My “Way of Beauty”

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 books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.