In her 1948 book, Witness to the Truth, Edith Hamilton wrote in the Introduction that when times are bad and “storm-driven,” there is a “strong tendency to emphasize men’s baseness or their impotent insignificance.” This happens in both philosophy and art.
Seventy years later, there is still this tendency to bemoan the nature of humanity. Speaking from our not-to-distant past, Hamilton (1867-1963), a scholar of ancient Greece, has insight that may help us today, which is generally what one finds from the great Greeks and those who “know” them.
Philosophy and art have not always been as they are now, and this already was the case in Hamilton’s time.
“A great change has taken place in the intellectual and artistic atmosphere. Plato’s influence through all the centuries up to our own [the mid-20th century] was immensely strong; Platonic philosophy aimed at turning mankind away from baseness, ‘to lift up the wing of the soul,’ Plato wrote, ‘which is renewed and strengthened by the love of the good, the true, the beautiful.'”
Stop and let those words wash over you — ”lift up the wing of the soul” and “love of the good, the true, the beautiful.” There is spiritual uplift in the words. In our time of so much bad behavior, dishonesty, and ugliness of human character it is good to remember to focus on their opposites — the good, the true, the beautiful.
One can say the ugliness has always been with us, dating back to the plucking of that fruit in the first garden. But still, there have been times when humanity reached hard for the good, true, and beautiful.
“‘All things,’ he [Plato] said, ‘poverty or sickness or any other misfortune will work together for good to him who desires to be like God as far as the nature of man allows.’ That voice is not heard now in philosophy. Plato’s solution was to become like God; the solution of modern philosophy is to die.”
The Christian tradition says it a little differently, but it is essentially the same. We Christ followers seek to be more and more like Jesus — God come to earth. We die to self, yes, but it is in order to truly live in God. We do not fly to death; we fly to life.
One more quote from Hamilton, at last for this day:
“In all the great periods of art the artist looked at the world as its Creator did, and found it good. His aim was to make others share in that vision, to clarify for them the truth of beauty and the beauty of truth. When he had painted his picture or written his poem, people would see truth and beauty where they had not before.”
The best of artists do help clarify for us “the truth of beauty and beauty of truth.” They are, however, not alone in the world of the creative. There are some artists of amazing creativity who lift up the ugly, who seem to relish it, to swim in it, not to expose it but to be part of it.
As for me, I seek the artists of beauty and truth. I love bright and lively colors in painting. I like inspiring and encouraging music. And I fall in love with writers who can help me see the good. All great artists are aware of and touch the ugliness, but they do not stay there.
I heard someone say the other day that Buddhism does away with hope. I’m not sure if that is true, but how can one live without hope? I want the hope that comes from the truth and beauty that the best of artists capture.
In this storm-driven day, may we hold on to the good, the true, and the beautiful. And may we exemplify them by seeking to be more like the loving and forgiving Divine.