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Beauty, according to the Thomists, is
But it is more ineffable than that. David Bentley Hart is more expansive:
“Beauty is something other than the visible or audible or conceptual agreement of parts, and the experience of beauty can never be wholly reduced to any set of material constituents. It is something mysterious, prodigal, often unanticipated, even capricious. We can find ourselves suddenly amazed by some strange and indefinable glory in a barren field, an urban ruin, the splendid disarray of a storm-wracked forest, and so on.Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss 279-280
But in this evil age, the concept of beauty is being subject to the standard word games. The concept behind the word, however difficult to define, is essentially being deconstructed on two fronts. Some claim that beauty is an invention of the mind, especially the minds of men, and therefore needs to be rejected. Others seek to force the word beautiful to refer to that which is not beautiful, neither in the eye of the beholder nor by objective assessment. One remembers that there are four lights:
What modern art and other forces are attempting to do is get you to look at that which is ugly and call it beautiful. Seriously, watch this documentary some time:
If we call ugly beautiful, we become more comfortable calling false tue and evil good. Once we become so comfortable with self-deception, we find ourselves unable to discern the difference between any of those categories any more.
Isaiah 5:20 (NET): Those who call evil good and good evil are as good as dead, who turn darkness into light and light into darkness, who turn bitter into sweet and sweet into bitter.
Dallas Willard noticed and described in detail the process by which mass media led to replacing beauty and wisdom with the clever and cute. The process he describes is worth the price of The Divine Conspiracy. The book is about how to connect to Christ in a world where absurdity reigns, even in the Christian churches. But the opening chapters explain the philosophical, theological, sociological, and ecclesiastical trends that made things so weird in the United States. Willard had obviously become very suspicious of mass media. One principle he outlines elsewhere in his book is that the results you get are the precise outcome of the system you use or have designed. So he had to see that a great deal of what he describes below was intentional.
The question to ask, of course, is why would anybody think that smothering the world in platitudes, inanity, nihilism, and sensualism is a good idea?
Cuteness, like cleverness, has certain aesthetic possibilities—as do sex and violence—but they are very limited. Picasso is the most familiar and brilliant illustration of how it can be well used, and of how it goes to seed. But as we now know, masses of people can be cute, and clever as well, who have no ability or sense of art at all. As creators and consumers they fill the field of pop culture today, which is an economic enterprise and only by accident occasionally has something to do with art. Art objects are now commonly referred to as “product” by those who handle them and only make news when they are sold for absurdly large sums or are stolen.
Art is lost in pop “art” as sport is lost in professional “sport”—which is an oxymoron of the strongest kind. Absurdity reigns, and confusion makes it look good. Currently, through pop “art” and the media the presumed absurdity of life that elites previously had to be very brilliant and work very hard to appreciate is mindlessly conveyed to hundreds of millions. It comes to us in Bart and Homer Simpson and endless sitcoms and soap operas involving doctors, lawyers, and policemen, along with the bizarre selections and juxtapositions imposed by what is called news. You have only to “stay tuned,” and you can arrive at a perpetual state of confusion and, ultimately, despair with no effort at all…
In the shambles of fragmented assurances from the past, our longing for goodness and rightness and acceptance— and orientation— makes us cling to bumper slogans, body graffiti, and gift shop nostrums that in our profound upside-down-ness somehow seem deep but in fact make no sense: “Stand up for your rights” sounds so good. How about “All I ever needed to know I learned in kindergarten”? And “Practice random kindnesses and senseless acts of beauty”? And so forth.
Such sayings contain a tiny element of truth. But if you try to actually plan your life using them you are immediately in deep, deep trouble. They will head you 180 degrees in the wrong direction. You might as well model your life on Bart Simpson or Seinfeld. But try instead “Stand up for your responsibilities” or “I don’t know what I need to know and must now devote my full attention and strength to finding out” (consider Prov. 3:7 or 4:7) or “Practice routinely purposeful kindnesses and intelligent acts of beauty.” Putting these into practice immediately begins to bring truth, goodness, strength, and beauty into our lives. But you will never find them on a greeting card, plaque, or bumper. They aren’t thought to be smart. What is truly profound is thought to be stupid and trivial, or worse, boring, while what is actually stupid and trivial is thought to be profound…
…In fact, the popular sayings attract only because people are haunted by the idea from the intellectual heights that life is, in reality, absurd. Thus the only acceptable relief is to be cute or clever. In homes and on public buildings of the past, words of serious and unselfconscious exhortation, invocation, and blessing were hung or carved in stone and wood. But that world has passed. Now the law is “Be cute or die.” The only sincerity bearable is clever insincerity. That is what the clothing and greeting card graffiti really scream out. The particular “message” doesn’t matter.Willard, Dallas (2009-02-06). The Divine Conspiracy (pp. 9-10). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Below is Josephus’ comment on the superiority of Moses’s legislation to the Greek laws:
The reason why the constitution of this legislation was ever better directed to the utility of all than otherFlavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987).
legislationswere, is this, that Moses did not make religion a part of virtue, but he saw and he ordained other virtues to be parts of religion; I mean justice, and fortitude, and temperance, and a universal agreement of the members of the community with one another; (171) for all our actions and studies, and all our words [in Moses’s settlement] have a reference to piety towards God; for he hath left none of these in suspense, or undetermined; for there are two ways of coming at any sort of learning and a moral conduct of life; the one is by instruction in words, the other by practical exercises. (172) Now, other lawgivers have separated these two ways in their opinions,and choosingone of those ways of instruction, or that which best pleased every one of them,neglected the other. Thus did the Lacedemonians and the Cretans teach by practical exercises, but not by words: while the Athenians, and almost all the other Grecians, made laws about what was to be done,or left undone, but had no regard to the exercising them thereto in practice.
This is a remarkable observation of human nature. We’re naturally religious and superstitious. And while the logical arguments for virtue seem to hold, they are hardly capable of overcoming our superstitious desire to base our lives on our feelings and to expect a logical result. So Moses, instead of teaching religion as a part of virtue, Moses taught virtue as a part of religion and taught a religion that demanded virtue. Josephus goes on to argue that with respect to the two types of instruction in virtue, the law of Moses is superior because, “But for our legislator, he very carefully joined these two methods of instruction together; for he neither left these practical exercises to go on without verbal instruction, nor did he permit the hearing of the law to proceed without the exercises for practice…”
A monk should always act as if he was going to die tomorrow; yet he should treat his body as if it was going to live for many years. The first cuts off the inclination to listlessness, and makes the monk more diligent; the second keeps his body sound and his self control well balanced.
Now, meditating on death as a spiritual discipline is long attested in Scripture (Ecclesiastes 12:1-7) and other authors of antiquity, like Epictetus:
Day by day you must keep before your eyes death and exile and everything else that seems frightening, but most especially death; and then you’ll never harbour any mean thought, nor will you desire anything beyond due measure. (Enchiridion 21)
But what interested me in Evagrius’ little note on watchfulness was his concern that the monk care for his body. We should live each day as though eternity awaits us on the other side, but we should care for our body as though we were going to live a long time. In the current year, it is apparently verboten to pursue physical ideals or attempt to establish them at all, but the fact is that insofar as it depends on us (for some bodily care is literally out of reach due to injury or congenital difficulties), the way we care for our bodies is reflective of and contributes to our spiritual well-being. Why? Because our body is our first bit of the earth to rule (Genesis 1:26-2:7) and because the state of our body directly affects our state of mind.