Saturday, July 17, 2004

Truth, Beauty and Goodness

I'm listening to a CD of the St. Vladimir's Seminary Choir singing the Orthodox liturgy.

I find it profoundly moving--I'm iirresistably taken by the thickness, the a cappella close harmonies and the words, which are in English. I can't understand what it would be like to be authentically secular--not to be moved by this music, or taken by the picture of glory and transcendence. I can't imagine what it would be like not to be interested, or tempted.

But what it really cashes out to is brutal, illiterate, superstitious Russian peasants living in filth with their chickens and pigs, beating their wives and conducting pograms. For them there was no beauty or hint of transcendence in this--it was nothing more than a way of making the corn grow, getting babies and good luck. God, the angels and saints were just so much machinery to promote human interests in lieu of technology.

I wonder why we should be moved by it any more than we would be moved by smoke stacks, slaughter houses, sweat shops or any of the machinery of production. Yet inexplicably it pierces to the heart and feeds our souls.

There is no free ride. Art is expensive. The money it takes to support symphonies, operas and choirs could provide medicines for people with AIDS, TB and malaria. The inevitable concomitants of romance--religion, emotion, beauty and transcendence--are poverty, superstition and bigotry. If we want the good life--comfort, health, tolerance, and security, and want everyone to have it we have to sacrifice romance. Plato was wrong about the unity of the virtues: truth is dull and the price of beauty is superstition and squalor.

I wish it were otherwise. The best we can hope is that if we're smart enough and efficient enough there will be enough left over after we get everyone fed, clothed, housed and healthy to pay for a few CDs like this and that we can afford to maintain churches as theme parks, without promoting superstition and bigotry.


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