The featured image for this post is the famous Chapel Bridge of Luzern, Switzerland, built in the 1300s. The sides of the bridge are loaded with bountiful floral hanging baskets; and beneath the roof, triangular paintings of historic and religious events brighten your way every few steps. From the bridge, highly-decorated restaurants, shops, homes, and even the city’s history museum become the subjects of thousands of photographs. Likely the most popular spot in the city, the bridge is covered by a constant stream of tourists flowing in both directions far into the evening. Some visitors pause for several minutes taking in the scene and the water curling around the bridge’s tower. The ubiquitous cell phones are out – but not for playing games or shopping online retailers; everyone is recording the sights because, unless you happen to live in a medieval village, old-town Luzern is unlike any place you’ve ever seen.And apparently, this old-fashioned-ness is attractive – even (or especially?) to our screen-addicted, speed-addicted culture.
The experience prompted two questions, both of which are deeply related to classical education.
First: Why have the people of Luzern spent so much effort over the centuries to beautify their bridge and their city?
Second: Why do thousands of twenty-first century tourists want to visit a 700-year-old bridge in a city that looks like it could be the setting for a fairy tale?
There are several possible answers to the first question. To be purely mercenary, one could say that perhaps the residents want to profit from living in a beautiful tourist attraction. To be nobly historical, one could guess that the residents want to retain the past appearance of their city. To be highly philosophical, looking at Luzern’s surroundings, one could say it is possible that residents want their town to reflect its sublime natural surroundings: Mt. Pilatus (above), towering over the city to the southwest; the multitude of the surrounding lower peaks; Lake Luzern itself; and the pristine mountain woods.
The answer to the second question – why tourists want to visit an old-fashioned town – is bound up in the answers to the first question. All three responses to the first question are based on two fundamental assumptions: (1) beauty is worth imitating and preserving, and (2) people are attracted to beauty.
So, as classical educators, why should we incorporate what beauty we can into our curriculum and into the rhythm of our school (be it a sizable academy, a cottage school, a co-op, or the kitchen table)?
First, as Christian classical educators, we should incorporate beauty because God Himself is beautiful (Psalm 27:4, Isaiah 33:17), His creation is beautiful (Genesis 1-2, Job 38-39, Psalm 104), His dwelling place is beautiful (Psalm 84:1, 96:6, Revelation 21), and He commanded His people to build Him a beautiful tabernacle (Exodus 25-30). Apparently, God thinks beauty is important, so if we desire to train ourselves to follow God’s ways, we should value beauty.
Second, we should incorporate beauty because God commands us to think on “whatever is lovely” and anything that is excellent or worthy of praise (from Philippians 4:8).
Third, we should incorporate beauty because it gives us a greater sense of the human experience. Throughout history, people have created beautiful things. Study of the past is incomplete if it depicts man as a purely political or economic animal. As the sight of the Chapel Bridge in Luzern demonstrates, we as humans still recognize that we are more than our political and economic value, even in our politically- and economically-driven century. Studying the beauties created in the past humbles us by showing us that we are more like our forebears than we often prefer to think.
Fourth, we should incorporate beauty because it shows us some of the serious errors of our current culture. While we of the 21st-century certainly appreciate beauty to a certain extent, much of our culture is unfortunately bent on minimizing, degrading, hiding, and even destroying beauty. From the big blue blotch on the Garden of the Gods, to the covering of great works of art, to the removal of paintings from museums, to the repurposing and destruction of centuries-old churches (even more prevalent in Europe), our culture increasingly denies the importance of beauty. If we want to counteract this idea, we must provide positive examples for our students.
Fifth, we should incorporate beauty because it is useless. If something is useful, it is a means to an end – not an end in itself. Beauty is useless because it is significant in itself. In our efficiency-oriented, practicality-driven society, almost nothing is so jarring as to do something for the sheer joy of it. “Why attempt to imitate fine French cooking – food doesn’t last, shouldn’t we just fill our growling stomachs at Speedy Burgers and move on to the next thing?” But fine French cooking is simply delicious – and delicious takes time. “Why sit and listen to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony? There are ten-thousand other things you could be doing, and you don’t know a thing about classical music.” But listening to Beethoven is simply gorgeous – and drinking it all in takes time. “Why attempt to copy a Rembrandt, a Monet, or a Michelangelo? You’re not a professional artist, so it’ll look terrible, and that’s an hour you won’t be checking your students’ math homework.” But studying a Rembrandt, a Monet, or a Michelangelo is simply lovely – and luxuriating in loveliness takes time. Some things in life – it could easily be argued that they are the best things in life – take time. Making quality furniture that will be around next century takes time. Children’s growth and education takes time. Studying the Bible and learning to pray take time. Getting to know your friends takes time. Refining your character takes time. Traveling takes time. Learning to play an instrument takes time. Understanding complex concepts takes time. If our students are mainly surrounded by our high-efficiency, on-demand, college-and-career-ready, free-two-day-shipping culture, they ought to be allowed to steep in beauty.
Sixth and last, we should incorporate beauty because it teaches us about its creator. When we study something created by God, we learn about God. When we study something created by man, we learn about man – who is created in God’s image. What kind of man is the artist who painted himself into his own Last Judgment and who sculpted a Pieta for his own tomb? What kind of man is the writer who put the character of himself in danger in the Inferno? What kind of man is the composer whose most famous work is an ode to the joy for which he begged God but almost never experienced on earth? What kind of God is the God Who made both the “little lamb” and the”tyger burning bright”, the rose and the giant Sequoia, the sand grain and the diamond, the pea and the pineapple, the snowflake and the sunset, the minnow and the blue whale, the atom and the galaxy, the cell – and us?
Image: Chapel Bridge, Luzern, Switzerland