Good news: you have a superpower!
Bad news: every great strength (and a superpower is a strength, make no mistake) comes with an equally great challenge.
But first things first:
What if we could directly apply one of the main tenets of philosophy to our lives?
What would happen if we tapped into an ancient idea that has been influencing our culture for millennia? How could that given more meaning and insight to our life?
I am, of course, referring to the time-tested triad of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, often called the Platonic Triad due to its association with Plato.
This triad describes the primary transcendental properties of being.
If you read this and wonder what the heck “transcendental properties of being” means, rest assured that that’s exactly why I am writing this article: to make the Platonic Triad practical.
Because even though this is such a foundational piece of philosophy and, by extension, our culture’s take on the world, most of the discussion on this topic is strangely theoretical.
You would think that, given the prominence of these three values in our collective intellectual DNA, we’d all learn how to best incorporate them into our lives and tame them so they don’t destroy us. Of course, that is simply not true.
So, let’s remove the cobwebs from the Platonic Triad and start making these old philosophical discussions practical.
My hypothesis is that the Platonic Triad describes values and that our primary value is our superpower.
Let’s explore this one step at a time.
As I discovered when I briefly touched upon values in my Ph.D. thesis, it can be challenging to define values.
Thus, I will spare you (and me) the hassle to go on a long-winded exploration of values and instead apply the “duck”-test to it.
The “duck”-test goes something like this: if it looks like a duck and sounds like a duck, it probably is a duck.
Truth, Goodness, and Beauty look like values (look, I even capitalize them!) and they sound somewhat ephemeral so we can safely that they are values.
Most people prefer one of these values over the other ones. That value is their superpower.
In the spirit of disclosure, my own hierarchy is 1) truth, 2) goodness, 3) beauty.
What’s your primary value? When looking at your own life, the answer to that question might be obvious.
I think that our natural inclination towards one of these values — our superpower — impacts our lives, perhaps more than we are aware of.
This is both in the area of large life choices and in the small, everyday tasks.
For instance, my inclination towards truth initially led me towards a legal career and academia. Similarly, my husband (who has the same value hierarchy as me) became a scientist. Both are professions that, to some extent, focus on getting to the truth.
On a smaller level, when I write an article, I spend a lot of time worrying if what I write is true. If it’s accurate. If I’ve cited my sources correctly.
In contrast, when a fashion blogger posts something on Instagram, my assumption is that she spends a similar amount of time wondering if it’s aesthetically pleasing. If it’s beautiful. If it’s nice to look at.
And that’s why these values have an actual impact in the world, by shaping our behavior and our choices.
One way to think about these values is that we all have a special area of expertise.
Some people are naturally good at deliberating about the truth. Others have an innate inclination towards what is good. And yet, others are naturally gifted with an eye for aesthetics.
That special area of expertise is like nuclear power — used productively, it can light up an entire city. Used destructively, it can blow it up.
The invitation here is two-fold:
→ Embrace your superpower, and
→ Become more proficient in your areas of deficit.
The reason you should embrace your superpower is that it’s what you’re naturally best at. Thus, it’s the one area where you have the best shot of giving the world your gifts.
For instance, I’d be a subpar fashion designer and only a mediocre non-profit director but all things truth and integrity are my jam.
So, let’s take a closer look at your superpower, shall we? As a reminder, your superpower is your #1 value out of the Truth, Goodness, and Beauty Triad.
“Love of beauty is taste. The creation of beauty is art.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
Beauty gives people hope and inspiration. I don’t mean beauty in the superficial sense where it’s mainly related to people’s appearance and tied to things that are only skin-deep.
I mean it in the sense of beautiful sunrises, timeless art or even the pleasure and delight of a well-cooked meal. 🎨
Without the value of beauty, there would be no Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. No Kubrick’s 2001. No Michelangelo’s David. In other words, life would be really friggin’ dull without beauty.
Because beauty is in the eye of the beholder (at least to some extent), it is I-centric. It’s also the value most closely associated with the body.
“Wisdom has its root in goodness, not goodness its root in wisdom.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
Goodness makes us care about each other. It’s impossible to define the word “goodness” in a vacuum.
Being a good person is typically defined in relation to others, such as our behavior towards someone. By bringing in interpersonal care, goodness makes the world better.
Without the value of goodness, there would be no Doctors without borders. No NGOs. No volunteering. No charity. In other words, life would be really friggin’ cold without goodness.
Because goodness is (at least to some extent) a relational value, it is You-centric. It’s also the value most closely associated with the heart.
Truth is handsomer than the affectation of love. Your goodness must have some edge to it, else it is none. — Ralph Waldo Emerson
Truth keeps things real and brings in perspective. It provides checks and balances. The merits of truth may be the hardest to grasp. In the absence of truth, things feel crazy.
So, one of the things truth does for us is that it helps keep us sane. It’s like a guiding system, pointing the way north.
Without the value of truth, there would be no rule of law. No science. No philosophy. No shared framework of reality. In other words, life would be really friggin’ crazy without truth.
Because truth is (at least to some extent) an objective value, it is It-centric. It’s also the value that’s most closely associated with the mind.
With that out of the way, you now might feel warm and fuzzy. It’s great to be acknowledged for what we’re naturally good at, isn’t it? I know I feel great reading about my superpower of truth…even though I’m the one who wrote it.
But let’s not stop there. It’s time for the cold shower.
This is a two-part article and I promised that I would share what you can do to keep your superpower from destroying your life.
Remember how I said that every great strength comes with an equally great challenge? Nowhere may this be truer than with something as fundamental as your superpower.
In the following section, I will give examples of how pursuing their superpower at all costs has turned people into tools (or fools?) for actual Nazis…and even worse.
In order to become a fully developed human being, we have to pay attention to things we typically don’t pay a lot of attention to (in my case, embracing the superpower of beauty more fully).
One way to think of these three values is as a set of checks and balances. Only focusing on one without the others won’t bring optimal results.
For instance, truth without goodness can be harsh. Goodness without beauty can be repulsive. And beauty without truth can be warped.
To make this more practical, let me give you some real examples. Admittedly, these are extreme. But extreme examples often demonstrate a point in stark clarity.
When considering superpowers gone terribly wrong, take a look at the late Coco Chanel.
As a fashion designer, Ms. Chanel had an innate gift for aesthetics.
Her creations were works of art that brought more beauty into the world.
So, I’d venture to guess that out of the Platonic Triad, beauty would have been her main value.
And, as Coco Chanel’s complicated history with national socialists shows, she wasn’t focusing on the other two values.
Similarly, director Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will is an absolutely breathtaking ode to beauty.
Unfortunately, as Hitler’s favorite filmmaker, Ms. Riefenstahl’s ode to beauty was made in the service of an utterly repulsive ideology (the words “beauty and the beast” come to mind).
It’s this over-emphasis on one of these values (to the detriment of the other two) that makes it challenging for me to fully enjoy the creations of these two women.
And, the problem clearly does not lie in the area of their expertise, in beauty.
For instance, it’s hard to deny that Triumph of the Will is an outstanding work of art. It’s just an outstanding work of art that leaves a bitter aftertaste in my mouth.
In other words, what Ms. Riefenstahl created in the service of beauty is tainted because it wasn’t counterbalanced by truth and goodness.
Ironically, the over-focus on beauty makes her works less beautiful, not more.
If you think other values are safe from corruption, think again.
To see how a single-minded pursuit of truth can turn to pure evil, consider what terrible tortures Nazi physician Josef Mengele inflicted on others in his quest to gather more knowledge.
If you think goodness cannot be corrupted, think of how the Spanish Inquisition treated heretics…or in fact consider all the horrors inflicted on nonbelievers in the name of religion.
While some inquisitors may have genuinely wanted to save “lost souls” from eternal damnation, torturing people into confessions and then burning them at the pyre is arguably about as far removed from “goodness” as it gets.
There are a couple of things that can help you keep your superpower from destroying your life (or the lives of others):
→ Talk to people who don’t share your superpower and learn from them. In my case, I often someone whose main superpower is beauty for design advice and I try to understand how he sees the world.
→ Remember that your superpower is just one of three fundamental properties of being and not the only way to see the world. Ask yourself what you would be missing out on if the other two values didn’t exist.
→ Recognize when you’re falling into absolutist thinking by assuming that your way of seeing the world is the best one. For instance, when I catch myself thinking that truth is more important than goodness or beauty, it helps to remind myself that an over-emphasis on truth has led to atrocities.
It seems appropriate to close an article about the Platonic triad with a reminder that was reportedly inscribed in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi:
Know your superpower, and also know that there’s a dark side to it. If knowledge is power, then self-knowledge is mastery.
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