What benchmarks a culture?

Many would say it is the idea of the “true,” reflecting the sphere of thought and logic.  Others maintain that what marks a culture is its idea of the “good,” relating to actions and morals.  Both would be right.  The “true” and the “good” indeed constitute two of the foundational values of any culture. 

But there is a third idea which is often overlooked in cultural conversations that, along with truth and goodness, forms the triad upon which much of western thought has been built.

Beauty.

Truth, goodness and beauty have been called the three fundamental values, as the worth of anything can be exhaustively judged by reference to these three standards.  Meaning that everything which is is related to whether it is true or false, good or evil, beautiful or ugly. 

But beauty, which relates to enjoyment and aesthetics, is perhaps the most overlooked of the three – and in a truly decaying culture, the first to lose its moorings.

All the more reason to be alarmed by a recent social experiment staged by essayist Gene Weingarten and The Washington Post at 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, 2007 in the middle of the morning rush hour at the Washington, D.C. Metro at the L’Enfant Plaza station.

A nondescript, youngish white man in jeans, long-sleeved T-shirt, and Washington Nationals baseball cap removed a violin from a small case.  Placing the open case at his feet, he threw in a few dollars to seed the giving, and began to play.

But this was no ordinary performer.  The fiddler standing against the wall was 39-year-old Joshua Bell, one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on a $3.5 million Stradivarius.

During the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces, 1,097 people passed by.  Would they have time for beauty?  Would they even recognize it?

No, they would not. 

Bell was almost entirely ignored.  From over a thousand people, only six or seven even took notice (see link to videotape below).

This is deeper than a question of taste.  One of the great separations from the flow of the history of western thought is our modern tendency to reduce the idea of beauty to a matter of subjective preference as opposed to an objective value.  Or even further, a glimpse of the divine.  Consider David’s great desire to “gaze upon the beauty of the Lord” (Psalm 27:4), or the declaration, “From Zion, perfect in beauty, God shines forth” (Psalm 50:4).  This was not a subjective assessment – God is beauty, and true beauty, wherever it resides, is a glimpse of God Himself.

In his 2003 book, Timeless Beauty, British author John Lane wrote about the loss of the appreciation of beauty in the modern world.  People still have the capacity to understand beauty, he said, but beauty has become irrelevant to them.  Weingarten concluded his essay by asking a provocative question for our day:  “…if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we can be oblivious to a world-class musicians playing some of the best music ever written, then what else are we missing?”

More than we may realize.

As Keats wrote,

      “’Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all

      Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” 

So the next time you want to chart the course of culture, and your mind goes to matters of truth or goodness, don’t forget to take note of the third transcendent value – or its absence.

James Emery White

 

Sources

 

“Beauty,” The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World, Volume 1, Mortimer J. Adler, Editor in Chief (Chicag Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952), pp. 112-125.

 

Gene Weingarten, “Pearls Before Breakfast: Can one of the nation’s great musicians cut through the fog of a D.C. rush hour?  Let’s find out,” The Washington Post, Sunday, April 8, 2007, p. W10

(http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/04/AR2007040401721.html).  (*Note:  link includes video).

 

“A virtuoso ignored,” The Week, May 4, 2007, pp. 52-53.

 

Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn