Beauty Isn’t Always Truthful – A Response to “Me Before You.”

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I sat in on an architecture class once. I know almost nothing about architecture, but I was working on a research project at the time and thought it would be helpful. The day I visited the lecturer was discussing the power of classical architecture, or, as he said, the power of all art. He read aloud John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” It’s a beautiful poem, that ends with this powerful stanza.

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


The lecturer looked at the class and said, “Now of course this isn’t true. Beauty is not in fact truth, and truth is not beauty. But you feel that it’s true. You feel “yes” with the poem.”

This is an amazing quality of art – to make us feel “yes.” It does not ask us if it makes sense, if it is reasonable, or if we agree. Think of your favorite book, movie, play, or song. Art simply compels our feeling “yes.”

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The book-turned-movie “Me Before You” wields this power in a dangerous way.

“Me Before You” tells the story of a young man, once active and adventurous, who is now a quadriplegic as a result of an accident, and a young woman who finds herself accepting a job as a kind of care-taker for him. What she doesn’t know is she has been hired to lift his spirits as part of a last-ditch effort to persuade him not to commit assisted suicide – something he plans to do in six months time. First she quits, then she decides she wants to try to save him, but he doesn’t change his mind and ultimately she reconciles her heart to his wishes and he dies by physician assisted suicide.

Full disclosure – I haven’t seen this movie, because frankly it doesn’t sound worth the price of a matinee to me. But I bring it up for this reason alone – art is all the time making us feel “yes” to things that, if we thought about them, we would say “no” to. Does that mean that art is evil? Heavens, no. Art is sub-creation – it is a way in which we bear the image of God. But in this world, we must be wary and adopt a critical eye. And in response to the popularity of this book and film, we must be ready to challenge the cultural “yes.”

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Assisted suicide is having a political moment. Or perhaps we should say it’s been having a moment for the last few decades. Currently four U.S. States allow physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill. In 2014 Brittany Maynard, a young woman dying of cancer who moved to Oregon to receive a lethal prescription, was making news worldwide. Just last week the British Medical Association in Belfast took a vote on whether or not to go neutral on the question of assisted suicide (they voted no – they currently still stand in opposition). This the eighth time in thirteen years they’ve considered it.

The Heritage Foundation’s report from last year outlines the most fundamental problems with physician assisted suicide.

  1. It would endanger the weak and vulnerable.
  2. It would corrupt the practice of medicine and the doctor-patient relationship.
  3. It would  compromise the family and intergenerational commitments.
  4. It would betray human dignity and equality before the law.

This film is a reminder that much of the Western world overlooks these frightening prospects and has given death a place at the doctor’s office.

Wesley J. Smith writes at First Things “Legal euthanasia and assisted suicide will be with us – at least in a few places – for the foreseeable future. That means that some will face the difficult prospect of deciding what to do if the culture of death knocks on their door.”

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Hopefully, most of us won’t have to do much more than point it out when bad movies are made about evil subject matter. But some of us may have to be prepared to refuse to support a friend or family member’s desire to seek assisted suicide. And if you are a doctor, you must be prepared to turn away patients seeking lethal prescription.

I cannot count how many times I’ve been told that, while some movie or book admittedly has questionable subject matter, it’s so well made, or it’s such a good story, or it’s so artistic.

Perhaps that’s so – perhaps it is in fact truly good art or perhaps it is brilliant craftsmanship. But if it is untrue, I do not care. Because beauty is not truth, and there is more we need to know.