For Beauty

In seeing beauty, we see Him Who is Beauty.

James Matthew Wilson, The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tradition.

This book is a call for recovering the literary tradition of conservatism by returning to a Christian Platonist view of beauty as the defining attribute of God. Wilson argues that “the quest for truth, the reality of beauty, and the ordering of all things by a Good that transcends them, were three formative principles that lent human life its particularly and inescapably dramatic character.”

His book is a philosophical and historical study of the nature of beauty from a Roman Catholic viewpoint. He writes as a conservative for conservatives to debunk Enlightenment views of beauty and the arts and to promote a recovery of this idea and these disciplines so as to promote a healthier social order: “The conservatism of Burke and Coleridge sought to remind modern man, in an age of revolutionary upheaval, that politics was an activity built of art, meaning, representation, and community. The lives of peoples and governments, consequently, must be understood in terms of beauty.” The better we understand the true nature of beauty, the more that understanding will be reflected in all other aspects of our lives.

He argues that “The most enduring definition of beauty, after all, is the splendor of form: an appearance of beings that opens onto the depths of Being.” All created things have beauty, because they are made and sustained by God. But the beauty in most created things is compromised, corrupted, or unacknowledged. When we seek the beauty of things, we are seeking through them the Beauty which is God, but we must not fall into the snare of thinking that beauty is merely subjective, as Enlightenment thought insists. Reality, Mr. Wilson explains, “is ordered to beauty. Truth presents itself as form – as a kind of vision. Wisdom therefore may be understood as the soul’s vision of the beautiful shape of things in themselves and all their relations. We arrive at the fulfillment of intellectual natures at just that point where we behold the splendorous forms of truth, where we perceive all things as goods ordered, structured or bestowed with form, by the Good.”

This is a difficult read, primarily because of the broad historical and philosophical scope of it. The book lacks any but the most oblique references to Scripture, and I think this is a shortcoming. Further, as a “vision of the soul” the book is not as explicit as it might be, either about the nature of the soul or how beauty, goodness, and truth relate to it.

But this is an important book and one that helps us understand the nature of God and the world He has created. Wilson is certainly correct when he concludes, “Against a modern vision of the world that generally seems dead to wonder and hungry for power only because it has hope of nothing better, we offer those supreme, indeed divine, useless properties of reality: truth, goodness, beauty…I hope this book will help its readers to dwell more richly and joyfully in the order, the beautiful form, that was created by the Logos of God to be the one, true reality intended for the vision of our souls.”


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