“Taste is relative” is the excuse adopted by those eras that have bad taste.Nicolas Gomez Davila
I’m working my way through Francis Schaeffer’s “How Then Shall We Live” for the first time and it’s long overdue. The book covers the rise of Western Civilization and it’s decline during the modern era. Schaeffer focuses far more on artistic work than I expected he would, and I already expected it to figure prominently given what I had read about him in Saving Leonardo and Total Truth by Nancy Pearcy. This isn’t a complaint, and it’s this focus that inspired this short post.
Christians have long thought that truth, beauty, and virtue were core principles to understanding the way the world really worked. All three were objective and based on the nature of God Himself. You might have individual variation in each one. For truth, you have first-hand knowledge which only you possess. For beauty, you might prefer some forms of beauty to others. For virtue, you might excel in some areas of virtue while being weak in others. This subjective experience of objective reality does nothing to discount the objectivity of it.
In the modern era, beauty was the first of this trinity to be banished to the “upper story” or the subjective realm. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is thoroughly modern. Conservatives in general are comfortable with this because they have the unfortunate tendency to conserve by habit rather than with discipline. However, making beauty subjective leads naturally to making virtue subjective. And subjective virtue leads to relativism in truth itself. All three overlap (beauty is virtuous, truth is beautiful, etc), and so when one goes, it’s only a matter of time before the whole lot of them flip.
When someone says beauty is subjective and down to taste, what do they really mean by that? If we are born with particular preferences, then we should expect those to be fairly consistent across time, but they aren’t. And if we aren’t born with those preferences, they must come from our own minds and the influence of others. I’d like to posit that our artistic style and taste reflects our philosophy. We say it’s “just taste”, but taste itself is just an expression of our souls. We are like magic mirrors that reflect the nature of our souls. Just as a Christian who loves God and has grown in the spirit will naturally desire what is good and hate what is evil, such a Christian will also gradually appreciate beauty and despise ugliness. This is doubly true since God Himself is beautiful (Psalm 27:4) and His creation reflects that beauty.
Here’s a few implications:
- Just as we can improve in moral character and in understanding what is true, we can improve in our appreciation of beauty
- What we think is beautiful is not arbitrary but reflects our character, just as what we think is right and what we think is true reflects our character
- We can be lazy with beauty just as we can be lazy in wisdom and in right living
- Beauty is not correlated to difficulty, just as a good man finds it easy to be good and a knowledgeable man finds it easy to understand. It can be difficult but it is not necessarily difficult
Do you have any recommendations for a non-scholarly discussion on grounding and defending the objectivity of beauty?
I’m with you. Seeing the endless promotion today if all that is ugly and vile is jarring, but I’ve never had a good grounding for beauty as opposed to truth or virtue.
LikeLiked by 1 person
The two books by Nancy Pearcy I mentioned above are good (Total Truth and Saving Leonardo). I’d start with those.
This is definitely a subject that needs more popular level books; I’m working through a scholarly treatment of architecture (The Substance of Gothic by Ralph Adams Cram) and it’s slow going.
The Abolition of Man by CS Lewis talks about the subject, too, though that book is a bit broader.
Thanks. I will look into those. I’ve read the Abolition of Man a long time ago. So much of it coming true, as Lewis and his contemporaries saw the seeds of the present madness in their day. Sadly, their warnings were ignored, and here we are…
LikeLiked by 1 person