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: https://aeon.co/essays/how-virtue-morphs-into-beauty-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder
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…?