Thursday, January 5, 2012

Beauty is truth, truth beauty

Back in 1819, John Keats concluded his poem "Ode on a Grecian Urn" with the lines:

'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'
 This is a line that has always held a place of deep importance within me, despite not always knowing the source (something I deeply regret as I now consider this one of my favorite pieces of poetry).

However, when it was first released, there was a significant debate as to the importance of this line.  T..S. Eliot was especially critical with his responce in 1929 of:
[T]his line strikes me as a serious blemish on a beautiful poem
Many might agree with Eliot by following along the belief that an existence that is limited to this universe is terrifying and restricted.  But to agree with this criticism is to miss the very purpose of this line.

The poem encompasses the thoughts of Keats of what historical events a Grecian urn might have 'experienced'.  But in the end, it takes all the hypothesizing and wonderment at the possibilities and tosses them aside.  It does not do this because it feels they are ugly or useless.  Instead, he does it because he realized that, not matter what we might believe, the truth of the universe will always be more beautiful than our beliefs, simply because it is the truth.

This is an idea that has become increasingly lost amongst many.  Instead of looking at the beauty of what is, many would prefer to believe the stories of the disenchanted.  While not always their fault and, at times, seeming more appealing than what is, this is the kind of thinking that can cripple a mind for life.

Many people feel more comfortable with thinking the universe was created by some deity thousands of years ago for the sole purpose of glorifying it (I will, for simplicities sake, ignore the sexism of the traditionally used pronoun 'him').  But this view is diametrically opposed to the final line penned by Keats.  Not only this, but it sets itself up as the opposition to reality and truth itself.

They will often stat that the facts revealed through rational inquiry using a tool known as science is, by its very nature, something that is incomplete.  That there must be more than just reality.  So they ignore the beauties and truths hidden within in favor of their myths.

I would like to think that they do so not out of spite, but out of ignorance and fear.  That they either do not truly know enough about the subject (or had it displayed to them properly) or that they fear it because it is different.

I am sure there are many who find the idea of being told what to do and think comforting.  But I doubt that they even realize many of the causes behind such beliefs.  It is simply what has worked best for them as they developed, thus they cling to it like a child does a favorite toy.

What such people do not see is that there is a beauty without compare just beyond their grasp.  That, for a potential myriad of reasons, they have held fast to their 'truths', instead of looking to the information itself.  They see a cold and unfeeling existance without the familair and calming embrace of their beliefs.  But this is just an illusion created out of ignornace.

For the universe as we understand it through the lens of science, is more beautiful than we could ever hope to comprehend.  Think for a moment that we know, with an incredibly high degree of certainty, the reasons for many things in our universe.

That, despite our various inner conflicts, biological failings and tendency for various forms of cognitive dissonance, we have started to understand the universe that we are a part of.  That we have looked into the molecular machinery of life and found an unbroken thread connecting us to every other organism that has, will or does exist.

That we have looked up at the seemingly permanent stars and uncovered an ever changing tapestry.  With every discovery, a new piece of the universe is revealed.  Enormous, fiery gas giants, devastating hypernoavea, black holes producing jets of matter and energy powerful enough to shred stars, organic molecules forming in nebulae, and an ever present echo from the formation of the universe itself.

Think for a moment upon the fact that, other than hydrogen, helium and a little bit of lithium, all other elements were made within or by stars.  That, all elements above iron can only be formed, naturally, by the explosive death of massive stars.  That we, and everything else that surrounds us, are made of these long dead stars.

These are but a few of the things we have begun to understand in our short time as a species.  Each day, new discoveries are made.  New connections form between seemingly disparate ideas.  Links forming towards a single unified view of what the universe is.

We have done this.  We, a group of primates that were forced down out of the trees due to an ever changing environment, have started to reveal these and other hidden truths.

Where once we relied on myths and superstition, we now rely on what we can prove.  And unlike the cold empty existence that many have feared, we find that Keats was right all along.  There is no greater beauty than truth.
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