Beauty for Truth’s Sake
On the Re-enchantment of Education
Stratford Caldecott (Brazos, 2009)
156 p. First reading.
Stratford Caldecott is the director of Oxford University’s Center for Faith and Culture, and also editor of Sophia Institute Press and the online journal Second Spring. This little book, which punches above its weight, is ostensibly a proposal for the renovation of educational theory and the renewal of education, but is really a proposal for the renovation and renewal of the Western mind.
Of the many problems with contemporary education in the West, Caldecott stresses the fragmentation of academic subjects, which tends to the fragmentation of context and meaning. This fragmentation, which has progressed to the point that some have even ceased to consider it a problem (expressing, as it does, the incommensurability of rival discourses, the conventionality and relativity of truth, and the imperative to ‘celebrate diversity’), is troubling because education forms the soul, and a fragmented education forms a fragmented soul whose orientation toward truth, beauty, and goodness is confused. Contemporary education is more effective at producing non-judgemental citizens for a pluralistic state than it is about teaching us to love that which is beautiful — which is what Socrates said was the object of education. To the extent that “non-discrimination” and “values-free education” are pursued as objectives, education perversely sets itself at odds with both logic and virtue and thereby undermines itself, for a well-ordered soul is a prerequisite for the perception and contemplation of truth.
The dis-integration of the mind, as expressed in the balkanization of academic disciplines, is revealed most obviously in the fissure that runs between the humanities, on the one hand, and the sciences and mathematics, on the other. It is the latter disciplines that have gained the cultural ascendancy, and the form of reason cultivated by such disciplines — mathematical reason — has thereby assumed an honoured position in our culture, which dominance has tended to downgrade in prestige, and atrophy in practice, other kinds of reasoning. By now the calculative, instrumental reason of the sciences has progressed quite far in the colonization of the humanities, which is why we see departments of English and philosophy doing “research” on the scientific model, or schools of art whose whole subject matter seems to be technique, and so on. The narrowing of reason’s scope has also damaged the relationship between reason and faith, for instrumental reason alone, detached from moral and aesthetic reasoning, can have little to contribute to religion, and little to gain from the association.
All of this has been said often enough. Caldecott’s interesting proposal in this book is that recovery should begin with re-enlarging our conception of reason by bringing science and mathematics back into contact with poetry and imagination, and the key to doing so, he argues, is beauty: beauty can rescue reason from ratiocination, and beauty can be the bridge that reconnects the sciences and the humanities.
Renewal, Caldecott remarks, is often ressourcement, a return to sources. In this case he proposes that we return for inspiration to the Pythagorean tradition. For Pythagoras the world was “number”, and though there is debate about just what this meant, it seems that it was conceptually rich enough to ground a religious, or at least quasi-religious, way of life. In the medieval period, the Pythagorean stress on the importance of number was absorbed into the educational curriculum. The quadrivium, which included more than half of the standard subjects of study, was devoted to mathematics: arithmetic, music (number in time), geometry (number in space), and astronomy (number in time and space), and it was understood that the study of such subjects was a preparation, and a suitable one, for the study of theology, for prayer, and for the contemplation of God.
Understanding why mathematics was thought to be a suitable preparation for such things is perplexing to moderns. Caldecott quotes Simone Weil’s comment about prayer consisting of attentiveness to God, and mathematics as developing the soul’s capacity for such attentiveness, but personally I think this falls short of being an adequate explanation. The value of mathematics was not just in the habits of mind it cultivated, but in the subject matter itself, which provided insight into the deep structure of the world, and therefore into the mind and purposes of the Creator. Number had an essential aesthetic quality too: the Pythagoreans famously believed that the cosmos reverberated with Musica — order — a harmony beautiful beyond words and beyond sense perception, but able to be grasped by the intellect. Training in the quadrivium, each subject of which is a particular manifestation of Musica, educated the soul to be capable of seeing and knowing this fundamental beauty.
Clearly, the Pythagorean tradition relied on, and in turn cultivated, a lively poetic imagination. It had the potential to educate not just the mind, but also the heart, and it engaged the student at a level deeper than that to which we are accustomed. Of course there is no question today of adopting the Pythagorean doctrines wholesale, for we know things now which they did not, but perhaps certain features of their worldview are worthy of reconsideration. Obstacles exist. Modernity has done its damnedest to denude beauty of any significance (about which more below), and it has also been generally hostile to the imaginative faculty. Romanticism was a reaction against this hostility, but romanticism lapsed too frequently into mere feeling, without the rational harness that the classical and medieval models provided. Caldecott points for guidance to Coleridge’s statement that imagination is “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.” Our capacity for imagination is a mark of the imago Dei in us, and by it we can both discern and express goodness, truth, and beauty.
Another aspect of the Pythagorean and medieval traditions that Caldecott thinks worthy of resuscitation is, for want of a better way of saying it, the practice of thinking symbolically — that is, of taking symbols and symbolism seriously. This is a tough one. The modern tendency is to make symbols thin: almost the first thing we think about them is that they are only conventional signs, a kind of shorthand, something culturally bounded and essentially arbitrary. It follows that no feature of the natural world can be taken seriously as a symbol. Nothing is naturally symbolic. Our forefathers may have thought that a circle, in addition to being a circle, was also a natural symbol of unity and order; or they may have thought that the number 3, in addition to being the number 3, was also naturally associated with the Trinity; and so on. For them a symbol could be a real manifestation, at one level of reality, of something higher (an archetype, an Idea, or what have you). Understood in this way, the world speaks to us with many voices at once; a thing is itself, but also something else, and not because we say so, but because the world itself is so constituted that this multi-valent meaning is actually woven into it. Like I said, this is a tough one for us, who have been tutored to regard the world as intrinsically meaningless. Caldecott says at one point that, in order to thrive, this practice of reading the world symbolically relies on the analogia entis, which gave me occasion, once again, to regret that I have never understood what the phrase means. (I know what it means literally — “analogy of being” — but I do not understand what it refers to.)
I said above that Caldecott places great emphasis on the importance of beauty for recovering a more expansive understanding of reason and for cultivating a more profound interior unity. This requires, in a way analogous to what was just said about symbolism, that beauty be taken seriously as something real and significant and capable of bearing meaning. And, again, modernity has schooled this out of us. “Beauty is (only) in the eye of the beholder” is the aphorism that expresses the modern view in a nutshell. In the pre-modern period beauty was seen as deeply related to goodness and truth, and, in a sense, modernity has honoured that insight — by relativizing all three. There is a profound logic at work in this effort to deny these transcendental goods, converting each into a mere subjective preference. Caldecott quotes Hans Urs von Balthasar:
We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance.
Balthasar goes on to say that the person who sneers at beauty “can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.” It is a chilling observation, one which reveals much about the predicament of late modernity. In my judgement this inability to render adequate homage to beauty is one of the central failures of the modern project, and one of the best reasons to be suspicious of it. Personally, I thank God that I have never been able to shake the conviction that beauty is profoundly important, and that I have a duty to love and honour it. It was Dostoyevsky, I believe, who predicted that “Beauty will save the world”, and he was on to something. Perhaps more than goodness and even truth, beauty’s mysterious power continues to reassert itself at a deep level that bypasses our theories and sense of progressive propriety. There are undoubtedly many obstacles to be overcome if beauty is to regain its former honour, but Caldecott is right, I think, to see it as a possible means of salvation for us.
In closing, I’d like to draw attention to some interesting comments Caldecott makes about liturgy. Liturgy, he believes, may be a key to recovering a vision of sacred, moral, aesthetic, and intellectual order. Plato argued that education, since it aims to bring order to the soul, should include dance, song, and poetry, for such things tutor the soul to perceive harmony, proportion, and beauty. In a religiously attuned education, liturgy could play a similar role, for it too is a kind of dance, song, and poem. Liturgy cultivates remembrance, manners (not just “good manners” in the Miss Manners sort, but a sense of ritualized formality and fittingness), and art, with a great potential for the expression of beauty and harmony, and it affects not only the individual person, in both body and soul, but also, as a ritual action of worship, the human community as well. Of course, contemporary liturgy, which has fallen on the hardest of hard times, hardly seems capable of rising to this exalted task, but we must not live without hope.
In summary, this is a provocative little book. Caldecott is better at raising questions than he is at answering them. (There are some attempts in the book to show the beauty of the Trinity by representing it in geometrical figures, and to demonstrate symbolic perception by considering the symbolic meaning of various integers, and these efforts I found unconvincing, to say the least.) His extensive bibliography shows that he has mined a great deal of material, but his presentation of it is accessible and instructive. He has taken on a huge subject, and the book can do little more than gesture in the direction he thinks we should go. He has given me much to think about.
Two other reviews / discussions of this book, both of which are better than what I have written: