Why Beauty? The Splendor of Truth

Why Beauty? The Splendor of Truth

Is beauty important? Why does it even exist in the first place? Everyone has a definition of beauty, and they are all different: A beautiful body, a beautiful painting, a beautiful sunset. It captivates and arrests the gaze. Beauty shines through the whole universe. When confronted by true beauty, one cannot turn away one’s eyes. We aspire to be beautiful so people will love us. It captivates all the senses, the soul and the spirit.

Maybe the question is not “what is beauty,” but “why is beauty?” Why is it any use to us at all? How do we know it? As Freemasons, we are taught that Beauty adorns all great and important undertakings. Beauty in the arts gives pleasure through inspiration. A gentle obsession with beauty is a source of much in our lives. Let us muse together on beauty.

How does one decide if something is beautiful or not? The Greek philosophers Socrates and Plato are said to have been the first who tried to define beauty. They thought that an object is inherently beautiful. Other philosophers argued that beauty is subjective. Beauty is not the quality of the object but it is an experience of our own, thus the popular phrase, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” For example, after seeing a starry sky, a gorgeous painting, or a mystical rainbow, a person may feel wonder and awe by the beauty in it. But not everyone may feel the same way about those same things.

Is beauty objective or subjective? Does our perception of beauty define us?

Plato’s Ladder

Plato uses the symbol of a ladder to show different levels of beauty in his dialogue in The Symposium. Each rung of the ladder gives a different perspective. On the first step or level, a person loves a body, and then all bodies. By the third step, he relates to the beauty of souls over that of bodies. This leads to the love of laws and institutions, leading to the love of certain types of knowledge. It ends in the pursuit of knowledge, or the love of wisdom. Upon reaching this, the person will see Beauty in its purest form or Beauty itself.8154643392_20cf304518_z

Step 1 – A beautiful Body
Step 2 – All beautiful Bodies
Step 3 – Beautiful Souls
Step 4 – Beautiful Laws, Institutions
Step 5 – Beautiful Knowledge
Step 6 – Beauty Itself

Looking at this it seems that beauty is not just about pretty things, but it’s something much deeper and vaster. It involves some sort of process of transformation. There is a saying In Italian, “bello da morire” which means “beautiful to die for.” The presence of beauty creates the possibility for a shift in us. If we change too much, we die of our old selves. According to philosopher David Hume, “Beauty is no quality in things themselves. It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty.”

I think that beauty is like love in that it is one of those big realities in our life. Our relationships may be complex and at times contradictory and difficult. For example, we know that someone who looks traditionally very beautiful could be very dreadful indeed.

Ultimately, we face a paradox. Beauty may be important because it has strength and the power to transform us. But there are parts of us that resist that; we are attached to our old images of ourselves, old dogmas, and habits, and therefore, we prefer not to let in too much to beauty. It can be dismissed or ignored, and life goes on anyway in quiet desperation.

Do we even dare climb the ladder to this ineffable beauty? Plato said that beauty is truth. For example, if a statement is true it will also be beautiful. But there is even a problem 3913221135_a6918bf8cf_zwith this. We might see a statement that is beautiful to us, yet if we test it we find out it is not true. Beauty is a very complicated relationship.

Beauty in Freemasonry

In Freemasonry, we learn the concept of beauty cannot only be of a material beauty. If we go deep enough we will indeed find out that beauty is the splendor of truth. Inner beauty is goodness, and inner goodness is beauty. At some point, comes a decision to tread the way and be a better person. Embracing beauty helps with that.

Plotinus, one of the most influential philosophers in the ancient world, talks about fostering an inner vision:

Cut away that which is superfluous, straighten that which is crooked, purify that which is obscure: labor to make all bright, and never cease to fashion your statue until there shall shine out upon you the godlike splendor of virtue, until you behold temperance established in purity in her holy shrine.

By making “crooked things straight,” it seems that we can begin to experience a portion of those beautiful truths. Raise your consciousness and beauty will unfold before you. Attending a beautiful masonic ceremony or engaging in the creative arts can be enlightening and so can eating a box of chocolates. Divine!

I recently was listening to an interview by the late poet John O’Donahue. Something in his words and in his haunting deep Irish voice touched my soul ever so beautifully. I closed my eyes to as if to pay homage to the gods of poetry and philosophy. It was one of those rare encounters with beauty. We have all had them. In a moment of sublime Beauty, we are all rendered speechless. Beauty is ineffable. Why Beauty? It conveys something Divine that book knowledge doesn’t. Beauty gives way to contemplation. Admittedly, the very heart of Beauty cannot be captured in words.

Beauty does not linger, it only visits.
Yet beauty’s visitation affects us and invites us into its rhythm,
it calls us to feel, think, and act beautifully in the world:
to create and live a life that awakens the Beautiful.

– John O’Donahue     

 

The Quadrivium

The Quadrivium

What scholars call the “foundation of Liberal Arts” – the Trivium – is taught in order that one may expand to other subjects, building upon the skills learned. These subjects have been varied over time, based on the philosopher teaching them but they are now generally accepted as mathematics, geometry, music, and astronomy – the Quadrivium. While these subjects were taught by ancient philosophers (Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, etc.), they became “the Quadrivium” in the Middle Ages in Western Europe, after Boethius or Cassiodorus had a go at translation.

(Encyclopedia Britannica has an excellent article on Mathematics in the Middle Ages, which discusses the Quadrivium briefly.)

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (usually known simply as Boethius) (c. 480 – 525) was a 6th Century Roman Christian philosopher of the late Roman period. Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator (c. 485 – c. 585), commonly known as Cassiodorus, was a Roman statesman and writer, serving in the administration of Theoderic the Great, king of the Ostrogoths.  The former, Boethius, did a great deal to translate most of the ancient philosophers from Greek to Latin. Many of his works on Aristotle were foundational learning in the Middle Ages. Cassiodorus made education his life’s passion, particularly the liberal arts, and worked diligently to ensure classical literature was at the heart of Medieval learning. Both men have been credited with coining the term “Quadrivium,” or “where four roads meet.” Adding to the mix of Medieval education “influencers” is Proclus Lycaeus, one of the last classical philosophers and an ardent translator of Plato. He is considered one of the founding “fathers” of neoplatonism and had a great influence on Medieval education as well. His translations of Plato are peppered with his own ideas of education and philosophy. One of his most interesting books, considered a major work, is “The Platonic Theology.”

sevenLA1For the serious student of the classics, all of these philosophers, in their original Greek or Latin (with English translations alongside the original) can be found in the Loeb Classical Library series. Many used book stores, especially near universities, carry these books and they can be had for about 10$ each. There are hundreds of books but all are quite good as original references (See NOTE below) Back to the Quadrivium…

While many see the Trivium and Quadrivium as “separate,” I think this is a manufacture of our modern educational system. The Trivium are the basics for communicating thought, generating ideas, and conveying those thoughts clearly; yet, like Freemasonry, I don’t know that you would have jumped completely away from your foundations. Plato, in The Republic, does note that the quadrivium subjects, as identified above, should be taught separately. The Pythagorean School divided the subjects up between quantity (mathematics and harmonics, or otherwise known as music) and magnitude (geometry, cosmology or astronomy.) Personally, I find it difficult to talk about music without first having at least fundamental mathematics and exploring both together makes sense. I have not delved into the curriculum of the universities of the Middle Ages in Europe but if someone else has, it would be interesting to hear about it. sevenliberalarts

What I find most fascinating about the art surrounding the Quadrivium (and the Trivium, for that matter) is that nearly all of the plates, pictures, or engravings represent the subject matter as female or feminine. Perhaps it has to do with the receptive qualities of studiousness, or the idea of fecundity or maybe gentleness; whatever the reason, many of the Medieval and Renaissance European depictions show all subjects with a feminine demeanor. Since nearly all scholars in the middle ages in Europe were men, perhaps it was simply a bleed-over of the Medieval ideal of women. I am sure this is another subject for another time.

On an additional side note, I searched for representations of the Quadrivium and Trivium in Islamic art, also knowing full well that Islam is aniconistic. Islam really had begun to gain ground at the last part of the classical period in North Africa & Europe and as such did not really experience the same type of “downfall” or Dark Ages, that Europe did. The schools of Islam continued to develop the subjects of the quadrivium and trivium uninterrupted until Europe “caught up.” In fact, many of the mathematics, geometry, and astronomy texts of the latter Middle Ages were translated from Greek to Syriac Aramaic or from Arabic to Latin, and later taught in Latin universities in Europe.  Suffice to say that Islam did have an impact of the learning of the West, probably much more than most people today are aware.

So, why would the Freemason study the Quadrivium? The answer, to me, is obvious. If the one of the primary studies we must take on is Geometry, we need to understand how number fits into this process. We need Mathematics to understand Geometry, and Music to understand relationship of numbers, working in harmony. Astronomy teaches us our place in universe, and allows us to expand our knowledge of our own earth toward the heavens. Geometry, or the study of the measurement of the earth, is far more than the squares and triangle theorems we all know…and love. It’s about how to apply these numbers to the world around us. As we will see in each of the subjects, they can be taken for their base modern “ideas” or we can expand and overlap them, apply them to the natural world, and thereby become better caretakers of not only the earth we live on but the beings who live on it with us. The idea of a Renaissance Man is one who is well-versed in these foundations and has ideas that expand the world around us. They make the world a better place to live in, now and for the future. The Freemason, to me, embodies this idea completely.

Next stop, the subjects of the Quadrivium. Thank you for joining me!


NOTE For those interested in more of the Loeb Classical Library, but limited access to purchase these books, Harvard University Press has been working to put them online. The link is here: http://www.hup.harvard.edu/features/loeb/digital.html.

Individuals can subscribe for a yearly cost, with subsequent years being cheaper, and non-profits can also subscribe for a reduced cost. If you are a serious researcher and you would like primary sources, this library is an excellent resource.

The Seven Liberal Arts – The Trivium

The Seven Liberal Arts – The Trivium

There is a real affinity for the goals of Freemasonry and the Seven Liberal Arts. From earliest teachings, we see that they are the foundation of many degree rites, the first of which is the FellowCraft Degree. To understand why this is, I think we must first understand the structure of the Seven Liberal Arts and what their history is.

The Liberal Arts have been, from antiquity, been the foundation stone upon which knowledge of the natural world rests. The seven liberal arts have been utilized since ancient Greece. Plato and Pythagoras were first in codifying their importance; the flowering of our western understanding of the liberal arts took place in medieval education systems, where they were categorized into the Trivium and the Quadrivium. Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric are the Trivium, and Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy are the Quadrivium. The Trivium combines the use of the senses with knowledge to lay the foundation for further study. The Quadrivium was considered to be the higher level education for the philosopher, and employed the use of the Trivium to be able to compose higher ideas and thereby, expand the knowledge of the human condition.

Freemasons the world over have expounded on the Seven Liberal Arts ad infinitum. All you need to do is search Freemasonry and Seven Liberal Arts, and you get a great deal of regurgitated drivel. That is not what I am striving to do in this next series. Here, my goal is to simply explain why the Seven Liberal Arts seem to have a kinship with Freemasonry, and perhaps provide small examples of each – withsevenliberalarts and without a Freemasonic connection. It’s up to you, the reader, to decide what you’d like to do with the information.

Plato’s Dialogues explain the curriculum outlined in detail and for any serious student of liberal arts, Plato is required reading. I, therefore, will not relate these concepts here. Suffice to say that the study of the Liberal Arts is more of a study of knowledge than it is of any specific actual data and information. As we may have learned by now, knowledge without application is dead and useless. Knowledge in the pursuit of higher ideals and higher ideas is more valuable than… than… well, you get the idea. Remember, one of the goals of Freemasonry is to better the human condition while standing up in defiance of falsehood, ignorance, and hatred. How do we do that if we are not searching to better our communication and knowledge, and the ways to bring both to life?

The Trivium is, as I said above, the foundation stone of the Seven Liberal Arts and really provides us the method and ability to communicate. It is composed of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric.

  • Grammar: Knowledge and Learning of Language
  • Logic: Reasoning, Questioning, and Thinking with Language
  • Rhetoric: Directing, moving, and Persuading using Language

While these all seem to be in relation to language, they are much more than language. They are the skills involved in achieving these ends. Therefore, the study of Grammar is also the study of history, geography, reading, and writing. It is basic, absolutely, but more encompassing than simply learning one’s ABCs and how to put pen on paper and write. Logic is about how we learn – we use our senses to experience, put our minds to thought, question, and experiment. We learn to ask the correct questions to achieve the answers we seek. They are not provided to us – we must seek them out and test for ourselves. Finally, rhetoric is the ability to take what we have learned with grammar and dialectic and put them firmly into the hands of an audience we are attempting to persuade. Rhetoric uses emotional discourse, thoughtfully created and properly applied, to communicate new ideas.

If it is not clear to the Freemason now why at least the Trivium is not important, one might want to question what they have actually learned while being a Freemason. Many may think that Freemasonry is all about enlightenment, walking in squares, or religious meanings. It might be those things to some but I think the true goals of Freemasonry are to provide a framework of how to be in the world, to make that world better for those that follow us but more importantly, for our own betterment. We cannot communicate lofty ideals via ritual alone – we need to be able to express what we have learned to a wider audience, to bring new thoughts to a wider world. To me, when we talk about service to the world, there is no greater service than being a hand-up to the betterment of the human condition and we do that by “teaching a man how to fish.” Study of the Liberal Arts is by one means to catch that “fish.”

Hortus_Deliciarum,_Die_Philosophie_mit_den_sieben_freien_Künsten

The Lego Movie: The Master Builders and Freemasonry

The Lego Movie: The Master Builders and Freemasonry

Every once in a while a movie comes along that is so rich in symbolism and allegory that its message can be applied almost universally. In 2014, Warner Bros. Pictures released the computer animated “The Lego Movie,” which received widespread critical acclaim for its humor, visual style, voice acting, and positive message. Co-written by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, “The Lego Movie” tells the story of Emmet, an ordinary Lego construction mini-figure who, aided by a team of Master Builders, fulfils a prophecy to save the universe from the tyrannical Lord Business.

The Master Builder’s Prophecy

Described as a children’s version of “The Matrix,” the “The Lego Movie” is set within the Lego universe where a group of Master Builders are fighting to protect the realm from the nefarious Lord Business. Led by the wizard Vitruvius, the Master Builders wthe_prophecyork to keep the “Kragle,” a secret super weapon, out of the hands of Lord Business who devises to use the weapon to freeze the subjects of the Lego world. When Vitruvius is thwarted in hand to hand combat, he prophesies that one day a person will find the Piece of Resistance and save the universe.

One day, a talented lass or fellow, A special one with face of yellow, will make the Piece of Resistance found from its hidden refuge underground.

And with a noble army at the helm, This Master Builder will thwart the Kragle and save the realm, and be the greatest, most interesting, most important person of all times. All this is true, because it rhymes. – Vitruvius

The Hero Emmet

Moving the narrative forward eight years, Emmet Brickowski enters the scene laboring as a contented construction worker in the heavily commercialized town of Bricksburg. Perfectly obeying his instructions, he cheers for the local sports team, listens to pop music, eats at chain restaurants, and drinks overpriced coffee. Subliminally craving escape from this monotony, Emmet must first learn that his soul is being crushed before he can summon the inner strength to do something about it.

The Lego MovieAt his construction site, Emmet comes across one of the Master Builders: a woman named Wyldstyle. Falling down a hole, Emmet finds and touches the Piece of Resistance, whereby he experiences visions and passes out. Awakening in Police Custody, Emmet is shocked to find the Piece of Resistance attached to him.

The Villain: Lord Business and his Weapon of Choice

During his interrogation from Bad Cop, Emmet learns of Lord Business’ diabolical plans to freeze the world with the “Kragle,” i.e. a tube of Krazy Glue with a partially rubbed off label. Business seeks world domination and operates a successful business that creates music, TV shows, surveillance systems, history books and voting machines, in addition to all dairy products and coffee.

Training to be a Master Builder

Believing Emmet to be “The Special” from the prophecy, Wyldstyle compellingly states, “Come with me if you want to not die” and praises him for pretending to be “a useless nobody.” While rescuing Emmet and taking him to Vitruvius, Wyldstyle informs him that he actually lives in a Multiverse that includes many parallel universes including his own, Bricksburg. He finds out that Vitruvius and Wyldstyle are Master Builders, a team of individuals capable of building anything they need without instruction manuals.

Disappointed to discover Emmet is not a Master Builder, Wyldstyle and Vitruvius are convinced of his potential when he explains his vision and belief of a deity he refers to as “the Man Upstairs.” Similar to Morpheus from the Matrix film, Vitruvius believes in Emmet and counsels him to let go and follow his instincts. Vitruvius instructs Emmet that the key to being a true Master Builder is to believe in yourself and follow your own set of instructions inside your head.

The trio then evade Bad Cop’s forces, meet with a council of Master builders, escape a dying world, and devise a plan to infiltrate Business’ headquarters and disarm the Kragle. Unfortunately during the attack, Emmet and the Master Builders are captured and imprisoned. Although killed by Lord Business, Vitruvius reveals he invented the prophecy but informs Emmet that it his self-belief that makes him the Special. Believing himself to be Special, he flings himself off the edge of the tower while strapped to a self-destructing mechanism.  Thus, Emmet saves the Master Builders and the universe, fulfilling the prophecy. Inspired by Emmet’s sacrifice, Wyldstyle issues a rallying cry to all the people to use their creativity to build and stop Lord Business.

The Real World

After his self-sacrifice, the lego figurine, Emmet, finds himself in the real world: a Lego filled basement of a house. The father, “the Man Upstairs,” reprimands his son for ruining his Lego sets by not following the instructions, deconstructing parts, and interchanging pieces from different set. Thus, the Father represeLegoBasementnts “Order” and the son represents “Chaos,” which ultimately represent a dichotomy that need each other to exist. Angered by the changes to his world, the Father proceeds to use Krazy Glue, i.e. the “Kragle,” to permanently lock his perceived perfect creation. Realizing the danger, Emmet wills himself to move and gains the son’s attention. The son picks up Emmet and returns him to the set, where he now possesses the powers of a Master Builder and confronts Lord Business.

Looking at his son’s creations, the Father realizes that he was his son’s inspiration for the evil Lord Business. Through a speech Emmet gives Business, the son tells his father that he is special and has the power to change everything. Father and son reconciling “above,” plays out “below” as Lord Business having a change of heart, capping the “Kragle” with the cap to the Superglue, i.e. the “Piece of Resistance” and using a solvent to unglue the Lego world.

The Masonic Message: The Role of Truth

While the use of “Master Builders” within the Lego Movie is an obvious nod to Freemasonry, the movie is also full of Masonic symbolism in the themes of teamwork, self-improvement, and service to all of humanity. Like Emmet, we are all special and capable of amazing things if we have the will to try.  Freemasonry rejects dogmatic teaching and helps the individual to learn to think for themselves.Emet-Truth

The film also contains many esoteric references including the hermetic principle of “As above, so below.” Everything that happens in the superior world of the real world basement is reflected in the inferior Lego world. Moreover, the movie contains references to the Kabbalah. According to Jewish tradition, one name of YHVH, the God of the Bible, is Emet, which means truth. Emet is spelled with an Aleph, Mem and Tav: the first, middle and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

Ironically, the movie also asks the audience to consider what illusions are keeping them from their goals, including the siren song of materialism. The writers deftly hint at the philosophy of Karl Marx,  “to call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.” In the Allegory of the Cave, the Philosopher Plato also describes our world as a world of illusion. In the movie, the Lego universe represents the world of shadows, or the Cave. In order to perceive the real world, Emmet follows his inner truth through spiritual perception, which ultimately leads him to divine enlightenment, i.e. experiencing the real world of the basement.