Spring 1990, Vol.42 No. 1, pp. 4-14.

Clifford Williams:
      Moral Beauty

Stories of moral beauty awaken us to wonder at the miracles of lives quietly dedicated to the love of God and the God of love despite opposition, heartache, and failure.

Clifford Williams, who holds a Ph.D. from Indiana University, is associate professor of philosphy at Trinity Collge, Deerfield, Illinois. He has published many articles in The Reformed Journal, the The Evangelical Beacon, and other journals.

ON the evening just prior to a particularly vicious battle in the Napoleonic wars of 1808, a group of Russian soldiers sat around a fire reminiscing. One of the soldiers, who was torn to pieces the next day by a French cannonball, was telling tales of "moral beauty."

In this scene, depicted by Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace, the reader cannot help noticing the contrast between the war's ugliness and the soldiers' unhurried respite from it. The same is true of the contrast between Tolstoy's unpretentious description of the evening gathering and his captivating characterization of the soldier's tales. They are tales of moral beauty.

Tolstoy does not tell us what the stories were. Nor does he tell us what he conceives moral beauty to be. He simply slips the characterization into his narrative without so much as a pause. Yet it is worth a million pauses.

What is this intriguing concept? What is it to see moral beauty in people? And what is the point of doing so? I shall begin with this last question.

In his perceptive book, Lifesigns, Henri Nouwen writes, "Countless people experience their existence as dull, boring, stagnant, and routine. They lack innter vitality, a deep desire to be alive."(1) Many of us can identify with these observations. We feel ourselves unthinkingly going through each day's activities with little enthusiasm for what we do. A sense of tedium plagues us, and we constantly plan how to obtain some compensating excitement.

Within us, too, there is a nagging restlessness. We are vaguely dissatisfied with our lives, wondering at odd moments, "Is this all there is?" "There must be something more." We respond, but we scarcely know what it is.

The thought may occur to us that if we could recapture the spontaneous wonderment of a child opening a gift, we would have this something more. Or if we could experience every now and then a certain exhilaration, the kind we possessed when first falling in love or when receiving praise for an accomplishment, our drab existence would be brightened.

Though we often want to retreat into ourselves, something in us yearns to escape our self-centeredness. We feel that if we did, the hollowness we sometimes sense would be filled.

The experience of moral beauty satisfies these yearnings. It draws us out of ourselves, gives us a quiet exhilaration and evokes childlike wonderment. It quells our restlessness and dissipates the dull drudgery that seeps into our bones. It also infuses in us the "deep desire to be alive" that Nouwen refers to.

A dramatic instance of this last point occurred to Alan _______ several years ago. When I introduced him to the idea of moral beauty, I did not know he had been planning to kill himself. His response was rather blunt: "Isn't there evil in everyone? How can we see beauty in people?" Four months later, he mentioned that he had decided earlier in the year to drown himself during the summer, but had changed his mind. He had chosen drowning, he said, because he wasn't a very good swimmer, so his death would look like an accident. "What made you change your mind?" I asked. "It was those thoughts about moral beauty," he replied.

In what follows, I shall describe moral beauty, noting several obstacles to perceiving it, and giving remedies for these obstacles. I shall also describe what perceiving moral beauty does to us and to those in whom we observe it. First, though, here are some examples.

In his moving allegory, The Story of the Other Wise Man, Henry van Dyke describes the self-sacrifice of the Magian who was prevented from accompanying the three wise men on their journey to Bethlehem. He was to meet them at an appointed hour, but was detained by the plaintive cry of a dying man whom he stopped to nurse back to life. Although he desperately wanted to go to Bethlehem, and although he knew the three would leave without him if he did not hurry, he spent time, and more time, restoring the health of the dying man.

There are numerous less dramatic instances that we may encounter in routine circumstances. Imagine that two friends are talking together over lunch. Their conversation ranges over a number of everyday concerns. At one point one of them expresses a bit of insecurity, both by her tone of voice and by what she says. The other seizes the opportunity to give her words of assurance. "You're special, Ann, and you've meant a lot to me."

Imagine, next, that half a dozen people have given up one of their Saturdays to help fix up an inner-city mission. During a break, as they are talking about city life, one of them remarks quietly, "It is the love of Christ in my heart that brings me here."

Imagine, finally, that two people are talking to each other about their inner lives. One of them explains to the other that the reason she has remained aloof from men for so long and has not been able to trust them is that she was never sure that her father cared about her as a child. For ten years she told herself that it didn't matter anyway, but now she has discovered that it does matter, and she resents her father for not loving her. "But," she adds, "perhaps he wasn't able to give me what I needed," The other asks, "Does that amount to a kind of forgiveness of your father?" "Yes, I guess it does," the first replies.

To see the moral beauty in each of these situations is to delight in the assurance given, the love expressed, and the forgiveness realized. It is to be struck with these, to remember them and to savor them. What happens is the same as what happens when we observe physical beauty. A distinctive feature of an otherwise ordinary circumstance stands out in our consciousness, and we take keen enjoyment in being aware of it.

Seeing this distinctive feature requires sensitivity. Two people may look at the still, precise reflection of a tree in a perfectly calm pond, but only one may see the beauty in it. So, too, the beauty in each of these examples may escape our notice, unless we prize highly the distinctiveness in them.

Frederich Nietzsche, a nineteenth-century philosopher, was responsive to a deeper dimension of life. Unfortunately, what he saw was not beauty, but ugliness. In the section of his autobiography entitled, "Why I Am So Wise;" he tells us that his "instinct for cleanliness is characterized by a perfectly uncanny sensitivity so that the inmost parts of every soul are perceived by me -- smelled." This sensitivity, he explains, "furnishes me with psychological antennae with which I feel every secret: the abundant hidden dirt at the bottom of many a character" (Ecce Homo, Section 8).

Although we may react to this passage with disgust, we find in it two images which illumine the sensitivity required for seeing moral beauty. Nietzsche tells us that his perception of the inner lives of people is instinctive. He has a natural aptitude for observing what lies behind a person's exterior. Nietzsche also tells us that his ability to sense what goes on inside others is like having antennae. Antennae pick up signals that are not observable by ordinary means. Using these antennae, Nietzsche is able to perceive what to other people is hidden. When we are sensitive to moral beauty in people, we instinctively notice the moral and spiritual dimension of their lives. Our spiritual antennae pick up what otherwise we would not give a second thought to. Assurance, love, and forgiveness attract our attention.

Our attraction to moral beauty, however, is not natural to us. Because of our bent toward sin, we are not always drawn to the good we see. In fact, our instincts sometimes are to look for the bad, and we often notice that more easily than the good.

There are several reasons why moral beauty does not strike us so vigorously as it could. One of our basic impulses is to be more interested in ourselves than in others. Seeing moral beauty requires just the reverse. And that demands a selflessness that we rarely have, indeed, because of our natural disposition, that we would rather not have.

Moreover, our routine cares often blunt the effort -- the hungering and thirsting -- required to perceive moral beauty. We seldom have much energy beyond what we need to get ourselves through each day's activities. We usually have just enough to perform our duties and to give ourselves a few compensating pleasures. This inertia -- spiritual inertness afflicts us all in varying degrees. Sometimes it is all we can do simply to stay alive; we have little energy left over for extras.

Finally, we are prone to be envious of the good qualities in others. Envy is not simply a desire to possess the achievements or qualities of other people. It is also a painful or resentful awareness of those achievements. The awareness is painful because we see the successes or qualities of others as diminishing our own worth. So instead of valuing those qualities, we tend to dismiss them from consciousness or deny their beauty.

The remedy for envy is a sense of inner security. This sense comes to us when we accept the fact that our worth rests not on our achievements but on God's acceptance of us. Accepting this fact frees us from the impulse to see other people's achievements as detracting from our worth. We can look at their qualities and appreciate them, enjoy them, even delight in them, without being bombarded with doubts about ourselves or critical thoughts about others.

To be sensitive to moral beauty, then, requires an inner transformation: release from preoccupation with ourselves, spiritual energy, and a continuing consciousness of God's acceptance. Because we wrestle with these our whole lives through, being sensitive to beauty in others is a never-ending struggle. But when we are transformed in these ways, not only are we able to see beauty, we actively look for it. We develop a fascination with knowing others -- their hopes, fears, struggles, their loving, giving and selflessness. we become alert to particular instances of these, not just in books, but in people we know, whom we see every day.

The perception of moral beauty is not an optional feature of our new lives in Christ, for it springs from the basic changes that occur when Christ remakes us. He gives us a thirst for goodness and a hunger for righteousness. He fills us with a sense of gratitude for grace received, which incites us to behold with awe the same gift in others.

Although there is no prescription for finding moral beauty, there are definite steps we can take. We can set aside our own cares and worries for a time, and focus our attention on others. We can turn off our televisions and visit our friends. We can ask about their activities, thoughts, and feelings, and listen actively to what they tell us. What we will find is that the search for moral beauty is a creative adventure, filled with pleasant surprises.

We may not find great quantities, but we will discover meaningful instances, which will impress themselves deeply into our memory. We will listen to the laugh of a person who has been seriously depressed, observe sacrificial love for society's rejects, and see the smile on the once-crying face of a person who has suffered a devastating loss. We will learn of the struggle of someone who is grappling with a spiritual problem, see the joy in a person who has just discovered that Christ is Savior, and watch enthusiasm for God's work. We will hear the story of someone who has rebounded from bouts of despair, and come to know the pilgrimage of a person who has given up impediments to spiritual growth.

On occasion we will come across what Dostoyevsky calls a "truly beautiful soul." Dostoyevsky wrote his magnificent novel, The Idiot, in order to depict just such a person. Innocence is a prominent characteristic of Dostoyevsky's creation -- not the unknowing innocence of childhood, but purity of heart despite acquaintance with evil. Willingness to forgive, unadulterated simplicity, gentleness, and instinctive compassion are further features of Dostoyevsky's chief character in The Idiot.

A truly beautiful soul has other qualities as well. It loves genuinely and obviously, with a deep-felt interest in the concerns of others. It refuses to hold the failings of others against them. It possesses patience in spite of interruptions, and kindness in spite of offense. Its love for life is evident, and its giving is extravagant. It is sensitive to the feelings of others, and it constantly gives encouragement. It has, in M. Scott Peck's words, a "gracefulness of existence." (2)

What effects does observing moral beauty have? From one perspective, this is the wrong question to ask, since observing moral beauty is worthwhile apart from its effects. Simply knowing instances of love, forgiveness, joy, and gentleness enriches our lives. It is one of the things that makes life worth living, and obtaining it is desirable for its own sake.

From another perspective, this question is important, because observing moral beauty has significant effects both on ourselves and on others. When we observe moral beauty, we take it into ourselves. It becomes part of our lives, and if we have not been in the habit of noticing it, we can feel the change that takes place in us when we do begin noticing it.

The principle that operates here is the same as that which operates when we observe evil. If we were to look for instances of evil in people whom we know, and let those instances soak into our consciousness, we would find ourselves being changed. Our outlook on life would become cynical, we would develop an antagonistic attitude toward others, possibly becoming bitter and sour, and the memories of those instances would linger on, perhaps even haunt us.

It is the same with moral beauty. When we absorb it, we cannot help but be affected. Our disposition becomes brighter, we give ourselves to others ungrudgingly, and we treasure memories of distinctive occasions. The gloom we feel when we are involved with other people's troubles loses its oppressiveness. We see that this is God's world after all. We find, too, that some of our deepest yearnings are fulfilled. We crave to experience moments in which we "lose ourselves." This happens when we admiringly behold, in a way that is akin to self-forgetful praise, the beauty in someone. We long to gaze at untarnished goodness, and this occurs to a degree when we glimpse it in our friends. These yearnings are, to be sure, obscured and thwarted by sin, but they are in us, and their fulfillment produces a deep sense of life's meaningfulness, quieting our restless hearts and subduing our ceaseless strivings.

Moreover, we treat people differently when we see beauty in them. Because we esteem them, we treat them with respect and care, even with some tenderness. It would be entirely different if, like Nietzsche, we were to see dirt and ugliness. Then we would treat people with scorn and contempt, with little sensitivity to their feelings or rights.

Observing moral beauty also has a direct effect on the people themselves. They often sense what we see in them. They notice the expressions on our faces, and pick up signals from our behavior toward them. Our delight is easily observed in our eyes, in much the same way that a certain radiancy exudes from a person who is falling in love. This delight is a clear message to them that we have seen something which we value highly.

Nietzsche knew about this phenomenon. Of those in whom he smelled dirt, he wrote, "such characters who offend my sense of cleanliness also sense from their side the reserve of my disgust." St. Francis of Assisi may also have known about it. One of the reasons, it is said, that he had such extraordinary magnetism was that those who gazed into his eyes saw displayed there an unfeigned interest in their individual lives.

At times, our delight will overflow, and we will tell people what we see. We might say, "What I like about you is ...." or, "I love the way you ...." or "That was nice of you to ...."

The fascinating thing about people knowing what we see in them is that they act as we see them. If we see dirt, they will act dirty. If we see purity, they will act with purity. A piano player who is told, "You play well;" will practice harder. So, too, a Christian who is told, "You really care about people," will care even more.

When once we have made observation of moral beauty our habit, we will discover that on occasion we will have to look past the sins and shortcomings of those in whom we would see beauty. Here, perhaps, is the practice's greatest obstacle. It will seem to us nearly impossible to think of someone as doing something beautiful when we know how that person has fallen. This is especially true if the person has hurt us in some way, with an unkind word, for example. In such cases, looking for beauty becomes a form of love, not an easy love that dissipates with affront, but a hard love that hangs on in spite of offense.

One of my most vivid memories comes from a visit to a church service at Jesus People on the north side of Chicago. About one fifth of those who are present at their Sunday morning services are street people -- mostly alcoholic, homeless men. They usually sit by themselves on a row of chairs in the back of the large, basement-like room where meetings are held.

On the Sunday I visited, a street person sat several rows ahead of the back row, one row in front of me and three chairs to my left. Like most street people, his clothes were ill-fitting and dirty. Unlike the others, his right eye was completely swollen shut. The areas just above and below his eye had become enlarged so much that they covered his eye entirely. A bloody gash above his right eyebrow explained the presence of this hideous sight.

I did not listen very well to the sermon that morning, for I kept stealing glances at the unshaven face with the unseeing eye. In addition to pity, I felt a bit of revulsion. How could anyone be attracted to this unkempt man, or think there was anything beautiful about him?

The sermon finally ended, we sang a song, prayed, and stood to leave. The street person with one good eye and a dirty hat turned and walked straight toward me. He extended his hand, smiled broadly and greeted me with a gravelly but genuine, "Hello. How are you?" I was too astonished to respond with anything more than a weak handshake and a dull smile. This dirty, unshaved, cut, one-eyed face had a real smile on it.

Just after declining a marriage proposal, Princess Marya, in Tolstoy's War and Peace, thinks to herself, "My vocation is a different one. My vocation is to be happy in the happiness of others." It is not just any happiness she exults in. It is, she adds, "the happiness of love and self-sacrifice." Although she is mistaken about the incompatibility of marriage and being happy in the happiness of others, Princess Marya chose exactly the right word to describe observation of moral beauty. It is a vocation, inextricably intertwined with every part of our lives.

  1. Henri Nouwen, Life Signs (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1986), p. 55.

  2. M. Scott Peck, People of the Lie, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983). p. 125.

    | INDEX |