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Language of Beauty part 2: Beauty and Goodness


This brings us to a second aspect of beauty that's related but quite different, namely, the relation between beauty and goodness.

aatolkienJ. R. R. Tolkien

Both of these words have narrowed in modern times, so that it's much more of a stretch to make the connection than it used to be. Goodness has narrowed to moral goodness, and moral goodness has in turned narrowed to duty in a Kantian sort of way. Beauty, on the other hand, has narrowed to a certain department of life, the arts, or aesthetics (most primitive cultures don't have a word for art; everything is art), and beauty is purely emotional, that which produces certain reactions. But if you go back to Greek, there is a word that does not exist in the English language, the word kalon, which means both "good" and "beautiful" at the same time, and it's specified by another word, kaiagathon, or k'agathon, which is a contraction of to kalon kai to agathon, "the good and the beautiful". Great marriage.

Well, this marriage of the good and the beautiful, which you have in ancient languages and ancient cultures, was lost. Look at even the architecture of beauty – I don't mean the beauty of architecture, I mean the architecture that culturally expresses a culture's attitude towards beauty. In ancient Athens, if you were a great poet, and you won the competition, you would live in the town hall for life and be fed free. The relationship between the poet and society is incredibly different. Poets in ancient Greece spoke for everyone, or for the gods, to everyone. Poets in our society speak only to other poets and a few groupies, and they're almost always revolutionaries.

That cultural fact is an expression of a deeper psychological or spiritual fact, namely, that beauty and goodness have become divorced. Moral goodness has become drab and unbeautiful, and beauty has become morally dangerous. Edmund Spenser could still woo the readers of his age by imagining virtue as a beautiful woman, but only a century later, Milton could not make the people of our age love his God more than his Satan.

Tolkien bewailed both the ugliness of his age and its separation between the good and the beautiful in the essay on fairy stories. He says, "Ours as an age of improved means to deteriorated ends." That's something I think of every time I go to an airport. There's only one airport; it's cloned, very efficient, very ugly and you almost feel like a clone as you pass through the airports. You become just another piece of furniture, and we can get just as far as we want to go very quickly and very efficiently, but there's nothing there. Sometime I think the pilot's going to say to the passengers, 'We have good news and bad news; the good news is that we're proceeding very efficiently at 700 miles an hour; the bad news is that we don't know where we are.'"

Tolkien says, "It is a part of the essential malady of [our] days – producing the desire to escape, not indeed from life, but from our present time and self-made misery – that we are acutely conscious both of the ugliness of our works, and of their evil. So that to us evil and ugliness seem indissolubly allied. We find it difficult to conceive of evil and beauty together. The fear of the beautiful fay [the dangerous fairy] that ran through elder ages almost eludes our grasp. Even more alarming: goodness is itself bereft of its proper beauty." [1] Notice he almost contradicts himself here. "We find it difficult to conceive of evil and beauty together," but we should, and more alarming, "we find it difficult to conceive of goodness and beauty together," but we should.

In the realm of faerie, one can indeed conceive of an ogre who possesses a castle hideous as a nightmare, for the evil of the ogre wills it so. But one cannot conceive of a house built with a good purpose – an inn, a hostel for travellers, the hall of a virtuous and noble king – that is yet sickeningly ugly. That can't exist in myth, in fairy tales. But at the present day, it would be rash to hope to see one that was not, unless it was built before our time.

If you sacrifice morality for beauty, you'll lose beauty. If you sacrifice beauty for efficiency, you'll lose efficiency.

I wonder whether this contrast is just in modern culture or in all cultures, and in the very nature of things. I think half of it is: the connection between evil and beauty. I think at all times and places, the beauty of a Helen of Troy or of a Cleopatra has lured men to destruction, and a beautiful face can at any time mask an ugly soul. And there've always been beautiful but wicked queens, like the White Witch in Narnia, or the Snow Queen in Hans Christian Andersen. And also there's always been the reverse, like Strider, who seems foul, yet feels fair. Like all the prophets, like the hick town of Nazareth, and the cold, dirty old stable in Bethlehem. And Calvary. God sends his best gifts in ugly wrappings. But they're not really ugly. I would argue that the most beautiful movie ever made is Mel Gibson's The Passion, which is also the ugliest.

But the contrast between the good and the beautiful, I think, is not in the nature of things, but only in a fallen world. Only in a fallen world is beauty a temptation, or as Proverbs puts it, vain. And that's only because God trains us by what C. S. Lewis calls the Principle of First and Second Things, in that great essay by that title. Putting first things first is the key to the health of second things. Beauty is a great thing, but it's a second thing. It's very good, it's a form of goodness, but it's not as good as moral goodness. So the worship of beauty for beauty's sake, or art for art's sake, will destroy not only the true worship of God, but also true art.

In The Silmarillion, a good example of this Principle of First and Second Things is the great elf Fëanor, who puts his own greatest work of art, the Silmarils, before his moral duty. He will not give up the jewels, just as in The Lord of the Rings the proud will not give up the ring. Fëanor envies the Valar, refuses his duty and his destiny, unlike Frodo. Even Niggle, Tolkien's gently self-mocking self-portrait in "Leaf by Niggle", eventually had to learn the principle that art must be put second to morality. So he put the finishing of his leaf next to the deeds to his needy neighbour, Parish. And that was the only way to attain the perfection of his art.

But even that way of putting it – put art second to morality, put beauty second to goodness – is misleading because it assumes that beauty and goodness are separate entities which by nature clash. I think that's not so; I think beauty is one of the most important forms of goodness. Beauty is very good. And goodness is the highest form of beauty. The single most beautiful thing in this world is a saint. Contrast Mother Teresa's face, one of the ugliest faces – all those wrinkles – with the face of Madonna – empty, vapid, shallow, meaningless. Mother Teresa is much more beautiful. Beauty, as well as goodness, is an attribute of God, and therefore eternal and necessary. And since God is one, beauty and goodness must be ultimately one. So beauty is good.

We need beauty, as well as we need morality, in our lives – much more important than other things, like money. If you had a choice between being a multi-billionaire and seeing ugly things around you all the time, or being very poor, but seeing something you regarded as very beautiful every time you opened your eyes, you would certainly be much happier being poor and beautiful than being rich and ugly. The reason for that is that we're made in God's image. And God is a creative artist. Tolkien's famous poem on fairy stories, about sub-creation:

Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.

We make still by the law in which we're made.[2]

That poem, by the way, was written to refute the idea of a friend of his, he says, who came up with a silly definition of poetry as "breathing lies through silver." Guess who that friend was? C. S. Lewis, before his conversion. Lewis described himself as "a converted pagan living among apostate puritans." [3] But he himself had something of a puritan streak in him, which itself was converted.

If you had the choice of going to a church where true, orthodox doctrine was taught, and true morality was preached, but everything was ugly and unattractive, or going to one where only some true, orthodox doctrine was taught, and only some true morality was preached, but was irresistibly attractive, I think you would choose the second.

Well, Lewis's Law of First and Second Things applies, certainly, to the relation of beauty and morality, above it, but it also applies to the relation between beauty and efficiency, below it. If you sacrifice morality for beauty, you'll lose beauty. If you sacrifice beauty for efficiency, you'll lose efficiency. And that's Tom Shippey's point in commenting on "The Scouring of the Shire". I would argue that the second best book ever written about The Lord of the Rings is Tom Shippey's J. R. R. Tolkien, Author of the Century. I think the first one is Stratford Caldecott's Secret Fire. Here's what Tom Shippey points out in commenting on the chapter that Peter Jackson totally omitted as "non-negotiable, impossible, we could never do it, we knew from the beginning we couldn't do it" – and there's absolutely no technological reason why he couldn't, and the obvious reason is the same reason he changed the character of Faramir: it contradicted the ideology of Hollywood: it's an attack on state socialism. Anyway, here's Tom Shippey's point, commenting on "The Scouring of the Shire" – the point is about the relationship between beauty and efficiency:

"This country wants waking up and setting to rights," says the leader of the Hobbiton Ruffians, as though he had some goal beyond mere hatred and contempt for the Shire, and … it seems to be more industrialization, efficiency, economy of effort, all things often and still wished on the population of [modern] Britain. The trouble with that (as developments after the publication of The Lord of the Rings have tended to confirm) was that the products of efficiency-drives were often not only soulless but also inefficient. Why do Sharkey's men knock down perfectly satisfactory old houses and put up in their place damp, ugly badly build standardized ones. No-one ever explains this, but the overall picture was one all too familiar to post-war Britons. The Sarumans of this world rule by deluding their followers with images of a technological paradise, but one often gets, however, as has become only more obvious since Tolkien's time, are the blasted landscapes of eastern Europe, strip-mined and polluted, even radioactive. [4]

Worship Efficiency, and the god will destroy itself as well as you.

I think beauty is the child conceived by the union of goodness and truth. Or maybe the bloom on the rose of goodness and truth. And thus, it's not only good; it's heavenly. And while beauty cannot by itself save us, or substitute for goodness or truth, contrary to Keats's famous moving but muddled sentiment that "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all you know on earth and all you need to know," yet it contributes to the salvation of the creation and of souls.

If you had the choice of going to a church where true, orthodox doctrine was taught, and true morality was preached, but everything was ugly and unattractive, or going to one where only some true, orthodox doctrine was taught, and only some true morality was preached, but was irresistibly attractive, I think you would choose the second. I think you would rightly choose the second. To fall in love with at least half of God's package deal is better than to have it all but not fall in love with it. As the poet says, in heaven, "the poets shall have flames upon their head." [5]


  1. J. R. R. Tolkien, "On Fairy-Stories", in Essays Presented to Charles Williams (London: Oxford University Press, 1947), p. 79.
  2. J. R. R. Tolkien, "Mythopoeia", in Tree and Leaf: including the poem Mythopoeia (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989), lines 61-64, 70.
  3. C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955), p. 69.
  4. Tom Shippey, J. R. R. Tolkien, Author of the Century (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002), pp. 168, 171.
  5. "Mythopoeia", line 146

Read part 1 of this talk here.
Read part 2 of this talk here.
Read part 3 of this talk here.
Read part 4 of this talk here.
Read part 5 of this talk here.



Peter Kreeft. "Language of Beauty – part 2: Beauty and Goodness." transcribed from a talk given at Trinity Forum Academy (June 6, 2005).

This talk based on ideas contained in Peter Kreeft's book The Philosophy of Tolkien.

This article is reprinted with permission from Peter Kreeft.

The Author

kreeft1kreeftPeter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College.  He is the author of many books (over forty and counting) including: Ask Peter Kreeft: The 100 Most Interesting Questions He's Ever Been AskedAncient PhilosophersMedieval PhilosophersModern PhilosophersContemporary Philosophers, Forty Reasons I Am a Catholic, Doors in the Walls of the World: Signs of Transcendence in the Human Story, Forty Reasons I Am a CatholicYou Can Understand the Bible, Fundamentals of the Faith, The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims, Prayer: The Great Conversation: Straight Answers to Tough Questions About Prayer,  Love Is Stronger Than Death, Philosophy 101 by Socrates: An Introduction to Philosophy Via Plato's Apology, A Pocket Guide to the Meaning of Life, Prayer for Beginnersand Before I Go: Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters. Peter Kreeft in on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2011 Peter Kreeft
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