Does Beauty live with Kindness?

I don’t know how many times I’ve written about beauty, but it continues to intrigue me. Not so much about what it is -its constituent parts, its definitions, or even its historical and sociological roots- but more its ability to morph -mutate, if you will- from something that is to something that isn’t. How, in other words, can beauty -or its antonym, ugliness- change to its opposite without materially altering anything about its appearance?

To be sure, the duality has not gone unnoticed in historical philosophy (the appearance vs the charisma of Socrates), literature (think of the handsome Dorian Grey and his increasingly ugly portrait), or even in fairy tales (Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling), but its seeming capriciousness only adds to the mystique, I think.

For years, centuries, indeed millennia, we have sought to decipher beauty, and yet apart from vague generalizations like youthfulness, proportionality, or perhaps, symmetry, it has eluded our grasp, and slipped through our fingers like slowly moving mist. The most apt description for me, comes from Koine Greek, where beauty was associated with being of one’s hour -not trying to appear older or younger: authentic, I suppose. And yet even here, beauty remains a moving target, doesn’t it?

Amongst the many attempts to pigeonhole the concept, I am always on the lookout for seemingly unique approaches -although I fully recognize that over the centuries, pretty well every perspective has likely been canvassed. At any rate, I found myself drawn to an article in Aeon by the British philosopher Panos Paris:

His opening sentence certainly captured my interest: ‘Have you ever thought that someone is far from attractive – perhaps even ugly – only to later come to find that person beautiful?’ For sure this would not be a unique experience for any of us, and yet it made me wonder how such a perceptual change could happen -was it merely that we had come to know that person better and so ignored their outward appearance, or was there an actual phase-change somehow?

Paris links our perceptions to moral qualities: ‘[B]eauty and morality, and ugliness and immorality, are intrinsically linked. Specifically, the moral virtues – honesty, kindness, fairness, empathy, etc – are beautiful character traits, and the moral vices – their contraries – are ugly.’

That seemed a little too simplistic a view, but it was enough to make me read further. He qualifies it almost immediately: ‘Of course, the kind of beauty or ugliness in question is independent of physical appearances – it belongs to characters and actions.’ He calls it the ‘moral beauty’ view, and further qualifies it by saying ‘This view is rather unfashionable today. Contemporary philosophical and lay orthodoxy construes the realms of aesthetics and morality as distinct. It regards theories such as the moral-beauty view as signs of past conceptual immaturity that we have since thankfully shaken off our intellectual shoulders.’

But then he points to diverse historical languages and how many of these (admittedly cherry-picked examples) conflated beauty and morality. ‘In Ancient Greek, kalon meant both beautiful and good, while the [African] Yoruba word ewa normally translated as ‘beauty’, is primarily used to refer to human moral qualities.’ Or, more recently, ‘Adam Smith wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) that ‘benevolence bestows upon those actions which proceed from it, a beauty superior to all others, [while] the want of it, and much more the contrary inclination, communicates a peculiar deformity to whatever evidences such a disposition’.

And, Paris explains, this conflation was not because of linguistic poverty. ‘[T]he Enlightenment philosophers did have the terminology to distinguish not only between beauty and goodness, but also between natural and artistic beauty, inner and outer beauty, and so on. Thus, their acknowledgement of an aesthetic dimension in morality, far from evincing confusion, seems to me to have reflected ordinary experience.’ This seemed a bit of a stretch to me -a mistaking of metaphor for prose, perhaps- but I pressed on nevertheless.

‘[W]hen people encountered others who were morally virtuous or vicious in their everyday life or in art… they felt, respectively, the sort of pleasure and displeasure evoked by other beautiful and ugly objects, and this phenomenon found its way into their language and thought.’ But with time, this view of beauty began to fade, and various detractors criticized the old approach -people like ‘Edmund Burke, who in 1757 considered it a ‘loose and inaccurate manner of speaking, [that] misled us both in the theory of taste and of morals’.

So, ‘beauty was thought to be mostly a matter of pleasure in the form of an object, and ugliness of displeasure in deformity; and form was limited to the visible or aural properties of an object. By contrast, goodness, and traits such as honesty and kindness, or selfishness and cowardice, are not like that; they are imperceptible, psychological traits, the goodness or badness of which stems from adherence to or violation of rational principles… Moreover, while the good is, or should be, desirable for its own sake, the beautiful is desirable because it’s pleasurable. So linking beauty and goodness might lead to a corruption or degeneration of moral motivation by encouraging the pursuit of goodness for its beauty.’

I began to lose interest at this point in his sign-wave and ultimately reductionist type of historical approach to beauty. I mean, let us suppose that beauty is largely subjective whereas, morality, because of the duties and obligations associated with being moral, is more objective… What does that mean? Is it an important distinction…?

Or… are we merely throwing everything into the pot in our frantic need for definition? Are we so desperate for a word, for a concept, that describes the pleasurable sensation of encounter, and engagement, that we flounder in the stew ourselves? Could it be that all the while, beauty was simply a metaphor -a way of saying we are pleased, and that what we are really struggling with is a way of expressing this?

And could it be why the word metaphor is so apt? Not to over-emphasize the need of delving into etymological derivations whenever we are stuck for something to say, its component morphemes are instructive: phore meaning ‘bearer of’ and meta designating an analysis at a higher, more abstract level. Personally, I think the famous 18th century French writer, Stendhal defined beauty the best: he called it la promesse de bonheur (the promise of happiness).

Do we really need more than that…?

Beggaring All Description

Beauty is many things, I suppose, and attempts to define it are fraught. It seems to vary between societies and eras, with some cultures deciding it is appearance, and some opting for demeanour. One such view, influenced by the Greek diaspora following the conquests of Alexander the Great, Koine Greek, used an adjective for beautiful: horaios, which derives from the word hora -or hour. There was a delightful description of this in (sorry) Wikipedia: ‘In Koine Greek, beauty was thus associated with “being of one’s hour”. Thus, a ripe fruit (of its time) was considered beautiful, whereas a young woman trying to appear older or an older woman trying to appear younger would not be considered beautiful.’

I find this useful, because it suggests that beauty -at least in a person- resides in being recognized for what one actually is -not what artifice may try to disguise. Admiration, in other words lies in more than appearance. I am reminded of Shakespeare’s Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: ‘Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind.’

And yet, whose eyes -one’s own, or that of others? How we see ourselves is almost as important as how we are seen. Think of the agony than can be inflicted by acne in the teenage years -a time when self-identity is often linked to group identity, and self-esteem is dependent on the approbation of one’s peers. It is a time when we are defined by others, because we have not yet defined ourselves.

Memories of my own speckled past were awakened, Phoenix-like, by a short article in the Conversation on the beauty -or not- of skin:

As the author, Rodney Sinclair, Professor of Dermatology, University of Melbourne observes, ‘We’re all attracted to a beautiful face. We like to look at them, we feel drawn to them and we aspire to have one. Many researchers and others have investigated what we humans identify as “beautiful”: symmetry, large evenly spaced eyes, white teeth, a well-proportioned nose and of course, a flawless complexion. The skin is of utmost importance when people judge someone as beautiful.’ There may be an unintended bias on his part, of course. A dermatologist would see the world through a lens of pores and complexions, but I suspect he is merely tapping into the current ethos -one that seems characteristic of an era of Snapchat, and Facebook posts where ‘Even the best facial structure can be unbalanced by skin that is flawed.’

I’m not certain I agree with some of his views about how much we value complexion. For example: ‘When choosing a mate, men rank female beauty more highly than women rate male appearance. Female beauty is thought to signal youth, fertility and health. Beauty can also signal high status. People with “plain looks” earn about 10% less than people who are average-looking, who in turn earn around 5% less than people who are good-looking.’ I suspect there has been a bit of cherry-picking of studies that bolster his opinions, although I suppose we all do that.

But his point about the importance of the cosmetic industry nowadays certainly seems spot on: ‘People spend a lot of money in attempts to regain their youthful appearance. The global cosmetics industry is worth about US$500 billion. Sales of skin and sun care products, make-up and colour cosmetics generate over 36% of the worldwide cosmetic market. We use foundation makeup to conceal freckles and blemishes, moisturisers and fillers to hide dryness, concealers to disguise broken capillaries and pimples.’

And yet, I find myself inexorably drawn to that Greek idea of beauty residing more in ‘being of one’s hour’, than in forcing one’s time. Accepting the ineffable allure of the moment in which each of us lives.

Many years ago, I met Dora, a woman with quite visible facial scarring from long-ago acne. She was probably in her early thirties, and was employed as a receptionist in a doctor’s office. But she was so gregarious and friendly, I had ceased to see her face whenever I had occasion to visit. A warm smile would emerge like a puppy bounding from the woods and greet me from across the room. Her eyes were alive, and sparkled even under the unremitting glare of the overhead fluorescent lights. But she would have lit a path to her desk even in a power failure.

So overwhelming was her presence that I would never have remembered what she was wearing, had I been asked. Everything was subordinate; she ruled the room like a queen and the radiance lingered even when she was on vacation, or had taken a sick day. It was as if the empty the space was holding its breath. Or so I thought.

One day, when I arrived for my appointment, the office seemed smaller. Duller. It had been more than a year since I had been there, and so I couldn’t immediately decide what had changed. Dora was not there, unfortunately -I had been looking forward to seeing her again, but I assumed she had taken a few days off.

As I approached the desk –her desk- I was tracked by a set of razored eyes as if I had inadvertently chosen the wrong door. The wrong office. There was a smile, of course, but it was cool, and applied like the makeup on the rest of the obviously impeccable face. Long blond hair fell in ringlets to her shoulders onto a dark blue silk blouse -a very attractive person to greet the entrant, I suppose. But it was not Dora.

I forced a smile onto my lips and introduced myself. The woman immediately checked her computer screen and her face marginally softened at what she found. I took this as an opportunity to ask about Dora.

I could see her pupils momentarily contract and something tensed in her cheek.

“Dora no longer works here,” she said with a forced affability, and as if she were tired of having to explain.

I couldn’t hide my disappointment, I’m afraid, and the woman noticed.

“The doctor thought she was a bad advertisement for his practice,” she said with an obviously rehearsed face.

“Oh…” was all I could think of to respond.

The face perked up briefly. “He did offer to help…” she stared across the empty room for a moment. “But she said she was happy with who she was –‘with who she’d always been’, was how she put it…”

And then, although she tried to disguise it, she rolled her eyes and sighed. “Anyway,” she said, unrolling her eyes and resting them on my cheeks, “she decided to resign.”

But when I continued to stare at her, she shrugged, as if everybody was better off with Dora gone. “He gave her a good reference, though,” she added at the persistence of my disappointed expression, and shifted her attention back to the screen in front of her with a little smile.