Friday, June 20, 2008

Beauty is Truth and Truth Beauty

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.”

A while back, I posted an article called Pearls Before Breakfast on an experiment run by the Washington Post 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, the Washington Post'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 exalting “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… Beauty is truth, truth beauty; 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.

I dedicate this post to Karen Mason, my manager and publisher. My wise mentor, advocate, and good friend. You are beautiful. I love you with my heart and soul. You delivered me a beautiful dream and I intend to live it.

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.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

A wonderful post, and a fine dedication to Karen.

I'm back from my trip to Oxford and Royal Ascot

sfgirl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sfgirl said...

Yes, she is a precious gem. A fine and dedicated lady. Very few of them out there of her caliber.

And welcome back! I'm dying to hear about Oxford and the Royal Ascot! Facebook me with details, okay?

Leigh said...

Inspirational post.

Reminded me strangely of a friend whose toddler son asked him one day before going to bed

"Daddy, what do you think is more important, truth or love?"

To which his father replied, I don't know Ridley, what do you think?

"I think love"

And with that he turned over and went to sleep. Ah from the mouth of babes.


sfgirl said...

Ah... the wisdom of children. When my son was very young (he's now seventeen), I often remarked to myself how wise he was in his "simple" and clear perceptions of people and life. Being a parent is giving oneself the opportunity to re-discover nature's wisdom through one's children. And to slow down enough to witness it.

sfgirl said...

p.s. thanks for the comment, Leigh!

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Hope you got the e mail and enjoyed the pics!

sfgirl said...

I did, Jean-luc. Many thanks! And, interesting, as we are talking about beauty here... Those incredible outfits at the Royal Ascot were beautiful!

sfgirl said...

p.s. My husband just pointed out to me that I got my son's age wrong... He's not yet seventeen, but well... almost (he's 16.5). For the longest time, I kept thinking he was still only 14 (a mother's mind-block, I'm sure), so it was only natural that I leap forward. Sorry, Kev (but I'm sure you don't mind).

Michael S. said...

I really don’t think these guys get it. Truth, like beauty, is something personally perceived and known....

Bravo! Bravo! Belissimo!
Your observation that these guys just don't get it is nearly as profundly revelatory as what they don't seem to get, that indeed, beauty is truth, truth, beauty.

I've considered this line to be one of the most poignantly poetic expression of all time, and only just now while researching the poem did I uncover the Scientific American article you cited, shocked to learn it could somehow in any way be discredited.

The apparent abject lack of imagination in failing to grasp the nuanced emotionalism the poem means to convey is a sad commentary on those who, as you succinctly stated, just don't get it"

SF Girl said...

Thank you, Michael...Thank you... YOU obviously get it. I agree; I still remember how I felt when I first read that phrase in school. It says everything.