A Defense of Beauty and Excellence from the Classical Tradition

There are many serious problems facing moderns, but one of the most troubling—and worrying—is the loss and degradation of beauty, not just in the arts, but in society as a whole. Classical Greek philosophy, to which Catholic philosophy largely inherited and preserved, maintained that beauty and morality were intertwined with one another. When Christianity began to spread, the Christian encounter with Greek philosophy was largely positive. However, over the last two centuries, the widening chasm between aesthetics and virtue, and the postmodern assertion that aesthetics is oppressive (and therefore needing deconstruction), has brought immeasurable harm to culture and society.

Culture means life. And for life to be truly flourishing in a teleological sense, Greek, Roman, traditional Jewish and Christian philosophy, always affirmed beauty as an integral aspect of the good life. In his masterpiece, Enneads, Plotinus opened his most famous section—on beauty—by writing, “Beauty addresses itself chiefly to sight; but there is a beauty for the hearing too, as in certain combinations of words and in all kinds of music, for melodies and cadences are beautiful; and minds that lift themselves above the realm of sense to a higher order are aware of beauty in the conduct of life, in actions, in character, in the pursuits of the intellect; and there is the beauty of the virtues. What loftier beauty there may be, yet, our argument will bring to light.”

An integral aspect of Plotinus’s overview of beauty is how the understanding of beauty leads to a good conduct in life, human action, and character. As he wrote, “there is the beauty of the virtues.” And Plotinus was a major influence upon St. Augustine. Insofar that Augustine is a philosopher, as most philosophers have long noted, he was a Neoplatonist.

For Plotinus, the coming to know beauty led to one coming into union, or henosis, with beauty itself. This, of course, transformed one’s conduct and character in life. He routinely associates virtue with beauty, “Then again, all the virtues are a beauty of the soul, a beauty authentic beyond any of these others.” The coming to understand beauty, then the coming into union with beauty, shaped one’s conduct and character to defend that which is beautiful against those who would destroy beauty which was a reflection of the “ugly soul.” As Plotinus explains, the ugly lacks a proper cultivation of reason, torn by lust and discord, lashes out and destroys beauty in the process—which also destroys harmony. It is interesting to note that Plotinus associated the ugly soul with the person preoccupied with only material things.

Even before Plotinus, Philo of Alexandria maintained the only true moral good was moral beauty. The understanding and draw to beauty was always a moral endeavor for Philo. The reverse of this was that the only moral evil was the privation of beauty, since the privation of beauty—by definition—would be a privation of goodness since goodness and beauty are intertwined as a whole body. The whole body suffers from the degradation and eventual privation of beauty, denying the body that certain light—a semi-beatific vision—which would otherwise draw all together in desire for the truth that emanates from beauty.

In The Commonwealth, Cicero famously expressed his desire for a mixed government that took the best aspects of the three simple forms of political order: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. When pushed to choose one of the three, however, Cicero chose monarchy. He explained it by articulating that monarchy attracts humans by natural affection and beauty. The monarch, like the father, naturally draws people together in love of beauty, tradition, and ritual. St. Thomas Aquinas, likewise, maintained that there is a natural and affectionate drawing to beauty in monarchy that superseded all other forms of government.

The insistence that beauty draws people together rested upon the classical insight that humans are inherently social animals rather than solitary, weak, and individualistic as Thomas Hobbes or John Locke maintained. Since humans are social animals, made in love and for love—imago Dei—beauty has an essential role in the social relationship. (And love is, by definition, a social phenomenon that involves more than the self.) Beauty is the gateway to truth, since truth is beautiful. Beauty and truth are, by definition, good. As Plotinus ended, “The Good, which lies beyond, is the Fountain at once and Principle of Beauty: the Primal Good and the Primal Beauty have the one dwelling-place and, thus, always, Beauty’s seat is there.”

Catholics, best of all, understand the importance of the union of aesthetics with arête. Beauty, itself, demands a value judgement. There is nothing harsh or unfair with proclaiming this truth. That which is beautiful is good, and that which is ugly, as Plotinus recognized, is neither beautiful nor good. There are natural gradations of beauty. As Augustine explained, the gradations of beauty lift one up closer to Heaven and the Supreme Beauty that is God. This follows the insights of both Plato and Plotinus who recognized that the experience of even low beauty awakens an innate desire for greater beauty that drives one to greater excellence in search for beauty.

The revolutionary outlook of modernity rested in its separation of aesthetics and morality, and in doing so, made both beauty and morality necessarily relative and solipsistic. In its relativism, as Allan Bloom noted in The Closing of the American Mind, a degradation of rational cultivation that had been central to classical philosophy through Catholic philosophy occurred. Rational introspection to arrive at truth is only possible through the fully cultivated intellect, but the spirit of relativism and postmodernism have rendered such notions as impossible to ever attain. Relativism is the great embodiment of anti-intellectualism as Leo Strauss explained in Natural Right and History. And the slip into solipsism and atomizing individualism runs counter to the social and communitarian impulse of human nature and Catholic philosophy.

Cicero equally noted that people in their folly, are prone to destroy things beautiful and admirable. Nihilism is the end result of anti-intellectualism and relativism, not just the mere absence of values but the abject negation—destruction—of beauty and values. Rather than a call to excellence, becoming the beautiful soul as Plotinus explains, one devolves into the ugly soul in a totalizing destruction and deconstructionism—and always in the name of “progress” and “liberation.”

It is the inheritance of the classical marriage of aesthetics and moral excellence that had historically been a cornerstone of not just Catholic philosophy, but Western philosophy more generally—inspiring all aspects of culture: art, music, engineering, and literature, to reflect the highest excellence demanded of beauty itself. And in that beauty there exists an irresistible draw for the virtuous to defend all that is beautiful. The compulsion to defend the beautiful, itself, reflects the moral excellence of the person. The beauty and truth of Greek philosophy, though ultimately incomplete in the fullest sense, was nevertheless a sign that pointed to the truth and beauty of God as the Church Fathers understood.

Beauty brings life to culture and to the soul. The oft repeated phrase “beauty will save the world” is not a cheap consumer tagline. It is, properly speaking, deeply rooted in traditional Catholic philosophy and theology. Beauty calls all to excellence, to cultivate excellence, and to understand excellence. And in the discovery of that excellence and beauty—as Augustine knew—leads to the discovery of self and God simultaneously. T.S. Eliot was right when he said the loss of the classics would spell the slow demise of Christianity, culturally and intellectually.

The continuity and preservation of Catholic culture and philosophy will necessitate the re-promulgation of the classics into the heart of Catholic education and living. The new evangelization should play an important role in this. After all, in Confessions, Augustine stated that reading Virgil and Cicero had brought him to belief in God. Beauty is the brilliance of truth, and as Augustine said, “All truth belongs to God.” And we know where that road ultimately ends.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from Raphael’s “School of Athens” featuring Plotinus.

Paul Krause

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Paul Krause is an M.A. student in theology at Yale University's Divinity School. He holds a B.A. in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.

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