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Beauty Finding the vision of truth through the experience of beauty

Ideas cannot be understood without being experienced. They are invisible, but we come to know and understand them through our experience of the visible world. Some might think that ideas are simply red meat that can be carved off the dead carcass of reality, yet they must be experienced as well as discussed, loved as well as learned, lived as well as argued, felt as well as understood. We often despair that beauty is an idea that we cannot grasp; however, like most big ideas, we come to accept it as we live in its presence and practice its importance.

Most ideas are not persuasive to us when we have mastered them, but they are persuasive when they open us up to a world that we had previously not comprehended. These openings help us grasp the depth of knowledge but at the same time, they often reveal just how much more there is to know. Plato's philosophy reflects this humility. He often claimed that his ideas were true only insofar as they were a simplified expression of incomprehensible truths that must far exceed our own understanding.

Some of the most important truths that we need to grasp are those that cannot be precisely defined. In contrast, it is in the realm of geometry and mathematics where we find entities easily given precise definition: triangle, rectangle, point, etc. Geometry is so delightful because it is within this realm that we effectively learn to discipline our mind to work in accordance with strict definitions. It is thrilling to feel the solidity of arguments made in this sphere.

Yet, when we to take a large concept, such as virtue, and attempt to subject it to strict definition, our understanding fails and disappointment with our own abilities quickly results. Plato often attempted to define virtue, but always found holes in his own definitions. Though a skeptic would attack and claim that our inability to create a satisfactory definition means that virtue is a meaningless idea, the lover of truth knows that such an important idea has meaning despite our inability to articulate it fully, or even clearly.

The philosophic life is full of grand ideas that appear very important and yet are hard to grasp. Truly, it seeks to hunt game that is far out of the league of our popguns and matchstick cages. Yet, what greater glory is there but to pursue an impossible goal? Only a coward will find his ambitions fulfilled in hunting dairy cows. Philosophy can easily be seen as the simple conviction that the world if full of many truths that are far beyond our comprehension and yet, utterly fascinating.

So how do you help a student prepare to pursue ideas that are utterly important and almost completely beyond our comprehension? At this point, we are in need of help from experience. We need to experience realities that, even though beyond our understanding, are completely evident to us. Just such a reality is beauty. We have a very difficult time being able to say exactly what it is, but it is all around us and we are often responding to its influence on us. By experiencing what is lovely, we feel one of the most beautiful ideas in life continually before us. Sensing beauty is a wonderful opportunity to grasp just how real an idea can be even when we are painfully aware that it far exceeds our mental capacities.

Like all other great ideas, beauty is seen with the mind. Beauty is not beheld through the eyes, heard through the ears, or any other sense. Our physical senses merely bring us the opportunity to experience the presence of beauty-- its reality is perceived by the mind. If beauty were an object of the sense, we would probably be able to build some scientific instrument to measure the quantity of its presence. Though we find beauty laid out for us in the world around us, it is an invisible truth that the mind alone has the privilege of beholding.

Though the eye of the mind can see beauty its vision is not a simple matter. The mind needs experience with the presence of beauty to gradually become accustomed to it and be more certain of its truth. The fact that the mind has difficulty grasping beauty does not mean that beauty does not exist- it is just an acquired sense. How can it be that something that exists can be hard for us to see?

Many similar examples exist in other fields. Watch a student learn geometry- at first the simplest principles are difficult to grasp, but as the mind gains experience with them, it starts to feel their certainty. Or take a student attempting to learn to sing in harmony- at first the various intervals are hard to hear, but with experience, they are heard and can be used effectively to create beautiful sound. Similarly, experience with beauty helps us to feel and understand its presence.

Beauty must be experienced to be understood and yet it is a reality that points us far beyond the experience of our senses. Beauty is a vivid example of seeing the unseen, hearing what is silent, and feeling what cannot be touched. It is a wonderful lesson in the schoolhouse of ideas.

Any effective educational environment will practice the presence of beauty. This beauty will come in many forms. It will be found all around us: well-spoken words, ardent faith, insightful smiles, thoughtful table decorations, colorful ball gowns, flowers in bloom, well-constructed harmonic progressions, noble ambitions, well-cooked pie crust, passionate virginity, well-chosen personal sacrifice, mowed lawns, weeded gardens, new paint, girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes, snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes.... life presents us with an endless parade of manifest beauty.

Then beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm depend on simplicity – I mean the true simplicity of a rightly and nobly ordered mind… And if our youth are to do their work in life, must not they make these graces and harmonies their perpetual aim? And surely the art of the painter and every other creative and constructive art are full of them, —weaving, embroidery, architecture, and every kind of manufacture; also nature, animals and vegetable, —in all of them there is grace or the absence of grace. PLATO- REPUBLIC, BOOK III
Such a one, as soon as he beholds the beauty of this world, is reminded of true beauty, and his wings begin to grow; then is he fain to lift his wings and fly upward. PLATO- PHAEDRUS

When education is understood primarily as fulfilling the requirements found in a disjointed collection of subjects, it is easy to forget the sacred trust that lays at the foundation of education- the desire to beneficially shape the soul of the student. If a soul is a living and vibrant being, it must be fed with rich experiences that fill it with a sense of its own being. As our bodies feed upon food, so also the soul lives upon the vision of the beautiful and the good.

There are many demands on a school, but one of the foremost must be being a beautiful place- a garden for the soul that will allow it to put down roots into the deep soils of nobility and grace. Awe and wonder may not appear to be verifiable educational outcomes, but without gaining a vision for the overarching beauty that undergirds all human meaning, education leaves us without a center and ultimately feeling very alone in a cold and confusing world.

Beauty is the most powerful experience of an idea that our senses can have.

Building a community where beauty finds a home takes patience and a willingness to expect of ourselves what we are attempting to teach others. If we desire our students to fall in love with beauty, we cannot imagine this will happen if we can see nothing but the immediately practical. We must sacrifice for beauty- faithfully pursuing it throughout the scope of our lives.

Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful. PLATO - REPUBLIC

In his PHAEDRUS, Plato saw beauty as the primary force drawing the soul towards the vision of the good. It is beauty that takes our down- trodden souls and lifts their vision to the comprehension of the Divine. In his Paradiso, Dante continues this theme and puts it to Christian purposes. From the start of his story, the beautiful Beatrice draws Dante towards God and away from his sin. Yet, the story is not a simple “smart girl saves stupid guy” narrative. Beatrice’s role in the story can only be understood as an analogy for the beauty of God’s universe and how He intends to draw us to Himself through graciously blessing us with the gift of this beautiful world. He comes courting us, but not with chocolate and flowers, but with the fullness of the whole universe itself.

When we see that beauty is the means by which God draws us to himself, we can fully grasp the importance of giving it its proper role in the formation of the soul. When your boyfriend sends you a love note, and you do not even take the time to read it, your relationship is probably on the way out. If we do not choose to listen to God calling us through his gift of nature, we not only forsake the message, but the Messenger Himself.

Beauty transforms the closed prison of this world into an open door setting our minds free unto heavenly things.

Beauty is not only God’s messenger of love, but an attribute of Himself. By giving students a rich opportunity to know and appreciate it, we prepare them ultimately to know God Himself.

Let our artist rather be those who are gifted to discern the true nature of the beautiful and graceful; then will our youth dwell in a land of health, amid fair sights and sounds, and receive the good in everything; and beauty, the effluence of fair works, shall flow into the eye and ear, like a health-giving breeze from a purer region, and insensibly draw the soul from earliest years into likeness and sympathy with the beauty of reason. PLATO- REPUBLIC

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