Cyprian Norwid on Beauty

Beauty is to enthuse us for work, and work is to raise us up    –Cyprian Norwid (Polish poet)

A girl–even a girl who cares very much about economics and school choice–can only read and summarize working papers for so long until she has to take a break for something beautiful.  Something less useful. I came across this quote in a letter from Pope John Paul II, discovered through my brother’s recent blog post, and it struck a chord. Perhaps because he goes on to discuss a remarkable Greek word, kalokagathía which signifies the incarnation of goodness in the form of beauty, or because my cottage endured a glorious bout of spring cleaning this morning, I am quite sure that beauty is the one thing that we all desperately need more of. Especially in ourselves.

But what does it mean that beauty excites us for work? Beautiful things tend to resonate with us, and when we allow ourselves to be allured, they can draw us from where we are to where we ought to be. The power of beauty is that it resonates, but just not enough. We have to change if we want to feel at peace in the presence of a beautiful artwork, musical composition, or personality.  I felt this just a moment ago during my pre-class morning procession to the coffeeshop, over the well-worn cobblestones, past spring’s sweet-smelling trees, and under the light blue and light coral sky.

Beauty will humble us, then work exalts us. I am drawing completely from my personal experience here– the best feeling that I know arrives when I rest my head on my pillow after a full day of fruitful work. Whether it’s a long, refreshing run, a completed paper, or painted canvas for a birthday gift, we humans love looking over our shoulder and seeing progress. Work was made for us. Sure, it’s terribly frustrating, and the space between where I am and where I want to be seems insurmountable at least once a day (especially during those hours right before lunch), but beauty comes in and reminds us of the reward.

“You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace.”

Beauty, truth, and goodness return us back to our right selves. They grant not only practical clarity, but pure excitement as well. It is precisely this reason why we should all care very much about surrounding ourselves with beautiful things and beautiful people, in our home, at work, and at play. It turns out that bare, useful things aren’t quite useful enough to complete the work we seek to complete.

And still the real crux of the matter has yet to be mentioned. At the end of the day, Peter Kreeft had it right in his lecture on the Sea when he spoke that we don’t want to possess beauty, but instead what we find we really want is to be entirely possessed by it. Just as the sea engulfs us as we rush into the waves, so we want to be engulfed by Beauty.


For further reading:

Asceticism: The Alternative to “Hope and Change”

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