The one, the true, the good, and the beautiful

the one the true the good

I was taught classical philosophy at Gonzaga University, a Jesuit institution. This means that I was taught Aristotelian philosophy, by way of Thomas Aquinas.

I learned, in my Metaphysics class taught by Father Carney back in 1977, that there are four transcendental properties: the One, the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. Everything in the world partakes of these four properties. Take a tree, for example. It’s one tree: it’s a unity, a thing in the world that can be pointed at and identified. It’s a true tree: it’s identifiable, it’s a unique tree, it’s that tree there in the front yard, and it definitely conforms to every definition of a tree you ever heard of. It’s a good tree, in that it conforms to the definition of trees, and in its nature it has never consciously committed any evil deed. And it is a beautiful tree, because it, in its present state of being, is admirable and beautiful, whether or not it’s perfectly symmetrical or delightful.

Then, recently, I ran across this old dialogue between Albert Einstein and Rabindranath Tagore:

TAGORE: . . .  Science is concerned with that which is not confined to individuals; it is the impersonal human world of Truths. Religion realizes these Truths and links them up with our deeper needs; our individual consciousness of Truth gains universal significance. Religion applies values to Truth, and we know this Truth as good through our own harmony with it.

EINSTEIN: Truth, then, or Beauty is not independent of Man?


EINSTEIN: If there would be no human beings any more, the Apollo of Belvedere would no longer be beautiful.




This hurts me.  It strikes at the True, and at the Beautiful.  (Well, the Beautiful was little shaky to begin with, in case you didn’t notice.)

Basically, Tagore is saying that, if there were no people in the world, the transcendental properties would not apply.


Beauty becomes a fashion show of stuff that doesn’t matter, and Truth becomes just a set of things that equal other things.

And it goes without saying that the Good goes right out the window.

And – given what we know about the subatomic universe – who can say what’s a unity? What’s the One?

The Universe is a scary place, kids, when you take away the transcendental properties.

Somebody please hold my hand.

About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to

2 Responses to The one, the true, the good, and the beautiful

  1. starproms says:

    Yes it is a scary place, you’re right. Today on the news over here I heard that the Girl Guide movement is changing the wording of their Guides’ promise. No longer will the word God appear but ‘develop our own beliefs’ takes its place. There followed a lively debate about whether or not the Guide Movement was rooted in Christianity or not. Everything is so dumbed down these days just to keep everybody happy.

    • Attitudes are changing. I just hired a student to work in the office this summer, whom I know to be a very devout fundamentalist Christian, but he never speaks of it; he’s very cautious. I’m sure that, at the University, he gets tired of people challenging his beliefs.

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