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A Writer's Philosophical Choice: Beauty over Truth

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

The poet John Keats wrote `Beauty is truth; truth, beauty.' But this weekend, in Lanesboro, Minnesota, four young thinkers, competing in the annual Kids Philosophy Slam, will have to pick one. Here's the problem posed by the Philosophy Slam: Which is more important in your life, Truth or Beauty? Devon Toohey is one of the four finalists in the high school competition. He joins us from his house in Nutley, New Jersey.

Devon, thanks for being with us.

DEVON TOOHEY (Finalist, Kids Philosophy Slam): Good to be here.

WERTHEIMER: So which did you choose, truth or beauty?

TOOHEY: Beauty.

WERTHEIMER: Why?

TOOHEY: Because you really can't know the truth completely, but you can know beauty, so I tend to go with what I can know, so I think beauty is a bit more tangible, as odd as that may sound. And also, I think you can get a lot more hope from beauty and a lot more driving force in life.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now in your essay, you worked your way through definitions of beauty, and you seem to end up with a kind of a variation on, `I know it when I see it.'

TOOHEY: Yeah, that's taken from Immanuel Kant. He was a philosopher. When he talks about beauty, he says that you can't really give a strict definition to beauty. It's more--fits with the knowledge we have innately. And though we can't grasp it essentially, we can grasp the feeling we can get from beauty. And I found that's the best way to define beauty, because we can find beauty in so many different things from artwork to music. We'll say someone has a beautiful personality. And though you can't really find a way to string all those together in a strict definition, we all get that same kind of feeling when we know we're encountering beauty.

WERTHEIMER: At the beginning of your essay, you say that you aspire to enter a profession fraught with lies. You're talking about writing fiction, presumably, not--you're not talking about journalism, right?

TOOHEY: No. Yeah, I'm talking about writing fiction. I do want to grow up to become a writer, so I do tend to go toward the things that may not necessarily be true. The most altruistic of heroes, the undying love, such deep emotions that may not actually exist in our world, yet I do try to conjure them when I'm writing.

WERTHEIMER: `Truth,' you say in your essay, `may be a clearer but much less pleasant concept.' And the thing that I liked in your essay was you talked about love as an example of you might know the truth about love, but it would be better to know the beauty of it.

TOOHEY: Yeah. In my essay, I pretty much say that we can never know if true, everlasting love exists, but there's beauty in the idea of everlasting love, and I think that beauty is what most people think of when they think they've found love. That beauty is what they'll be turning to.

WERTHEIMER: Devon, great to talk to you.

TOOHEY: Great to talk to you. Thanks for having me.

WERTHEIMER: Devon Toohey is a finalist in the 2005 Kids Philosophy Slam. He joined us from his home in Nutley, New Jersey.

It's 22 minutes before the hour. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's senior national correspondent, Linda Wertheimer travels the country and the globe for NPR News, bringing her unique insights and wealth of experience to bear on the day's top news stories.