Classical education is centered on the teaching of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. As cosmic values, the student’s encounter with Truth, Goodness, and Beauty was considered essential historically to cultivating a harmonious balance between the logical, ethical, and emotional aspects of the human soul.
And yet, this emphasis on Truth, Goodness, and Beauty is hindered in our educational endeavors by the aesthetic relativism of our modern age. I have witnessed in my own teaching experience at both the high school and university levels how modernist assumptions have worked themselves out in our aesthetic conceptions. Students as well as teachers are captive to the idea that Beauty is simply in the eye of the beholder. What you find beautiful and what I consider beautiful are merely matters of opinion. There is simply no such thing as objective Beauty.
This suggests to me that while we as parents and educators have put much thought into teaching Truth and Goodness in our classical schools, we have done so at the expense of teaching Beauty, and I am very concerned that our educational efforts are in fact being undermined by an ever-present relativism coming through the back door. Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are not sequestered from one another – they need each other and they are implied in one another. And if Beauty is robbed of its transcendent nature and relocated solely to the mere opinions of teacher and student alike, then Truth and Goodness are sure to follow.
Perhaps the most important concept our students need to learn is that, classically understood, Beauty is the delightfulness, the delectableness, the radiance of the True and Good that serves the indispensable role of drawing us toward the True and the Good. The key here is that what we find beautiful always draws us to something. In fact, Beauty in the classical world is a physics term; it attracts us like a gravitational pull toward something.
However, there’s a problem.
The Greeks were well aware that we were not only attracted to the True and the Good; we could also be attracted to evil. They captured this in the mythologies of the Muses and the Sirens: the Muses are the daughters of Zeus who inspire Beauty and Truth, while the Sirens are water nymphs that lure sailors to their death through their bewitching songs.
And so, in order for something to be truly Beautiful, it had to be both True and Good.
So how do we tell the difference? How do we know our attractions are evoked by Beauty?
The key is found in discerning what such attraction evokes in our souls: Beauty awakens a desire to surrender oneself to the object of attraction; false beauty awakens a desire to control the object of attraction. Beauty awakens love; false beauty elicits lust. Truth attracts, lies seduce.
So when our students are attracted to something they find beautiful, we have to teach them to discern what it is they are being attracted to by asking: Is it True and Good? For example, Lady Gaga music videos may attract me, but they do so in drawing me to something, namely, a world devoid of meaning and purpose that is there to be conformed to my needs and desires. This is why she is always at the center of the screen in her videos. Her artistry celebrates the emancipation of the sovereign self.
But is that True? Is that Good? Does this invite me to surrender myself in self-giving service towards the objects of my desires, or does it lure me to control them?
Of course, this is not to say that there is nothing True or Good about Lady Gaga’s music. She is, after all, situated within 2,500 years of a musical tradition that was preserved and perfected by the church. It is to say, however, that the student needs to develop discernment when listening to her music so as to be able to approve of the Good and reject the lies.
By teaching our students how to discern the difference between two kinds of attraction, love and lust, we guide them to bring their affections in line with their commitments to the Truth of the Christian gospel and the Goodness of their righteousness in Christ.
And that is Beautiful.
This post is part of a series on Truth, Goodness, and Beauty promoting the release of my new book, Awakening Wonder: A Classical Guide to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, available here.