The Transcendental Treasury of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness
If you want to cultivate a spirit of gratitude, I’d like to suggest that you spend some time in meditation on truth, beauty, and goodness. They each represent gifts to us, things that make life possible, intelligible, and worth living. They are such essential qualities that we call them transcendentals. They transcend our everyday knowledge and point toward a source that is at least capable of truth, beauty, and goodness.
Why do we value them?
- They are the foundations on which a life worth living is built.
- They enable discovery, creation, and nurturing of others.
- They are not wishful thinking.
- They are transformative.
- They are indicators that the world is rich, purposeful, and meaningful.
- They are the product of a designer who knows truth, beauty, and goodness.
Truth, beauty, and goodness are abstract concepts that nonetheless correspond to our deepest desires. They are not likely to have evolved by a neo-Darwinian process. Rather, from neo-Darwinism I would expect an absence of beauty or a denial of it — an inability to appreciate it. The same for truth. What about goodness? If selflessness and generosity are taken as signs of goodness, should we expect goodness from the natural world? Let’s hold that thought, and return to it later.
In our current society, the idea of transcendent values seems unreal. We are told that everything is subjective — there is no clear standard for beauty. Everything is conditional — my viewpoint versus yours. Displays in art museums now resemble the contents of my closet piled on the floor, or an abandoned parking lot, or something appalling like a crucifix immersed in urine.
What happened? Have we forgotten what beauty is? In rejecting the past of the “oppressive white male cultural hegemony” of the Christian West, we have abandoned many beautiful things. I have no problem with including beautiful things from other civilizations or peoples — just don’t throw out the treasures of millennia from our culture.
Michelangelo’s David is a perfect example of that beauty. Larger than life, standing in a relaxed pose, he seems to breathe. Though made of marble, his skin glows. He is physical beauty exemplified.
Another example of beauty is Vermeer’s classic painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring. The girl is looking back over her shoulder, her head wrapped in a blue and gold scarf. Her eyes focus on us, as if waiting for something, and a single pearl hangs from the ear we can see.
A more practical kind of beauty is seen in architecture. So, for example, Gothic cathedrals draw the eyes upward to meet the light; Baroque palaces communicate extravagant exuberance; and the stately avenues of Paris display a nation’s pride. In America, contrast a white, high-steepled church surrounded by white frame houses in New England with the humble, earthy, adobe walls and low arches of a California mission, or with white-columned plantation houses in the South, with their wide verandas and high ceilings. Each style of architecture is distinctive, reflecting a different part of the American experience.
Have we lost sight of truth? In our modern world everything is subjective; there is no sense of absolute values, of right or wrong, true or false; and life is a maelstrom of personal demands and denials of the rights of others. Civil liberty becomes uncivil riot. Whatever a person desires, no matter how far from the truth, becomes his or her right. Freedom becomes license. A moral choice to preserve life becomes a crime. We have fake news everywhere. No one knows whom to believe, and decades-old debauchery engaged in by people living a lie destroys trust.
Truth has been on trial for a long time.
We can have no trust without truth. It is the basis of a civil society. Truth must be both spoken and heard if a community is to be kept working and honest, and if people’s needs are to be met. Families also need truth tempered by love in order to function. Teachers must base their lessons on truth, and business and politics must be conducted in its light.
Without truth we enter into a world of unreason and illogic. Truth, objective truth, underpins all of mathematics and science. Logic is an absolute requirement to do either, and the basis of all logic is truth. Consider the following:
- If a statement is true, then it is true. A thing is itself. It is not something else.
- Contradictory statements cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time. It cannot be true that a cat is black and not black at the same time.
- A statement is either true or false. It is not something in the middle. There are no half-truths. Either it is raining or it is not raining.
Known respectively as the law of identity, the law of non-contradiction, and the law of the excluded middle, these three laws form the basis of classical logic. Did you notice the repeated use of the word “true”?
The Christian philosopher and apologist J. P. Moreland has this to say about the laws of logic:
These fundamental laws are true principles governing reality and thought and are assumed by Scripture. Some claim they are arbitrary Western constructions, but this is false. The basic laws of logic govern all reality and thought and are known to be true for at least two reasons: (1) They are intuitively obvious and self-evident. Once one understands a basic law of logic, one can see that it is true. (2) Those who deny them use these principles in their denial, demonstrating that those laws are unavoidable and that it is self-refuting to deny them.
Prejudice is a form of untruth. When individuals or groups are denied access to resources, opportunities, or the chance to contribute based on who they are or what views they hold, they suffer unjust discrimination.
Was there ever a time when truth was the norm? Not since Eden, I guess.
Beauty and truth are essential, but so is goodness, our last transcendental value. It is possible to imagine a land where the truth is always scrupulously told but where kindness, compassion, and tenderness do not exist. Such would be a terrible place to live in.
Goodness is perhaps the hardest transcendental to define. It can be thought of as being excellent, beneficent, valuable, helpful, and selfless. This description is apt:
[Goodness] results in a life characterized by deeds motivated by righteousness and a desire to be a blessing. . . . The Greek word translated “goodness,” agathosune, is defined as “uprightness of heart and life.” Agathosune is goodness for the benefit of others, not goodness simply for the sake of being virtuous.
It is hard to find unmixed examples of goodness. We generally associate it with saints, like Mother Teresa, or with heroes, like Florence Nightingale. People who put their lives at risk to care for victims of plague or who live simple lives in order to have more to give to the poor may also be called good. People who care for the sick, the orphans, widows, prisoners, and homeless people exhibit this transcendental value of goodness. But so does a mother who lovingly cares for her children, or a father who pours himself out for the sake of his family.
The Question of Altruism
So now, to face the evolutionary question: Did we evolve our appreciation for goodness, truth, and beauty? Evolutionists used to think that by sacrificing oneself for one’s close kin, a person could ensure the survival of the genes he shared with his kinsfolk. But in 2010, kin selection, as this theory is known, was abandoned as a model by its author, E.O. Wilson. The replacement theory, group selection, has fared no better. Instead, it is now argued that standard natural selection and careful population genetics may be able to do the job.
The traits and behavior of bees and other eusocial insects can be taken as a model of the evolution of “goodness” in more primitive creatures. These insects live very social lives. Yet while their “altruism” has been extensively studied, no plausible path for its development via evolution has been demonstrated. The sticking points are the number of mutations required for each new altruistic trait and the length of time required for insects to acquire these traits and have them spread throughout the population.
The question of altruism in humans has also been studied from an evolutionary standpoint. The most careful outlining of the problem I have come across actually focused on a smaller-scale problem, the evolution of cooperation. The authors of the study catalogued behaviors that might lead to cooperation, looking as they did so for experimental confirmation as well as theory. Reciprocity was identified as a key feature. We call it, “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”
The problem is, studies like this one show that humans exhibit altruistic behaviors, but not why we do. Even if we have neural regions dedicated to this behavior, that does not mean the neural regions or the behavior evolved without guidance.
What’s the problem with these arguments? First of all, they assume (1) that the usefulness of the transcendentals is tied to a gene or genes; (2) that there is some sort of survival value or reproductive value to recognizing transcendentals or acting on perceptions of them; and (3) that there is at least enough survival or reproductive benefit to get this ability preferentially passed on to succeeding generations. More fundamentally, they assume that truth, beauty and goodness are not things in themselves, but are merely signals that allow us to make good evolutionary choices. Taking these assumptions into account, I would like to see someone set a rigorous number for the additional survival value of a group due to its members’ ability to recognize truth, beauty, or goodness, and then get it past the population genetics lottery.
Scientific materialism is no match for beauty, truth, or goodness. These immaterial transcendentals give meaning to our lives. I hope that all those reading this have had some experience of goodness, truth, and beauty in their lives. If you have not, seek them out as guides to wisdom and as gifts given to us to help make life worth living.
That which you create in beauty and goodness and truth lives on for all time to come. Don’t spend your life accumulating material objects that will only turn to dust and ashes. —Denis Waitley
Truth, beauty, and goodness have their being together. By truth we are put in touch with reality, which we find is good for us and beautiful to behold. In our knowing, loving and delighting, the gift of reality appears to us as something infinitely and inexhaustively valuable and fascinating. —Thomas Dubay
Image: Girl with a Pearl Earring, by Johannes Vermeer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Editor’s note: A version of this article appears in Salvo 47. It is published here with the permission of Ann Gauger.