Beauty Truth Justice
Every important branch of philosophy focuses on one or more of these seven words and/or on the relationships among them. Ontology, for example, is the study of being, love and presence. Aesthetics is the study of beauty, epistemology of truth, and ethics of justice. ‘Good’ lacks a discipline of its own but that is for reasons that will be evident shortly.
How any comprehensive system of thought understands these seven words and the relationships among them pretty much defines that system.
“To be or not to be? That is the question!” In our attempt to understand our experience, the concept of ‘being’ represents the first ‘cut’. It separates things (objects, events, attributes) that are from things that are not.
The word ‘being’ is a noun, but it can be used as an adjective to describe things that are, and of course, it is derived from the verb ‘to be’. It transcends any possible syntax.
‘Good’ is a single, simple qualification of ‘being’. Superficially at least, things that are (above) may be good or not good or they may be somewhere on a spectrum of ‘goodness’. According to Anselm of Bec, however, being is always better than not being and therefore, “Being is good.”
But is it? Most modern philosophers would dispute this. Some would deny the very existence of ‘good’ per se. Even more would argue that being is value-free: it just is.
In the Late Middle Ages, Scholastic philosophers and theologians like Anselm got themselves in a lot of trouble by asserting that being is better than not-being. They argued that being was a ‘perfection’ and hence a participation in ‘the good’. Once folks realized that this assumption could be used to help prove the existence of God, later thinkers rushed to challenge it.
From Parmenides through Whitehead and Sartre, Western philosophy has divided ‘being’ into aletheia and doxa, truth and appearance, substance and form, particulars and universals, noumena and phenomena, actual entities and eternal objects, dasein and wasein, etre pour soi and entre en soi.
Each of these pairs reprises the others, often adding a unique twist. In each pair, the second term is related to attributes, qualities that qualify the first term. It is the assumption of this writer that all attributes, all qualities are intrinsically good. In fact, attributes in sum exhaust (logically) the content of ‘the good’. The good in turn is simply the ordered co-incidence of all attributes.
So what ‘good’ adds to the concept of ‘being’ is ‘order’. We’ll be coming back to this later.
Of course, not all things appear to be good. Paintings are ugly, people are liars, laws are unjust, etc. But in each and every case, the sub-optimal (or evil) pseudo-attribute is really just a deprivation of the real attribute. Ugliness is a lack of beauty, deception is a lack of truthfulness, and injustice is a lack of fairness. There are not two worlds, one good, one bad. We do not need to introduce dualism to account for the world as it is. There is but one world, intrinsically good, albeit still struggling to perfect itself, to be all that it can be.
Everything that comes to be is drawn into being by the attraction of ‘The Good’. Of course, entities may and do have grossly different concepts of what is good. What is good for an electron may be different from what is good for a walrus. What seems good to me may seem horrible to you. In each case, however, the entity comes to be by virtue of its pursuit of the good as it understands it. To be is, at least ab initio, to pursue ‘good’.
At first hearing, this might seem to be an almost indefensible proposition; but on further reflection, it is clear that things cannot be otherwise. To be is to act (event) and nothing acts other than to effect improvement. As I’m sure my readers would agree, being is a lot of work. Nothing would call itself into being and act for the purpose of making things worse than they already are. Becoming is an act hope.
So being per se is intrinsically ‘good’, radical secularism not withstanding. Therefore, ‘being’ and ‘good’ are denotatively synonymous even though the connotations of the two words are quite different.
In the world of our experience, we don’t encounter pure good (at least not outside of religious, spiritual and mystical realms). We experience good only as it manifests itself to us.
How does ‘good’ manifest? There are probably several valid ways to catalogue the manifestations of good. It is possible that no list of ‘manifestations’ can full exhaust the concept of ‘Good itself. However, I have chosen a simple three word schema that I think comes close: beauty, truth, and justice.
Beauty is one manifestation of good in the actual world. We define beauty in terms of the structure or pattern of things. Some arrangements strike us as beautiful, other arrangements…less so.
An artist, whether professional or ad hoc, constantly strives to add beauty to the world. A painter goes over and over her canvass searching for the optimal arrangement of shapes and colors.
Of course, we often disagree about what is beautiful. Some like Da Vinci while others prefer Dada. Some like Beethoven, others Kid Rock. The point, however, is that we all have a concept of beauty and we all accept that to be ‘beautiful’ is to be ‘good’.
Ultimately, beauty is connected to harmony. A pattern is ‘beautiful’ to the extent that its elements harmonize with each other; a pattern is ‘less beautiful’ to the extent that its elements are discordant.
Truth is another manifestation of good. In its narrowest sense, it concerns the correspondence of some element of representation (e.g. a sentence) with some element of reality (e.g. an event). The representation is true to the extent that the correspondence is accurate.
A map, for example, is ‘true’ to the extent that the pattern of symbols that make up the map corresponds to the territory being mapped. A sentence is ‘true’ to the extent that it accurately describes something in the real world. Therefore, a poem about unicorns may be interesting, even beautiful, but it can never be true…or untrue. In this sense, then, beauty is a broader concept.
A very powerful tool for determining the ‘truth’ of a proposition is Scientific Method. Logical Positivists go so far as to apply ‘true’ only to those propositions that can be ‘falsified’ using scientific method and only to the extent that they have not been so falsified.
While truth is a narrower manifestation of good than beauty, it has its own unique role to play. Truth links the manifestation of good to our understanding of concrete physical events.
To the extent that a pattern includes a proposition that is true, that truth may reinforce or enhance the beauty of that pattern. But not always! A mythology, for example, is probably less interesting and less beautiful to the extent that it contains propositions which correspond to actual entities in the ‘real world’.
There is another sense in which a system of symbols may be true. This is the ‘consistency theory of truth’. This method works best in the realm of logic and mathematics (analytic reasoning) but it can also be applied in empirical situations (synthetic reasoning).
In analytic reasoning, a universe of discourse is defined by a set of premises. Propositions are deduced from those premises. The propositions that form the system are true to the extent that they are consistent with one another. There is no need for them to correspond to anything in the real world. If they happen to do so, that may make them more interesting, but it is not a requirement.
Now back to mythology (or systematic philosophy or theology). A mythological system may be considered ‘true’ so long as its elements work together to form a coherent whole. With mythology, we are concerned with only one correspondence – the correspondence between the entire mythological system and the universe itself. Mythology, like all art, is ‘true’ only to the extent that “…it reveals as in a flash intimate, absolute Truth about the Nature of Things” (Whitehead).
Justice manifests good in the realm of action. Deeds are more or less just; so are socio-economic systems, laws, etc. Once again, of course, folks will disagree profoundly about which deeds, which systems, which laws are just; but once again, they all refer back to a common concept of justice as the manifestation of good in the social realm.
Beauty, truth and justice are three virtues that manifest good in the world. Beauty manifests good at the level of perception; truth manifests good at the level of the intellect (reason); justice manifests good at the level of action.
So as with being and good, beauty, truth and justice are denotatively synonymous despite their radically different connotations. Likewise, they are synonymous with ‘the good’ which they manifest. That is why there is no branch of philosophy dedicated to ‘the good’ per se. We study the good as it manifests in the actual world.
So our first five words are all synonymous. To put it even more dramatically, the concept of ‘being’ includes the concept of good, and the concept of good includes the concepts of beauty, truth and justice. From this we can quickly see that being per se is good, beautiful, true and just.
This is amazing for two reasons. First, post-Enlightenment (1700+) thought with its focus on analysis has rigidly compartmentalized these 5 concepts. John Keats was being counter-cultural (‘Romantic’) when he penned his famous line:
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Second, our conclusions fly in the face of the Enlightenment premise that being is value neutral: however the cosmos came to be and however it may end, we may be certain that it did not result from an intentional act and that it serves no transcendent purpose. As we have already seen, however, value-free ‘being’ simply cannot account for the universe as we experience it.
Radical secularism has as much truth value as a poem about unicorns.
This brings us to the concept of love; where does ‘love’ fit into this schema? Beauty, truth and justice are qualities that inhere in particular actual entities. Love, on the other hand, concerns the relationships between and among actual entities.
Traditionally, we restrict the term ‘love’ to relationships among members of a narrow class of sentient, even intelligent, even rational entities. There is no need to do so; at least in theory, the concept of love could apply to relationships among all entities.
In fact, ‘love’ is merely the optimal state of any relationship just as ‘beauty’, ‘truth’ and ‘justice’ are the optimal states of actual entities.
Linguistically speaking, ‘love’ comes in many flavors: erotic love (eros), brotherly love (philos), disinterested love (agape), community love (koinonia). All these manifestations of love have one trait in common: the subordination of the self to the interests of the other.
Love values the other at least as much as, and perhaps more than, the self. Like beauty, truth and justice, love is a manifestation of good in the actual world. But the roots of love go deeper still.
According to Anaximander (via Heidegger), the father of Western philosophy (6th century B.C.), love is being-in-action. Two (or more) virtual or potential entities become actual when they “give each other reck”. In other words, when multiple entities (at least two) mutually subordinate their own interests to the interests of the other(s), giving each the space needed to self-actualize, ‘being’ manifests.
Perhaps this in what Buckminster Fuller had in mind when he wrote, “Universe is plural and at minimum two.” It is certainly what existentialist philosopher, Martin Buber, meant when he wrote: “At the foundation is relationship.”
Of course, there are no temporal priorities among our first six words; each concept is intrinsically eternal. However, there are ‘processional priorities’ among them. Good qualifies being. Beauty, truth and justice manifest good.
Love closes the circle. It is on the one hand a quality that characterizes relationships among the actual entities that manifest beauty, truth and justice. On the other hand (per Anaximander and Buber), it is the source of being per se.
We find love at the end of our processional chain…and also at the beginning. It is as true to say that love is the source or ground of being as it is to say that being is the source or ground of love. So love does make the world go round after all.
Now we come to the concept of ‘presence’. In our pseudo-scientific world view, we imagine that events are neatly arranged on a so-called ‘timeline’, which is really a ‘time vector’, proceeding in uniform Planck sized steps from past to future. Every event is prior or subsequent to other events. Every event defines its own duration and location to the exclusion of every other event.
Imagine a father-daughter team doing laundry. Methodically, dad hangs each washed article of clothing in succession on a ‘clothesline’ (yup, I am that old!). Yet unbeknownst to Dad, daughter is right behind him just as systematically removing each successive article from the line. Ultimately, no dry clothes! That’s time.
Relativity adds the concept of simultaneous events but defines those events as entirely unrelated to one another…so they don’t count.
A world in which every event is prior or subsequent to every other event would not be an actual world at all. At best, it would be a state of universal solipsism.
This picture does not correspond to our real world experience. Something is missing: ‘presence’. Presence is a necessary element in the formation of every actual entity. It suspends the flow of time long enough for a real event to occur, an event with a non-infinitesimal duration. Every actual entity is by definition present to itself.
Presence in turns binds simple events into more complex events of ever longer duration. There is no pre-determined limit to the duration of an event. Therefore, we may suppose that there is one event whose duration is coeval with the duration of the universe itself.
Presence converts the horizontal timeline into a vertical hierarchy. Presence is time-free. It turns absolute, inexorable time and space into processional relations within timeless actual entities. The great physicist, Richard Feynman, demonstrated this for quantum level events. His famous ‘diagrams’ clearly show a sequential process but it is impossible to define a consistent past-future. It’s a bit like viewing an Escher painting.
Every actual entity is ‘present’ to itself. Therefore, objectively speaking, space-time exists only as an external ordering principle among disparate actual entities, each one of which defines “the present” in its own terms. The creative advance of the universe ensures that every simple actual entity will be superseded by a more complex actual entity that integrates multiple actual entities. In the process, objective (external) space-time relations are transformed into subjective (internal) processional relations.
Earlier, we supposed that there is one event whose duration is coeval with the duration of the universe itself. Every event will be integrated in this single, common event. Here, past and future have no claim to objective, independent existence; they are processional ordering principles within an ultimate actual entity.
In our schema, presence enters the world in two ways. First, being is presence. Heraclitus is supposed to have said, “Everything flows” (i.e. changes). True enough, but the key here is ‘everything’. Being is not a thing. Being does not change. How could it? Being must be the same today as it was at the beginning of the world and as it will be at the end of the world. If not, there would have to be something even more fundamental than being that would not be subject to change.
Second, love stops time. For real? Are we in middle school? Maybe…but not necessarily! Remember that love is the process wherein two or more entities voluntarily and mutually ‘recede’. This mutual recession creates an action-less void in the timeline. Within that void, time is not an element (objectively or subjectively). That is why time stops for lovers. Love is eternal, timeless. Therefore, love, like being, is pure presence.
Parenthetically, the practice of meditation, which may itself be understood as a species of love, can also create ‘an action-less void in the timeline’. The same may also be said of certain very intense spiritual experiences.
So closing the loop, presence is denotatively synonymous with being and with love…and therefore also with good, beauty, truth and justice. And this brings us to the last word we will consider: God.
Wait one second! ‘God’ was not on our list of words! Correct…and rightly so. In the context of this inquiry, ‘God’ starts out at least as an undefined term. Yet, it is interesting to note that ‘God’ has been defined at various times in the Judeo-Christian tradition as Being, Good, Beauty, Truth, Justice, Love and Presence – concepts that we now know are denotatively synonymous.
In 1077, Anselm of Bec wrote concerning God (Proslogion): “…You are wisdom, you are truth, you are goodness, you are eternity, and you are every true good…You are in fact unity itself…Each of them is all of what you are, and each is what the rest are.”
The word ‘God’, therefore, specifically denotes this ontological co-incidence. God is the synonymy of being, good, beauty, truth, justice, love and presence. It is in this sense that we say that God’s essence is his existence. Anselm again: “Therefore, you alone, Lord, are what you are…”
Introducing ‘God’ gives us access to a treasure trove of wisdom on the topics we have been exploring in this essay. Let’s confine ourselves to just a couple of examples from Judeo-Christian scripture.
Start with ‘being’. In Exodus 3, God identifies himself to Moses:
“I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob…I am who am…tell the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you.”
In Matthew 22, Jesus reprises Exodus to demonstrate his doctrine of eternal life:
“And concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”
God is Being per se (Exodus) and Being is eternal presence (Matthew).
The first 5 books of the Old Testament, the Torah, contain the 613 precepts that comprise God’s ‘law’. This is an inspired attempt to create a just order on earth. Perhaps Jesus had this in mind when he prayed (Matthew 6):
“…Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (In one respect this one line could be considered a summary of the entire Torah.)
Regarding these same precepts of the law, Jesus was asked (Matthew 22):
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
Of course, these two commandments are also found among the 613 precepts of the Torah (Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19, respectively).
What is remarkable here is that Jesus searches the 613 precepts of the Torah and finds the one most concerned with ‘being’ and the one most concerned with ‘love’. He then points out that they are synonymous. 2000 years ago, Jesus proposed the synonymy of ‘being’ and ‘love’ just as he proposed the synonymy of ‘being’ and ‘presence’. Turns out we are coming very late to the game!
The apostle John summed this up even more succinctly in his first epistle:
“…God is love.” (I John 4: 8b)
Finally, this in turn leads us to the Book of Revelation:
“I am the Alpha and the Omega…the one who is and who was and who is to come…I am the first and the last…” (Rev. 1)
“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (Rev. 22: 13)
Previously, we showed that “love closes the circle”. Love is the product of relations among actual entities but it is also the source or ground of being itself. It is truly ‘Alpha’ and ‘Omega’.
There are many other ways in which the Bible enriches in great detail the concepts barely outlined in the essay. For example,
- The Book of Psalms is a celebration of justice in all its forms and manifestations: retribution, distribution, social equity, mercy, forgiveness, redemption and salvation.
- The Song of Songs is a meditation on love.
- Ecclesiastes and Wisdom develop the theme of divine presence and proclaim the eternal dimension of everything that is.
- The Gospel of John beautifully sets forth the doctrine of Incarnation which is the Christian version of Anaximander’s simple couplet on the relationship between love and being. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son…” (3: 16)
Systematic philosophy and theology are no longer in vogue. Outside of some dusky corners in academia, few read Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, Kant and Hegel. Even Heidegger and Sartre, heroes of my adolescence, have fallen out of favor.
Yet our hunger for a deeper understanding of the world we experience is unabated. Instead of reading systematic literature, we watch The Matrix. Starved of genuine religious experience, we join cults. In lieu of eschatology, we turn to science fiction. We have replaced the authority of scripture with the authority of science.
Unfortunately, these placebos cannot satisfy us. In some instances, they simply ask the wrong questions. In others, they provide answers that do not correspond to our actual experience of the world.
As much as ever, contemporary generations need comprehensive and systematic answers to life’s great questions. However, we cannot expect them to turn to “the classics” for those answers, at least not right away. This essay attempts to demonstrate that a reasonably short and readable systematic philosophy or theology is possible…and that such a system can be relevant in the modern world.