Even those who have not read the Bible surely know what happened at the Fall: the serpent lied to the woman, who then ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and lured her husband to do the same. The consequence was spiritual paralysis, angst, deprivation of the sacramental communion with God and His entire Creation, and physical death following the separation from God, Who was their source of Life. But Genesis 3:6 presents us with another relevant aspect: Satan, the serpent, had just finished misrepresenting the tree to Eve; he had distorted its beauty. The tree must have been beautiful, for everything created by God was perfect before the Fall, and how much more beautiful must the tree of knowledge have been? Surely Adam and Eve had seen its beauty before, but it is only in the moment Satan “teaches” them, “opens their eyes” to a different dimension, that Eve starts looking at the tree in a different manner. What is changed then? Certainly not the tree, but Eve’s impression of the tree. It would seem the maxim “beauty is subjective” is a lie as old as the world. The fruit appeared to Eve not only good to eat (a few moments before she was scared she’d die if she ate of it), but the tree itself all of the sudden looked to her “pleasant to the eyes” (the term used is taiva [ṯa·’ă·wāh], a polysemantic Aramaic word that translates to “desire(-able)”, “lust”, “pleasant”, or “covetousness”), and “a tree to be desired to make one wise”. Fear of death has transformed into a selfish desire to be as wise as God, not by Grace, but by disobedience. St. John Chrysostom teaches us that God did intend for us to eat of the fruit but at the appropriate (good, beautiful, perfect) time. The beauty [goodness] of the tree was salvific, life-giving, but eating the fruit before the appointed time, without the proper preparation, would certainly bring death (as it did). Knowledge and beauty that are not acquired at the right time, with the right preparation, bring death, instead of salvation. Secular man has replaced the standard of beauty with three other ones, entirely subjective, lacking any salvific potential: utilitarianism (“it is good to eat”), pleasure (“pleasant to the eyes”), and satisfaction (“desired to make one wise”).
Let us think of our children then. Let us contemplate what we desire for them: life, or death. What kind of images, sounds, gestures do we want our children to see when they close their eyes at night, when they enchant the entire world around them in their play, or when they go deep within themselves in order to make sense of what is without? We are what we experience with our senses, and what we experience with our senses becomes us. It is the beginning of salvation or the beginning of perdition.
As classical educators, we ask of education to teach us the truth, and we shape our entire academic vision around this. Yet we live in a world where Proof is the queen of all knowledge: find the solution to this equation, demonstrate this theorem, analyze this literary character, name the parts of this leaf, give the year of this battle, put the comma to correct this run-on sentence. But do we stop to contemplate the symmetry of the equation, the flawless order of the theorem, the transcendental glow of the literary character, the eschatological significance of the battle, the quiet obedience of the leaf blade, the breath of atemporality the comma brings? Do we take in the beauty of this world in order to be wounded by it, or do we learn to climb through it towards the Creator? The devil knows the truth but is not in awe at its goodness and beauty. Beauty will save our students, but only if we teach them to see it as part of the eternal truth.
While we show little to no concern about the images that we allow our children to witness (from angry faces to disorder, to violent or of excessively poor taste movies, books, music, or video games, from immodest clothes to ugly architecture), we are obsessed instead with questions like “How will they use this knowledge?” or “Will my child love this knowledge?” Such questions may refer to history, algebra, English grammar, chemistry, literature, the writings of the Holy Fathers, poetry, or pretty much any subject. And as I, as a classical teacher, rush to fill in the vacuum such questions create, there’s a sigh growing within me, as all I want to say is: STOP. SLOW DOWN. Algebra, and music, and the Holy Fathers, and history, and poetry, and all the other subjects are worthy to be studied inasmuch as they are true, inasmuch as they are good, inasmuch as they are beautiful. Ion Barbu, a Romanian mathematician, and poet, best expressed the complementarity of mathematics and poetry: poetry begins where geometry ends. So what would I do if the world ended tomorrow and knew these children would not have time to ever apply all their knowledge? I would still be teaching the same things, the same way, and point to the beauty of everything that is worth knowing.
But what is beauty? In order to understand why classical education pursues it as a means and goal in itself, we must be sure to know what we are referring to when using a term which has been so abused by our generation. We have heard it said so many times: “Everyone is beautiful in his or her own way“, and it has become a social crime to affirm anything to the contrary. From this to “Everyone and everything is beautiful and should be accepted for what he, she, or it is” was but a small step. Our own understanding, as modern men, of what beauty is, has been severely altered. As we can see from what happened at the beginning of time, beauty is not something subjective and mutable but is rather objective and immutable.
According to the teachings of the Church, beauty is one of God’s characteristics, recognizable in his Creation. We read in Ecclesiastes, 3:10-11: ”I have seen, then, the travail which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in it. Everything that He hath made is beautiful in its time: and He hath set eternity in their heart; so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning and to the end.” The Aramaic word for beautiful here is yapheh [yaw-feh’], which can mean “appropriate”, “fair”, or “beautiful”. Similarly, it is interesting to see that the Greek term used in the Gospel for “good” is kalos, which also means “beautiful”, “excellent in its nature and characteristics, therefore fit for its ends”.
From this, it appears that the closer a created thing gets to perfect obedience of its attributes to the purpose defined by the Creator, the more likely we are to consider such a thing beautiful. Therefore I propose to define beauty by its characteristics, derived from its most significant roles.
- Beauty is meant to teach us to slow down into contemplation, as one cannot observe beauty from the speed of contemporaneity. Therefore, although all created things are bound by time and space, beauty itself is atemporal.
- Perceivable beauty is a revelation of God’s creative energies. God, being good and beautiful (kalos) created everything good and beautiful (see Ecclesiastes above and Genesis 1). The Holy Fathers describe the first step of spiritual illumination as the ability to see the nature of things and contemplate the Creator. Therefore, beauty is iconic, transcendental, epiphanic (opens the eyes of the mind and heart towards the unseen, towards the Uncreated).
- Beauty is meant to shape us, to move us towards becoming who we are meant to be. To Christ’s call “Be ye perfect” C. S. Lewis responds in Mere Christianity: “The command Be ye perfect is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible) that we were ‘gods’ and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him—for we can prevent Him, if we choose—He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful, but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said.” Therefore, beauty is transformational, meant to “theantropologize” us. When contemplating beauty, we are irresistibly called to become beautiful ourselves, for the sake of God’s Beauty.
- Beauty is meant to equally remind us of the Garden of Eden, and of the Kingdom of God. The Created thus speaks to us of the Uncreated, the temporal, of the eternity, as a memory of that which has not happened yet. Beauty, therefore, is eschatological, for it mysteriously makes familiar to us that which will be. God’s judgment is not a judgment balanced by retribution, for then none would know His Kingdom, but one of love and belonging: those who belong, will stay. Dante extensively references this, in his Inferno, where we see that those who did not have a “taste” of God’s attributes when they were alive suffer now in the Inferno due to their own inability to love God (their hell is of their own choosing, and they suffer even more so because they still cannot love God, even now, when they realize they were wrong). Saint Porphyrios says: “What is Paradise? It is Christ. Paradise begins here and now. It is exactly the same: those who experience Christ here on earth, experience Paradise.” The beauty we experience here is a foretaste of the beauty by which we will be surrounded at Christ’s second coming.
Since we now know how to recognize beauty (Does it slow us down? reveal God’s creative energy? shape us to become perfect in Christ? nudge us into the expectation of Christ’s Second Coming?), what then is the role of classical education in relationship to Beauty?
1) We expose our children preponderantly to beauty, especially up to and including the grammar years (the mother’s smiling face, her lullaby voice, flowers, animals, green fields, gentle colors, an architecture that follows nature’s geometry, wooden toys, stories of bravery, love, sacrifice, and honor).
2) We are mindful to appropriately observe the timing and the preparation for each kind of beauty. We do not take a toddler to the museum or to a classical music concert, just as we don’t teach an adolescent nursery rhymes, but instead expose them each to what we have carefully prepared them to understand and appreciate.
3) We teach them to observe, admire, and later on, during the rhetoric stage, weigh against God’s Beauty anything that is proposed as being beautiful. Such a process must prepare the student for proper discrimination between beautiful and kitsch;
4) We point students to raise their souls towards the Creator when contemplating God’s Creation. Failing to transcend beyond created beauty is falling into idolatry.
5) We teach them about distorted beauty. What is distorted beauty? Beauty which corrupts, the beauty which is foreign to us, a beauty which we misuse, misappropriate, or simply fail to understand. I am calling this kind of beauty “murderous beauty”, as it refers to the beauty that either is false (it does not hold the above-described characteristics), or presents itself to an unprepared mind, and is thus misperceived (its purpose is adulterated). The false type of beauty is easier to recognize. It is actually the apanage of young children to spot true beauty, for little children find it easier to “look with the heart” than adults do: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye” says Antoine de Saint-Exupery, through the Little Prince’s voice. We must, however, carefully teach our children to guard themselves against the “foreign beauty”, the beauty of the tree of knowledge’s fruit, picked at the inappropriate time, without preparation.
5) Last, but not least, we teach our children to imitate the Creator by creating beautiful art. When we regard the world around us, we see how distorted beauty has permeated what we create as well. In our innermost being, we resemble the image of our Creator in our capacity to create, and that is mostly reflected in art, yet the art we see today is not a reflection of beauty.
The breath of meaningless modernity is poisoning us — in visual arts, in music, in movies, in architecture. It’s not that some of us, those in love with the classic, are regarding the world around us with nostalgia. Rather, studies have shown that our brains positively respond to true beauty, and are negatively influenced by cacophony and clutter.
“We shape our buildings and our buildings shape us,” said Winston Churchill. One of the most frequent confessions I hear about Paideia refers to the spirit of peace found between these walls. But where does this peace come from?
True peace comes only from above, from our ineffable God, and permeates the created. For almost seven years now, liturgy has been served in our school at least once a week. Our very walls are imbued by grace.
Yet there’s something more. The place itself has its own beauty that moves us. The large windows in the entire campus unite us with God’s Creation. The high ceilings are conducive to the flight of the spirit. The wood above us and the wooden floors we’ve brought in the classrooms continue the connection with the outside. Our classroom walls are decorated with classical paintings, and there’s harmony in the choice of colors. There are no charts, lists, rules, or psychedelic graphs around us while we teach. No projector. No screen. No tablets. Instead, the simplicity of the familiar smell of books, the white of the notebook paper, the pencils, the elegance of the fountain pen. The board which, in rhythmic poetry of old, is filled with knowledge, only to be erased, and filled up again. Instead of little hands swiping away at a screen, quiet hands in the air, pregnant with the anticipation of the revealed answer.
What is all this, and why does it affect us so much? This is the immanence of our memory of Eden’s beauty. We love what we recognize, and the act of recognition makes us feel at peace. Beauty may yet save us.
PCA Academic Coordinator and Teacher