Book Review: The Ethics of Beauty
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This is a review I did for the first issue of American Hombre, a new magazine being published by a friend of mine. I did an excerpt of it back in September, but he’s graciously agreed to let me release it in its entirety. If this makes you interested in the full magazine, the PDF is currently available for free at americanhombre.gumroad.com. But also you should consider subscribing to the print version. This magazine deserves to be held.
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The Ethics of Beauty
By: Timothy G. Patitsas
Beauty will save the world.
~ Fyodor Dostoevsky
The older I get the more I weep. That statement may sound profound, but the weeping itself often isn’t. I generally don’t weep at the overwhelming tragedies of the world — the wars, the famines, the multitudinous cruelties. No, when I weep it’s mostly brought on by songs and movies. The other day I felt tears coming to my eyes while watching The Martian. NASA had just received the message: “Houston, Be Advised: Rich Purnell is a Steely-Eyed Missile Man.” Which was the Ares 3 crew’s way of saying they were committing mutiny and going back to Mars to pick up Mark Watney.
And that’s a relatively minor example. Don’t even get me started on the ending of The Iron Giant, just thinking about it brings tears to my eyes.
My kids give me a hard time about this, which is kind of annoying (“I’m not crying! You’re crying!”) But what’s even more annoying is that I’m not sure what to call this emotion. What exactly am I feeling when the Iron Giant declares that he’s Superman? Or when the crew of the Ares decides to spend another 500 days in space in order to rescue their friend? What is it about these situations that makes the tears well up?
This might be an example of availability bias, but after reading The Ethics of Beauty by Timothy G. Patitsas, I’m convinced that what I’m experiencing is beauty.
But what is beauty? (At least according to Patitsas…)
I- Truth, Goodness, and Beauty
The Cliffs of Moher, featuring the “Harry Potter Cave” (because it was used in one of the movies.) You might also be familiar with them as the “Cliffs of Insanity” which played such a prominent role in The Princess Bride.
As one must do with any discussion of virtue and philosophy, Patitsas begins with Plato. Plato held that there are three transcendentals: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, virtues that transcend time and space. Patitsas begins by assuming that Plato is correct, that these three values were important then, and they’re still important now. From this starting point, Patitsas argues that, in our hubris, we have put all of our emphasis on the virtue of Truth, while distorting the virtue of Goodness and trivializing the virtue of Beauty. And it is from this perversion of our priorities that many, if not most of the problems of modernity arise.
But so far we’ve only sketched out a foundation of values which includes beauty. We haven’t done anything to define those values.
Of course herein lies all the difficulty. To start with, Truth seems straightforward to define, it’s just an accurate description of reality. There have always been debates on how best to achieve that accuracy, and even debates on what should constitute reality—debates which have only gotten more heated over the last few years—but at least we’re putting a lot of energy into it. We have countless institutions, professions, and systems all dedicated to probing reality in search of accurate information.
Science dominates this search, and it would be strange if it didn’t. It is the foundation upon which so much of the modern world has been built. It’s given us planes, computers, and skyscrapers. Perhaps more importantly, it also largely solved the problem of hunger through the Green Revolution. It vanquished diseases like smallpox and polio, and ameliorated diseases like tuberculosis and COVID. Science brought material abundance on a historically unprecedented scale, even if that abundance is unevenly distributed.
But Patitsas argues that this focus on science, what he calls a “truth-first” approach, has actually reduced the amount of truth that’s available to us. That it allows us to access shallow truths, but that deeper truths can only be found by first passing through beauty. These are the sorts of truths provided by philosophy and religion, which have become increasingly marginalized in the modern world.
To the extent that society has an obsession other than Truth, we also fight a great deal about Goodness. This fight is the most intense in the arena of the culture war. But even here, rather than considering Goodness on its own terms we increasingly want to subsume it into the virtue of Truth. Examining this phenomenon is neither the point of this review nor the point of Patitsas’ book, but it was put on stark display during the pandemic. Most debates over morality, particularly those made by people in positions of authority, start with an appeal to science. This approach contains the implicit assumption that facts and science will tell us which actions are good and which are not.
Unfortunately, the mere act of describing how things are, no matter how skillfully it’s accomplished, can never tell us how things ought to be. David Hume pointed this out back in 1739, and it has come to be known as the “Is-ought problem”, or Hume’s guillotine. A prime example of this is the recent debate over abortion. Each side claims to ground their morality (i.e. Goodness) in facts and data (i.e. Truth) but despite the similarities in their foundations (both essentially agree on the number of abortions, when the baby’s heart starts beating, etc.) they end up reaching opposite conclusions. Nevertheless, despite the modern tendency to adopt a “Truth-first” approach to defining Goodness, Goodness still has a very prominent place in society. The same can not be said for Beauty.
The phrase, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, despite of, or perhaps because of its status as a cliche, ends up being the perfect illustration of the modern attitude towards beauty. By this people mean to say that beauty is mostly subjective and varies quite a bit from one place to another and from one era to the next. In other words it’s probably safe to say that the majority of people disagree with Patitsas: beauty isn’t a transcendent absolute. But what would it mean for the majority of people to be wrong and Patitsas to be right? We’ve talked about the other two virtues Patitsas places in this category, but how does Patitsas define beauty?
First it’s important to note that Patitsas is a Doctor of Divinity who teaches ethics at an Eastern Orthodox college — the book is very religious, and very Christian. As a consequence Patitsas’ definition of beauty is similarly religious. He believes that anytime we experience Beauty we’re partaking of a mini-theophany, that we are experiencing a bit of the divine. This definition is controversial not merely because it relies on the existence of the divine, but because it’s so contrary to our current, trivialized concept of beauty.
Interestingly enough, despite the controversy, this is not the first time I’ve encountered this idea. There’s a Christian men’s retreat I have attended a couple of times and they will frequently talk about looking for “love notes from God”. Generally these “notes” consist of encountering sudden moments of beauty in nature, but they can also consist of flashes of inspiration, or powerful emotions in general.
Patitsas also strongly associates beauty with sacrifice, particularly as it is experienced by men. We’ll get into that more in the next section, but perhaps you can see why I might decide that beauty is what’s causing me to weep as I watch the scenes of profound sacrifice I described above. This is not beauty as it’s commonly thought of in the modern world, but beauty as Patitsas defines it. We’ve still barely scratched the surface of his definition, and before the review is over I would like to have at least made a dent in it, but when you’re tackling a 700+ page book one is forced to be selective. So let’s move on to a more concrete example.
II- War and the Associated Trauma
The northern transept of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, which contains battle standards from previous wars in which the Irish fought.
Patitsas starts his discussion of Beauty in an unusual place. He devotes the very first chapter to a discussion of war, specifically how to heal the trauma that pervades modern warfare. He asserts that much of the reason trauma has become so pervasive is that we have abandoned all efforts at healing soldiers with beauty. We focus only on the truth of it. The deaths, the injuries, the horrible things soldiers witness. Essentially we wallow in the awful facts of war, while making no effort to craft a larger, more spiritual narrative of sin and redemption.
Patitsas asserts that in our current, trivialized conception of beauty, there is nothing beautiful about war or its aftermath. It’s all ugliness, and much of modern therapy is designed to dig up and highlight the ugliness. But under Patitsas’ broader philosophy, healing the trauma of war has to begin with a beauty-first approach to war. There’s the beauty of individuals sacrificing for their brothers in arms, which wars inevitably require. There’s the beauty of community and brotherhood, which creates the necessary bonds for that sacrifice. These are perhaps sometimes acknowledged in the treatment of trauma, but Patitsas goes even farther.
For Patitsas, trauma is the result of anti-theophanies. Trauma comes from experiencing things that occlude the divine, that make you viscerally doubt the existence of God. It seems overly simplistic to describe it merely as ugliness, but for Patitsas that’s basically what it is — a deep, soul destroying ugliness. The only way to heal it is with true-theophanies, or Beauty. How do we give theophanies to those suffering from Trauma? Patitsas mentions things like Alcoholics Anonymous, and the larger 12-step community, with their core tenet (step 2) of belief in a higher power. But, when talking about war, he spends most of his time talking about the Iliad.
He borrows this approach from the book Achilles in Vietnam by Jonathan Shay. Shay argues that reciting the Iliad was a therapeutic act for the ancient Greeks, a way of treating the trauma of war. Patitsas interprets this as healing trauma with beauty.
Think of how many of our own war movies today tell the story of war in terms of heroics and blood lust. But though the Iliad contains such elements, its larger message is a noble sorrow for the soldiers whose lives are cut short, who experience bad leadership, privation, homesickness, confusion, fear, and pain. The poem was recited to a group of veterans who felt all these emotions again, but on behalf of Achilles, Ajax, Hector, Odysseus, and all the other warriors who in the story go through just what these later soldiers have gone through. The listeners are healed because in grieving for the heroic and ideal combat veterans, they learn to grieve for themselves.
Patitsas goes on to claim, based on Shay’s work, that this beauty-first approach is more effective than the truth first approach, and leads to better results and fewer military suicides. This makes intuitive sense to me, for reasons I’ll shortly get to, but I haven’t read Shay’s book, so I’m not sure what kind of factual basis he provides for the power of the Iliad.
For me, this is one of the few weaknesses of Patitsas’ book (the other is its length, it could have been shorter). He largely alludes to other books as providing a factual foundation, which he goes on to interpret using his philosophical framework. So while it’s easy to find statistics about the increase in military suicides, until I get around to reading Shay’s book I’m not sure what kind of evidence there is for treating trauma by reading the Iliad vs. other forms of therapy.
As I just said though, it does ring true to me, because, as long as we’re referencing other books, Tribe by Sebastian Junger, makes an analogous point. Junger, who does provide hard statistics, points out that the PTSD rate among World War II veterans was far lower than the rate among Vietnam veterans, despite the fact that WWII was far bloodier. And we see the same trend of more PTSD combined with fewer injuries when comparing Vietnam veterans to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. The causes of this disparity are not entirely clear, but it seems safe to say that whatever we’re doing it’s not working.
Junger speaks of the same noble sorrows Patitsas does, and explains that these were sacrifices that soldiers made for their tribe, for their larger society—another way of describing a beauty-first approach. War is horrible, even soul-destroying, but at least you were doing it for your tribe. A truth-first approach focuses entirely on the first part, how horrible it is, without the second. Or as Patitsas says, “truth-first methods can take the soul apart, but they cannot put it back together.”
III- Beauty for the Non-spiritual
The ruined cathedral, or Teampuil Mor of Kilmacduagh Monastery in Ireland. The cathedral was built in the 15th century and is mostly intact except for the roof.
When Patitsas implies that Beauty can put the soul back together, he’s asking us to assume that we in fact have a soul, and that it can be reconstructed by bringing it into contact with the divine, which must also, by necessity, exist.
At its most stripped down Patitisas is advocating for dualism over materialism, but this advocacy is far from abstract. He wrote an explicitly Christian book from an uncompromising Christian perspective. Should one take from this that if you’re not Christian, religious, or at the very least spiritual, that the book has nothing for you? I don’t think so. Certainly, should you decide to read the book you should be aware of Patitsas’ forthright Christian advocacy, but in the midst of that he makes several points which should be valuable even for committed materialists.
Before we get into a more intellectual discussion of things, take a moment to consider beauty in raw form. Take a look at the picture at the top of this section, and if you want extra credit look at the rest of the pictures in the review as well. If we momentarily put everything else aside, are these pictures beautiful? I suspect if you’re honest you’ll admit that they all possess significant beauty. Why is that? To just take the picture at the top of the section as an example, why would a ruined chapel full of graves be beautiful? If we have a soul and God exists, the answer is straightforward. But what’s the purely materialist/scientific/evolutionary explanation for the beauty of that picture? Shouldn’t evolution want us to avoid ruin, and eschew death?
Obviously, there are many potential answers to this question, and a comprehensive discussion of the potential evolutionary basis for beauty would take up far more space than we have. But it’s still worth taking a stab at things.
The Master and His Emissary, by Iain McGilchrist, is a book about hemispheric differences in the way the brain operates — the old left-brained vs. right-brained idea. But this is not a book about the popular science version of this difference, it's a 600 page multidisciplinary dive into neurology and culture, art and history and it gives us our dualism without needing to resort to theology.
McGilchrist asserts that the right brain, the hemisphere that collates information into a cohesive worldview, and the source of our holistic, intuitive understanding of the world, has historically been the Master. This is in contrast to the left brain, the part that breaks things down, that is focused on the minutia, the parts and pieces, which historically was the Emissary — the part that was sent out to return and report. While reading Ethics of Beauty, I couldn’t help but be reminded of McGilchrist’s book, which posits that the Emissary has usurped the role of the master, that modernity has placed too much emphasis on breaking things down into comprehensible pieces. McGilchrist calls this a left-brained approach; Patitsas appears to be describing much the same thing, but calls it a truth-first approach. Both assert that by following this path we have abandoned an integrated, intuitive understanding — a right-brained understanding (McGilchrist), or a beauty-first approach (Patitsas). This obvious comparison is one of the reasons why I found Patitsas' book to be so valuable, it dovetailed nicely with things I had read elsewhere, but from a new direction.
Patitsas work also dovetails with the work of Jane Jacobs, and her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which has been called the single-most influential book written about urban planning and cities. Published in 1961, the book was a searing critique of “urban renewal”, charging that it created unnatural, sterile spaces, in the process destroying older, more organic communities.
This may seem like a somewhat unusual connection, but second only to Patitsas’ status as an Orthodox theologian, is his status as a protege of Jacobs. He worked closely with her for many years, and Ethics is peppered with anecdotes of their interactions. Once made aware of the connection between the two it’s easy to see how Patitsas’ framework fits over Jacobs’ critique. The urban renewal of the immediate postwar period was a “truth-first” approach to city planning, which supplanted the previous “beauty-first” design naturally adopted by people historically — in the absence of top down diktats such as zoning regulations, building codes, and minimum parking requirements.
Patitsas ties Jacob’s insights into a three-tiered progression for science. His first tier is the science of establishing correlation between two variables. His second tier is the science of statistical analysis. And the third tier is the science of complex systems. In this latter tier we have both strictly organic systems, like plants and animals, but also pseudo-organic systems like cities. Jacob’s genius was uncovering the presence of this third tier within the discipline of urban planning. It is also within this third tier that Patitsas locates beauty. But how does one square his initial definition of beauty as the experience of mini-theophanies with this second definition where beauty is located in complexity? For me it helped to pull in the duality described by McGilchrist — complexity and deep intuition are both right-brained tasks — which is why I did it, but Patitsas doesn’t have access to McGilchrist, he only had access to Jacobs so how does she make the connection?
…Jacobs then proposed something much more radical…which was that in studying organic systems it was a scientific fact that you would never understand such systems if you didn’t first love them!
…Jacobs’ logic was that living systems are so complex, so alive, that you almost have to “win their trust,” or at least have to give patient, sympathetic attention to them, before you will ever come to see their surprising rational structure. This importance of love is very odd for a scientific method, and it is one more way that problems in organic complexity reverse the assumptions behind the first two kinds of science. Cold objectivity is no aid to the science of complex systems, Jacobs insisted.
The way I put it to my students is that organic systems cannot be understood or known unless we somehow let them “know us back.” For example, you won’t know a particular city until it has claimed you for itself, has changed you. This is not a principle of Enlightenment science by any means, but Jacobs says that in organic systems this is what you have to do. You have to love what you are studying, and you have to let it “know” you. You have to let this organic phenomenon you are studying impart to you a new intuition, a new faculty of awareness, appropriate specifically to it.
You can certainly imagine this “new intuition” he mentions in connection with complexity to be essentially the same thing as the theophany definition we started with. This is also another illustration of the difference between a truth-first approach and a beauty-first approach. Traditionally science, by emphasizing cold objectivity has no room for any emotion, let alone “love”. But as we seek to understand more complex systems, it’s necessary first to appreciate their beauty, i.e. to love them, before we can truly understand them. Reductionism alone is perhaps inadequate to yield comprehension of the whole which as a cohesive entity is something other than a mere sum of its parts.
IV- Tying it all together
The N11: Star Clouds of the Large Magellanic Cloud.
As this is the first book review in the first issue of American Hombre it seems like an appropriate place to have a discussion about the point of reviewing books in the first place.
For most reviews the primary goal is to answer the question: Is this book worth reading? At its most basic this might be accomplished with a simple “yes” or “no”. But generally this sort of accuracy is only possible if you’re reviewing the book for someone you know very well. When you’re reviewing it for a more general audience, the process of conveying that information becomes significantly more difficult. Given these difficulties it might be worthwhile to break the process down into discreet steps:
What is the book about? What is the author attempting to convey to the reader?
How does the person writing the review feel about the author’s attempt? (As a subset, does he think it’s true?)
What should the person reading the review take from all of this?
Most book reviews (including this one) spend nearly all of their space on the first step, which is as it should be. The book is the star, but I wouldn’t be much of a reviewer if I didn’t have anything to add to that. Without some time spent on step 2, a reviewer might as well just list the table of contents.
It’s when we get to step 3 that things get really difficult. The reviewer has to imagine not merely the average person reading his review, ideally he should cast a net that catches all of the readers. Such a thing is of course impossible, but I’d like to give it my best shot.
I’m imagining that like me you occasionally experience powerful emotions around music, art, and stories. There are things that deeply move you without needing to have any connection to your life or your loved ones: Beethoven’s 9th fills you with a sense of triumph; Michelangelo’s Pietà fills you with inexpressible sorrow; and maybe you also, like me, cry at the end of the Iron Giant. You’re not sure why you experience these emotions so powerfully, but sterile explanations of evolutionary adaptation seem inadequate.
You’re someone who looks at the picture of stars and interstellar dust at the top of the section, and you can feel the beauty of the overwhelming vastness of space. But you wonder why that should be? Such a view has only been available for a few decades, why should it nevertheless feel familiar?
You’ve heard the explanations for why things are or aren’t beautiful. Why certain forms of art inspire emotion completely out of proportion to their impact on your day to day life. But your intuition tells you that something deeper is going on. Perhaps it’s supernatural or divine, or perhaps it’s just some profound connection to the world in its entirety. Whatever it is, it deserves a deeper discussion.
Out of all of this you came to the same starting point as Patitsas. Beauty is foundational, and the world has made it superficial. If you want to leave behind that superficiality, and see what can be built once you truly start with Beauty as a foundation, then yes, you should read this book.
After reading this you might be wondering why I don’t include more pictures in my post. Mostly it’s because I also do an audio version of the post and pictures complicate that. But as I look at the ones included here, it feels like I should figure out a way to do it anyway. If you’d like to fund that endeavor, consider donating.