Friday, April 30, 2010

The I of the Beholder

May is such a lovely month in Oxford, with the blossom coming out everywhere. But many people remain convinced that it is purely subjective - that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder". The architect Christopher Alexander developed an empirical test that points in another direction. He calls it the "Mirror of the Self". Subjects who disagree when asked which of two objects are most “beautiful” will suddenly show a remarkable degree of agreement when asked instead, “Which of these two objects would you prefer to spend eternity with?” or “Which would you prefer to offer to God?” or "Which is the best picture of your whole self?" The reason is, surely, that the question causes us to give the object our full attention, so that we start to respond to it as a whole and with our entire selves. When forced to focus in this way, observers quickly come to agree on which object they prefer, on which is the more wholesome and nourishing to their humanity.

What Alexander has proposed is nothing less than an extension of scientific method in which the self is used as a measuring instrument. This escapes the Cartesian paradigm based on the elimination of the self of the observer. What it points towards is that “science of qualities” prophesied by Goethe, based on the accurate observation of inner feeling in relation to the parts of the world. It is complicated by the fact that in order to judge the objective value in things we have at the same time to refine (that is, educate) the instrument with which we measure, the faculty of discernment itself. His test is also a method by which to teach people to discriminate between what they have been taught (by fashion or ideology or habit) to like, and what truly moves, attracts, and inspires them at a deeper level. These are not always, or even usually, the same thing.

"Our apparent liking for fashions, post-modern images, and modernist shapes and fantasies is an aberration, a whimsical and temporary liking at best, which has no permanence and no lasting value. It is wholeness in the structure that we really like in the long run, and that establishes in us a deep sense of calmness and permanent connection."
Christopher Alexander’s most influential book was A Pattern Language (1977), but the Mirror of the Self test can be found in The Phenomenon of Life, the first of a four-book series called The Nature of Order.

[Image: Garden in Shoreham, by Samuel Palmer, from Wikimedia Commons.]

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Help in teaching math

I have come across a number of books and websites that math teachers may find helpful - or, come to that, teachers of other subjects who want to build bridges for their students to the mathematical aspects of their own topics. There are the classics, such as Constance Reid's From Zero to Infinity: What Makes Numbers Interesting, and H.E. Huntley's The Divine Proportion: A Study in Mathematical Beauty. Several others are mentioned in my bibliography, including Michael S. Schneider's and Clifford A. Pickover's. These books are full of exercises, drawings, puzzles and anecdotes. One book that isn't in my Bibliography because I only just heard about it is Alex's Adventures in Numberland, by Alex Bellos, but it looks fun. Another is 50 Mathematical Ideas You Really Need to Know by Tony Crilly - highly recommended by several readers.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Everything connects

In practical terms, what can a university do to encourage the sense that "everything connects", that the individual disciplines concern aspects of a "whole", that the meaning of those disciplines depends on that which transcends them? In many cases it is not possible to redesign the curriculum. Nevertheless, it must be possible to do things within existing structures that will move things gradually in the right direction. We spoke, for example, of the importance of allowing opportunities for students to acquire first-hand experience of nature, whether through gardening or field trips, and also of other cultures
and points of view through excursions, pilgrimages, visiting speakers and debates. Film, drama, literature, music and art also brings people together across the university. Interdisciplinary research projects and discussions can always be encouraged and facilitated.

Christopher Dawson would argue that we need to introduce more study of cultural history. Every discipline has a fascinating historical dimension, through which the student can glimpse a broader human and cultural meaning beyond the present content and procedures of the field. But we must not "abstract" the discipline in another way, by forgetting that it lives in us and in the students, not just in a set of textbooks or even in a history. There are personal reasons and experiences which have led us into this field of study, and often these are linked to the search for truth, beauty and meaning. Admittedly many students will respond that they have come the college for economic and vocational reasons, simply to earn a qualification for a profession. Yet surely they need to ask themselves some deeper questions about the profession they have chosen and its ultimate meaning and purpose.

Thus in addition to the focus on history, and the cultivation of a broader imagination, and the facilitation of contact across disciplines, a key role will be played by philosophy, precisely in helping to awaken those deeper questions and assist in finding answers to them. What makes philosophy so important is the fact that, while we may not all be chemists or medical students or mathematicians, we are all philosophers, whether we realize it or not. We all try or pretend to think rationally, we all operate on philosophical assumptions, we all have moral views - the more unexamined, the less coherent these are likely to be. Thus as well as a historical dimension, each subject has a philosophical dimension that cannot be evaded, and some exploration of this dimension must lead in the direction of the "whole truth" where the University finds its principle of unity.

As for theology, it cannot be separated from spirituality and from the life of prayer and service. Thus, as one of the faculty pointed out to me, we should not forget friendship and also humility as playing an essential role in the healing of the university. It is friendship that really transcends the barriers between one subject and another, and humility that enables each of us to participate in the community and tradition of scholarship, keeping us open to the possibility that we may have something more to learn, even (or perhaps especially) from colleagues in another field.

These thoughts are being set down during my enforced layover among my new friends in Houston, while the ash cloud hangs over Europe. Readers may not be aware of an earlier discussion of Beauty for Truth's Sake on our community pages. There I try to list the particular books from my bibliography that would particularly help with further and deeper study of these questions - one is certainly Vance Morgan's excellent book on Simone Weil's approach to mathematics and geometry, Weaving the World (summarized and reviewed here), elements of which are woven into my fourth chapter.

Illustration - The University in 1350, by Laurentius de Voltolina, from Wikipedia Commons.

Monday, April 19, 2010


Are we being modern, postmodern or premodern when we seek to recover and integrate the "lost wisdom" of the ancient world within the contemporary university? In discussing the point among the faculty of the University of St Thomas in Houston after the Earth Day lecture recently, we came up with the term "transmodern". It contains echoes of the "transcendent", and the prefix trans- suggests we are looking "across" the modern world, as well as beyond it, to find the elements of our synthesis. The goal is not to impose a Catholic or theological vision on all the disciplines, but to foster a deeper conversation within and between disciplines against a theological "horizon". That is, theology serves as a placeholder for the truth that lies beyond all of us.

We need in each case to seek within our own discipline for the direction in which truth lies, even if we never lay hold of it entirely. To give up the search or aspiration for truth would be to abdicate our reason. As McIntyre argues in God, Philosophy, Universities, there has to be the "conception of a whole to which each discipline contributes as a part" and towards which it is reaching by its own methods. It is in the search that we will find some convergence with other disciplines, or some opening towards them, some basis for conversation. And it is when we assume that we have attained all important truth within our own field, or alternatively when we have decided that truth is unobtainable, that we become closed off to one another. At that point the university (like the universe) fragments into a myriad shards.

Once again I want to recommend the Pope's lecture to La Sapienza University, before talking next time about some practicalities that came up during our discussion in Houston.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A veiled presence

While in Houston I took the opportunity to visit the Rothko Chapel right across the road from the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum, near the University of St Thomas and the Menil Gallery. Both chapels use modern materials to create an appropriate space to serve the art within. The Byzantine frescoes from the Church of Cyprus show Christ Pantokrator and the Blessed Virgin, with angels.They are displayed in a glass chapel at the heart of the structure and evoke a sense of the sacred in the traditional manner of sacred art. The Rothko Chapel is equally effective in a very
different style. An octagonal room with light entering from above, the walls are occupied by eight huge sets of panels of grey-blue and brown and dark purple. If the ceiling had been low and flat, instead of raised and full of light, holding the octagonal structure together, the impression might have been oppressive. Rothko ended his life in suicide, and some have seen his obsession with darkness as a psychological and spiritual dead end. Yet strangely I did not find the effect to be one of sadness or spiritual despair. These panels set in a space of great integrity invited me into an interior space and dialogue that seemed both uplifting and refreshing. Like mirrors yet without the distraction of images seen in glass, the panels reflect one's interior landscape and allow one to hear the voices inside one's own head. The surfaces are not plain but full of texture and subtle variation; the forms are not mass-produced but each unique, and marked with the traces of human labour; the geometry is harmonious both with the building and its play of light, and between the panels, three of which (on three of the main walls facing the Four Directions) are triptychs and the fourth possibly a Golden Rectangle.

I felt a bit like an early hominid or spaceman from Kubrick's 2001 confronting the black monolith. Yet these were far from black, and seemed full of quiet life like shadowed water, or dark oceanic horizons, or the shrouded mountainsides of a Japanese landscape. The texture of brushstrokes suggested in one the northern lights, in another a vast cave of stalactites. You bring yourself into that room, and the paintings in that space help one to become entirely present. If prayer is attention (Simone Weil) then the Rothko Chapel can be a place of real prayer. Yet the shape of the space is crucial. The paintings have an intensity and a presence of their own, but it is the geometry of the structure in which they are set that completes the effect. And although the Chapel is a place of worship, meditation and prayer for persons of all faiths, the room feels to Christians a bit like a baptistry. Sacred geometry speaks a language of its own, giving the spiritual traditions some kind of common ground. And if the visitor does not find his way across the gardens to the Byzantine frescoes where the Presence is less veiled, he at least is brought to the threshold of a revelation, the open Book of Nature that is the cosmos itself, and the Self that awaits in quiet expectation.

The illustration is gratefully borrowed from a fellow blogger at  

[Since I wrote this post, the journal Communio has published a wonderful article on art by Rodolfo Balzarotti which contains a detailed analysis of the Rothko Chapel in section 3. Please read the article, which is mainly about William Congdon.]

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Creation and the University

I am currently in Houston to give the Earth Day Lecture at the University of St Thomas. I want to thank the staff, faculty and students, Sister Damien Savino FSE, the John Paul II Forum, and the Basilian fathers, for being so kind and gracious to me. Our discussions around the lecture focused largely on the question of how to implement the educational approach that my book tries to introduce and explore, and I hope to report more on these discussions in the weeks to come. One place where an approach like this is already being tried very successfully is Thomas More College in NH, where David Clayton has developed a "Way of Beauty" programme within the main curriculum of the College - this can be viewed here (make sure to follow the link from the main curriculum page to the Way of Beauty). David has also started an excellent Blog that you will enjoy.

My lecture was partly about the problems caused by specialization. Our knowledge has increased exponentially, yet as knowers we are increasingly fragmented. We seem to know more and more about less and less. But what is still possible for each of us to discover is how everything connects together. We might not know anything except our own field in great detail, but we can put a broken world back together, and that is the task of the new educators.  The role of philosophy is especially important in this, as John Paul II emphasized in Fides et Ratio, and Pope Benedict also explained in his wonderful lecture for La Sapienza University in 2008 about the university, the liberal arts, and the search for truth and wisdom.

The transcript of the Lecture plus ongoing discussion of the book and the visit from John Hittinger's JPII Forum blog can be found here, here, here and here.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Cosmology of the Sacraments

Sandro Magister's excellent website has reproduced one of the Pope's Easter homilies where he talks of the symbolism of the four sacramental elements (which correspond I suppose to the ancient "natural" elements of water, earth, fire and air). The Pope goes on to develop the link between oil and the priesthood. The whole thing is fascinating. Here is an extract:

There are four elements in creation on which the world of sacraments is built: water, bread, wine and olive oil. Water, as the basic element and fundamental condition of all life, is the essential sign of the act in which, through baptism, we become Christians and are born to new life. While water is the vital element everywhere, and thus represents the shared access of all people to rebirth as Christians, the other three elements belong to the culture of the Mediterranean region. In other words, they point towards the concrete historical environment in which Christianity emerged. God acted in a clearly defined place on the earth, he truly made history with men. On the one hand, these three elements are gifts of creation, and on the other, they also indicate the locality of the history of God with us. They are a synthesis between creation and history: gifts of God that always connect us to those parts of the world where God chose to act with us in historical time, where he chose to become one of us.
 Photo of Port Meadow by Rosie Caldecott

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Beauty on the Cross

For Christians, the place to look for answers to all the important questions is the Cross of Christ.  In that Cross, read in the light of faith and tradition, we can find the keys to unlock the doors of the world.  And what we see there is not a distant world of Platonic archetypes, but the Archetype of archetypes wedded to the world, and allowing itself to be crushed by the world in order to transform it.

The figure on the Cross, covered in blood and spittle, has been made repulsive by torment. What we see, nevertheless, is the supreme work of art. We see a divine act that takes existing matter, the matter of history and prophecy, and weaves it into a new design, a fulfilment that could not have been expected or predicted but, seen by those who have the eyes and ears for it, is perfect, as though no stroke of the pen, no flick of paint, no note or chord, could be changed without diminishment. We see on the Cross an image that transforms the way we view the world. The Passion of Christ the Logos changes the world and remakes it, creating something new of it, bringing life out of death.

This is an extract from Beauty for Truth's Sake.  
The image is borrowed from Vultus Christi.