Friday, 25 February 2011

The Good and the trancendental goods: Truth, Beauty, Virtue


The Good is the highest aim in a human life. (e.g. in Plato). It does not necessarily refer to God or to the Gods, but to what humans ought to do.

The Ancient Greeks recognized that The Good was transcendental, had to be transcendental - had to be something outside and beyond humans to which each could aspire (and which they might fail to attain).


The Good is highest, but it is hard to understand, hard to think about - and most people usually focus on three component transcendental goods of Truth, Beauty and Virtue (moral good).

However, there is a problem in splitting up the Good - which is that people begin to evaluate the world using separate modalities of thought.

Truth becomes the province of - firstly - philosophy, then later science.

Beauty becomes the province of Art.


And Virtue? Virtue becomes religion - the whole thing! - or later Virtue may become a secular ideology.

And indeed morality can become the whole of religion - such that people cannot see that religion has anything to do with either Truth or Beauty.

Morality becomes the whole thing.

In which circumstance religion (or secular ideology) becomes legalistic, inevitably.

Virtue is a matter of following a set of rules, of Laws. Virtue is reduced merely to obedience. 


The pursuit of Virtue, detached from its unity with Truth and Beauty in the Good - is a major pathology of Western thought

Some Christian denominations - most of them indeed, are wholly concerned with Virtue, and regard Truth and - especially - Beauty as of grossly subordinate importance.

The actual circumstances of this kind of religious life and practice may be devoid of Beauty or hostile to Beauty. Indeed, Beauty may be regarded as a snare, rather than a component of The Good.

And the same applies to mainstream secular ideologies - such as Communism, or modern liberal political correctness. They are wholly Virtue orientated, and being untruthful in pursuit of Virtue is not only tolerated but approved.


Creating ugliness in pursuit of Virtue is likewise approved (building hideously soul-destroying, but functional, housing for the poor; or brutal cityscapes and offices for bureaucrats - to be concerned by Beauty in such circumstances is regarded as unserious Dandyism).

To be indifferent to precise facts or to lie, and to destroy beautiful things and to create ugly environments in pussuit of Virtuous goals is indeed regarded as evidence of moral seriousness.

For such people, the truly Virtuous ought to be indifferent to such matters - their minds are wholly moral.


But lined up against this partial pursuit of Virtue are similarly absurd, wicked and evil partial exaltations of Truth and Beauty.

The partial pursuit of Truth leads to scientism; to the common and indeed dominating conviction that science, mathematics and the like are the only valid forms of knowledge; and that the true and dedicated scientist should pursue Truth indifferent to Virtue and Beauty - that the single-minded pursuit of Truth (usually in the form of 'facts' and technology) is indeed intrinsically virtuous, and intrinsically beautiful - so there is not need for the serious scientist (or philosopher) to worry about these matters.


And there is an equivalent situation in The Arts.

Beauty becomes the province of Art, and the understanding and promotion of art becomes a matter of aesthetics - distinct from evaluations of Virtue and Truth - leading to the ideal of Art for Arts sake.

That the serious artist and arts critic is indifferent to Truth and Virtue - or rather that artistic values themselves transcend such concerns- and that Art - Beauty - is (by this account) intrinsically true and intrinsically virtuous; so that any trammelling or constraint on 'artistic expression' is intrinsically a violation of truth and virtue as well.


So we reach, have long-since reached, a situation when the transcendental Goods have been split up and regarded as separate, regarded as amenable to separate pursuit; are indeed contrasted with each other and pitted against each other by what are de facto interest groups such as priests, scientists and artists: each claiming the high ground, each trying to subordinate the others.


Yet The Good is in reality a unity: that which is Good is intrinsically and inevitably virtuous, true and beautiful.

Truth, Beauty and Virtue cannot really be separated.

The Good is not attained by being virtuous and then bolting-on truth and adding a layer of beauty; nor is it attained by a narrowly fanatical pursuit of precision and reliability then surrounding it with a halo of words that claim its ultimate virtuousness and an assertion of its special kind of beauty; nor by a belief that an effective novel, poem, painting, song - created to fulfil the criteria of these aesthetic forms is intrinsically also a agent of  the highest truth and tending to a special kind of human virtue...

The situation is that the True, Beautiful and Moral are by-products of the Good - and when they are not by-products they are not good; that the specific pursuit of Truth, Beauty and Virtue asif they were distinct goals may very easily become subversive of the Good, may indeed become its opposite, have indeed already and long since become the opposite of Good. *

While this may be very obvious for the narrow pursuit of Beauty (as Art) or Truth (as philosophy and science) it is equally so of the narrow pursuit of Virtue.


I am stating here that the narrow pursuit of Virtue in detachment from Truth and Beauty is anti-Good  (or rapidly becomes so).

The idea of a religion focused on, based around, Virtue; and subordinating of Truth and Beauty, is a Bad thing, not a Good thing.

Virtue is not higher than Truth and Beauty.

To act as if Virtue is higher than Truth and Beauty is very swiftly to embrace the Bad - not merely the narrowly wicked (anti-virtuous) idea of Bad, but to destroy the whole capacity for Good.

The mode of thought which sees Virtue as requiring trade-offs with Truth and Beauty is at fault.

The aspiration of religion must not be Virtue, but must be The Good.

And the Good can be conceptualized as closeness to God, communion with God, as God-like-ness.


I have found that this is the essence and focus of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church tradition, but I have not found this insight elsewhere except as a minority view - it is found elsewhere, but in a rather tenuous, personal, and peripheral expression of spirituality - and not as the core.

Hence most Christian denominations cannot keep a hold of The Good: find it too imprecise, too slippery, to hard to grasp and hold.

Most revert to a focus, a prioritizing of Virtue: and to make this more precise they render Virtue explicit in Law.

Others (much more rarely) become almost wholly aesthetic - and merge into the Arts.

Others become too philosophical, and too systematically philosophical.


And The Good cannot be attained by first splitting into the T, the B and the V - and then afterwards trying to bolt them together again!

The act of breaking-up the Good irreversibly destroys that which is necessary to unify the Good. The operation of splitting is imperfect, much is destryed in doing it, somethings are left out, the analytic knife inflicts collateral damage.

The 'operation' of analyzing Good into TBV is like dissecting an animal to understand it; then trying to fit it together again and bring it back to life!

Unity of The Good is above all of these dangerous specifics.


Only by a focus upon The Good, as characteristic of God; and by conceptualizing Christianity as the desire to move-towards God (that is - towards the unified transcendent Good) and commune-with, partake-of God; can the partiality and distortions of the specific TBV specific Goods be avoided, and the real unified reality be (at least potentially) approached.