The Fellowship: Lewis, Tolkien and The Inklings
Topic: Christian Education
- S. Lewis, Peter Kreeft, and the sequence: truth, goodness, and beauty
January 22, 2015 by Professor Jeffrey Wattles
Dr. Peter Kreeft
Scrambling at the last minute to get all the data required to submit a book proposal to an editor. They all want to know how your book compares with similar books on the market. You think you know the “competition,” but just to see if anything has appeared recently, go to amazon. Type in “truth, beauty, goodness.” Discover C. S. Lewis as Philosopher: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty (2008).
C. S. Lewis is known as a teacher of English literature, an author of fantasy, and Christian thinker; but his involvement in philosophy is little known. In his introduction to this excellent volume of essays, co-editor Jerry Walls tells the story. But his first job at Oxford was teaching philosophy; while at Oxford he was the first president (1941-54) of the Oxford Socratic Club, which debated issues dividing Christians and non-Christians, where he debated some of the leading atheists on the planet, holding his own fearlessly and superbly. “Before his conversion, Lewis sought truth, was enchanted by beauty, and aspired to goodness,” but he was torn: “The two hemispheres of my mind were in the sharpest conflict. On the one side a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow ‘rationalism.’ Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought to be grim and meaningless.” After his conversion, it was a different story indeed, expressed in his writings some of which may be described as popular philosophy. In the first essay of the book, Boston College philosopher Peter Kreeft tells of Lewis’s wisdom about truth, goodness, and beauty. “In all three, Lewis shows us seven things: first, their logic, or definition; second, their metaphysics, their objective reality; third, their theology, their divine source; fourth, their epistemology, how we know them; fifth, their practical psychology; sixth, their axiology, the ordered relationship of these values; and seventh, their mystical eschatology, their fulfillment in heaven.”
Kreeft’s essay, “Lewis’s Philosophy of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty,” I found to be breathtaking. What a delight! Here is a scholar who cares as much about living these realities as I do. One of the quirky things that philosophers can fuss over is the sequence of these values. I work with the sequence truth, beauty, and goodness; the Catholic intellectual tradition uses the sequence truth, goodness, and beauty. Kreeft has lived deeply with this sequence and has formed paths of thought and contemplation in the wake of this sequence. I understand. I have done the same with my sequence. This essay offers an outstanding opportunity to feel and understand what this sequence can mean. We can learn from different sequences. Here are some things I enjoyed in Kreeft’s essay (I do not limit myself to sequence-related thoughts).
Truth, goodness, and beauty, he writes, “are the three things we all need, and need absolutely, and know we need”; truth relates to the mind, goodness to the will, and beauty to the heart, feelings, desires, or imagination. “These are the only three things that we never get bored with, and never will, for all eternity, because they are attributes of God, and therefore of all God’s creation: three transcendental or absolutely universal properties of all reality.” Truth, goodness and beauty are called transcendentals because everything in every category participates in them to some degree.
There is a foundation in Being for the order, or sequence, of these three. “Truth is defined by Being, for truth is the effulgence of Being, the revelation of Being, the word of Being. Truth is not defined by consciousness, which conforms to Being in knowing it. Goodness is defined by truth, not by will, which is good only when it conforms to the truth of Being. And beauty is defined by goodness, objectively real goodness, not by subjective desire or pleasure or feeling or imagination, all of which should conform to it.” “Truth is good and beautiful; goodness is true and beautiful; beauty is true and good. But there is an ontological (not temporal) order: it flows from Being to truth, truth to goodness, and goodness to beauty. Truth is judged by Being, goodness by truth, and beauty by goodness.” “The most fundamental and universal of all moral principles is . . . Right Response to Reality.”
“We know all three . . . immediately and intuitively.” Authority, reason, and experience help us avoid error. According to C. S. Lewis, “all argument depends on rational intuition” . . . indubitable, or self-evident.” Lewis quotes John 7:17: “‘Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God.’ That is, there are personal and moral qualifications for knowing the truth.”
“Truth is good and beautiful; goodness is true and beautiful; beauty is true and good. But there is an ontological (not temporal) order: it flows from Being to truth, truth to goodness, and goodness to beauty. Truth is judged by Being, goodness by truth, and beauty by goodness.”
Moral duty is not duty for duty’s sake. It leads yonder, taking beauty and joy with it. So all the saints are full of joy, not of dour duty. . . . When goodness flourishes, so does beauty. . . . Lewis once wrote that holiness is irresistible; that if even 10 percent of the world population had it, the whole world would be converted and happy before the year’s end.
Here’s Kreeft’s conclusion.
Truth, goodness and beauty are “patches of Godlight” here in “Shadowlands.” Their home is Yonder. The form they will take there will dazzle us forever, for they are what God is made of. Far from being “escapism,” this gives each of us the ultimate meaning of our individual existence in this world, for (as Lewis says in that little mystical masterpiece called the “heaven” chapter in The Problem of Pain)
Each of the redeemed shall forever know and praise some one aspect of the divine beauty better than any other creature can. Why else were individuals created, but that God, loving all infinitely, should love each differently? . . . For doubtless the continually successful, yet never completed, attempt by each soul to communicate its unique vision of God to all others (and that by means whereof earthly art and philosophy are but clumsy imitations) is also among the ends for which the individual was created.
Perhaps the best news of all is the evidence that Kreeft has found in truth, goodness, and beauty a magnificent path to realize God’s love. Go to this man’s website. On the landing page you will read, “This site’s Featured Writings and Featured Audio about the ocean of God’s love are only a few thimblefuls. No—less. For God’s love is literally infinite. It is the shoreless sea we are destined to swim in, surf in, and grow in forever.”