By Lee Differ
Many of us – well, the older amongst us – might recall a television comedy from the 1970s: ‘The Good Life’. It told of an idealistic couple living out their dream of what such a life should be. Simplicity was their goal in response to a world of complexity, mass production, and ugliness.
In their ‘back to basics’ approach, which met with sustained mockery, a pure and simple beauty was their aim…as it was for the ancients. For them, simple beauty was something that perfectly symbolised ‘the good life’.
In fact, beauty didn’t just symbolise goodness, it was a direct result – a proof – in this world, of its existence. Beauty was considered a ‘transcendent’ value, pointing to that goodness lying beyond the realm of everyday, worldly experience. The experience of beauty, therefore, was something which led one back to its source – goodness itself.
For the ancients, experiencing beauty (… harmony, order, restraint…) was an encounter with the simple, proportioned, ethical qualities of ‘goodness’. Thus, beauty was the ‘form’ taken, in this world, by goodness itself. Furthermore, beauty was also the direct result of goodness in operation, goodness in action: goodness simply ‘being itself’. Therefore, for the ancients, beauty ‘itself’ was
never about beauty alone: beauty was not for its own sake.
For the Greeks and others, beauty was part of an inseparable three-part ‘triad’ – ‘the triumvirate’, or, the classical ‘transcendentals’. The elements of this ‘trinity’ could be conceived or thought of separately, but always pointed inextricably to one another. They were Goodness, Truth, and Beauty – inseparable, because they manifested directly through one another.
In manifestation they consequently produced right life, balance, and order, or ‘justice’, ‘grace’, and ‘harmony’ for the Greeks. They therefore led those graced with their visitation to higher states of being.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow coined the phrase ‘Peak Experience’ to describe what the Greeks would have called an experience of beauty. He used the term to describe experiences which seem to come from ‘beyond’ the individual. These might be quasi-ecstatic moments or uncommon joy triggered by contact with something of great power.
They might include, through some conductive force, feelings of ‘transportation’, unity with the universe, connection with all life. The conducting medium might be something of nature, art, music, or the face of a beloved. But, once experienced, individuals report these moments as having had, for them, revelatory, even mystical, qualities.
Tellingly, Maslow reported that those who experienced these ‘peaks’ would subsequently undergo an almost invariably positive change. Their view of themselves, their relation to others and the world, benefited from a releasing of greater creativity and love. Above all, there was, in short, more in their life of ‘the good’. None of that would have come as any surprise to the ancient mind.
Maslow’s conclusions simply amount to that which the Greeks saw as the truth of truths. The profound experience of beauty always brings with it its concomitant partners in the inseparable trinity. Beauty is the vehicle through which eternal truths and infinite goodness manifest and are communicated. Maslow’s observations of the changed lives of his case studies would have met with a simple ‘Why… of course…’ from Plato.
The beautiful, the true, and the good, therefore, seem to prove themselves inseparable. It was not just so for the Greeks alone. They were similarly unified for the thinkers of the Christian West, whose thought was founded on Plato and Aristotle. For them, truth, beauty and goodness were summed up as love. Not love as ‘sentiment’, a post-modern, sugar-coated, indulgence of self – such an idolatry was unknown to them. In contrast, it was love for the neighbour and the ultimate ‘source’ of the triumvirate, the trinity. Such love was as love truly is – a concrete act of the will toward the good, not an ‘emotion’. Such love, therefore, aiming at the good, was the valid response to what the experience of the three ‘graces’ demanded.
Perhaps something of this outlook still remains, even in our post-modern milieu. Whether or not we’d like to admit it, we’re the Greeks’ cultural heirs. Hence we take it for granted that those who often engage in unacceptable conduct might not be true ‘lovers of beauty’. Conversely, individuals often engaged thus wouldn’t be those we’d expect to be deeply mindful of things of aesthetic value.
For us, just as for the Greeks, beauty and goodness – right life – are still connected, somewhere deep within our thinking.
Surely, a person can, we surmise, earn the skill of appreciation of beauty, be that ethically or intellectually. (To say ‘ethically’ or ‘intellectually’ simply being another way of saying ‘by goodness’ or ‘by truth’.) Such individuals, we’d surmise, must be therefore of such an order as to naturally distance themselves from ugliness or dishonesty. Consequently, we’re still disturbed when we hear
of dignitaries, teachers, carers or clerics who stumble in this regard.
What of the future?
Maslow’s ‘peak experiences’, the experience of art or nature, call us to a change of heart. This change of heart earlier writers referred to as metanoia. From the Greek, this was ‘going beyond or above one’s own mind’ (meta – nous). Latin writers expressed it as ‘con-versus’, ‘con-version’: a ‘change of direction’. Only goodness and truth acting together, the Greeks maintained, generate such dangerous, life-changing, beauty.
Attempts to separate these three, it seems, lead to their degradation, or rather, the degradation of ‘the human’ they’re intended to uphold. Our age of self-idolatry, in separating them, destroys them. The ‘good’ has become ‘whatever one likes’; the ‘true’ is now ‘whatever one feels’; the aesthetic reduced to the scientific.
As a result, the quality of our ‘human’ continues to pay the price.
Maybe beauty – the form of the genuinely good and true still universally favoured in our current ‘climate’ – might still prove as leading to salvation. It was Dostoevsky who prophetically wrote that, one day, only ‘Beauty will save the world.’
The Greeks would have agreed.
Copyright Lee Differ 2018