Beauty for Truth’s Sake: On the Re-enchantment of Education
reviewed by Stephen Richard Turley
Stratford Caldecott, director of the Center for Faith and Culture in Oxford and editor of the journal Second Spring for Thomas More College, describes this book as a “manifesto” that focuses on recovering the centrality of meaning for education. Caldecott develops his argument in terms of both a negative and a positive apologetic: he aims to challenge the schisms between the arts and sciences, and faith and reason, which are characteristic of the modern age, by advocating a return to the classical conception of knowledge.
Knowledge in the pre-modern period was the instrument of wisdom, that is, an embodied understanding of the world as cosmos, as a grand arena of meaning and purpose constituted by a semiotic collage of harmoniously integrated parts united in a single whole, called the Logos. In contrast, knowledge in the modern era is specific to the scientific method of empirical verifiability. Since meaning and purpose are impervious to method—that is, since telos does not fit into a test tube—the world is reduced to cause-and-effect processes that have no inherent meaning or purpose. The result is that the Logos and its inherent Socratic triad of truth, goodness, and beauty have been amputated from knowledge in the modern age, pushed into the periphery of public life, and relegated solely to the subjective.
Thus Caldecott concludes: “The divisions between arts and sciences, between faith and reason, between nature and grace, have a common root,” which is “a failure to understand the full scope of human reason and its true grandeur” (p. 12). Indeed, modern epistemology, being limited to empirically verifiable facts and data, suffers from a reductionism that risks the loss of knowledge itself. Caldecott seeks to forestall this by calling us back to the enchantment and grandeur of a classical vision of knowledge.
Over the course of six chapters, he navigates the way back to classical epistemology by describing the constituent elements of its cosmology. If there were an implicit refrain throughout this work, it would be that transcendent conceptions and understandings of the true, the good, and the beautiful are wedded reciprocally to and thus contingent upon a particular kind of cosmology. In other words, there is a reciprocity between how we know and what we know.
Through the Logocentric Cosmos
In chapter one, “The Tradition of the Four Ways,” Caldecott introduces the Latin quadrivium, which focused on acquainting the student with the various constituents of the logocentric order of the cosmos, namely, mathematics, geometry, music, and astronomy. He gives a historical tour of the development of the “four ways”: from Plato’s quest for unity with “the Good” to its subsequent transfiguration into a revelation of the Trinity, where the Logos is manifested in “the sphere of love” (p. 36). Trinitarian theology thus provides “an important place of integration in the arts and sciences” (p. 30).
In chapter two, “Educating the Poetic Imagination,” Caldecott explains how the order and symmetry of the cosmos constituted a divine semiotic arena that invited the human imagination to make metaphors and draw analogies between the arena of creation and divine images. At the heart of this cosmology is a micro-macro relationship between the individual human person and the larger macrocosmic world. For example, as the larger macrocosmos is constituted by a Logos, a divine order, symmetry, or ratio, so the microcosmic human person has a logos, a rationality that can discern and appreciate such a divine order.
Chapters three and four introduce the reader to the world of sacred number and geometry. The divine origin of numbers accounts for the order and symmetry of the cosmos. For example, the cosmos contains numerous binaries, such as God/man, heaven/earth, good/evil, life/death, hot/cold, man/woman, and light/darkness, which can be numerically represented by the numbers 1 and 0, which together make the number 10, the Decad, representing the cosmos as a whole. The cosmic significance of 10 entails the importance of the numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4, together comprising the so-called tetraktys (below), which not only add up to 10, but also account for the four mathematical dimensions (point, line, plane, and solid) and the four elements that make up the cosmos (earth, air, fire, and water).
Caldecott further sees mathematics as a means of contemplating the nature and being of God. He observes, for example, that “every natural number is a multiple of 1. But 1 multiplied or divided by 1 is 1. This makes 1 x 1 / 1 a kind of arithmetical ‘icon’ of the Trinity” (pp. 75–76).
Chapter five reflects on the Pythagorean concept of the music of the spheres. Pythagoras believed that number was the key to the universe, so when he discovered that musical pitches constituted exact numerical ratios, he concluded that the cosmos was indeed held together by music. Through knowledge of these ratios, heavenly music could in fact be reproduced on earth and thus transform human beings into heavenly beings. The sacred spheres further inspired architecture and led to the creation of buildings that reflected the sanctity of the space they filled.
Caldecott’s emphasis on music, architecture, and astronomy culminates in his last chapter, “The Liturgical Consummation of Cosmology,” where he faults modernity for desacralizing the world and thus undermining the foundation for prayer. Prayer, as the breath of the soul, is vital to our humanity. Prayer is our response to the sacred, and by turning us away from ourselves and toward God, prayer frees us to consider the needs of others as more important than our own.
The corporate expression of this vertical and horizontal reorientation is embodied in liturgy. Liturgy reconstitutes space and time according to the micro-macro relationships inherent in the cosmic order, and this enables the worshiper to commune with the beauty of the cosmic order while at the same time realizing that order in its liturgical embodiment. For example, for centuries churches were constructed to face east, so that the ascent of human words and song in worship would parallel the rising of the sun, with both cathedral and creation praising God together in anticipation of the new creation. Hence, liturgy is cosmology in its fullest micro-macrocosmic expression.
While Caldecott considers Beauty for Truth’s Sake a manifesto on the recovery of meaning, the book actually turns out to be more a primer on classical epistemology. He clearly demonstrates how the art, architecture, music, science, and mathematics that constituted the cultural life of Western civilization were inextricably linked to the constituent elements of a logocentric cosmos manifested palpably and explicitly in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. Caldecott thus provides his readers with frames of reference that awaken them to a world full of wonder and awe, and so resets them securely back on a shared journey toward the eschatological consummation of all things.
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“Knowledge Revival” first appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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