Why Some Talk This Way

Michael Metzger

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.[1]

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).[2] 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.[3] 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.”[4] 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).[5] 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.


[1] See Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, (Yale University Press, 2010).

[2] Bruno Snell, The Discovery of the Mind: The Greek Origins of European Thought. Rosenmeyer T, trans. (Harper & Bros, 1960), 231.

[3] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, 39, 8.

[4] Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, and 31

[5] Paul Evdokimov, The Art of the Icon: A Theology of Beauty, trans. Steven Bigham (Oakwood Publications, 1990), 2.


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  1. A further comment might clarify what I’m describing this morning. Most of the men I know are in over their heads in porn. Yet they “know” it’s not good, nor is it true (i.e., not what God wants). So why do porn? Simple. They’re deceived, finding it to be beautiful, stimulating, just as Eve was deceived when her eyes found the fruit to be delightful. Beauty attracts and delights. What delights us is what we perceive to be good and true (regardless of what we profess to be “good” and “true”). Hence, we can say that we affirm “let the marriage bed be undefiled” is good and true, but then feast our eyes on porn, which we find to be delightful (even though we swear to God we don’t). That’s how we deceive ourselves.

  2. Mike, “I see your raise. And I raise you another quid.” I don’t think anyone is deceived by doing porn – I think when sinning you know very well that you are. Have you ever put sin in the left-side or the right? Don’t let me read that one completely avoids sin by being in the right hemisphere. In any case you’ve sparked my thinking on the matter, as a compliment you always do. For a long time I’ve been “thinking/seeing” what we do and what we think as often – but not entirely – relationship driven – person to person (not “relational in the abstract”). I think doing porn is more-so a matter of reaction relationally, between persons, including Divine Persons, between us and The Lord and between us and other persons. Be it envy, anger, etc. But I wouldn’t put just porn there but so many things. I doubt I’m being Freudian, I don’t think he saw sin anywhere. If you were categorize “seeing things as relationship driven” either the actual experience or the analysis of others’ actions, does it deserve its own hemisphere or does that belong in the right or the left? Just as an example, do we suppose Jesus was a balance of hemisheres at work or was He neither, and instead relationship driven, and that being from love, and of course never describable as sinning in his relationships. I wonder: would not sinning suspend any reason for examining Him for left-brain thinking vs right-brain?

  3. I thought about this more while walking the wolf (Mischka’s a Siberian) but I was “stuck” til I got home. Can a perspective that tends to count only from a relationship till get slanted left-hem. or right? And then therefore be “off center”? I think so. Right now I’m being analytical in a general or abstract sense. But if I was relating to you, Mike, only in that sense, it’d be far left. I might over-do-it in glorifying you or demonizing you, just as a for instance. That’s just 1% of what could go wrong. If I was right-braining with you, like the left, a lot could go well, but a lot could go south too: I could exalt myself as having a big picture or in the same way be-little you for not having my exalted big picture. In just 1% of what could go wrong, this could look like I miss the sin in myself. I can’t state anything exclusively, the same errors or sins or judging can cut so many ways, whether from the left or from the right. Surely sin involves deceiving ourselves, but on pretty high levels, when we think we’re god-like. We are god-like, but we gotta know when we gotta slow down a bit and remember we’re also dust.

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