I'm reading
The Transcendentals
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
The Transcendentals
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
The Transcendentals
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
15 August 2022

The Transcendentals

In the lead-up to the first century, a revolution in philosophical thinking swept Greece, propelled in part by Socrates and Plato. In seeking to understand the principles of being and of the universe, the Greeks developed a belief that one was truly human only to the extent that one lived in harmonious relationship with the cosmos.

Written by Nathan Scolaro

This story originally ran in issue #70 of Dumbo Feather

In this new context, the world was brimming with divine order and meaning. At its heart was a belief in the micro-macro relationship – that the human being was a reflection of the universe, and vice versa. The divine was no longer exclusive to the gods and heavens; it was present throughout all life – and could be experienced through finding harmony in one’s spirit or fulfilling one’s purpose in the cosmos.

Plato was a leader in these philosophical conversations, and began a centuries-long rumination on what we now understand as the three transcendentals: truth, goodness and beauty. The transcendentals were forms of being believed to transcend categories of reality – forms that were common to all people, but also crossed the thresholds to the divine, and existed beyond the changing time-space-matter world.

Through his interactions with Socrates’ teachings, Plato became principally concerned with the Form of the Good, which, in his view, was not a quality or state, but rather the source of all being and that which makes truth perceivable. Good was seen as the origin of being as well as the destination, and could be lived out through proper conduct. Beauty provided the pull towards the good (and therefore the true) by awakening one’s desire.

These ideals – which were objective in their purest sense but could be felt by the noble seeker – inspired people to strive for perfection, and became a framework for living with meaning. They sparked a new social order: one that put ethics at the forefront of daily life and saw structures and laws enacted for the advancement of justice. People oriented away from classism and tribalism, towards the good of the whole.

Curiosity in science and numbers prevailed as people sought to broaden their knowledge and hone their sense of reason. There was also great interest in the aesthetic life: creativity flourished as people turned to poetry, art and music for a fix of beauty.

The pursuit of pleasure through the enjoyment of food was championed by the philosopher Epicurus. He believed that the senses were the most reliable source of knowledge, and that, “The root of every good is the pleasure of the stomach.” For him, food was to be enjoyed simply: fresh fish with lemon and oregano, a seasonal salad dressed in olive oil, a glass of wine with bread and cheese. Simplicity and balance in a meal brought harmony to the spirit.

It is easy to romanticise periods in the distant past, but this glimpse into Classical Greece is useful as we face a profound crisis of meaning. So much of our attention is placed on what is small – how we define ourselves, who we side with, how we’re perceived, where our values lie. Striving towards ideals is often viewed cynically, which diminishes our moral imagination and the value of things that cultivate human flourishing. With virtues like truth and goodness dragged through the mud and used as weapons to advance individual and group agendas – “This is what’s true for me and who are you to say otherwise?” – we are kept small, and our world is too.

I’m yearning to be lifted out of the humdrum of that small, hardened, combative place into the glorious rapture of being. It seems that an orientation towards what is good, true and beautiful could be a useful place to start.

We might, for example, set ourselves a code of conduct which involves being generous with our attention when we come across people we know in our day. It’s so easy to rush through our encounters, but offering openness and curiosity to share something genuine in those moments is powerful.

Similarly, taking time to research and test multiple sources and viewpoints on a topic can get us closer to its truth than the acceptance of a headline. There is an art in inquiring further here – a curiosity that takes us somewhere richer.

When it comes to awakening beauty, it’s also about our generosity of care and attention. Something I delight in is how a dinner table is set: the arrangement of plates and cutlery, the presence of flowers and candles, the way food has been served. When a space is infused with the thoughtfulness of another person, it feels good.

The transcendentals remind me of our capacity to meet life with wonder, and experience states that are deeper than the validation of the ego. They are an invitation to again fall in love with life.

So much of our world focuses on output, the derivation of joy in what is good, true and beautiful has been lost. Through curiosity, we can return to it. The transcendentals are about an orientation that feels soulful and purposeful. When we set out to experience them in this way, we exit our hardened caves and open ourselves to each other and the world.


You can read this conversation in issue 70 of Dumbo Feather. Pick up your copy online or find us at your local independent retailer. 

Nathan Scolaro

Nathan creates content for Small Giants Academy, producing the Dumbo Feather Podcast, contributing to the magazine and hosting our Storytelling workshops. He is passionate about the role language and stories play in shaping who we are and how we live. Previously the editor of Dumbo Feather magazine for 8 years, he enjoys a good deep and meaningful, as well as shining a light on ideas and work that help bring about a more beautiful world.

Illustration by Vaughan Mossop

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