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02 March 2013

Emulation: III.1

Beauty, Goodness, and Truth. In that order.

Virtual visit to the Sistine Chapel (accompanied by Palestrina):
Few philosophers would arrange the three attributes of Wisdom—beauty, goodness, and truth—in that order, as it presumes a hierarchy that ranks them in the reverse of intellectual seriousness, or turns them inside out in terms of moral purpose. However, during this (hopefully) brief papal interregnum, I thought it wouldn’t be out of place to offer a lonely voice for the importance of Beauty.

Of course, the Romantic poet Keats proclaimed “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” but that equivocal conflating of the two gets us nowhere. And if, for St. Paul, “the greatest of these is love,” both truth and beauty must take a back seat to goodness in any discussion of our life’s ends and means. But need beauty be relegated to last place in every case, where most moderns would put it? Many, indeed, would leave it off the list altogether, like an arch-neoclassicist shunning the Corinthian order. But if a preference for truth can lead us to a false choice between orthodoxy or apostasy, and for goodness can valorize the merely sincere, can’t beauty be seen to have left us instead with the most enduring legacy of Western Christian culture of the three?

Is it wrong that so many go to Rome not to see the pope, but the Sistine ceiling? Isn't the problem there that the experience ends with mere aesthetic satisfaction, which is a long way from Michelangelo Buonarotti’s transcendent reasons for Beauty?

For all of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s human weaknesses, his Madonna di Loreto (with its dirty-footed pilgrims) resonates more profoundly for so many with a tenuous grasp on their faith than any theological truth. And it is not the artist’s sincerity that made it so, but his ability. Surely he had affection for the image of simple devotion that he depicted; but he made that image transcendently beautiful. It is through that illuminated window that the light of revelation passes.

North transept of Ss. Martina e Luca
the church of the Roman academy of artists
If we privileged Beauty, as we once did, we would make a more humane world. We could resolve irresolvable differences, inspire affection and devotion, and be confident of a lasting effect on the world. If we valued Beauty we would want to know it as well as make it; we would indeed believe it was knowable, possible, and necessary. If Italy and Rome make any sense as the home of the papacy, it is not for any particular locks on truth or goodness, but because of their beauty. It is a beauty that encouraged artists and academies to emulate the best; public beauty made the divine an accessible thing, freely available to all; greengrocers patronized their collegiate church with ornament and art, celebrating their pride in producing what everyone needed to survive.

We might think that beauty is over-valorized in our superficial culture, but what passes for beauty today is simply the attractive. Instead, how often do we read the word “ornate” as saddled with implicit condemnation? To “embellish”—which means to make more beautiful—is usually considered pejorative, a masking of the sincere and plain. By equating beauty with truth we have burdened it with moral weight it was never meant to bear. Beauty is not truth, and truth is not goodness. They are all important for the good life, but they should not be conflated. If we suffer the lack of any of them today, I would argue it is the former.
Madona dell'Orto in Trastevere, Rome
the church of the greengrocers and other trades
from the wikipedia page: gli Ortolani e Pizzicaroli, fondatori; i Fruttaroli; i Sensali di Ripa, mediatori dei commerci locali; i Molinari - e si capisce, data l'importanza dei mulini sul Tevere nel rifornimento di farine; i Vermicellari, produttori di paste alimentari; i Pollaroli; gli Scarpinelli (ciabattini); i Vignaioli; e i "giovani", garzoni e lavoranti di diverse università

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