Ode On An Objectively Beautiful Grecian Urn

October 17, 2012 in Theology · 0 comments

One of the standard arguments for the existence of God is the Moral Argument. It can be formulated like this:

    1. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
    2. Objective moral values do exist.
    3. Therefore, God exists.

There’s a similar argument for God that can be made in terms of objective beauty, or objective aesthetic values. Such an argument runs thusly:

    1. If God does not exist, objective aesthetic values do not exist.
    2. Objective aesthetic values do exist.
    3. Therefore, God exists.

With both these arguments, I think it’s a bit presumptuous to assume that the existence of such objective truths necessarily entails the existence of God. It is more appropriate to view these arguments as undermining naturalism — that the existence of such truths is not compatible with a purely natural world and that their existence would demand a supernatural explanation.

While much has been written on morality and ethics, it seems to me that by comparison aesthetics is an underrepresented field. Perhaps because we too readily assume that “it’s just a matter of taste” or “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” we tend to dismiss aesthetic judgments as hopelessly subjective. Within the realm of aesthetic contemplation we don’t have the equivalent of judges and lawyers and juries to render verdicts on the merits of beauty. Instead, popular opinion generally functions as the arbiter of taste, often fueled by consumerist greed. One need only skim through the prime-time television offerings and weekend box-office returns to see this evidenced. Given the dreckitudes of popular culture, the notion of objective beauty seems more a product of naive idealism than an accurate assessment of reality.

But I don’t think we should too quickly dismiss the possibility of objective aesthetic values. Yes, there are clearly cultural norms that influence our perception of beauty, and society as a whole seems inept at recognizing and applying meaningful aesthetic standards. But beauty does cut across culture — great literature, music and art transcend time and place, touching something deep within us. Our perception of this beauty as something more than the some of its parts — something beyond mere ink on a page or sounds from an instrument or pigment on a canvas — speaks to an objective truth that exists beyond the mere physical.

In light of the ubiquity of human artistic endeavor, the existence of objective beauty may appear prima facie obvious, but as with moral truths, there is a considerable leap from an aesthetic ontology to an aesthetic epistemology. Recognizing, understanding and appreciating the beauty around us is not always an easy task, just as understanding the physics and chemistry of the physical world poses seemingly endless challenges. But these are challenges to be savored, the process of discovery to be enjoyed. Beauty points towards a deeper truth, and if such a truth does exist, then naturalism becomes untenable; reality can no longer be reduced to the solely material. And if one concedes that this deals a fatal blow to naturalism, arguments for the existence of God beg for a closer examination.

O Attic shape! fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form! dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

 — from “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats

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