What is True, is Beautiful: What’s Behind The Fenwick Review’s New Motto

Steven Merola ’16, Co-Editor Emeritus

The motto of this journal was once the Latin phrase quae nocent, docent – what harms, instructs – and its acerbic veracity reflected well the Review’s predilection for tough love. Then for one issue (November 2012) it was changed to the less blunt but equally strong Ciceronian aphorism “If we are not ashamed to think it, we should not be ashamed to say it.” For whatever reason, however, that quotation never again appeared as the journal’s maxim. “To give witness to the truth” (testimonium perhibere veritati) stayed for a few issues three semesters ago, but after that the paper was left without any pithy prescription to adorn its front page.

But as any observer of this edition’s front page can observe, the year-long dearth of dicta has come to an end. We have chosen for our motto three Latin words which contain elements of the above three phrases (essentially, the need for the truth) and add to them a description of the nature of that truth. It is simply, quod verum, pulchrum – what is true, is beautiful.

In his treatise on moral obligations, Cicero (by no means the first to see the relation between truth and beauty) expounds on the concept of decorum. In his context, this Latin word refers not to its modern connotation of seemly behavior, but rather expresses the idea of propriety and rightness. Decorum is the ideal but attainable form that a thing possesses, to which it aspires and away from which it is imperfect. In short, it is the truth in which an entity is called to participate fully. And Cicero argues that someone or something which has attained this true form is beautiful for having attained it. We perceive things that exist rightly as expressing an inherent pulchritude and lacking that decorum we apprehend them in their deformity. Beauty, then, is the experience of truth.

Cicero’s observation (if we think it accurate) necessarily points us to a larger question: why does truth have an inherent aesthetic appeal? Why does it follow that, if something is what it ought to be, it must be beautiful? Cicero’s own answer to this question is that the relation is accidental. His descriptions of the decorum-beauty reality seem only to say that it is simply the nature of things for it to be so. And so, although his exploration of this relation provides us insight into its unfolding within nature, we are still left to ask whether there is any grounding to that relation at all.

In an effort to discover this grounding, we should begin by trying to pin down what we mean by “beauty.” As St. Augustine observed about time, we all seem to know what beauty is until asked to define it. And although we cannot deny that the Sanctus of Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli or the coming New England autumn, for example, possess the rapturous and delightful quality we call beautiful, the reason two things as disparate as the October florae and a Renaissance Mass should evoke (ultimately) the same ineffable experience remains mysterious. Yet when we consider the beauty that nature or music effect, we can acknowledge that this beauty is utterly gratuitous; it need not be. As (among others) theologian David Hart has argued, beauty is an end unto itself. It is not ordered toward any one end, as most other things are, but simply exists to exist. It is a gift we are delighted to receive amidst our participation in reality. But although beauty is a gift, we would be foolish not to acknowledge that without beauty our experience of reality would be severely lacking – indeed, entirely different. In Hart’s words, “the beautiful presents itself to us as an entirely unwarranted, unnecessary, and yet marvelously fitting gift.”

With this understanding in mind, we proceed to a modified form of our original question: if something is true, and for that reason beautiful, does truth express the same gratuity its aesthetic appeal portends? If we are to understand truth as a gift, we are led to contemplate the idea of creation. All that exists exists solely because it participates in the transcendent reality of its Creator. Creation is the temporal unfolding of the eternal logos, and as such finds its source and sustenance in a reality both eternally beyond and wholly immanent to itself. In short, being as we know it is only so by the grace of the ineffable Godhead. Truth is an unwarranted, unnecessary, and yet marvelously fitting gift, and by virtue of that givenness is inherently beautiful.

Yet because of the gift of revelation, we can delve even further into this transcendent understanding of beauty and truth. For as Christians we confess belief in the Trinity, a God who is one in being and three in personhood. The three persons neither divide the Godhead nor are confused among themselves, but rather the Son and the Holy Spirit eternally proceed from the Father, and, though not created, are begotten by Him through all eternity. Though we cannot say that the persons of the Trinity are unnecessary as we are, we can nonetheless see that the pattern of the divine life is one of eternal and necessary gift and thus eternally beautiful. Since we, therefore, exist in a reality whose source and sustenance is this same divine giving, our truth is a temporal reflection of that eternal outpouring of love. The beauty of the Trinity is our origin and the end for which we are made.

To answer the question prompted by Cicero’s initial observation, then, truth is beautiful by virtue of its givenness as creation and its participation in the Trinity.

Though I cannot adequately treat these matters in a mere editorial (or in any capacity, for that matter), I hope I have at least made clear some of the logic behind The Fenwick Review’s new motto. Our past mottos (and indeed our mission as an independent journal) have always expressed a striving towards and defense of the Truth.  Those who write for the Review are often at odds with the predominant animus at Holy Cross, and as such have been made to endure ridicule, vehement opposition, and even the accusation of being hateful. Nonetheless, our hope is simply to give witness to what is true and to turn from what is false. And our new motto should serve as a reminder that regard for the truth is not hateful. It is just the opposite; to pursue the truth is to pursue the ultimate, ineffable beauty toward which we aspire and to which, from all eternity, we have been called.