“The true, the beautiful, the good: through all the ages of man’s conscious evolution these words have expressed three great ideals: ideals which have instinctively been recognized as representing the sublime nature and lofty goal of all human endeavour.”
When I first came across Plato’s ‘big 3’ I knew this expressed an essential truth. I wrote this original article in 2010 for the magazine of the Astrological Psychology Association, but I think it bears repeating here in edited form for a different audience.
It was in the writings of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato that the beautiful, the true and the good were first identified as primary intrinsic qualities, from which all other values are derived. Over the many centuries since, many philosophers have continued to regard these qualities as of prime importance; for example they formed the subject matter of Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant’s three major treatises The Critique of Pure Reason (truth), The Critique of Practical Reason (goodness) and The Critique of Judgement (beauty). Mystics and spiritual teachers have also championed these three essential ‘windows on the divine’, for example they correspond to Sri Aurobindo’s ‘three dynamic images’.
It is not surprising, therefore, to see beauty, truth and goodness identified as primary considerations in the ‘integral philosophy’ pioneered by American philosopher Ken Wilber. One of the building blocks of Wilber’s comprehensive philosophy is his model of the Four Quadrants. On the left we have the subjective ‘I’, and on the right the objective ‘You’. At the bottom the field of the ‘Collective’ and at the top the ‘Individual’. The words in the quadrants indicate the sort of field of human experience that relates to that particular quadrant. In this diagram Wilber can situate all fields of human endeavour. (See e.g. A Theory of Everything, or his magnum opus Sex, Ecology and Spirituality.)
It will not help us enormously to attempt to define beauty, truth and goodness in great detail; we all have a good idea of what they mean. Goodness is basically about how I, the subject, relate to the collective – Wilber’s bottom left ‘cultural’ quadrant. Truth is about how we relate to the world in an objective sense, and hence particularly relates to the second and third ‘objective’ quadrants – ‘social’ and ‘behavioural’. Beauty is the term we apply to the most exquisite features of the external world, and of our internal world, so essentially belongs to the field of the personal subjective – Wilber’s fourth ‘intentional’ quadrant. This mapping of the ‘big three’ onto the quadrants is given by Wilber himself.
Bruno & Louise Huber
Of course, the quadrants are not unique to Wilber. A similar model is found in the astrological birth chart, which is particularly related to the human psyche in the astrological psychology pioneered by Bruno & Louise Huber. The quadrants are related to the four elements Fire, Earth, Air and Water.
The Hubers discovered a relationship between the four quadrants and the stages of a human life, in a technique called ‘Age Progression’. At birth, we begin at the ‘I’point and move through the quadrants in a counter-clockwise direction, as follows. There is an interesting relationship with the ‘big three’ qualities.
Age 0-18. Life in the first ‘Impulse’ quadrant is about establishing and preserving the self in a formative environment, and adapting to this environment. How often do we hear the injunction ‘be good’ addressed to children? Goodness is about how we relate to others, and in those early years we learn what goodness is about, particularly relative to the demands of society. It is well understood that where this early conditioning is not available or unsuccessful there is a much higher chance of criminality in later life.
Age 18-36. Life in the second ‘Instinct’ quadrant is about establishing a position in the collective society as the unconscious social self. We learn to adapt to the You. We soon discover that ‘be truthful’ is the necessary condition to earn the trust of others, both in personal relationship and interacting with groups. So in this context truth is again about how we relate to others, but now these truths relate to objective things, such as laws and behaviours, contrasting with the more subjective codes of morality and goodness.
Age 36-54. In the third ‘Thinking’ quadrant we establish ourselves as conscious and autonomous contributors to society. We begin to realise our true conscious self and understand our own life philosophy. We come to understand what it means to be ‘true to ourselves’. So this truth is about our inner life and what we are really about – if you like, our ‘soul’s purpose’ and any ‘life vocation’.
Age 54-72. Finally, in the fourth ‘being’ quadrant the full fruits of life are experienced, first out in the world and then as inner spiritual beings. Beauty is perhaps the quality that is closest to our inner spirituality. It is ‘peak experiences’ of transcending beauty that often signal events of spiritual significance. We recognise the beauteous radiance of sages such as the older Krishnamurti, the outer beauty a reflection of an inner spiritual beauty. It is pleasing to consider the prospect that such beauty might be a fruit of the later years of life after all those busy years of contributing to our society.
After age 72 we move on again into the first quadrant, but that is another story.
As shown by the quote at the beginning of this article, the fundamental importance of our ‘big three’ qualities was recognised in the late 19th/early 20th centuries by Rudolph Steiner, polymath and founder of anthroposophy. Steiner gave a more spiritual perspective on truth, beauty and goodness.
He suggests that a feeling for truth is connected with our consciousness of the physical body, and that living in truth helps to retain the sense of the connection between this physical body and pre-earthly existence. The physical body is clearly that part of our existence that most corresponds with the objective right hand ‘truth’ quadrants of the Huber and Wilber diagrams.
Steiner relates beauty to the etheric body – the formative forces that lie behind the physical body and provide the link with previous spiritual existence. He suggests that a highly developed sense of beauty gives us a right relation to the etheric body. Now the etheric body is the ‘inner’ corresponding with the ‘outer’ of the individual physical body and thus corresponds fairly naturally with the fourth quadrant.
Steiner goes on to relate goodness to the astral body. Through goodness a person can develop the actual power that will lead him directly into the spiritual world – a goodness that flows to other human beings and is not confined to self-interest. Again, the astral body is an ‘inner’ body, this time related to the collective and other people, which naturally corresponds with the first quadrant.
Thus Rudolph Steiner’s analysis from a completely different perspective is consistent with the Wilber and Huber models.
This exploration of truth, beauty and goodness has taken us from Plato’s philosophy via Ken Wilber’s modern integral philosophy to Bruno Huber’s astrological pychology and Rudolph Steiner’s anthroposophy. In the process, we can see that these high-minded philosophical ideals do have a very practical relevance to our lives and our life journey.
We might speculate on the Life Clock of the Western societies on some almost unimaginable timeframe and wonder if we are not in the period of adolescence towards the end of the first quadrant, where our concept of goodness is being thoroughly tested in the the current economic crisis [written in 2010]. It is clearly unthinking greed in the financial community that has led to the current crisis – ultimately a problem of lack of ‘goodness’, grasping for ‘me’ while letting ‘you’ go hang. Global warming presents another example – we collectively must have our creature comforts and travel, to the detriment of the third world, the environment and future generations.
And yet the encounter with ‘truth’ from the second quadrant increasingly comes to meet us – the truths of what is really happening in the financial world, to populations denied justice, to the environment – truths that cannot be avoided by denial such as has been evident for a generation.
When we can learn to face this truth with goodness, creating a just and more equitable global society that can sustain the global environment, we will be collectively metaphorically entering the second quadrant and approaching adulthood.
It is salutary, but perhaps also exciting, to realise that there is a long way for the our societies to go before they even get to the 3rd quadrant and start to become truly conscious and will-driven, learning to live out humanity’s true destiny.
What a prospect, to reach the fourth quadrant and for a society that lives in true inner spiritual beauty, which will of course be reflected in a world of outer beauty. No longer will the blight of ugly functional human construction mar the beauty of the creation; it will be enhanced and glorified…
Integral Consciousness, Steve MacIntosh
A Theory of Everything, Ken Wilber
Sex, Ecology and Spirituality, Ken Wilber
LifeClock, Bruno & Louise Huber
The True, the Beautiful, the Good, lecture by Rudolf Steiner, January 19, 1923
Featured image shows a sunset at Santa Monica, California