“In a world without beauty––even if people dispense with the word and constantly have it on the tip of their tongues in order to abuse it––in a world which is perhaps not wholly without beauty, but which can no longer see it or reckon with it: in such a world the good also loses its attractiveness, the self-evidence of why it must be carried out. Man stands before the good and asks himself why it must be done and not rather its alternative, evil.”
—Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: I Seeing the Form (Ignatius Press, p. 19).
I found the above quoted in an article by Hal Willis that details the contribution philospher, Roger Scruton made to the reaffirmation of beuaty as a vital componnent of the transcendentals. Willis makes the case that beauty is the thing that gives us wings to transcend the self for a moment, long enough to apprehend the true and the good. As a consequence of beauty’s flight, one is able to make contact with the real and what Scruton called conservatism: “love what is actual.” Beauty begins the journey of “un-selfing” (Iris Murdoch). Beauty raises one up long enough to love the good, true, and the beautiful that brought you.
Thinking of beauty in this way reminds me of something I, recently, heard Marilynne Robinson say in a conversation she had with Cherie Harder of The Trinity Forum. I’ll quote it here:
Cherie Harder: So much of what is beautiful does depend on our perception. You have probably one of your most beloved characters, John Ames, say that “Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a willingness to see.” You’ve said similar things, in your own voice as well as your character’s voice, which I am betting evoke no small amount of wistfulness in many of your friends, fans, and readers who would deeply like to see the same luminous beauty that you do. How does one learn to see?
Marilynne Robinson: By looking, basically. I consider the primary privilege of being a human being as a universal privilege of being able to watch light fall on things, watch vegetation live in the world in the complicated ways that it does. The shimmer, the effulgence, all these things, are simply there to be seen whether or not people choose to look at them—whether they relegate too many things to the category of ordinary or meaningless. That’s the original choice. But if you are interested in the nature of the experience of life on this planet, then very quickly all sorts of things begin to present themselves to you as mysteriously beautiful. Discovered beauty: no rarification or falsification, but the thing itself.
“I consider the primary privilege of being a human being as a universal privilege of being able to watch light fall on things…” What a simple and profound account of what it means to be human!
Also…I plan to make some time to watch a documentary with Roger Scruton on “Why Beauty Matters.” Maybe I’ll report back on that.