The Value of Beauty According to Aquinas & Dickens

As many Catholic mothers across the country know, this month’s Well Read Mom book club pick is Hard Times by Charles Dickens. As is typical for Dickens, it contains plenty of dry wit and memorable characters, so I am enjoying it. I’m especially enjoying it as someone who has studied theology and philosophy, and as a homeschooling parent.

Hard Times takes place in Coketown, a grim industrial town that prizes “fact” above all else. The main characters (in particular, the Gradgrind family and Mr. Bounderby) think that emotions, sentiments, and “wonder” are frivolous and unnecessary. In fact. Mr. Gradgrind raises his children to consider nothing but fact — not beauty, not story, not deeper meanings. Not surprisingly, his children reach adulthood battling despair and depression, wondering what there is to live for.

Our family’s homeschooling philosophy is very much influenced by the classical model of education — a  model steeped in the richness of the intellectual tradition. My five year old daughter happily chirps the occasional Latin word and recognizes and enjoys works by Degas, Van Gogh, and Monet. My eight year old enjoys a variety of classic literature, and some of her favorite books include the Little House books, A Little Princess, and The Secret Garden. She also has extensive knowledge of dinosaurs and other scientific facts (thanks in great part to PBS Kids and Amazon Prime streaming and her voracious reading habits). Of course, both girls are learning the basics of math, handwriting, and reading/spelling, but as is typical in Catholic Classical education, even those “factual” subjects are taught with an eye to virtue.

My daughters aren’t just learning facts for the sake of facts. They are seeking wisdom. Of course, they don’t realize that their parents are trying to guide them to what is true, good, and beautiful, but that is the goal of their education. The wisdom they gain isn’t meant to pad a portfolio. It is meant to point the way to God. Whether their pursuit of wisdom points them to graduate school, trade school, motherhood, religious life, or some combination thereof — their education will have been a success. The pursuit of wisdom and what is beautiful is a worthwhile endeavor in and of itself, not just for its practical implications.

 

Unfortunately, our current society has set up facts in opposition to love. This is part of the source of the confusion over the moral teachings of the Church. If love is a feeling, then what do facts matter?

Yet…how can we love that which we do not know?

When my husband and I were dating, we used to talk for hours. Hours. I’m not even sure what we talked about. I just remember that we both had an insatiable desire to learn everything we could about each other. Facts were anything but boring and dispassionate. We wanted to know everything we could about the one we loved.

St. Thomas Aquinas, championed by classical Catholic educators everywhere, is the perfect example of this. His works are assumed to be dry or lofty by many but are anything but. Everything that Thomas did, he did for love. His Summa Contra Gentiles and Summa Theologiae are not a mere catalogue of facts about the faith. They are works of love, meant to show the beauty and richness of the teachings of the Catholic faith.

St. Thomas lived a life of radical love. His family had grand plans for him, but he ran away and fought them in order to join the Dominican order. It may sound humorous to us but becoming a Dominican against his family’s wishes would have seemed like an act of rebellion. Thomas didn’t care. He was focused on his Beloved.

His writings are not only focused on facts, but also on the fittingness of those facts. He does not just answer the what, but also the why. For example, in his explanation of the Incarnation of Christ in the third part of Summa Theologiae, question 1, article 1, he writes,

I answer that, To each things, that is befitting which belongs to it by reason of its very nature; thus, to reason befits man, since this belongs to him because he is of a rational nature. But the very nature of God is goodness…Hence, what belongs to the essence of goodness befits God. But it belongs to the essence of goodness to communicate itself to others…Hence it belongs to the essence of the highest good to communicate itself in the highest manner to the creature, and this is brought about chiefly by “His so joining created nature to Himself that one Person is made up of these three—the Word, a soul and flesh,” as Augustine says (De Trin. xiii). Hence it is manifest that it was fitting that God should become incarnate.”

(Passage quoted from the translation found at New Advent.)

Let’s break down this passage. St. Thomas is explaining that the incarnation is fitting because God made human beings to be rational and to desire to know things. Because God is so perfectly good, he would desire to reveal himself to us in a way we can know him. However, saying that human beings are rational does mean that they are just brains — our rational nature is joined to our physicality. We are body and soul, and both components of us are necessary and good. God knew that what would unite himself to us most perfectly would be uniting himself to human nature — body and soul. The subject of that human nature was the Divine Person of the Son. A more fitting, more perfect, more loving union couldn’t be possible. Because that was what was most loving and fitting, it is how God chose to save us.

The beauty of St. Thomas makes even more sense to me now, as the daughter-in-law of two architects. My mother-in-law and father-in-law have (unintentionally) taught me to see beauty in places that I never noticed it. They both have an attention to detail in buildings that fascinates me, understanding what degree of harmony, balance, and precision is necessary to make a good structure. Before becoming their daughter-in-law, I didn’t really notice the difference between a well-designed building and a poorly designed one. Now that I see the difference, I can’t possibly un-see it. The details and the fittingness of each construction decision made make a big difference in the final product.

St. Thomas is focused on the facts and details that fascinate the divine Architect. God’s attention to detail is stunning, and ongoing. These facts are anything but boring. These facts tell the story of God’s love for his people.

Although Charles Dickens is quite right in his critique of an education that focuses on pure fact, it is important to remember that facts aren’t the enemy. Facts are only problematic when they become idols (as they do in Hard Times). But, as St. Thomas shows us, facts can also be the basis of beauty, so long as our knowledge is regarded with a sense of humility. Famously, St. Thomas abandoned his work at the end of his life, after a vision from God. Faced with the beauty of God, Thomas declared of his work, “It is all straw.” This is the humility we need in education — the humility that makes servants of facts and knowledge, allowing them to accompany us on our journey to God.

image: The Angelic Doctor by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

By

Michele Chronister is a wife, and mother to three little girls and one little one in heaven. She received her BA and MA in theology from the University of Notre Dame (’09 and ’11). She is the author of a number of books, including Handbook for Adaptive Catechesis, the co-author of Faith Beginnings – Family Nurturing from Birth Through Preschool, editor of the book Rosaries Aren't Just for Teething, as well as an assortment of Catholic children's books. In addition to writing, she also homeschools her daughters, and is the social media manager for the Office of Natural Family Planning in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. When her oldest was a baby, she realized that their family life had taken on a sort of monastic rhythm – eat, pray, play, sleep. Prompted by this, she started the blog My Domestic Monastery (www.mydomesticmonastery.com), where she shares inspiration for families wanting to grow in holiness.

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