I was asked recently what I thought about the nature of beauty and truth. Since these are typical questions for Philosophy, I wanted to know my presents thoughts on the matter. After a moment’s reflection, I replied that I think the experience of the present moment is all we can ever know of truth and beauty. Anything beyond these – such as the principles and ideas we abstract from experience – exist in the realm of human concepts and limitations, creating an impression of the real world which my uncle calls “the phenomenal world”.
But thinking further, my opinion has changed. It is not the present moment which holds beauty, but a capacity of the present to reveal it. It’s like looking into a mirror: you see whatever is reflected at that instant. Take the mirror aside, apart from what’s showing, and there is nothing but your own face staring back at you. Is beauty “in” the mirror? No. But it possesses a capacity to reveal it.
Then what is it that we look at? I remember seeing an old castle in Germany, which had been standing for many centuries. It was in good shape, with huge stone blocks and impressive, iron-banded doors. It presented a convincing image of strength and stability.
That perception of strength and stability is what my uncle calls the phenomenal: existing only in the momentary experience of those who perceive it (however they perceive it) – a trick of time and shape (cf. Qur’an 27:88, comparing mountains to clouds). Peel aside the glossy exterior of most buildings and likely there are veins of rot, rat warrens, insect burrows, and other things we’d rather not know about. As the veil of time is lifted – moving into a distant future – that castle is already crumbling into dust, its memory fading away until the space is only an empty field again.
That we are beings of phenomenal experience makes this perfectly okay, since we’re not asking the castle to endure forever. Or are we? The image of the castle certainly feels almost like a promise – and we want the physical object to make good on that promise. We put a certain degree of trust in it, invest some of our heart in it. We begin to have faith in it. And this is where I think we go wrong.
It’s not that the phenomenal world is a sham – any more than a mirror is a sham, though its images might still amaze – but that we buy into it, expecting it to become something more. Even if we’re told it’s just smoke and mirrors; that the whole, pretty world we know is only dust and energy in manifold forms; we still want it to end up real in the end. Because if it doesn’t, where else can we turn?
The man who stores up wealth in his bank account wants that phenomenal wealth to somehow turn into real wealth, since the phenomenal wealth of gold and dollars seems to hold a certain promise. Yet it doesn’t. Christ warned us of the easy susceptibility of mortal wealth to decay and theft. But it just feels so real and solid; can’t we believe it is?
This hoping – a faith that the mirage will become the real river – leads to a constant sense of dissatisfaction with life. It’s just never turns out “as it should”. Every generation for century after century has expected better times around the corner: religion, philosophy, science, poets, have written and dreamed that one day, the phenomenal world is going to turn around and finally become what it promised to be. In that day, decay and theft will either be gone or mitigated. If it doesn’t happen in “this life”, it’s believed to happen in some other life. But the consistent idea is that present reality just isn’t quite right, and that we’re all waiting for existence to finally get its act together.
A natural consequence of the failings of phenomenal reality to satisfy is the belief that it has failed because somehow we failed: either by being essentially unsuitable for a better reality, or having failed in the prerequisites to achieve it. The falsehood of the phenomenal becomes a criticism of our own hope in it; and this, I fear, can only lead to an condemning cycle of self-hatred. When the world itself is a constant reproof, to where can a person turn?
But I think this is a problem we’ve created for ourselves. In wishing the phenomenal to be more “real”: more enduring, permanent, grand, perfect – those eternal qualities we glimpse in the ephemeral – we’ve created a dissatisfaction which demands an answer: Why shouldn’t it be? The mind tries to resolve this flaw in the world and comes up with the idea that we screwed it up: that we didn’t get it right and must labor to right those wrongs. Religiously it becomes a perception of moral flaw; scientifically, a flaw of understanding; artistically, a flaw of technique or inspiration. The imperfections of the world around us become our imperfections in our own eyes, and this, because we believed it should have been better.
What is the real world? Plato’s “real real”? When we see past time and space, past distinction and multiplicity, what presents itself to the mind’s eye? What is it we keep wanting the phenomenal to become? The alchemists wanted to reach it, to discover the secrets of capturing the real, in order to restore the arts of perfection and ever-lasting health. They wanted to bring its quintessential nature into the human sphere so as to correct the flaws they perceived in the world around them. Who hasn’t been striving to “bridge the gap”, to reconnect the soul with the reflections of God it perceives in the mirage of life?
In some way, I think everyone is trying to bridge the phenomenal into the real, or imbue the phenomenal with its qualities. They want the facade of granite and steel to become a real building that can never fade; they want their wealth to become an unassailable quality whose value does not decay; they want their ideal to reflect truths that are as unyielding to argument as truth itself. In so many ways, we take the phenomenal to be real, and then try to patch up the weak spots so it somehow becomes the real.
In all of this there is a critical misjudgment, which I think begins with believing in the images of the phenomenal, and mistaking the forms for their essence. It’s not that any one form contains the essence, but that the essence lives by the infinity of its forms, a kind of Aristotelian home for Plato’s perfections to dwell in. It is all one masterpiece, not a broken promise. We make the errors in it that we see, by demanding something of the eye it can’t deliver: a perception of flawlessness in a world where flaw is the salt of beauty.