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.
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.
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?)
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).
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.