Our Age Can’t Think or Love, But It Can Still Be Touched by Beauty

All that is good, all that is true and all that is beautiful have their source in Jesus Christ and lead us to him.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, “The Virgin of the Lilies,” 1899
William-Adolphe Bouguereau, “The Virgin of the Lilies,” 1899 (photo: Public Domain)

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know …’
—John Keats (Ode on a Grecian Urn)

John Keats’ pithy praise of beauty is both beautiful and elusive. It beguiles us; it seduces us; but does it satisfy us? Is it a satisfactory explanation of the relationship between the beautiful and the true? Doesn’t it beg more questions than it answers? If beauty is truth, what is truth; if truth is beautiful, what is beauty? These are questions that have animated the greatest philosophers since the time of Plato and Aristotle. 

For the Greeks, and for Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, the good, the true, and the beautiful are inextricably entwined. And, for the Christian, they are not only entwined but ultimately are one and the same thing: they are the Thing that is Christ. 

Jesus Christ is the answer to Pilate’s perennial question: quid est veritas? It is Christ himself who is truth. And it is Christ who is also beauty and goodness. Christ is the very incarnation of the good, the true and the beautiful. He is these three things rolled into one. Truth is, therefore, trinitarian. It is one with the good and the beautiful. 

Since, properly understood, they are synonymous with Christ, it can be seen that the good, the true and the beautiful are the ends for which we strive. They are, however, also the means by which we attain the end. Christ is not merely the truth and the life — he is the way. He is not only the end — he is the means. All that is good, all that is true and all that is beautiful have their source in Christ and lead us to him. This is true beauty, but it is a beauty and truth that is unseen by the scribes, pharisees and hypocrites who have always sought to crucify the beautiful and the true on the altar of self-idolatry. For such as these, the purpose of the cross is to highlight cross purposes, in the sense that those blinded by pride can see only the meaningless contradiction and not the meaningful paradox. They ask Pilate’s question not for the purposes of finding an answer, nor in the Socratic sense of seeking to prompt further questions, but merely as a means of affirming that there is no answer. For deconstructed man, Pilate’s question is purely rhetorical because there is nothing but rhetoric. Words are toys with which we persuade ourselves that nothing is persuasive. 

Deconstructed man is also disintegrated man. He fails to see the integration of goodness, truth and beauty, and thereby condemns himself to a segregated cosmos in which sin is good, ugliness is beautiful, and truth is a lie. This is the fragmentation that leads to madness. It is literally the explosion of truth into disintegrating pieces. 

The challenge of integrating our segregated culture has been central to the mission of the Church down the centuries. From the early heresies and the early modern monstrosities of Machiavelli, to the more modern errors of Marx and Mammon, the Catholic Church has been combating error from her very beginning. As the one body that, in Chesterton’s memorable phrase, has been “thinking about thinking” for 2,000 years, the Church continues to speaking universally and univocally against the self-deification that leads to self-destruction. With her infallible wisdom she uses the dynamism of orthodoxy to defuse the truth-exploding dynamite of heresy. 

This ancient and venerable office of the Church was evident in November 2008 in a public event sponsored by the Pontifical Academy of Fine Arts and Literature on the theme, “the universality of beauty: a comparison between aesthetics and ethics.” Pope Benedict XVI, in a message to those gathering at this convocation, stressed the “urgent need for a renewed dialogue between aesthetics and ethics, between beauty, truth and goodness.” The Holy Father lamented the “dramatically-evident split” between the pursuit of the external trappings of beauty and the idea of a beauty rooted in truth and goodness: “Indeed, searching for a beauty that is foreign to or separate from the human search for truth and goodness would become (as unfortunately happens) mere aestheticism and, especially for the very young, a path leading to ephemeral values and to banal and superficial appearances, even a flight into an artificial paradise that masks inner emptiness.”

Reiterating the necessity of contemporary culture to rediscover the integration of beauty, truth and goodness, the Pope stressed that the commitment to recover and rediscover this philosophical integrity was even more important for Christians: “And if such a commitment applies to everyone, it applies even more to believers, to the disciples of Christ, who are called by the Lord to ‘give reasons’ for all the beauty and truth of their faith.”

Invoking the wisdom of his predecessor, the Holy Father referred to John Paul II’s Letter to Artists, “which invites us to reflect upon … the fruitful dialogue between Holy Scripture and various forms of art, whence countless masterpieces have emerged.” When Christians create works that “render glory unto the Father,” Pope Benedict asserted, they speak of the “goodness and profound truth” that they are portraying, as well as the integrity and sanctity of the artist or author. Knowing how to “read and scrutinize the beauty of works of art inspired by the faith” can lead Christians to a “unique path that brings us close to God and His Word.” This path was itself a means to evangelize the wider culture through the power of beauty and, as such, the Pope urged believers to learn how to “communicate with the language of images and symbols … in order effectively to reach our contemporaries.”

With his customary eloquence and sagacity, the Holy Father has provided the truth that elevates Keats’ poetic epigram to a level beyond mere banality. In an age of rational illiteracy, in which deconstructed man has turned his back contemptuously on truth, the power of beauty still speaks in colors beyond words and thoughts. In an age in which love and goodness have been narcissistically inverted so that all love and goodness are about “me” and not the “other;” an age in which the self-sacrificial heart of true love has been removed and replaced by egocentric counterfeit “loves;” in such an age, beauty still pulsates with healthier passions and nobler desires. 

Even an age that can’t think or love can still be touched by beauty. A sunrise still speaks to the most hardened hearts and arouses feelings of inarticulate gratitude. And gratitude is full of grace, arousing the desire to say “thank you” to someone. Such gratitude is the birth of humility in proud hearts, the birth-pangs of which will break the heart itself. For the proud heart must be broken in order that it might be healed. For, as Oscar Wilde knew all too well, it is only through a broken heart that Lord Christ may enter in. 

Oh, may his beauty break our hearts, so that we may know him truly and so that we may taste and see that he is good. In the name of the Good, the True and the Beautiful. Amen.

This essay first appeared in the St. Austin Review and is republished with permission.