Beauty in the Escutcheon
2009 Oct 14
Let us return to one of the most important innovations of the 17th Century educational reformer and world federalist, John Amos Comenius, author of Panorthosia, or Universal Reform. In an earlier essay called "Escutcheons for Social Diversity" we talked about his suggestion that a world government use short mottos or slogans to spread knowledge, virtue and excellence to every level of society. Borrowing from the terminology of emblems and coats of arms that were proudly displayed by nobles and knights of old, I have been calling these slogans "Escutcheons." Our earlier discussion was concerned with how the use of escutcheons could help ethnic relations in a hillside development. Today I want to focus on the personal and financial repercussions.
Escutcheons for Individuals
At the most basic level, that of the individual, Comenius held that all self-improvement comes of a strict regime of self-examination that a rival religious leader, St. Ignatius of Loyola, called the "examen," a daily or twice daily session of self-criticism. Comenius saw all reform starting in personal reform, and all personal reform starting in an examen. This can be reinforced by tracking one's progress in written or graphic form by the use of an escutcheon tracking what a person wishes to stand for, the virtues they aim to display, and so forth. In at least two chapters of the Panorthosia, Comenius sums up with the motto "Here is a splendid image of God," that he proposes for the examen of every individual,
"Therefore no matter who you are, you must reform yourself according to God's good pleasure and with His help, so that angels and pious men are able, as it were, to read on your forehead the inscription: 'HERE IS A SPLENDID IMAGE OF GOD.'" (Panorthosia, Chapters 19 and 20, paragraph 24)
This "splendid image" of the divine differs from the Tabula Rasa or blank slate of Frances Bacon and John Lock. For Comenius, knowledge is written on the soul not as chalk on a blackboard but as images on a mirror. This scripturally based model imagines the mind and soul as a glass, finite but boundless, instantly reflecting the whole universe presented before it, without limit but also without control. That is, there is no limit to how much we can learn.
However, to be created as an image or mirror of God entails the heavy responsibility of keeping the divine ever before us. We have a mind and spirit as well as a reflective soul. This means that we must not imitate or reflect passively but be critical. We have to examine, sift and prove the truth from the fleeting images presented before us.
By "splendid image of God" Comenius meant, of course, a spiritual condition of happiness and harmony, brilliant enough to be perceived by all onlookers. The saying "a splendid image of God" formalizes this; it serves as a constant reminder to post in a place of mediation or a private area of the home. Seeing the motto posted there aids the personal assessment of the examen.
All successful people subject themselves to some sort of daily accounting or weekly self-assessment, but the escutcheon can enhance that using the latest technology. Along with the slogan, various graphics and dashboard displays can have a live feed into various statistical measures of physical and emotional health, as well as measuring the current state of one's budget in relations to the financial health of one's family and community. A regular habit of checking these data in times of tranquility would keep the reflective life on track with praxis.
In designing escutcheons we will need artists as much as technicians. They will need to design its graphics to become more beautiful as accepted measures mark improvements, and less beautiful as a decline sets in. The displays on a personal escutcheon are fully configurable according to taste. A user may switch themes according to preference among many visual themes, digital, analogue or iconic. However, for each of them beauty always varies according to aesthetic standards.
One person may want to see their physical and financial health as a representation of the face and body of a person or animal. If her habits are unhealthy, the figure would gain ugly proportions. As healthy habits register, her avatar is beautified. Thus beauty, if nothing else, would reward the sacrifice, vigilance, temperance and self-denial that a virtuous life demands.
This system of standard displays on an escutcheon applies both technological and philosophical wisdom to the spiritual process described metaphorically in Oscar Wilde's short story, "The Portrait of Dorian Gray." Wilde's fable describes a personal portrait that ages as its subject remains handsome and youthful. While he lives a dissipated and superficially successful life, his portrait, hidden away, gradually becomes old and ugly for him.
Unlike Dorian Gray's portrait, an escutcheon would do the reverse, be beautified by the outwardly painful, difficult and tempestuous life that all great artists, innovators and saints tend to live. If Dorian Gray had an escutcheon plugged into accepted measures of real accomplishment, creativity and innovation, it might well be ugly to start but as he learns to live a meaningful, examined life it would gradually be beautified. Indeed the escutcheon of a good man or woman might after death may well be proudly transferred directly to adorn the family sarcophagus or gravestone.