The Catholic Thing
My “Way of Beauty” Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 06 January 2014

There’s a lot of talk these days about “The Way of Beauty” and even about more ambitious projects like “the re-enchantment of the world” – by everyone from casual bloggers to the Holy Father in Evangelii Gaudium.

Indeed, one of the smartest – and wisest – of living men, Benedict XVI, wrote in his profound essay “Wounded by the Arrow of Beauty” that at the end a concert of Bach cantatas, which he attended with a Lutheran bishop, they spontaneously turned to one another and said, “Anyone who has heard this knows that the faith is true.”

I think I know what he’s getting at. But at the same time, most classical musicians and concertgoers, I suspect, are what Schleiermacher called “cultured despisers of religion.” And if you ran through living composers, painters, sculptors, novelists, poets, I fear you’d mostly find the same thing.

Only a philistine could be against Beauty or enchantment as such, but even though I’m attracted to the effort – and have even walked that way in my own life – I’m also worried that it will run aground in our culture. Let me explain.

The French poet Charles Péguy, one of the most sheerly fascinating Catholic brains of the twentieth century, once wrote in his poem Eve (almost 20,000 lines long), the last eighty pages of which describe all the things we will not need on our deathbeds:

It will not be an Aristotelian who slips
Under those thick laurel trees,
And it will not be his thin lips
That will give us the kiss of peace.
Quite other lips, a bit more Catholic
Will plant the kiss on our cheeks
A hand less blind, more apostolic,
Will find us beneath the broad beech.

We may not need Aristotle on our deathbeds, but we will need him – or someone very like him – on most other days of our lives. The world has been trying to live off fellow feeling for the past fifty years and more, and the result has not been enlightening  

James Joyce, though a lapsed Catholic, claimed to read one page of Aquinas every day, in Latin, to keep his mind sharp. He descended into hundreds of pages of impenetrable wordplay in Finnegan’s Wake, after several truly beautiful earlier books. So it’s debatable whether the tonic works. But it’s not hard to see that something like that might be quite useful.

J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, for example, both very popular and influential even today, certainly introduce us to great and unsuspected beauties, and even helped lead us towards the re-enchantment of the world that our digital society so badly needs. But it also needs something more.

When I asked myself what and why recently, the answer hit me like a ton of bricks – and since it’s my own story I’m surprised it took me so long to realize it.

        Dante’s Dream, Canto XIX by Salvador Dali, 1963

When I was a freshman in college and home for Easter break, my younger brother – then in a minor seminary – gave me a copy of the old John Ciardi translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. It bowled me over. After a few hours upstairs reading, I went down to talk to him:

“Well, what do you think?”

“I think I’m an Aristotelian.”

I spent the better part of the next decade trying to absorb the philosophical and theological concepts you need to understand Dante. In a great books seminar sponsored by our Faith & Reason Institute a few years ago, I recounted this story. A very sharp female theologian gasped and said, “My God, he really means it.”  It seemed incredible to her that someone would go from the beauties of Dante’s poem to philosophy and theology, rather than the reverse.

But without something like that desire to know what beauty invites us to, where would we be? I’m not trying to reduce beauty to some moralistic or utilitarian function. On the contrary, after thirty years now of studying and contemplating the Divine Comedy, I’m happy to say that it remains an inexhaustible mystery – on a higher level – mystery being where all good religious thought should finally lead.

But a problem remains. In the Purgatorio, Dante dreams of a beautiful woman:

She ‘gan to sing so, that with difficulty
Could I have turned my thoughts away from her.

“I am,” she sang, “I am the 
Siren sweet
Who mariners amid the main unman,
So full am I of pleasantness to hear.

I drew 
Ulysses from his wandering way
Unto my song, and he who dwells with me
Seldom departs so wholly I content him.”

Her mouth was not yet closed again, before
Appeared a 
Lady saintly and alert
Close at my side to put her to confusion.

“Virgilius, O Virgilius! who is this?”
Sternly she said; and he was drawing near
With eyes still fixed upon that modest one.

She seized the other and in front laid open,
Rending her garments, and her belly showed me;
This waked me with the stench that issued from it.
This, of course, is a classic dilemma: when is what appears beautiful a reflection of the divine – and when is it a Siren’s song?

This is more than a theoretical question for specialists in philosophy or theology. Especially at the present moment, when we are being encouraged by Pope Francis to be pastoral and more kindly towards others, how do we decide what is pastoral and kind? Because of what our untutored hearts tell us?

There are two sides to this claim. One, famously, Pascal: “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.” The other, Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Who can know it?” (Recent official translations, by the way, soft-pedal this older realism.)

The answer is that the one who made the heart knows it, and when those hearts are opened by Beauty to the fullness of faith and reason, which can become idols themselves, Dostoyevsky may be right: “Beauty will save the world.”

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the Westnow available in paperback from Encounter Books.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (9)Add Comment
written by Keith A. Elkins, January 06, 2014
From Mr. E. 2003: Manifest Lessons From Ohio's Bicentennial Celebration Elkins, 2011, iUniverse--

From my own philosophical study, I recognized the swelling theory of relativism underlying such contemporary forms of reasoning that traded dignity for despair (relative is from the Latin refero, implying a reference to many, not to one). The assumptions of this self-refuting school of thought were more often concealed with politically-correct nicknames—positivism, materialism, skepticism, naturalism, instrumentalism, pragmatism, progressivism, constructivism, intellectual secularism, and postmodernism. Indeed, since the dawn of the philosophical tradition, the protagonists of relativism argued for each individual’s opinion as the measure of truth. Nothing was absolute except the idea that nothing was absolute (mind the ambiguity). Whereas philosophy, theology, and anthropology emphasized the mystery of human dignity and human rights—the rationalistic or relativistic theories ultimately reduced the nature of man to the result of chance, circumstance, or chemical chaos. Such outcomes did not address the natural desire within every rational mind that seeks reliable answers to the origin of being (esse) as such. The inquiry of reason could view mystery either upon the shoulders of giants, or from the depths of a dark abyss.

Reason is our soul's left hand, Faith her right,
By these we reach divinity.
But as though squint lefthandedness
Be ungracious, yet we cannot want that hand,
So would I, not to increase, but to express
My faith, as I believe, so understand"
(Donne, 1896, 15).
written by Martin, January 06, 2014
"Royal's Wake",
But a good article...especially after the 2nd read.
written by Andrew Seeley, January 06, 2014
Excellent points. Do you have any thoughts on why so many cultured musicians and concertgoers despise religion? Do they think their experiences of beauty place them above the constraints of religion?

I think the emphasis on the need to promote beauty comes from a perception that many, many people, including many artists, writers, etc., experience the world and their lives as ugly, yet they do not see that beautiful lives are possible at all. In their case, the truth cannot matter, since it is only another form of ugliness.
written by Avery Tödesuhl, January 06, 2014
One of the reasons that "the way of Beauty" is so ambiguous these days is precisely because the popular aesthetics which dominates our society has little use for Aristotle, and consequently, St. Thomas Aquinas. Instead subjectivist theories abound and, especially among Evangelicals who try to go this route, they end up with a very troubling relation between art, humanity and God. It's exactly what Blessed John Henry Newman sarcastically critiqued all those years ago in "The Idea of the University":

"... his religion is one of imagination and sentiment; it is the embodiment of those ideas of the sublime, majestic, and beautiful, without which there can be no large philosophy. Sometimes he acknowledges the being of God, sometimes he invests an unknown principle or quality with the attributes of perfection. And this deduction of his reason, or creation of his fancy, he makes the occasion of such excellent thoughts, and the starting-point of so varied and systematic a teaching, that he even seems like a disciple of Christianity itself. From the very accuracy and steadiness of his logical powers, he is able to see what sentiments are consistent in those who hold any religious doctrine at all, and he appears to others to feel and to hold a whole circle of theological truths, which exist in his mind no otherwise than as a number of deductions."
written by Robert Royal, January 06, 2014
Martin: MOI?

And Andrew: It's probably a combination of factors, but let's just say that in the nineteenth century, the Romantic sought to escape the esprit de geometrie of rationalism. So many of the great composers and musicians - and the concertgoers - had a confused but real sense of transcendence in Beauty. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, I think many more people assume that the question has been settled against transcendence, difficult to say why. But we're still escaping the deadly geometry, only the escape can't get outside this world.
written by Craig Payne, January 06, 2014
I admit it--I am a pedantic nitpicker--so it's "Finnegans Wake," not "Finnegan's."

Otherwise, excellent article. Your story about reading Dante happened to me, too. (Also with Ciardi's translation!) It turned into truly a spiritual experience, and remains so, even after all these years.
written by CCR from Buenos Aires, January 06, 2014
The geometrie of rationalism was a bad imitation of the logical matrix underlying the reality of Creation. In reacting against that, the Romantics jumped from the pan to the fire. The whole universe is fraught with rhythms and symmetries that reveal the primal order that comes from God's mind. The ancient artists knew that their art was a sort of liturgy that revealed God's order. They knew that all art has to elevate the people, getting them closer to God. Art is the process of revealing that hidden order to the human senses. That is why we are moved by old Greek and Roman temples but the Bauhaus atrocities elicit sadness and despair in so many. Even Marx was surprised by the way English women could be emotionally moved by an old piece of Greek drama (Trojan Women.) Our flight from the Classic aesthetic ideals gradually plunged the whole culture into chaos, right now the disorder has reached even morals and also the Church liturgy that once seemed impervious to the effect of those evil forces. In the beginning of Creation "the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep" that is brought into order and light by God. We live in an era when art consists in destroying order while blinding humanity to the marvelous symmetries of God's creation sending the human intellect deeper and deeper into darkness.
written by Santiago, January 06, 2014
You can't compare the use of heart in Pascal with the biblical use of it in the book of Jeremiah specifically without doing a lot of hermeneutical work. You can't just equate the two terms simply without analysis. How would you square Jeremiah with St Paul then, who tells us of truths known in the heart? Also, why does everyone leave out the second part of that line from Pascal: "The heart has its reasons which reason itself does not know: we know that through countless things." Also, the fragment continues: "I saw that the heart loves the universal being naturallly, and itself naturally, according to its own choice." But that choice is based upon the criteria for choice that the heart itself has. It just has to learn to follow them.

I would say that it learns to follow them by being guided by true beauty. This is the intuition that Plato has in the Symposium, and it is preserved in the Christian tradition starting (at least) with Augustine.

There's nothing to fear, in either Beauty or Pope Francis.
written by Dan, January 18, 2014
As a classical musician and practicing Catholic, I'll try to speak generally for composers, painters, sculptors, novelists, and poets, and also answer Andrew's questions, "Do you have any thoughts on why so many cultured musicians and concertgoers despise religion? Do they think their experiences of beauty place them above the constraints of religion?" Truthfully, we are so immersed in the incredibly difficult task of making beauty, so lost in its demanding intricacies of craftsmanship, so taken up with the demanding relationship between weak mind, weak body, and the production of the sublime, that we often lose any sense of wonder, of religious awe, at that which we have done. I think many artists are deeply religious in a sense, but we have grown tired from constructing the mosaic of the face of God, one tiny tile at a time. I count myself blessed that I can still occasionally weep and shake over that in which I'm involved. Beauty is natural to God but hard work to men, and if we artists, walking haggard and bloody down the street after a day of sausage-making, seem to sneer at you in your upscale sausage restaurant, it's not for the lack of religious impulse.

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