May the Best Man Win?

Honesty Should Admit No Discourse to Beauty Contests

The Transgender Crisis of Truth

The controversy of men competing in women’s athletics has always been a crisis of truth. The headlines bear it out: “World Athletics Council excludes transgender women from female events.” By “female events,” the author simply means the venues where true women are competing against other true women in sports, as opposed to women competing against men who cloak themselves in the unassailable guise of being a “transgender woman.” Those who have not darkened their vision by accepting the lie can see it clearly, especially in the men who continue to steal sports records and victories that rightfully belong to women.

But despite the most creative and popular efforts to “suppress the truth in unrighteousness,” it is all in vain. The truth, as Shakespeare says, will out. And inventing false anthropologies won’t help.

The Transgender Crisis of Beauty

But what about Beauty? What about that ancient and transcendental covenant that Truth has with Beauty? Consider, for instance, a different realm of competition: the recent cases of men winning women’s beauty contests. One example of a woefully obese chap was so shocking that the Babylon Bee couldn’t resist. Other examples are, ironically, more shocking because they are less shockingly obvious. The first young man to win a beauty contest in the U.S. was in Las Vegas in 2021. This year in July, Miss Netherlands proved to be the best man to win.

Italy, however, under a more conservative party, banned men from entering the Miss Italy contest. This of course drew the predictable disapproving criticism from the trans activist community. Even the recent Miss Netherlands felt compelled to mention how sad it made him feel, and the latest protest has come from a host of Italian “trans men” (newspeak for “women”). In defiance of this limitation placed upon the human will, more than 100 “trans men” have entered the pageant, noting ironically that since they qualify as having been “born a woman,” they should be able to qualify for the beauty competition.

Shall we their fond pageant see?” says Puck,Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

Remember the Transcendentals

But all this sadness raises a deep metaphysical question that our society must confront: What is the relationship between Truth and Beauty? A more civilized and serious society would say that Truth is Beautiful.

So says Keats:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

The poet here draws on the classical understanding of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. These were not “virtues” or just good ideas. The Transcendentals were the divine qualities of being that frame our knowledge and judgment of Reality.

A traditional (classical) education was, therefore, much more about the formation of the student than it ever was about information crammed into him. In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis points out that according to Aristotle, “the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought.” This means our intellects and disordered loves ought to be brought into conformity with the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, and that this process was accomplished through study and mastery of the kind of arts and disciplines of learning that made men truly free. After all, we have it on good authority that “the truth shall set you free.”

Daily we are confronted with new situations that seriously interrogate the quality and integrity of our education. We are presented with profound questions to which we must give an account: Do we love the Truth? Do we find the truth beautiful? Do we find the truth about the world, ourselves, and nature to be something we desire?

Do we care about Beauty as much as Truth? What does it mean for a woman to be beautiful? And what role does truth play in a woman’s beauty?

We now live in a world of what might be called aesthetic homelessness, which makes the prospect of answering such questions nearly impossible, even for Christians who believe firmly in “objective truth.” For it is one thing for someone to distinguish the true article from the false knockoff, but it is another harder task to judge a thing’s beauty and its felicity. This is why having an education that includes Beauty matters—an education that sees it not merely as a societal construct “under the sun,” much less a nomadic fancy of the individual, but one that regards Beauty as having a universal nature and celestial emanation.

Vanity of Vanities

Let’s return to our headlines. If that which is True is not only rationally knowable but also doable (the Good) and desirable and attractive (the Beautiful), then the idea of a “transgender woman” winning a woman’s beauty contest is both insupportable and impossible. If a woman’s beauty lies merely in the Nietzschean will and in the “parts” that superficially signify what a woman is according to fashionable trends—big lips, slim or shapely figure, long and voluptuous hair, a pretty face with big eyes—then beauty has no truth and truth is not beautiful. All the contests and pageantry mean nothing. As Michael Hanby noted in the current issue of Touchstone:

Assertions of identity act as a principle of annihilation that negates reason and obliterates our common nature and a common order of reality in which we all participate and to which we all belong; it even obliterates the very language by which we recognize this world in common.

Riffing on Handby’s observation, Carl Truman notes what arises from a particular attitude toward Reality brought about by the way technology shapes our understanding of the world:

Underlying the technological conquest of human biology … whether in its gay or feminist form, is a dualism which bi-furcates the person into a meaningless mechanical body made of malleable ‘stuff’ and the affective or technological will that presides over it (from The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self).

Thus, if the human person is nothing more than a meaningless body ruled by a technological will, a beauty contest means nothing. Winning means nothing. Losing essentially means nothing either. Vanity of vanities.

What does it even mean for a man to be considered “pretty” or to possess an attractive competence that naturally belongs to the domain of women? What a sad and boring place in which we now live, where matter has no transcendent or objective telos (τέλος), where the purpose of anything is subordinated to the exercise of will, and where the body has no prior grammar but rather can be manipulated according to our disordered desires. Only in a world where reality is malleable can “trans women” (men) plausibly win beauty contests for women. Under these conditions, who’s to stop the AI-generated bio-digital fem-bot from eventually crushing the competition—ageless, fabricated, and false?

Truth Wins

It’s one thing to not know the truth. It’s another to suppress it. Those inveighing against Italy’s ban on transgender contestants must be willing to do the latter.

But what happens if we are ignorant? If, for instance, we don’t know that Miss Netherlands is not a real woman, then we have merely been duped by the counterfeit, and no one is the wiser. But that’s not good enough for the violators of Truth. The whole point for the violators of truth is to make sure that we know, that we have knowledge of the Truth and that we are free to violate it.

And here is the irony: the very support of “trans rights” is predicated upon knowledge of the truth. How is it possible for a man to find another man beautiful in a way that only a woman is beautiful, while knowing the truth that he is not a woman?

One could pose a similar question in terms of incest. Sophocles long ago explored this in a tragic manner, showing us the terror that comes upon Oedipus when the lie about his life is finally revealed. In his horror, he looks to the pins of Jocasta’s robe for remedy. One of the hard lessons of Oedipus Rex is that our knowledge of the Truth changes everything. Like it or not, we do care about the Truth. We can’t help it. Even if our only aim is to pervert the Truth, we still need it.

And if we care about the Truth, then we will also care about what is Beautiful. The two are indissolubly united. A “trans woman” is not a True ontological category, which means he cannot Really be beautiful. In the end, even the best “man” cannot win at a woman’s game.

Devin O'Donnell is the Vice President of Membership and Publishing at the Association of Classical Christian Schools. He is author of The Age of Martha: A Call to Contemplative Learning in Frenzied Culture (2019). He was the Research Editor of Bibliotheca in 2015 and has worked in classical Christian education for 20 years. He and his family live in the Northwest, where he writes, fly fishes, and remains a classical hack.

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