Ancient Greek philosophers defined beauty as seeing all things in proper proportion, which is why they often reduced it to a mathematical formula. Hence the golden ratio found in nature, architecture, and even photography. The common 8:5 photo ratio approximates the form of the golden one. Western society has lost this sense of proportion in all such areas, the most obvious being music.
The romantic poet John Keats perhaps put it best:
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty-that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
I read that as a teenage English literature student but did not quite understand its wisdom. Like many weaned in that school of literary criticism, I was taught to wring poetry of its ideas and then leave the rest, like twisting a wet cloth until all of the precious liquid was gone. We were left holding something very dry, never appreciating that the dross might have been refreshing water, intoxicating wine, or even life sustaining blood. We foolishly separated truth as a quality distinct from beauty, not realizing their innate nexus. I finally understand it now: beauty is in itself a type of truth.
Beauty in all its forms: artistic, literary, mathematical, philosophical, theological, and even corporeal, is all worthy of pursuit-so long as things are kept in balanced proportion, which is the beauty's essence. Beauty, though it can be complex, need not be; often, it is wonderfully simple.
A simple chorus of the spiritual "Old Rugged Cross" has brought more to Christ than so many ornate operatic oratorios. As wonderful as Shakespeare's sonnets are: "Shall I compare thee to a Summer's Day?", nothing compares to King David's 23rd Psalm:
"The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me
Beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of
Righteousness for his name's sake."
Truth and beauty can be so simple that we often overlook or misinterpret it. How many Christians of any sect come to the Biblical text with pre-conceived notions, and have read scripture dozens of times before finally realizing that the gift of salvation is totally free; that it does not depend upon our conduct, but instead upon our faith:
"For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is a gift of God." (Eph: 2:8)
That is spiritual truth and beauty succinctly stated in one simple verse. The heart of the Gospel, without ornamentation. Easy to understand, and yet scores of theologians and hundreds of denominations have distorted it. To quote the noted preacher J. Vernon McGee, that verse is so simple that only a theologian could screw it up-and many do.
Modern culture has no concept of beauty, but instead exalts what is ugly. Even what is disheveled can be beatific. A person in dirty overalls speaking out at a school board meeting against pornographic books being read to young children is not ugly, and may even convey a sense of heroic democratic nobility. The beauty of the female form is a positive good as an expression of the Imago Dei, so long as it is not the main characteristic of womanhood. Rather, I mean cultural ugliness, like worshipping and celebrating homosexuality, genital mutilation of confused, helpless children, or peddling demonic violence like Gangsta Rap as art.
So how do we explain this compulsion to pervert or even destroy what is beautiful?
One possible answer comes from Dr. Sigmund Freud, who was a 20th century pioneer in the field of psychiatry. In 1915 he wrote an essay about the relationship between beauty and destruction called "On Transience." Freud opens the essay with an anecdote about two friends, one of whom is a famous poet. The poet looks at the beauty all around him but is disturbed by it; hence he joylessly anticipates its eventual extinction. The poet must have remarked about how all beautiful things reach an expiration date. Freud goes on to claim that awareness of this impending extinction brings on one of three possible attitudes: first, it can cause a sort of joyless anticipation; secondly, it can bring a rebellion. This latter rebellion is not to be understood as conscious opposition but rather a sort of denial-which may be unconscious-giving rise to a defensive posture, i.e. it cannot be true, all this beauty must persist against the powers that would destroy it.
Thirdly, these denials are linked by Freud into demands for immortality, or at least an inability to confront death. Yet for Freud, the fleeting nature of present beauty does not at all diminish its joy and value, but rather increases it. Thus, here again arise three attitudes: first, there is the attitude which finds joy also in the face of that which is transient. Second, there is the poet's attitude-probably a form of denial-which believes that there is transient beauty but cannot find any joy in it. Third, there is a further denial, which is the fact of not believing that it will come to an end (hence removing the barrier of not finding joy in it). Indeed, there are many ways to deny death; even by consciously proclaiming that one cannot deny death.
Freud's position is that the joy one finds in beauty increases because of its transience:
"Limitation in the possibility of an enjoyment raises the value of the enjoyment."
It is by bringing in the perspective of time that we discover the place of a limitation. Time itself introduces a limitation to eternal beauty, placing it within its own compartment and thus giving rise to a heightened enjoyment. It is precisely because we cannot see the beauty of nature every day that we value it when it is witnessed. Freud even made certain remarks in this context that are reminiscent of what wise old King Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes:
"Each time...the beauty of Nature...is destroyed by winter it comes again next year, so that in relation to the length of our lives it can in fact be regarded as eternal."
It is the temporal nature of the seasons which increase their value for us. The symbolic power of time in this case is to demarcate moments of enjoyment, producing such moments precisely by barring them, and it is in relation to this that we must make some peace. Yet Freud also noticed that his observations and feelings were not shared by the poet and his other friend. Ergo there must be some emotional factor present which made their judgments different than his own. These are, naturally, defenses. Freud claimed that "what spoilt their enjoyment of beauty must have been a revolt in their minds against mourning."
In other words, since mourning is associated with pain, and his friends were unprepared to experience such pain, they recoiled into attitudes different than Freud's. He presents us with a theory: we are born with a certain quantity of libido which can be directed toward our own ego, our own self-presentation and self-awareness. This is a type of love, or self-love; otherwise known as primary narcissism. Later, but while we are still quite young, this libido can become directed onto objects outside of ourselves which become part of our own ego. This view of the matter explains the left's pre-occupation with sexualization of young children. The problem arises when one of these external objects is lost or destroyed, causing us to experience this also as a loss to the self. Thus, "mourning" occurs when there is a loss of the object and the ego cannot renounce that loss or find any substitute-even where one is presented.
Freud also wrote that war destroyed all beauty of the countrysides and works of art:
"It shattered our pride in the achievements of our civilization, our admiration for many philosophers and artists and our hopes of a final triumph over the differences between nations and races."
For Freud, WWI returned us to a situation of transience, to an ephemeral universe. As I write this, a new war, a cultural one, is happening outside. It seems to me that something rather different is happening in response: all of the art and beauty we once found outside of ourselves, consumed into our ego-spheres, seems to have been put out of reach. We face an enigma not easily decoded from the frameworks of our ego, a loss, a death drive, that pushes into our world and presents us again with transience. Yet in this cold new world, mourning approaches a moment of invention. New social bonds are created using the tools of civilization of which we are all so proud: the internet, fiber optics, social media and social networking platforms, digital news infrastructures, food delivery services, Bluetooth connectivity, and so on. These achievements of our civilization are reminiscent of a triumphant past and they remind us-like it or not-of the superiority of our own sublime Western civilization.
The enigma nonetheless persists. Are we able to confront the reality of having an ego able to withstand loss of the other without subsequently losing the self? The Pandemic taught us that this might be possible. In any case, post-war, Freud remarked that those who are "bereft of so many of its objects" now cling "with greater intensity to what is left to us, our love of our country, our affection for those nearest to us" and so on. It is this moment of renunciation of the old objects when a new freedom for substitution is developed. Freud wrote:
"When it has renounced everything that has been lost, then it has consumed itself, and our libido is once more free (in so far as we are still young and active) to replace the lost objects by fresh ones equally or still more precious. It is to be hoped that the same will be true of the losses caused by this war....once the mourning is over, it will be found that our high opinion of the riches of civilization has lost nothing from our discovery of their fragility. We shall build up again all that war has destroyed, and perhaps on firmer ground and more lastingly than before."
There is so much beauty in our existence. Who we are. The incredible things of which we are capable. Our ideas. Our dreams. How we connect with others, and how we raise each other up. But as we have seen, there is another side to our existence that is the very antithesis of beauty. It is not mere ugliness; rather, it is destruction. It is the act of seeking out something beautiful in order to destroy it. It is telling ourselves that we are living a life in furtherance of beauty as we burn everything to the ground with apathy, hopelessness, anger, and wounded pride.
Lately, I have been pondering why this is so. Why we can be so very destructive.
Perhaps it is because sometimes, beauty is simply insufficient. It is intrinsic to our fallen state of human nature for us to carry around a lot of pain. Moreover, because these beautiful things reflect who we are, there is often a tremendous amount of pain in the mere act of seeing ourselves truthfully. It is possible that this cycle of beauty and pain does not make any sense at all, and that might very well be the point. The experience of being human often does not make much sense, but that is all the more reason to be grateful for the existence of beauty, and even more reason not to set about destroying it. Even if it is fleeting, even if we cannot stop ourselves from annihilating it, even if it is painful beyond words to watch everything collapse. Even if we are engaged in the nihilistic act of destroying the essence of what makes life worth living.
The engine of such distortion and destruction of beauty and truth is postmodernism. It executes our traditional understanding of these concepts by punishing all those who dare to celebrate Western culture. Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Brahms are just old dead white men who likely never set eyes upon an African; but they are still racist. So much so that music students at Cambridge and Oxford can no longer learn the notational language used by those we once revered as the Great Masters. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and Dickens receive similar treatment in the literary sphere. The left never stops to count the cost of what is being lost through this declaration of war with our shared cultural past, of tearing it all down.
The method through which this distortion and destruction of beauty and truth is achieved is cancel culture.
Cancel culture is a cultural phenomenon perhaps best exemplified by the fanatical concern over pictures in Dr. Seuss books. However, its true meaning is often obscured when invoked to describe a less controversial social reaction to overt criminal behaviour. Advocates of Enlightenment values have a responsibility to detangle the web spun by social justice activism and thereby clarify the real concerns this culture represents.
Consider the following questions:
(1) What is the best way to employ the term cancel culture within a consistent conceptual framework?;
(2) What is the basis for cancel culture morality and its effect?; &
(3) How can we combat the spread of irrational cancel culture conduct?
While the phrase 'cancel culture' has popped up now and then over the past decade in social media, it seemed to gain significant traction during the 2017 MeToo# movement and is now ubiquitous. However, in understanding cancel culture, it is necessary to separate lawbreakers from the discussion. For example, Harvey Weinstein was not "cancelled"; he was instead found guilty of crimes. Hence, it is necessary to use cancel culture in a proper context to prevent it from masquerading as rational social response and accepted as a societal norm.
Proper use of the reference is especially crucial when people are "cancelled" while exercising their Constitutionally protected civil liberties but are lumped together with felons. To be sure, the divide between a convicted rapist and an alleged rapist is important. On one hand, we have proven criminally violent behaviour; on the other, we have a bald allegation that is not even criminal if it is true.
Given this well-established context and definition, let us now go on to consider the nature of this type of culture and its collateral damage.
Cancel culture is a manifestation of wokeism, defined as a progressive hypersensitive state of extreme awareness or hysterical alertness about imagined injustice from omnipresent oppression. It is also malleable, such that it accommodates almost any inequity claim by seeking remedial action to grievances while wielding an ever-expanding weaponized political toolset in the name of social justice. Wokeism and its cancel culture afterbirth therefore operate as a religious cult, beckoning comparison to Early Modern witch-hunt mobs.
Religion generally features dogma or authoritative principles considered incontrovertibly true. These generate sin lists, as can be found in Christian writings. For example, the Apostle Paul wrote letters to early churches to single out offenses for which people had to repent else they would not inherit the Kingdom of God. We need not defend this morality to grasp that-at least in the Christian context-there is an offer of redemption for transgressions. Thus, after compiling the list of sins found in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, the Apostle concludes with these words:
"And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God."
Modern woke cancel culture also demands confessions from rule-breakers; but the transcendent value of Christian redemption does not necessarily follow. The post-modernist foundations of cancel culture lend no support for any parallels to Christian forgiveness. Furthermore, those who go to great lengths to sacrifice any self-esteem or integrity they might possess, still cannot appease the woke mob. On the contrary, the cancel culture mob invariably responds to these obsequious social media apologies with scorn and rejection, thus proving Sir Winston Churchill's thesis on the politics of appeasement:
Today's cancel culture emerges from mob mentality that invents heresies on the fly, whereby indiscreet comments made as a teenager are wielded as the Sword of Domocles. The cancer spreads when, instead of administering therapy to prevent it, corporations or universities feed and facilitate the disease as the tumor metastasizes. Emboldened, the infection then reaches back to more formative years, even taking high school students to task.
Have we reached a point where we actually take satisfaction in blocking college admission based upon ill chosen words used by fourteen year-old kids? Consider also attempts to cancel historical figures, including Sir John A. MacDonald and others for their complex 19th century views, which no longer align with the elevated, modern secular morality of woke cancel culture. This extremism is evident in the toppling of statues and renaming of schools-along with complicit media-to alter facts about Canada's founding fathers and what actually happened at Indian Residential Schools.
So what then is the antidote to woke cancel culture and its assaults upon beauty and truth?
Mankind needs some guiding philosophy to live by and in the absence of a strong, coherent one, will opt for something based upon whim and driven entirely by emotion-like the negative energy of the cancel culture mob. If a mob is motivated to destroy someone's livelihood or reputation, then taking the unthinkable next step no longer seems too extreme. Consequently, we desperately need authentic leadership and courage; else cancel culture becomes more prevalent than it is already, and its pathogenic ideology spreads. Each voice for liberty, regardless of how small, shows a commitment to using our freedom of speech to combat the spread of ideologies that destroy beauty and truth.
Cancel culture cannot be justified by improper application to criminal misconduct in order to gain support for a misguided, false ideology. It is a culture devoid of a solid philosophical foundation with a core morality driven by self-righteous, narcissistic emotion. The cure can only come from a renewed commitment to preservation of beauty and truth, delivered by rational and faithful agents of free speech.