Lately I have been pondering the topic of beauty.
Roger Scruton, a British philosopher whose area of specialty is the study of aesthetics, recently aired a 1-hour special on BBC, a visual essay entitled “Why Beauty Matters.” I was fortunate enough to stumble upon this video, in the way one does stumble upon things on the internet, and it has sent my head spinning.
Towards the beginning of the essay Scruton lays out his thesis, stating in his rich British accent as Giovanni Pergolesi’s haunting Stabat Mater plays in the background: “I think we are losing beauty, and there is a danger that with it we will lose the meaning of life.”
To prove his point, Scruton looks at the world of art and architecture, detailing how in the last century there has been a conscious rebellion by artists against the old ethic of beauty, in which beauty was considered “a value as important as truth or goodness,” towards a new “cult of ugliness,” characterized by selfishness and an endless searching for originality, “however achieved, and at whatever moral cost that won the prizes.”
It is hard to dispute Scruton’s point.
However, there is one especially excellent section of the program that does not have to do with art, and which therefore serves to enlarge his argument. In this section Scruton treats of the typical reaction we might have to a newborn baby.
Consider the joy you might feel when you hold a friend’s baby in your arms. You don’t want to do anything with the baby. You don’t want to eat it, to put it to any use, or to conduct scientific experiments on it. You want simply to look at it and feel the great surge of delight that comes when you focus all your thoughts on this baby, and none at all on yourself.
This experience is what C.S. Lewis once labeled “Joy.” According to Scruton, it is what Emmanual Kant called a “disinterested attitude,” which occurs “when we put our interests to one side, when we look on things not in order to use them for our purposes, or to explain how they work, or to satisfy some need or appetite, but simply to absorb them and endorse what they are. ”
Earlier this year I became a father. What has struck me since the birth of my son is that while I was very much prepared to be a father (inasmuch as one can be prepared), and while I expected to find great joy in fatherhood, I was not prepared for just how great that joy would be. If I had watched Scruton’s program eight months ago, I would not have understood fully his description of what it is like to look at a baby. Like any typical younger man, I had never before taken much interest in babies. I did not dislike them; in fact, I was relatively sure that I liked them quite a bit. But I had certainly never taken the time to “focus all my thoughts” on one.
I have, therefore, been shocked to find that I would willingly spend all day simply contemplating my son, and, what is more, would not feel that I had wasted any time in doing so – on the contrary, I would feel that I had done something extremely worthwhile.
Every human being feels in the depths of their being this pull towards doing absolutely nothing – nothing, that is, except beholding something that is good, and, in the words of Scruton, “absorbing” it and “endorsing” what it is. We feel this pull to suspend all “worthwhile” activities, the activities that produce things, in order to appreciate things. And we intuitively feel that if only we could do this always, we would have peace, and would be exquisitely happy.
Many names have been given to this activity of “appreciation,” but probably the most common is “contemplation.” Interestingly, both the philosophers and poets and the saints have used this term to describe the same core experience, but in reference to two very different things. The philosophers and poets use the term to describe the activity of appreciating some good or beautiful natural thing – like a beautiful idea, or a breath-taking landscape, or a loved one, or a newborn baby. The saints, on the other hand, have used it to describe the experience of absorption into God – the pure, lofty activity of simply pondering Who God is, and worshipping (endorsing) Who He is.
One of the greatest achievements of Christianity has been the manner in which it has given its blessing to both types of contemplation, and woven them together into a seamless and beautiful whole. This was no small task. Throughout history narrow-minded, but often extremely shrewd and determined men have tended to worship one form, and to condemn the other, pitting the two against each other – either praising the spiritual realm, and condemning all things natural, or worshipping the natural world, and denying even the existence of the spiritual.
Christianity, however, has always avoided such narrowness, affirming that while God is the Ultimate Good, the contemplation of nature can be a powerful and effective method of discovering Who God is – in the understanding that the author (God) can never entirely remove himself from his work (nature). This has led to Christianity’s being the greatest source of beauty that the world has ever yet seen – a religion teeming with Churches of the most astonishing harmony, complexity, and majesty (think St. Peter’s or Notre Dame), with paintings and frescoes and statues that defy description (Michaelangelo’s Pieta, Caravaggio’s St. Paul), and liturgies celebrated to the sounds of musical compositions of heart-rending sublimity (Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, mentioned earlier in this article).
This all began, however, with the nativity.
In the stable in Bethlehem, nature and God were allied so intimately that, in some mysterious way, they were contained within the same newborn baby. We do not understand this mystery. We cannot understand it. However, what we can understand is the effect that this union of man and God has had upon the world.
One of these effects is that it introduced beauty into the world, in a way that had never before been seen.
In the stable in Bethlehem, nature and God were clearly seen not to be opposed to one another, but allies in the task of saving the human race. In the world of nature, there is perhaps nothing more beautiful than a newborn baby. And in all the universe there is nothing more beautiful than God Himself. In the manger, these two beauties were brought together, and the combination of the two was so explosive, so volatile, that it altered the face of the earth.
What has always distinguished Christmas from any other time of year is its painfully acute beauty. It is full of sounds and sights and smells that lift one’s spirit, that are designed to be transporting. But in our broken and materialistic age this beauty has become a cause of despair for so many, because so many do not know or understand what they are being transported towards. Everything about Christmas demands that we consider something greater than ourselves, that we abandon all thoughts of ourselves, and focus all of our thoughts on this other thing. But we no longer know what this other thing is. Therefore we try to fill the void, and the essence of the season’s celebration is reduced to “the holiday spirit,” or “brotherhood,” or “peace,” or “giving.” But none of these things can fully satisfy. Hence, the “Christmas blues.”
No, the satisfaction of the yearning in our hearts inspired by the rich traditions of Christmas can only be found in the stable in Bethlehem. There the sublime natural beauties of birth and baby are joined together with the supernatural beauty of God. The consequence is that when we truly encounter the Christmas mystery it engages our whole being – our senses, our emotions, our intellect, our will – raising us above ourselves until we are forced to our knees, overcome with a feeling of awe at the sheer, breathtaking sublimity of the thing.
We will know, then, that we are celebrating Christmas well when we have taken at least a few moments to focus all of our thoughts on the beauty of Bethlehem, and none at all on ourselves – when we “absorb” this great mystery and simply “endorse” what it is.