“Love makes an object beautiful—Eliseo Lagano
Ubi amor ibi oculus est (Where there is love there is vision)—Richard of St Victor
Do you recall John Keats’ enigmatic last two lines in Ode on a Grecian Urn: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”?
“But what on Earth did Keats mean?” asked mathematician and author, Martin Gardner (Scientific American, April 2007). Gardner went on to quote T.S. Eliot who called the lines “meaningless” and “a serious blemish on a beautiful poem”. A rather pithy remark, I thought, considering the lines spoke of beauty. Gardner further described how great theorems and great proofs, such as “Euclid’s elegant proof of infinity of primes, have about them what Bertrand Russell described as ‘a beauty cold and austere’ akin to the beauty of great works of sculpture.”
Ian Stewart, a distinguished mathematician at the University of Warwick in England and author of Why Beauty is Truth: a History of Symmetry, suggested that symmetry lay at the heart of beauty. He concluded his book with two maxims: 1) in physics, beauty does not automatically ensure truth, but it helps; and 2) in mathematics beauty must be true—because everything false is ugly.
I really don’t think these guys get it. Truth, like beauty, is something personally perceived and known. Like love, beauty (and truth) apply to one’s personal experiences, feelings and thoughts. It isn’t something we “prove”. It just simply IS. Neither beauty nor truth (certainly in all its facets) can be remotely described or “proven” through science (at least not in the language of traditional science). We are each a unique universe, within whom resides a world of aesthetic truths. British author John Lane, author of Timeless Beauty: In the Arts and Everyday Life describes it this way:
“Although the complexities of both nature and beauty have a subtle mathematical basis, reason by itself cannot tell us why beauty exists nor what is beautiful…There is often something spontaneous, even ‘illogical’ about these emotions; like love they can never be predetermined, let alone dictated. But neither can the other wise and splendid things which are most significant in human life, to which the greatest of the human race have contributed most, and in which our real refreshment consists—the love of truth, the sources of inspiration and the production of great works of art.”
“These, like beauty,” says Lane, “ultimately pertain to the unconscious, the heart and the soul. They pertain to the heart because it is love which discerns the mystery inherent in those things we see as beautiful; love which abandons arrogance and stands in awe before the mystery of life. It is love that sees beauty which, in turn, is always loved.”
Several years ago Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post ran an experiment in a Washington, D.C. metro station with virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell, disguised as a street performer. Bell’s performance, arranged by The Washington Post, was an experiment in context, perception and priorities – as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?
Moreover, Weingarten’s experiment in human behavior brings up yet another question about North Americans as a culture: do we need someone else to tell us what is beautiful and worthwhile?
John Lane suggests that the experiment at L’Enfant Plaza may be symptomatic of that, “not because people didn’t have the capacity to understand beauty, but because it was irrelevant to them.” Lane then added, “This is about having the wrong priorities.” And losing one’s balance of life. I will go even further with this: beauty, in all its forms, is God’s gift to us. Divine grace. Forgiveness. Compassion. Humility. Altruism. These are all expressions of beauty, and ultimately expressions of God. So, when you don’t have time to perceive the beautiful and exquisite “hymns” of Joshua Bell in a busy metro station—then you also aren’t listening to God.
So, what DID Keats mean?… Well, here is what I think he meant (and whether he did or not is actually moot because what it means to me—to each of us—is what’s important):
Truth, like beauty, is perceived from the heart and the soul. Shakespeare knew this too (To thine own self be true—Hamlet). When one is truthful (about oneself particularly) then one is also beautiful. To see the truth about a person or object is invariably to recognize our inherent beauty, the divine nature God has given us, to see beyond the mundane surficial veil we all spend so much time cultivating… Truth is beauty, beauty truth; that is all ye know on Earth and all ye need to know. It is a simple yet difficult maxim to follow. For in following it, one must be willing to cast off one’s “safe” societal facade and display oneself naked before God and the often judgmental scrutiny of humankind. To look beyond the shallow shores of deception into the deep abyss of truth.
Stewart, Ian. 2007. Why Beauty Is Truth: The History of Symmetry. Basic Books. 304p.
Gardner, Martin. 2007. Is Beauty Truth and Truth Beauty? In: Scientific American, March, 2007.
Lane, John. 2001. Timeless Beauty: in the Arts and Everyday Life. Green Books. 176p.