Via pulchritudinis, non via satirae

There’s a famous anecdote about the emissaries of Vladimir the Great who were sent out to neighboring states to find some religion that might unify the sundry peoples under Vladimir’s rule. After rejecting several options (Judaism, Isalm, Germanic Catholicism) they came to the Hagia Sofia in Constantinople, about which they reported later: “We knew not whether we were in Heaven or on Earth… We only know that God dwells there among the people, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations.” And thus, as the story would have it, beauty brought the kingdom of the Rus into the Eastern Orthodox orbit. A thousand years later, Pope Benedict XVI spent much of his career emphasizing the privileged place of the Way of Beauty—the Via Pulchritudinis—as the most attracting mode of evangelizing an increasing secular world.

The wisdom of this approach is expounded well by Bishop Robert Barron, who testifies that, of the three classical transcendentals—goodness, truth, and beauty—beauty is the best entry point for many, and thus the best starting point for persuasion, because it’s the least threatening. “The best evangelical strategy is one that moves from the beautiful to the good and finally to the true,” for, “commencing with either moral demand or the claim to truth will likely raise insuperable blocks in the person one wishes to evangelize.  (Who are you to tell me how to behave or what to believe?  How can you be so arrogant as to think that you should impose your thought patterns on me?)  This is precisely why moralizing and intellectualizing are often non-starters in regard to persuasion.  But there is something unthreatening about the beautiful.”

There has been another method deployed in place of straightforward ethics or truth-claims, however, one which rose to an art form in writers like the great Irish cleric Jonathan Swift: Satire. Humor, farce, exaggeration, and reductio ad absurdum are all tools in the tool belt of satire; and in the hands of a master satirist, instead of splintering apart as exploded argumentative fallacies, they can invincibly chisel out a message that would have otherwise been buried, obscured, or sidestepped by the opposition. In its essence then, unlike Beauty which is a true third way and transcendental in its own right, satire is only a creative, roundabout truth-claim method.

And as I’ve discovered for myself many times over, it has the same ultimate weakness as many straightforward truth-claim methods (such as lecture, argument, syllogism, etc): it’s often not very effective. The ineffectiveness I’m talking about isn’t a failure to reach a valid conclusion, or even to actually tell the truth. It’s a failure to convince, to move someone. The reason for this frustrates me almost to the point of boiling when I see it in others, but, as much as I hate to admit it, I also suffer from this absurd and unreasonable human problem. It’s the fact that reason is sometimes opaque to us unless our hearts and minds are softened, open, and primed. Satire usually has the opposite effect, though, insulting and thereby hardening its target. Some marginal population between you and your target may perceive your message and, not being exactly in its crosshairs, may be persuaded or shifted a little by it. But alienating those you hope to persuade is … not a great plan.

I bring up satire as an alternative method because I once thought it may be the key to piercing someone with the truth—albeit violently, like an arrow ripping through flesh into the stony heart of someone unwilling to see reason. But I’ve been converted to the way of Beauty after some consideration, reflection, and experience. As tempting as it is to share a snarky article from a satirical source “DESTROYING” the stupidity of a position which I wholeheartedly know to be not just erroneous but verging on the imbecilic, from henceforth I’m going to try to remember that, in the end, it will most likely only be a balm to my irritated ego, and not at all a useful or effective means of persuasion.

So back to the perennial wisdom of the way of beauty. Who can argue with beauty? No one. Only the demonic spirit finds it repulsive, and even it can launch no argument against it. For those other spirits who are only dulled, blinded, hardened, or otherwise injured by the fumes of hell wafting all around us, Beauty is fresh air. It’s not threatening; it can’t be confused with or attributed to power systems, selfish motives, or sheer error, like Truth and Goodness might could. “Beauty,” says Hans Urs Von Balthasar, “is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach since only it dances as an un-contained splendor around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty is the disinterested one…”

But it’s also the one most in need of defending today. “We no longer dare to believe in beauty, and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance.” So wrote Von Balthasar in the early 1980s, a particularly low decade in the gradually declining beauty-sensitivity of the West. But having limped on till now with at least the crusted froth of beauty still propping us up, could it be that the living Beauty beneath has finally all but vanished and her vengeance is already being visited upon us—us in our post-truth world, where basic morality is being rewritten, legislated, and enforced through naked power, instead of being intuited and shared in consensus? Beauty, as the key to opening us to the Good and the True, if lost, would leave us impervious to the other transcendentals.

I doubt Beauty can be so completely and successfully banished, but she is an ephemeral thing, and can be easily missed or mistaken by already dulled eyes. For just as truth without beauty becomes cold, abstracted rationalism, and goodness without beauty becomes hard-edged, fundamentalist moralism, so beauty without truth and goodness hollows into brittle, self-referential aestheticism, the paltry l’art pour l’art with no greater purpose, horizon, referent, or relation to another. So beauty must be fought for. It must be built up. And it must be in constant dialectic with Goodness and Truth, the Goodness and Truth of the one True Good: God. So Christians must be the ones rescuing Beauty and deploying it into a nearly senseless world (that is, a world with a dearth of transcendental sense perception).

Practically speaking, for me anyway, that means I’m going to largely forgo the way of satire in favor of the way of beauty by sharing more poetry, music, sacred architecture, iconography, uplifting landscaping, gorgeous artisanship, stories of virtue and valor, and inspired literature. There are legitimate times and places for subtle, or satirical, or even straightforward, full-throated affirmations and defenses of the principles of Goodness and Truth; for everything there is a season. But the overarching season and climate of our time, as I see it, demands the building up of Beauty as the most needed and necessary entry way into the eternal and uncreated essence of God our Maker and Lover, our origin and our telos.

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