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The Public Good: Why Truth, Goodness, and Beauty Matter in Politics

Posted by Steve Turley ● Mar 16, 2015 5:33:00 AM

In 1944, a book critiquing the state of British education was published entitled The Abolition of Man. The author was one of the great literary minds of the 20th century, the renowned Oxford and Cambridge scholar, C.S. Lewis. It turned out that, in under a hundred pages, Lewis had penned the most profound critique of the modern age written in the twentieth-century.

Peter Kreeft, Professor of Philosophy at Boston College and The Kings College, summarizes well Lewis’ concern. Kreeft writes:

[The Abolition of Man] is prophetic; it is couched in scholarly language, in fact its plethora of learned Latinate references scare away even college students today, for this is the first generation in American history that is less well educated than its parents. But its content is a terrifying prophecy of mortality, not just the mortality of modern western civilization … but the mortality of human nature itself if we do not recapture belief in the Tao, the natural law, the doctrine of objective values.

Lewis sees the modern age, in many respects, as wholly unprecedented. The world before the modern age affirmed Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, what Lewis called The Tao, as objective values embedded in a divinely arranged cosmic order. The modern age, however, views the universe as impersonal nature and thus locates all conceptions of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty to culturally conditioned personal preferences. In the pre-modern world, Truth, Goodness, and Beauty were objective to the knower; in the modern age, they are constructed by the knower and superimposed on an impersonal world.

For Lewis, these two worlds are governed by radically different civilizational orientations. For pre-modern man, the fundamental question was how to conform the soul to the objective world and thus be drawn up into divine life, and the answer involved prayer, virtue, and knowledge. However, for modern man, the question is inverted: modern man is not interested in how to conform the soul to reality; rather modern man seeks to conform the world to his own desires and ambitions, and the means involves tapping into those institutions that operate by the mechanisms of power and manipulation, namely, science, technology, and the state.

But this modern project comes at a terrible cost. Lewis recognized that if all conceptions of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are reduced to mere personal preferences, then the only way there can be a moral consensus in society is through some kind of manipulation. If a sense of divine obligation and hence a collective self-government has been erased, then only coercion, compulsion, and extortion can provide a motivation for ethical conformity.

Thus, Lewis sees manipulation as the heart of this brave new world to which we are embarking. And if manipulation is an intrinsic characteristic of modern life, then there must surface by definition two classes of people: manipulators and manipulatees, or, in Lewis’ terms, the ‘conditioners’ and the ‘conditioned.’ The need for coercion and manipulation thus gives rise to the formation of a social elite, a secular aristocracy, with the vast majority of the human population repositioned as objects of manipulation. Lewis writes:

We have been trying, like Lear, to have it both ways: to lay down our human prerogative and yet at the same time to retain it. It is impossible. Either we are rational spirit obliged for ever to obey the absolute values of the Tao, or else we are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into new shapes for the pleasures of masters who must, by hypothesis, have no motive but their own ‘natural’ impulses. Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can over-arch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.

Lewis’ call to return to the doctrine of objective values was echoed in the 1970 Nobel Lecture on Literature by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn:

[I]f the too obvious, so straight branches of Truth and Good are crushed or amputated and cannot reach the light – yet perhaps the whimsical, unpredictable, unexpected branches of Beauty will make their way through and soar up to that very place and in this way perform the work of all three. And in that case it was not a slip of the tongue for Dostoevsky to say that ‘Beauty will save the world,’ but a prophecy.

Resounding at the height of the Cold War, Solzhenitsyn’s words served as an invitation to the world order of his day to reconsider the nature of reality in a way radically different than the coercion and manipulation inherent in political power. These words were a summons for the Soviet East and the Democratic West to remember an identity that both civilizations once shared but which had been in the course of the twentieth-century eclipsed by secular statism. Solzhenitsyn’s speech was a call for the world to return to Beauty, the effulgent or illuminative manifestation of the loveliness, the delectableness, the delightfulness of the True and the Good. For it is here, in the splendor of Beauty, that our ideological abstractions are relativized by a sacramental imagination that lifts us up collectively into an indissoluble union with the divine source of life. This, for Solzhenitsyn, is the redeeming nature of art through which, regardless of the secular eclipse of Truth and Goodness, Beauty still shines for all to see.

Lewis and Solzhenitsyn’s call for a return to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty is more relevant today than ever. If you have time, I would very much recommend your sitting through this hour-long lecture by Os Guinness entitled “Time for Truth: Living Free in a World of Lies, Hype, and Spin.” You will notice that he draws out profoundly the interrelationship between the loss of Truth and the encroachment of political manipulation.

And so, why do Truth, Goodness, and Beauty matter in politics? Simply stated: without them, there is no freedom. As Lewis observed profoundly: “A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.”

Nothing less than our humanity is at stake.


This post is part of a series on Truth, Goodness, and Beauty promoting the release of my new book, Awakening Wonder: A Classical Guide to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, available here.

Featured image credit: © 2014 Pasu Au Yeung, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio.

Topics: politics, blog, truth goodness and beauty, Abolition of Man, secularization

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