Beauty, or Nothing to Talk About

A philosophical thread on beauty expressed in 140 characters or fewer broke out. (Twitter: the thing next up to depart from my life, following computer games, the NBA, and Facebook. Soon, and very soon.) The worthy and serious interlocutors (interTweetitors?) were batting around definitions of good and beauty; Mark Neimeier threw up a post on it.

Image result for bernini
Beautiful. Some of the greatest craftsmanship in history, too.

To sum up my position, which (I certainly hope) would be recognized as a callow amateur’s take of Aristotle’s and Thomas’s positions: The natural world is beautiful in its being (ontologically beautiful); when we see beauty, we are getting a glimpse of reality. Now, each of us sees this beauty according to our talents and skills – while all of us experience beauty as a part of our human nature, each of us also has gifts and shortcomings which affect our ability to experience the beauty all around us. I, for example, sometimes get a physical thrill from a beautiful chair or even a beautiful tool, because I understand them in a way most people have no reason to understand them. But ballet is to me beautiful in a way I don’t really understand, and I’m sure I’m missing some or most of what is truly beautiful about it. Further, someone who is seriously damaged morally and esthetically (and we all are damaged to some extent) may hate some beauty and find some ugliness attractive (and mislabel that attractiveness as beauty). This is no different from being physically crippled or having brain damage – that I can’t walk or speak due to such damage doesn’t make walking or speaking any less objectively real.

But enough – books have been written. Here I want to point out something from one of the very earliest posts on this blog: the argument that beauty is subjective – that it exists only ‘in the eye of the beholder’ is a self-defeating argument. What do we talk about? We just walk around stating what we do and do not like or find beautiful? To try to show someone else what it is we find beautiful in this or that is to tacitly admit that there’s something beyond my opinion which makes a thing beautiful. If it’s all subjective, then there’s nothing to talk about, and no point in talking.

L'Homme au doigt Alberto Giacometti.jpg
Not so much. But somebody paid $141M for it. Probably likes pink SciFi, too.

On a more subtle level, the true, the beautiful and the good are not separable in practice – we can, if we want, talk about them separately, as aspects of a thing, but you can’t have one without the other two in any existing thing. Insofar as a thing exists, it is good and beautiful; any ugliness or badness exists only as a falling short of the intrinsic beauty and goodness of the things. Thus, traditionally, Satan has been viewed as the greatest of Angels – his evil lies in how far he has fallen short of his nature. But his existence, in itself, is good, beautiful and true.

Finally, nature, in the philosophical sense, admits of degrees of goodness and beauty. A rock or a plant is natural, but far less natural, and therefore far less beautiful and good, than a humans being. People possess the rock’s nature as a physical object, and possess the plants nature as a living thing. We even possess animal nature, where we can see and move around. But we can also know things in a way no rock, plant, or animal can, and act on that knowledge in a way only angels (that we know of) can. Each of the ‘natures’ man has – mineral, vegetable, animal, human – have aspects of of the good and the beautiful  peculiar to them. Man, as the most natural thing in the Universe, has all those aspects.

We are most beautiful and good when we freely act out of faith, hope and love.

Bringing it back around to SFF, a book or story will be good and beautiful insofar as and to the degree it is true to life. It’s possible to write a good and beautiful story with no real moral content – a rollicking yarn, fun, entertaining. I can’t think of any, off hand – every story that is any good I’ve ever read has somebody somewhere facing a moral dilemma of some sort. In comedy (as classically understood) the good guys win in some manner; in tragedy, they lose. What makes it tragic are human failings that led to people not acting selflessly and bravely. (Much of Mike Flynn’s stuff is a good example of modern SFF tragedy.)

Much more beautiful would be a fun, rollicking story where the hero acts heroically, heroically meaning, for the last couple millennia, virtuously – selflessly, bravely, for a loved one or an ideal.

I think we kid ourselves if we think we’re going to write good stories that are morally neutral, just fun and adventurous. If Frodo doesn’t risk death so that the Ring might end up in the Cracks of Doom, if Luke doesn’t risk all to save his father and the Rebellion, heck, if Corbin Dallas doesn’t tell Lelu he loves her and thus saves the world – well, it’s just not much of a story. Or if we’re not shedding a tear when the character’s failings lead to inevitable tragedy.

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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

3 thoughts on “Beauty, or Nothing to Talk About”

  1. To try to show someone else what it is we find beautiful in this or that is to tacitly admit that there’s something beyond my opinion which makes a thing beautiful. If it’s all subjective, then there’s nothing to talk about, and no point in talking.

    Why can’t it simply be the case that we are appealing to the likeliness that humans are built similarly, and thus can have the capacity to view things and process them similarly?

    The “something beyond my opinion which makes a thing beautiful”, in other words, could be my neurology, which we could say would be similar enough to other people’s neurology that we might hope to trigger that similar impression.

    Further, someone who is seriously damaged morally and esthetically (and we all are damaged to some extent) may hate some beauty and find some ugliness attractive (and mislabel that attractiveness as beauty). This is no different from being physically crippled or having brain damage – that I can’t walk or speak due to such damage doesn’t make walking or speaking any less objectively real.

    The speaking example is interesting. If you change human neurology, physiology, culture, etc., then you change what language and speaking is entirely. (This is why, as you say, someone could have brain damage that would impair their ability to speak.)

    But whether one speaks well or poorly is intersubjective — it’s about how a person fits with respect to a community of other subjectively experiencing beings. If you had no subjectively experiencing beings, there wouldn’t be any such objective thing as “language”.

    So, if you apply the same thing to beauty, then what?

    1. Good stuff, thanks for reading.

      I may have to do a longer post on this, as the questions you raise are good an worthy of a more thought out response. In short:

      1. We agree that we humans are wired to appreciate beauty. The questions are how and why? The how is typically attributed to evolution, as are all traits observed to occur ‘always or for the most part’. It’s the why that gets complicated – sure, anyone can construct a nice Just So story about how appreciating beauty aided social formation or some such thing, but it’s not very convincing, or rather, not very easy to defend unless one is already irrevocably committed to it. Stopping to admire a beautiful sunset could increase your chances of getting eaten by hyenas, for example, offsetting any imagined cultural benefits. In other words, such an argument ends up making the contrary position – that beauty is innate in things – much stronger if by nothing more than comparison.

      2. The origins and nature of Language is a big subject, too big for a comment. For now, I’ll just point out: “But whether one speaks well or poorly is intersubjective” – not really. Among people of the same culture and even the same educational background, some will inevitably speak better than others, just as they will differ among themselves in a million other traits. This is true no matter what the culture or language – storytellers and poets are universal.

      More to the point: even when I don’t speak a language, I can appreciate its beauty. There are recordings of Roberto Benigni reciting Dante’s Divine Comedy – and it’s beautiful, even though I understand about 1 word in 100. Similarly, I can appreciate the power and craft in a Maori mask or Hindu sculpting, which are as far from my ‘language’ if you will, as possible. Is my culture just the Culture That Appreciates, or is there something there in the things themselves?

      Anyway, I appreciate your comments and will try to write a more thorough answer as a post when i get the time.

      1. (1) I think that saying “humans are hardwired to appreciate beauty” is begging the question…it still assumes beauty is something “out there” and then asking about whether there is evolutionary incentive for humans to develop faculties to be able to engage with that stuff “out there” (kinda like how there are photons “out there” and we have developed eyes to engage with photons.) It also begs that evolutionarily, beauty is what is being selected for — that, if beauty is a thing “out there”, it is what is being selected for specifically in our development.

        But another possibility is that beauty is a happy accident or spandrel associated with other things…that, for example, the things we find beautiful could be an “overactive trigger” for other things (for example, we might find certain arrangements of color to be beautiful because in nature they are associated with something that should be paid attention to, whether something that is healthful and helpful to us or something that is dangerous to us.)

        I’m not saying what is the origin, just pointing out that your own point also seems to be something you’re already committed to seeing.

        (2) When you say some will speak better than others though, that is something that those other people have to judge and determine. A storyteller is effective only to the extent his audience “gets” what he is trying to do. (I grant that some stories may require a prerequisite amount of training or conditioning to “get”, but still, it’s always based with respect to audience.) It would be very weird to say, “He’s a great storyteller regardless of the fact that no one sees him as that” which is what it would seem you would need to be able to say for something to be “objective” rather than “intersubjective”. To the contrary, we might say someone is a great storyteller *because* many people see him that way, or *because* we are privileging certain subjectivities over other subjectivities (e.g., when we say someone is “elite” or “refined”, etc.,)

        You say: “even when I don’t speak a language, I can appreciate its beauty.”

        And yet, there are others who don’t. Some people think German or Cantonese are beautiful languages, but others think they are harsh languages. Is this just a matter of them not being familiar enough with the subject? Is it that all languages are beautiful but some people just don’t have the faculties to recognize it. Or…does beauty say more about the person experiencing it than the thing itself?

        Additionally, again, to appeal to something being beautiful by pointing out that *you* find it beautiful doesn’t mean beauty inheres in that object. It could simply mean that humans are built similarly enough to find those things beautiful (and if humans were built differently, they would find different things to be beautiful — this would say more about US than about the OBJECTS.)

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