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

By James Matthew Wilson for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

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.

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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