A Provisional Human Construct: Truth and Beauty in the Thought of C. S. Lewis

In my previous post, I hinted that there was significance to the way in which we design our art and architecture.  The argument against this, of course, is that art is about expression, not truth.  If we want truth we should study science–art as an objective medium is meaningless.  Today I was reading Michael Ward, who in his book “Planet Narnia” wrote this in opposition to such an idea:

“If he had lived long enough to witness the relegation of Pluto to the status of a dwarf planet in 2006, [C.S.] Lewis would have been quietly pleased.  He would have taken it as confirmation of his view that ‘a scientific fact’ is not necessarily the immutable, universal truth that it is popularly believed to be.  The glory of science is to progress as new facts are discovered to be true, and such progress means that ‘factual truth’ is a provisional human construct.  Which is why the wise man does not think only in the category of truth; the category of beauty is also worth thinking in.”

Ward is right to point out that what we know as “fact” is actually a deduction based on limited information; there are indeed immutable facts but our ability to understand them is not infinite.  This should lead to greater humility from the scientific sector than is typically displayed.  Ward adds that beauty should be valued just as much as facts.

But Ward goes on, further down the page, to distinguish beauty from truth entirely.  According to Ward, Lewis believed that some things could be appreciated for their aesthetic value completely independent of their truthfulness (Roger Scruton made a similar argument in “The Aesthetics of Architecture”).  So as a Christian, he preferred Norse myths even though he believed the stories to be untrue, and he preferred medieval cosmology to subsequent scientific discoveries about the universe.

I am not a sufficient enough Lewis scholar to dispute Ward’s claim comprehensively, but I suspect Lewis’s appreciation for such things was not divorced from his appreciation for truth.  Historically, the ancient treatment of beauty by Christians tended toward the idea that something truly beautiful did communicate truth.  The stars and planets, which Lewis loved, were created by God to showcase his power and majesty.  The stars did not have to be arranged in the shape of the words “God Made These and He is Great” in order to do this.

In this philosophy of aesthetics, to the extent that humans viewed something as beautiful, they did so because the thing tapped into truths that humans instinctively recognized–whether those truths had to do with proportion and mathematics, or more complex ideas.  Churches like Westminster Abbey were not simply designed to be vaguely “pretty for Jesus,” but to actually point the viewer to truths about the God to whom they were dedicated.  They were evangelistic crusades in stone and glass, invading the senses with the best visual theology known to the Christian religion.  The same building with the same aesthetic techniques, dedicated to the devil, would actually be less beautiful, precisely because the aesthetics had been divorced from their meaning.  It would be like wearing a Red Sox jersey to communicate that one is a Yankees fan.

An obvious counter to this philosophy is that different humans find different things beautiful.  Edmund Burke responded to this contention by snapping that if a particular person found an ugly thing beautiful, it proved only that the person had no taste, not that objective beauty did not exist.  Lewis might have been more nuanced in his understanding of how humans approach beauty, but he did make a similar argument in defense of natural law in “Mere Christianity,” when he observed that while different cultures had different traditions,

“Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him.  You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two made five.”

If Lewis agreed with his own theological tradition on this point, his appreciation for medieval cosmology was not based on “meaningless” aesthetics, but rather on the fact that medieval cosmology had an ability to communicate truth that was lost in the scientific scuffle over the gas balls in space–that in fact, truth was obscured in the search for fact.

Ward ultimately makes this point in his book, yet agrees with Scruton on the existence of meaningless beauty.  I am inclined to think that Lewis would have been more likely to agree with Burke, that beauty is in fact tied to truth–not always in a way that is easy for the untrained mind to recognize or explain, but always in a way that even many untrained minds can appreciate it on some level.  This is evidenced by his authorship of the Narnia chronicles, which were neither an exercise in meaningless aesthetics nor usually in explicit Christian symbolism, yet are appreciated for their beautiful ability to communicate truth (especially by those who buy into the ultimate argument of Ward’s book).

If the pursuit of beauty is tied to truth, then T. S. Eliot was right that the task of the artist was not to express himself, but to express truth by tapping into universal human feeling and experience.  The artist who successfully did so would create works like Westminster, to move the soul for generations.  The artist who failed would create things like the ugly Butler College at Princeton, bulldozed a generation later because it (accidentally) communicated only one truth–that whether intentional or unintentional, aesthetics always have meaning.

6 Comments

  • Avatar
    September 24, 2009

    Michael Ward

    Thanks for a very interesting article. Yes, I think you’re right that Lewis would have inclined to the Burkean view, that beauty is tied – at some level – to truth, and both to goodness. Beauty and truth cannot be entirely separated; but does that mean that they cannot be entirely distinguished? Are we not here dealing with a kind of Trinitarian mystery? The substance cannot be divided, but the Persons must not be confounded . . .

    I myself don’t agree with Scruton on the existence of meaningless beauty (I think – depends what ‘meaninglessness’ means!), and I’m fairly sure that Lewis wouldn’t have agreed either, for the reasons you outline.

    But it’s important to keep ‘meaning’ and ‘truth’ from becoming synonymous: meaning is to distinguished from truth, in Lewis’s view (see his essay ‘Bluspels and Flalansferes’); a lie means, but it is untrue.

    If we set aside questions of truth (for the sake of argument: it may not be possible to do so in actual fact) and consider Christianity as ‘only a mythology’, meaningful, but not necessarily true, then, says Lewis (in ‘Is Theology Poetry?), ‘I find the mythology I believe [Christianity] is not the one I like best. I like Greek mythology better: Irish better still: Norse best of all.’

  • Avatar
    September 25, 2009

    Jorg

    The problem with the Pluto comment is that the definition of a planet is not, nor has ever been, a fact. Hence, the relegation of Pluto to the status of a dwarf planet has nothing to do with the contingency of facts or changing scientific theories, but is simply a matter of definition: a human construct from the get-go. The properties of the object we call “Pluto”–its diameter, density, mass–are facts (in a true, not contingent, sense) that remain unaffected by its change in status.

    Of course, I agree with the distinction between truth and beauty–or, as the earlier commenter points out, between “truth” and “meaning”. As a matter of fact, I am an atheist with tremendous appreciation for Fennoscandinavian myths and legends: they do stir up my blood in a unique way…

  • Avatar
    September 25, 2009

    Jorg

    Michael:

    No beauty is “meaningless”, since our aesthetic appreciation is likely to be an evolved mechanism. A good analogy is to taste: our taste buds find harmful substances to be unpleasant, since those individuals that could not tell the difference are no longer with us, nor left any viable offspring. Sexual attraction and an ideal of physical beauty is fundamentally the same across cultures (despite many cosmetic differences). Our enjoyment of particular types of landscapes is easiest to explain by invoking our evolutionary history as well as preference for particular landscapes that would both provide sufficient bounty and be open enough to minimize the effects of predation. And so on, and so on…

    None of which makes the things we find beautiful any less so, I hasten to add, but the truth that is directly connected to most of those aesthetic judgements is likely to be not quite transcendental in the sense Lewis would say it was.

  • February 26, 2011

    Why Men Like Jane Austen «

    […] “A Provisional Human Construct: Truth and Beauty in the Thought of C.S. Lewis” “Book Review (and Profligate Excerpting): Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night” “Immortality or Lengthened Mortality? Phil Vassar and the Man’s Man” “Faith in Films: Why is It So Unappealing?” “…aims at the examination of first principles in criticism…and the illustration of these principles in creative writing. It aims at the affirmation and development of tradition. It aims at the determination of the value of literature to other humane pursuits.” -T. S. Eliot […]

  • Avatar
    June 9, 2011

    Christina B.

    Mr. Ward — I’m currently digesting your book Planet Narnia, and have encountered the section of your book in question. I have read this article, and I have read your reply above, but I am still confused as to your distinction between beauty, truth, and goodness. I quote, “Following his conversion, Lewis naturally considered pagan religions to be less true than Christianity, but … he felt that they possessed a superior beauty.” And now what I don’t follow, is your statement after that; “Beauty and truth could be, and ought to be, distinguished from each other, and both from goodness.”

    How can something bad be beautiful? If it is indeed beauty is separable from goodness, what does that make beauty? And how can we find something bad, beautiful? I understand distinguishing beauty from truth, though I think they are at their root, inseparable, but I am struggling to find beauty in the bad, or the evil, or the ill-will. Would you expound on this a little further?

  • Avatar
    March 21, 2015

    Zandra

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