Impoliteness and the Loss of Beauty

As an addendum to my post of yesterday, which looked at the way in which Beauty, Goodness and Truth are inextricably linked to one another, I would like to consider today the implications this may have for the decrease in common courtesy we find in contemporary society – a decrease in courtesy of both word and deed, where the holding open of doors and giving up of seats has declined just as much as the use of ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in everyday conversation. I would not want to assert that these things have disappeared completely from our common life of course, nor attempt to invoke a mythical era where everybody was nice to each other and spoke well of one another – all I contend here is that, relatively speaking, courtesy seems to be rarer.

The way in which this might be linked to relativism, and the way in which the three Transcendentals mutually inform and enrich one another, can be seen via a closer examination of those relationships. As I suggested in my previous post, a consideration of the Beautiful can and does often lead one to a realisation or deeper appreciation of the True and/or the Good. With respect to beautiful ideas, their symmetry, harmony or grace can lead us to reflect upon why it is that such things appeal to us, and so whether or not they might themselves have their roots in something stable and abiding – that if an idea may be beautiful and this beauty possesses us in some objective way, whether the truths they claim to represent might not also have a similar character.

Similarly, as the life of a saint may seem beautiful and compelling to us because of its integrity and purity of intention, this can lead us to consider whether the things that they strive for might have a reality to them which we otherwise choose to ignore – i.e.; we are led to consider whether the Good might not be so relative after all, but something authentic, objective and alive. Furthermore, in the arts we are often presented with visions that speak to us of both Goodness and Truth, and that present them to us with such clarity and harmony, that embed the Good and the True so deeply within the vision, that we cannot avoid their claims – the Beauty of the thing is so insistent and compelling precisely because of the way in which Goodness and Truth constitute its very essence.

Now, if this is true, and the three Transcendentals are as deeply interlinked as I believe they are, then it would follow that denial or suppression of one of them will inevitably lead to a diminishment of the others. Thus, in a relativistic age, where the existence of objective truth is denied, the idea that moral values have an objective foundation will find less acceptance. What is less clear though is that this will (and indeed has) in turn lead to a denial of the Beautiful – to saying that we cannot possibly say what is or isn’t beautiful and/or to re-branding things that would previously have been seen as unsightly or distasteful as examples of beauty.

Moreover, this denial of Beauty will itself feed back into the triad, and will lead our behaviour to become less beautiful – we create an ugly environment for ourselves (sometimes by calling it beautiful, sometimes just on the basis that utility rules and there is no such thing as beauty anyhow) and our morals also become ugly; we cite differences of opinion in artistic matters as an indication that all those opinions are equally valid (or equally not), and end up doing the same with our behaviour. We have created a culture that claims a supermarket to be just as beautiful as Chartres Cathedral, and are surprised when people see shoving someone out of the way to be just as acceptable as saying excuse me.

I admit that these ideas are more intuitive than based on any systematic thinking out of the relationships that I’ve outlined above, but it does seem to me that such relationships do exist, and that a society or culture which encourages the demolition and remoulding of the Beautiful must also inevitably be one that has to face a growing amount of ugly behaviour. Similarly, such a society, in encouraging the idea that all morality is relative, an idea which will always lead to a decrease in decency and charity, will always produce an atmosphere in which it is not only easier to develop bad habits (or one could say, to reject beautiful values) but also easier to reject beautiful things.

Thankfully, whilst relativism still enjoys a great deal of popularity in the West, and therefore does affect the way people think, behave, and view the world to a great extent, the natural capacity of human beings to appreciate Truth, Goodness, and Beauty has not and will not be completely quashed. Although perhaps a majority would now pay lip service to the idea that aesthetics is just a matter of taste, it would be difficult to find many people who genuinely think that the glass boxes of modern architecture are as beautiful as Sainte-Chappelle, or that the Niteroi Contemporary Art museum in Rio de Janeiro is anything other than (ahem) ‘interesting’ to look at.

Similarly, no matter how much people decry the claims made for objective morality, they also know very well what sort of behaviour they would and would not like to abound in their communities, and know that this is not just a matter of personal preference – they know, deep down, that some things are right and some things are wrong. And this perhaps cuts to the heart of the matter – our age, which is also characterised by a distinctly materialist kind of rationalism, is deeply uncomfortable with the idea that a.) There are some things we just know, that we intuit and take as properly basic for the rest of the way we think and live, and that b.) We also recognise that these things must be grounded in something that transcends the particularities and contingencies of community and culture.

Having been conditioned to believe that all that ‘really’ exists is what we can know through our five senses, and that pure naked reason will help us make sense of that data, we are loathe to admit the existence of things that are axiomatic but non-sensory. Even more so, that the nature of these things must necessarily be transcendental as well as non-material is an affront to all we have been led to believe; it is thus understandable that we embrace relativism as a bulwark against the objective claims of the Good, the True and the Beautiful. And yet, these things continue to impress themselves upon us, and ultimately we cannot give a coherent account of reality without them. That we continue to feel their force, and that they continue to make nonsense of the relativist version of things, is a hopeful thing indeed. Ideology will always lose out to reality, and the more we defer to the latter, the more beautiful our behaviour will become.

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