The Beauty of It
It took the Greeks to turn beauty into a science. They called it aesthetics – a word and concept we’ve been stuck with ever since. It’s not enough just to enjoy a starry night, or a fine piece of architecture, or a good-looking girl. We have to ask why. We feel the compulsion to analyze, to dissect, to classify, to explain. But isn’t that what our minds are for? After all, we can’t let our emotions run the entire show.
So bear with me as I grope for some sort of consensus on this topic. What can we agree on? I, for one, cannot swallow the contention of Keats that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all …” There is simply too much truth in this world that is not beautiful. And Keats was writing in an era before many of our worst modern horrors had even been thought of.
Keats was inspired by the ornamentation on an urn from ancient Greece he saw in the British Museum. But it’s natural phenomena which seem most universally to evoke our sense of beauty. In particular, the rising and setting of the sun, with their infinite varieties of color and shape, would probably come close to making everybody’s list of life’s most beautiful phenomena. Besides the sheer visual impact, there is something about the symbolic significance, in which we see and feel so much more than just the beginning or the ending of another day.
As for living things, we all tend to have our favorites, but popularity seems to cluster around flowers, which are, in an evolutionary sense, literally designed to be attractive. But of course, there are such other kinds of beauty as the sound and movement we call music and dance.
And this brings us to the much more touchy subject of human beauty, which modern society has commercialized through “beauty parlors” and “beauty products” – as if the whole concept were something you could buy. For better or worse, women are more susceptible to this illusion – and who can blame them, any more than we would blame the flowers for seeking to attract the bees?
But an interesting fact about what people find visually appealing in each other is that a key ingredient seems to be the simple regularity of one’s features. In other words, the closer you come to being average in looks, the more likely you are to be considered good-looking. (And this applies not only to the face, but to the whole body.) My wife Dorothy’s most beautiful feature was her smile (a feature which, like the voice, does not diminish with age). But it was spoiled by a dental irregularity called a “snaggle tooth,” which I think had been caused by some childhood mishap. Some years after we were married, this was fixed, and I was so pleased that I wrote to her dentist, thanking him for “giving Dorothy back her smile.”
But the sad truth is that everything changes, and nothing lasts. Most of us in later life must have had the jarring experience of suddenly confronting someone we remember as young and beautiful, and being forced to see what merciless time has done – to say nothing of the daily delight of looking at our own aging self in the mirror.
Nevertheless, every science, craft, and technology has its own aesthetics. Bertrand Russell’s Principia Mathematica arose from his fascination with the beauty of numbers. Insects are as beautiful to entomologists as words are to etymologists.
The infinite world of the macrocosm can have as great a sensory appeal for some as the nano-world of the microcosm has for others. To me, one of the most beautiful facts of life today is that I’ve lived long enough to see people everywhere carrying around with them little boxes which contain all the knowledge of the world.
“Beauty Contests” are no longer as popular in our culture as they once were, no doubt because of the rise of feminism and the slow decline of gender discrimination. But what about other cultures, and all the ethnic factors which, for example, may make fleshiness appealing in one society, while a slender physique may be more attractive in another? And what about scarring and tattooing and all the other deliberate blemishes that supposedly make some people more beautiful in their own anthropological circles?
Putting such questions aside, we can only come back to Keats, and his insistence that “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”