Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Ivory Cubicle | Beauty, Ethics and Politics

“Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient and ever new! Late have I loved you! And, behold, you were within me, and I out of myself, and there I searched for you.” –St. Augustine

Two years ago, I found myself on a plane en route to Denver. For some reason, God has a tendency of using plane flights to knock me over the head with some spiritual truth he wants me to learn. The sun had just begun to dip below a thick cloud cover, which was punctured by the misty peaks of the Rocky Mountains. The plane dipped below the cloud cover, and suddenly the nightlights of Denver appeared before me.

The contrast was stark. On one hand was nature in all her beauty. The other, with its own particular shade of beauty, was a picture of man settled into daily monotony, with scarcely the time to take notice of the grandeur around him.

The Beautiful and the Good

Western philosophy (specifically Plato) has traditionally recognized a unity of the True, the Good and the Beautiful. Christian philosophy has gone a step further and argued that truth, goodness and beauty ultimately find their source in God, and that God is the most objectively true, objectively good, and objectively beautiful being. If man fails to observe the most truly beautiful being, God, it is not because God is not beautiful, it is because man is perceiving beauty improperly. Fallen man is “out of himself,” to borrow Augustine’s choice of words, but God remains always with us.

But recently, the entire notion of objective beauty has come under attack, with subjective clichés such as “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Under this theory, beauty is not something intrinsic to an object, it is a preference that the observer ascribes to an object. This critique has come from the same post-modern philosophy that argues “truth is relative,” and though Christians have rushed to the defense of “the True,” pointing out the absurdity of post-modern logic, they’ve been less apt to jump to the defense of “the Beautiful.”

Yet when it comes to Christian ethics, beauty is fully as important as truth. Beauty informs us of what is valuable, and ethics is the art of pursuing what is valuable. If man is able to arbitrarily decide what is beautiful, then his ethics will reflect that arbitrary nature. If money is valuable to him, and human life is not, then he will have no compunction with ruthlessly crushing human life in order to gain money.

Until this point, the article has been fairly abstract, so let’s take a look at a concrete issue that will highlight the importance of beauty in our political lives. The pro-abortion movement has made a value judgment that the human being is worth less than the gratification that comes from a life of ease. Conversely, the pro-life movement has grounded their argument in the concept that the human being, created in the image of God, is worth the sacrifice of a life of ease, and indeed, that the joys gained from raising godly children far outweigh the pain.

The order of reasoning is this. Man, as the imago dei, is a beautiful creation of our God. As such, he is valuable, and worth preserving. Consequently, we ought to preserve him. We start with beauty, we move to value, and from that, we determine what is right and wrong. If, as often happens in our post-modern culture, we argue that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” then we have to live with a philosophy of “right and wrong is in the eye of the beholder.” The Christian’s task, therefore, is to conform his sensibilities to God’s, so that he can see beauty the way that God sees beauty, and live the way God desires him to live.

By Nick Barden

Photo of a sunset over a Rocky Mountain lake, by yours truly.

1 comment:

  1. Gungor song derived from the the Augustine quote above.