Temptations away from Beauty

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To possess order and surprise together in combination is very difficult to achieve. After all, to the extent that something is orderly, it grows predictable and consequently becomes familiar, unsurprising. So, you might naturally think that the only way to get surprise is precisely to deviate from the natural order of things. Or, you might think the only way to achieve order, stability, and regularity is to take refuge in routine. You might think monotony is the price you pay for normalcy.

Not true. You don’t have to choose between order and surprise, and the reason is that we can always be surprised by forms, natures, or essences and the order that reveals them. Things are too rich for us ever to comprehend them fully — all things were made by the infinite mind of the Creator, and the depths of His brilliance in making things can’t ever be fully appreciated or exhausted by finite intelligence. So, there’s always more with which reality can surprise us — there’s always more order, even in the things we know already.

That’s why specialists — scientists, historians, mathematicians, literary critics, or even sports fans — never lose interest in their field. The people who know the most about something are the most likely to continue to learn and continue to be surprised. The people who don’t know but think they do — those who are familiar but not intimate with a portion of reality — are the ones who ignore or forget the dazzling patterns, the way everything comes together in a perfect, surprising structure. You don’t lose interest from knowing too much about order, but from knowing too little about it.

Nonetheless, those who forget the intrinsic connection between order and surprise will think they have to pick one or the other. These are the two temptations we’ll talk about now; the temptation to pursue surprise without order (which is disorder) and the temptation to pursue order without surprise (which we’ll call banality).

Disorder (Surprise without Order)

If human beings have been designed for beauty — and we have — and if beauty involves surprise, then we’ve all been designed for surprise. Pretty straightforward.

So, we want surprise, and as we just saw, it’s difficult to be surprised by order once we’ve gotten used to it. And if we get used to things working the way they’re supposed to work, doing the things they’ve been designed to do,  order becomes familiar. That’s when we get bored.

An easy escape from boredom into surprise, easier than working to perceive ever deeper levels of order, is to just go against the nature of things.

A man who eats meat and vegetables isn’t doing anything surprising, but a man who eats books is. A woman who passes you on the street and smiles politely isn’t likely to surprise you, but she’ll surprise you if she suddenly punches you in the neck or walks suddenly into the street and gets hit by a car.

Now, these examples may seem bizarre (and they are), but it’s a fact that fallen humanity has a strong attraction to the twisted, the perverse, and the disfigured.

Think of how many people watch horror movies, or think of the more horrendous phenomenon of snuff films. Think of how many people used to pay money to see “circus freaks” — that is, to entertain themselves by looking at people who suffered from particularly gruesome handicaps. Much of ancient literature, art, and culture were born of the pleasure in imagining people abused and warped in detailed ways (think, for instance, of Ovid’s Metamorphoses or of the public atrocities that entertained visitors to the Roman Colosseum).

What’s going on here? How do people get to the point where they enjoy sickness?

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This article is adapted from in Beauty by John-Mark L. Miravalle, which is now available from Sophia Institute Press.

Art for this post on Beauty & Temptations: Cover used with permission; Featured image used with permission of Pixabay.

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