Word of the Day: BEAUTY

Below, something I wrote from last year.

At Thomas More College, every freshman enrolls in a course called The Way of Beauty, which I haven’t taught yet, and every sophomore, a course called Coram Angelis: In the Presence of the Angels, which I have just now taught for the first time. The first course, as I understand it, is about the epistemological value of beauty, beauty as an avenue toward the truth. The second is a course on poetry, and the poetry of the liturgy.

We are a beauty-starved people. I don’t just mean that there’s a lot of ugliness around. I mean that we don’t even have beauty where we ought to expect it. My local bank in Warner, NH, has hanging on its walls several dozen works of local artists, not trained in the academy, and these range in quality from pleasantly attractive to strikingly good. Most of them are landscapes. My favorite is a pencil sketch of a snowy woods; it is really excellent. Now, they aren’t like works of other genuinely popular artists thriving in a long-standing and flourishing tradition; they aren’t the terra cotta lunettes of the Della Robbia studio, for example. But they are very good, and they do their reverence, usually in a homely and unassuming way, to BEAUTY. And that is a heck of a lot more than I can say for the stuff that mars the walls of the college art building where my daughter has been practicing with her choral group.

I wonder how many of our moral problems are bound together with our sneering at beauty, or with a positive hankering for the ugly and obscene. Before people understand what is morally right, they have a sense, or used to have a sense, of what is decent, fit, meet, becoming, handsome….

Word of the Day: BEAUTY
When I consider the modern thinkers and writers who have had the greatest influence upon my thoughts on education, it strikes me that they were all in love with BEAUTY, as a transcendental which, though it is experienced subjectively, is objectively real. It is not reducible to mere opinion, or we would have to say that Thomas Kincaid was a greater painter than J. M. W. Turner, just because a lot of people buy up his paintings; or we might end up throwing our hands up in the air and saying that there was no sense to the claim, “Mozart was a greater composer than was Stephen Foster” — and I actually like Stephen Foster.

It is not reducible to the psycho-physiological feelings that sometimes accompany a powerful experience of BEAUTY: the frisson of wonder that is hard or impossible to distinguish from a frisson of terror. C. S. Lewis says quite rightly that we seek out experiences of beauty DESPITE the shudders, and that’s evident from the fact that nobody would choose those shudders without the beauty — that part of the experience, taken alone, is not at all pleasant.

I notice that in the curricular wars that beset our colleges, nobody ever brings up BEAUTY. Why not? BEAUTY is wonderfully gratuitous, the superabundant splendor of being. To ask, “To what USE can we put that beautiful waterfall?” is not to be thinking about beauty at all. It is to have the square head of the brutally factual Thomas Gradgrind. If you say, “I do not wish to study the portraiture of Titian, because it will not assist me in securing justice” for this or that group, then you may be temporarily unfit for study properly speaking, and that may be a necessary thing, or it may be an unfortunate result of your unnecessary inversion of values — placing political gain above wisdom.

I’ve been taken to task [last year, at Saint Eustaby Catholic College, where I Eusta Teach] for using Snoop Dogg as a term of comparison, placing him alongside Palestrina to make what seems to me to be an obvious point. If you value “diversity,” and if that means that you introduce young people to forms of art and ways of life that are very different from what is familiar to them, then the polyphonic choral compositions of Palestrina do that very well, and Snoop Dogg’s rap does not. That is, not one out of a hundred of my students has had any experience with Renaissance polyphony, but every one of them has heard rap. The first might as well come from another planet; the second comes from Chicago or New York or some other American city you can visit, right now. But not one of my critics breathed a word about BEAUTY. All is political.

More than half of the English words in which we see two or three (different) vowels together come to us from the French, at a time when the French did pronounce those vowels as diphthongs or triphthongs or (channeling Daffy Duck) quadriphthphthongs: MAIN, JOY, COURSE. BEAUTY comes to us — the word, not the thing itself — from the Normans and their French: BIAUTE, ultimately from Latin BELLUS, PRETTY.

By the way, the authors I’m thinking of: Lewis, Pieper, Von Balthasar, Chesterton, Tolkien, Stratford Caldecott, Muggeridge, Von Hildebrand, John Senior …

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