“The ideals which have always shone before me and filled me with joy are goodness, beauty, and truth.”
At a leadership seminar, I recently ran for senior students from twelve schools, one of the more intriguing conversations I became engaged in during the breaks was with an obviously sincere young Muslim man. He told me that in a discussion with his peers on the essential objective of leadership, he had provoked bewilderment, and not a little laughter, by suggesting that it was beauty.
As he tried to find the words to articulate his conviction, it seemed clear to me, as well as inspiring I might add, that his remarkable insight was purely intuitive rather than the result of a process of discursive reasoning. Yet the imaginative force and sheer audacity of his intuition reflected a finely nurtured young mind that has much to contribute to a world currently bereft of leadership.
I commended the young man for his perceptiveness and tried to briefly provide him with some of the philosophical concepts and references that would enable him to give a more rationally compelling account of his insight. From a personal point of view, he had given me the always welcome whack on the side of the head, alerting me to a very significant perspective on leadership that is largely ignored in a world obsessed by process, skills training, and template thinking.
According to what rationally satisfying principles can I confidently stand alongside my young friend and affirm that the prime objective of leadership is beauty? The radiance and joy Einstein experienced in the presence of goodness, beauty, and truth provide a clue. Significantly, he regarded them as ideals, standards of perfection that people should strive to attain, and here, he echoed a classical and still cogent philosophical tradition.
Beauty, together with Truth and Goodness (capitalised for clarity) is what classical philosophy called transcendentals, that is, concepts that transcend physical reality, and are applicable, in some sense or other, to all things that exist. Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are the criteria by which we judge all things, ourselves, other people, and the world around us. The truth about a thing is the reality of it as it is; the goodness of a thing is its integrity, its fulfilment in being everything it was intended to be. And beauty…well, that’s where things become rather more controversial.
It is reasonable enough to acknowledge that people generally can be deeply moved by the beauty, for example, of the Aurora Borealis or the Mona Lisa. Natural beauty and artistic beauty both have the power to arrest our attention and inspire in us various degrees of joy and satisfaction. This is why Merriam Webster provides what is probably the most apt of the dictionary definitions: “beauty is the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit.”
However, the idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder is both ancient and persistent. The Latin maxim, De gustibus non disputandum est (Roughly: in matters of taste, there is no point arguing), was given intellectual clout by the still popular Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, who asserted: “Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them, and each mind perceives a different beauty.”
In the Modern mindset, with its exaltation of the detached, sovereign individual and the sanctity of personal choice, and also, ironically, in the Postmodern reaction, Hume’s view has gained near universal currency. Beauty, according to conventional thinking, is purely a matter of personal taste. And it wasn’t long before this unsubstantiated subjectivism was being extended to truth and goodness as well: hence, the widespread belief that there is no such thing as absolute truth, and that it is up to each individual to decide what is good for him or her. An often nihilistic relativism has intoxicated western society, and most people stumble through life perpetually inebriated by these unexamined, and socially destructive, assumptions.
For if Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are indeed purely matters for subjective choice, what are we to make of the intriguing insight of Socrates, who told us that “the object of education is to teach us to love what is beautiful”? Might Socrates not reasonably ask of David Hume whether the latter’s conclusion was an absolute truth? In fact, there are many other essential questions that relativism furtively avoids.
Is it true that there is such a thing as human nature? Is it true that human nature finds fulfilment in freedom, knowledge, virtue, family and community, rewarding work, a measure of prosperity, and a clear sense of meaning and purpose in life? And, that being the case, is it not obvious that those are the things that constitute the Good in human life? Their opposites – slavery, ignorance, vice, loneliness, unemployment, poverty, and meaninglessness – are plainly antithetical to human flourishing.
Identifying objective truth and objective goodness is pretty straightforward once you sweep aside all the political correctness and the shamefully ill-informed pseudo-philosophical mumbo-jumbo. But where does that leave beauty? Why would Socrates see beauty as the object of education?
The rigorous philosophical tradition referred to above provides cogent answers to these questions. While the Sophist, Protagoras, gave relativism its still-popular sound-bite when he said, “man is the measure of all things”, far greater philosophers upheld the principle of beauty as an objective reality. Plato believed that all beautiful things reflect in some degree the perfect form of transcendent beauty, Beauty itself, which is necessarily immaterial, and therefore apprehended in the first instance by the intellect, over and above the senses.
Aristotle also saw beauty as the object of contemplation rather than desire. He proposed that the essential properties of beauty were order, symmetry, and clarity, supporting his belief that mathematics is intimately related to beauty. Thomas Aquinas built on Aristotle’s insights and provided the classic definition of beauty: “The beautiful is that which pleases us on being seen” (not by the eyes, but by the mind’s eye). He went on to explain that a beautiful thing gives us immediate and deep satisfaction simply through our intuitive grasp of it.
Immanuel Kant also strenuously refuted the idea that beauty is merely a matter of taste, and emphasised that the aesthetic experience is unique. For Kant too, beauty was more than mere sensory pleasure or the satisfaction of desire, that is, the fulfilment of interests; he recognised that beauty gives immediate pleasure prior to any sensory or rational assent. In other words, appreciating beauty involves knowing the thing observed intuitively rather than discursively: it is a flash rather than a process.
These insights from philosophy, classical and modern, enable us to see that beauty is an objective reality outside of us, even though it is subjective to the extent that it calls for a judgment of personal taste, inevitably shaped by culture and temperament. Significantly, personal taste in anything has to be developed over time: an uncultivated mind is unlikely to appreciate Sophocles or Shakespeare; an untrained ear might find opera uncongenial, and a lack of historical perspective and psychological insight might mislead one to view Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Holofernes as grotesque.
Of course, perspective can also relativize beauty. To the naked eye snowflakes might seem aesthetically unexceptional, yet under magnification, they are revealed as unique and wondrous manifestations of natural beauty. But the basis for our personal judgments, and for discussion and debate, is always objectively there in the world beyond the thinking self. Which is where the standards identified by Aristotle – order, symmetry, and clarity – are instructive.
This all leads us to the rational understanding of beauty as the transcendental quality that evokes immediate wonder and joy when apprehended, not just by the senses, but by the whole person, mind, body, and soul. It is that which radiates truth and goodness and fills us with a sense of awe.