In this latest installment of our “Expert Giving” series, which seeks to garner feedback from experts on different policy issues, we asked Margarita Mooney Suarez of the Scala Foundation to discuss the intersection of liberty and beauty. What role, if any, does beauty play in shaping a free and happy society? As a reminder, DonorsTrust is always happy to connect you with a specific organization that works in the area you most care about.
In Roger Scruton’s masterful book, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, he wrote, “Beauty, I argue, is a real and universal value, one anchored in our rational nature, and the sense of beauty has an indispensable part to play in shaping the human world.”
The separation of beauty and reason is one reason we have such a contentious public culture and often even a religious culture that is devoid of reverence. Separating beauty and reason robs people of the joy of the pursuit of the truth and their desires for happiness.
The classical understanding of beauty was that experiences of beauty awaken our desire to know the splendor of the truth and prepare us to enter into virtuous relationships characterized by self-gift. Beauty is an often-forgotten element of personal freedom and free societies.
We need beauty to spark our imagination, form scientific intuitions, develop friendships and develop civil-society institutions based on shared loves. By encountering reality directly through beautiful material culture and a contemplative gaze that is open to the symbolic meaning of the world, beauty pierces through ideology.
A participant in Scala Foundation’s April 30, 2022, conference on Art, the Sacred and the Common Good: Restoring Beauty to Our Schools, Places of Worship, the Arts and Our Common Life, expressed a sentiment I have heard many times: “I’m starving for beauty.”
I started Scala Foundation precisely because, as a professor in higher education, I saw that too many students were not receiving a classical liberal arts education, much less one that includes beauty. Students fear that nothing is strong enough to unite our fragmented society.
Beauty Strengthens Freedom
Too often, moreover, their lives are devoid of reverence or joy, making it easy to stir up resentment and anger. But engaging in superficial forms of activism and embracing a victim mentality only furthers the void and weakens a person’s sense of freedom. The dreams of a fulfilling life begin to feel themselves like a cruel illusion rather than meaningful direction to pursue a vocation.
In A Reason Open to God, Pope Benedict XVI argues that a proper understanding of rationality goes beyond analytical thinking to include the openness to mystery so often experienced by encountering beauty. Openness to mystery is the opposite of narrow-minded ideology.
The title of my book being published in June 2022, The Wounds of Beauty: Seven Dialogues on Art and Education, was inspired by a 2002 address given by Pope Benedict XVI in which he explains that the ancient Greek philosophers understood the relationship between beauty and pain.
Plato, for example, thought encountering beauty attracts us to something other than ourselves, something that has retained its perfection. That awareness of a transcendent being increases our capacity for joy, even in the midst of suffering.
But Benedict XVI is saying much more than that beauty can be a consolation for the suffering of illness. Experiencing something beautiful—like a great concert, a work of art, or a walk in Central Park—opens a wellspring of desire that can feel like a painful longing.
Encountering beauty thus makes us restless to find the source of that beauty. That longing, Benedict explains, in a sense, causes us to suffer. As he wrote, “We could say that the arrow of nostalgia pierces man, wounds him and in this way gives him wings, lifts him up towards the transcendent.”
Beauty Spurs Creativity
Too often, beauty is thought of as purely subjective, outside the realm of our rationality. But, seen as part of our rational nature, our longing for beauty is a part of our creative capacity to make poetry, art, music, or a beautiful park.
Our rational capacity refines what we create by reflecting on and growing in perfection. Moving an object towards perfection is a reminder that the cosmos itself is ordered, not chaotic. When perceiving the symbolic meaning of material reality, we realize that we are co-creators— not manipulators—of material things.
Beauty is a Bulwark
Uniting beauty and reason is thus essential to use our many human capacities for the good. Experiencing beauty gives us the confidence to say there is objective truth. Experiencing beauty tells us we can know truth and act prudently and freely to promote the common good.
Understanding beauty allows us to see our personal vocations as a self-gift that contributes to the common good. Many people are asking right now: What can unite us socially and politically? In order to come together freely to promote the common good, we have to reunite beauty, truth, and goodness.
We at Scala aren’t at this alone. A good sampling of other organizations working to infuse more beauty into the world can be found among the organizations that co-sponsored our April conference. Those include the Common Sense Society, the Witherspoon Institute, the Institute for Humane Studies, Thomistic Institute, Pepperdine School of Public Policy, Hildebrand Project, Bruderhof, and the University of Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life.
Our present crisis is not only political, economic or religious. It is also a crisis of beauty. By creating and sharing beauty with others, we deepen a sense of mystery that is a bulwark against ideology. Experiencing beauty is a central way to restore hope and orient our freedom to both the personal and common good.
Margarita Mooney Suarez is founder and executive director of Scala Foundation, the mission of which is to give students and educators hope and purpose through a classical liberal arts education. She is also an associate professor in the Department of Practical Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary.