Musings on Beauty

Is the judgment of beauty a moral judgment?



  1. lilrabbi said,

    April 25, 2006 at 3:47 am

    I haven’t read much in this way, but I like it when people talk about moral goodness as beauty.

  2. dissidens said,

    April 25, 2006 at 6:34 am

    Is the judgment of beauty a moral judgment?

    Well, the judgment of beauty is an aesthetic judgment; I take it you mean to ask if it is one we are morally obligated to make?

    I think it is. We are morally obligated to choose the beautiful over the ugly every bit as much as we are the good over the bad and the true over the false. I will even go so far as to suggest that if the church had had its Matthew Arnolds and T.S. Eliots, and if those men had had the confidence of the theologians, we might have averted the present disgrace. (I’m not saying we could have fixed the problem, I’m just saying it would have been a different problem.)

    I am not arguing for the leadership of an intelligentsia. Certainly not artists. I am arguing for a recognition of poets [poets in the general sense: composers, interpreters, poets, essayists] as perceptive judges of the drift and wobble of human thought.

    If you were to ask me for a biblical precedent, I would say David was such a person. I also think Tozer was such a person. Tozer was hardly an intellectual or an artiste; but he was a man of sensibility.

    As I said a while ago, we should be more sensitive to our aesthetic decline than we are our doctrinal decline, not because the former is more important than the latter, it’s just that it precedes it and authorizes it.

    If Edwards was right about anything, it is that sentiment precedes thought and affections precede dogma. If the 20th Century shows us anything, it seems to me it is the fact that once you’ve debased the sensibilities, there is no combination of coercion and political intrigue that can save you.

  3. Neoclassical said,

    April 25, 2006 at 11:04 pm

    Here’s what I was thinking with respect to the question:

    1. The Good, and the True, and the Beautiful are somewhat interconnected. How exactly are they connected?

    2. Sometimes it is a moral issue to call something good, ugly, and viceversa. [I think this is what dissidens was addressing]. Sometimes, it seems that the poor judgment is based on ignorance, not morality.

    So, with those things in the back of our minds,

    how does judging what is beautiful related to morality?


    is it always related to morality?

  4. dissidens said,

    April 26, 2006 at 10:26 pm

    Yah, that’s the problem. I think it is easier to point to Western culture to find precedent for that kind of thinking. It is harder to explain the nuts and bolts of it. And, naturally, some are going to want some kind of schedule of equivalence.

    First, I cannot do that. I would be happy to blame my own incompetence in order to save the theory. I would be suspended with a satisfying sense of their interconnection but would be unable to adduce it for the critic. Unfortunately, even the best poets have been unable to give a clear explanation. So it can’t be all my fault.

    What I would like to do is offer a kind of Unified Theory of Transcendent Reality. In fact, I have often wondered why I can’t, and even more, why better men haven’t. Here’s my conclusion: we are the problem. After all, we introduced into creation sin and its polluting evil, falsehood and ugliness, and one of the consequences was a resulting incapacity. I suspect Adam could have explained it.

    (You might ask if Satan wasn’t the first occasion of evil and sin. Yes, in time he was the first, but his sin did not corrupt man, and his sin did not result in a cursed earth which is the occasion and circumstance for aesthetic apprehension. We did that all by our lonesome.)

    So how are the transcendentals related or connected? I cannot explain specifically, but I can make a good guess, and my guess suggests why it is I cannot explain it.

    I do know that God is infinite in all perfections. He is good, he is true, he is beautiful, and my estrangement from him can well account for my moral and aesthetic haze. I think truth, goodness and beauty are all resolved in the godhead. Once we became alienated from that, things disintegrated in profound ways, and fallen man has only hints, intimations and inspired fantasies to suggest a wholeness he lost.

    I think this is necessary because there is only one kind of good. God’s goodness. There aren’t discrete goods, one for God, one for man, one for creation. God’s good is the only good. Likewise with truth and beauty. All beauty participates in Beauty.

    There is a vague sensation that in apprehending the sublimely beautiful we sense the moral and logical rightness of it all, and in this apprehension we share in the sense of transcending all in life and creation that is bad and false. I suspect that our love of beauty is an attempt to restore to some degree that wholeness of our being.

    When we hear or see something so beautiful that it makes us cry, I think we are reaching out for something we now know is there but which we cannot touch. In that moment we are ennobled or elevated or exalted by the beauty, by the good and by the true.

    To deprive ourselves—in any degree—of an apprehension or appreciation of the perfect has to be immoral. To be entertained rather than ennobled has to be morally significant.

    Or so it has seemed to me.

  5. Joel said,

    April 27, 2006 at 8:12 pm


    So the question is finding what constitutes entertainment and what is legitimate.

    I have been thinking about something Traherne said that distinguished the world we must contemn from the world our Father made. And I wonder if there is something there to help me draw the line.

    It seems that legitimate sub-creation (as Tolkien describes it in his essay on Fairy Stories) is really an appreciation of our Father’s world, and helps us to appreciate it. And if the world we must contemn is the vain creation of man, then perhaps we can understand entertainment as a sort of destruction and depreciation of our Father’s world, and our ability to appreciate that, a loving of another glory which is not really glorious.

    And that goes with Kaplan’s Aesthetics of popular culture. So popular culture is one of the varieties of wordliness.

    What I want to know, dissidens, if the above iterates anew what you were saying, is what sort of thing held this place before popular culture? Or what distinguishes popular culture from previous worldliness?

  6. dissidens said,

    April 28, 2006 at 1:15 am

    I think you are right about Traherne (as my memory of him fades), and I know you are right about Tolkien. I suspect one of the things the inklings revived was an interest in the imagination, esp. in reaction to the modernism depicted in Pilgrim’s Regress.

    I realize this sounds like an exaggeration (and the sort of exaggeration that really annoys the Doran types, of which there are many) but I think this cultural thing—what I call cultural apostasy—is more important that it appears to us now.

    How can we preach what is true if we do not even convey what is real? How can we sit in our filth and talk about God making people clean? In that sense I think the world rightly looks at the church as a bunch of nutcakes: the culturally imperceptive see nothing different in Christians, and the culturally perceptive look down and see an incongruity. If they see unreality in everything we say and sing, how have we given a witness about God’s nature? Do they really need a non-transcendent god? Do we have a non-transcendent god to offer them?

    Try to imagine Kaplan in our church services. How would we get him down the aisle after he’s heard our song service?!

    I would say that pop culture is not so much a kind of worldliness (e.g. Wordsworth’s The World Is Too Much With Us: getting and spending.) The getting and spending kind of worldliness is always with us. Pop culture is a kind of super-worldliness that closes the door on any perception of the transcendent. With pop culture we will never see the futility in getting and spending; we will have given our hearts away—our hearts being the organs of perception.

    The world is too much with us; late and soon,
    Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
    Little we see in Nature that is ours;
    We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
    This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
    The winds that will be howling at all hours,
    And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
    For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
    It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be
    A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
    So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
    Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
    Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
    Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

    “So the question is finding what constitutes entertainment and what is legitimate.”

    I would say so. I would say the question is knowing what entertainment does—even “good religious entertainment”—and how it destroys; what it disposes of.

    Give me something real, even if it is nothing more than a sight of Proteus and the sound of Triton! I think the modern church cannot do this.

  7. H L Mencken said,

    April 28, 2006 at 10:29 pm

    From Heathen Days.

    It was easy to recognize in him the anti-social animus of a born evangelist, but there was also something else—a kind of voluptuous delight in the shabby and preposterous, a perverted aestheticism like that of a latter-day movie or radio fan, a wild will to roll in and snuffle balderdash as a cat rolls in and snuffles catnip. I was, as I have said, less than fifteen years old, but I had already got an overdose of such blah in the McGuffey Readers and penmanship copybooks of the time, so I withdrew as quickly as possible, unhappily aware that even the Professor was easier to take than this jitney Dwight L. Moody. I got home all tuckered out, and told my father that the Y.M.C.A. fell a good deal short of what it was cracked up to be.

  8. Catholic person said,

    April 29, 2006 at 5:12 am

    Wait, are you guys fundamentalists or something?

  9. dissidens said,

    April 29, 2006 at 6:12 am

    Yes, indeed.

    This is what is unforgivable. Just today I heard a [I]Stories of Great Christians[/I] episode celebrating the association of Moody and Frances Willard; the unholy collaboration of evangelism, willful feminism and social anarchism. I recall the wedding of vaudeville and gospel in Chautauqua and camp meeting. I read about the shambles of the Scopes Trial. I read Twain and Mencken and Wodehouse.

    So here I am, an innocent little church brat among plain, humble Mennonites with simple devotion to spiritual disciplines while overhead are the conmen, hucksters and bunko barons of American Christianity bulldozing the faith with their egos.

    To this day they cannot confess and repent, and there is no humility in them.

    We might as well meet people at the church door with cotton candy and three ping pong balls to throw at the goldfish.

    And I will not get over it.

    The faith in Jesus Christ must be good, it must be true, and it must be beautiful.

  10. Ryan Martin said,

    April 30, 2006 at 9:38 am

    Jerusalem the golden,
    With milk and honey blest,
    Beneath thy contemplation
    Sink heart and voice oppressed.
    I know not, O I know not,
    What joys await us there;
    What radiancy of glory,
    What bliss beyond compare.

  11. Neoclassical said,

    May 1, 2006 at 7:12 pm

    …but we digress…

    Not that this is not a valuable discussion, but some of our guests may not know anything about fundamentalism.

  12. lilrabbi said,

    July 10, 2006 at 8:08 pm

    Keep talking. We’re listening.

  13. Neoclassical said,

    July 11, 2006 at 7:53 am

    What do you mean, “keep talking”?

    The discussion is meant to include you, too!

    What do you want to ask/talk about?

  14. lilrabbi said,

    July 11, 2006 at 7:50 pm

    My lovely wife and I were reading and we were just finding this so helpful. I like to just follow the conversations of you learned folk. I find my questions are sometimes…not very good? misled? Something like that. I enjoy when Dissidens joins in. He has a way of touching on most of the questions that were forming in my mind. I think that is what good teachers do.

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