The End of Beauty — And We’re Not Talking Teleologically Here!

Devon, PA.  Many readers at FPR have been kind enough to take an interest in my ongoing — truly, ongoing — series, Art and Beauty Against the Politicized Aesthetic.  At long last, the series comes to a close, with Part VII.

I began the series with the relatively modest intention of interpreting a troubling phenomenon: most of us recognize the failure of conservative thinkers and of the supposed conservative movement as a whole to abate or even to influence the cultural decline of the West.  The institutional triumphs of the Reagan era were accompanied by something of a conservative cultural trend (those of us in early youth at that time can testify to its effects in all kinds of minute ways; for my own part, I swore always to appear in public in a proper suit and tie — an elementary school student’s vow to which I have held true in my adult professional life), and many readers will recall the confident assertions of Russell Kirk about liberalism’s fall into the “sere and yellow leaf” — a serious about-face for a man who had once intended to call his book The Conservative Mind by the much unhappier name, The Route of the Conservatives.  But these cultural changes were slight in comparison to the transformation the conservative movement visibly wrought in the political arena — and, of course, the meaning, nature, and consequences of that impact have now come into serious question on this site, in The American Conservative, and elsewhere.

Thus, November 2008 called into question not merely the vitality of conservatism in America, but its contents and its validity as a movement.  My series began with an attempt to contribute to the doubtful revisions by pointing out the neglect of serious attention to the broader culture beyond the beltway, save in passing and targeted indigination at the proscription of prayer in public schools and other serious but, again, limited matters.  I then sought to provide a meaningful account of the function of the fine arts and the reality of beauty by turning to the thought of the Marxist social theory, Theodor W. Adorno, and to the neo-Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain.  My concluding installment draws Maritain’s philosophy of beauty into a larger context and tries to set forth clearly why on the broadest possible level — that of knowledge — we must take Beauty more seriously as a transcendental property of being.  I conclude the series with two arguments:

First, when the Schoolmen listed the transcendental properties of being—if they did so at all—they ordered them as follows: unity, truth, goodness, and beauty. One first perceives the singular “it-ness” of a thing; then that it can be known as a form; then its worth and function (its good or end); and finally its goodness as a form, its beauty. Without calling into question this ordering, I would suggest that in experience there is no significant temporal differentiation between the perception of these ontologically identical but conceptually different properties. Beauty therefore stands out as the most “inclusive” of the transcendentals, containing all the rest and drawing them into conceptual relation (or proportion). Taking some license with his Scholastic sources, Maritain says much the same thing in a problematic formulation: “Strictly speaking, Beauty is the radiance of all the transcendentals united.” If this is true, then the more we approach perfect knowledge of the reality of a being, the closer we come to its beauty. But also, because beauty is a property of the form of every being, it seems reasonable to argue that it is contemporary with the truth and goodness of a thing; because it is so directly tied to the perception rather than the knowledge (the naming) of a form, it may even, in our experience, seem to come first. Thus, we are left with the possibility that beauty bespeaks both the first perception of a reality and the fullness of knowledge of that thing as good.

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