Beauty as an expression of meaning

Later this afternoon, Friday, December 18, 2020, President Trump will meet with Acting Secretary of Defense Miller in the Oval Office. Defense briefings for the Biden transition team have stopped. I have warned you about this moment. Be ready.

I do not know how our life will change in the next few weeks. Should we get separated, I want to leave you with one more thought that is on my mind increasingly: the nature of beauty.

Everyone knows that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. It is totally subjective. There is no objective reality to beauty. To imply so is intellectually primitive – deplorable, one might say.

Below, I have compiled five visual contrasts for your consideration.

You should be able to identify all the people in these pictures. The two architectural photographs were taken in Czechia, I believe.

Next, I offer links to two pieces of music: “Spem in Alium”, a 40-part motet by Thomas Tallis, the best piece of music ever composed, from 1570; and the modern “F___ tha Police”, one of the worst.

Remember, there is no such thing as objective beauty. It is all just a personal preference. Or is it?

The first picture above shows First Lady Melania Trump, the most beautiful First Lady in American history, coming to greet Washington, DC schoolchildren in the White House during Christmas, 2017. This former model was never asked to be on the cover of any women’s magazine, unlike her predecessor, pictured next to her.

Look again at the picture of Mrs. Trump. What do you see? The children in the White House that day had not yet been trained to hate. They spoke with the innocence of youth. One little black boy was astounded by her appearance. He asked his friend, “Is she an angel???”

As an observant Jew trained in millennia of philosophy, I would have to answer by giving the official explanation of what an angel is, as a powerful messenger of God. As a person with a heart, listening to the spiritual yearning in the pure heart of a child, I would answer, “She most certainly is.”

Beauty is consonant with purpose. For the last person pictured above, his life choices have not harmonized with his purpose – his final cause, in Aristotle’s words. Speaking of Aristotle – he wrote that the purpose of the arts was to console and to exalt. No one has ever said it better.

Did anyone suffer in the year 1570? Most probably they did. Would they, or anyone suffering in any year, including 2020, be more likely to be consoled and exalted by the first piece of music or the second? Were their lives improved by people tending to listen to the first kind of music or the second? Why is Pachelbel’s Canon in D chosen as wedding music far more frequently than “F___ tha Police”?

I believe there is a transcendent convergence of Truth, Good, and Beauty in the Mind of God. The manuscripts of Johann Sebastian Bach were usually signed SDG, which stands for Soli Deo Gloria – to God alone the glory. This is not merely an expression of humility. It is also an acknowledgement that all reality is dependent on God alone, and that our best work in science, art, or morals merely reveals some of the workings of God’s Infinite Mind.

17 thoughts on “Beauty as an expression of meaning

  1. Thank you for this lovely essay, Surak. Cannot, nor would I presume to, add a thing to augment or amplify your masterful expression of the heart-felt humility and appreciation for the divine that being the presence of beauty engenders in those with eyes to see.

    It is indeed sobering to contemplate what the near future holds. One feels a sense of dread accompanied by marvel at how rapidly events seem to be spinning out of control and taking on a life of their own in “the widening gyre.”

    I am reminded of a scene in the 1993 movie, “Gettysburg,” depicting Lee’s disastrous assault on the Federal center on the third day of the battle. Just before jumping off, the doomed Richard Brooke Garnett, portrayed as something of a tragic hero, speaks farewell to fellow brigade commander Lewis Armistead with a resolute: “See you at the top, Lo.” Of course, they both fall in the ensuing action.

    Don’t know how many of us will reach the top of the hill, but the reality of the charge in whatever form it may take seems imminent, if not exactly immediate. May the Good Lord grant us courage, strength and resolve in the moment of our patriotic trial, and may God continue to bless the United States of America.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Surak, I listened to the first piece, Spem in Alium, in its entirety, entranced by its unspeakable beauty. The second, I turned off at about five seconds. It was unspeakably ugly, both in sound and content.

    Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy that is not well-known. But in your essay, above, you caught the meaning of it well … better than most professional philosophers (if they even bother, anymore). I’ve never taught aesthetics (though I’m not sure why). But if I did, you would have been given a “A” both for the essay, and the semester.

    May I suggest another piece of music to you? It is Richard Strauss’ beautiful tone poem,”Death and Transfiguration”, which portrays the death of an artist, and what happens afterward. The transfiguration never fails to bring tears to my eyes, as it is unspeakably beautiful (as opposed to “rap”).

    I agree with the little child about Melania Trump, by the way. She looks like an angel. If she was married to a DEM president, can you imagine the way that the media and popular culture would have fawned over her?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Sublime indeed, Wolfie. These two creations of man, one high art and the other dreck of the lowest order, are so emblematic of the timeless struggle between good and evil played out on the chessboard of this world. As it is written, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

      Couldn’t bring myself to listen to the (c)rap piece; its title told me everything I needed to know. Once you’ve tasted the sacred, the profane is not an option. Not familiar with the Strauss piece, will check it out. Thanks for the advisement.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I sat in the 3rd row of the main floor … many years ago … in Symphony Hall in Chicago. Death and Transfiguration was in the program, that night. Fritz Reiner conducted it masterfully, as usual. As the last phrase ended, he turned around to the thunderous applause of the crowd. I was close enough to see the tears streaming down his face, the music had so moved him.

        The music raised the awareness of the sublime, and pointed the way to God to the degree that there was very few dry eyes in the house.

        All that rap inspires is hatred and violence, among the most fortunate minority in the world. (C)rap, indeed!

        Liked by 2 people

    2. Thank you for that recommendation, Wolfie. I listened to Death and Transfiguration last night on Youtube, after reading a description of the programmatic message of this tone poem. I am already familiar with most of the great tone poems of the long 19th century, but this one was new to me.

      The music was gorgeous, of course. Nevertheless, I hesitate to endorse it on a list of greatest works of classical music, for the same reasons I am cautious about any work later than the lives of Haydn and Mozart.

      Our friend wyomingkid wrote to me on FPM that he was about to start reading Richard Weaver’s “Ideas Have Consequences”. I assume as a philosopher that you are familiar with this important book. Weaver believes that Western civilization went wrong not with existentialism, or romanticism, or the Enlightenment, or empiricism, or the Industrial Revolution, or the Reformation, or the Renaissance… but rather with Ockham’s nominalism, a rejection of realism (the reality of universals). I note that the Wikipedia article states that some scholars see Ockham’s position as more centrist, advocating conceptualism, a mid-point between nominalism and realism.

      I do not reject post-medieval music. However, I think things started to go off the rails with Beethoven. I see a line connecting him to Liszt, then Wagner, then R. Strauss. (To be fair, a second line connects Beethoven to Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms.)

      I see Beethoven as having opened the door to a succession of increasingly histrionic, if not neurotic, composers. Instead of revealing the Mind of God, or at least recording the folk-tunes of the common people, the romantic composers displayed their titanic struggles for heroism. That has led directly to the spectacle of today’s pop/rock stars putting on perverse performances in front of mesmerized audiences.

      Just because a piece of music is performed by an orchestra does not necessarily make it classical. The wild gyrations of the conductor are closely related to the pelvic gyrations of the pop/rock star.

      I think back in embarrassment to the rock music I listened to as a young man. Then I remember the words of a spiritual teacher from 2000 years ago, something like this: when I was a child, I thought as a child; when I became a man, I put away childish things.

      Did not Strauss see sublime beauty in this world as well? Did he imagine that only in death would he find spiritual fulfillment?

      The reason I am so querulous on this point is that there seems to be a Wagnerian fascination with Love/Death in Western culture: “We shall fall in battle, our passing will be noble, people will write epic poems about our deaths” – and our progeny will be massacred by the enemy’s progeny. In the Trumpian era, isn’t it better to win?

      Thank you for giving me food for thought again!

      Liked by 2 people

    1. He was truly a great conductor. He knew what he wanted out of the orchestra, and they gave it to him. When I was in the chorus of the Lyric Opera, he conducted a performance in Ravinia Park. For these occasions, we joined together with the Chicago Symphony Chorus. Complete with live cannons, the main number was Tschaikovky’s magnificent 1812 Overture. Thousands of people who never before had considered classical music were there, for the cannons! I can still hear their fantastic cheers, to this day, in my mind.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Surak, you mentioned that you warned us of this moment.

    I have a good friend in DIA, whom I’ve known since Vietnam.. I finally managed to get in touch with him, and I asked him if something big is going on. All he would say to me is, “Keep tuned to this channel.” Note that the President has also taken PERSONAL command of US special forces.

    This is all I have, at this moment. I didn’t want to post this at FPM …

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Did not know that POTUS had taken command of SF. Is this common knowledge? We can only pray that this is not more “magical thinking,” as Surak so aptly terms it. We have been “staying tuned” for years and are over-ripe for something substantive in the way of real offensive action.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Yes, governor; the president re-organized the Defense Department in important ways in the last few months. One new feature is that the Special Forces Command now reports directly to the Secretary of Defense, the president’s appointee, rather than through the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This is a big deal. As Wolfie says, stay tuned!

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Faure! He was a student of Saint-Saens. His requiem was truly a masterpiece, and a joy to listen to.

    Bear with me, on the following …

    My maternal grandmother died from liver cancer. At the end, for several weeks, she was only semi-conscious, when was conscious at all, and could not sit up. Of course, she was in great pain. My mother took care of her, in her home in Indiana.

    One night, my mother was awakened by a noise coming from Grandma’s room. When she got there, my grandmother was sitting up in bed, with her arms outstretched, and weeping. She looked over at my mother, fully conscious, and said, “Oh, honey! Do you see them? Can’t you see them?”

    My mother asked, “Who is is?”

    Grandma Gaither replied, “The angels! They’re so beautiful!”, followed by, “Don’t cry, honey … I’m going home.”

    She lay back upon her bed, still smiling, closed her eyes, and passed away. Though I was so young, I remember her funeral, to this day. It was like an old-fashioned revival meeting.

    Death and Transfiguration. Now, you know why it moves me, so much. I was all of six years old, at the time.

    Liked by 2 people

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