Once upon a time in the Western world, exposure to “the beautiful” was an important element in the development and formation of men. The ideal man was also an educated man, and an educated man knew something about, and appreciated, good art, good music, good literature, and good taste (and perhaps also good wine). The Romantics of the nineteenth century added to this resume a man who had the capacity to be intoxicated by the beauty of nature. Many of the great works of art and music of that time period reflect this. Then there was the “gentleman” who valued beauty in speech and in writing, even if his language sometimes descended into a dry, mechanic artificiality.
By contrast, today’s tech-savvy, fast-food fed, materialistic West places more emphasis on money, things, efficiency, and instant gratification, and as a result the importance formerly placed on that seemingly impractical entity referred to by dusty old philosophers, intellectuals, and artists as “the beautiful” has greatly diminished. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen captured this modern mentality well when he said that “Saints are impractical; artists and philosophers are impractical. The world has room for only the practical.” Who today, in the hustle and bustle of modern life, has the need for a quiet walk through woods in the early morning just as the sun begins to pierce through the fog and nature’s symphony is at its peak? Complicating matters even more is the irony that the modern man, in his attempt to “protect” his “manliness,” shies away from any lengthy talk about “the beautiful” in a floppy attempt to protect his masculine toughness—while in reality demonstrating just how shaky that masculinity really is.
Despite this, it is as true today as ever that encountering and contemplating beauty should be an integral part of the formation of men, and especially of Catholic men. This is because, first of all, beauty helps to direct the male drive to aggression and fighting to a worthy end. It is often the case in the animal kingdom that the male is more aggressive, more inclined to fight, and heavier built than the female. These characteristics are also generally found in our own species. Because of this, in both the animal and human domains it is usually the male who takes up the role of primary guardian and protector. As an example of the human male’s stronger inclination to aggression and fighting, we can refer to the fact that men have traditionally dominated highly aggressive sports, even in societies influenced by modern feminism. A survey of the athletic departments of American colleges and universities will show that almost every sport has both a male team and a female team … with the notable exception of football.
This stronger inclination to fighting is not, in itself, automatically directed to either good or evil. It has the potential to go either way. It can be directed to good, as in the case of fighting to defend one’s country against unjust aggression, or to evil, as in the cases of murder, rape, and other acts of unjust violence.
Beauty here enters the picture by helping to direct this male inclination to aggression and fighting to a worthy end. This is because real beauty is always found wherever there is truth and goodness, and it strengthens the attraction these other two values exert on the human person. It moves a man to defend whatever is good and true. The beautiful maiden is a potent spell which carries the knight into the field of battle. It can be said that there is no one the enemy should fear more than a man who enters into battle with his lady in his heart. Beauty makes men fighters because it first makes them lovers.
Beauty also teaches men to appreciate the being of things rather than merely their utility. The strong male tendency to deal with problems in a more or less logical, strategic, categorical manner can cause being to recede into the shadow in favor of an almost exclusive focus on that being’s usefulness and practical purpose. Beauty counters this tendency and reveals something as worthwhile simply because it exists and because it is what it is. A man who has been pierced by the beauty of his bride will die for her not because his death will be of any practical use to himself, but because through her beauty (not just physical but also personal and spiritual) he has seen through a window to her intrinsic value and to the fact that she is worth dying for simply because she exists and is who she is.
On a lighter note, another result of this tendency of beauty to put being into relief is the aversion many people feel to touching something beautiful. Unnecessarily messing with a well-decorated Christmas tree seems to do violence to its “immaculate perfection.” Walking out into the newly-fallen first snow of winter is done with regret, since it destroys the picturesque scenery of that “winter wonderland” which greeted the early riser. In all of this beauty turns our attention from something’s utility and practical use to the wonder of the thing itself.
A third reason for beauty’s importance in male formation is that it reveals and brings to life another level of existence beyond mere survival—this being the spiritual domain. Man is not a mere brute. Animals eat, drink, and sleep to live, and pretty much live to eat, drink, and sleep. The caveman of old, on the other hand, though having much of his time consumed with procuring the necessities of life, still found time to produce works of art, such as the stunning cave paintings found in Lascaux, France. It is partly because of this drive for a more fully human life that has led to the emergence of civilizations, economies, and the division of labor. The human person is simply not satisfied with a circular existence of seeking out and procuring the necessities of life in order to merely go on seeking out and procuring the necessities of life.
This being the case, men, as the traditional providers of the family, can easily get caught up in a careerist mindset and become over-immersed in the temporal necessities of life. In addition, modern education has shifted from an emphasis on the liberal arts (a traditional venue for introducing people to the beautiful) to an often exclusive focus on career-oriented education. We are rapidly becoming a society of animals, where serving our needs and our wants is the over-arching narrative of our existence.
It is the role of beauty to shake men out of this mundane existence (or, to borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis when he was referring to joy, to “administer the shock”) by making them confront a reality above and far more wonderful than a life of simply existing. Ultimately, beauty is a pointer directing us to the reality of the Beatific Vision. This vision will ultimately be an experience of simply taking in the beauty and wonder of the Triune God. In an analogous sense, it is an experience like a couple who from time to time simply want to sit and gaze at each other, taking in the being of the other. Such an experience does not really have a practical or survival purpose. Still, it is experiences like this that are arguably the most fully human, and which remind us that we, as human beings, do not live by bread alone.
The practical question now arises as to how to integrate this exposure to beauty into the formation of men. This task falls partly on the men themselves, and also on those charged with the formation of boys and men (whether this formation be educational, spiritual, liturgical, or cultural). For those involved in education, this means giving the liberal arts a certain pride of place, even while also ensuring that students receive a practical, career-oriented education at the same time. Cultural formation, while acknowledging the importance of popular culture, will also entail exposure to the greatest works of the human spirt. Boys and men should also be encouraged to leave the computer, IPad, and video games behind and go out and experience the greater thrill of nature and the outdoor life. Finally, Catholic men who are preparing to be ordained to the priesthood will see it as their mission to celebrate mass in such a way as to give their congregation a glimpse of the transcendent beauty of God.
Exposure to beauty is a necessary component of the formation of men as men. As the boys and men of today are setting the stage for a disturbing future course of manhood through the proliferation violent video games and movies, pornography, consumerism, and materialism, the time has come to “administer the shock” of beauty by revealing to the world the radiance of truth and goodness. There is an element of truth to Dostoevsky’s famous line that “Beauty will save the world.”
Editor’s note: The illustration above painted by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale appeared in The Book of Old English Songs & Ballads (ca. 1920).