Post 32

Truth, Beauty and Goodness:
Reflections on Precision

When I think of ‘Truth, Beauty and Goodness,’ I do not immediately picture an airplane.  As a matter of fact, nothing remotely mechanical comes to mind.  A few weeks ago, I happened to glance at a heavy-duty mechanic’s study material.  It had formulas containing words like ‘velocity’ and ‘mass.’  I closed it quickly and exclaimed, “It’s just like physics!” (in other words, impenetrably difficult and therefore boring).

No, when I hear, ‘Truth, Beauty and Goodness,’ I think about art and music and great literature.  To me, it means all the things which uplift a civilization mentally and spiritually, as opposed to machines, such as elevators and airplanes, which lift people physically.

But then I started thinking about precision.

Precision is an element of truth, beauty and goodness, and wherever you find Truth, then Beauty and Goodness are not far behind.

The truth contained in a mechanic’s manual is there only to the extent that there is precision.  If the diagrams, instructions or formulas are inaccurate or vague, then you lose the truth.  But if the content is true, then it will say certain things about the way the universe works in a specific way (how one mechanical part fits another part and how they function together to make the whole accomplish its purpose) and other things about the way the universe works in a general way (the formulas and mathematical principles).  You need precision to state the truth in a mechanic’s manual, and when you have that truth, it’s beautiful, because the way the universe works is beautiful.  Even the functional aspects of man-made things are beautiful because they cooperate with and demonstrate the laws of the universe in order to succeed.

Now I’m never going to be a fan of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (due to the part about Zen, and due to the part about the bike), but I can understand that a mechanic is beholding beauty when he sees how everything works together with such precision.  Precision is an element of Beauty.  And when the parts work together the way they should, you have Goodness.

It’s the same with other disciplines.  The surgeon is dealing in microns, and is beautifully precise, but so is the professional tennis player, dealing with inches.  The baker relies on the rules of chemistry in order to create that flawless cake, and of course, there’s the musician.  Apparently when someone praised Bach’s organ playing, he said, “There is nothing to it.  You only have to hit the right notes at the right time and the instrument plays itself.”  The precision in timing here leads to beautiful results.  Conversely, less precision means less beauty.

So I realized that so many people who are working in non-artistic fields are enjoying beauty just as much as any artist – it’s just not beauty in the way we might normally think of it.  They enjoy beauty expressed as precision in the things they handle on a daily basis.

And where there’s Beauty, then Truth and Goodness are not far behind.

Or so I thought.

I have heard Truth, Beauty and Goodness referred to as sort of a ‘trinity’ and I thought that was kind of nice.  You know – a list of three things, and in the Christian culture, three things make you think of the Trinity.  It’s an easy concept to throw around, and kind of cute.  But I didn’t really think about it as much more than a list or an expression.  (Maybe it’s because I’m a bit of an anti-threeist.  Triangles have never been my favorite shape, though I feel an appropriate amount of Catholic guilt about that.  And I suppose now that you and I know each other so well, I can probably also tell you that I don’t care for circles either.  I dislike being in a round building, even if it’s a church or even if it’s really famous.  I like squares.)

Now, however, I’ve been rather struck by the relationship between Truth, Beauty and Goodness.  It’s a little spookier than I thought.  Maybe it is some kind of Holy-Ghost-ish trinity.

Maybe they’re all the same thing.

After all, when I tried to write about precision, I found that one concept and example became the other thing before my very eyes – changing from one animal to another even while I had it in my grasp.  I could barely write about it coherently, which of course is ironic when trying to write about precision!  When I thought about math, for example, and about those repeating digits or how a line in mathematical terms has neither beginning nor end, and infinity this and infinity that (math is always doing that), well, in no time at all I found myself at the mystery of infinity itself, which sounds a lot like eternity to me.  If there’s no such thing as eternity, can there be such a thing as infinity?  I suppose some would tell me they’re both just concepts.  Interesting concepts, don’t you think?   Doesn’t it say something about humans that we have such concepts?   Anyway, then I turn to look at music as a manifestation of Beauty, and of course there I find math, again. (“Fancy meeting you here!”)  And what is math if not Truth?  We always use 2+2=4 (and the concept of gravity) as an embodiment of obvious, unavoidable, non-negotiable Truth.

In thinking and writing about beauty in terms of precision, which is where I started, I couldn’t travel very far without bumping into truth and goodness, and soon I pictured a non-round, non-triangular (let’s go with hexagonal) building with three doors.  You see me entering at the door called “Beauty” but then I see Truth and Goodness have arrived before me and have already taken off their coats.  I enter at the door called “Truth” and notice that Beauty and Goodness are over in the corner having a drink.  I enter at the door called “Goodness” and I see Truth and Beauty have their feet up on the (square) coffee table acting like they own the place.  What is going on?

I think I know: they must all be the same thing!  It’s some kind of mystery, because they’re the same even while they are different.  Beauty = Truth = Goodness.

I started with an airplane, or a mechanic’s manual, and I wound up with Beauty, but let’s approach it by starting with Beauty.  What’s the ‘Beauty’ equivalent of 2+2=4?  What is something that everyone will agree is beautiful?  The Mona Lisa?  The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel?  Andy Warhol’s cans of tomato soup?

I think the phrase, ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ is a little bit dangerous, because if you take it a certain way, it almost denies the existence of objective beauty.   It makes it seem like Beauty is not ‘out there.’  It’s just all in your head – a subjective experience.  Things are not beautiful, things are not ugly, things are just things, and you’re the one putting an interpretation on it.

And here again, I come face to face with feminists (“Fancy meeting you here”), who say that the very concept of beauty is problematic.  They dislike the way a woman’s appearance is considered more important than a man’s appearance.  It angers them that a woman is ‘supposed to be’ pretty; they say it’s a social construct, a fiction created by men, and perpetuated by male-led institutions, in order to make women feel bad about their own self-image.  The intention of feminists is good, because we shouldn’t say that one woman is ‘better’ than another woman because she’s got a prettier face or figure, and all women should appreciate their own appearance, but, as usual, the feminists go too far.

(I did really like the Dove Real Beauty Sketches commercial about women’s self-perceptions of their own appearance, but I also laughed at the New Feelings Time male spoof of it).

The truth is, there is such a thing as beauty, and everyone knows it.  People know it and they want to experience it.  And when it comes to art, precision in beauty has a name, and it is called realism.  Art is beautiful when it tells the truth about what we see.

It is for this reason that the average person mostly ignores the work of modern painters, even though they would be willing to line up for hours outside the Vatican museums or the Louvre in order to see the work of painters of the past.  That’s where they can still find painters who did realism.  Realism requires bravery, because anyone can measure for themselves how close it came to the goal.  If the boat doesn’t look like it’s in the water or the smile looks plastic, then you’ve failed and it’s obvious.   But when realism is right, it is so very, very right.  The way that robe gleams in the painting makes it look like it’s three-dimensional.   And you touch the foot on that marble statue because you can even see the veins.  Someone has been achingly precise, and you are rightly impressed.

And the greater the precision, the more we will recognize that this work of art speaks the truth.  This sculpture has captured the form, this painting has captured the look, and this play has captured the emotion.  In these cases, the accuracy results in beauty and in truth.

But returning to painting, most modern painters produce works which are extremely imprecise and therefore devoid of beauty.  Instead of the precision of realism, they give us shape, colour, mood, emotion, personality, attitude and innovation after innovation, even literally turning themselves inside out, covering the canvas with their own bodily fluids (really, and yes, it’s as disgusting as it sounds).  But they won’t give you realism; they won’t paint you a tree with any precision.  They’ll get the paint onto the canvas (methods vary) and if you think you see a tree when they’re done, then the artists will generously allow you to say you think you see one.  No, once upon a time, artists did their best to give you realism, and included every little detail, but now, you’ll have to look elsewhere.  And people do look elsewhere indeed!

Enter photography.  Thank God for photography.

If you want to find all the people, this is where they are.  Even women who rarely use their camera will take photos of the flowers that they grew.  And then there are all those people with more expertise – they capture the images with skill and freely share them.  The technology of the internet is combined with the technology of photography to get everyone their fill of beauty; photos of birds, trees, water, landscapes, all known mammals and creatures of the sea are what they are sending and forwarding.  We are enthralled with these images.  All this appreciation of beauty is healthy and good, and it encourages the photographers to give us more of the same: time-lapse photos, high speed photos, close-ups, aerial photos, portraits of all kinds.

In short, there is such a thing as objective beauty and people of all ages are basking in it, regularly.  Meanwhile, only the multimillionaires can afford the most ‘elevated’ art – but let them hoard it; the rest of us don’t care enough about abstract images to share them.

Nature (and most photography) brings us the patterns and the symmetry that satisfy our brains and our souls.  Our brains react to precision.  Research proves that mice and babies become attentive and have different brain activity upon detecting symmetry and patterns, compared with asymmetry and random static.  We are wired for what’s beautiful; it’s not just a subjective construct; it’s not just ‘in the eye of the beholder.’

Consider even a typical leaf.  We all agree it’s beautiful – an illustration of obvious, unavoidable, non-negotiable Beauty, in the same way that 2+2=4 is an illustration of obvious, unavoidable, non-negotiable Truth.  But the reason it is beautiful is because it has precise mathematical rules and truths to it, in its form and patterns and even colouration.  Truth = Beauty.  We meet math yet again.

A few years ago, I enjoyed reading Catherine Shanahan’s book, Deep Nutrition.  She mentions biomathematics, which studies the mathematical relationships in nature:

Biomathematicians are confirming that phi and the Fibonacci sequence are encoded not just in the human face, but in living matter everywhere.

The shape of a pinecone, the segments of insect bodies, the spiral of the nautilus shell, the bones of your fingers and the relative sizes of your teeth – everything that grows owes its form to the geometry of phi.  When a plant shoot puts out a new leaf, it does so in such a way that lower leaves are least obscured, and can still receive sunlight.  This is . . . phyllotaxis, which describes the spiralling growth of stems, petals, roots, and other plant organs in 90 percent of plants . . . The angle of phyllotaxis is 137.5 degrees, or 1/phi x phi x 360 degrees.  We can see the same pattern of branching, twisting, so-called dendritic growth when we look at nerve cells in the brain.  All these instances of patterned growth are directed not by DNA but by the rules of math and physics, which act on living tissue automatically to create pattern.

– Catherine Shanahan and Luke Shanahan, Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food, Chapter 3

And turning to Goodness, that’s when things work the way they are supposed to work, and are free from what makes them not work.  When an engine works without defect, it is good; it is fulfilling its purpose.  When a leaf grows free from disease, and does its job of gathering sunlight on its surface or its other leafy jobs, then that’s good.

In terms of human beings – this is where it gets interesting – when we say someone is ‘a good person’ you don’t have to be religious to mean that they have a lot of virtues and fewer vices.  It’s typical to say things like, “My grandmother was a saint” or “She’s such an angel” or “I’m not Mother Teresa” when we are talking about the comparative goodness of people.  The idea is that they (saints, angels and Mother Teresa) are good.

People are good and manifest Goodness when they do what they are supposed to do, and when they move away from sinful behaviour.  We are good when we fulfill our purpose, which the Baltimore Catechism famously described this way: “God made me to know him, to love him, and to serve him in this world and to be happy with him forever in the next.”  We are good when do unto others as we would have them do unto us; that is Goodness.  And in this area, just as in the areas of Truth and Beauty, it is better to have precision.  Some people would say there’s no need to write out a whole bunch of rules and doctrines about Goodness and the practice of it, but it’s just like Truth and Beauty.  It is possible and desirable and helpful to be precise about these spiritual things too.  It is possible, for example, to describe the different virtues, and to describe spiritual realities, even though they are mysterious.

Of course, some people are annoyed by the fact that the Church has all this writing about all these things.  They say it’s enough to have a few general principles about being good to each other.

Chesterton tackled this subject often.  His point was that although you don’t need all the details and rules and principles when everything is going well, you certainly will need all of this when things are going wrong or threatening to go wrong.  Once (I can’t remember where) he used the analogy of a broken leg – when it’s broken, you need to know exactly where all the bones and tendons are in order to restore health.

I like this first pair of quotations because it is so true that most people who condemn Catholic dogma have not read it:

I am not over-awed by a young gentleman saying that he cannot submit his intellect to dogma; because I doubt whether he has even used his intellect enough to define dogma.

– Autobiography, Chapter 4

I began to examine more exactly the general Christian theology which many execrated and few examined.

– Autobiography Chapter 7

In the quotation below, Chesterton says that it was stunning for him to realize that such vast numbers of people, who belonged to “semi-secular chapels” didn’t have really any defined ideas about spiritual matters at all, and he says it’s a shame:

I suppose I have got a dogmatic mind.  Anyhow, even when I did not believe in any of the things called dogmas, I assumed that people were sorted out into solid groups by the dogmas they believed or disbelieved . . . I have come to the conclusion that I was largely mistaken in this idea.  I believe now that the congregations of these semi-secular chapels consists largely of one vast and vague sea of wandering doubters, with their wandering doubts . . .

Amid all this scattered thinking, sometimes not unfairly to be called scatter-brained thinking, I began to piece together the fragments of the old religious scheme . . . And the more I saw of real human nature, the more I came to suspect that it was really rather bad for all these people that it had disappeared. Many of them held, and still hold, very noble and necessary truths in the social and secular area . . . Their hearts were in the right place, but their heads were emphatically in the wrong place . . .

– Autobiography, Chapter 7

In this next quotation, Chesterton is more emphatic – without dogma, things can go very, very wrong:

. . . [T]his vividly illuminates the provincial stupidity of those who object to what they call “creeds and dogmas.”  It was precisely the creed and dogma that saved the sanity of the world.  These people generally propose an alternative religion of intuition and feeling.  If, in the really Dark Ages, there had been a religion of feeling, it would have been a religion of black and suicidal feeling . . . [w]hat kept [a suicidal man’s] thought in touch with healthier and more humanistic thought was simply and solely the Dogma.

–  Saint Francis, Chapter 4.

But my favorite quotation on the subject of dogma is this, because I think it’s so funny to picture Chesterton screaming:

You have seen possibly 999 times, possibly more, in leading articles, essays, public speeches, the statement that we do not require any dogma or any creed, that religion should be free from doctrine and dogmas, and so on.  I at least have seen it more than 999 times.   If I see it again I shall scream.  It is possibly the most unfathomable, thoughtless nonsense being talked, even in our non-sensical time, because everything depends on what is your dogma or doctrine about the things you are considering.

– G.K. Chesterton, “Beauty in the Commonplace”

Chesterton’s point (and mine) in all of this is that even Goodness needs to be defined precisely.  We can’t leave such important matters to “intuition and feeling.”  Nobody wants a vague map, unclear assembly instructions or even poor board-game instructions, yet these things are not nearly as important as the weighty subjects which the Church needs to speak about.

The Church would not be doing her job as a Mother if her teaching were just warm, fuzzy and comfortable, or if she did not teach at all.  The world changes, and Christ instituted the Church so that even simple people would have a source of reliable information about how to navigate new challenges.  With its teaching authority (called the Magisterium), people have intelligent, rational and worthy direction.  And speaking of Beauty, in many cases the Church identifies problems which are the furthest thing from ‘beautiful’ because the Truth must be spoken. But Truth itself is always beautiful, no matter what it is about. For example, it is extremely disturbing to hear, as recently discovered, how the abortionists at the Planned Parenthood clinics are ‘harvesting’ the organs of partially born babies in order to sell these organs to pharmaceutical companies for significant personal profit. But it is far better that the truth be known than that it be replaced by a lie. It would be a lie, for example, to say that the abortionist’s main concern is for the woman having the abortion. That would be falsehood, and falsehood is always ugly, even when it’s more comfortable. In any case, the teachings of the Church are consistent with scripture and past teaching, and therefore does not replace any of what has come before, 2000 years’ worth of precision.

I am grateful for this precision.  The Church’s documents are beautiful, true and good, and, if followed, will lead to wisdom and holiness.  If followed, they will enable us to live fruitful lives, becoming the saints we were always meant to be.  You could say that these documents form an ‘Operator’s Manual’ of sorts.  And it’s a pretty good analogy, because they are quite technical sometimes, and quite dry too, but it’s this way just because they are so precise.  And precision is good.

But be not afraid, for God is merciful: you won’t find a single physics formula in any of them.