Once upon a time, artists were in competition with one another to create a work increasingly more beautiful. And the people appreciated that effort.
When Duccio finished his Maestà, a procession was naturally formed to accompany the delivery of that masterpiece from his studio to the altar of the Duomo at Siena. One standby after another, one merchant after another closed shop and joined in that procession.
The culture that created such a closed circuit, such a correspondence among the artist, a work of art, and the people shared a common esthetics, namely a common understanding of what is beautiful. What was this understanding?
The Congruence of the Remote Past
To understand the past, we have to compare it to the present. Even when we deny that in the beginning there was The Word, we rely too much on single words. We even attribute cathartic value to words. And we forget that text without context is impossible to decipher.
We say “Beauty.” And we ask “What does that mean?” We fail to realize that there is no answer to this question. The question has been reduced to a word, and to a circular exercise for that matter. The question has been emptied of content. Worse still, we catapult words to the realm of abstraction: The realm of theory.
Esthetics was a practice; it was not a theory.
The Incongruence of the Present
Today, esthetics is a theory. In fact, theories of esthetics are legion, and most in disaccord with one another. We are searching for what is beautiful as an individual isolated affair. The beautiful has become a word. It is no longer an action.
Theories of the beautiful erupted especially after the bond was broken that held together artists, art, and people. That bond was based, not on a narrow understanding of the beautiful, but on a much broader cultural unity, the sequence of the beautiful, the true, and the good. There is hardly an expression of cultural events in the remote past—or in any so-called primitive society, for that matter—that did not incorporate such a unity.
It was just a way of living.
A Confused Intellectual Tradition
Confusion starts in the brain. While the unexpressed “theory” of esthetics has been rather constant though the ages, its expressed intellectual tradition has been spotty at best. Symptomatically enough, the sequence of the beautiful, the true, and the good can be clearly found in the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred Hindu text composed between the 5th and 2nd centuries BC. With a bit of a stretch of the imagination, it can be read in Romans 12:2, as God’s will is “good, pleasing, and perfect.” (Can “perfect” be read as true, absolutely true, perhaps?) But, perhaps, a much deeper verity is announced earlier in Psalm 45:3-4: “O mighty one, gird your sword upon your thigh;/in splendor and state, ride on in triumph/for the cause of truth and goodness and right.” (Can “right” be read as beautiful, as in “right proportions”?) The sequence was rather inchoate in Plato, Aristotle, and throughout the Middle Age. In the West it came to the fore with Marsilio Ficino, an eminent priest, in his translation and commentaries on Plato’s dialogues, a work that had an enormous influence on the Renaissance. And from that peak of unity?
This unity of the Western culture was gradually dissolved and ultimately shattered by Kant, who wrote separately of truth (Critique of Pure Reason, 1781), goodness (Critique of Practical Reason, 1788), and beauty (Critique of Judgment, 1790). Thus he fostered the splintering of these three concepts—indeed, these three aspects of reality.
Each and every act is, and must be, an integration of the true, the good, and the beautiful (or their contraries; there are no alternatives). After Kant's systematic presentation of mostly impervious personal ideas, no one has dared to write a comprehensive philosophy any longer. Did not Kant conclude that we cannot understand the thing-in-itself, the noumenon? As if such a thing was not the construction of his mind. If "thing" means anything it must mean matter. And Kant did not know that matter is energy and therefore matter and energy are equivalent to spirit. The "thing" is fully knowable; it is fully understandable—because "I" am also matter (body), energy (mind), and spirit (soul).
Hegel created a muddle. He understood that the weakest point in Kant was that his system was not so much scattered as static. What was the relation between those topics? Hegel therefore concentrated on the issue of dynamics. As a solution, he used a short-cut: He destroyed the intellectual need to obey the dictates of the principle of non-contradiction. To explain the transition of one thing into the other, such as night into day, following the example of the Eskimos in relation to their many names for snow, he should have invented all the names appropriate to define that moment 1, 2, 3… is a little more day and a little less night. And he should have done the work necessary for universal ratification of his chosen names by the “common” people.
Instead, he preferred to destroy the intellectual need to obey the dictates of the principle of non-contradiction. Instead of confirming that night is not day and forever will not be day, denying the need to obey the dictates of the principle of non-contradiction he basically said that it does not matter whether we call “it” day or night. It is up to us. We are free!
Thus, undoubtedly unawares, Hegel opened the door to "anything goes" that today rules in every field of action and thought. Note well, the principle of non-contradiction itself has always been there to be used by any sane man or woman who wanted to write or do something while hiding nothing.
The authoritarian preference for the destruction of the principle of non-contradiction—and the allied contempt for consistency—operated by Hegel becomes very clear if one reads Giovanni Gentile’s misuse of the principle of non-contradiction: The Speaker, the Authority of the moment, is always right! He or she cannot be contradicted, said he. Giovanni Gentile was a Fascist.
There intellectual things stand today. Through the “deconstruction” of truth and goodness that has occurred during the last four to five hundred years, the beautiful has gradually become an unavoidable and an irresolvable riddle. Once the bond among beauty, truth, and goodness was dissolved, the understanding of the beautiful evaporated into the expression that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. Or, worse, the much vaunted, “liberated” expression art for arts’ sake. Beauty has been relativized—made relative to—an individual personal preference.
It is hard to determine which conception has suffered the worst blows: Truth? Goodness? Beauty? Suffice it to say that Beauty has become the preserve of the artist, Truth the preserve of the philosopher—or, worse, the scientist— and Goodness has been expunged from the social sciences: Discussion of the battle between Good and Evil (as distinguished from Devil) has been relegated to comic books. The exception, of course, can be found in the Catholic literature, in which God is Himself Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.
The isolation of the Catholic culture is a very inadequate condition, of course; and, perhaps, it is the ultimate source of the dismantlement of our culture and the degradation of our Western civilization. Reconstruction might perhaps start with this startling discovery, a discovery that is the central message of this chapter: Any act is either beautiful or ugly, either it advances truth or falseness; either it contains goodness or evil. No, there is no possibility of confusion between the two. We only have to find a way of avoiding confusion from our mind. At the moment of observation, at any one moment the observer must choose.
This position ought to mark the end of the reign of the expert—and the beginning of re-assumption of responsibility by all of us; by all those who claim to be wholesome human beings. Yes, it is the “experts” who too often distinguish themselves from the hoi polloi, the rest of humanity. The culture of the future is a culture of the people (surging from the people), developed by the people, and practiced for the benefit of the people.
A Question of Cultural Unity
Challenging as this position in relation to the arts might be, it presents a limited framework. The issue is much deeper and broader than that. It is our cultural unity, our Western cultural unity that has been reduced to smithereens. Today’s philosophy is still dominated by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Analytic Philosophy, the analysis of each individual word. From there to the deconstruction of the word operated by French philosophers of the caliber of Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, and Michael Foucault was a single step—beyond which laid the abyss of Feyerabend’s Against Method into which we are still plunged. For roundedness, I should mention “Relationalism,” as practiced in this book.
This methodology is still in its infancy, and its already vast literature betrays a preference to favor the analysis of “relations,” while neglecting the “whatness” of that which is being related. A sandwich is a set of relations par excellence. If you take away the meat and the slices of bread, the things, which constitute a sandwich, what are you left with? The sandwiches that we are supposed to analyze are reduced to sheer abstract relations. Thus, Relationalism as generally practiced so far is a misnomer. The proper identification of this framework of analysis is Relationism—an extreme form of Reductionism, and ultimately an expression of Individualism; it is solipsism, really. Not to single anyone out, but to be specific, esthetics, in A Relational Aesthetics (1994) by Harold W. McSwain, Jr, is defined as “aesthetic experiencing”: Gone is the art, gone is the artist; what remains is the lonely spectator, “me,” the Universal Me, reduced to a “relation” for that matter, because the spectator is simply “experiencing” something—art perhaps? No judgment; indeed, no feeling either—only a passive experiencing. There is a world of difference between Relation-ism and Relation-alism. Perhaps, to make the meaning of Relationalism somewhat clearer I will suggest that Relationalism attempts to perform the same function as intertextuality performs in literature.
Conceivably, this book and my other books demonstrate that, in addition to identity and non-contradiction, the constant relation between “things” is a relation of equivalence. Either equivalence, or a concoction of vague and undefinable ideas. There are three things in our world: The I, The Thou (which can be “You,” Nature, Evolution, or even God), and then the relation between The I and The Thou.
I will expeditiously put it this way. As it has been finally discovered in some corners of academe, Professor Amy-Jill Levine points out that the least one can say about Jesus is that he was a superb storyteller. And his stories, his parables, were so full of meaning that theologians are still analyzing them and very often finding novel meaning, novel wrinkles of thought in them. And yet, that meaning never strayed from the purpose of reconciling man to God, man to man, man to nature (for evidence, see “birds of the air” and ”lilies of the field”). Pace Derrida et al, there was no other purpose—no hidden purpose—in the speech that Jesus used, no contradiction. And from my own studies I can assure the reader that there is no simplicism in that thought either, no nostrum. Indeed, the whole of Concordian economics is enclosed within the Parable of the Talents. Much more than that. Jesus himself cannot ever be understood unless he is constantly seen as one person of the Trinity; he must be seen also as God the Father and God the Holy Spirit at the same time. Naturally, perhaps, due to our penchant for (a Nietzschean) contrariness, the magnificence of the overriding unity of this splendid structure some of our feeble minds, so full of ourselves, strangely find oppressive and try to escape.
I am more familiar with the structure of economics than any other intellectual field. In The Economic Process (2002 and 2009) I have demonstrated that economic theory ever since Adam Smith has become an intricate intertwining of balanced contradictions. Whenever I approach other fields of study, I tend to run away; I have too many objections. One of the more interesting exercises I have been running so far is to systematically leave comments through a series of pdf "bubbles" in a document that I have titled "Won't You Read Nietzsche with me?"
In this book as in others already published or in course of publication I hope to show that I have solved the problem of thought dynamics (as in “systems dynamics”) while preserving the principle of non-contradiction. Simply, I have rescued the principle of equivalence from the logic of the syllogism, where the Greeks imprisoned it, and then I have applied it to concepts.
As against the demise of the method, any method as declared famously by Feyerabend, certainty is reacquired through the recognition that the rules for the establishment of The True are given by objective age-old principles of logic and epistemology. They are based on the principles of identity, non-contradiction, and equivalence. Many proofs for the necessity and fruitfulness of these principles can be gathered from various chapters of my book A Case for God (2014). Here, we shall confirm the validity of this method in the attempt to specify what do we mean by good, true, and beautiful.
The good is not an abstract ideal. It is a very concrete action—indeed, a necessity of sane living. The good is all that fosters virtues in human beings. By the same token, conversely, a virtuous person will do a good deed and automatically run away from a perverse action.
Shades of virtues and vices are limitless; but, as our ancestors knew well, the peaks of virtues are definite in number. There are four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance; three intellectual virtues: wisdom, science, and understanding; and three theological virtues: hope, faith, and love.
Only one internal relationship needs to be emphasized here: Without love, it is impossible to obtain justice—least of all, economic justice.
The result of the exercise of all the virtues is to create positive effects on The I, The Thou, and the relationships between The I and The Thou. As seen in chapter 9 of a Case for God (2014), the effect of the integral exercise of the virtues is to foster moral normal relationships among healthy human beings. As seen in chapter 7 of the same book, if we have a fair distribution of the wealth produced among those who directly or indirectly produce it, there is no need for redistribution of income and wealth. For 200 years—if not 2,000 years—Catholics have been trying to use moral extortion, rather than justice, to right the wrongs of the economic world. They have appealed to love, and in the modern world they have made charity/love so overwhelming as to be readily set aside. When will the Catholic Church demand justice, economic justice, and then supplement the deficiencies of justice with demands for charity?
Only one characteristic of the exercise of the virtues can be emphasized here: Since life is always new, morality is not a straightjacket; morality cannot be slapped onto any action; morality offers—indeed, demands—a creative solution to any present problem.
As emphasized by Plato and Aristotle, the beautiful is not in the eye of the beholder. It emanates from the inner structure of the work of art: Qualities of beauty reside in the art object, rather than, as Kant believed, in the sensus communis of mankind. Differences in personal opinions—in esthetics as in many other fields—can then be resolved through appeal to objective external standards of judgment. Art is artifice. Art is created by the artist and appreciated by the spectator. Art is sublime art when it catches the essence of things, the inner life of the thing or the feeling it represents.
Astonishingly, even mysteriously perhaps, the ancients knew that art manifests an inner harmony that results from the application of specific mathematical and geometric relationships among the various component elements of the artifact and expressed those relationships most clearly in their paintings and especially in architecture. Great paintings are encapsulated in such geometric figures as the triangle and the circle or parts thereof; the Holy of Holies of Salomon’s Temple was built on precise mathematical relationships among length, width, and height; the Pantheon in Rome is a perfect cube; the Mayan El Castillo in Chichen Itza so catches its relationship with the constellations that, late afternoon of the spring and fall equinoxes, the sun depicts a serpent ascending and descending the steps of the temple. The serpent was a major divinity of the Maya. The geometry, the mathematics, and the astronomy imbedded in the Alhambra are even more complex than that.
Who can deny that the great cathedrals are beautiful? The fact that they are still standing tall and proud proves at least that they expressed and/or respected true architectural values. And they were also good—good for the economy as Keynes pointed out and good for the soul. John Keats could still say: “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.”
And what of the “beauty” of nature? Well, it turns out that nature also has its own structure. Gaudi reproduced the forms of nature in his mystical architecture; he was followed by Calatrava with his “folded space.” Mandelbrot called those forms fractals. Fractals express “the geometry of nature.” The eye—and the heart—absorbs and interprets such forms immediately and unconsciously. A famous Neapolitan song proclaims: “Nu prufumm accussì finu, into o core se ne va” (This perfume is so subtle that it reaches the heart).
We used to know poetic meters; the metronome is still in use; computers help even in the study of languages and poetry. Mathematics does help.
But harmony is not a straightjacket. There is such a complex thing as the harmony of contrasts. Contrasts can be so beautiful. Dissonances are powerful. Any two negatives, when multiplied together, become one positive. The Yin and the Yang are harmonic. By definition, creation does not obey any rule. It is not the intention of this writer, nor is it indeed ever the ability of any essay to hamstring the artist. In part, the intent of this essay is to liberate the artist from the weight of non-art.
And dead-art. An art dead-on-arrival. An art with no life in it. An art that is appreciated only by the artist and a coterie of friends.
Hopefully, it will all become clearer at the end of this series of books on Relationalism. Here it must suffice to say that The True is something that is approximated by diligently following the relational method of analysis. This is a method that is briefly enunciated here and there, but is practiced throughout. Most of all, it results from strict adherence to age-old principles of logic as well as a creative application of dictates of epistemology.
What is true then? As a short-cut, true is anything that is beautiful and good. True is any judgment that—after most careful and dispassionate consideration—we pass on our own and other people’s actions and thoughts. True is any judgment that is judged true after objective examination by other people.
True is not false.
Dialectic: The Dynamic of Concepts (Hegel was mostly right after all)
True is not false. Good is not evil. Beautiful is not ugly.
Every concept is alive, if and when it places us in a position to discern between two opposite poles. That is life in itself. (Pace Bentham, life as a search for pleasure and avoidance of pain is the life of a libertine.) Life is not a ready-made thing. Life is something that we create day after day.
How? By fighting for a world that is truer, more beautiful, and better than the present one. That is why it is a vain task to try to define the true, the beautiful, and the good. The content is never static; it is always new.
We might not be able to define the true, the good, and the beautiful, but we certainly know the specific false, the evil, and the ugly that is in front of our eyes.
The Function of Opposites
Does it mean that falsity and ugliness and evil are necessary to let us discover the true the beautiful and the good? No, not at all. It only means that falsity and ugliness and evil arise in each one of us; we know them; and each one of us has to discern how to produce the true, the beautiful, and the good at each moment of our lives. That is being alive.
That is how electric energy behaves. That is life. That, perhaps, is life. Our earthly life, for sure. For sure?
Well, for me, yes!
The Function of Philosophy
One of my masters has been Benedetto Croce.
I graduated from University of Naples, after all. The University of St. Thomas Aquinas, Giambattista Vico, and Benedetto Croce. And the person who set a direction to my research was Professor Vittorio de Caprariis, the son-in-law of Benedetto Croce.
Croce thought me many things. The most important, the one closely related to our topic is that the task of philosophy is to bring greater and greater coherence to our thought processes—hence, to our lives. That is consilience. And I have to leave the many implications of this verity to the imagination and the knowledge of the reader.
An Instantaneous Picture
The relationship among truth, beauty, and goodness is that of true equivalence. Hence it can be cast in the familiar geometric format for best results. Thus:
Figure 1 – Integration of Esthetics in Life
One of the functions of equivalence relations is to let us get out of circularity of argumentation that arises between any two terms, such as beautiful/ugly (which leads to interminable, vain attempts to convince others), and gives us firmness of understanding. With the equivalence relation we have a triple check. Briefly, how do we know that something is true? We need to check whether the specific art or judgment under observation yields also goodness and beauty.
The relationship among truth, beauty, and goodness is not sequential but instantaneous. This means that an act is not first beautiful and then true and then good. The act is either all three things at once or it is none of them. It also means that there is no order of primacy or precedence among them. The relationship is organic, indivisible, and enduring. The act is alive—or born dead.
Life is alive; or it is death.
On Some Dynamics (of Being Human)
Beauty conveys the emotional essence of things; truth their logical essence, goodness the ethical essence of things. When we are in front or inside a cathedral, a wat, a castle, the Taj Mahal, a spectacular bridge, the Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s David, most statues of the Buddha, a good read, a perfect performance, or a placid plain, a shining sea, a majestic mountain, most human beings feel a fluttering of the heart and a cutting of the air flow to the lungs and exclaim: how beautiful. Then we go on to proclaim: How good it is to be here. And, through some deeper contemplation, we assert: How true this is to the "essence" of a mountain, a bridge, the human person, the human face, the power of human beings, their eloquence, the ineffable quality of the Divinity.
When we are truly humans, each and everything engenders in us an emotional response, a logical response, and an ethical response.
Thus, each and everything involves our whole being as body (emotions), mind (logic), and spirit (ethics).
A proof that the relationship among truth, beauty, and goodness is organic, indivisible, and enduring can be found in mathematics and physics, of all places. As an application of Occam’s razor, the principle that a simpler theory is preferable to a more complex theory, mathematicians and physicists accept the hypothesis that a more beautiful theory is also more true. A theory is good because it provides good—and better—results (than a previous theory).
Reasoning in reverse, we will have also acquired the certainty that if something is not beautiful, that something is also likely to be not true and not good—or any other combination of these three elements.
An act of defacement of the earth is not good, it is ugly. But what about its truth content? Well, upon full consideration, it turns out that an act of defacement of the earth is simply untrue—untrue to the interests of mankind and, incredibly, untrue even to the interests of the propagators of such an act: Just examine the effects of this act on the personal order of the perpetrators of the defacement of the earth, on the order of their families, and eventually on the order of their own communities as well. Such an act is above all untrue to its declared purposes. It contains a lie. No such act announces its intention to deface the earth.
Interestingly, one can build a case for sustainability as well on the basis of our trinity of beauty, truth, and goodness. No one objects if ugly buildings are torn down; many people may even be elated. But what happens if a building that is commonly appreciated as a beautiful building is under threat of being destroyed? History proves that committees are formed, indignation is aroused, even money is raised—and many times the building is saved for mankind.
These considerations can also be applied to the conditions of low income neighborhoods, downtown areas, and so many other areas of the world—ugly spots are endured at great sufferance, but are not sustainable. To see the inner relations between ugly and beautiful we can even build a Lorenz Diagram, which can then be expanded to a tridimensional construction as soon as the true and the beautiful are related to the good.
Why are acts that engender ecological disasters and acts of vandalism committed at all? There are many reasons. Most of them are committed because they appear to give short-term advantages to competitors. It is our mainstream economics that is fundamentally flawed.
Let economics well alone. These are facts of life that lead to another set of investigations: How enduring is our understanding of the beautiful, the true, and the good? While the relationship that ties them together is constant, our understanding of the beautiful, the true, and the good is subject to change, perhaps an evolutionary change.
These are facts of life that lead to another set of investigations: How enduring is our understanding of the beautiful, the true, and the good? While the relationship that ties them together is constant, our understanding of the beautiful, the true, and the good is subject to change, perhaps an evolutionary change.
Relative vs. Absolute True, Beautiful, and Good
Undoubtedly, as human beings we only know relative truth, beauty, and goodness—relative to our limited human capacity; relative to the time and space in which we live. Hence one will have to be happy pursuing an increasingly more integrated understanding of beauty, truth, and goodness, with the certainty that, if one finds something that is truer than what was known before, it is also most likely to encompass more beauty and more goodness.
Much of the effort in painting during the last century has been the successful integration of the human figure into its background. To such an extent that, in the most abstract form of art, the figure has disappeared into the background. And a larger chunk of reality is caught on the canvass.
While we are called to reach for an ever expanding amount of truth, beauty, and goodness, we know we will never reach absolute truth, beauty, and goodness, because life as we know it would cease. Life is ever changing.
The absolute true, beautiful, and good exists only in God. Then the central questions are: Who is man? Who is God? These questions deserve separate investigations.
The absolute true, beautiful, and good exists only in God. That is why this writer finds in esthetics a case for the presence, and a case of the need for the presence, of God among us. God is in our pursuit of beauty, truth, and goodness.
For this writer, the most beautiful, the best, and the truest human action is to love God. To love God is the most just thing we can do. As Saint John of the Cross admonished us, let us not sit there like a log. Let us be inflamed with love for God. To love God is to make use of the highest of our human virtues.
A silly question: Should we not love this God who invites us to live, paying no rent, into his starry nights and sunny days for seventy years, or eighty for those who are strong?
If you believe in fairness; if you believe in infinity and eternity, religion is a wholly rational affair.
Our entire life is then affected. We see the world in completely new ways. The pursuit of beauty, truth, and goodness is not an option; it is a must. Solidarity is not an option; it is a must. Economic justice is not an option; it is a must. Religious fervor is not an option; it is a must.
Once we strive for the true, the beautiful, and the good, we are fulfilled as we are. One unexpected result awaits us: We become detached from things of this life. Then, as Saint Catherine of Siena discovered, still another result befalls us: Our fear of death disappears.
The writer loves life. He loves his life. He loves people. At the same time, he is growing increasingly more curious about the absolute beauty, truth, and goodness—which might become evident only by coming face to face with God.
Relational esthetics, then? Somehow, I am resisting the thought. Concordian economics is Concordian economics; it is not relational economics! Economics is the pursuit of the practical.
And what is esthetics? Esthetics is the pursuit of the beautiful—one of the most abstract things in life. (Provided we remember that the beautiful cannot be reached unless it is also true and good. The word and the action is not beautiful unless it is also true and good.)
In an altogether facetious expression, I should like to call this The True, The Good, and The Beautiful Theory of Esthetics.
In truth I tell you, this is my theory of life: Life is true, and good, and beautiful. Or else, it is not life, but decay. It is death. And life wants to be life. Life is true, and good, and beautiful.
Forget about the theory of esthetics, then; act beautifully; your action is likely to be true and good as well.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Carmine Gorga, president of The Somist Institute, is a Former Fulbright Scholar and recipient of a Council of Europe Scholarship for his dissertation on the Political Thought of Louis D. Brandeis. Using age-old principles of logic, he has founded Concordian economics, Somism, and Relationalism. Dr. Gorga has fundamentally transformed the linear world of economic theory into a relational discipline in which everything is related to everything else—internally as well as externally. He was assisted in this endeavor by many people, notably for 27 years by Professor Franco Modigliani, a Nobel laureate in economics at MIT, and 23 years by Professor M. L. Burstein, a professor of economics at York University. Mr. Gorga is the author of numerous publications, including The Economic Process: An Instantaneous Non-Newtonian Picture, 2002, a book that was reissued by The University Press of America in an expanded paperback edition in 2009. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. At times, he blogs at New Economic Atlas, Modern Moral Meditations, and A Party of Concord.