In his presentation on “The Transcendentals: The Good, The True and The Beautiful Lead us to God,” Fr. Joseph Byerley started by breaking down the meaning of the word Transcendental. Transcendental comes from the prefix trans meaning ‘across’ or ‘beyond’ and root word scandere meaning ‘to climb.’ Hence the transcendentals are those things which move us beyond or above the natural world.
Father then gave a brief history of philosophical interpretations of the transcendentals starting with Plato, who believed that everything had a highest or most perfect form. He called the most perfect form ‘ideas.’ These ‘ideas’ of existence or being are Unity (vs multiple or division), Truth (vs appearance) and Good (as opposed to evil.) He then moved on to Augustine, who lived around 700 years after Plato. Augustine listed the Transcendentals as One, True and Good. And finally, Aquinas, which included Unity, Truth and Goodness as the Transcendentals, with Beauty being included with Goodness.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, 41: All creatures bear a certain resemblance to God, most especially man, created in the image and likeness of God. The manifold perfections of creatures – their truth, their goodness, their beauty all reflect the infinite perfection of God. Consequently, we can name God by taking his creatures” perfections as our starting point, “for from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator” The CCC continues by warning us that this is merely a starting point, that we cannot describe an infinite God using finite terms. Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God.
God revealed Himself to us, because He desires to be known by us. The Transcendentals are attributes, or living realities of the living God. God revealed that He is True, He is Beautiful and He is Good. These are not just attributes, but part of God’s very nature. They are who He is. He is the perfect Truth, Goodness and Beauty.
Anything that has any of these reflect the presence of God. When we experience any of these, we are in reality experiencing God Himself.
God created us to desire Him, therefore it is built into our nature to strive for those things that are perfect. We do this whether we are conscious of it or not. As such, we seek Goodness; we seek Truth; and we seek Beauty all in our pursuit of seeking God. Because God is the creator of all things, all created things bear the stamp of God.
In understanding the Transcendentals, we must understand that they are objective realities, not something based on personal feelings or perceptions. Our culture encourages us to look at things subjectively, rather than objectively. We are told our self-esteem is the highest good and that we must fulfill ourselves, instead of understanding that what fills us up is actually outside of ourselves. This relativistic approach says everyone can have their own truth, which in essence denies all truth.
So, what is Truth?
The definition of Truth is, “The mind is in accord with the reality of the thing.”
Since God’s very nature is Truth, anything which is opposed to Truth is opposed to God. We are obligated to seek the truth and once we know the truth, we are obligated to live in accord with that truth. If we do anything which is opposed to truth, we are opposing God. Therefore, error is itself in opposition to God. Oftentimes, people will comment that science and religion or reason and religion do not go together. In reality, God is the source of all truth, so reason, science and religion can never contradict one another if they are true, for they all come from God.
The second Transcendental presented was beauty. Beauty exists when something is exactly what it is meant to be. Note that this definition does not indicate whether something is aesthetically pleasing to the beholder. Beauty is an objective reality and not something that is subjective. Hence, it does not depend on the observer, but exists outside of us. Beauty comes from God, regardless of the beholder’s ability to appreciate it. Because beauty gives us a glimpse of the universe as it is supposed to be, it gives us a glimpse of who God is. Each thing has a nature or the way it has been created. A lion is created to hunt. When it hunts, there is beauty, whether we find it pleasing or not. But if a rabbit started eating a cat, well that’s definitely not beauty. The rabbit would not be what it is meant to be. We have written in our nature, an attraction to the beautiful. We seek perfection or in other words, we seek that which is what it is supposed to be, because it is an experience of God. When you experience a beautiful sunset, you experience the presence of God. Experiencing beauty pleases the soul.
To appreciate beauty, goodness or truth, we must realize it takes Divine grace, which is like a gold mine. We must dig for it, continuously look for it and dig deeper, and regardless of how much we find, it continues to go deeper for it is endless.
Lastly, we get to Goodness. Something is good when it fulfills its purpose. In other words, it is the perfection of being. Therefore, in order to know if something is good, we must know its purpose. If something is fulfilling its purpose it is good; if it not fulfilling its purpose, then it is not good, or in other words evil.
In summary, when we experience Goodness, Truth and Beauty, we are experiencing God. Therefore, let us be formed by God and seek out that which is Good, True and Beautiful, for the opposite will lead us away from God.