The phrase, the good, the true, and the beautiful, has become something of a motto in classical Christian education. The phrase, rightly understood, has much to commend itself and serves as a helpful reminder for Christian educators. Not only do we aim to teach students to see the good, the true, and the beautiful in the world, but desire for them to learn to create it themselves. Part of educating for formation and not merely information is teaching students to evaluate that which is good, to think critically and to discern truth amidst untruth, and to discover and create beauty in a world that is increasingly controlled by what Louis Markos calls the “Cult of Ugly.” Douglas Wilson has used a metaphor of a river. We are not trying to (nor could we ever hope to) teach students all about the river; rather, we are teaching students how to navigate the river for themselves that they might find the good, the true, and the beautiful on their own.
But for many students, I expect they do not understand what we mean when we tell them to embrace the good, the true, and the beautiful. It may be helpful as educators to explain this terminology if it is our hope that they will live this way. Mortimer Adler has argued that beauty is a synthesis, a kind of combination of aspects of the true and the good. “I think it is more like this, that truth and goodness come first and are coordinate with one another; and that beauty is somehow derived from these two or somehow dependent on these two. Somehow beauty is not of the same order as truth and goodness.” Stratford Caldecott argues similarly, suggesting that “beauty is the radiance of the true and the good, and it is what attracts us to both.”
This suggests several things about Christian education. First, we must put significant emphasis on the truth. As Holmes has argued, all truth is God’s truth wherever it is found, so we need not fear where the truth will take us. The Christian worldview alone allows us to look objectively at reality because we are not afraid of what we will find in any discipline. Second, we must include in our education an emphasis on the good. We must communicate biblical truth about morality. Morality, like truth, is not subjective; there is objective moral truth, and there is one place it is grounded—in the character and nature of God Himself. Any other attempts to ground morality fail to provide any objective standard, and students must understand both this truth and its attendant implications and consequences. Finally, we must teach students about beauty, and we must ground it in the true and the good.
That beauty is rooted in the true and the good has significant implications, especially for the Arts, for if beauty is merely in the eye of the beholder, then it lacks truth in any objective sense. But a faithful Christian education, I suggest, must maintain that beauty is not an entirely subjective concept. Art is primarily objective, not subjective as we tend to believe. We must differentiate between aesthetic subjectivism and aesthetic objectivism, and I argue we must accept the latter. Aesthetic subjectivism asserts that aesthetic judgments (e.g. that song is lovely, that painting is ugly, etc.) do not state facts about the world, but merely reflect an observer’s response to some aspect of the world. Conversely, aesthetic objectivism asserts that judgments of beauty are not “in the eye of the beholder,” but rather have an objective standard. Aesthetic objectivism is the better option for at least four reasons. First, if subjectivism were true, we cannot say one work is better than another, however obviously true it is (e.g. Mona Lisa vs. my daughter’s b-day card for me). Second, if subjectivism were true, we cannot explain why certain works have stood the test of time as aesthetically pleasing works in different times and cultures. It would be an unbelievable coincidence. Third, if subjectivism were true, then we cannot argue about which movie, for example, is better. Forget the Oscars, since all movies are simply preference. It would be like having an awards show for flavors of ice cream and awarding it to mint chocolate chip, then having articles in magazines, newspapers, and the internet the next day arguing for the merits of vanilla and the terrible choice by the Ice Cream Committee. Fourth, if subjectivism were true, then terms like beautiful, sublime, gaudy, refined, delicate, elegant, dramatic, and powerful would make no sense since they would only be individually subjective rather than public, objective, and therefore shared ideas/terms. As Christians, we must maintain that beauty is an objective standard, though we can certainly allow for individual preferences and tastes. That is why we can consistently agree on literary works that are classics, without all enjoying them equally (my preference for British over American literature, for example). Although space does not permit further discussion here, the implications of an objective understanding of beauty are far ranging and worth exploring.
Ultimately, Markos sums it up well when he writes that “the good, the true, and the beautiful are all action words that call us to take a quick glance backward and then trudge on with hope toward the distant land that is our true home.” May we set our eyes on what is true, live our lives according to the good, as we wait for the revealing of true beauty in our King and the coming Kingdom.
Markos, Restoring Beauty, 33.
Mortimer J. Adler, How to Think About the Great Ideas: From the Great Books of Western Civilization, ed. Max Weismann (Chicago: Open Court, 2000), 156, 153.
Caldecott, Beauty for Truth’s Sake, 31.
By the Arts, I mean things like visual art (drawing, painting, sculptures, etc.), music, theater, dance, architecture, and related disciplines.
The following points are drawn from the chapter “Aesthetics: What is Beauty?,” pages 418-450 in Steven B. Cowan and James S. Spiegel, The Love of Wisdom: A Christian Introduction to Philosophy (Nashville: B & H, 2009).
In addition to Cowan and Spiegel’s work, I would recommend Francis Schaeffer, Art and the Bible, IVP Classics (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006); Jerram Barrs, Echoes of Eden: Reflections on Christianity, Literature, and the Arts (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013); Jeremy S. Begbie, Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music, Engaging Culture (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007); Gene Edward Veith, Jr., Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature, Turning Point Christian Worldview Series (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990); among many other good works on the topic.
Markos, Restoring Beauty, 11.