The Good, the True, and the Beautiful

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Ken Wilber explores the three fundamental discernments of the human mind: the Good, the Beautiful, and the True. Ken discusses how all three are simultaneously parts of a single indivisible whole, yet each possesses its own means of disclosing and verifying knowledge.

“To understand the whole, it is necessary to understand the parts. To understand the parts, it is necessary to understand the whole. Such is the circle of understanding. We move from part to whole and back again, and in that dance of comprehension, in that amazing circle of understanding, we come alive to meaning, to value, and to vision: the very circle of understanding guides our way, weaving together the pieces, healing the fractures, mending the torn and tortured fragments, lighting the way ahead—this extraordinary movement from part to whole and back again, with healing the hallmark of each and every step, and grace the tender reward.”Ken Wilber, The Eye of Spirit

What is the Good, the Beautiful, and the True?

The concept of the Good, the Beautiful, and the True is one that dates all the way back to antiquity, finding its first expressions in the Bhagavad Gita and the teachings of Plato, and later conceived by Aristotle as three of the primary transcendent properties of being — properties that both represent the three primary categories of knowledge, as well as the ideal forms within those categories. Although our understanding of these three irreducible dimensions has evolved quite a bit over the millennia (we no longer understand them as perfect platonic forms existing somewhere outside of time, but rather the natural product of the three fundamental perspectives we use to perceive reality), this perennial notion has proven just as useful today as ever before.

Like three sides of a prism, the Good, the Beautiful, and the True refract the white light of consciousness into the entire spectrum of human experience:

Beautiful
Art
Self
Aesthetics
1st-person
Buddha
 
Good
Morals
Culture
Ethics
2nd-person
Sangha
 
True
Science
Nature
Logic
3rd-person
Dharma
 

Ken often refers to these irreducible dimensions of experience as the “Big Three” of I, We, and It:

I (Beautiful):
Consciousness, subjectivity, self, and self-expression (including art and aesthetics); truthfulness, sincerity.

We (Good):
Ethics and morals, worldviews, common context, culture; intersubjective meaning, mutual understanding, appropriateness, justness.

It (True):
Science and technology, objective nature, empirical forms (including brain and social systems); propositional truth (singular and functional fit).

A Brief History of the Good, the Beautiful, and the True

The story of the Big Three is the unfolding of human knowledge itself.

In premodern times, these three value spheres existed in a state of undifferentiated fusion — the Good was not different than the True, which was not different than the Beautiful. All three were collapsed into a single monological view, tightly controlled by a particular sovereign power (the Church, the King, etc.). This allowed each value sphere to dominate and control the others. Galileo was prevented from pursuing science (the True) because it came into conflict with the prevailing mythological religious morals of the time (the Good). Michelangelo had to be very careful about the types of figures he represented in his art, because Art and Morals were not yet differentiated. This is not holism or integration; this is undifferentiated fusion.

In modern times, beginning largely with the Renaissance, the spheres of Art, Morals, and Science began to be properly differentiated. Freed from the yoke of authoritarian control, each sphere was now allowed its own jurisdiction and its own methods for generating knowledge — and as a result, knowledge began to flourish at an exponential rate. New forms of artistic expression exploded into being. New methods of scientific validation allowed us to separate objective fact from subjective belief, resulting in the emergence of physics, chemistry, biology from the pre-differentiated amalgam of hermetic alchemy. These value spheres were not only accelerating their own acquisition of knowledge, they were also exerting an accelerating pressure upon the other spheres — for example, differentiating “I” from “We” allowed for the rise of individual rights and freedoms that could not be impinged or taken away by the state, the Church, etc., which in turn resulted in the proliferation of new philosophies of moral goodness based on these new principles of egalitarianism and individual dignity. By being properly differentiated, the three value spheres were transformed for the very first time into genuine turbines for the advancement of human thought.

But what happens when we take differentiation too far? Simple: it becomes full-on dissociation. Our entire body of knowledge becomes broken, flattened, and fragmented. The feedback loops created among the three differentiated spheres begin to break down, and every major tract of human knowledge begins to lose sight of the others, overextends its purview, and reasserts itself as the central authority of all that is knowable. Divorced from all notions of a common universal context, a new fundamentalism begins to take shape — not the brute fundamentalism of an un-differentiated central authority (all forest, no trees), but a somewhat more insidious fundamentalism of dissociated and disconnected nodes (all trees, no forest).

This is the postmodern condition many of ourselves now find ourselves in, where the many pathologies of dissociation run rampant — including all the usual ten-dollar terms like scientism, cultural constructivism and relativism, systemic reductionism, aesthetic infantilization, epistemic collapse, and “post-truth” politics.

From fusion to differentiation to dissociation — this is the story of human knowledge so far, the story of the human condition itself.

Integrating the Big 3

Which brings us to today, on the precipice of yet another monumental leap of understanding. A new kind of integrative thinking is now beginning to emerge from the smoking ruins of postmodernism, one that seeks to recognize, honor, and include all the numerous branches of Art, Morals, and Science while recognizing them as multiple facets of a single living gem. This integrative thinking is guided by three general principles:

“Everyone is right” (non-exclusion)
“Some are more right than others” (enfoldment)
“If you want to know this, do that” (enactment)

We wil explore these three principles of integral thinking in a future video clip. But for now, it is sufficient to note that, when all three principles are brought to bear, a very simple but deeply profound question arises: “How can we describe reality in such a way that all these verifiable perspectives on Truth, Goodness, and Beauty can be included?”

The Integral Vision is our very best answer to that question — our very best hope to overcome the painful fragmentation of our lives and the world around us, to bridge the ever-widening gaps between us, and to unfold the bright grain of truth in every perspective.

By opening yourself to this new integral wave of thinking, knowing, and being, you are able to more fully tap into the enormous spectrum of experience available to you. And the more fully you can experience reality, the more freedom and fullness blossoms in your life. Integral is a means by which you can see—and feel!—that somehow, everyone is right in their various interpretations of reality. Or, put another way, “no one is smart enough to be wrong all the time.” The Integral vision draws upon all the very best ideas throughout history—East and West, pre-modern, modern and beyond. It synthesizes all of our accumulated knowledge and wisdom in such a way that we can see very real patterns emerge right before our very eyes, patterns that connect all the various aspects of our lives, weaving together the many strands of our lives into a deeply meaningful whole.

The Integral Vision helps to refine and empower our own perspective of the world, while opening us up to all the infinite perspectives around us, so we may share fully and freely in the most comprehensive view of reality possible. It allows us to become an undeniable force of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the world, in our relationships, and in our own timeless heart.

Written by Corey deVos

Ken Wilber

About Ken Wilber

Ken Wilber is a preeminent scholar of the Integral stage of human development. He is an internationally acknowledged leader, founder of Integral Institute, and co-founder of Integral Life. Ken is the originator of arguably the first truly comprehensive or integrative world philosophy, aptly named “Integral Theory”.