It’s All a Matter of Perspective: A Brief Thought on Modernity

On the Sunday after the 2016 CiRCE National Conference, I had the great pleasure of attending a local church with some of the conference attendees. The church building of Ascension Orthodox Church in Charleston was stunning, and the interior was filled with beautiful artwork. When we walked in we immediately saw a huge scaffold erected in the center of the room, and the priest explained that for the past few months an artist was painting the interior of the church dome. The figures that had already been painted were breathtaking.

As a sermon illustration, the priest talked about the difficulty of painting inside a dome, on a curve, and from above. He talked about foreshortening and the skill and artistry required to make the figures look “realistic” to the viewer below. Then he made a point that utterly fascinated me.

He said that he likes to climb the scaffolding and look at the paintings but that the artist had warned him not to take a photo of the paintings from up close and straight on. He said that the photo would be horribly distorted because the camera was too close. In order to see the paintings correctly, a person must have the right distance from the image. Otherwise all he will see is a horrible distortion.

I could not believe the coincidence because I had just made a very similar point in my conference talk, “The Ancients vs The Moderns: Jonathan Swift’s Critique of the Enlightenment.” Swift pointed out that the problem with modernity is that modern man sees everything too close up. He has a lack of perspective and therefore cannot grasp the whole of an object. Like the priest, he noted that what modern man sees up close appears real to him because he is experiencing it through his senses. He sees it. It’s right there. But because he lacks perspective, he doesn’t realize that he is only seeing a horrible distortion of reality and not truth at all.

That’s one thing that classical education seeks to remedy. In studying the Ancients, in immersing ourselves in the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, we seek to recover that lost perspective so that we can see things as they truly are.

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