Balancing Beauty and Utility


By Molly Farinholt

I was recently told, by a well-meaning but perhaps misguided gentleman, that my desire to set aside a career and be a homemaker was not “putting my degree to use.” He went on to say that “after all, though, an English degree is not very useful.” This assessment set me to thinking about the state of our culture. What did he mean by that worn out little word, and why has that word become so puissant? Has our world become utterly obsessed with the utility of things, actions, people that if something is not “useful,” then it is not worthwhile?

Yes, sadly, this utilitarian worldview is omnipresent. It has pervaded even the lowest levels of education. For the most part, children in elementary schools are no longer being told to look up at the stars, to behold their beauty, to ponder their Creator. Rather, they are being told to look down at their own two feet, memorize facts and figures, and build a resume that will impress the much sought-after Ivy Leagues. The memorization of items for standardized tests has replaced the striving for knowledge for its own sake. Increasingly, we see the formation of students with a mind, body, and soul as less important than the formation of productive automatons.

This thinking naturally transfers to the university level, where students are told by professors and parents alike that they need to choose a major that will enable them to land a high-paying job. The humanities—and those who boldly choose to study them—are often frowned upon, or, at the very least, acknowledged with a pitying glance. Art and literature are not useful and will certainly not lead to a six-figure job. Do these studies not serve a far greater purpose, though? Isn’t there some aim higher than monetary gain?

Poet John Keats put it best: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -- that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” The study of the humanities is the study of beauty. And as Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar asserted, truth, beauty, and goodness cannot exist without each other, for it is through beauty that one arrives at truth and goodness. Therefore, the study of the humanities is also the study whereby one may reach the Truth. That which is beautiful sends one’s gaze towards Heaven. The tangible allows our limited nature to consider, contemplate, and attempt to understand our Creator and His creation.

Human beings must witness, admire, study such things as Michelangelo’s masterpieces, Shakespeare’s tragedies, Homer’s epics in order to understand human nature and to discover our purpose on Earth. Gazing upon Caravaggio’s Conversion on the Way to Damascus leads one to contemplate the sometimes disconcerting omniscience of God, but also his great clemency. We find ourselves in the brushstrokes of the fallen Saul. Similarly, we may be driven to deeper piety when studying or standing before Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. The intricately-carved marble tells of the euphoria that accompanies true intimacy with the Lord.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth warns against ambition and the pursuit of one’s temporal desires. From Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, we receive a harrowing description of a guilty conscience and the manner in which sin will wretchedly wound one’s soul. The poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins reminds us to give glory to God for all things—even the seemingly insignificant or overlooked, such as “landscape plotted and pieced” (see “Pied Beauty”).  

The study of art and literature is, then, truly the study of human nature, our purpose in this world, and our relationship with the One who created all. One cannot spend time delving into the beautiful and not come in contact with God and, therefore, come to better know Him. The pursuit of fame, glory, and riches through one’s studies will ultimately bear just that: fame, glory, and riches. The pursuit of truth, beauty, and goodness, however, will bear fruits far sweeter: wisdom, virtue, the happiness that accompanies a deeper relationship with the Lord.

So, the aforementioned gentleman is absolutely correct by his definition of “use.” I could be a homemaker with practically any degree—or even no degree. But, my definition of “use” is different from his, and the differentiation lies in that which follows the preposition for. If our goal is seeking money and success, a liberal arts degree might not be very “useful.” Rather, a liberal arts degree is used for the elevation of the mind and soul to that which exists beyond this passing world. When our goal is seeking the Truth, there is no better choice.