A Tryst with the Transcendentalists

The following is an excerpt from A Tryst with the Transcendentals: C. S. Lewis on Beauty, Truth, and Goodness By Donald Williams

Click here to return to Dr. Williams’ About page.

This paper does not claim to have proved from the phenomenon of beauty that God exists or that Jesus is His Son. Many more factors go into the decision whether or not to believe those propositions than we were able to address here. What it does try to do is to elucidate one aspect of C. S. Lewis’s testimony, his personal witness to the existence of that God. One way of testing our beliefs is to see if they hold up when we try to live by them. Another way is by their fruitfulness, i.e., the fact that they lead to further insights that are also confirmed by life. Lewis found that his conversion to Christianity solved for him certain problems of aesthetics that the Romantic poets were unable to solve, and that what Carnell aptly calls the “Christian ontology” was the key to that solution. Lewis’s experience was that at these points his life tended to confirm his Christian faith, and his writings give his testimony to that confirmation.

The Romantics cared about beauty but lacked a sufficient grounding for it to make it fully meaningful. Wordsworth found that it slipped through his fingers, and Keats ultimately failed to make its relationship to truth anything more than wishful thinking. Lewis discovered that his conversion to Christian faith had the effect of making beauty a Second Thing. “Lewis cautioned that beauty was the sign and not the signifier and that to make it a ‘first thing’ was to crush and lose it” (Prothero 94). Making beauty secondary to God ironically exalts beauty rather than erasing it because it enables us not only to believe in God but also in the ultimate goodness of “a world which God has inseminated with all sorts of realities that carry their hidden winsome reminders of Himself” (Kilby, World 41).

Lewis also realized that this move of making beauty a Second Thing ironically not only led to the preservation of his experience of beauty but also to an understanding of it that makes Keats’ affirmation of its relation to truth meaningful. We want Keats to be right; we want beauty to be more than just a subjective appearance. As Kilby says, we do not want “truth and beauty, or truth decorated with beauty, or truth illustrated by the beautiful phrase, or truth in a ‘beautiful setting’” (Aesthetics 20). We want something more whole than that. But how can we find it?

Lewis’s stress on the objectivity of beauty hints at its relation to truth, and his defense of its objectivity in The Abolition of Man is explicitly related to the objectivity of goodness and truth as well. The unity of beauty, truth, and goodness cannot be found within the horizon of temporal experience, i.e., in Nature, but only in God. Finite Nature is a prism that breaks up the light of the infinite God into the distinguished Transcendentals. Only when we see that can we see Von Balthasar’s wonderful vision in which “Beauty . . . dances as an uncontained [sic] splendour around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another” (18). If truth is the reflection of God’s mind, goodness of His character, and beauty of His glory in the world He has made, then any of them can led us back to the Source. Lewis learned, and can teach us, to follow all three paths.

Click here to return to Dr. Williams’ About page.


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