Tuesday, 16 October 2018

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty." What's Not to Understand?

Writers and Company

Listening to Anne Carson and Eleanor Wachtel on Writers & Company discussing Keats's famous aphorism, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty," I was taken aback to hear both women reveal how little they appreciated what it might mean.

Wachtel: And you quote a passage from Keats before each tango or section, and it was Keats of course who wrote famously, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” How does beauty speak of truth?

Carson: I don’t think it does. I think that’s all a big mistake, but there’s so much power in believing it, and so many of the decisions of life, especially early life—with the adolescent emotions—identify those two, and think that the person who’s beautiful is also true and the feelings that come from beauty lead you to truth. I don’t believe it works out usually.

What's not to understand?

Wachtel and Carson are, of course, two of the most well-read, articulate people on the planet.  Nonetheless, this was an expression I typically taught to first-year undergrads in "Introduction to Literature"  and I struggled to understand how Carson/Wachtel's exchange could go so far astray from Keats's meaning.

Opposition to "beauty is truth"

As I re-researched the expression, I came across quite a phalanx of opposition to Keats, including T.S Eliot's claim that the lines were "meaningless" and "a serious blemish on a beautiful poem." (This from the poet who left us wondering what tahell does "Between the motion/And the act/Falls the Shadow" mean?)

What does "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" mean?

So, what does "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" mean? Beneath this aphorism is the unspoken, sub-textual question, "What is truth?" The search for an answer has gone on for as long as Sapiens have had the wherewithal to ask questions and no agreed-upon, final answer has ever been reached. The knee-jerk response to the question is the "correspondence theory." Something is true if it corresponds to reality. The problem is that there is no agreement on what constitutes "reality." We are left with the coherence theory. Something is true because it is coherent with what we already know. (For further elaboration see Does Knowledge Require Truth?) Descriptions of this theory tend to reduce it to statements which are coherent in relation to other statements; however, I adhere to an expanded notion of coherence which subsumes correspondence. For example: "John loves Mary." This statement is true if it is coherent with other statements (like John saying so) but also if it is coherent with how John behaves (he sacrifices himself for Mary's benefit, etc).

The Truth about truth

What is coherent today isn't necessarily coherent tomorrow. Truth, like beauty, is temporal, temporary, even ephemeral. We only judge as true (or false) those things that have meaning. We judge as true whatever fits with what we know. Our knowledge of truth is always limited and fragile. When we see something that has a meaning, and that meaning connects coherently with other meanings, we see it as true. We will also see it as beautiful. In this moment, beauty and truth are one, just as Keats concluded.

"Ode on a Grecian Urn"

The line is a conclusion in Keat's poem, Ode on a Grecian Urn. (Once upon a time, every junior high-school student was expected to know this poem.  Hence, the pubescent joke/pun:  Q: "What's a Greek urn?"  A: "About a buck, fifty an hour.")  

If you read the poem, about the urn's telling of an ancient story of love, faith, and art, against the idea of coherent truth, you will discover the logic of Keats's claim that, given our limitations, beauty is a good--maybe even the best--way to judge truth.


If you've read this far and are still not getting it.  Here's the argument in the form of a straightforward syllogism.  Bearing in mind that we are talking about things that have meaning:

1. We judge as beautiful those things that fit together.

2. We judge as true those things that fit together.

3. What is beautiful is true, and vice versa.


Among the opponents of "beauty is truth" we must now include the theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder.  See, for example, "Physics Isn't Pretty."

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