world, formerly penetrated by God’s light, now becomes but an appearance and a dream – the Romantic vision – and soon thereafter nothing but music. But where the cloud disperses, naked matter remains as an indigestible symbol of fear and anguish. Since nothing else remains, and yet something must be embraced, twentieth-century man is urged to enter this impossible marriage with matter, a union which finally spoils all man’s taste for love. But man cannot bear to live with the object of his impotence, that which remains permanently unmastered. He must either deny or conceal it in the silence of death.” (Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, Volume I, (1982) 18-19)