There exists among the shared experience of those civil, rational, and nobly inclined persons of the earth a comprehension of values without which the happy haze of a good life would not daily exist, and if denied by all its members the civilization within which they reside would utterly fail. While the values may subtly change in degree or description from person to person, and to a greater extent from culture to culture, what is not often denied is that these values change in kind from one to the next, and never that they do not exist at all.
That these values are shared is implicit in the set of persons who partake in a civilized society; that is, they are its builders and defenders at best, and are neutral with respect to its flourishing at worst. Such persons recognize the intrinsic value of truth, being able to deter the stirrings of emotion for the benefit of their own powers of reason, and are thus inclined to consider a wealth of perspectives and evidences different from those they themselves hold. From such an explication, we may divine a deeper maxim from this set of persons: theirs is an aspiration to an image of civic nobility. This maxim does not require that those who hold to it are themselves the perfect bearers of such an image, but rather in striving toward it the ideal of civilization is obtained: not perfection, but progress toward perfection. This is the essential message of the apostle Paul to the Philippians when he wrote:
“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
– Philippians 3:12-14
In this way, the argument for striving toward the noblest ideal of mankind is made, and the daily struggle of civilization toward the image which its individuals bear is described in the broadest of strokes. But often now, as in times past, the good intentions of broad political philosophy for the purpose of individual study and meditation have been corrupted precisely in the exploitations of those ambiguities in which the “better angels of our nature” once played their mystic chords (Lincoln, 1st Inaugural Address, Mar. 4, 1861). This is the danger of modernity: where once there might have been consensus on the definitions of common English words as “perfection” or “civic nobility”, we must now dissect with excruciating precision those terms, or else at the end of the pilgrimage of perfection face the guillotine for the betterment of society, and while the blade shrieks on its rails to sunder another wrecker of society, quail under the massive cry for “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite!”
Before defining the image impressed upon all men, and for which all who desire the better civilization over its present form strive, let us consider an example of how the ambiguity inherent in simple terms can be corrupted to a state far from the original intent of its author. The impressionist Claude Monet, a man who interpreted the world through the strokes of a brush, painted a woman holding a parasol. The woman wears a white dress and stands in a field, her scarf like the colored grasses around her fluttering in the breeze, a red flower or clasp pinned near her waist, her hair a combination of blues and greens reflecting the subtle shades of the parasol; a moment caught forever on canvas. Much might be said of the painting, as in through swirls of color the sense of Nature in movement is evoked, but in moving it remains fastened to a deeper stillness around which all points revolve, and which itself does not move – T.S. Eliot’s “still point of the turning world” (Eliot, 1st of Four Quartets) – or the fashion in which the woman is in some way like the clouds in the background, or the grasses in the foreground, or further how the absence of definition in the face renders her identity intractable, and yet acquires the identity of all who behold her, as they become the woman in that moment in the field.
Woman with a Parasol, Monet, 1886
That the painting is of a woman with a parasol, may be in question, though the title of the painting ought to put it beyond doubt. That deeper themes cry out from their simpler forms, requires a trained eye. But that the painting is beautiful, should be evident to the apprehension of all who can still perceive the beautiful things of this world. This was almost certainly the original intent of the artist; to make something that is beautiful, and can be appreciated as such in its own right. Yet beauty is a simple concept, and yielding as the petals of a lily under a brute’s finger.
Extending this example, we consider next such a brutish pressure. Among the academic circles of today exist many collections of persons whose ultimate objective, cloaked though it might be behind such virtuous words as “progress”, “equality”, or “social justice”, is the disintegration of such values as should be plainly affirmed by all mankind. From this perspective, one might imagine the painting to be, not of a woman, but of an ideological construct, presented as simplistic and unidentifiable, yet rife with elemental discord. The painting in fact revolves around the unnatural color of her hair, a symbol of social rebellion in which the binary nature of sexuality is discarded, or the redness of the clasp, evoking implicit bias against the character of the woman, much as Hawthorne’s scarlet letter had done, and in so doing reveals the social oppression of womanhood within the beholder.
This is not to say that any of the preceding points are necessarily true or false, but rather that such a discussion misses the point entirely. Monet’s ultimate purpose was to create something beautiful, not fashion a weapon. But by exploiting the vagueness of the art form, proponents of certain ideologies well-versed in rhetorical fencing have lured the blank and naïve woman out of the picture, painted upon her an image after their own likeness, and skewered her through the heart.
Here, then, is the first inkling of transcendent values placed within man, and here too the hope for their shared affirmation. For even as closed academic circles sound the death knell of beauty by supplanting it with revolutionary ideology, yet the woman remains beautiful for a future and distant generation unfamiliar with the sophistry of her critics. Beauty remains above and apart from all persons, and does not change with argument, however well reasoned, just as a tree would not cease to be a tree even if Socrates himself asserted otherwise.
The preceding deliberation reveals the first affirmation: that values exist, in whatever form; that they are fixed and unchanging with respect to human argument; and that they appear to impress themselves upon humanity from without.
The second affirmation follows from the first: that there is an ideal, or image, to which all humanity attempts to conform.
The truth of this second affirmation should be plain to all who have followed the reasoning thus far. Though the curve and form of that image may yet be in question, yet it cannot be denied that there exists this ideal. For just as the woman who applies cosmetics does so to conform to that society’s definition of feminine beauty, and even as this yields a delineation between values of culture and values universally acknowledged, it is the latter that is not disproved by the desire that all women be called beautiful. Similarly, rarely will an employer be confounded by a prospect interviewed with the phrase “I abhor hard work!”, for such would almost certainly deny the interviewee the opportunity for gainful employment at that place of business. That is, there is an image of the ideal employee impressed upon the mind of the interviewer, formed through experiences both successful and adverse, to which the man or woman before him is compared. And this does not begin the procession of representatives from which this second affirmation is divined, for what corporate executive would deny competence in his own field of business? Or what coach would disavow the primacy of victory and his success at producing a team capable of achieving it? Or what few politicians would recuse themselves from office over questions of integrity? – though this last example may border on an exception, however great their protestations.
From these points, we peek through the keyhole and attempt a narrow view of the Glorious Hall beyond. But how can we begin to perceive the Image impressed upon us? What process, or what frame of mind, marks the first step upon the pilgrimage of discerning those values which transcend what can be seen or felt or touched? That their effects are evident in nature is beyond question, and more so in their absence, as a poor navigator of the oceans will quickly find his vessel lost or broken upon the rocks, and everything of value lost, up to and including his life. Thus Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declared, “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.”
We may begin the path by setting our whole selves apart from influences that may corrupt our thinking, that these values which are self-evident may allow their way with us. This is the ancient practice of holiness, one much lauded in the Judeo-Christian tradition and often forgotten in modern times. And it is by this act or practice that one may see the Image within which all values find their source, just as the old saying affirms: “Without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). Practically defined, it means to leave behind the things of man: his cities, his works, and his many words, and seek asylum in the quiet places of the world, without and within, that this Image may make itself known to us. And this is not a single journey or final discovery, for to treat it as such merely reveals the immaturity present within each who first tread these ways, and once upon returning declare “Enlightenment!” and proceed to write books about it and spread their newfound holiness like a stillborn child from hand to hand through the arms of modern television. And thus shall be the fate of all who regard the first fragile steps as itself the achievement, and not the echoes of a new and better direction.
With the knowledge in hand that it is not by fanciful speeches or thundering pronouncements, but a daily following of this Path, that we may know what is the Source of these values, the affirmations which follow are almost certainly beyond doubt for any who honestly seek after truth, and cannot be denied without contradiction by their opposition:
Affirmation Three: that Truth exists, and that it can be objectively known.
Affirmation Four: that Reason is an intrinsic property of humanity above all other known species, and can be used to apprehend truth.
Affirmation Five: that the attitude of one’s life is primarily dictated by influences early in that life, and that there are institutions which positively or negatively affect it.
Affirmation Six: that perseverance, sacrifice, discipline, and individual application to a worthwhile goal will yield success of intrinsic value.
Affirmation Seven: that inherent to the previous six affirmations, those who uphold these truths must of necessity be among those of the living, that they have the liberty to daily walk this path, and that they may possess what they of right earn through efforts of mind and hand.