Beauty, or Nothing to Talk About

A philosophical thread on beauty expressed in 140 characters or fewer broke out. (Twitter: the thing next up to depart from my life, following computer games, the NBA, and Facebook. Soon, and very soon.) The worthy and serious interlocutors (interTweetitors?) were batting around definitions of good and beauty; Mark Neimeier threw up a post on it.

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Beautiful. Some of the greatest craftsmanship in history, too.

To sum up my position, which (I certainly hope) would be recognized as a callow amateur’s take of Aristotle’s and Thomas’s positions: The natural world is beautiful in its being (ontologically beautiful); when we see beauty, we are getting a glimpse of reality. Now, each of us sees this beauty according to our talents and skills – while all of us experience beauty as a part of our human nature, each of us also has gifts and shortcomings which affect our ability to experience the beauty all around us. I, for example, sometimes get a physical thrill from a beautiful chair or even a beautiful tool, because I understand them in a way most people have no reason to understand them. But ballet is to me beautiful in a way I don’t really understand, and I’m sure I’m missing some or most of what is truly beautiful about it. Further, someone who is seriously damaged morally and esthetically (and we all are damaged to some extent) may hate some beauty and find some ugliness attractive (and mislabel that attractiveness as beauty). This is no different from being physically crippled or having brain damage – that I can’t walk or speak due to such damage doesn’t make walking or speaking any less objectively real.

But enough – books have been written. Here I want to point out something from one of the very earliest posts on this blog: the argument that beauty is subjective – that it exists only ‘in the eye of the beholder’ is a self-defeating argument. What do we talk about? We just walk around stating what we do and do not like or find beautiful? To try to show someone else what it is we find beautiful in this or that is to tacitly admit that there’s something beyond my opinion which makes a thing beautiful. If it’s all subjective, then there’s nothing to talk about, and no point in talking.

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Not so much. But somebody paid $141M for it. Probably likes pink SciFi, too.

On a more subtle level, the true, the beautiful and the good are not separable in practice – we can, if we want, talk about them separately, as aspects of a thing, but you can’t have one without the other two in any existing thing. Insofar as a thing exists, it is good and beautiful; any ugliness or badness exists only as a falling short of the intrinsic beauty and goodness of the things. Thus, traditionally, Satan has been viewed as the greatest of Angels – his evil lies in how far he has fallen short of his nature. But his existence, in itself, is good, beautiful and true.

Finally, nature, in the philosophical sense, admits of degrees of goodness and beauty. A rock or a plant is natural, but far less natural, and therefore far less beautiful and good, than a humans being. People possess the rock’s nature as a physical object, and possess the plants nature as a living thing. We even possess animal nature, where we can see and move around. But we can also know things in a way no rock, plant, or animal can, and act on that knowledge in a way only angels (that we know of) can. Each of the ‘natures’ man has – mineral, vegetable, animal, human – have aspects of of the good and the beautiful  peculiar to them. Man, as the most natural thing in the Universe, has all those aspects.

We are most beautiful and good when we freely act out of faith, hope and love.

Bringing it back around to SFF, a book or story will be good and beautiful insofar as and to the degree it is true to life. It’s possible to write a good and beautiful story with no real moral content – a rollicking yarn, fun, entertaining. I can’t think of any, off hand – every story that is any good I’ve ever read has somebody somewhere facing a moral dilemma of some sort. In comedy (as classically understood) the good guys win in some manner; in tragedy, they lose. What makes it tragic are human failings that led to people not acting selflessly and bravely. (Much of Mike Flynn’s stuff is a good example of modern SFF tragedy.)

Much more beautiful would be a fun, rollicking story where the hero acts heroically, heroically meaning, for the last couple millennia, virtuously – selflessly, bravely, for a loved one or an ideal.

I think we kid ourselves if we think we’re going to write good stories that are morally neutral, just fun and adventurous. If Frodo doesn’t risk death so that the Ring might end up in the Cracks of Doom, if Luke doesn’t risk all to save his father and the Rebellion, heck, if Corbin Dallas doesn’t tell Lelu he loves her and thus saves the world – well, it’s just not much of a story. Or if we’re not shedding a tear when the character’s failings lead to inevitable tragedy.

The Uffizi and What Makes Western Civilization Special.

This weekend, with any luck, younger daughter will get to visit the Uffizi Gallery. She is on a semester in Rome trip from Thomas More College, and this weekend is going to Florence, her one shot to visit, since all other weekends are booked through the end of the semester. (The poor dear will have to make do with visits to Assisi, Prague,  and other magnificent yet lesser beauties before heading off to Paris, Lourdes, Ireland and England before wending homeward. Kids these days.)

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Taken most likely from atop Giotto’s bell tower, looking west over the Baptistry.

She only has a day or two, which is roughly 6 months, 5 years or a lifetime too little to have spent in Florence, depending on how you want to figure it. I’ve gotten to spend roughly 6 weeks of my life in Italy, 2 weeks in Florence – which is pretty crazy for a sheet metal guy’s son from Whittier. I’m not complaining. Those 6 weeks blew my mind and impressed upon me that 6 weeks is hardly enough, laughably so.

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Facing the Uffizi from the Piazza della Signoria, a five-minute walk from the Baptistry in the picture above.

The Italians, when they weren’t too tied up scheming or actively killing each other, took time out to produce about 1/2 of the truly great art mankind has ever produced, a vastly disproportionate share of which lives in Florence. The last Medici Grand Duke, a complete degenerate but semi-decent Grand Duke named Gian Gastone de’ Medici, managed to separate out the artwork from the rest of the wealth of Florence before he died, and leave it to his sister, Anna Maria Luisa. For the previous 300 years, the Medici family made no distinction between the wealth of Florence and their personal family fortune – there was little practical difference. But once it became clear to Gianni that he was the end of the Medici line as far as Grand Dukes went (the Great Powers of the time weren’t interested in letting his sister Anna Maria rule as Grand Duchess, and there were no male potential heirs)  he very wisely decided that the art the family had collected over the centuries should be considered the family’s, left to his sister – and left in Florence. I don’t how likely it was that Francis of Lorraine – Gianni’s successor as Grand Duke – would have hauled off the good stuff to his palaces as Holy Roman Emperor, but I’d guess that over the years stuff would get reallocated by Frank or his successors after the manner of people’s stuff always and everywhere. Anna Maria left the collection to the city of Florence, with the restriction that it stay there.

Thus, thanks to Gianni and his sister Anna Maria, the greatest collection of great art in the world – The Uffizi, the Pitti Palace, and other bits and pieces elsewhere in Florence – stayed put in Florence, where we can see and enjoy it to this day. (Although it would have been small loss if Frank had grabbed a bunch of Sustermans on his way out of Dodge. Just saying.)

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Botticelli, La primavera, 1482. This photo makes the painting look perhaps saccharine and stiff; in person, it is jaw-dropping beautiful. No reproduction I’ve ever seen remotely does it justice.

It was years ago that that I heard it stated as a truism that 1/2 of all the great art that exists exists in Italy. I have no reason to doubt it. Here is a thought experiment: Take any great work of art from anywhere outside of Italy. Then set aside a comparable masterpiece from Italy. Repeat this process until you’ve exhausted one supply or the other. Well? Do you think you’d run out of Italian masterpieces well before the ‘all other’ masterpieces? Seems unlikely to me.

To the title of this little brain dump: How does this thought experiment work if you run it Western Art versus All Other? I can admire the vigor of a polynesian mask or the intricacies of a Persian rug as much as anyone, but neither compares to the beauty and sophistication of even fairly minor works of Western Art. (Western Art for our purposes here excludes the vast bulk of post-Bouguereau works. Once the conscious decision to be both stupid and proud of it took over the art world, Western Art effectively ended except for the occasional throwback. There are signs of life, however. Let us hope.)

Why is this so? Certainly, the Italians and Christendom in general were no more wealthy and peaceful nor technically accomplished nor blessed with resources nor victorious in war than, say, the Chinese or Turks, for all but at most a couple of centuries over the last 2,000 years. During much of that time, from 634 to 1492, Christendom was for the most part shrinking, getting conquered and displaced by Islam across all of north Africa, all the Levant and Turkey, and most of the former Yugoslavia and some of adjoining Slavic lands. If you are looking to military might, it was a one-way street from East to West – until the Battle of Lepanto in 1571! Then it was a draw for a few centuries. Then, finally, in the 19th century, Western military might was generally better than that of Turkey. The Ottoman Empire didn’t fall until 1917.

A huge portion of the greatest Italian art comes from periods of great internal and external unrest, the 13th to 16th centuries (and, frankly, unrest in the form of wars and invasions was the order of the day during almost all of its post-Roman Empire history from 410 – the Visigoth sacking of Rome – until the last 70 years). Contra what Jared Diamond may think, the comparative glory of Italian and Western art is not the result of Guns, Germs and Steel. For comparatively little of its history has the West had the best military, the healthiest people or the best technology. On the tech side, and subsequently on the military and health side, things began to change in the early Middle Ages, but didn’t become decisive for many centuries. Only in the last 150 to 200 years would it have not been foolish to bet on the West in a war with anyone else based on technology alone.

I suggest that there is one area where the West did far outstrip the rest of the world over the last 2 millennia (except, in an ironic reversal, the last 2-3 centuries): Philosophy. We thought about things better, deeper and with more understanding than anywhere else in the world. Science, it may be said, is the ghost of medieval philosophy animating a shell of math and gadgets. But it’s the persistent conviction that the world is understandable and that we are capable of understanding it that has driven technological and scientific advances.

But much more than that, the Christian-infused Aristotelianism that is the Perennial Philosophy of the west provides both motivation and inspiration for Great Art. The explosion of Great Art in the west – and its subsequent recent decline – is the result of how well we understand, accept and act on that philosophy.

Updates & Trivia & Writing

A. Busy at work, which means I’m avoiding even more work than usual. Plus, somehow, I ended up with stuff to do every night this week except Friday.

Cuts into the blogging. Yea, yea, boo-freakin’-hoo.

B. Tonight, for an RCIA class, I got volunteered to do some Church history, which, to my naive mind, isn’t any different from plain old history everywhere the Church has ever been. As in, you can hardly talk of secular history in those places and times without the Church, nor can you talk about the Church without knowing what was going on in the larger world (if, indeed, the world can be said to be larger…).

This pitch is right in my wheelhouse, so I’m all rarin’ to go. I was assigned the period of 1200 through the Counter Reformation – woohoo! – and given a 15 minute slot. Well. As no one has ever accused me of being too terse, it might be a *slight* challenge to fit 400+ tumultuous and critical years of history that happens to include, among other things, discovery of an entire hemisphere, into 15 minutes. If I gave 3 minutes each to Gregory VII,(1) Francis, Dominic, Gothic architecture, Wittenberg and Trent, I’m already 3 minutes over, and haven’t touched on Charles Borromeo, the way the Counter Reformation influenced music (I could do an hour or more just on O Magnum Mysterium...), and about a dozen more topics that spring to mind before I’ve even researched it. We will be pruning with the ol’ intellectual chainsaw, here.

Since I’m already doing Feasts & Faith, I probably should hold off doing a Church History seminar-thing for another year. At that point, I’m thinking 10 1.5 hour lecture/discussions, which would barely scratch the surface. What I’d bring to the game: blending art, music and philosophy into the narrative.  There’s only like a library of books on this topic – my only excuse for doing this would be bringing in threads from many sources. There’s probably already a book or 50 that do just that….

C. One thing I wish I had time to discuss: the relationship of the Church & State, and how it differed in the East and West, and how the West’s division of Church and State helped bring about the artistic, cultural and technological revolution in Medieval Europe. I doubt there could have even been a Dante of the Eastern Churches – a man passionate about the complementary and divinely-given rights and duties of Church and State. Instead, the East retained more of the ancient Roman practice of religious careers being government careers – I should say, religious careers *of course* being government careers.

The fragmented feudalism of the West allowed for layers of duties and rights across several dimensions, such that a serf, even a serf’s wife, had a position where an emperor or pope owed her a certain inviolate respect. The battles of the Middle Ages seem to be over who owed whom exactly what level of fealty, with the Church presumed beyond discussion to be distinct and hold honor and duty apart from the king.

Not so much, in the East, where emperors from the earliest days saw it to be an obvious right and duty of theirs to meddle even in theology, let alone in who got to be patriarch. (2)

But, alas! No time for that in 15 minutes.

Related imageD. So, writing. Only able to throw an hour here and there at it for the time being, but it may be that’s just a well – I think I need to reach a critical mass of ideas, and I’m not *quite* there.

What’s happening: I started with a broad arc that ended in a life-or-death decision being made by a young girl in an intense situation. I’d outlined a lot of the social conditions that would lead up to this point, as well as the technology that would be required – it’s space stuff, trying to keep the science pretty hard. Now, details: I had to describe in detail where they were going, including describing and naming all the celestial objects (complete with backstories), describe how they get there, and – this is still skeletal – describe the culture(s) involved.

Then, I reached the point where I needed to name and describe all the people. Um, I’m guessing other writers do this first? Because it’s not a story unless people care about the girl making the decision and the people whose lives are in the balance. So, now, in this background – and the background still needs a lot of work – I’m outlining 3 or 4 (going with 4 for now) families who travel together with thousands of other explorers/colonists to the stars, marry into each other, feud – and produce this remarkable girl upon which the fate of many – including many of the members of these families – depends.

And that, my friends, is the actual story, not the tech and the alien worlds. It’s Sci Fi, as the story could not exist without the science, but these people now crowd my brain. These people, so far, only lurk in my head. Once they start to keep me up at night, I’ll have something.

One of the ancestors of the girl, a great-great grandmother, is introduced here. (BTW: much cleaned up that preface – thanks for all the feedback.)

All in all, fun, but not tending to produce any pages I might throw up here.

  1. Yes, St. Gregory VII is 11th century, but he had a big hand in starting the whole medieval dawn so beautifully described by Chesterton in Ch II of his biography of St. Francis. 
  2. Gregory VII was the last pope to ask and receive imperial permission to be pope, in the late 11th century; yet, over the centuries, many kings and emperors claimed veto power exercised through their cardinals. The last cardinal to veto the decision of the College of Cardinals in the name of his King was the Prince-Bishop of Krakow, who vetoed the leading papabile on orders from the Holy Roman Emperor – in 1903! The outraged Cardinals then voted in Pius X, who promptly and strenuously rejected any idea that kings could overrule the Cardinals. Only took 1900 years!

In Search of One Good Hat

Something like this. I might be sold on a tasteful brown; black is too hip for the room. And patterns/white are right out. 

Off later this afternoon to a conference in, of all places, the Mall of America. I’ve heard rumors. Never liked roller coasters much, and am too old for that sort of thing. So: since my doctor wants my bald head covered (that 20 years of sunburned SoCal youth/melanoma thing), I’ve decided to make lemonade: there’s got to be a decent hat somewhere in a place with the chutzpah to call itself the Mall of America. Right?

Am taking an extra day to rent a car and drive down to La Crosse, WI, to visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The church building is a masterpiece by Duncan Stroik, whose presence at Notre Dame single-handedly raises my opinion of that otherwise mephitic institution out of the gutter. (1)

He also designed the chapel at Thomas Aquinas College, which it is interesting to compare with the near-contemporary building of the Cathedral in Los Angeles. It is safe to say that, barring disaster, generations of faculty, students, their families and visitors will love and find great inspiration in the chapel of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity at TAC. They do now. It is also safe to say, I think, that a cathedral designed so that you need an ‘overview’ section – a program, like in modern art museums – to explain what you’re looking at stands to be as baffling, if not out and out as repulsive, to future generations as it is to any lover of beauty today. The tapestries are gorgeous – and they don’t need a program. The statue of Mary at the Annunciation that graces the entrance, while a beautiful work in itself, is a baffling choice as a statement piece – again, you’d need a program to explain it. The building itself is such a self-conscious rejection of the traditions and feeling of the millions of Catholics who inhabit LA as to be hard to understand as anything but a conscious insult. A big beautiful church building based on beloved church buildings from *any* of the myriad cultures represented in LA – Mexican, Filipino, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese would work as well as anything strictly European – would have been instantly loved, instead of in need of constant explanation.

The bad news: because of its cost and its construction – thousands of tons of steel reinforced concrete – it is likely to be a century or more before it gets replaced. I fantasize about a billionaire convert cutting a deal with the Archdiocese – here’s a billion to pay off debts and fund new programs, provided you let me build you a new cathedral. We can convert the existing into the (weirdly designed) parking structure or warehouse it more closely resembles.

And then he hires Stroik.

A man’s gotta dream.

This Thursday, my beloved is taking the Feasts & Faith group for me at church while I shop for a hat. This week, we’re observing the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, a commemoration of, among other things, Christendom’s surprising victory at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. The 15 to 30 people who show up are going to get, in addition to the stories of saints, pictures of artwork and church buildings, and the Sunday Scripture reading, a brief recap of the situation leading up to the battle and from the battle up until today, largely based on this. (2) The things my wife puts up with.

Feasts and Faith is an experiment. What if you spent an hour a week trying to get a feel for Catholic culture and tradition as a gateway to discipleship? There are a million ways to God, and I’m biased by my own experiences, of course, but I find it inspiring and comforting to see that the Church, despite the many and grievous failings of us, her sheep, has nonetheless spread to the whole world and inspired and fed sanctity and beauty everywhere. As is her job.

That I should appoint myself to do this, to lead the tour, as it were, is laughable. Inspired by St. Phillip Neri, I’m trying to embrace the absurdity and do good anyway. All our efforts are ridiculous in and of themselves, why should mine be any different? Then, to top it off, I make my poor wife lead the day I’m gone. May God have mercy on us!


  1. Am sorely temped to quip that Notre Dame’s relationship to Catholic higher education stands in the same relationship as Bill’s and Hillary’s partnership stands to marriage. But that would be mean. To at least one of the parties.
  2. A better and much more detailed explanation of the background situation by Mike Flynn can be found here, here and here.

Being Rash for Christ

When reading the lives of the saints, it’s common to see both a relentless practical disposition and utter spontaneity side by side in the same person. This is that whole Catholic both/and thing Chesterton among others likes to go on about. Thus, great saints will typically devote themselves to a rigorous, no excuses life of prayer and discipline AND run off to convert the Saracens at the drop of a biretta. Or kiss the leper, give somebody the clothes off their backs, take a condemned man’s place – that sort of thing.

A certain tiny rash act on my part, not remotely in the league of anything an actual saint would do reflects,  I hope, a tiny bit of the spirit of the thing: I will, it seems, be in charge of a bit of continuing Catholic education at our parish. Because the director said I could do a class, and so I submitted an outline and that was that.

Here’s what I’ll be trying to do. First note my abiding hatred of the graded classroom model, so imagine this as being done in a way to defeat that model (which lurks, after 12+ years of Pavlovian training, in our minds despite our dislike of it and despite even efforts to root it out) so as to allow actual personal relationships to be formed – which is by far my most obvious weakness as a ‘teacher’. People are just so much more demanding than living in my own head! Anyway:

Feasts and Faith: Continuing Catholic Education Continue reading “Being Rash for Christ”

Tuesday Mish-Mash

(Sort of clearing the tabs in my head – what could be any more Yard Sale of the Mind than that?)

Staying away from the news, which reports on our wretched hive of scum and villainy, and instead getting all domestic:

A. Freight and Salvage is a music venue in Berkeley that does a lot of folk/ethnic music. They also run a summer Fiddlekids day camp that our youngest attended this year – hang with the fiddlers, learn new tunes, some folk dancing and do a little art. Sounds like fun.

IMG_2841While there for the end-of-camp concert, we picked up tickets to see the Savoy Family Cajun Band last week, who were a lot of fun. Nice folks, good musicians, great tunes.

When we entered the venue, the manager, a woman who recognized us from Fiddlekids, came over and was very friendly and solicitous. She has the right job for her personality. Later, once the show began and I looked around, another possible (if less generous) reason sprang to mind: I, just under 60, was one of the younger people there. We were one of maybe 3 families with kids, there were a few folks in the 20 – 40 age range, but the majority were, frankly, aging hippies. This observation was confirmed by the slight wiff of the weed one got in the lobby during intermission.

We (even I!) might well represent the future of Freight and Salvage, as the existing clientele is largely north of 70, some quite a bit north.

I really like the venue, I wish it well. Not sure how often I’ll be able to make it over to Berkeley, though.

B. Money puts the ‘fun’ into ‘fungible’. Just wanted to say that.

C. Younger daughter, who bakes up a storm (we’re a family of cooks and bakers – tough break, I know) decided to make Baked Alaska for 4th of July dinner:


This entailed making ice cream (a vanilla-raspberry swirl), cake from scratch and the meringue topping (I don’t care for meringue, but this was yummy).

Where do my kids get this crazy overboard enthusiasm for DIY stuff? Oh, yea:

D. Since I’ve only got a million books to read, a bunch of reviews to write, a short story to finish by week after next (more on that later) along with all the duties entailed by being the Dad Incumbent, I decided to build this:


This is sort of the larval stage of a wood-fired pizza oven. I was testing out the arch support frame when I stopped for the day and took this shot. This is just the base – the actual oven will go on top, after I finish the decorative brickwork (arches are fun!) and pour the oven slab (8 cubic’ of concrete with rebar suspended 32″ off the ground  on top of those cinder blocks – piece of cake! I’m insane!)

Why would any sane man pushing 60, with semi-bad knees and a standard-issue back willingly start a project that consists of 1. lifting numerous heavy things over and over; 2. spending lots of time on one’s hands and knees; 3. several MONTHS to complete?

Someone asked me: why are you building a pizza oven? I was brought up short: I have no idea. Must have sounded like fun at the time.

But it is cute, right?

E. Home Improvement Project Gone Bad: I don’t have a picture, and I probably won’t take one, but, in the annals of DIY projects, I think I may have hit Pointlessly Complex Bottom. Background: we compost. Out back by the shed is a plastic stackable compost bin we’ve had for years. However, rats have long found our compost bin. In the past, using traps and poison (not in the compost, obviously, but near enough by), I’ve managed to keep them under control.

Not any more. These are either smarter, tougher rats, or they’ve grown immune to poison, or something, because they don’t die and they’ve gnawed their way through the plastic and into the bin, they are increasing in number to the point where putting out compost tends to produce an audible and often visible scramble (yuck!) in the surrounding bushes.

So, DIY me decides: I’ll build a rodent-proof compost bin! I’ve got piles of junk lying around – I’ll just wing it! So, I go survey the material lying up against the shed for Candidates.

Aha! thinkest me – there’s an old slatted oak futon frame just moldering back there! I’ll repurpose it, thereby removing an eyesore and repurposing a stupid hippie piece of garble garble in a poetically fulfilling way.

It gets worse. Instead of grabbing a couple pieces of plywood and throwing together a box, maybe put some wire mesh on it to blunt any nasty little teeth that might attempt to chew through, and soaking the thing in water proof sealer AND BEING DONE WITH IT, I took dozens of little oak slats and assembled them into 3 10″ high stackable squares lined with galvanized wire screen, THEN lined that with some old wainscotting material we had left over from the remodel 10 years ago – which required cutting and installing dozens of little pieces. THEN make a couple top and bottom pieces complete with the wire screen, to close the rodent-proof loop. THEN seal it up with that green copper anti-fungal stuff for wood in contact with the soil, THEN paint the whole thing with paint left over from the remodel just to get rid of some paint.

Aaaaah! Shoot me now! I’m not done yet, and I get kick-myself-in-the patootie urges every time I look at it. Could’ve thrown a perfectly acceptable plywood box together in under an hour, but NO! Hours of labor, actual money spent (for the wire screen) on this! Hundreds of screws, with countersunk holes, because the screws I had weren’t quite long enough. Dozens of little pieces of oak, trimmed to fit, carefully installed, covered with wire, finished with wainscotting… All while I have a pizza oven and a short story to finish.

I am clearly out of my mind. But the futon frame is gone. Mostly.

F. I just like this picture, taken in our kitchen, of my daughter, her grandmother and some friends at the table (made that table. Theme here?). The color and composition were accidental and remarkable. Well, to me, at least. IMG_2845