Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and Literature

How can we juggle a triple search for truth, beauty, and goodness in our fiction?

How can we juggle a triple search for truth, beauty, and goodness in our fiction?

Truth. Beauty. Goodness. Who would turn those things down?

I was watching a YouTube lecture recent by Dr. Peter Kreeft, who teaches philosophy at Boston College. And I thought he was dead on when he said that the three ultimates, the three things we all strive and search for always as human beings, are truth, beauty, and goodness.

I got to thinking afterward, how does this statement affect fiction? What we like or dislike about certain books? What role do truth, beauty, and fiction play in determining what we read and how we rate what we read?

I think we find the universal human affirmation of truth, beauty, and goodness reflected in our taste for fiction in a very real way.

Truth? We all want verisimilitude in fiction. We want stories with characters who are true to life, who are shaped like, feel like, real people and who are therefore consistent in their actions and desires in the way real people are. Characters who change and develop in the way real people change and develop. When an author establishes the “rule” of a universe or of a story, we expect as readers that those rules will be treated as truth and will not be broken arbitrarily.

Beauty? In one way, beauty is reflected in the simple flow of language. Think of Faulkner, or of Shakespeare’s incredibly moving soliloquy from Henry V, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” Beauty is where style comes into play. There is no one way to write beautifully. Beauty can be simple and stark as well as ornate. But when beauty is present in our writing, in language, we know. We feel it in our bones. Symbols, figurative language, repetition, all these things add to beauty in fiction.

Goodness? We seek goodness in writing in our desire to see wrongs righted and justice done. Poetic justice is critical in most fiction. We want to see the good prevail, to see virtue rewarded and evil punished. If this doesn’t happen, we want to be able to pinpoint a reason why. We want our fiction to make sense of life and of suffering in a way we can’t always make sense of it in real life.

Now, every masterful story, every classic of world literature balances truth, beauty, and goodness to different degrees and presents different facets of them.

“Truth” in Cervantes’s “Don Quixote” is something that is very much up for debate. What Don Quixote sees as “true” is not necessarily true in a literal sense. The windmills aren’t really giant. But we recognize something inherently GOOD, something unselfish, about his willingness to charge into battle against evil giants to prevent them harming other people, and something BEAUTIFUL about the symbolism of the scene when he charges those windmills and refuses to admit defeat afterward, continuing his quest for justice.

I know that for me as a reader, truth is inherently important. I want to read things that teach me the true value of struggle, suffering, love, and sacrifice. As a Catholic Christina, I want to read things that show me the truth of how I can see God acting in my life and in the world.

Whatever your philosophy of life or religious views, I think it’s interesting to think about where you find truth, beauty, and goodness. How do you write them? Where do you find them in your favorite books? How would your target audience be looking for truth, beauty, and goodness in your work, and how can you make those things easier for them to find?


3 responses to “Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and Literature

  1. I can only write honestly if I write from the heart. In getting to know my characters, I learn more about their inner beauty, their goodness, and what matters to them–the truth.

    I also write simply these days. I’ve discovered that most readers are not interested in a clever “turn of the word” or descriptive passages. All they want is the story, minus any frills. Sad but true…

  2. I think part of the process of finding or putting truth, beauty, and goodness into my writing, is putting myself in it. When I read something I’ve written if I can’t feel a connection to it, the characters, or some other aspect I rewrite it. I like that people who know me intimately can see parts of me in my writing. That’s what makes it truthful, beautiful, and good. I think the best works reflect something about the author even if it isn’t obvious.

  3. Don Quixote was a parody of the popular romances, so it was a celebration of the truth. Don Quixote was viewed through the lens of Sancho Panza, who had his own disappointing version of truth that was more than a bit selfish and leaning toward “bad”. What’s interesting is that Sancho and all those who thought Don mad, realized a little madness wasn’t bad. He strove for a higher standard of self, but lost sight of consequences for his actions and was humbled. I think truth, beauty, and goodness are interesting themes to examine in classical works. It’s especially interesting to attempt to shape our own stories through mindfulness.

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