Finalist, 2005 Kids Philosophy Slam
Christian Tarsney, age 18
Saint Louis Park, Minnesota

"Truth or beauty? What is more important in your life, truth or beauty?"

To understand the question, we must define our terms. "Truth" is best defined as the correspondence of thought and reality. Well-worn though this definition may be, it is the fairly precise and fits common usage. For thought to correspond to reality is for the interrelation of concepts within the mind to mirror the interrelations of their referents in the external world.

Beauty is a more difficult concept. It is a quality that we perceive through the senses, measured by our reaction, or proper reaction, to an object of perception. However, while this reaction is pleasurable, beauty is distinct from sense pleasure. A good meal or a hot shower gives pleasure, but we would not therefore describe it as beautiful. Instead, beauty involves the apprehension, through the senses, of something beyond the immediate object of perception. This thing is not merely another object, or our enjoyment would be merely sense pleasure at one remove. Instead, it is an abstraction, conveyed through our experience of an object, which makes that object beautiful. These abstractions, to be beautiful, cannot be morally or emotionally neutral. Instead, they must represent ideals, abstractions to which we attach value. Thus, beauty is the pleasure given through the experience of abstract ideals embodied in physical realities.

As this definition implies, our esthetic perceptions are a product of our moral beliefs and values. I consider the music of Mozart or Dvorak beautiful because it embodies ideals of happiness and benevolence that I consider morally good; my esthetic appreciation of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries stems from their reflection, both in theme and in plot structure, of the ideal of rationality. On the other hand, I dislike most modern popular music because it embodies moral principles of anti-intellectualism, unreflective sense pleasure, and emotionalism that I consider false. I dislike Voltaire's Candide because it reflects pessimistic and cynical beliefs with which I likewise disagree. If my philosophical beliefs were to undergo change, my esthetic beliefs would logically have to do so as well, since I identify as beauty that which reflects my ideals.

Having thus determined and illustrated the meaning of beauty, its relationship to truth should become clear. Beauty is the appreciation of realities and ideals; truth is their apprehension. Thus, truth is more important both in the abstract and in life, because it is foundational to beauty. One must validate one's moral ideals to validate one's esthetic judgments. While the appearance of beauty may be in the eye of the beholder "true beauty", i.e. beauty that truly has value, must be founded on true and rational premises, on right and valuable ideals. If that which appears beautiful lacks this foundation, its beauty is ultimately illusory, and will vanish as the myth behind it is dispelled. If the ideals that I recognize in the work of Dvorak, Mozart, or Doyle are false, then my appreciation of them is similarly false, and their beauty a delusion. Truth, therefore, is what gives beauty its meaning and value, and is thus more important.

Kids Philosophy Slam Home Page