3 December

Beauty Will Save The World

The Building Better, Building Beautiful commission, headed by Sir Roger Scruton, exists to reclaim beauty in architecture, or to use their own words: to advise the government on how to build new housing with high-quality design tailored to the needs of the community. A lot of the UK’s poorer areas are afflicted by ugly communist-like tower blocks for efficiency’s sake. This trend did not hit housing alone. Many churches built in the ‘70s and ‘80s, for example, can hardly be recognised as such by non-architects who use them. Both inside and out they reflect the loss of any real sense or appreciation of beauty. Art, architecture and music used to be media through which men sought to elevate their souls. One need only cast a few glances back at the paintings, cathedrals and symphonies of the past to see that. In the quest for larger profit-margins apparent efficiency has in a devastating coup ousted beauty.

Why does beauty matter? Why is the Building Better, Building Beautiful commission important? Perhaps we should start with what beauty is first (and what it is not). Generally, we encounter beauty through the senses; we see a beautiful painting or hear a beautiful song. This leads people to conclude that beauty is subjective. Nowhere is this better summarised than in the aphorism ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. This is not a unanimous view of beauty though. Aquinas wrote that, ‘beauty is that which pleases upon being seen’ (although actually visum might better be understood as ‘perceived’). This echoes Socrates’s claim that ‘the object of education is to teach us to love what is beautiful’. For both philosophers beauty is apprehended through the intellect. It is an abstraction which can only be performed by the intellect. Beauty raises us out of physical reality and separates men from beasts.

Many intellects have connected Truth, Beauty and Goodness. Keats, in Ode to a Grecian Urn, says ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know’. One cannot understand beauty if this connection is lost. St. Augustine pierces confused philosophical musings when he addresses God, ‘Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you’. He addresses God, the foundation of truth, indeed Truth itself, as ‘beauty’. Truth, Beauty and Goodness are classified, in classical philosophy, as transcendentals – so-called because they are concepts that transcend physical reality and are objective.

Initiatives like the Building Better, Building Beautiful commission are important because they help keep sights set on beauty. We should also learn a lesson from Socrates. If we educate our children to appreciate what is beautiful, good and true, our society has a chance of changing for the better. If Truth, Goodness and Beauty are so inextricably linked, perhaps reclaiming beauty is the first step towards reclaiming goodness and truth in a world where falsehood and evil abounds. Dostoyevsky’s Prince Myshkin may have been right when he insisted that, ‘beauty will save the world’.

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