What kind of art is worth your time? What makes something superlative or beautiful?

Everyone asks these questions because everyone gives their time and attention to some kind of art or entertainment every day. Movies, magazines, books, podcasts, plays, television shows – art takes many forms, but in every case it demands judgment: is this worthwhile? Is this good? Should I be watching this?

There are many fine answers to these questions about art. Aesthetics is a whole field of philosophy unto itself. I confess that I’m ignorant of most of it.

But whenever I come across these lines, I have to admit that they seem to me to sum up anything I could imagine saying about the ideal of beauty:

“Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy – meditate on these things.” 

These lines come from a letter of Paul, the early Christian missionary credited with bringing Christianity to the Roman world. In this letter he’s writing to a group of early Christians in a city with a large military and imperial presence on how to be an effective counter-cultural force for good. And these are his instructions.

I don’t choose these lines because they come from a religion or a collection of writings considered so important by many (though their context definitely means something to me). I choose them because I think they’re true and nuanced and useful. In this view, beauty is not just for consumption or for entertainment. It’s also something that transforms us for the better. It’s a credit to his insight that, followed closely, this instruction would be sufficient to revolutionize a culture’s sense of beauty and its overall sense of life.

Wisdom in our aesthetic attentions is not easy to come by. But rather than giving a series of easy-to-follow rules or checklists or guidelines, Paul leaves his readers with other positive virtues as beacons. We have to find the rest of the way to beauty that transforms us.

If there is anything praiseworthy. If there is any virtue. Whatever things are true. These lines recognize that if we want to find beauty, we must seek out the good and the true in all things – including things that upon first inspection look unpromising. They also do not deny that there is a difference between noble and ignoble, virtuous and vicious, true and untrue. The truth is that – like in ourselves – beauty and ugliness often live side by side . But if the net effect of an experience is to make us more noble, virtuous, and true, there’s a good chance we experienced it as beautiful as well.

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