Postmodern Pythagoras


Can the divide between the Liberal Arts and the Sciences be bridged by beauty?

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In a strange twist on St. Bonaventure’s classic thirteenth century text, The Reduction of the Arts to Theology, we might call recent trends in the humanities The Reduction of the Arts to Biology. Darwinian aesthetics or neurologically driven art history seem at first interdisciplinary, but on closer examination these trends do little to unify disparate disciplines; instead – in a fittingly Darwinian way – they involve the consumption of weaker disciplines by the stronger, more amply funded sciences.   One of the many ironies of contemporary academic life is that those scholars who insist, for example, that gender is a pure social construct are themselves in the grip of a much more powerful and real social construct, one that is instantly recognized, profoundly entrenched, but much more profitably resisted: the division between the arts and sciences.  The fact that career advancement is based on specialization within this unquestioned divide ensures that few today are in a position to challenge it, despite the fact that great thinkers throughout history, such as Pythagoras, have insisted upon the overall unity of knowledge (however imperfectly grasped).  Ours is a supposedly daring academic ethos of plurality and fragmentation, for which the unity of knowledge is far too daring an idea.

Genuinely transcending the division between the sciences and humanities today would be an ambitious project, involving the entirety of the human person—body, mind, spirit—marshaled to perceive the actual order of an objective cosmos. Occasionally, a given professor or student in contemporary academe might imagine what this holistic perspective would be like. It is a temptation felt especially by those who study the Classical world or the Middle Ages, both so deeply influenced by Pythagoras. But the cosmic image of old, as C.S. Lewis once put it, was discarded. Intuitively we moderns want it back, but modernity relentlessly catechizes the educated into dismissing any proposed unity between math, art, religion, and physics as offensively presumptuous, the intellectual fare of fools. The disciplinary border police, patrolling quarantined academic sectors with punitive labels such as “dilettante” and “crackpot,” forbid any such attempts.

At most, a modern mind nostalgic for a holistic cosmos waits patiently for science to deliver a Theory of Everything, hoping that perhaps sometime in the future, physics and spirituality (never religion) might meet. But Stratford Caldecott, who heads the Center for Faith and Culture at the University of Oxford, has no such patience. His book, Beauty for Truth’s Sake: On the Re-Enchantment of Education, insists that we need not pin our hopes only on some distant synthesis, for by reconstituting the liberal arts tradition, such a synthesis is available now. Should one discard prejudice against traditional faith, there is an impressive array of scholars and religious leaders who have been moving towards such a synthesis for decades. Caldecott provides us with excerpts from the best of them, fusing these authors into a manageable manifesto—with an extensive bibliography—that attempts to enter into what Caldecott calls “the Pythagorean spirit which lies at the root of Western civilization.”

Caldecott’s manifesto champions the liberal arts tradition, first grouped by the Pythagoreans and established in the great Cathedral schools of the Middle Ages.  According to this lost vision, the trivium—grammar, rhetoric and dialectic—was linguistic preparation for navigating the quadrivium—arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music—the very disciplines that Plato believed able to distinguish the numerical harmony of the cosmos. Caldecott is critical of authors like Dorothy Sayers who defend the trivium, while ignoring the less familiar quadrivium. Still, he does not suggest that the seven liberal arts simply be taken up as they were. Caldecott advises resumption, but also a broadening and adaptation of the liberal arts tradition, one that teaches the history of given disciplines as well as the disciplines themselves. But what unites these various disciplines is beauty, understood not as a subjective perception, but as harmonious order that is complex in ways we cannot yet imagine. On this point, Caldecott quotes Socrates: “The object of education is to teach us to love what is beautiful.”  Caldecott has no difficulty amassing a range of reputable contemporary scientists who insist that beauty is as central to their subject as it is, or at least once was, to fine art.  When investigating the Universe, the encounter of beauty – even “irrational beauty” - is an essential clue that one is on the right track.

Caldecott is deeply aware of how strange his project will sound to modern ears. Accordingly, he counters anticipated suspicion at every step. He quotes at length from respected figures such as philosopher Charles Taylor, physicist David Bohm, and Benedict XVI, all of whom he convincingly mobilizes in service to his vision. Caldecott repeatedly assures us that he has no desire to simply return to the medieval mindset; he only wishes to be guided by its perception of a meaningful world. Caldecott summarizes his vision in three points: First, with countless educators today, he bemoans how the fragmentation of education has eliminated overall meaning, opting for unconnected details instead; second, he proposes that renewed meaning involves educating people to perceive the form—the beauty—of the cosmos; and third, this meaning is ultimately doxological and liturgical, for “cosmology leads only to the threshold of theology.” Caldecott is unapologetically Catholic, but he has mastered his tradition enough to fathom the underestimated extent of its hospitality to outsiders. The book, which quotes Islamic and Hindu sources in addition to Christian and Classical ones, thus succeeds in addressing a wider audience, so long as that audience has respect for religion.

Caldecott’s perspective requires symbolic vision and “poetic imagination,” that faculty which unites what our minds tend to keep separate. Again wary of incredulity, he insists that such symbolism need be balanced by the logic and empirical observation emphasized by the Enlightenment. For example, we can learn from the medieval bestiary how to read the world poetically, without subscribing to its primitive zoology. Caldecott’s treatment of numerology and geometry will perhaps provoke the most initial incredulity, but to my surprise, such treatments comprise the book’s core, and were delightfully convincing. Caldecott elucidates Simone Weil’s claim that geometry is “the most dazzling of all the prophecies which foretold the Christ.” We may laugh at Dan Brown’s use of the Fibonacci sequence in The DaVinci Code, or at the spooky numerological twists to the television series Lost. On a higher cultural plain, we can shudder at Darren Aronofsky’s film Pi, where a mathematical genius discovered a numerical order to the world, and is terrified by it. Caldecott, however, goes beyond both mockery and fear, helping us to see that these are but contemporary cultural echoes of a distant, ancient synthesis. Numerical order is in fact an integral part of Western civilization—one that does not reveal a horrific reality, but a beautiful one.

Caldecott’s treatment of music and architecture is equally exciting, and anything but parochial. With the Greeks, he understands music, the “art of the muses,” to comprise the entirety of intellectual culture. He cites Daniel Chua’s lament that in the modern world, “the harmony of the spheres has collapsed into the song of the self.” Ruling out neither chant nor electric guitar (but privileging the former), Caldecott quotes C.S. Lewis, who, like Pythagoras and Ptolemy before him, believed that “music which is too familiar to be heard enfolds us day and night and in all ages.” Likewise, Caldecott summarizes the recent revival of sacred, symbolic architecture, citing both traditional architects like Notre Dame’s Duncan Stroik and experimental ones like Berkeley’s Christopher Alexander.  Regarding astronomy, Caldecott turns the tables on Johannes Kepler’s assumption that uncovering the elliptical, not perfectly circular, orbit of the planets was like discovering a “load of dung” in the heavens. “The medieval astronomers were wrong,” insists Caldecott. “There is actually nothing imperfect about an ellipse. It differs from a circle by having two centers or foci rather than one . . . Kepler’s original mistake did not lie in his Christian Pythagoreanism, but in his attempt to prejudge the mathematical forms he would find in nature.”

Caldecott is eager to challenge complacency, and he tries to provoke the modern mindset with the prod of beauty: “If you push the postmodern relativist, you will almost certainly be able to get an admission that he would prefer to look up at a gorgeous sunset than down into the latrine.” Caldecott is skeptical of the dreary skeptics who populate our disenchanted world: “While we cannot anymore accept the details of medieval cosmology, this fundamental intuition of the Logos has never been disproved. In fact . . . the most recent developments in science could be said to confirm it.” What gave us the shift towards secularism was not science, but ideology:

A popular misconception has it that medieval man thought the world was flat, and modern science gave us a round world floating in an infinite space. But the truth is almost the opposite of this. Medieval man inhabited a three-dimensional cosmos which has now been largely replaced by a flat universe with no ontological depth.

Our divided academic disciplines have been wearied by their longtime separation, and Caldecott upholds objective beauty as a powerful, but neglected, adhesive. The book is not recommended, but urged upon all. The book may baffle moderns suspicious of the analogy of being, frustrate mathematicians who see their field as an escape from religious questions, annoy artists who thought their pursuit of beauty could avoid arithmetic, and bother scientists frustrated with the growing religious ranks within their onetime secular domain—but it will delight those with ears to hear the music of the spheres which hasn’t ceased. Dostoevsky’s prediction that “beauty will save the world” is pending eschatological verification. In the meantime, Stratford Caldecott successfully argues that it can at least save education.

Matthew J. Milliner is a doctoral candidate in Art History at Princeton University. He blogs at

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