Teach Students About Beauty to Lead Them to Virtue

An interview with classical educator and author Stephen Turley
September 26, 2018 Updated: September 27, 2018

In his new book, “Beauty Matters: Creating a High Aesthetic in School Culture,” Stephen Turley details the nature of beauty in some of the clearest and most definitive terms you will find.

Turley sets a plan for how to incorporate beauty’s characteristics into the classroom, he said in an interview with The Epoch Times. Through his years as a teacher in classical education and as a professor of theology, he sensed that the understanding of and appreciation of beauty has been neglected. In his book, he hopes to reveal the importance of beauty in shaping students and society at large.

Turley has spent much of his career delving into the philosophy of aesthetics and its relation to the transcendental. “I have degrees in two fields of study. I have a degree in music and in theology. Over the course of my studies, I found that these two disciplines came together for me in what is called theological aesthetics, which broadly deals with the interface between formal theology and the study of art and beauty,” he said.

Turley’s book delves into how music, art, and even landscaping or school culture, if designed or implemented properly, can guide students to a greater sense of and benefit from beauty. He notes in his book, “Beauty is a physics… [It] is emphatically not a sentiment, or a personal preference; it is not a subjective opinion or inclination.”

He states that beauty acts as a gravitational pull that takes us somewhere. When we understand and come to know what is truly beautiful, that beauty will guide us to a greater understanding of the universal order and will pull us into alignment with that order.

“To love what is truly lovely, and desire what is truly desirable,” Turley writes, is the apotheosis of learning in classical education.

Ecce_Ancilla_Domini teaches classic education
To train students to find the sacred in the world around them, Stephen Turley discusses the practice of reading iconography in a work of art in his new book, “Beauty Matters.” “Ecce Ancilla Domini,” 1850, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Oil on canvas. Tate Museum, Britain. (Public Domain)

At the Heart of Education

In asking his college seniors what “education” means, Turley would often get a few blank stares and the answer “to learn.” But the term “education” is derived from the Latin word “educare,” meaning “to lead.” Thus, it’s important to consider where we are being led.

In classical education, we rely on what the eras of classical Greece and Rome, and 1,500 years of Christianity have to offer. A classical education fundamentally leads students in the formation of men or women of virtue.

The virtues they are being led to are truth, goodness, and beauty, all intimately connected.

The idea of beauty, as understood by the ancient Greeks and refined by Plato, is that it is inextricably linked with the true and the good. Truth, goodness, and beauty make up the fundamental virtues that society, down to the individual, would aspire to. The ancients would strive to be in harmony with Creation.

Truth, as the Greeks understood it, reveals the divine nature of reality. Goodness gives us purpose, the goal of all things. Beauty is the allure of goodness, the radiance of the true and the good that serves the indispensable role of momentum and motivation to draw us to the true and the good.

From the vantage point of its archaic meaning, he says, beauty serves as a mode to heighten the human experience with transcendental wisdom as its foundation.

Turley says that the arts—that is, good art (fine arts, architecture, music, and so on)—reveal the world “as God understands it and has ordered it.” So beauty can awaken us to see what is good by our recognizing what is beautiful. It can then align us toward the good as we reach for the beautiful.

Losing Our Way

Relativism, however, has undone the purpose and moral obligation to express beauty in our lives and manifest it. “I am very concerned that our educational efforts are in fact being undermined by a ubiquitously present relativism coming in through the back door,” Turley notes in his book.

In our modern age, the ideology of relativism had taken shape through the scientific method, which became an in-vogue topic with intellectuals in France during the mid-19th century with Baron d’Holbach’s work, “The System of Nature.” The book states that the world is an autonomous mechanism in which there is no Creator or underlying purpose in one’s life. Everything is reduced to biology, chemistry, and physics.

With the narrowing of our understanding of the world came the winnowing down of the spirit and the loss of the Socratic, transcendental values of truth, goodness, and beauty. These formerly had been the foundation of Western civilization and a core element of classical education.

In the interview, Turley defended these values: “We cannot teach our children that truth is relative and then expect our politicians to be honest. We cannot teach our children that good has been reduced to situational ethics and then expect our bankers to make their business decisions on anything other than greed and expediency. We cannot teach our children that beauty is whatever turns them on, and feign shock when we find a urinal as part of an art exhibit. … If you are going to push relativism, you have removed the only basis in which we can foster wisdom and virtue, and I would argue that you have removed the very heart of humanity.”

In the curriculum of classical education, the goal is to lead students to align their sense of what is beautiful to what Creation intended to be beautiful. In this way, they can come to understand the workings and intentions of the cosmos and, according to its principles, live a dignified and virtuous life.

“Beauty Matters: Creating a High Aesthetic in School Culture” is a definitive book to help teachers and the general public understand the deeper characteristics of beauty and the essential value and benefits it can offer us.

Dr. Stephen R. Turley has written over 20 books on topics ranging from marriage, to stress, to Christianity, and classical education. He has a channel on YouTube and a podcast discussing the trends and rise of traditionalism internationally. To learn more about Stephen Turley’s ideas, visit TurleyTalks.com

Tim Gebhart is an artist and teacher living in Portland, Oregon.