This is an installment in our series on the evangelizing power of beauty. In this series, we are looking at how beauty can bring us to God, convey a sense of the sacred, point us toward the Truth, and even help us know how to be good. Through essays and interviews, this series will examine how the beautiful can lead us to the true and the good.
Dr. Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College and prolific author, has spoken and written on the topic of beauty for decades. He is personally aware of the evangelizing power of beauty; the beauty of Catholic art and architecture played an important role in his conversion to Catholicism. As a child, growing up in a Calvinist home, he was taught that Catholics were wrong. One of the earliest seeds of doubt was planted when his family went sight-seeing in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. He was stunned; he had never seen anything like it before. He asked his father, “If the Catholics are so dreadfully wrong, how can their churches be so beautiful?” He connected beauty with truth.
I spoke with Dr. Kreeft about beauty, what attracts us about beautiful things, and how beautiful things can help open people up to goodness and truth.
Catholic World Report: Why are we attracted to beautiful things? What makes them beautiful?
Peter Kreeft: This is a surprisingly difficult philosophical question about which philosophers have argued for millennia without coming to much agreement. All that is clear (to me, anyway) is that beauty, like truth and goodness, is divinely designed to be food for our souls; that is why He designed in us an innate and universal hunger for it. As there are truths we can’t not know and goods we can’t not need and will, there are beauties we can’t not love. As to what it is, all answers I know of are partly right but incomplete. Beauty is always more than we can define or explain. Our right brain (intuition) knows it much better than our left brain (analysis).
It is unlike truth in that way. Truth is definable (the correspondence or match between thought and thing, knowing and being) but beauty apparently is not. Goodness also, like beauty, is probably indefinable, as both G.E. Moore and Wittgenstein have argued logically.
Plotinus, in his deservedly famous Ennead on Beauty, goes up the ladder (with Plato in the “Symposium”) from visual, material beauty through immaterial beauties, to Absolute Eternal, Perfect Beauty itself (which is NOT an abstraction!), and notes that at each rung of the ladder we feel a pull out of ourselves, an awe, a “trembling” in the soul. He did not know that beauty is an attribute of the God Who is a Person, a Will, a Creator, a Lover, a Savior, and a Trinity, but he knows some profound things about the divine nature.
CWR: Are some things inherently, intrinsically beautiful?
Kreeft: The only reason I can imagine why someone would deny that some beautiful things are beautiful inherently and necessarily is that they would deny that beauty is objectively real, and say it’s all “different strokes for different folks.” Yet we all know, I think, that someone who finds musical harmony ugly and violent attacks on harmony beautiful, the structure and design of the human body ugly and bodily mutilation beautiful, or Jesus and Mary ugly and Hitler and the Marquis de Sade beautiful, is profoundly wrong, twisted.
People say that silly thing because many things are indeed beautiful only relatively and extrinsically (like tools, the right amount of light, familiar faces, or any work of art that succeeds, with them, in art’s highest purpose—which is to break your heart and elicit tears). But that may well be “Mary Had a Little Lamb” for one and Beethoven’s Ninth for another.
I think that even here, however, the one who sees no beauty in “Mary Had a Little Lamb” is missing something, just as one who sees none in Beethoven’s Ninth is missing something. Beauty is a “transcendental,” i.e., absolutely universal, property. Everything is, in itself, intrinsically beautiful in some way. I remember Father Norris Clarke talking about this and saying that he saw no beauty in mosquitoes (which pestered him) until he looked at one carefully under a microscope.
CWR: The three transcendentals are the true, the good, and the beautiful. How are these all intertwined?
Kreeft: The intertwining of truth, goodness, and beauty is based on being. Non-being is neither true nor good nor beautiful. And neither is destruction, unless it is destruction of falsehood, paving the way for truth; of evil, paving the way for good; or ugliness, paving the way for beauty.
The triad corresponds to the three distinctively human powers of the soul, of course: mind, will, and heart (spiritual feelings, which animals lack). That is why our literature is full of this triad of protagonists: prophet, king and priest. Gandalf, Aragorn and Frodo; Spock, Captain Kirk, and “Bones” McCoy in Star Trek; Ivan, Dmitri, and Alyosha Karamazov; Quint, Hooper, and Brodie in Jaws, etc.
There are dim Trinitarian echoes here, of course. The Spirit is love, thus known by the heart; the Son is the Logos, the Mind of God; and the Father is Life and Will and Being itself, and the first cause and creator of all being. Of course all three Persons always work together, but insofar as we can distinguish aspects of Their work, we can attribute it more especially to one of the Persons. Hindu theology also mentions three attributes of Brahman: sat, chit, and Ananda; infinite being or life, infinite knowledge or truth, and infinite joy or goodness or love. St. John uses three terms for God, especially in his first epistle: light, life, and love. Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Also the three divine attributes that logically entail the startling good news that “all things work together for God for those who love God” are omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence. If God does not lack power, or life, or being, He gets whatever He wills; if He does not lack knowledge, He knows exactly the best way to get it; and if He does not lack love (goodwill), He wants it for all of us who also want it and choose it and allow Him to give us His gift, which is Himself.
In all these cases the one of the three that is always clearly present is the one associated with mind, logos, prophet, knowledge, truth. Love is sometimes classified with the one associated with life and will, and sometimes with the one associated with beauty and love and joy and the heart. Love itself is sometimes associated with the heart and feeling and sometimes with the will and choice. But despite the confusion and fuzziness, there are always three.
CWR: Can the beautiful lead us to the true and the good?
Kreeft: Since beauty is the child of the marriage between goodness and truth, and since babies always in some ways resemble both parents, therefore both truth and goodness are always beautiful (intrinsically, in themselves, necessarily and universally), and therefore beauty always can lead us back to both truth and goodness. All truth is beautiful; scientists often say that the beauty of a mathematical theorem or physical theory is a clue to its truth. And the most beautiful thing in the world is a saint. Mother Teresa’s wrinkles are far more beautiful than a movie star’s vain, shallow, and bratty face. Spirits can manifest more beauty than bodies. Also more ugliness.
CWR: How can beautiful things teach us about God, and lead us to God?
Kreeft: Beauty is the first thing we notice and love. It is the ambassador, or the sales representative, for truth and goodness. That’s why Dostoevsky said it would save the world.
I once had to teach a Sunday School class, kindergarten level, and I was talking about Heaven. A boy asked me how he would recognize God in Heaven. What a question! Only the Holy Spirit could answer it, and fortunately He did. I blurted out: “He will be the most absolutely beautiful thing you ever saw!” The kid said to me, “You’re right.” I was put in my place, and given a passing grade by the real teacher.
All beauty is what C.S. Lewis called “patches of Godlight” in our shadowy woods.
All beauty makes us happy. To people who doubt that spiritual beauty makes you happier than physical beauty, I say: go live with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity for half a day, and you will see a beauty and a happiness that you never saw before in this world, and that you will see even more of in the next if you really want to.
Beauty is irresistible. Truth is easily resistible. We are very good at deceiving ourselves. Goodness is easily resistible. We can shut up our consciences very easily. But we cannot shut up that nightingale in the heart with the heartbreaking voice that demands its food.
CWR: In your recent book Ask Peter Kreeft, you mention that whenever possible you attend the Latin Mass. Is the beauty of this liturgy part of what draws you to it?
Kreeft: Yes, yes, and yes. It’s not just that Latin is a beautiful language, but that the beauty in the souls of the persons who designed the Mass (and I am speaking of three kinds of persons here, human and angelic and divine) comes through the words and inspires the reverence in both the celebrant and the congregation. I read recently that 1-2 percent of Catholics who attend the Latin Mass also participate in the sacraments of our secular society: contraception, divorce, abortion, sodomy, even pornography. It is a startling statistic (like the 1-2 percent divorce rate among those who use NFP), yet not startling at all. In Heaven we will not even be tempted to such evils, and the Mass gets us closer to Heaven. All Masses do, but especially the old one. Its only rival for reverence and beauty is the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, which has also been authorized for Mass, with Catholic changes and additions, in the “Anglican Use Mass” for the ordinariate for Anglicans who become Catholics. Of course it’s beauty that draws me to it, but it’s not just aesthetic beauty but spiritual beauty, “the beauty of holiness.”
CWR: You’ve said that your personal favorite proof for the existence of God is, “There is the music of J.S. Bach, therefore there is a God.” Can you elaborate on this a bit?
Kreeft: No, I don’t think I can. Just listen. Or, if you prefer, substitute Grieg, Wagner, Beethoven, Mozart, Rimsky-Korsakoff, Sibelius, Chopin, Handel, or Tchaikovsky for Bach. Bach was holy and humble; he won’t mind. But don’t even think of mentioning “contemporary Christian rock” in the same breath; it’s an insult to rock as well as to Christianity, and it’s almost as painful as those spectacularly silly, sappy, sloppy, sentimental, shallow, stupid examples of emotional diarrhea called “praise choruses.”
CWR: Has beauty played a part in your own faith throughout your life?
Kreeft: Yes, but like the Holy Spirit, beauty has been humble and anonymous most of the time. He doesn’t say much. He must have inspired Lao Tzu, who wrote, in the “Tae Te Ching”: “Knowing that enough is enough, is enough.”
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