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Beauty, Self-Transcendence, and Participation in the Cosmos

Beauty, properly understood, offers us a way of self-transcendence. Beauty leads us to participate in a truth that’s bigger than us. When we learn to participate in that beauty, we experience joy, and in some ways experience the true meaning of freedom.

This article is adapted from Chapter 4 of Margarita Mooney Suarez’s new book, The Wounds of Beauty: Seven Dialogues on Art and Education (Cluny Media, 2022).

In this discussion, Mooney Suarez and Wilson reflect on the nature of beauty, particularly the idea that beauty offers a path to self-transcendence by helping us to see our participation in reality and thereby leading us to participate in a truth that’s greater than ourselves.

This leads to a consideration of the differences between the notion of beauty in the work of Theodor Adorno, a scholar of the Frankfurt School out of which Critical Theory emerged, and that of the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain. While both see beauty as essential, Adorno believes that the search for beauty will inevitably lead to earthly conflict, while Maritain explains how experiences of beauty allow us to participate in a higher reality that transcends conflict and can therefore help us develop a political vision that is more human and fulfilling.

In light of Wilson’s suggestion that Critical Theory misunderstands beauty and fails to offer the possibility of self-transcendence, the discussion concludes with Wilson’s proposals for how to rekindle among young people a sense that the cosmos is enchanted, and that the search for beauty will not end in more conflict but rather lead to truth. Wilson notes that Christianity provides a compelling response to our innate desire to both affirm and transcend the material world around us.

Mooney Suarez: One stereotype about beauty is that it is only for the elite. But as Hans Urs von Balthasar said, a world without beauty is a world without love. And without love, we don’t have hope.

Wilson: One of the glories of Plato’s dialogue, the Phaedrus, is its suggestion that an encounter with beauty is supposed to remind us of our vision of the splendor of truth, the form and splendor, the vision of the forms in the eternal place of being. One way to think about what it means to encounter or perceive beauty is that what seems initially unfamiliar can, in fact, become deeply familiar.

Plato says that our souls have fallen into the body and are straining to grow wings, to go back up to the place of being, where the soul’s vision saw Beauty itself which is all the splendor of truth. But I think that we recognize that an encounter with form, with the way in which being discloses itself as having a form to give itself away, to be known, to be desired, and to be perceived, is an experience of the world as an intelligible mystery. Every culture has known and cherished this encounter with mystery; ours is aberrant because it tries to reduce mystery to something less than itself.

Beauty tells us this cannot finally be done. The mystery of being in its fullness, so strange and difficult, is also something that is somehow familiar to us. We think, “I’ve seen you around someplace before,” and feel a magnetic attraction to what is at once so ancient and so new.

As we encounter a truth, we place that truth into a broader sense of the cosmos as an orderly reality. Then, we also sense that when we encounter some particular thing, we can enter through its contemplation into a contemplation of that broader order. To perceive the whole order of things, from top to bottom, from the particular to the universal, is what the ancients called wisdom. Beauty, you might say, is the objective correlative proper to reality itself that corresponds to the subjective virtue of wisdom.

The role of the arts in particular, whether visual or literary or otherwise, is to communicate the fact that things are good in themselves. By drawing attention to the formedness of the thing, the artist leads the eye of the mind through this particular formed thing into a deeper encounter with mystery—which is a deeper encounter with the fact that there’s something rather than nothing, that things simply are, that things are formed and that they are intelligible and desirable, and yet they’re always a part of something bigger and greater than themselves. They don’t exist merely in themselves but always in relation to other things, and to the cosmos. Beauty is what we see; wisdom is what we obtain when we see it fully.

The experience of beauty is primary, primeval, and primordial, but it is also ultimate. It is an infant’s smile and an old man’s wisdom. We sense the finality of beauty, that it’s the last light that’s inexhaustible at the limits of all knowledge and all desiring, and which, as von Balthasar says, finally justifies those things.

 

Mooney Suarez: What are the implications of thinking about beauty in this way?

Wilson: In my book The Vision of the Soul, I describe six insights of what I call the Christian Platonist tradition: the first one is that man is an intellectual animal. The second is that, as such, man’s nature is founded on a prior or foundational intelligibility in the world, and that he is intellectually and erotically oriented toward a transcendent knowledge of that reality. The third insight is that this dual orientation proceeds by way of reason toward an intellectual vision that’s perceptive of beauty itself, which is the splendor of truth. The fourth insight is that the world is a whole, and in itself it is ordered by and for the sake of beauty. The fifth is that human dignity specifically consists in our capacity to perceive and contemplate that splendorous order, and thus the most excellent form of human life is that which is given over to such contemplation. Finally, the sixth insight is this: contemplation realizes itself in what we may call happiness or salvation, and it is characterized by an activity that resembles passivity. That is to say, it’s not simply the absence of motion, but rather a fullness of activity that we may call peace and freedom.

Mooney Suarez: So beauty helps us see our participation in reality, especially our relationship to other objects in reality. Beauty, properly understood, offers us a way of self-transcendence. Beauty leads us to participate in a truth that’s bigger than us. When we learn to participate in that beauty, we experience joy, and in some ways experience the true meaning of freedom.

If we are not intentional about the images, the stories, the paintings and the pictures we’re looking at—if we’re not consciously choosing what we are looking at—those images are shaping us whether we like it or not. There’s a lot at stake if we don’t have a deeper, contemplative tradition of art, beauty, truth, and goodness.

Jacques Maritain has said that aesthetic education, or education in beauty, is an initiation into the perception of reality. All of our desires are oriented toward some kind of participation in the cosmos. But I think we live in a time when our desires are fragmented. Many people don’t know what the bigger thing is that they want to participate in.

James, in your writings you contrast Jacques Maritain, a Catholic philosopher, and Theodor Adorno, who was a scholar from the Frankfurt School, out of which Critical Theory originally emerged. You argue that although Adorno appreciated art, beauty and even spirituality, ultimately, for Adorno, all that we do, even the search for truth, leads to us to discover more and more sources of conflict and domination. Our lives progress through a dialectic of conflict, such that every time we think we resolve a conflict, yet another emerges.

Maritain’s ultimate view of reality acknowledges social conflict and human fallenness, but also that we nonetheless can participate in the ultimate unity of beauty, truth, and goodness. Maritain sees a higher source of love that allows us to transcend conflict.

 

I don’t see in Adorno’s critical theory any ordering principle, or source of love, that allows us to get out of the cycle of domination and conflict.

Wilson: When I first started writing about Adorno and Maritain, it was because I wanted to show that the most cynical and jaded of social theories—Adorno’s Frankfurt School—and the neo-Thomism of Maritain were in certain ways in accord with one another. They both actually see beauty as absolutely essential. For Adorno, he sees the encounter of beauty in a way that’s very analogous to Maritain’s affirmation of beauty as the splendor of form.

The difference comes in how Adorno regards an encounter with the splendor of form. Adorno sees aesthetic form as the way in which the unassimilated, what’s repressed and oppressed by society, somehow makes itself visible for a moment before being smothered once more by social structures. For Adorno beauty is real, and it is a disclosure of the suffering interior to political reality, which represses beauty. Beauty is a rare glimpse of what is other than our experience of reality rather than an entryway to reality as a whole.

Adorno’s encounter with beauty is thus the antithesis of transcendence. Rather, encountering beauty is a burrowing down into what precedes the establishment of the order of modern bureaucratic society, as Adorno might have put it. Although he takes beauty very seriously, indeed as the only way you can encounter truth, Adorno’s concept of truth is deeply impoverished. It’s empty. Truth for Adorno is a condition of empty freedom we somehow encounter before historical injustices (such as capitalism or oppression) tamp us down. He could not help but reach this conclusion, because he had already decided that every vision of the whole was to be identified with the German idealist notion of totality, which is seen as intrinsically totalitarian.

What he’s not seeing is that, in fact, an encounter with beauty, a moment we recognize meaning, does not have to come through a work of fine art or the beauties of nature. We don’t have to be immersed in nature, as the romantics understood it, to perceive the highest glory of beauty.

We just have to be open to all of reality—or nature, as Aristotle understood it. Every time we recognize the beauty of some being, some form, we transcend history, culture, fate. We escape the determinism about our life so endemic to critical theory. An encounter with beauty shows us how to become what John Paul II and Alasdair MacIntyre would call culturally transcending beings. Encountering beauty allows us to rise up, as if on wings, beyond anything historical.

Maritain’s political writings are beautiful. They are founded first on the principle of intellect and being, of the ability of the human mind to participate in form and to encounter the true, the good, and the beautiful threaded into being. Any politics that’s not founded on that principle will be an inhumane politics. Critical Theory is an impossible basis for politics because it fundamentally misunderstands beauty and offers us only critique with no way to transcend historical determinism through our properly understood freedom.

 

Mooney Suarez: Maritain presents a political vision that’s hopeful. He explains how experiences of beauty that allow us to participate in reality, in eternal being, can help us develop forms of political life that are more human and fulfilling. Adorno leads us to a political theory that is purely critical—hence the name Critical Theory. This is a disenchanted world view. It ends with the iron cage of modernity that the sociologist Max Weber warned of. But how do you reach students with this message, when they may have heard so many times that the end of knowledge is to promote the Marxist revolution or some kind of social change? Can you capture the attention of students who aren’t already taught to care about the intrinsic beauty of seeking the truth?

Wilson: Yes. It’s certainly possible to communicate to students that it is false to conclude that the world is disenchanted. Wonder—which is the foundation of the intellectual life—has certainly suffered a setback in the last century or two. I taught students who have run the gauntlet through elite high schools, and who, therefore, have really come to be exhausted by—and even feel a certain repellence toward—deep, open, inquiry in education.

I rely on a few basic principles to rekindle wonder. One is that, with young people, you have to convince them that thinking about ideas is something worth doing. The first way to do that is by means of stories, not because stories are easy to understand, but because stories illustrate that human life is always in a process of formation. Human life moving toward its telos unfolds like a story. The inability to narrate our own life stories well is a sign of serious unhappiness, of felt purposelessness in life. Clinical studies done by psychologists reflect the depressing contemporary pathology of not being able to see purpose and shape in our lives as much as my philosophical eye does.

My other practical principle is that whether or not you think the world is disenchanted, locked in conflict, it’s really helpful to show students how the popular assumptions of our day make it seem we will never escape our social divisions. I take my students through the disenchanted world beginning with King Lear and then Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, both of which pretty much outline the fundamental principles of public reason in our day—that we are overwhelmed by darkness and division.

I try to give students an opportunity to think about disenchantment in order to allow them to ponder the horror of what we’ve made of our world and of ourselves. When we recoil in horror, we look for someplace else to go, and that’s when we can introduce students to something genuinely beautiful.

For most people, it is important to initiate them incrementally into the mystery of being so that they finally realize that what they desire culminates in seeking God as Being itself. For others, it might be equally fruitful to simply lead off by saying that we’re religious beings. The great problem that besets us epistemologically is that we recognize the immediacy and the importance of this material world in which we’re living. Yet, we sense that this world is important only because there’s something that causes it to be and that transcends it.

Christianity has answered that vexing problem of the need at once to affirm and transcend the material world with the person of Christ. Since that condition of being vexed is intrinsic to every human being, it is not at all unthinkable to simply lead people out of the existential dilemma with the incarnate God who made all things, who is the source of all things, and who walks with us. That approach has worked for millions of people to bring them to a richer and fuller understanding of themselves, of reality, and, finally, of salvation.

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