Phillip Bess, professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame, has written both in his book Till We Have Built Jerusalem, as well as in a recent article entitled, “Building on Truth,” that classical architecture has as its foundation a set of truths that are actually the bedrock of all of Western culture—whether architecture, moral truth, or otherwise. The three assumptions are as follows:
- Reality is real.
- We can know it.
- We flourish when we accord with it.
These constitute “the metaphysical realism foundational to traditional architecture and urbanism.” They also constitute the metaphysical assumptions underlying the entire pre-modern world.
He then gives three cities as examples of metaphysics embodied; these principles taken to their logical architectural ends. He first lists Athens as that place that believed “that the best life is the life of moral and intellectual excellence, and that a good city makes the best life possible for its citizens.”
Secondly, Jerusalem is entered as an example of a city whose “excellence is also measured by the care it exhibits for its weakest members;” not to mention its biblical place as the earthly representation of the transcendent end toward with creation is oriented—the New Jerusalem.
Finally, Rome gives us the fullest expression of that idea that “a city’s beauty is warranted by and represents its greatness.”
To contrast these noble ends, Bess comfortably enters into a critique of hypermodern architecture, which has less to do with his dislike of steel, glass, sharp angled lines, and minimalism; rather, he is concerned with end it has in mind. He writes, “Today we have hypermodernism, which embodies and seeks to legitimate…the freedom of individuals ‘to live an experimental life’ in the context of a consumer-oriented global economy.”
His article becomes particularly sobering as he recites the Nietzschean victory in hypermodernism: “He (Nietzsche) contended that the morality of Enlightement-era philosophers was an error born of cultural habit, and that the original error itself was to believe that morality is anything other than a mask for the will to power.”
The lie this time is so insidious, we actually built it. Declared the world a blank slate, ignored the forms to which we should conform, and imposed a vision that lied to everyone who saw it. No longer was a human being an “intermediate being: simultaneously part of, different from, and responsible for nature.” No longer is reality essentially sacred and community our natural membership. Reality is now hulking I-beams and inflated skeletal muscle: don’t mess with me. Spectacle without a context or history. Morality must be as empty as its spaces within and without.
This leads me to the mission of our school, restated with the help of Josef Pieper: When a people denies its cultural roots, it’s important to now what those cultural roots are. This will require silence, contemplation, insight—and the leisure to do those things. Pieper helpfully reminds us that the word for leisure in Latin is scola—from which we derive “school.” “The word,” writes Pieper, “used to designate the place where we educate and teach is derived from a word which means ‘leisure.’ ‘School’ does not, properly speaking, mean school, but leisure.”
Our mission? Leisure. From leisure will come a proper understanding of the metaphysical underpinnings of life. From that proper understanding will flow a way of life involving customs and ceremonies that validate what matters most to us. As James K.A. Smith has written, “Anyone who has mastered a golf swing or a Bach fugue is a ritual animal: one simply doesn’t achieve such excellence otherwise.”
Love the True, the Good, the Beautiful: Jesus Christ the righteous.