On Beauty

“On Beauty | Listen to this blog as a podcast on Ambleside Flourish Podcast

These are harrowing times. A man dies under the knee of a police officer. Such things ought not to be. Crowds erupt in riot, looting, burning and killing. Such things ought not to be. How are we to understand it? What is to be done?

Listening to the voices filling the air, the pundits on the left claim the problem is the power politics and economics of the right. The pundits on the right claim the problem is the power politics and economics of the left. Violent elements are enabled and exploited. All grow in fear and in rage. Both sides suggest that if we just get the politics and economics right, all will be well. But is this true? Certainly, politics and economics matter. They matter very much. But is there something more essential, something upstream from politics and economics that must be gotten right if a virtuous politics and economics is to be possible, something that if missing will inevitably lead to corruption and decay?

In generations past, it was generally held by Americans, both thoughtful elites and commonsense citizens, that apart from the general valuing of a noble character, no political or economic system would be sufficient to establish a people in justice and freedom. Thus, there was a time when no educational institution could be deemed successful unless it cultivated a virtuous character.1 As Charlotte Mason expressed a century ago: This is familiar ground to us: we too have taught, in season and out of season, that the formation of character is the aim of the educator.2

The formation of character is at the heart of an Ambleside education. It is not the only component of an Ambleside education, but it is fundamental. To fail in the matter of character formation, is to fail completely. “What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?"3 To some extent, everything we do at Ambleside relates in some way to the formation of character; be it worshipping God, obeying a teacher, serving a classmate, managing emotional distress well, giving careful attention to a painting, or delighting in the accurate solving of a mathematics' problem—all reflect and cultivate the content of one’s character.

There is an aspect of character which is rarely considered but is a far more formative guide to the heart than conscious or critical analysis could ever be. This aspect of character, this motivational power, is what Charlotte Mason recognized as “the beauty sense.” To be sure, the beauty sense has little to do with the prosaic notion of good taste in fine art or home decorating. Like Goodness and Truth, Beauty is one of the fundamental aspects of any and every created thing. Ours is a world created and sustained by the eternal Word of God. Yet, ”groaning in labor pains until now”4, it suffers from the ravages of sin. In such a cosmos, every existing thing is more or less True, more or less Good, more or less Beautiful. Compare an elegant, fragrant rose in full bloom with a wilted rose:

  • In terms of thought, the elegant rose is more truly what God had in mind when He thought of roses. 
  • In terms of action in the world, the elegant rose is a better, more complete expression of what God intended for roses to be. 
  • In terms of bringing joy, the elegant rose is better ordered to the delight God intended roses to be.

In other words, the elegant rose is objectively truer, better and more beautiful than the wilted rose. This may be difficult to accept. For a hundred years, we have been told that beauty is subjective, a matter of personal preference. The subjectivizing of beauty is a gross failure of thought and imagination. Moreover, it is extremely destructive. The subjectivizing of beauty has led to an abandonment of the responsibility to educate our children’s “beauty sense.” And today, we are seeing the tragic consequences in our streets. Contemplate:

  • A new mother and her baby hold each other, eyes locked in visual embrace, mutual smiles, rhythmic peace and joy.
  • A father and child delight in one another; bright-faced, throwing, catching, chasing after a ball, smiles and laughter.
  • Unsolicited, a good woman drops food and other needed supplies on the doorsteps of elderly and physically vulnerable neighbors. 
  • A protester steps forward to take a police officer in warm embrace, as a crowd stands awed and tensions melt.
  • A band of brothers stand side-by-side in front of a store, peacefully using their bodies to protect both the elderly owner and his livelihood.

To the well-formed soul, such images brighten the eye, inspire, bring joy, motivate virtuous living. To those who have “eyes to see”, such images are beautiful. But to the malformed, such images have no appeal. To the malformed, only the grotesque appeals; only fear, anger, bitterness motivates.

How is it that both the grotesque and the beautiful have such power? While it is a great oversimplification, one can think of the human brain as having two motivational systems5 -- the love-joy system and the lust-fear-anger system. Love-joy is built upon and reinforces a life of relational wholeness. Lust-fear-anger is built upon and reinforces a life of relational deficits. At least since the Greek Classical Age, great minds have recognized that when the eye of the rightly formed soul looks out into the world and beholds Beauty, love-joy is amplified. Plato described this phenomenon in the Phaedrus:
When in like manner the soul is beginning to grow wings, the beauty of the beloved meets her eye and she receives the sensible warm motion of particles which flow towards her, therefore called emotion, and is refreshed and warmed by them, and she ceases from her pain with joy. 

Love-joy bonds are only built upon the objectively Good, True and Beautiful. Lust-fear-anger bonds are built upon the evil, false and grotesque. Beauty runs deep in the human soul, deep in the human brain; deeper than the Good and far deeper than the True. An infant recognizes the Beauty of her mother’s face before recognizing the Good and long before recognizing Truth. We know beauty when free of lust-fear-anger, our heart sees, smiles and wants to share the experience with others. This is true whether it is Beauty resonant in a Monet masterpiece, Odell Beckham’s acrobatic catch, or the September 11 rush of first responders into the Twin Towers.

We remember the words of St. Paul:
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.6

The great tragedy of a malformed beauty sense is not bad taste in art or interior decoration. It is the complete inability to recognize the true, the honorable, the just, the pure, the pleasing, the commendable, the excellent, the worthy of praise. Failing right formation, the soul delights in the brutal, the base and the bitter. Fail to cultivate the beauty sense, and our children know only the mob.

1See James Davison Hunter’s The Death of Character.
2Mason, Charlotte. School Education. 98.
3 Luke 9:25 NRSV
4Romans 8:22 NRSV
5See Allan N. Shore, Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self and E. James Wilder, et. al. Joy Starts Here.
6Philippians 4:8 NRSV
*Claude Monet, Woman with a Parasol - Madame Monet and Her Son 1875, Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Open Access.