The Paradox of Democratic Beauty

Virginia Arbery, PhD

E. B. White observes that “A writer, like an acrobat, must occasionally try a stunt that is too much for him.” All of the Fellows speaking in this series have acknowledged some aspect of the stunt-like feat in addressing the topic, “The Future of Beauty.” One would suppose that being last has its advantages. The last speaker in a series can build on the fine perceptions of the previous ones, nuance them further while avoiding those areas of concern which remain vexed and indefinable. Coming at the end, one can get away with a bit of selective thievery. Another benefit is the vantage point allowed by having had time to dwell with the subject and to assess the reactions of the listeners. But, instead of this prime position of being last increasing confidence, I have been made more keenly aware of how daunting the topic is-not just beauty, the form, according to Plato, which shining forth calls the lover to itself, and, in turn, to the love of the good, but also its future. To be honest, I gave up, really, after the first talk-even before Louise Cowan’s and Fred Turner’s, hers a profound insight into the love that endures with the passing of beauty; his, an invitation to participate in the joy of all creation’s intention toward beauty. I thought I had something to say before Glenn Arbery traded on his adept way of making those he admires look foolish. I am referring to how, in his talk, he turned the average person’s daily engagement with cybernetic engineering into an expose of the Nietzschean intention behind its major architects-one eerily designed to eliminate the unexpected in the human, thus perfecting the human machine while they steal from the body its most divine possibility, beauty.

This more-than-human vision of the human body sold as beauty by its architects was disgraced by comparison to the image of the synchronized Olympic divers that Glenn held before us. He went on to shame the Digerati by making their timetable for post-human perfectability look ridiculous next to the images of non-inevitability in beauty found in Richard Wilbur’s poem, “The Beautiful Changes.” The beautiful is free. Beauty remains powerful even in a culture unfriendly to it precisely because of its non-inevitability, its capacity to surprise. Arbery helped us see how the chameleon’s effect on the forest demonstrates that “likeness does not beget sameness, but difference and identity.” A “leaf grows leafier when mantis grows into it,” and the roses in the beloved’s hands grow “more bounteous in honor of her beauty.” The perception of beauty thus changes its beholder. Its transforming power was summed up in Wilbur’s final lines, pointing also to the sacrificial aspect folded into the experience of the beautiful: “Wishing ever to sunder/Things and things’ selves for a second finding, to lose/For a moment all that it touches back to wonder.” It was hearing the gasp from the woman behind me that undid me. “That’s it!” I thought, “As long as there are poets and poetry, beauty has a future, no matter what the computer potentates do.”

But then this second thought remained, like an unpleasant aftertaste: does it have a future no matter what politics does? And, what compelling relevance does contemporary politics have to beauty? The dignified element of a monarchy, as Walter Bagehot defines it in his book, The English Constitution (1867), inspires awe, but a regime, like ours, committed to mere efficiency-and not very efficient at that, he argues–how can that evoke wonder? Also lamenting the loss of beauty in modern democracy, Edmund Burke blamed the French Revolution. Burke saw in the barbarous murder of the Queen of France the end of courtship and the age of chivalry. Along with the stunning light-filled cathedrals of the Middle Ages, that age was marked by the aura of the beautiful lady whose “very orb” “glittering like the morning-star,” brought “an unbought grace of life…which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness.” Burke saw the age succeeding royalty as that of “sophisters, economists, and calculators.” Does democratic man even recognize that nobility has been lost, what Burke called the glory of civilization? How can a democratic order conform to beauty, when courting itself is considered an assertion of chauvinism? Has democratic likeness begotten anything but sameness, even between the sexes? Haven’t many Americans, as Tocqueville warned, lost their identities, their prized individualism, under the tyranny of majority opinion following on the triumph of equality? Americans, he observed as early as the late 1830’s, are notorious for their “scorn of forms.” How can they love the beautiful, the form which holds “the lasting remembrance of the true world,” as Hans-Georg Gadamer puts it, if they habitually have contempt for it in their manners? (The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays,1986.) For a city to be loveable, Lord Acton wrote, it must be lovely. Where could a I, a die-hard lover of democracy go from here, burdened by these thoughts, feeling more like Prufrock with every one of them?

I suspect that most of us love the beautiful, but that we wouldn’t want to sacrifice to it the benefits of equality. I myself am grateful that my immigrant father, like countless others arriving at Ellis Island, eventually could become a citizen and find a good life going from a shoe-shine boy to a composer of operas and an independent businessman. I take for granted that women own property, vote, and run for office. I like my neighborhood of Oak Cliff with all its diversity, citizen participation, and thousands of trick-and-treaters. I admit to lamenting the loss of one of my favorite fast food places near the Institute, Taco Bell, which I frequented because it was cheap and efficient. I acknowledge, however, that none of these benefits fills me with wonder in the way that beholding the temple of Segesta in Sicily did, or gives me the pleasure of seeing the temple’s effect on others, a woman in her fifties from Chicago, herself the daughter of immigrants, holding her heart and whispering to me in a confessional tone, “I feel moved. Is something happening to me? This place is holy. Am I crazy? I feel the gods.” Is it possible to have it both ways-to love democracy and to love the beautiful?

I have clung these last six weeks to the word “paradox.” The title, “The Paradox of Democratic Beauty,” invites one to set up the intrinsic difficulties with pairing democracy with beauty, and literature and political thought provide a wealth of those. Donald Cowan claims in his introduction to Classics Texts that “Democracy is possible because of a latent nobility that lies within each person. On such a paradoxical assumption this nation was founded.” Before we try to underscore Dr. Cowan’s point–in terms of beauty, let’s delay for the sake of appreciating the paradox and the challenge issued in pairing the two. Let’s indulge our anti-democratic tastes-on which we all pride ourselves, really–by recalling the overwhelming evidence of the unlikely consonance between democracy and beauty. Democratic mediocrity, democratic repetition, democratic leveling, democratic thoughtlessness, democratic passivity, democratic loneliness, democratic desires, democratic envy, and, yes, democratic ugliness. But democratic beauty? One would need to be willing to read Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” without squirming, a restraint some of us might find difficult to exercise.

The oldest model of democracy, both theoretically and historically, is Athens, a city which is praised best perhaps by Pericles, who, in his “Funeral Oration,” calls her the “school of the Grecians.” The distinctions he claims for democratic Athens are made in explicit and implicit contrast to their current enemy, Sparta, an aristocratic regime: “We leave our city open to all men.” The Athenians fight from “ease rather than studious labor and upon natural rather than doctrinal valour.” “We also give ourselves to bravery, and yet with thrift, and to philosophy, and without mollification of the mind.” “We are lovers of beauty, but with cheapness; we are lovers of culture, but without softness.” Our fame as a great power is made lasting by our arguments, “which needeth not either a Homer to praise it or any other such whose poems may indeed for the present bring delight.” In Pericles’ view, one that could be said to be quite contemporary, fact, history, rather than songs, will bear witness to Athenian democratic hegemony. It might surprise us that, with all that beauty of the Parthenon and the tragedians and Homer, Periclean Athens is already a stripped world.

The dramatic rendering of this speech in Thucydides The Peloponnesian War is followed by the ancient historian’s hard symbolic judgment of Athenian hubris. Just after the “Funeral Oration,” the Spartans retaliated with a great victory, “wasted the country about them,” and the Athenians were afflicted with “so great a plague” that “mortality of men was never remembered to have happened in any place before.” Neither the skill of physicians nor the supplications to the gods help them. This diseased situation of the Athenian population anticipates the historian Livy’s description centuries later as he contrasts “modern” decadent Rome with her godlike beginnings. Writing just before the first millennium, he rues the “dark dawning of our modern day when we can neither endure our vices nor face the remedies needed to cure them.” Livy praises the ancient asceticism of the ancestors, whose “poverty…went hand in hand with contentment.” “Of late years,” Livy writes during the great Augustan peace, “wealth has made us greedy, and self-indulgence has brought us, through every form of sensual excess, to be, if I may so put it, in love with death both individual and collective.” Both ancient instances of self-ruling peoples show the effects of self-indulgence and the blindness that accompanies the confidence in being number one.

In one of Shakespeare’s less known Roman plays, Coriolanus, the central tension is between the plebeians and the patricians as they face a shortage of corn at the same time they continue to be threatened by their enemy, the Volscians. A general of high honor, Caius Marius, refuses to debase himself by submitting to the Roman custom of the warrior exposing his wounds to the assembly. Caius Marius incenses the citizens by mocking their judgment: “What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues/That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion,/Make yourselves scabs?” After a string of insults to the mercurial mob, Marius characterizes the man who would court their affections as having a “sick man’s appetite.” “He that depends /Upon your favors swims with fins of lead and hews down oaks with rushes.” There is no dignity in catering to the many, the demos, for, as his fellow patrician addresses one of them, they stand to the body politic as no more than “the great toe of the assembly.”

As these ancient examples suggest, the problem with the souls of democratic men is that their form of rule, the regime, democracy, jeopardizes deliberation and reasonable choice. Unrestrained, it lacks balance, moderation. Democracy is characteristically short-lived and unstable. Our own founders feared direct democracy for that reason. Madison wrote in The Federalist Papers (#55)that “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every assembly would still have been a mob.” A temperate reflective body, indirectly elected and thus buffered from the moods of the people, the Senate, would provide needed “interference” when the passions of the people swayed them from their good sense. Though not selected by birth, education, or rank, but by merit, the United States Senate was to act much like the aristocracy of the ancient republics. The higher branch of the Congress was thus to prevail over the passions of the people “until reason, justice, and truth can regain their authority over the public mind.” Madison concludes, “What bitter anguish would not the people of Athens have often escaped if their government had contained so provident a safeguard against the tyranny of their passions? Popular liberty might then have escaped the indelible reproach of decreeing to the same citizens the hemlock on one day and statues on the next.” (#63) These passages suggest that there is insufficient form in the kind of majority rule that proceeds from a collection of unselected citizens. Good choices proceed from a well-wrought political form and the institutions it provides.

But what also is clearly implied in this institutional improvement over the republics of old is our practically-minded founders’ respect for a Socrates, who represents the independence of the life of the mind. A good regime would not be envious of its wisest citizen, would not regularly ostracize its most virtuous ones. Thestain on the memory of Athens is that she killed, through majority rule, the most beautiful and the wisest man who ever lived, as Plato wrote in the Seventh Letter. Like many of our own young people, Plato was so soured on political life, that he himself avoided it, believing it was better to lead a philosophic life than to die because of other mens’ greed and injustice. (In his old age he tries to found a good regime in Sicily, an unlikely place with its unruly, dark passions.)

So let us turn our attention to Socrates and his teaching about democracy, for a few minutes, in order to understand better the argument that the democratic form does not result in a well-ordered and thus a beautiful soul. Let us bear in mind, though, that this beautiful man-not physically beautiful, to be sure–was born and reared in a democracy. Her freedom, in a real sense, allowed him to be who he was. Socrates, who always performed his civic duties, a fine soldier too, chooses not to participate in the life of money-making and sophistry that have come to dominate his culture. His very life is a reproach to others who do. He goes barefoot, wears the same cloak every day, and refuses to take pay for having a conversation with young men, something the sophists do with great eagerness. He believes the courtroom has made a sham of speech, putting logos, which should be in the service of justice (dike) in the service of injustice. Independent in his poverty, in no way a slave to his desires or to the opinion of the many, Socrates’ life makes the most profound criticism of the excitation of unnecessary desires in a democracy. His life continues to appear beautiful to us because of the dramatic form his thought was given in the dialogues written by the young Plato, who looked to him as the epitome of the human things.

In his discussion of the degeneration of regimes in Book VIII of Plato’s Republic, Socrates describes the behavior of people in a democracy, the last political form before tyranny sets in. He shows the uncomely, frenetic swings that typify democratic peoples in the following way. He begins by asking Adeimantus,

Aren’t they above all free? The city is bursting with liberty and freedom of speech, and permits everyone to do whatever he wants… And where this is permitted, each citizen will arrange his own life privately, however he pleases… So this regime, I think, will produce a multifarious variety of people. Like a variegated cloak splashed with every color, democracy is embellished with every personality and may appear the most gorgeous; and many, gaping like women and children at its colors, perhaps will judge it the most beautiful.

Continuing to agree, the young man, responds, “They certainly will.” The ironic Socrates proceeds to explain an interesting kind of advantage in democracy to the student of politics:

And, you know, it’s just the place to go shopping for a regime… Because it’s permissive and has every kind, so that anyone who wants to construct a city, as we just did, ought to shop in a democracy as in a regime bazaar, select the style he likes, and found his city accordingly… And its total lack of compulsion, so that even if competent you don’t have to rule, or be ruled…., or fight … or keep peace…if you don’t want to,–isn’t that way of life divinely sweet in the short run?.. How about its indulgence…, its lofty contempt for the pretentious nonsense we discussed earlier when we were founding our city and said that no one, unless he has a transcendent nature, will ever become a good man without having played in and practiced beautiful pursuits from childhood-how magnificently they trample all that underfoot and don’t care what pursuits a man has gone through to get into politics-they’ll honor him if only he says he’s a friend of the people… These and other kindred traits characterize democracy, delightful, anarchic, colorful regime, it seems, that dispenses ‘equality’ equally to equals and unequals alike. 

The democrat fails to distinguish between necessary and unnecessary desires. He is like one of the lotus eaters in the Odyssey, Socrates says. I take this to mean that the democratic soul goes around in a drugged state having forgotten the homeland of his soul’s excellence. When attacked by a “mob of desires,” he responds by granting a kind of equality to his pleasures and “submits the rule of himself to whichever one turns up-as if chosen by lot-until he’s sated, then to another, and so on: he dishonors none but treats them as equals.” Now this emerging democrat is the child of a stingy oligarch who fails to let his son play and practice “beautiful pursuits.” The “citadel (intelligence) of the young man’s soul” thus is seized by this mob of desires. Why is the young man so vulnerable? Precisely because he has been “abandoned by learning, beautiful pursuits, and true argument, the best guardians and sentinels in the minds of god-beloved men.” We could say that this democratic city, preoccupied with love with wealth, has orphaned the souls of its youth. It has not given them a beautiful home.

Now how does Socrates describe the mature democrat? Here is that description. One might think of it as describing our own culture:

So, he lives from day to day, gratifying whatever desire happens to turn up-now drinking to the sound of flutes, now wasting away and drinking only water; now exercising, now loafing around indifferent to everything; and sometimes pretending to dabble in philosophy. Often he gets involved in politics and jumps up and says and does whatever comes into his head. If he admires some military men he drifts into that; if businessmen, into that. There’s no order of or necessity in his life, but he calls it blissful, free, and pleasant, and clings to it to the end.

Adeimantus comments, “A perfect description of the man who grants equal rights to everything.” Socrates concludes, “I think this is the multifarious man of many personalities, colorful and gorgeous like his city.”

In other Platonic dialogues, Socrates blames Pericles for bringing Athens to this low state, the kind of regime immediately preceding the degeneration into tyranny. Yes, she’s gorgeous, and she’s colorful, but she lacks harmony of soul, unity, and inner excellence. The division within citizens’ souls is reflected in the divisions and factions within the body politic as a whole. Socrates faults Pericles for changing Athens from a simple city to a port city, making her commercial and acquisitive. He blames him for the very rhetoric that deludes Athens into thinking she is invulnerable; she expects tribute from her sister cities, lording it over them while she herself remains self-indulgent. Socrates judges Pericles to be one of the two most unjust Athenians.

Aristotle is also a critic of democracy. He too places it among the incorrect regimes. But it’s interesting that Aristotle, not an Athenian himself but a resident scholar, as it were, is more careful mot to make the sort of frontal attack on democracy that his teacher’s teacher did. For Aristotle, monarchy, the rule of the wise, is the best regime, and after that is the rule of the virtuous few, but both types are hard to come by and to maintain. Socrates, after all, could only posit his philosopher-king, but the more plausible alternative was a young beautiful tyrant under the influence of a philosopher-a risky proposition, as Plato’s efforts in Sicily showed. Aristotle thought the rule of law, the rule of intellect without appetite, would be most practical under a mixed regime, where the arrogance of the few rich would be balanced by the number of the free, envious, poor many. A middling sort of person would result, with sufficient virtue (moderation) and attachment to the regime, to be public-minded. On balance, the two parts of the city might make each other act right and actually think about the common good.

The image of the common good in Aristotle is culinary, wonderfully appropriate to the things of the belly, which, derisively, the many are generally associated with, but contrarily, we might add, it is the organ of the belly which takes in the world’s body turning it into one’s own self. Whereas Socrates gives us the image of the multi-colored cloak, considered gorgeous by women and children, Aristotle gives us the image of a feast, a great banquet, to describe the display and the bounty of democracy. In Book III of his Politics, he draws this analogy: “just as dinners contributed by many can be better than those equipped from a single expenditure. For because they are many, each can have part of virtue and prudence, and on their joining together, the multitude, with its many feet and hands and having many senses, becomes like a single human being, and so also with respect to character and mind.” A few chapters later he repeats the point: Perhaps there is the best man, but

the city is made up of many persons, just as a feast to which many contribute is finer than a single and simple one, and on this account a crowd also judges many matters better than any single person. Further, what is many is more incorruptible; like a greater amount of water, the multitude is more incorruptible than the few. The judgment of a single person is necessarily corrupted when he is dominated by anger or some other passion of this sort, whereas it is hard for all to become angry and at the same time.

So here we have it on Aristotle’s authority that democracy can offer an improvement over monarchy and aristocracy in restraining the passions. It can indeed moderate and maintain order.

He goes on to say something which, for the purposes of our discussion of beauty is illuminating: “Thus the many are also better judges of the works of music and of the poets; some appreciate a certain part, and all of them all the parts.” He suggests that because the multitude is made up of a gathering of many parts, like a painting, it can be much more beautiful than any one human being. Take the most beautiful parts from the many imperfect wholes, and you are more likely to achieve a beautiful whole, if it is a made thing, and not natural. In any case, it is not prudent to leave the many, if they are of a decent sort, outside of political participation. If they cannot rule, i.e., hold offices, they should be able to participate in deliberating and judging; otherwise, the city will have within it a majority who are its enemies. Even so, if the majority generally do not have the habit of good personal or self-rule, how can they judge the virtue of others to rule over them? Aristotle’s answer is long. But here’s the point, in one of his typically down-to-earth answers: “The maker of a house, for example, is not the only one to have some knowledge of it, but the one who uses it judges better than he does, and the one who uses it is the household manager, and a pilot judges rudders better than the carpenter, and the diner, not the cook, is the better judge of a banquet.”

Let us turn to imagine the implications of Aristotle’s recurring image of the diner and the feast prepared by many hands in terms of that constant Platonic concern with an education in the beautiful. In Classic TextsDonald Cowan goes on to charge that “we are failing dismally to invite all to the feast.” Let me put his point in political terms. Democratic education paradoxically is aristocratic, the finest grooming of every citizen. In affirming his vision of universal education, he writes, “Schools, like churches, have to extend salvation to all-and have to mean their offer. If every soul is precious in the sight of God, so too is every mind in the vast structure of this repository of values that the school represents, brought from all over the world, from other times and places.” We might restate our Constitution’s Preamble in the following way:We, the People, the diners and the cooks, the feast-goers and the chefs, want the whole world to join us in celebrating the most important insight into humanity-our equality. Melville will herald our open feast, and to do so we will have to steal his lines from Moby Dick. In the characters of Ishmael and Queequeq, our great epic poet configured the gap between royalty and the orphaned American soul quite a bit differently than the noble Burke. Queequeg, the idol-worshiping cannibal from a place not even on the map, is the nobleman, and Ishmael, the nearly suicidal melancholy former schoolteacher, is the plebeian. Queequeq is on a quest similar to that of the formidable Czar Peter; he’s, noble, like George Washington. Friendship with him is not imaginable outside of the democratic world of which the Pequod is a metaphor:

But this August dignity I treat of is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which on all hands, radiates without end form God; Himself! The great God absolute! The centre and circumference of all democracy! His omnipresence, our divine equality! (Chpt. 26)

Ishmael’s high praise for democracy is followed by ascribing the status of Knights and Squires to the shipmates. Can we say, following the imaginative power of our greatest American epic, that the “Spirit of Equality” while it, as Tocqueville says, eliminates high virtue so as to make many more virtuous, is also centered in the Creator himself and is the center of his design? Can we assume the Melvillian perspective and hereafter ascribe high qualities, though dark, to “meanest mariners, and renegades and castaways; weave round them tragic graces?” Dare we allow Melville to “touch that workman’s arm with some ethereal light” to “spread a rainbow over his [our own] disastrous set of sun?” Shall we, unlike Pericles, who didn’t think he needed Homer– shall we “against all mortal critics,”– have the courage to invoke with our epic poet that “just Spirit of Equality, which has spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my kind! Bear me out in it, thou great democratic God!…. Thou who, in all Thy mighty, earthly marchings, ever cullest Thy selectest champions from the kingly commons; bear me out in it, O God!” (Chpt. 26)

I’ve shown myself to be a self-indulgent democrat in the unremitting way I have dismissed the regime most committed to a great human good, liberty. And like the prototypical democrat so cheerfully bashed by Socratic irony, I will now flit over to the other argument, use my habitual democratic forgetfulness as an excuse, along with the Aristotelian claim that, after all, women can’t be expected to be reasonable all the time. They are, as much as men are, Aristotle observes, but they are also far more passionate. Here, right now, I’ll take that Aristotelian chauvinism as a useful way out of what can only be regarded, at first hearing, as blatant inconsistency.

We may not have a hierarchy in our political structure, though it is a beautiful regime, believe me, but our communities can be taught, by studying it carefully, yet another way to distinguish the beautiful from the luxurious, the elegant from the excessive. Briefly, one such teaching lies in the teaching on separation of powers which effects a delay-deemed inefficient by its unknowing critics-between a people’s desire and its achievement. It is that space “betwixt the majority’s cup and lip,” as one admirer of the form put it, that contributes to the beauty of the American democratic form. It’s a slowing down process, like courtship. And when we speed up our political processes, thinking we make them more efficient like our corporations, we lose the form. I remember the first time my students saw this. For years I had been teaching Democracy in America, and students had usually found in its wonderfully descriptive passages a mental relief from the hard work of following the arguments on behalf of the Constitution made by our founders in the FederalistPapers. But this one year, the students fell in love with the form of the Federalist Papers. They knew what form of life they had been born into and felt grateful for the achievement of it. They had seen the foundation-the will of the people, the parts-the nation and the states, the three branches of government, the complementary nature of them, their interrelatedness, and the brilliance of the arguments throughout the ordered harmony imagined in those papers. They saw the form, aiming at the selection of wise and virtuous men within the stability of liberty, and therefore they saw the less than stellar officeholders in an altogether different light; their dismay, though, was accompanied by the greater power of hope. Something new was brought into being again by their wonder, and the beautiful synchronization of all the parts had a whole new group of citizens to admire it and tweak it, where needed. But like true lovers, their first impulse was not improving the beloved, but looking at her noble form. They couldn’t take enough of her in.

Now Donald Cowan’s point is especially important here : “True nobility,…as a few people in every culture have understood, fosters in all the ability to participate in a world of spirit and intellect, of imagination and value, where, far from being limited to the few, the good is increased by the more who participate.” This view–giving all, all of the best, as Robert Hutchins argued– is the only way to correct for what Tocqueville nailed as the democrat’s major love, the “love of comfort, the dominant national taste.” This is how Tocqueville describes this taste:

There is no question of building vast palaces, of conquering or excelling nature, or sucking the world dry to satisfy one man’s greed. It is more a question of adding a few acres to one’s fields, planting an orchard, enlarging a house, making life ever easier and more comfortable, keeping irritations away, and satisfying one’s slightest needs without trouble and without expense. They are petty aims, but the soul cleaves to them; it dwells on them every day and in great detail; in the end they shut out the rest of the world and sometimes come between the soul and God.

So, unlike the democratic man described by Socrates, stung by the bees of unnecessary desires, Tocqueville describes the American democrat as “more prone to become enervated than debauched.” We’re just worn out; in our own last century, we might put it this way: there will never be the sixties again. Eros is gone. Pirated away with the loss of the beautiful, then a youthful ideal, eros is now held hostage by the will to power of the Digerati, who make convenience the attraction of the time-saving, liberating, and omnipresent computer.

“Are you comfortable with this?” “Are you comfortable with this idea?” These fairly recent expressions of good manners have become our way of avoiding looking at things or thoughts with an eye to the verities. Beauty alone has the power to turn us away from this “commodious living,” the dominant taste of a peace-loving commercial republic. Fortunately, no matter what regime we live under, we are all called to beauty, and I have been attempting to suggest that our regime, though she has two contradictory principles, acquisitiveness and moderation, ought to make her the centerpiece of the banquet. And the one art that above all can make that happen is universal, classical, imaginative education. All are called to it. The word for beautiful in Greek, kalos, comes from the verb meaning “to call.” The great thinker on beauty, Dionysius, the Areopagite, explains that God, as “The Beauty” calls all things to Himself. (Thomas Aquinas in Exposition of Dionysius on the Divine Names, Chpt. 4, Lect. 5-6) Louise Cowan reminded us that it was in that primal Beauty that Augustine found a rest to his disordered desires. Hans Urs Von Balthasar in his introduction to his five volume work, The Glory of God, writes that “Beauty is the word that shall be our first.” Like the participants in the dialogue the Symposium (the banquet), and very much along the lines that Louise Cowan and Joanne Stroud spoke, Balthasar sees a disturbing unwillingness to talk about beauty. The word has fallen out of favor. He warns against dismissing her through boorishness, fear of her, or indifference:

Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendour around the double constellation of the true and good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man. We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with her in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past-whether he admits it or not-can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.

Von Balthasar next calls up the image of Helen of Troy but not on the ramparts overlooking the Achaian armies, the old men of Troy in awe of her in spite of all the trouble her beauty has caused. No, he calls up the image of her embracing Faust, when her body vanishes and leaves in his arms only her robe and her veil. The world, formerly penetrated by the light from the rim of the cosmos in the Phaedrus, or from God’s light, now becomes a Romantic vision-a dream. Faust himself disappears in a cloud, and Von Balthasar comments that, when the cloud disappears, there is nothing left to embrace. “And yet something must be embraced.” “Man is /then/ urged to enter this impossible marriage with matter, a union which finally spoils all man’s taste for love.” Balthasar observes, “But man cannot bear to live with the object of his impotence, that which remains permanently unmastered. He must either deny it or conceal it in the silence of death.” The implications for the good, the source of an ethical life, are enormous. “In a world without beauty-even if people cannot dispense with the word and constantly have it on the tip of their tongues in order to abuse it-man stands before the good and asks himself why it must be done and not rather its alternative, evil. For this, too, is a possibility, and even the more exciting one.”

Now democratic seemliness, or beauty, let us say, is the very domain of free choice. Given the old Thomistic definition of beauty which draws greatly on Plato, “that which pleases when it is perceived,” the choices of freedom to be beautiful-and thus to please-should be good. We should not be ashamed of our choices. Shame is the very characteristic of the ugly, physically or spiritually. Good regimes of any form, depend on a sense of shame to keep the ugly-the displeasing–from appearing. And, self-government, more than any other regime, as Madison points out, depends on a virtuous people. Again, to cite, Gadamer’s Platonic observation: “It is by virtue of the beautiful that we are able to acquire a lasting remembrance of the true world.” In the Phaedrus, the wings of the soul, with which all humans began, fall off because of forgetfulness. It is those wings that allow the soul to apprehend the forms of truth and the good. In this world, the world of opinion and shadows, the beautiful has the capacity to call us back to that original vision, what Augustine would, in the context of Revelation call, the primal felicity. Gadamer again: “…however unexpected our encounter with beauty may be, it gives us an assurance that the truth does not lie far off and inaccessible to us, but can be encountered in the disorder of reality with all its imperfections, evils, errors, extremes, and fateful confusions. The ontological function of the beautiful is to bridge the chasm between the ideal and the real.”

I would like to close with some final reflections on freedom. Hannah Arendt in her important book, The Life of the Mind (1971) , claims that the two foundation legends of Western civilization are the Hebrew and the Roman. Both, she writes,

are utterly different from each other, except that both arose among people that thought of its past as a story whose beginning was known and could be dated. Much more striking, and fraught with much more serious consequences for our tradition of political thought, is the astounding fact that both legends…hold that in the case of foundation…the inspiring principle of action is love of freedom, and this both in the negative sense of liberation from oppression and in the positive sense of the establishment of Freedom as a stable, tangible reality.

What was decisive both for the Israelites under Moses, escaping from the slavery of Pharaoh, and for the Trojans under Aeneas, fleeing the fires of vanquished Troy, was that, as she argues, “there was a hiatus between disaster and salvation, between liberation form the old order and the new freedom, embodied in the novus ordo saeclorum, a “a new order of the ages” with whose rise the world had structurally changed.” “Indeed” she writes, ” it would be tempting to use the rise of the United States of America as a historical example of the truth of old legends, like a verification of Locke’s ‘in the beginning all the world was America.’ The colonial period would be interpreted as the transition from bondage to freedom-the hiatus between leaving England and the Old World and the establishment of freedom in America.”

Very self-conscious of these classical connections, the founders create a new order in time, a new Rome, a different Rome. During their hiatus, the ancient gods lacking, and the age of enlightenment in place, they take the creator God of the Hebrews as their foundation in principle. So, just like the Romans as exemplified in Virgil’s Aeneid, the American founders go back to go forward. They look to the ancient ones, the ancestors, in order to claim something new. They go behind the wall, as it were, to indeed bring something new under the sun on their benches in Philadelphia. And they look at all the old democracies before they craft their new one. They teach us that the future of the beauty of self-rule is to be found by looking at the past. The Romans and our own Founding Fathers depended on the old ones, the great works, and their teachers, for memory, for educating memory.

We too must do this. It is no accident that Augustine, whom Arendt calls the only Roman philosopher, investigates the nature of memory to discover that form that has held him together all along. Having been estranged from himself by his lusts, he has wandered from his soul’s center, that essential equality with God that derives from the gift of having been made in conformity to the very image of His beauty. He finds the word to speak, the one word, that democratically unites him with all human longing-and he finds it through his own life, the particular, messy, proud and lusty life that is his. He is new in the very moment he discovers old beauty as new: “Late I have loved you, Oh Beauty, so ancient, so new.” At the beginning of a new millennium, we should flex our democratic muscles and have hope that our future lies in claiming that beauty as our inheritance, for we are the sons and daughters of a divine royalty. Abraham Lincoln, quoting Proverbs said that “A word fitly spoken, was like an apple of gold in a frame of silver.” The word hespoke was equality. You can guess what the frame was.

© The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture – Permission is granted to copy and redistribute this lecture on the condition that the content remains complete and full credit is given to the author.

  • © 2016 Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture - Contact Us - Admin Login -