If you like the phrase “the good, the true, the beautiful” yet sense it’s not how people naturally talk, you’re on to something.
I grew up enjoying music, film, theater—the arts in general. Over the years, I noticed there are generalists (like me) who appreciate the arts. And there are those who are educated in the arts (not me) who often describe something as “the good, the true, the beautiful.” I was initially drawn to this phrase. Now I’ve come to see it’s not how people naturally talk. Why?
Those educated in the arts have typically graduated from a university in the western world. The first universities in the West were started by the Catholic Church 1,000 years ago. They were in the liberal arts tradition, appreciating aspects of Greek thought, notably its love of reason. But as Iain McGilchrist points out, there were tendencies in the fabric of Greek language and thought that favored abstraction.
Exhibit A is how the Greek language added the definite article (“the”) to an existing thing. This turned an attribute of that thing expressed poetically through an adjective (“beautiful,” the Greek kalos) into an abstract noun by adding the definite article (“the beautiful,” to kalon). The result was the those educated in the arts in western colleges and universities often describe something as “the good, the true, the beautiful.”
But this is not how people naturally talk. When my wife Kathy prepares a sumptuous meal, I don’t praise her by saying, “Honey, this is the good, the true, the beautiful!” I would naturally say, “It looks beautiful. It tastes good.” I don’t insert the definite article because human nature doesn’t operate this way.
Take the order: the good, the true, the beautiful. This reflects Greek thought, which begins with pondering “the good.” The Greeks held this is possible only in the light of truth. Where we find that goodness and truth exist, we find beauty. This sequence is a given in today’s universities. However, it’s nowhere to be found in scripture where a sequence for human nature begins with beauty.
Consider creation. God created the cosmos for his pleasure. “Things that give pleasure when they are perceived are called beautiful,” wrote Aquinas. In fact, John 3:16 can be rendered, “For God so loved the beauty,” for in ancient Greek, cosmos meant both order and ornament, or beauty. Creation is beauty, so “by nature men desire the beautiful,” wrote St. Basil the Great, recognizing that we’re made in God’s image. It’s human nature to at first be attracted to beauty.
Adam and Eve took pleasure in creation, perceiving it as beautiful. That’s not readily apparent to modern readers, as seven times in Genesis 1 we read “good.” Good can be translated either as good or as beautiful. Most English translations use the term “good” (agathon) but the Septuagint features the Greek for “beautiful” (kalon). Beautiful aligns with how human nature operates. What we perceive to be beautiful, we imagine as good. What we imagine as good, we deem to be true. Notice the order: Beautiful, good, true.
This is what Adam and Eve experienced. Finding creation beautiful (especially one another), they perceive it as good (nuptial union as very good), deeming it to be true in the sense that this is truly the best way to live. This sequence for human nature is based in love, for God is love, and love is what love does. We’re made in God’s image, so we are what we love. We love what we find to be beautiful. Beauty delights and attracts. It directs us to some good. Whatever is good, we deem to be true.
And note: in this entire sequence, there’s no Greek definite article (“the”).
Why then do those educated in the arts (this includes Christians) describe something as “the good, the true, the beautiful?” I suggest they’ve been influenced by the third of three great debates in church history. The first was over Jesus’ nature. It was settled in 325AD (the Nicene Creed). The second was over the Holy Spirit’s nature. It resulted in a schism between East and West (1054AD). The third debate (c.1500AD) was over human nature.
The Renaissance predated the third debate. It revived Greek thought. Luther, the Reformers, and later, Enlightenment thinkers carried the debate further. Iain McGilchrist defines this period as “a 500-year slide into the territory of the left hemisphere.” The left hemisphere is given to abstractions. “The good, the true, the beautiful” is Exhibit A.
I close by quoting one of my favorite authors, historian David McCollough. He said we all quote ancient thinkers all the time without recognizing it. Iain McGilchrist would say those who describe something as “the good, the true, the beautiful” are unknowingly quoting Greek thought. They unwittingly reflect our 500-year slide into the territory of the left hemisphere. McGilchrist and others feel this 500-year epoch is over. I agree. And if it is indeed over, we can begin to settle the third great debate over human nature. It doesn’t operate according to the Greek view taught in most western universities and churches.
More to come on this subject in future columns.
 See Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, (Yale University Press, 2010).
 Bruno Snell, The Discovery of the Mind: The Greek Origins of European Thought. Rosenmeyer T, trans. (Harper & Bros, 1960), 231.
 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, 39, 8.
 Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, and 31
 Paul Evdokimov, The Art of the Icon: A Theology of Beauty, trans. Steven Bigham (Oakwood Publications, 1990), 2.