Why the World Fears Beauty

I have always wondered why people enjoy scaring themselves, intentionally. Around Halloween, for instance, entertainment-seekers spend good money to have someone frighten them—perhaps by watching a horror movie, or at one of those warehouses filled with demented decorations and actors hired to dress up in hideous disguises and jump out from hidden places to frighten passersby. I would also put some of the so-called “adventure sports” such as sky-diving or bungee jumping in an analogous category. Free-falling from high altitude and being barraged by disturbing sounds and images both elicit the chemical/emotional flight or fight response in the psyche. My theory is that they all aim to give the senses a jolt by subjecting us to an artificial judgment day. Natural fears of dangerous things (the crackle of lightning close by, or the growl of a wild animal in the darkness, for example) are not pleasant, but are certainly exciting, in a sense. We experience fear as something outside of our control, and often beyond our ability to reason through. And so it takes us to our wits’ end, and in a strange way, is thrilling to some. Others naturally recoil from it, and prefer instead to remain in the comfort of a world that is less threatening, at first glance at least.

Beauty does a similar thing. It is on the opposite end of the spectrum as fear, we might say, but is experienced with some of the same emotions, and perhaps for the same reason. Experiences of both fear and beauty tell us that we are in a dangerous place; in the presence of something from which we feel compelled to hide away. Fear and beauty clue us in to strange aspects of reality; awesome things which can sometimes be unsettling to the way we view the world around us, and particularly unsettling to the way we view ourselves. And because, culturally, we have lost sight of the true nature and importance of beauty, we have come to fear it. “As paradoxical as it may seem,” writes Louis Markos in his book, Restoring Beauty, “we are often more afraid of beauty than of ugliness. The latter hides, conceals, distorts; the former uncovers, reveals, clarifies.”

While the postmodern world claims that beauty is in the eye of the beholder (purely subjective), Christians maintain that beauty is a glimpse of reality, which is primarily objective. As such, it serves as a benchmark; a touchstone by which the authenticity of things might be tested. And as such, it is something rejected by those who wish to relativize all instances of choice or creativity. “Lest any voices or forms of self-expression be stifled,” contends Markos, “all traditional standards of beauty are debunked; in order that those lacking imagination not be made to feel any lesser, such emotions as wonder, awe, and reverence are consistently deflated.”

Matthew Arnold famously claimed that culture is what helps the world to get out of the major difficulties it faced in his age, and continues to face in ours. He defined this thing called culture as “a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said.” Unfortunately, the more common postmodern response to contemporary problems has been to try harder and harder to forget the best of which has been thought and said, or perhaps to distort it to support whatever cultural zeitgeist is holding sway at the moment. Erase it from memory, pretend it to be something different (self-styled, or course), or, better yet, pretend it never existed in the first place, and cannot possibly exist at all. The transcendentals, for example, can and should be those realities which regulate and unite all people and efforts of goodwill. Instead, those of ill will have sought to make them irrelevant, impotent, and even ugly.

 

In Restoring Beauty, Louis Markos draws deeply upon C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia as an exposition, or more accurately, a transposition, of what happens when societies first depreciate, then resent, and finally attempt to conceal beauty. In Prince Caspian, for example, the villainous Telmarines had discouraged and even prevented people from looking out over the sea, because in all the old stories, Aslan had been said to come from over the sea. So they let great woods grow to separate men from the coast, and taught that there were ghosts or demons in the woods to make men afraid to walk through them. Narnians subjected to the new world order could never encounter Aslan if they were never put in touch with the way by which he communicated himself. Truth, Beauty, Justice … Dangerous things for social engineers determined to enforce their own ideology, at the expense of faith and tradition. Dangerous things too for those who live in their own self-made shadows; preferring the darkness to the light.

According to Markos, Lewis was not only a great apologist and fiction writer, he was a great psychologist. “He understood, as so few have,” wrote Markos of Lewis, “that the aversion for fairy tales was as much a defense mechanism as it was an aesthetic preference.” We have created what Markos calls “the cult of the ugly” as a way to shield ourselves, individually, from the truthful demands of beauty, and collectively, from the power that beauty has to undermine the control structures created by the modern state. Markos reminds us that while all evil plans are ultimately based on disorder, they often use order (always coercive, sometimes external and blatant, other times more subtly through persuasion) as a way to take hold of people and communities. “There are many religious folk,” he writes, “who wrongly believe that the satanic ideal for mankind is a Friday night dance hall in New Orleans. It is not so. The devil, that inveterate hater of our humanity, would like nothing more than to convert our world into a single, giant anthill.”

So, will a resurgence in the desire for beauty cure our present malady of selfishness, subjectivism, and moral decline? Maybe, maybe not. Like fear, responses to beauty can be either for good or ill. Fear can elicit courage, but also foolhardiness. It can be accompanied by a healthy excitement, but also dementia and perversion. We can be inspired to meet our fear with fortitude, or to cower away in pusillanimity. Beauty, too, can prompt either positive or negative responses. We may respond to it by opening ourselves up to the greater goods, perhaps even to the greatest of all goods. Or we may respond to it by bending exclusively to it as an idol, and ultimately in upon ourselves in self-worship. Matthew Arnold himself fell prey to the modern tendency to pursue culture for its own sake, rather than for the glory of God.

Markos puts it this way:

We are all inbuilt with a longing for Goodness, Truth, and Beauty, but we must beware lest we seek them as ends in themselves. Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters yearn to live in a rich palace; Cinderella too desires this, but only because the palace is the setting for her true desire: to be one with the prince that dwells there. When we reject the good, the true, and the beautiful, we grow bent, when we seek them as ends in themselves, we stagnate.

St. James seems to have this sort of abuse in mind as he reprimands the audience of his Epistle: you have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure; you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter (Jas 5:5). Wealth is not inherently evil, and can readily be used for the good. But it becomes evil as an end in itself, and, as James described, will devour your flesh like a fire. The good things around us are sometimes the most dangerous, as our attraction to them can easily turn to sinful temptation, and our healthy delight in them to disordered vice. A proper immersion in the transcendentals must always revolve around the worship of God as its center, with pursuits of beauty, truth, and justice oriented ever towards him. If not, we destroy beauty by cutting it off from its source, and by exalting it as an idol. Doing so distorts it; disfiguring it so badly that it becomes unrecognizable, and we too shrivel away with it.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is English poet and literary critic Matthew Arnold (1822-1888).

Dusty Gates

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Dusty Gates currently serves as the Director of Adult Education at the Spiritual Life Center for the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, KS, and as an adjunct Professor of Theology at Newman University in Wichita, KS, where he resides with his wife and three children.

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