What Keats Didn’t Say (and May Not Have Known)
Ryan C wondered last week about my addendum to the famous line from Keats in my epigraph above. Here is a reflection on the subject in which I’ll try to articulate something that is mostly a bundle of intuitions, so it may not be perfectly coherent, and certainly not logically air-tight.
I understand that when considered from the technical point of view in philosophy and theology, the ideas of truth and beauty can be distinguished from each other and analyzed in detail. Nevertheless, I have always believed that the true and the beautiful are on some deep level identical to each other (and also to the good, but for me truth and beauty have always come first to mind). What is beautiful is also true. What is true is also beautiful.
The obvious objection to Keats’ formula is that something can appear beautiful and yet be false or evil. To be precise, though, the beauty is not false so much as deficient. The beautiful is that which is pleasing to behold. If it is not pleasing in its entirety, to that degree its beauty is less. So if we say that although a certain woman is beautiful she is malicious, we really are saying that she is beautiful in one aspect but not in another.
The true (considered as a human statement or perception) is that which represents or corresponds to what is. This is pleasing to behold. That which does not correspond to what is, is less true and therefore less pleasing to behold, less beautiful. Unless our souls are darkened, we all want to experience more and more truth and beauty and goodness. And we want to believe that they are truly present in the great What-Is, the total reality of which we are a part, and not to believe that they are only illusions in our own minds.
Whether or not we believe in God, we know by experience and intuition that no human mind can contain (comprehend) all the components of the What-Is. So we accept that no statement or work of ours can encompass all truth or beauty, and that it cannot tell or show the truth about all things all at once. But the more it can tell or show, the more we admire it and love it and benefit from it. Hence we recognize degrees of intellectual or artistic achievement and afford more respect to the larger, the one that encompasses more. One perfect quatrain or syllogism does not make a great poet or philosopher.
In our imperfect and fallen condition—our condition of being less than we know we should be, which every sane person recognizes—we require ugliness and falsehood to help us recognize, by contrast, the beautiful and true. The larger the work of art or intellect, the more of this contrast it can contain and illuminate. In fact, it must contain the ugly, false, and evil, or we will not recognize the beautiful, true, and good. When man encounters the pure and infinite truth and beauty and goodness that are God, one of two things will happen: he will be destroyed by it (that is, destroyed as a limited human person—whether he is unmade or becomes something else, we don’t know). Or he will not be able to see it at all, which is far more common and happens to every one of us every day, and is how we live our lives.
Genesis begins by saying that God looked at his creation and saw that it was good. But in our natural condition we cannot say this without qualification, because we have to consider the vast amount of evil and pain in the world. Moreover, because we are not God, God is included in the great What-Is that we behold, and so we cannot say with all our hearts and all our minds that God is good; the best we can do is to say with Job that we have no right to question him. Many of us cannot even get that far, and cannot believe that God is there at all.
So the presence of evil in the world appears to make it impossible to say that truth and beauty are always one. Evil is not only opposed to good but also to truth and beauty, because all three are ultimately one. The attempt to affirm that the What-Is is beautiful does not convince us: we see the false and ugly and evil, and we must either persuade ourselves that they are not real, or else qualify the affirmation, saying that the true is not always the beautiful and good. In our hearts we even go further and say that this “truth” does not deserve to be called true, because we have within us an idea of what should be true that is better than it.
But the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection solve this problem. They make it possible for us to affirm without qualification that the What-Is, the creator and his creation, are good, because they provide the means whereby the presence of the Not-Beautiful, the Not-true, and the Not-good can be harmonized and reconciled in the work of art that is God and all his creation, the Great Work that satisfies us by including everything.
Beauty and truth are truly one only if there is an infinitely True and Beautiful and Good God who entered the realm of the false and ugly and evil—the Incarnation; suffered its agonies—the Crucifixion; and lifted and transfigured that realm into his own without any compromise or degradation of the latter—the Resurrection. If what Keats said is true, so is the Christian faith. And we need to know that.
The Keats reference, by the way, in case anyone doesn’t recognize it, is to the last two lines of “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in which the urn is represented as saying to mankind:
Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.