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

Because Maritain was anxious to preserve beauty from the conceptual, he could not fully appreciate the consequences of this: our encounter with reality comes to us as fully and with as much validity in terms of beauty as it does in terms of truth and goodness. As such, arguments from beauty ought to have greater binding force on us than our culture likes to acknowledge. I will say something even bolder: they in fact do have such force on us, but because we, as a culture, suspect beauty, we tend to have no way to explain this power except in terms of misleading clichés about rhetorical “artifice,” “superficiality,” and “image.” The modern age routinely denies the existence of things simply by denying itself a vocabulary to express them, but if we would be true to reality, above all the reality of our experience, we would acknowledge that much of our lives are formed and moved by the perceptions of the beautiful. Proportion is to beauty what reasoning (ratio) is to truth; if this entails that beauty has little logical weight, it also entails that it has a claim on us as real, and so teaches us about reality by distinct but equally strong means. John Keats was correct to declare, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” but not for the reasons he suspected.

A keen sense of the various proportions that contribute to the beautiful is thus necessary if one is to understand what is real. A mere aestheticism that prizes only the sensuously beautiful truth, or a “politicized aesthetic” that registers only the beautiful as noble, serve as just two instances of a myopia before the real. Our culture thus lies to itself in denying the reality of beauty and barbarizes and shallows its intellect in treating aesthetic education as unimportant to the formation of a complete human being. Within that culture, conservatives willfully fragment its sensibility and everyday life by treating only certain modes of beauty as relevant, while liberals perform an even more radical disservice to the society they purport to help “progress” by scouring the public realm of the claims of the beautiful in an effort to reconstruct society along isolated, desiccated, and often perverse forms of rationality.

Though the burden of my argument has been to make a defense of art and beauty in an age and culture that minimizes, deprecates, or denies their function, we arrive now at a second consequence of the reality of beauty that extends well beyond works of fine art. Rather, we arrive back at the concept I mentioned near the beginning of this essay, that of the political aesthetic. Because the beautiful is the mode of our perceptions and our deepest knowledge, it must be one way of knowing that would inform our conceptions of ethical and political life. When we think ethically, we are asking ourselves questions about what a good life looks like—what is its form. So, too, on a wider scale with politics: political speculation tries to imagine the desirable form of communal life. No society can understand itself without understanding and seeking its proper form, and so no society can exist without being graspable primarily in terms of beauty. Such was the insight of Edmund Burke and of the conservative tradition to which he was inadvertent godfather.

To preserve and reform political forms according to a vision of beauty has been the call of every true conservative. If that summons has too frequently sounded narrow, even monotone, and so failed to register on as wide a range of sensibilities as it might have, that has been a problem of aesthetic or metaphysical vision first and only secondarily one of particular policies or practical politics. Thus, in drawing the attention of conservatives specifically back to a knowledge of the beautiful, I hope to point out shortcomings present in individual persons, in a portion of our society, and in our culture in general. If we would do what is right, what conforms to reality at its depths, we must grasp with clarity and conviction the being revealed to us only in beauty.

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3 comments on this post.
  1. WeaslyPilgrim:

    I have been waiting to read your essay until you published it in its entirety. Imagine my distress at finding, with installment V, that I had to wait for another two installments. Being one who cannot stand to read anything of length on glowing phosphor (or whatever you call its modern flat-panel equivalent), I have pulped a small tree to print the essay out for proper reading. I am looking forward to it.

  2. Matthew Milliner:

    Worth the wait!

  3. D.W. Sabin:

    “Proportion is to beauty what reasoning (ratio) is to truth” . This a sturdy algebraic equation which can just as easily be re-arranged and arrive at the same sum. Congratulations on a fine bit of extended scholarship Wilson. We started here almost a year ago over a minor dust-up concerning art or modern art and while I do not believe we have all the answers to the original debate, this provides the firm and well-proportioned foundation.

    The commentary, too brief, about the act of defiance in Modern Art and its de-facto cri de coeur for the memory of beauty is, as I recall the principle realm of the truncated argument we had and I’d like to see more of your thoughts on this. Much of it is fatuous and co-opted by the materialist Totalitarian frenzy of our culture of automatons but there is a real ferocious beauty in an awful lot of modern art , even if it is in the nature of the canary in the burning coal mine.

    Recently, I was able to look at the exhibition on the Bauhaus at the Museum of Modern Art. The entire progression of the school…. from one of shepherding the medieval craft guilds into the modern era to its end in an architecture that was driven into banality by a process of commercialized reductio ad absurdum …was presented. It revealed to me the possibility that that the Second World War was, to a degree, the terrible apotheosis of the Enlightenment and that the final break with the last vestiges of the very human aspects of the medieval world was ably midwived by National Socialism. Nations may have won and lost but Totalitarianism has joined hands with the Harlot Modernity. The Science of Death has only increased since Nuremburg.

    Tomorrow is a little wicked enjoyment of the new Otto Dix exhibit at the Neue Galerie so I can continue to tinker with the links between the Weimar that saw a re-birth of medieval guilds through the Weiner Werkstatte and Bauhaus only to see it all come crashing down at the altar of ascendant Totalitarianism.
    Ich bin ein Berliner?…perhaps we all are, but ich bin ein Weimarite we are as well.

    A lot of hard work well done Wilson, makes me almost want to wade through Eco. Should I?

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