Friday, 25 February 2011

The Good and the trancendental goods: Truth, Beauty, Virtue

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The Good is the highest aim in a human life. (e.g. in Plato). It does not necessarily refer to God or to the Gods, but to what humans ought to do.

The Ancient Greeks recognized that The Good was transcendental, had to be transcendental - had to be something outside and beyond humans to which each could aspire (and which they might fail to attain).

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The Good is highest, but it is hard to understand, hard to think about - and most people usually focus on three component transcendental goods of Truth, Beauty and Virtue (moral good).

However, there is a problem in splitting up the Good - which is that people begin to evaluate the world using separate modalities of thought.

Truth becomes the province of - firstly - philosophy, then later science.

Beauty becomes the province of Art.

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And Virtue? Virtue becomes religion - the whole thing! - or later Virtue may become a secular ideology.

And indeed morality can become the whole of religion - such that people cannot see that religion has anything to do with either Truth or Beauty.

Morality becomes the whole thing.

In which circumstance religion (or secular ideology) becomes legalistic, inevitably.

Virtue is a matter of following a set of rules, of Laws. Virtue is reduced merely to obedience. 

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The pursuit of Virtue, detached from its unity with Truth and Beauty in the Good - is a major pathology of Western thought

Some Christian denominations - most of them indeed, are wholly concerned with Virtue, and regard Truth and - especially - Beauty as of grossly subordinate importance.

The actual circumstances of this kind of religious life and practice may be devoid of Beauty or hostile to Beauty. Indeed, Beauty may be regarded as a snare, rather than a component of The Good.

And the same applies to mainstream secular ideologies - such as Communism, or modern liberal political correctness. They are wholly Virtue orientated, and being untruthful in pursuit of Virtue is not only tolerated but approved.

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Creating ugliness in pursuit of Virtue is likewise approved (building hideously soul-destroying, but functional, housing for the poor; or brutal cityscapes and offices for bureaucrats - to be concerned by Beauty in such circumstances is regarded as unserious Dandyism).

To be indifferent to precise facts or to lie, and to destroy beautiful things and to create ugly environments in pussuit of Virtuous goals is indeed regarded as evidence of moral seriousness.

For such people, the truly Virtuous ought to be indifferent to such matters - their minds are wholly moral.

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But lined up against this partial pursuit of Virtue are similarly absurd, wicked and evil partial exaltations of Truth and Beauty.

The partial pursuit of Truth leads to scientism; to the common and indeed dominating conviction that science, mathematics and the like are the only valid forms of knowledge; and that the true and dedicated scientist should pursue Truth indifferent to Virtue and Beauty - that the single-minded pursuit of Truth (usually in the form of 'facts' and technology) is indeed intrinsically virtuous, and intrinsically beautiful - so there is not need for the serious scientist (or philosopher) to worry about these matters.

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And there is an equivalent situation in The Arts.

Beauty becomes the province of Art, and the understanding and promotion of art becomes a matter of aesthetics - distinct from evaluations of Virtue and Truth - leading to the ideal of Art for Arts sake.

That the serious artist and arts critic is indifferent to Truth and Virtue - or rather that artistic values themselves transcend such concerns- and that Art - Beauty - is (by this account) intrinsically true and intrinsically virtuous; so that any trammelling or constraint on 'artistic expression' is intrinsically a violation of truth and virtue as well.

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So we reach, have long-since reached, a situation when the transcendental Goods have been split up and regarded as separate, regarded as amenable to separate pursuit; are indeed contrasted with each other and pitted against each other by what are de facto interest groups such as priests, scientists and artists: each claiming the high ground, each trying to subordinate the others.

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Yet The Good is in reality a unity: that which is Good is intrinsically and inevitably virtuous, true and beautiful.

Truth, Beauty and Virtue cannot really be separated.

The Good is not attained by being virtuous and then bolting-on truth and adding a layer of beauty; nor is it attained by a narrowly fanatical pursuit of precision and reliability then surrounding it with a halo of words that claim its ultimate virtuousness and an assertion of its special kind of beauty; nor by a belief that an effective novel, poem, painting, song - created to fulfil the criteria of these aesthetic forms is intrinsically also a agent of  the highest truth and tending to a special kind of human virtue...

The situation is that the True, Beautiful and Moral are by-products of the Good - and when they are not by-products they are not good; that the specific pursuit of Truth, Beauty and Virtue asif they were distinct goals may very easily become subversive of the Good, may indeed become its opposite, have indeed already and long since become the opposite of Good. *

While this may be very obvious for the narrow pursuit of Beauty (as Art) or Truth (as philosophy and science) it is equally so of the narrow pursuit of Virtue.

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I am stating here that the narrow pursuit of Virtue in detachment from Truth and Beauty is anti-Good  (or rapidly becomes so).

The idea of a religion focused on, based around, Virtue; and subordinating of Truth and Beauty, is a Bad thing, not a Good thing.

Virtue is not higher than Truth and Beauty.

To act as if Virtue is higher than Truth and Beauty is very swiftly to embrace the Bad - not merely the narrowly wicked (anti-virtuous) idea of Bad, but to destroy the whole capacity for Good.

The mode of thought which sees Virtue as requiring trade-offs with Truth and Beauty is at fault.

The aspiration of religion must not be Virtue, but must be The Good.

And the Good can be conceptualized as closeness to God, communion with God, as God-like-ness.

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I have found that this is the essence and focus of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church tradition, but I have not found this insight elsewhere except as a minority view - it is found elsewhere, but in a rather tenuous, personal, and peripheral expression of spirituality - and not as the core.

Hence most Christian denominations cannot keep a hold of The Good: find it too imprecise, too slippery, to hard to grasp and hold.

Most revert to a focus, a prioritizing of Virtue: and to make this more precise they render Virtue explicit in Law.

Others (much more rarely) become almost wholly aesthetic - and merge into the Arts.

Others become too philosophical, and too systematically philosophical.

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And The Good cannot be attained by first splitting into the T, the B and the V - and then afterwards trying to bolt them together again!

The act of breaking-up the Good irreversibly destroys that which is necessary to unify the Good. The operation of splitting is imperfect, much is destryed in doing it, somethings are left out, the analytic knife inflicts collateral damage.

The 'operation' of analyzing Good into TBV is like dissecting an animal to understand it; then trying to fit it together again and bring it back to life!

Unity of The Good is above all of these dangerous specifics.

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Only by a focus upon The Good, as characteristic of God; and by conceptualizing Christianity as the desire to move-towards God (that is - towards the unified transcendent Good) and commune-with, partake-of God; can the partiality and distortions of the specific TBV specific Goods be avoided, and the real unified reality be (at least potentially) approached.

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7 comments:

The Great and Powerful Oz said...

Interesting. I am currently taking a course on Universalism and there are many common themes. Hosea Ballou was a very powerful writer, I've been reading some of his sermons on the goodness of people.

Jim Kalb said...

I agree with almost all of this. One point I'd make though is that some sort of rational theology and philosophy is also necessary. Things come up now and then--errors, misconceptions, new developments, attacks on the Faith--and it's an advantage to be able to say something articulate on whatever the specific point is. If you can't you're likely to give up whole fields of life.

It strikes me as a problem for example that there's never been such a thing as an Eastern Orthodox university. Isn't the True supposed to be part of the Good? Also, Eastern Orthodoxy seems to have had trouble maintaining independence from the state. That also strikes me as a problem. Science as a branch of the state has trouble, and the same is true of religion.

bgc said...

"It strikes me as a problem for example that there's never been such a thing as an Eastern Orthodox university."

This is regarded as a feature not a bug! Although there were glorious achievements at the beginning; nonetheless The University - and in particular scholasticism - was (from an Orthodox perspective) the beginning of the end.

(i.e. the beginning of fragmentation, secularization, progressivism/ socialism/ Liberalism/ PC).

As I understand it, the Orthodox conviction is that scholarship should properly be subordinated to faith - and should happen in (or focused on) monasteries not universities.

"Also, Eastern Orthodoxy seems to have had trouble maintaining independence from the state."

The ideal is that the Church be fused with the State as in Byzantium or Holy Russia.

The true Orthodox monarch is not a priest but God's Vicegerent, intermediary, and akin to an Apostle.

Ideally, there was a kind of symbiotic and interwoven autonomy between State and Church: the Emperor appointed the Patriarch, the Patriarch anointed the Emperor (but could excommunicate him; although the Emperor could then exile the Patriarch and appoint another - but might not survive doing this if the people/ army/ civil service or most of the Church decided the Emperor was in the wrong).

Of course where there is not a divine monarchy, the 'official' Orthodox gets subverted by the state - in the USSR it was run by atheist Communists/ KGB etc. However, the true Orthodox church survived underground:

http://russiascatacombsaints.blogspot.com/

Jim Kalb said...

I suppose Oxford used to be a sort of monastery, since the dons couldn't marry and had to be Anglican. But that's probably not what you have in mind.

Actually, I'm not sure what you do have in mind. What in principle would distinguish a Catholic university from a Catholic monastery with a vocation for teaching and learning? What happens if organized study develops outside monasteries? Would you do away with scientific studies, because they emphasize measurement and search for mechanism, so the more successful they are the more they seem to leave God out of the picture?

I don't know enough about Byzantine history to comment on that as a model of Church and State. I do seem to recall that until the final split the agreement of the Pope on the solution to a doctrinal dispute was considered extremely important--the case wasn't closed if the Pope wasn't on board. To me that suggests the importance of placing ultimate Church authority outside the practical reach of the Emperor.

bgc said...

JK: "Actually, I'm not sure what you do have in mind. What in principle would distinguish a Catholic university from a Catholic monastery with a vocation for teaching and learning? What happens if organized study develops outside monasteries? Would you do away with scientific studies,"

The way I think about it is that scholasticism and the universities were a result of the division of philosophy from theology - i.e. the autonomy of philosophy - which developed in detachment from theology - with the intention of putting them back together again after a while.

But having developed philosophy in an autonomous fashion, it never could be re-integrated with theology. Or rather, Aquinas achieved an integration, but not such that it convinced the next generation of philosophers (Scotus, Wm of Occam) and they developed the philosophy still further in directions which prevented it being re-integrated with theology - and then that led via many steps to modernity.

This, at least, is what I inferred from reading Alasdair MacIntyre's God, philosophy, universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition - 2009. (It is not, of course, MacIntyre's own conclusion.)

I think this means that scholarship needs to be under the spiritual *authority* of men chosen for their holiness primarily; rather than their scholarly characteristics primarily - which is what I mean by scholarship 'in monasteries' - I don't mean literally so, but spiritually so.

JK: "I don't know enough about Byzantine history to comment on that as a model of Church and State. "

My understanding is that education in Byzantium was a combination of theological training in monasteries, and private schools set up by specific individual scholars - but not multi-generational institutions like universities.

"I do seem to recall that until the final split the agreement of the Pope on the solution to a doctrinal dispute was considered extremely important--the case wasn't closed if the Pope wasn't on board. To me that suggests the importance of placing ultimate Church authority outside the practical reach of the Emperor."

I think you are broadly correct about the last days of Byzantium - but that was a kind of 'afterlife' of the Empire as a mere city state, following the catastrophic sacking of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade. The essence of Byzantium was from Constantine to the Fourth Crusade.

Of course the Orthodox Church did not give the Emperor ultimate authority - that was from God as mediated by The Church in a mystical sense, 'tradition', the ecumenical councils, the Holy Fathers, the Saints and Elders and so on - with no specific human locus.

Emperors could be and were removed (sometimes by pressure from the Church, or the Army or civil service or mob) when it was felt that (or perhaps with the excuse that) they had not been a real Emperor but instead 'a mistake', or they had become corrupted, or something like that.

bgc said...

Jim - I think I can be a bit clearer about why the separation of philosophy from theology was bad - or led to harm: because it allowed philosophy to proceed on the assumption that God did not exist, the soul did not exist.

This was just intended to be a temporary measure, an experiment to see what happened - but once people had become used to this assumption, they began to regard it as proven.

So now people believe that it has been proven that the soul was a fiction, that God does not exist etc - simply because they are used to, habituated to, thinking on this assumption - and cannot imagine (cannot get used to) thinking otherwise.

Jim Kalb said...

It's true that involvement in particular activities makes it hard to keep their connection to the whole in mind. Standard examples include making money, our interest in the opposite sex, and attempts to control things generally. Hence the monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

I'd agree that the pursuit of knowledge, which after all is a kind of power, can have the same effect.

The question is what to do about it. Not everybody can take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. It's not clear to me that your solution to the problem as it applies to knowledge (limit its degree of institutional organization and put the guy with the tonsure in charge of the pieces that exist) is consistent with your solution to the problem as it applies to power (have a single state organization with the guy with the sword in charge, but say his office is religious).

The Catholic West takes the same approach with knowledge as with power: say it's what it is but it's also religious, and the religious aspects are backed up by some sort of general supervision from someone (the hierarchy headed by the Pope) who is practically independent of the institutional structures of knowledge and power.

As you note the structure of knowledge crashed and burned in the West. On the other hand, the same happened and maybe even more so to the sacred state in the East. People have to learn from the messes they make of things. As you've noted elsewhere, the current official structure of knowledge is becoming less and less knowledge-like and the dependence of knowledge on credo ut intelligam is becoming more and more obvious (and even generally recognized, at least in the degraded form of claims that all knowledge is arbitrary or based on power relations or whatever).

So I wouldn't give up on knowlege. At this point, it seems to me, the pursuit of knowledge by people who actually want it is likely to involve recognition of its limits and dependence.