Monday, September 05, 2022


The thing about D.C. Schindler -- yeah, he's a Catholic, and yeah, my list of problems with Catholicism is as long as your arm -- but the thing about Schindler is that his philosophy places beauty right square at the center of life, as the dynamic heart of experience and intelligence.

I've grown up in a world that views beauty as an option, an ornament, something you can dabble in at the end of the day if your serious work is done: a matter of private taste, with no objective importance or reality. This view is so obviously and immediately wrong, to me, that all the philosophies undergirding it -- which includes all the ones I encountered in my youth -- struck me as obviously and immediately wrong. Or at least irrelevant. I don't know much, but I do know that beauty is the center of life, not its periphery. It's not an inert thing you titillate yourself with from time to time: it starts things, it precipitates thought and action. It is the fundamental experience of orientation. How can you tell if you're faced in the right direction? If you're perceiving beauty. Life is, in some ways, as simple as that.

I think Plato and the Neoplatonists could have helped me think through this, if I had met them in auspicious circumstances, but I met Plato early as The Man Who Is Wrong About Everything, and I never met the Neoplatonists at all. The closest I got to them was the C.S. Lewis of The Abolition of Man, or the G.K. Chesterton of Orthodoxy (and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, though I was slow in recognizing it.) Religious conservatives were to me simply the Enemy in those days: the people whose philosophy found its fullest expression in napalming little girls in faraway countries: the gulf was just too wide to cross. And in those days I believed in the redemptive power of Freedom and Socialism: let them work their magic, and beauty, as the natural state of things, would follow as a matter of course. (I suppose I still subscribe to Freedom and Socialism, in some of the stricter political senses of those words, but I no longer believe either one can save us, or make our world significantly more meaningful or beautiful. They're just political strategies to me, now.)

So while I found Lewis and Chesterton and Tolkien weirdly attractive, and I thought their critique of modern habits of thought was in some ways persuasive, I still didn't really, finally, take them seriously. They were a side-street in my mind, a lane I found myself turning into over and over, even though I knew that it couldn't lead anywhere. 

But now, with Schindler -- by way of John Vervaeke -- it suddenly seems to me this street does lead somewhere. I kept turning here because it was, in fact, the direction in which I wanted to go. I don't need to become a Catholic to take truth and beauty seriously. Lots of people have taken truth and beauty seriously. More of them than haven't, actually.

I'm not saying that "beauty" can stand in for "goodness." Beauty is an intimation, and it can be a misleading one. It suggests that there is something to be understood, that there is a form and a structure and a logic to something, even though I can't immediately grasp it; but of course I can mistakenly think I have grasped it, and embrace things that are bad because I have misunderstood. This happens all the time: in fact it might be fair to call that mistaken grasp the stuff of daily life. Some traditions lay so much stress on the delusiveness of beauty that they reject it altogether. But I think that's ridiculous. A person who is blind to beauty is blind, period. There is no other place to start.


Anonymous said...

I am reminded of thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul. Listening and reading him profoundly changed my approach to my environment
But somehow that lovely place has slipped from awareness
And I want it back.

Sabine said...

One of Plato's fictional dialogues, a debate between his teacher Socrates and a guy called Hippias, a local guru at the time in Athens if you wish, was all about beauty or rather what is beauty and what's its importance. It's where this popular internet meme springs form that tells us that "all beautiful things are difficult" (chalepa ta kala). It's been awhile, 50 years to be exact, since I had to plough through this with my sleep-deprived teenage mind, but I remember quite well that the debate was about what could be seen as beauty and the two covered all sorts from gorgeous virgins to artful statues to education in decency and holding noble thoughts and doing the right deeds in political life. They failed to agree on what beauty is but if my memory serves me, they - or rather: Plato - considered it too great and important to man (always men for Plato) to give it just the one silly meaning.