John Heard: Happiness – truth, beauty, goodness

17 Sep 2008

By The Record

Life is not just a succession of events or experiences…
It is a search for the true, the good and the beautiful. It is to this end that we make our choices; it is for this that we exercise our freedom; it is in this… that we find
happiness and joy.
– Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI. Photo: CNS

What a man most often means, of course, when he judges that X is “correct” and Y is “good” is, in fact, that X agrees with him, and that Y is like him in some way. That is, that X and Y do just what he would do when confronted by a relevantly similar set of facts or circumstances.
Similarly, when someone says a man writes “beautifully” they often mean just that he writes better than they do, or in the manner and style that they prefer.
We have such a muddled sense of things now. When challenged to explain, for instance, why we find some thing “good” – or “true”, or “beautiful” – we often retreat to a funny sort of solipsism: “It is good for me”, or “I know it is true, whatever anyone else might say”.
What to make of such statements? 
Certainly, we do not accept them in other contexts. Unverifiable claims about the natural world, for instance, are typically rejected.
If someone told you she knew the moon was made out of cheese, you would be quick to suggest she were mistaken. The statement, “that is how the moon is for me, whatever anyone else might say” simply wouldn’t count as useful information about what the moon is really like.
Why do we think there is a difference between these two sorts of contexts?
In the past, of course, one might have appealed to an objective standard to root one’s aesthetic, or moral judgements too.
Appealing to some known, external understanding of value, one might have spoken of the truth encountered in some great work of literature, the beauty of a revelatory painting, and the sense of awe produced by some particularly good piece of music.
These statements would have encouraged the use of terms like “high”, “elevated”, “superior”, and “fine”, terms that were immediately contrasted with their antonyms: “low”, “base”, “inferior”, and “coarse”.
In this way, no one would have doubted a man was onto something if he used the former terms to describe the musical achievement of Mozart, for instance, while he would have come in for something like the incredulity the woman who knows about the moon might still encounter if he made less defensible claims about the superiority, say, of some rank amateur’s attempts to “improve” on Mozart’s most difficult work.
Great literature, further, was great because – in part – it was better than “low” journalism (for instance), and it was valued for being true. It contained the sorts of qualities that people could agree generally belonged to “high” art, understood as an encounter that changed a person for the better, that brought him into contact with the sublime.
There was a solid belief in the power of art and other things to improve man’s moral outlook, and to school him in virtue.
These sorts of ideas are, if known at all today, roundly rejected in most places. How can art, which is so hard to define and so often subverted, make a man any better?
People cannot even decide whether or not famous works are “good”, or “beautiful”, and there seems to be such a wide divergence in cultural attitudes to certain objects and modes of expression that it would be simply naïve, if not arrogant, to set apart one sort of thing as “true”, while ignoring or belittling other things.
This way of thinking is, however, the fruit of relativism, and relativism is – we are told – a new sort of totalitarianism. Pope Benedict XVI, indeed, has warned that such thinking builds: 
…a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognise anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.
Christians, he claims, “have a different goal: the Son of God, the true man.” Speaking in Sydney, earlier this year, he therefore told young people not to be:
…fooled by those who see you as just another consumer in a market of undifferentiated possibilities, where choice itself becomes the good, novelty usurps beauty, and subjective experience displaces truth.
We are called, in this way then, to a robust re-statement of value.
To battle the dictatorship of the mind that threatens man’s happiness, we must seek after truth, beauty, and goodness, and we must have the courage to leave those terms free of quotation marks.
Only in this way, the Holy Father teaches, will we make the right decisions, and exercise sound judgement; ever more closely approximating the beauty that is man’s true nature, a mirror of the superlative goodness of God.
John Heard is a Melbourne writer.