What is real? What is right? What is lovely? Human beings ask these kinds of questions because we long for at least three things: truth, goodness, and beauty.
Prominent philosophers through the centuries have called these three cosmic values transcendentals. A transcendental refers to something that exists beyond the time-space-matter world. It is a universal reality that extends beyond our everyday sensory experiences and is thus considered nonphysical, immaterial, conceptual, or even spiritual. In philosophy, the transcendental relates to and seeks to describe the nature of reality or being. Therefore, one may think of these values as timeless universals and attributes of being.
In this introductory article I’ll briefly describe how the three transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty were viewed in the classical world. Then I’ll show how Christian civilization accommodated them as truths of general revelation and grounded them in the nature of the triune God.
Classical Civilization’s View of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty
The classical world (or classical antiquity) consisted largely of the Greco-Roman society that was centered around the Mediterranean Sea and existed at its peak for roughly a millennium—from about 500 BC to 500 AD. The great cultures of Greece and Rome flourished and deeply influenced Europe, North Africa, and West Asia. The grand cities of this period included Athens, Rome, and even Jerusalem. Some of the dominant philosophies of this era included Platonism, Aristotelianism, and Stoicism.
For the famous Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, the world had genuine meaning and purpose. The cosmic values of truth (that which defines reality), goodness (that which fulfills its purpose), and beauty (that which is lovely) were objective in nature and knowable by the noble seeker. Since human beings had the internal capacities of logos (reason), ethos (morality), and pathos (emotion), these internal capacities corresponded to the cosmic values and brought forth human fulfillment:
- Logos corresponds to truth
- Ethos corresponds to goodness
- Pathos corresponds to beauty
Scholar Stephen R. Turley describes the classical view that human capacities match with and are fulfilled by these cosmic values:
Truth, goodness, and beauty are cosmic values that communicate divine meaning to the intellectual, moral, and aesthetic capacities of the human soul, which brings a balance in the soul, which, in turn, harmonizes the human person with divine meaning and purpose of the cosmos, which was considered the prerequisite to human flourishing.1
Christian Civilization’s View of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty
By the fifth century AD paganism had been largely converted to Christianity. Thus Christian civilization would dominate the Western world and parts of the East for largely a millennium (about 500 to 1500). Christian philosophers and theologians appropriated the truth of these cosmic values as truths of general revelation but grounded them in the nature of the triune God. God doesn’t have truth, goodness, and beauty; rather, God is truth, goodness, and beauty. We can state it this way:
All truth is God’s truth.
All goodness is God’s goodness.
All beauty is God’s beauty.
When God created, he imbued the cosmos with truth, goodness, and beauty. Philosopher Peter Kreeft says: “Everything that exists is in some way true, good, and beautiful.”2 And humans via the imago Dei (image of God) are able to know the truth, desire the good, and love the beautiful. The fall of humankind into sin disordered man’s natural capacities but through the redemption found in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ humans are brought back into a right relationship with God and with these revealed values.
According to historic Christianity, humans (as creatures) have been made to know and worship the triune God. And our present longing for truth, goodness, and beauty exists because these values reflect the ultimate source, which is the maximally perfect God. When we pursue truth, goodness, and beauty in this life and in this world we are tracking the majesty of the Lord.
In future articles I will write about the theological, philosophical, and apologetics implications of the transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty.
Reflections: Your Turn
How have the transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty impacted your life?
- Stephen R. Turley, Awakening Wonder: A Classical Guide to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty (Camp Hill, PA: Classical Academic Press, 2015).
- Peter Kreeft, “Lewis’s Philosophy of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty,” in C. S. Lewis as Philosopher: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, edited by David J. Baggett, Gary R. Habermas, and Jerry L. Walls (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008).
- I transcribed this quote from Steve Turley’s interview with Janet Mefferd: https://cdn2.hubspot.net/hubfs/4001416/Blog%20Photos/steveturley_151020_Sample.mp3.
- Peter Kreeft on Goodness, Truth, Beauty, and Boredom: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RH2X-bQdgxQ.