The Good, The True, and The Beautiful
I love studying ancient civilizations. It takes me back to the roots of being human, when we were a younger species discovering our powers. And maybe it’s easier to see truths about ourselves when there were fewer of us and we lived in smaller groups.
The Golden Age Athenians certainly taught us a great deal, about abuses of power and colonial aggression as well as the love of wisdom and the creation of beauty. The philosopher Plato, for example, talked about possible links between the good, the true, and the beautiful. I find this fascinating. I certainly think the link offers great material for teachers. Howard Gardner pointed out, in a book from 2011, teaching the good, the true, and the beautiful is a wonderful framework for an education. Here’s my position on these three virtues.
The good: what does ‘good’ mean? There are so many meanings of ‘good.’ There’s a “good sandwich,” or “a good feeling.” There are ethical “goods” like a “good person” or a “good act” and maybe “a good life.” ‘Good’ has to do with value. Inquiring into what we value and why, and what is ethical and why, makes for exciting teaching.
The true: Most of our teaching in schools is about defining or hopefully having students uncover what is true, uncover what ‘true’ means. Is a truth eternal or for the moment? Universally applicable or situational? Can we ever fully state all the conditions that make a truth true? It is true, for example, that this rose I hold in my hand is red, now. But is it red to a colorblind person? Or at night? Even in this relatively simple case, the question is more complex than it seems.
And what link, if any, is there between the good and the true? Does the argument, competition is ‘good’ or morally benevolent because humans are (supposedly) naturally competitive, a ‘good’ or sound argument if the supposed facts are true?
And the beautiful: What makes something beautiful? Is beauty all in the eyes of the “beholder?” And if so, what does that mean? Beauty is not just for the artist, English major, or fashion designer. Formulas or proofs in math can be beautiful. A relationship can be beautiful.
Viewing natural beauty can be healing. Sarah Warber and Katherine N. Irvine have researched how people recovering in hospital rooms with a view heal quicker. Workers in a room with windows to a natural scene report higher work satisfaction. Is this equally true with created beauty? Do humans suffer when deprived of beauty? If so, do we call it an illness, or a lack of skill? Can people be taught to see beauty?
I think we can be taught to better perceive beauty. One way to do it is by developing sensitivity through immersion. The philosopher and Ph.D. in psychology, Jean Huston, said, in a workshop I attended, something like immersing yourself in poetry, for example, makes beauty readily available to you. Beauty will then percolate through the unconscious and emerge in one’s speech and writing. This is one reason why eliminating poetry from the Common Core or cutting back on the arts in schools is detrimental to education.
The second way to teach beauty is to teach mindfulness and empathy. To feel empathy is to feel kinship, relationship. It is to recognize that another being senses, feels, thinks in some way like you do. It readies us for the beautiful as well as for anything else. The ability to open one’s heart and mind and clearly observe what’s happening in a situation or a relationship helps us to do the same with a work of art or scene in nature.
One year, my wife and I visited Greece. We had a cave-room in a hotel on the island of Santorini looking down on the caldera, an area that almost 3600 years ago was a live volcano and now is mostly filled by the Mediterranean. A large sailboat was making its way from the caldera to the larger sea. It was nearing sunset, and the view was so beautiful, I felt like I was in a movie. I felt each moment was eternal, as complete in-itself as could be imagined. The beautiful calls forth in us a sense of life being full and meaningful, maybe good and true. Maybe, whole. The Navajo, if I understand it correctly, have a word ‘Ho’zho,’ meaning beauty, also “harmony, happiness, health, and balance.” To “walk in beauty” is to walk in balance and peace.
I think that it would be a worthy achievement to graduate students who have this sensitivity to beauty or the whole of life, to what is good, ethical, and true. To “walk in beauty.”
*Photo: By Klearchos Kapoutsis from Santorini, Greece (View from Fira Uploaded by Yarl) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons