Learning to Love the Beautiful: Telos, Faerie, and the Moral Imagination

Learning to Love the Beautiful: Telos, Faerie, and the Moral Imagination

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Human formation involves training ourselves with regard to what we love: both acquiring good aesthetic taste and good moral taste—that is, learning to desire what is good for us. Education that is reduced to either the assimilation of information or the training of professional skills fails to cultivate students’ hopes and desires. Moreover, the diminished emphasis on this task can distort students’ desires. What does a single-minded emphasis on means teach students about ends?

There is no shortage of recent, profound reflection on the damage done by displacing beauty as a guiding principle in thought and education. In Beauty: A Theological Engagement with Gregory of Nyssa (2014), Natalie Carnes contends that the modern world’s loss of connection to beauty has cut us off from the most powerful means “to challenge assimilation to cruelty and sloth.” Carnes says that beauty helps us to resist the constant pull toward an accommodation of oppression and suffering. This aid to those holding out against such pressures comes both “from the invisibility of Beauty and from its visibility on the face of the poor.”

Religion scholar David Bentley Hart’s two new books, Tradition and Apocalypse and You Are Gods, argues that this transcendental horizon of beauty is what makes possible all rational thought and the realization of our human potential: “Rational experience, from the first, is a movement of rapture, of ecstasy toward ends that must be understood … as nothing less than the perfections of being” (You Are Gods). Similarly, Timothy Patitsas in The Ethics of Beauty (2020) explores how, “in discarding Beauty, Ethics itself risks becoming not only unlovely but also an affront to loveliness, and it loses its power to motivate the human soul except through the force of argument, backed perhaps by the armed force of civil legal power.” He explains that he “was never explicitly taught the Beautiful Way,” but that “it was in a process of fits and starts, accidents and coincidences, and in the chance happening to read books from unrelated disciplines” by which he was able to find light shed “in unexpected ways” on “a dim vision of what Ethics once was.” Patitsas’ first example is Homer, apropos of Jonathan Shay, who claimed that “the Iliad, our oldest western epic, was designed as therapy for post-traumatic stress,” and Simone Weil, who “said that the Iliad is also the only epic in western history that doesn’t take sides between the two warring parties.” Patitsas defends all of Homer as a liturgy that is “older than the Church” and capable of offering healing from war, which is “something that hurts not only the losers but also the winners.”

Finally, Vigen Guroian warns that our efforts “to nurture the virtues” can easily “backfire, especially when the presentation is heavily exhortative and the pupil’s will is coerced.” He says that “instead, a compelling vision of the goodness of goodness itself needs to be presented in a way that is attractive and stirs the imagination.” (See “Awakening the Moral Imagination” for The Imaginative Conservative, February 27th, 2017 as well as Guroian’s book Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination or his concise presentations of this within his course on ClassicalU.com.)

The arts show us glimpses of the beauty that is the hidden source and end of everything in our world: manifested in everything, within which (or, perhaps, Whom) “we live and move and have our being,” yet mysteriously elusive. Learning to attend to and long for these glimpses is the summit of education. As Chesterton, MacDonald, Lewis, Tolkien, and Sayers have argued, the realm of faerie is a key manifestation of this unseen beauty that is both foreign and familiar. It invites us to see our own purpose in a reality beyond what we perceive with our five senses—to see a telos that is the final cause of our own existence. As we see set out in the Walking to Wisdom Literature Guides, this hidden end inevitably entails a journey.

Considering all of this, classical educators must continue to share with students what we love, consciously imparting a joyful and imaginative love of the beautiful. In a 1854 lecture to the first faculty of the Catholic University of Ireland, John Henry Newman asserted that the sources (fontes) to which we must return were not merely the ancient texts, but deep hearts of each instructor. In our schools, we must daily return to the examination of our own longings, striving to uncover that which is deepest in ourselves and the students we teach.

Jesse Hake serves K to 12 educators and parents as director of ClassicalU.com. Previously, he served for seven years at Logos Academy in York, PA as academic dean and principal. He and his wife, Elizabeth, have three children, Nessa, Tobias and Tabitha. Jesse has taught college courses in history, philosophy, and ethics as well as upper-school history, literature, and rhetoric. He grew up in Taiwan as the oldest of nine children. He has a BA from Geneva College in history as well as an MLitt in history from the University of St Andrews in Scotland.


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