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Aesthetic and Moral Beauty

Over the summer my eleven-year-old daughter read a contemporary piece of young adult “literature.” This is not a genre I enjoy, but I read the work with her so that we could discuss it together.

“Was it a good book?” I asked.
“Yes!” she answered.
“Why?” I followed up.
“Because I liked it.”

As I continued to press her, she continued to locate the book’s objective goodness in her subjective enjoyment of it. I was unsurprised by this. It is a natural human tendency to conflate our subjective preferences with objective qualities.

Why is this?

First, while it takes a mere moment’s reflection to determine whether or not we like something, it is incredibly difficult to explain in what way and to what degree a thing is objectively good or bad, true or false, or beautiful or ugly.

What is more, because man is a unified being, and not an amalgam of objective thought and subjective feeling, it is very difficult for people to separate their objective analysis of a thing from the pleasure or disgust it evokes in them.

Yet it is essential that we learn to do just this. Let any untrained child determine his diet and he will subsist on candy, chips, soda, etc.—on things that give a moment’s delight but fail to nourish and promote the health of the body. In the same way, let any untrained child determine his reading and he will subsist on the trash that passes for children’s or young adult literature—books with thin plots, shallow characters, and asinine and repetitive, if not downright wicked, morals—works that may produce momentary enjoyment but fail to nourish and promote the health of the soul.

What is more, junk food and junk books alike stave off our hunger and thereby deter us from seeking higher and better things that provide true nourishment for the body and soul. This deprivation leads to a corruption of taste. The child that only eats Skittles and Cheetos will not enjoy broccoli; the child that reads junk books will not enjoy Jane Austen or Charles Dickens—the child exposed only to trash will be far too easily pleased in his reading and eating.

Plato weighed in on this years ago:

“Knowing nothing in truth about which of these convictions and desires is noble, or base, or good, or evil, or just, or unjust, he applies all these names following the great animal’s opinion—calling what delights it good and what vexes it bad.” —Plato

An even more serious problem, as Plato argued, is the natural progression from aesthetic relativism to moral relativism. If one can say, “I like this [movie, song, painting, book, etc.], therefore it is good and there is no argument or evidence that anyone can say or produce to prove me wrong,” then it is but a small step to say, “I like this [act, lifestyle, etc.], therefore it is good and there is no argument or evidence that anyone can say or produce to prove me wrong.” In other words, if there are no aesthetic absolutes, if a seemingly objective aesthetic judgment is merely a subjective preference in disguise, then one may infer (and far too many do!) that there are no objective morals and all objective truth-claims are mere masks for subjective preferences.

So important was the connection between aesthetic and moral goodness to Plato that he advocated banning poets; so real is this connection to me that I have told my children, with only a touch of hyperbola, that I would rather they be illiterate than read aesthetically or morally bad books. This seems an absurd exaggeration, but people in oral cultures had both proverbial wisdom and prodigious memories. While the culture and wisdom passed on in the great books more than makes up for our loss of proverbs and our diminished memories, I am not sure that the content of popular books compensates for the loss of these two things.

The aesthetic beauty of a thing is deeply connected with its power to influence our thoughts and actions. Whereas reason moves the mind, beauty moves the heart. The most important thing about a man is not his thoughts, but his loves. The anarchist and libertarian are wrong in believing that freedom alone will lead a man to naturally enjoy and embrace things that are good. The totalitarian and authoritarian make the converse mistake in assuming that nothing but power and fear can restrain a man from chaos. Man is neither angel nor demon, neither naturally good nor incapable of goodness. Man is capable of the construction of both Chartres and Dachau; of composing the melodies of Bach and the discord of Kid Rock; men have followed saints like Francis and madmen like Jim Jones; mankind has produced statesmen like Solon and Trajan and tyrants like Nero and Caligula. Man is nothing less than a creature made in the image of God that has fallen. As such, he must be trained to love what is good—neither left to himself to choose or determine what is good nor compelled by brute force to choose what the state deems good, but rather trained to love what is good.

This training is essential to the internal harmony of both the soul and society. For example, it is not enough to merely say to our children, “This is wrong, don’t do it.” We must show them that wrong things are not only bad, but also ugly. Right now we are laudably telling young men that sexual assault is wrong. Nonetheless, the number of incidents seems undiminished. One of the reasons for our lack of progress is that our approach is insufficient. Yes, young men must be told that rape is wrong, but they also must be shown that it is false and ugly. They must not only be told that their personal purity and the protection of others is good, but also shown that this is a true and beautiful use of their minds and bodies. People become what they love, for they only pursue what they love.

Reading trashy vampire novels trains young women to love shallow romance; playing games like Grand Theft Auto trains young men to love exploitation and selfish pursuits. On the other hand, Jane Austen can teach a young woman to embrace the painful growth of character that will prepare her for marriage; reading a work like A Tale of Two Cities and seeing the example of Sydney Carton can inspire a young man to embrace the type of self-sacrifice on behalf of another that will prepare him to be a leader, husband, and father.

This begs the question: what is a good book?

When determining the goodness of a work one must consider both its aesthetic and moral qualities. As simple as this sounds, an aesthetically good book is one that is well-written and that speaks to something immutable in the human heart. Who determines what is “well-written”? No single individual can make this determination. All of us, even the best of us, are at times subject to the biases of our particular circumstances such as our class, ethnicity, the age in which we live, etc. Though these do not determine how we view a work of literature, they certainly influence our views. Instead of looking to his own limited experience and fallible judgment, a man ought to consult the “Democracy of the Dead.” We ought to ask, “What have prior generations, especially the best of those that have come before us, thought about this or that book?” If generation after generation of readers consider a work well-written and worth reading, then it is well-written and worth reading. If we read it and come to a different conclusion, the lack is not in the book, but rather in us. Single generations often err in their valuation of a work of literature, but multiple generations never do. If a book has withstood the test of time, it is worth reading.

In determining the moral goodness of a work Plato again frames our inquiry. We ought to ask, “Does this book elevate virtue or denigrate vice?” A book may portray vice, but in so doing it ought to show the ugliness and consequences of vice. Likewise and above all a book must never mock virtue. Praising vice and mocking virtue train the heart to love what is evil and hate what is good. When one reads a good work, one does not analyze but rather enters into and often enjoys a new world. In so doing, the work bypasses reason and directly affects the heart. If its moral is perverse in some way, it will work toward the corruption of one’s loves, which will in turn lead to a corruption of one’s thoughts, choices, character, etc. Though this is a deeply conservative idea, even progressives understand this principle. Consider, for a moment, the last film you saw that mocked diversity or that praised racism. Hollywood does not make films like this, knowing well that these types of films would move viewers away from its values.

Just as it is easy to find films that reflect the modern zeitgeist, it is relatively easy to find books that are both aesthetically and morally good. Indeed, one could spend a lifetime reading the likes of Dostoevsky, Augustine, Plutarch, Dante, Virgil, Tolstoy, Lewis, Tolkien, etc. and never plumb their depths. The more difficult question is: how do we train our children to not only prefer the works of Tacitus to Twilight, but to love and to be moved and transformed by great works?

As the old saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” We lack the power to make our children love anything. Nonetheless, we can and should lead them to good literature time and again . . . and again . . . and again . . . and again. We should also limit their exposure to junk literature. The two, taken together, will often whet their appetite for good literature.

For example, I cannot make my children like carrots. But I can give them carrots every day and require that they eat them. I can also limit their intake of candy, chips, and soda so that their hunger encourages them to eat the food I give them. They may grow up and resent me for this and indulge in junk and ruin their health. I cannot control that. But in serving them tasty and healthy food and explaining the goodness of it, I increase the likelihood that they will develop a healthy palate.

In the same way, you and I can share deep and moving stories with our children, and we can keep them from much of the cheap trash that passes for literature. They may resent us and reject our teachings as adults, but in sharing great works with them we highly increase the likelihood that they will develop a healthy desire for good books. The man that has only known idleness may, in his ignorance, feel content in his sloth, but the man trained in hard work, though he may become lazy, will never be comfortable with his self-indulgence and this discomfort may drive him to embrace work. In the same way, the mind that has only known television and zombie books may be content with them, but the mind forged in Shakespeare and Homer will never be satisfied with such offerings. The man that has been well-trained may reject his training and read and watch junk, but his constant dissatisfaction will often lead him on to greater things.

We have a rich cultural inheritance and a duty to pass it on to those that follow us. Let us prepare feasts of literature for our children, that they may love and be shaped by the great works that have helped to mold so many of the great men and women that have come before us.

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