The Holiness of Beauty?

The Holiness of Beauty? January 18, 2012
Two recent posts by friends have me revisiting a philosophical equation that troubles me even more than the ones I struggled with in Algebra I (both times): the original Grecian Formula, placed in the mouth of Sophocles by Plato, that Beauty = Goodness. When I first encountered the Symposium, as a (very, very) late-life Humanities major in the Antioch degree-completion program thencalled The McGregor School, I had already been as infused with, even pickled in, the Beauty Equals Goodness trope as a hard-boiled pub egg in brine.

We all are. Society reinforces it. Commerce lives by it. Even evolutionarily speaking, we are hardwired to choose the species-perpetuating pragmatics of symmetry. But that didn’t stop me from throwing the book across the room as the corollary sunk in for the first time. I am not beautiful. Did that mean I could not be good?

Scholarly discussion was no help. We were burning through the classics at the rate of two or three Harvard Five-Foot Bookshelves a week, so the leisure of our own symposium on the Symposium was not to be had. Poetry was my go-to spiritual director at the time–I was in my Episcopalian phase, and if there’s one thing you can say for sure about the Via Media, it’s that it’s no use asking them to say anything for sure–but Keats just met my question with a “There-there, old girl, don’t wrinkle that ugly brow” pat on the head:

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,–that is all
     Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

Well, OK. Keats was in his own pickle, echoing the aesthetic of perfection. And hey, I can go there. I’m as appreciative of the beautiful–in creation, in art, in the glorious human–as anyone. (Maybe more so, since I see so little of it in the mirror.). To say that beauty stands for a kind of original harmony, unity, and balance that we in this vale of tears long for will not get any argument from me. Nobody knows which Grecian urn stirred Keats to his reflection, but I can tell you that five minutes in front of a Roman urn–the Portland vase, in the British Museum–utterly undid me with beauty and sent me weeping out into the street.

So beauty’s good in lots of ways. But is beauty goodness in the moral sense? And are only the beautiful capable of goodness? You’d think the Church would have something to say about this, and of course it has and does, but teasing out what that message might be is even tougher than close-reading Keats or getting out of Algebra I. Just skimming the surface, we find Augustine using Beauty as a term of endearment in a love letter to God (Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new . . .”), Aquinas applying the Grecian Formula to his own tonsured locks (“Dionysius says that because the beautiful is the cause of things in so many ways, it follows that the good and the beautiful are the same thing”), and even the 17th century Silesian Jesuit hymn, “Fairest Lord Jesus” (Schonster Herr Jesu). Some pretty heavy hitters come down on the side of the holiness of beauty.

The Lives of the Saints aren’t much better. Those virgins who earned extra holiness credit for making themselves ugly for the Kingdom–scratching their faces with thorns, picking at their own smallpox scars, poking out their own eyes to discourage pagan suitors–would go unremembered if they hadn’t started out as pretty hot babes in the first place. And there are countless examples of saints who, though ugly as sin in the world, were revealed in the true beauty of their holiness after death.

Of course, there is always Mother Teresa, who did, rather than was, something beautiful for God. But I need more.

That’s why I was intrigued by Max Lindenman’s recent post, in which he finds some measure of freedom in contemporary Catholic culture from the Beauty = Goodness trap. “If you want to quit worrying about your looks, there are worse places to be than the Catholic Church,” he says, and cites the “blissfully dowdy” parishioners he found himself surrounded by on his conversion. But I think what he’s experiencing is more relief than countercultural challenge, because on this particular sliding scale he started out with the advantage of beauty. That he, like Rosa de Lima with her crown of thorns tucked in place, can now relax into a less high-maintenance form of daily beauty-of-holiness ritual doesn’t make it any less of a puzzle for the rest of us.

I’m not the first person to wrestle with this. Most recently and readably, Toni Raiten-D’Antonio’s Ugly as Sin: The Truth About How We Look and Finding Freedom from Self-Hatred (HCI, 2010), offers much food for thought. Here’s her triggering reflection, sitting in the Sistine Chapel as the guards shout Silenzio!:

The sad foreboding in the voices of the guards feels appropriate as I sit on one of the benches that line the chapel walls and gaze at Michelangelo’s astounding depictions of the essential Christian stories. My eyes move from Adam and Eve’s “fall,” which shows them transformed from luminous beauty into jaundiced and hunched figures, to the images of Hell at the base of the Last Judgment fresco painted on the wall behind the altar. In this enormous painting, the souls Christ brings near to his place at the center glow with beauty, while those denied his grace fall into darkness. The further a figure is placed from the Lord, the uglier she appears.

Raiten-D’Antonio is a sociologist, and she comes at her topic from a particular stance that indicts religion. So in the end, while her observations strike a real chord, she can’t answer my question either. I want to know there are people exploring–and questioning, and challenging, and even upending–the Beauty = Goodness equation from inside the Church, from among the followers of the One who, in the words of Isaiah’s prophecy,

. . . had no majestic bearing to catch our eye,
no beauty to draw us to him.
He was spurned and avoided by men,
a man of suffering, knowing pain,
Like one from whom you turn your face,

spurned, and we held him in no esteem. 

So I was heartened, yesterday, when this tantalizing bit jumped out at me from Elizabeth Scalia’s First Things column on the perils of materialism. Vaguely irritated by her husband’s suggestion that a broken Christmas lantern was worth saving (and adding to the family clutter) because “it’s pretty,” she ponders:

Theologically, my husband was on solid ground: a thing needn’t be perfect in order to be valued, but then did the lantern’s “prettiness” assign to it a false value which has played him for a sucker? And was that not reflective of our whole society’s willingness to excuse a great many faults in individuals, because they are good-looking, or in institutions because they are powerful?

Does applying the Grecian Formula unquestioningly–as a society, as a Church–lead us into the temptation of assigning false value to the beautiful, and denying the unbeautiful the chance to be good? That’s a riddle with consequences much larger than my own nagging curiosity. Are there other voices asking?

How about it? Is it time to convene a symposium?

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