The Ancient Modern
Comparing the Metaphysical Triads / Joshua Alan Sturgill
For quite some time (years actually) I’ve been pondering how the classic metaphysical triads of the Good, the True and the Beautiful and Being, Consciousness and Bliss might be correlated and compared. In each triad we have an irreducible collective, meaning that one term implies the other two, but can’t be subordinated to them.
I wonder if, taken together, these triads represent the twin poles of metaphysical thought in the ancient Indo-European world. Ancient Greek and Sanskrit share many root words; hence, many of the same ontological considerations. They carried on a long-distance conversation over many centuries, through many interpreters.
But like their respective terms, I do not think the two triads are reducible to each other. They are linguistically and schematically connected, but they are not mere restatements. I make no claim to “explain” one by the other. Both refer to a Mystery, to what is comprehendible but not apprehendable. Perhaps they gesture toward same Mystery, pointing up to the peak from different sides of the same mountain?
My comparison of the two is an exercise in contemplation, not of critique. I’m certain there is much more to say. But in brief, this is how I see them echoing each other:
Being & the Good
Consciousness & the True
Bliss & the Beautiful
The first pair implies self-awareness and other-awareness, both compassion and stillness. Existence is its own good, perhaps the first good. But it must be insisted that such an existence is not impersonal. It is conscious, somehow alive with an inactive activity. The Christian idea of God-as-Trinity (to use one possible example) suggests that Consciousness/the Good is supra-individual. The individual emerges from the personal, and the personal emerges from a consciousness at once Personal and transcending Personhood.
The second pairing seems to me the most obvious. Consciousness implies knowing; knowing implies the Known. Consciousness, awareness, knowledge, truth. We might ask if something untrue can be known—a lie or misinformation accepted as fact. Is the capacity for knowledge the same as knowledge in the ultimate sense? Is Truth always or ultimately knowable? Does Truth in any sense know itself? Is the capacity for knowledge fixed, or does our capacity expand in proportion to the Truth we know or become? This question obviously concerns our participation in and growth toward metaphysics, rather than the metaphysical triads themselves.
The last pair is the most difficult to describe, but my intuition strongly sees them together. Under the surface of things (and surface is where our use of “beauty” is most often directed) a deeper Beauty exists, consonant with rest, repose, self-containment. The Beautiful is that which conforms to its own being or design or purpose. The words radiant, abundance, delightful—encompass both the Blissful and the Beautiful. To be beautiful is, in a profound sense, to be fully content.
In each of the traditions they represent (Hindu or Hellenic), the triads once formed both the ground and the goal of the metaphysical contemplation—and by extension, political, social and religious life. A man or woman, or a whole society, can be oriented by the triads toward the “higher things.” They are a summary, a critique and a compass. Tested or crafted by the ideas that spring from contemplation of the triads, I believe that even contemporary culture could be strengthened and redirected toward permanent and beneficial ends.
More importantly, in an era when the idea of the Person is being eroded by both materialist individualism and impersonal collectivism, keeping these triads in mind might help keep the spiritual or contemplative soul on a steady path. It is difficult to remember Being is Good when we spend so much time trying to achieve “success.” It is difficult to remember that our Consciousness corresponds to Truth—while many voices tell us there is no truth, only “information.” And it is difficult to remember that real Beauty is found in restful Bliss—when so much of what we call beauty is simply “fashion.”