Don’t Sneer at Truth, Beauty and Goodness — You Were Made for Such Things

It is supremely closed-minded to throw away Homer and Mozart and Augustine.

Vassili Vladimirovich Pukiryov, “In the Artist’s Studio,” 1865
Vassili Vladimirovich Pukiryov, “In the Artist’s Studio,” 1865 (photo: Public Domain)

Professor, music historian and composer Robert Greenberg once received a letter from a musician urging him to give up the traditional and classical repertoire in favor of more modern music. The primary reason? To remain relevant to audiences today. In a course lecture on opera, Greenberg replies:

If we as a culture, as a civilization, cannot understand and appreciate and assimilate as our own the crystalline life-force and truth in the best art of our past, what does it say about us here today? Is Mozart’s extraordinary insight into the human condition irrelevant to us because it was a product of imperialistic Europe? Or are some of us today just culturally and intellectually unworthy of it?

The constant push toward remaining relevant comes from a desire to communicate with people or draw people in by accommodating to current tastes, trends and fashions. In order to speak to people who speak a different language, it is necessary to learn that language. So it seems necessary to learn and know the fashions and trends of the culture in order to speak with them.

So it becomes a question of what is relevant to the people in our culture. In other words, what is applicable or meaningful to them? But there is a difference between what they think is applicable and meaningful and what is objectively applicable and meaningful. Professor Greenberg refers to the “crystalline life-force and truth” and “insight into the human condition.” These are things that don’t depend on taste but are true in and of themselves to all humans in every age; they form the foundation for the language we all speak. Human nature has not changed — only human tastes. The nature of the human person, as a rational animal, as a being made for truth and goodness and beauty, is the same now as it was in the time of Mozart, Aquinas, Plato and Homer. 

It is true that the relevance of the classics in literature, philosophy and art does not belong to our age. It did not belong to the ages in which they were produced. Their relevance does not belong to any particular age because they are relevant to all ages. Truth and goodness and beauty are  timeless not because they belong to no time but because they belong to all time. 

It is human nature to desire truth, goodness and beauty, and those are relevant to all humans in every culture, in every country, in every age.

In the context of philosophy, Mortimer Adler wrote, “It cannot be too often repeated that philosophy is everyone’s business. To be a human being is to be endowed with the proclivity to philosophize.” Why? Because “the possession of truth is the ultimate good of the human mind.” 

If there are some books and works of art that have endured the test of time, it is because they have been relevant to the human person, to these ultimate goods which we all seek. It is because they engage in discussions relevant to all ages, not the passing fads of the day. 

The classics are the foundation of the works of today. They provide the very tools and vocabulary we use. Even Isaac Newton acknowledged that he was not working in isolation, but instead that he was like a dwarf standing on the shoulders of giants.

It is ironic that a culture that emphasizes diversity and multiculturalism would be so quick to dismiss the classics that come from the foreign countries of the past and from cultures that espouse some very different views and values. It is not an act of open-mindedness to throw away Homer and Mozart and Augustine. 

If truth, goodness and beauty are the enduring subjects and the focus of the enduring questions and are desired by all humans in every age and culture, it is because those all find their source in God. God himself is truth, goodness and beauty. They are the same thing, but they are experienced by humans through different capacities. In the end, the nature and existence of God is the most relevant question. There is nothing that makes a bigger difference to our lives than whether or not God exists and what he is like.

Aristotle wrote that man by nature desires to know. The implication is that someone who does not desire the truth, he is not truly a man. If someone does not desire beauty, then that someone is not fully human. Professor Greenberg, in the context of a discussion about opera, puts it this way: “If Mozart and Gluck and Wagner and Puccini and Monteverdi are dead art, I would suggest we have all forgotten how to properly live.” If we want truth, goodness and beauty, then the best place to begin is the works that have, through many ages, been regarded as their sources.