The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Saturday, August 13, 2011

What is Beauty?

Beauty is the only finality here below. – Simone Weil

Art is the production of things which are beautiful. Beauty is what the artist strives to create. Beauty is what we seek to enjoy and contemplate in works of art. But what is beauty?

If asked to define beauty we might start by saying something like “the property of being pleasing to the eye”.

This definition is insufficient, however, because it is not only visible objects that are beautiful. Sound can be beautiful too. Bach’s Brandenburg concertos, Haydn’s Creation, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, and Beethoven’s 9th symphony are all works of tremendous beauty. Yet none of them can be seen.

We could solve this problem by expanding our definition to “the property of being pleasing to the eye and/or the ear”? This then begs the question of why the other senses are not included as well. We have other words to describe what is pleasing to our senses of taste, smell, and touch. Why do we conceive of that which is audibly and visually appealing as a single category?

That is a difficult question to answer but that is what we do.

There is another question which our expanded definition of beauty raises. Is beauty “the property of being pleasing to the eye and/or the ear” or is it “the state of being considered pleasing to the eye and/or the ear”?

Note the importance of this distinction. If beauty is the former, then it has tangible existence as a quality of things which are beautiful. If it is the latter, it is a projection of our own minds.

The saying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” would seem to suggest the second understanding of beauty. People do differ in what they consider beautiful. Yet they also agree.

In some circumstances, two people will disagree over whether a particular person or a particular painting is beautiful. In other circumstances, there is virtually unanimous agreement that someone or something is beautiful or is not beautiful. Sometimes, disagreements about beauty appear to be entirely subjective. They are matters of personal taste. On other occasions, the disagreement indicates that something is wrong with one person’s perception.

Naomi Wolf, in her best-selling book The Beauty Myth, (1) took the position that beauty is an artificial construction. The concept of beauty, Wolf wrote, was created to support the male power structure of society and keep women in a subservient position. The emphasis upon beauty in advertising, the cosmetics and fashion industries, and surgery, she argued, is that male power structure’s response to the blow it received from the triumphs of feminism earlier in the century. Wolf’s book helped launch what is called “Third Wave feminism”.

It is undoubtedly true that many young women have been led into unhealthy behavior patterns by an obsession with beauty that magazines, television, and movies have in part contributed to. In this Wolf was correct, although the statistics in her book appear to have been greatly exaggerated. Is there merit then to her idea that beauty is a social construct the purpose of which is to maintain male dominance?

Not really. Beauty is far too universal a value for it to be explained as an idea invented to serve as a political tool. The fact that differences of opinion as to what can be considered to be beautiful exist from individual to individual, society to society, and at different eras in a society’s history, does not negate the universality of beauty. As Matt Ridley has pointed out:

And yet this flexibility stays within limits. It is impossible to name a time when women of ten or forty years were considered “sexier” than women of twenty. It is inconceivable that male paunches where ever actually attractive to women or that tall men were thought uglier than short ones. It is hard to imagine that weak chins were ever thought beautiful on either sex. If beauty is a matter of fashion, how is it that wrinkled skin, gray hair, hairy backs, and very long noses have never been “in fashion”? The more things change, the more they stay the same. (2)

How then does Ridley explain the phenomenon of beauty? He says that it is in our genes.

There is a reason that beautiful people are attractive. They are attractive because others have genes that cause them to find beautiful people attractive. People have such genes because those that employed criteria of beauty left more descendants than those that did not. (3)

This is the explanation of evolutionary psychology. (4) The concept of sexual selection goes back to Charles Darwin. The basic gist of it is that among species that reproduce sexually, genes which produce traits which are considered attractive by the opposite sex are more likely to be passed on to subsequent generations than genes which do not, which also ensures that the genes which cause someone to consider those particular traits to be attractive are more likely to be handed down than others. Thus, a particular image of beauty is reinforced and refined through evolutionary selection over a long period of time. Evolutionary psychology attempts to explain why these traits would have been considered attractive in the first place in terms of reproductive fitness. Since females are by biological necessity the sex which bears, gives birth to, and nurtures the young, it has been the role of the male to provide for and protect women and children. This, the evolutionary psychologist says is reflected in our concept of beauty. The physical traits men find attractive in women are indicators of fertility (5) and the physical traits women find attractive in men are indicators of strength.

This explanation of beauty, arising as it does out of evolutionary theory, displays the strengths and weaknesses of that theory. Materialistic science is good at discovering and explaining how things work. The connections which evolutionary psychologists have found between physical beauty and reproductive function are real. When treated as the final and complete explanation of why people are beautiful – or why we find them beautiful – it seems to be extremely reductionist, however. Long ago the Socratic school of philosophy reacted against the materialistic reductionism of the earlier Milesian school, rejecting its early scientific emphasis on questions about the makeup of the physical universe in favour of an emphasis upon questions about the higher truths of goodness, virtue, truth, and beauty. The result was a golden age for philosophy and culture in Greek civilization that would be foundational to the later Roman and Christian civilizations.

In his book Beauty, (6) English aesthetician and philosopher Roger Scruton argues that evolutionary psychology provides us with an insufficient and unsatisfactory explanation of beauty. He reasons that because sexual selection could have occurred in a different way that “we cannot use the fact of sexual selection as a conclusive explanation of the sentiment of beauty, still less as a way of deciphering what that sentiment means.” (7) This does not mean that beauty and sex are unconnected. Indeed, Scruton suggests, they may be “more intimately connected” than the causal relationship proposed by evolutionary psychology implies.

What does he mean by this?

Scruton contrasts the theories of the evolutionary psychologists with the ideas of Plato. Beauty was an important topic of discussion in a number of Plato’s dialogues. Plato considered beauty to be the object of eros. According to Plato, eros (love) exists on a higher and a lower plane. The lower eros is sexual desire – the wish to sexually possess the person whose beauty has inspired one’s eros. The higher eros seeks to contemplate beauty itself, i.e., beauty in the abstract, the idea or “form” of beauty.

There are problems with Plato’s theory too. Scruton writes:

[I]t requires only a normal dose of skepticism to feel that there is more wishful thinking than truth in the Platonic vision. How can one and the same state of mind be both sexual love for a boy and (after a bit of self-discipline) delighted contemplation of an abstract idea? That is like saying that the desire for a steak could be satisfied (after a bit of mental exertion) by staring at a picture of a cow. (8)

That is a good point, and Scruton expands upon it by questioning whether it is proper to speak of beauty as the object of desire. Beauty leads us to desire another person, but our desire is not fulfilled by our coming into possession of that beauty. “What prompts us, in sexual attraction, is something that can be contemplated but never possessed”. (9) This observation separates eros from other forms of desire and links the beauty which leads to sexual attraction with other kinds of beauty, such as the beauty of art. A thirsty person, has a desire for water which can be quenched by any glass of water. Eros is not like that. You fall in love with a particular person and your desire for that person cannot be fulfilled by another person. It is a particular person you want and not a generic member of a class for whom any other can be substituted.

There is another way in which eros is different from other desires. If you fall in love with someone, and that person reciprocates your love, the two of you may give yourselves completely to each other, but this will not cause the desire to go away, the way drinking water causes thirst to go away. Scruton writes:

And maybe this has something to do with the place of beauty in sexual desire. Beauty invites us to focus on the individual object, so as to relish his or her presence. And this focusing on the individual fills the mind and perceptions of the lover. (10)

This elevates human eros above the level of the merely biological sex drive we share will all other sexual animals. Eros is further elevated when we understand the beauty of the loved one to reside not in body only, but in the soul as well. (11) We would do well to ponder what this says about the powerful trends in contemporary culture towards the dragging of eros back down to the level of mere animal instinct. That is a subject for another essay however.

It is the contemplative element which the beauty which inspires eros shares with the beauty we find in nature and the beauty we create in art. Beauty inspires us to ponder and reflect, and this leads us back to look at it, or listen to it again. Perhaps here we have at least a partial explanation of why we conceive of that which appeals to sight and sound as a single category distinct from that which appeals to smell, taste, and touch.

Philosophy takes us further in our understanding of beauty than science does or can. Philosophy can only take us so far, however. After that we must rely upon theology.

In her essay “Forms of the Implicit Love of God” published in the posthumous collection Waiting for God, Simone Weil wrote that before the soul is visited by God and can give or refuse Him direct love the soul can only love God indirectly through other objects. This is what she calls the “implicit love of God” which she says:

[C]an have only three immediate objects, the only three things here below in which God is really though secretly present. These are religious ceremonies, the beauty of the world, and our neighbor. Accordingly there are three loves. (12)

Immediately before expanding upon each of these in reverse order, she writes of this “veiled form of love” that:

At the moment when it touches the soul, each of the forms that such love may take has the virtue of a sacrament. (13)

That is strong language. A sacrament is an event in which something ordinary, everyday, and earthly is transformed by the presence of God so that His love, mercy, and grace are communicated to the soul through it. Weil repeats the comparison a number of times in her discussion of how the soul can love God through the beauty of the world. Man, she writes, has been an “imaginary likeness” of the power of God, to empty himself of in imitation of the kenosis of Christ. This emptying consists of renouncing our claim to be the centre of the universe. This the love whereby we love the true centre of the universe, God, through our neighbor and “the order of the world” which is the same thing as the “beauty of the world”. The beauty of the world is the “commonest, easiest, and most natural way of approach” of the soul to God, for God “descends in all haste to love and admire the tangible beauty of his own creation through the soul that opens to him” and uses “the soul’s natural inclination to love beauty” as a trap to win the soul for Himself. (14)

The idea that through beauty the soul connects with God is the next step beyond the Platonic notion that we progress from love of beauty on earth to contemplation of the higher beauty which exists in the realm of the forms. Weil goes on to say that the beauty she is talking about belongs to the universe itself, which is the only thing other than God which can properly be called beautiful, all other things being called beautiful in a derivative sense because they are part of the beautiful world or imitate its beauty. “All these secondary kinds of beauty are of infinite value as openings to universal beauty” she writes “But, if we stop short at them, they are, on the contrary, veils; then they corrupt.” (15) This is similar to Plato’s view of those who are satisfied with the consummation of the lower eros and do not go on the higher eros which is the contemplation of beauty itself.

It is here that Weil makes the observation that forms the epigram to this essay. “Beauty is the only finality here below”. (16) What she means by this, is that beauty exists for its own sake rather than as a means to another end and that it is the only thing in this world of which that can be said. This, she contrasts to all other things, saying that “all the things that we take for ends are means” and that beauty “seems itself to be a promise…but it only gives itself; it never gives anything else”. It is because of this, she argues, that beauty “is present in all human pursuits”. It is present in the pursuit of power, for example, and it is present in art, science, physical work, and carnal love. (17)

Of art she writes:

Art is an attempt to transport into a limited quantity of matter, modeled by man, an image of the infinite beauty of the entire universe. If the attempt succeeds, this portion of matter should not hide the universe, but on the contrary it should reveal its reality to all around. (18)

Weil does not hesitate to take this to its logical conclusion:

Works of art that are neither pure and true reflections of the beauty of the world nor openings onto this beauty are not strictly speaking beautiful; their authors may be very talented but they lack real genius. That is true of a great many works of art which are among the most celebrated and the most highly praised. Every true artist has had real, direct, and immediate contact with the beauty of the world, contact that is of the nature of a sacrament. God has inspired every first-rate work of art, though its subject may be utterly and entirely secular; he has not inspired any of the others. Indeed the luster of beauty that distinguishes some of those others may quite well be a diabolic luster. (19)

It is interesting, upon reading these words about art, to reflect upon the familiar verse from the Book of Genesis which tells us that God created man in His own image. We are God’s workmanship, His art. What does it mean that we are created “in His image”? Theologians have puzzled over that question for centuries. Where is the “imago Deo” to be found? Is it in our rational faculties as many have proposed?

Dorothy Sayers did not think so. In an essay on the subject of “the image of God’ in her book The Mind of the Maker, she wrote:

It is observable that in the passage leading up to the statement about man, he has given no detailed information about God. Looking at man, he sees in him something essentially divine, but when we turn back to see what he says about the original upon which the "image" of God was modelled, we find only the single assertion, "God created". The characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire and the ability to make things. (20)

This characteristic, creativity, manifests itself in what we call art. If God’s image in man lies in his creativity this surely lends weight to the idea that there is something “of the nature of a sacrament” about true art. It is interesting that these two women, one an orthodox Anglican, the other a very unorthodox convert to Christianity who refused baptism on the grounds that God wanted her to identify with the unbeliever (21), writing at approximately the same time, would strike upon thoughts that in a strange but fitting way complement each other.

We have pursued beauty, from the scientific explanation of a trait which generates reproductive fitness by attracting sexual partners, to a philosophical view of beauty as an object of contemplation which elevates man from the level of the beast, to a spiritual view of beauty as a meeting place between the human soul and God. There is no higher ground to seek.

(1) Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women (New York: William Morrow, 1991)

(2) Matt Ridley, The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature (New York: Harper Perennial, 2003) p. 281. The first edition of this book was published in hardcover by Penguin in 1993.

(3) Ibid, p. 280.

(4) A layman's introduction to evolutionary psychology is Robin Wright’s The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology (New York: Vintage Books, 1994).

(5) Ridley discusses the late Devendra Singh’s research into the correlation between the “hourglass figure” and fertility, and also points to the connection between feminine beauty and youth.

(6) Roger Scruton, Beauty, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). This book was reissued this year in paperback as part of Oxford’s “Very Short Introductions” series, now bearing the subtitle “A Very Short Introduction”.

(7) Ibid, p. 32.

(8) Ibid, p. 35.

(9) Ibid, p. 36.

(10) Ibid, pp. 38-39.

(11) Ibid, pp. 39-43

(12) Simone Weil, Waiting For God, (New York: Harper Perennial Classics, 2001) p. 83. This is a reprint of the translation by Emma Craufurd first published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons in 1951. The French edition came out in 1950, seven years after her death in England.

(13) Ibid, p. 84.

(14) Ibid, pp. 99-103, quotations taken from pages 99, 100, and 103.

(15) Ibid, p. 104.

(16) Ibid, p. 105.

(17) Ibid, pp. 105-112, quotations taken from pages 105 and 106.

(18) Ibid, p. 107

(19) Ibid.

(20) Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker (London: Methuen, 1941) p. 17.

(21) Simone Weil was born Jewish but converted to Christianity. Waiting for God is a collection of letters and essays that was published after her death. Most of the letters were written to her friend Dominican priest Father Joseph-Marie Perrin explaining why she was turning down his pleas for her to be baptized. These were written around the time of her flight from France in 1942.

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