The Importance of Beauty in the Education of Men

beautyModern man is a utilitarian. That is to say, his view of things is concerned only with their functionality and usefulness. The idea of beauty is lost on him. Beauty, after all, has no utilitarian purpose. This makes many a modern man dangerous, for the loss of beauty in the formation of masculinity negatively affects them. The appreciation of beauty plays an important role in the education of men.

Beauty used to be an essential part of the formation of men. It was part of formal education for many centuries. A good liberal arts education helped me to appreciate poetry, journaling, art, and nature. These were not practical lessons, they were lessons in aesthetics and philosophy.  Jared Silvey, writing on this very theme of beauty in the formation of men, said:

Once upon a time in the Western world, exposure to “the beautiful” was an important element in the development and formation of men. The ideal man was also an educated man, and an educated man knew something about, and appreciated, good art, good music, good literature, and good taste (and perhaps also good wine). The Romantics of the nineteenth century added to this resume a man who had the capacity to be intoxicated by the beauty of nature. Many of the great works of art and music of that time period reflect this. Then there was the “gentleman” who valued beauty in speech and in writing, even if his language sometimes descended into a dry, mechanic artificiality. (The Role of Beauty in the Formation of Men as Men)

In previous generations men could appreciate beauty. There was no shame in writing poetry, playing harp, enjoying nature, or singing songs. But modern man has lost the taste for such impractical things. Even our educational models have an obsessive interest in career, not in cultivating well-rounded people. Today men are urged to be “masculine,” by which we mean rough and practical. They are taught to show no emotion (except anger), and waste no time. Again Silvey writes, “By contrast, today’s tech-savvy, fast-food fed, materialistic West places more emphasis on money, things, efficiency, and instant gratification, and as a result the importance formerly placed on that seemingly impractical entity referred to by dusty old philosophers, intellectuals, and artists as “the beautiful” has greatly diminished.” This disdain for the beautiful is costly.

The appreciation of beauty orients men towards a holistic view of life. Men are taught to provide, fight, work, secure and a million other things in order that they might live. We work to live, yet the reverse is also true. Many men live to work. Their efforts and energy, day in and day out are spent in survival, existence. Beauty allows us to live for something greater, something deeper. It allows us to work for something more than just survival, fight for something more than just existence, and to believe in something more than just the pragmatic. Beauty gives us a vision of life beyond the functionality. A man who appreciates beauty learns to value things as they are, not for what they may accomplish.

So, consider a man who enjoys art. A painting is impractical. It does nothing for us, puts no money in our pocket (unless you sell it), accomplishes no tasks, secures no future. It just hangs on the wall in your living room. Yet, a man who can appreciate the beauty of that painting can find great joy, delight, and comfort in it. He can come home from work and look at that painting and hope, believe, laugh, rest. Art has been part of civilized history since the dawn of humanity. We can trace cave paintings back thousands of years, and what is their purpose? They have none, only admiration and comfort.

We need only to look at the world God has made to understand that while beauty has no functional importance, it is nonetheless valuable. Leland Ryken notes:

We need only use our senses to know that God created a world that is beautiful as well as functional. From a purely utilitarian point of view, God did not have to make a world filled with beautiful colors and symmetrical forms and varied textures and harmonious sounds. What we find here is not only a functional mind at work but also an artistic imagination. The kind of world God made is a model of what artists should strive to make and what all people should delight in. The Christian doctrine of creation, therefore, affirms as good the artistic concern of both the creative artist and the audience with form, beauty, and artistry. (The Liberated Imagination, 71)

Life is about more than survival and existence, God’s creative handwork tells us that. Jesus himself says:

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? (Matthew 6:25)

Without the appreciation of beauty we develop a shallow conception of living. Living is more about surviving in a world without beauty.

This diminished view of life also leads us to view things and people for what they can do, not what they are. A purely practical world has no place for ornate architecture, poetry, and jazz. It has no place for ballet, taste, or laughter. It values only that which is useful, efficient, and productive. This is true too of the way a man will learn to value people. In a purely pragmatic world people become a means to an end. We need only think about the nature of pornography. In a rather brilliant essay Sean Fitzpatrick observes the impact of pornography on boys, noting that it robs them of wonder. He writes:

As a lie, pornography is inimical to the truth and therefore an enemy of authentic education. The reason pornography hinders a boy’s ability to accept and enjoy education is because pornography creates a barrier to wonder by numbing the sense of wonder. Without wonder, education is a crippled thing at best. Socrates taught that wonder is the beginning of wisdom, the very occasion of education, and pornography wounds the ability to wonder through the voyeuristic, shameless stripping of one of the most sacred sources of wonder. It creates desensitization to beauty, robbing boys of their innocence through the elimination of the mysteries of the heart, severely impairing their ability to be awed or find pleasure in the beautiful. Jaded spirits are not very susceptible to formation. Cynicism quickly develops as a defense. Boys are finally lost to apathy in a world that fails to titillate. (Boys, Porn and Education)

I know Fitzpatrick is right. Long-term exposure to pornography can deaden men to the world of beauty. Yet, I wonder if this is not a sword that cuts both ways. That is to say, I suspect the loss of beauty, the inability to truly appreciate it leads men to the objectification of women. They become mere objects to serve a purpose, not beautiful people to be valued, praised, and appreciated. We suffer from this loss because we can only see people for what they give us, not for who they are.

The appreciation of beauty is so vital to the formation of men as men. The silly notion that “manly men” can’t like ballet, or can’t enjoy a musical, or can’t delight in sweet tastes is a modern lie. It corrupts not just education, and not just men, but life itself. Beauty matters. It matters to God. It matters to life. It should matter to men.

 

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