When I was in high school, a friend gave me a book called, “Why Beauty Matters”. I read it, cover to cover, but didn’t feel like it ever answered the question it posed. In fact, I had even more questions about the concept of beauty.
Growing up in the church, I was always taught that inside beauty mattered more than outside beauty, so I just operated with the assumption that outside beauty didn’t matter at all. Even further down on the list would be material beauty, which I also had an unfortunate love affair with. I’ll skip the mascara, but give me a Louis XVI fauteuil covered in Scalamandre and I’m in heaven. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about there, just read: big words for a fancy chair.) If it was beautiful, it felt like an indulgence, no matter how much it cost. Things are supposed to be simple and humble — that is true “inside beauty.”
This brought on a huge amount of guilt. Who was I to want fancy chairs when there were people in need of water in this world? As a friend of mine once said to me, “What eternal purpose does it serve?” Perhaps I thought my love affair with beautiful material things could be justified by my lack of mascara and personal appearance. Now I see that I loved the things because I thought they gave me value; if I had stuff, people would pay attention.
I’m sure some people are motivated the same way by their physical appearance: if they were thin, people would love them.
I really, truly, didn’t care what others thought about when they looked at me, but I also didn’t care what I thought of me—and so I wasn’t very attentive to me, or my personal appearance. Every now and then I would do something to change my physical appearance: highlights or manicure or pedicure, but it didn’t matter if I maintained those things. They were temporary indulgences, not justifiable, and therefore, needed to be swept under the guilt rug with the fancy French chairs. For the past four years, you could ask any of my friends who saw me on a regular basis: I never wore makeup unless I had to be somewhere for work, at a speaking gig or trade show. I wouldn’t even wear makeup to go to local meetings, because those people would eventually see me as plain old Whitney soon enough—why put in the effort on the first day?
It didn’t matter how much science you used to try to convince me that there truly is never a second chance to make a first impression. The first impression didn’t matter; only the inside beauty mattered.
But a subtle shift started to happen a few years ago when I heard the headmaster at my children’s school mention a book called Beauty Will Save The World.
The title pulls its name from a line in a novel by the 19th-century Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky, and it intrigued me. In the talk to a group of parents, the headmaster posed that we live in a culture of increasing relativism when it comes to both truth and goodness. The new definition of truth is whatever you make of it, and goodness is often justified as taking care of yourself above others. With so much heated debate, it’s hard to get people to agree. But if we can educate to beauty, if we can all agree on that, that maybe, we stand a chance.
I decided to dive more deeply into these concepts of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty and uncovered a world of ancient philosophy.
Down the rabbit hole, I went. Turns out that ancient philosophers (Parmenides, then Socrates, then Plato and Aristotle) used the term transcendentals to describe three ultimate properties of being. Now, stick with me here, I’m going to keep this surface as I realize you don’t want to be in this rabbit hole with me.
The transcendentals, they posed, were truth, goodness, and beauty. These ideas corresponded with human interests: science, religion, and art. The study of each of these philosophies is logic, ethics, and aesthetics. Armed with this information, I felt like beauty was an idea worth chasing, and it brought me back to that question from high school: did beauty matter, and if so, why? For the first time in my life, it seemed like yes, there was something to it, that it did matter, and it was worth pursuing.
Truth and goodness seem paramount to beauty. We value them more highly, as they seem to have more transformational power. This again caused me to question the value of the pursuit of beauty: in a world of short attention spans, is it worth the risk to donate an ounce of time to beauty? Would this require the sacrifice of attention to truth and goodness? If so, does it seem like a wise trade-off?
But in a world of short attention spans, what’s going to get more attention: debates on truth and goodness and moral relativism, or beauty?
Could this be a reason that might make it worth changing? Could this be the paradigm shift I was looking for and the justification that I needed?
And so, beauty started to matter a little more to me.
As I continued my rabbit hole dive, I came to realize that these three terms had a very trinitarian thread, correlating with Father, Son, Holy Spirit; faith, hope and love; the challenge to think on things only true, right, and lovely. And there seemed to be a human overlap as well: think, do, and feel.
There is a lot that the world will state is relative. People will argue that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But as modern day philosopher Gregory Wolfe notes, the beauty we are talking about here cannot be reduced to taste. The use of beauty isn’t utilitarian, so it’s hard to place a value on it, especially in our democratic culture. It can’t be quantified as a need—or can it?
Is there an absolute, non-relative beauty? I would like to argue that there is.
Christians often over-emphasize truth and goodness, and all with good intention. We want to give the world hope, and these two routes often seem like the most direct route to explaining the hope that we have in Christ. We can explain the reason and benefit of our belief, but as an unquantifiable attribute, we have neglected the idea that beauty might also be useful in pointing the way to something more spiritual, and it might offer hope as well.
I’m not saying we should elevate beauty to a status above truth and goodness, and I’m not attempting to do that in my life this year. The three transcendentals are equal in value and function, and we cannot neglect any of them, as I had been neglecting beauty.
Truth, without goodness and beauty, is legalism.
Goodness, without beauty and truth, is simply work.
Beauty, without goodness and truth, is vapid and shallow.
This was a cataclysmic shift in my life. I didn’t need to use my new-found definition of beauty to justify the purchase of fancy French chairs, but I could use it to start caring about what I looked like.
When the three of these work together, how could they change our world? How can we implement them in our lives? I don’t have the answers. The questions alone seem overwhelming. But in my commitment to my faith, I am focusing on chasing beauty this year, and have claimed beauty as my word of the year.
It has been life-changing for me to realize how much our hearts and souls and minds crave beauty. Beauty breaks up the monotony of life; it gives meaning to things, which in turn brings value, which in turn promotes stewardship. (New urbanism is the perfect example of this.) Victor Frankl, in Man’s Search for Meaning, recounts the story of the “beauty” of a fish head floating in his soup and the concentration camp Auschwitz. Frankl shared with us that in that camp, he had “experienced the beauty of art and nature as never before.”
This beauty in turn provided meaning. And that meaning gave purpose to lives and hearts that would have otherwise chosen another way out. Meaning gives purpose to our lives and our hardships, and if beauty leads the way to meaning, it is definitely a value worth pursuing.
Realizing the role that beauty plays in our lives has given me an entirely new perspective on it.
It has been liberating to remove the feeling of guilt that came from loving beautiful things. Not that this is a justification of materialism; it is not at all. But for me, it is a justification to put in the effort to make things matter a little more, by only trying to making them a bit more beautiful and ordered.
As I realize how beauty can inspire wonder and awe in the human soul, and that the story of the world is a beautiful story and that the story of redemption is a beautiful story and that the symbol of the cross is a beautiful symbol, I felt more and more inspired to chase beauty, in tiny, baby step increments.
Additionally, in my rabbit hole of researching beauty, I came across multiple articles from the field of psychology that reveal that we are just starting to understand the role beauty plays in the human mind. Turns out, art therapy works because it releases the same chemicals in the brain as addictive behaviors and substances.
But the true value and meaning of the word beauty hit home to me when I was watching a documentary, and these words hit me like a ton of bricks:
Through the pursuit of beauty we shape the world as a home, and in doing so we both amplify our joys and find consolation for our sorrows.
— Roger Scruton
I want to persuade you that beauty matters; that it is not just a subjective need, but a universal need. If we ignore this need, we find ourselves in a world out of balance, one that pursues truth for the sake of power and goodness for the sake of profit. I believe there is another path, and it is a path that leads to home. In the Middle Ages, beauty in art was used to be a remedy to chaos and suffering, and an affirmation of joy. Today, art is no longer a way to redeem the chaos and suffering, but represent it.
But if I can make my hope a work of art, representative of the spiritual kind of beauty, maybe I’m adding more to this world than I realize.
“Appetite over function and function over form” has become the operating principle of our lives and our world, and in this, the other-worldly benefits of beauty have been, or at least risk being, lost. Art, when meeting an animal appetite, leaves life meaningless, and without hope. True art evokes a sense of awe and wonder; not discomfort or reluctance. True art, when meeting a spiritual need, gives off beauty. Beauty attracts life. Beauty redeems suffering.
And beauty is a need we all have, one that gives us hope and meaning.
Oscar Wilde is often quoted as saying, “All art is absolutely useless.” However, there are additional words he penned behind that first sentence: “Put usefulness first and you lose it. Put beauty first and what you do will be useful forever.”
In other words, it could be argued that nothing is more useful than the uselessness of beauty.