Beauty is good



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BEAUTY


Beauty is good


Every man treasures the moments in life when he encounters true beauty

Ralph Waldo Emerson (American transcendentalist philosopher, essayist, and poet, 1803-1882), “Beauty” in Essays: The Conduct of Life, 1860, reprinted in The Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Black’s Readers Service: 1928, p. 409

“Every man values every acquisition he makes in the science of beauty, above his possessions. The most useful man in the most useful world, so long as only commodity was served, would remain unsatisfied. But, as fast as he sees beauty, life acquires a very high value.”
Beauty is intrinsically valuable

Ralph Waldo Emerson (American transcendentalist philosopher, essayist, and poet, 1803-1882), Essay on Nature, 1836, reprinted in The Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Black’s Readers Service: 1928, p. 530-531

“A nobler want of man is served by nature, namely, the love of Beauty. The ancient Greeks called the world kosmos [kosmos], beauty. Such is the constitution of all things, or such the plastic power of the human eye, that the primary forms, as the sky, the mountain, the tree, the animal, give us a delight in and for themselves; a pleasure arising from outline, color, motion, and grouping.”
Beauty is in all things, even the humblest

Stephen R. L. Clark (prof. of philosophy, Univ. of Liverpool), “Ancient Philosophy” in The Oxford History of Western Philosophy, ed. by Anthony Kenny, 1994, p. 30

“That something divine and beautiful could be discerned in even the most trivial of natural entities was implicit in Plato, explicit in Aristotle.”
Natural beauty demonstrates God’s existence

Karl W. Giberson (prof. of physics, Eastern Nazarene College), as quoted in “Seeing and Believing” by Jerry A. Coyne, The New Republic, February 4, 2009, p. 40

“Why is [bird] song so pleasant to hear? Why, for example, does almost every scene of undeveloped nature seem so beautiful, from mountain lakes to rolling prairies? If the evolution of our species was driven entirely by survival considerations, then where did we get our rich sense of natural aesthetics?... There is an artistic character to nature that has always struck me as redundant from a purely scientific point of view.... I am attracted to the idea that God’s signature is not on the engineering marvels of the natural world, but rather on its marvelous creativity and aesthetic depth. Scientists are not supposed to talk about God this way, for it raises questions that can’t be answered.” [Brackets and ellipses in original text]
Sex and beauty are the greatest goods

Colin McGinn (prof. of philosophy, Rutgers Univ.), “Mothers and Moralists,” The New Republic, October 3, 1994, p. 27

“G.E. Moore wrote, in Principia Ethica, the classic work of analytic moral philosophy, ‘By far the most valuable things, which we know or can imagine, are certain states of consciousness, which may be roughly described as the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects ... {P}ersonal affections and aesthetic enjoyment include all the greatest, and by far the greatest goods we can imagine.’” [Ellipsis in original text]
Beauty makes us want to copy it, to spread beauty wider in the world

Elaine Scarry (Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value in the department of English at Harvard University), “On Beauty and Being Just,” from The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Delivered at Yale University, March 25 and 26, 1998, p. 3; Online: www.tannerlectures.utah.edu/lectures/documents/scarry00.pdf, accessed May 2, 2008

“Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people. Sometimes it gives rise to exact replication and other times to resemblances and still other times to things whose connection to the original site of inspiration is unrecognizable. A beautiful face drawn by Verrocchio suddenly glides into the perceptual field of a young boy named Leonardo. The boy copies the face, then copies the face again. Then again and again and again. He does the same thing when a beautiful living plant — a violet, a wild rose — glides into his field of vision, or a living face: he makes a first copy, a second copy, a third, a fourth, a fifth. He draws it over and over, just as Walter Pater (who tells us all this about Leonardo) replicates — now in sentences — Leonardo’s acts, so that the essay reenacts its subject, becoming a sequence of faces: an angel, a Medusa, a woman and child, a Madonna, John the Baptist, St. Anne, La Gioconda.”
Beauty suspends rationality

Elaine Scarry (Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value in the department of English at Harvard University), “On Beauty and Being Just,” from The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Delivered at Yale University, March 25 and 26, 1998, p. 21; Online: www.tannerlectures.utah.edu/lectures/documents/scarry00.pdf, accessed May 2, 2008

“Something beautiful fills the mind yet invites the search for something beyond itself, something larger or something of the same scale with which it needs to be brought into relation. Beauty, according to its critics, causes us to gape and suspend all thought.”
Beauty is the essential element, according to Plato and Aristotle

Robert C. Solomon and Kathleen M. Higgins (both professors of philosophy, Univ. of Texas at Austin), A Short History of Philosophy, 1996, p. 55

“The emphasis on Beauty in the Symposium reflects an important feature of Plato’s thought. Aesthetic concerns about beauty and order are central to Plato’s philosophy as a whole. Beauty was the Form that embodied human beings could most easily recognize, and a glimpse of beauty was often the motivation that incited a person to pursue philosophy. Moreover, virtue, for Plato, is akin to beauty. Virtue makes the soul harmonious, as beauty orders the elements of a face or a scene. Even Plato’s ideal republic involves the aesthetic notion of harmoniously organized parts. The centrality of aesthetic notions in formulating ethical and political ideals continues in Aristotle’s philosophy, and it reemerges at various points in later philosophy, although rarely with the straightforwardness of the ancient Greeks (or the early Chinese).”
Beauty can stimulate greater ability to appreciate beauty

Robert C. Solomon and Kathleen M. Higgins (both professors of philosophy, Univ. of Texas at Austin), A Short History of Philosophy, 1996, p. 151

“Ficino placed special emphasis on art’s role in provoking the human soul’s ascension to higher levels of beauty. In Ficino’s view, art does not distract us from higher reality, as Plato had thought. Instead, it helps us to recognize formal features of the things around us, which is already a step toward a higher level of truth. Fincino’s emphasis on the Neoplatonists’ allegorical reading of the ancient texts had a strong influence on Renaissance artists.”

[Reference is to Marsilo Ficino (1433-1499), a Florentine priest and Renaissance scholar]


Appreciation of beauty reinforces our moral sense

Robert C. Solomon and Kathleen M. Higgins (both professors of philosophy, Univ. of Texas at Austin), A Short History of Philosophy, 1996, p. 213

“Beauty, Kant tells us, is ultimately a ‘symbol of morality.’ In assuming the necessary stance to engage in ‘free play,’ we must be ‘disinterested.’ In other words, we must ignore any practical motives or inclinations that we have and instead contemplate the object without being distracted by our desires. (One should not be tempted to eat the fruit in a still-life painting.) In a sense, therefore, the stance that we take toward the beautiful object is similar to that which we take toward other human beings when we are properly respectful of their dignity. The beautiful is also the symbol of the moral in a larger sense. It encourages us to believe that nature and we ourselves are part of an even larger design. This sense of order in a beautiful object is not translatable into a formula or a recipe (which is why Kant insists that genius is essential to artistic creativity). This notion of a larger design, the belief in a teleology in which every aspect of the phenomenal world has its place in a larger purpose, draws our thoughts toward a supersensible reality.”


Beauty is useless or evil


Critics find two primary objections to beauty

Elaine Scarry (Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value in the department of English at Harvard University), “On Beauty and Being Just,” from The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Delivered at Yale University, March 25 and 26, 1998, p. 39-40; Online: www.tannerlectures.utah.edu/lectures/documents/scarry00.pdf, accessed May 2, 2008

“The political critique of beauty is composed of two distinct arguments. The first urges that beauty, by preoccupying our attention, distracts attention from wrong social arrangements. It makes us inattentive, and therefore eventually indifferent, to the project of bringing about arrangements that are just. The second argument holds that when we stare at something beautiful, make it an object of sustained regard, our act is destructive to the object. This argument is most often prompted when the gaze is directed toward a human face or form, but the case presumably applies equally when the beautiful thing is a mourning dove, or a trellis spilling over with sweet pea, or a book whose pages are being folded back for the first time. The complaint has given rise to a generalized discrediting of the act of ‘looking,’ which is charged with ‘reifying’ the very object that appears to be the subject of admiration.”
We have abandoned pursuit of beauty in pursuit of expedience

Hubert Dreyfus (prof. of philosophy, Univ. of Calif. - Berkeley), in The Great Philosophers, edited by Bryan Magee, 1987, p. 273

“We don’t even seek truth any more but simply efficiency. For us everything is to be made as flexible as possible so as to be used as efficiently as possible. If I had a styrofoam cup here, it would be a very good example. A styrofoam cup is a perfect sort of object, given our understanding of being, namely it keeps hot things hot, and cold things cold, and you can dispose of it when you are done with it. It efficiently and flexibly satisfies our desires. It’s utterly different from, say, a Japanese tea-cup, which is delicate, traditional, and socializes people. It doesn’t keep the tea hot for very long, and probably doesn’t satisfy anybody’s desires, but that’s not important.”


Art and esthetics are good


Art gives insight into the true nature of existence

Arthur Schopenhauer (German philosopher, 1788-1860), as quoted in Confessions of a Philosopher: A Journey through Western Philosophy by Bryan Magee, 1997, p. 267

“Not merely philosophy but also the fine arts work at bottom towards the solution of the problem of existence. For in every contemplation of the world a desire has been awakened, however concealed and unconscious, to comprehend the true nature of things, of life, and of existence... For this reason the result of every purely objective, and so of every artistic, apprehension of things is an articulation of more of the true nature of life and existence, of more of the answer to the question ‘What is life?’ Every genuine and successful work of art answers this question in its own way.”
Art brings meaning to all of life, according to Dewey

Robert C. Solomon and Kathleen M. Higgins (both professors of philosophy, Univ. of Texas at Austin), A Short History of Philosophy, 1996, p. 263

Art and Experience applied the instrumentalist method to the viewing of art objects. Aesthetic experiences, Dewey argues, help us to structure our experiences in ways we find meaningful. They reveal with unusual clarity the structure of every experience, the resolution of tensions into a satisfying unity.”

[Reference is to John Dewey (1859-1952), American pragmatist philosopher and educator]


There is a long-standing linkage between esthetics and morals

Gordon S. Wood (Alva O. Way University Professor and Professor of History at Brown University), “Revolutionary Manners,” The New Republic, July 1, 2009. p. 46

“The fine arts, good taste, and even good manners had political implications for eighteenth-century thinkers. As the English philosopher Lord Shaftesbury had written, good taste and morality were allied, ‘the science of virtuosi and that of virtue itself become, in a manner, one and the same.’ Connoisseurship, politeness, and genteel refinement were connected with public morality and political leadership. Those who had good taste were enlightened, and those who were enlightened were virtuous. This is one reason why Jefferson was so eager to collect the best in the world of what was seen, thought, and said (and sipped, too.)”
The artistic experience is uniquely significant in human life

Bryan Magee (UK television documentarian, former Member of Parliament, and former philosophy lecturer or visiting fellow at Yale, Harvard, Oxford, and Cambridge), Confessions of a Philosopher: A Journey through Western Philosophy, 1997, p. 22

“What seemed to me to penetrate life to the core — and therefore to be, ultimately, what living was for, in addition to relationships with other people — was the creation and absorption of works of art. Artistic experience, it seemed to me, was in a totally different category from any other sort of experience, except sexual experience, when it comes to glory and significance. It was the distilled essence of living. If you could choose your talent the obvious thing to be was a creative artist. If you hadn’t got what it took to be that, then the next best thing was to be an interpretive artist — a conductor, or some other sort of musical performer, or an actor.”
Art discloses the deeper truths we overlook, and recommits us to vital values

John Passmore (Australian philosopher, 1914-2004; former President of the Australian Academy of the Humanities), “The Representative Arts as a Source of Truth,” from The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Delivered at Clare Hall, Cambridge University, November 20, 1980, p. 165-166; Online: www.tannerlectures.utah.edu/lectures/documents/passmore82.pdf, accessed May 8, 2008

“Many scientifically-minded thinkers — Poincaré and Russell both expressed this view — have argued that art is inevitably superficial, shallow, not even attaining to the highest sort of beauty, let alone truth, just because it remains at the level of sensory perception. But even those who are prepared to maintain that reality attaches only to particles and the forces which link them, or, alternatively, only to some metaphysical absolute, who argue that the world as we ordinarily take it to be is but a passing show, will still want to distinguish, within that passing show, between illusion and reality. No less to such scientists or physicians than to the rest of us does it matter whether a note is genuine or counterfeit, whether what they see in a is an oasis or a mirage, whether they are being deceived by propagandists and hypocrites and mountebanks or enlightened by a sage. At this level, then, the representative artist can properly claim that he shows us not merely how things look but how they are in truth, how we would see them if we looked at them more carefully, when we would see as counterfeit the beliefs, the passions, the attitudes which normally pass as genuine, see as mirages the ideals with which men and women try to console themselves. Or alternatively — for art can also be celebratory — we should come to see as genuine what our culture tries to persuade us is a sham, recognise anew the value of love or freedom.”
Literature transcends other forms of communication

Martha C. Nussbaum (Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics, The University of Chicago), “Stages of Thought,” The New Republic, May 7, 2008, p. 38

“Literary works offer their readers a range of experiences that philosophical prose cannot provide, reshaping their perceptions in a variety of ways. Some of these experiences are varieties of emotional response; some are experiences of dislocation and a loss of meaning; some are experiences of losing a sense of meaning and then finding it again; some are experiences of not being able to figure out who or what a certain person is, or even what a person or self might be. And sometimes the experience is that of following the shifting trajectory of a human relationship. So there is not just one thing that literature offers. It portrays and dissects a wide range of human experiences, all of which we have in life, but which literature offers in a concentrated and heightened form.”

Art and esthetics are useless or evil


Rational thinking and imaginative thinking are completely separate

Stuart Hampshire (emeritus professor of philosophy at University College, Oxford, at Princeton, and at Stanford Univ.: former Warden of Wadham College, Oxford), “Justice Is Conflict: The Soul and the City” from The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Delivered at Harvard University, October 30-31, 1996, p. 152. Online: www.tannerlectures.utah.edu/lectures/documents/Hampshire98.pdf, accessed May 20, 2008

“Rationality, adversarial thinking, public and private, is properly contrasted with imaginative thinking. Evidently there are many situations requiring careful thought in which adversary arguments are not essential. A painter or musician or poet may not weigh adversary arguments in deciding how a particular work should proceed. If one finds oneself strongly moved and excited by some stretch of the countryside, and finds it beautiful, one is not normally prepared to enter into some adversary argument about its beauty. There seems to be nothing to be gained by being just and fair-minded and rational in supporting such a claim, or in insisting on a justification, if someone disagrees and finds the landscape dull. The acceptability of an aesthetic claim is independent of any argumentative procedure associated with the claim and does not normally require negotiation or arbitration.”
Art never lives up to its potential

Ralph Waldo Emerson (American transcendentalist philosopher, essayist, and poet, 1803-1882), “Art” in Essays: First Series, 1841, reprinted in The Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Black’s Readers Service: 1928, p. 205-206

“Yet when we have said all our fine things about the arts, we must end with a frank confession, that the arts, as we know them, are but initial. Our best praise is given to what they aimed and promised, not to the actual result. He has conceived meanly of the resources of man, who believes that the best age of production is past. The real value of the Iliad or the Transfiguration is as signs of power; billows or ripples they are of the stream of tendency; tokens of the everlasting effort to produce, which even in its worst estate the soul betrays. Art has not yet come to its maturity if it do not put itself abreast with the most potent influences of the world, if it is not practical and moral, if it do not stand in connection with the conscience, if it do not make the poor and uncultivated feel that it addresses them with a voice of lofty cheer. There is higher work for Art than the arts. They are abortive births of an imperfect or vitiated instinct. Art is the need to create; but in its essence, immense and universal, it is impatient of working with lame or tied hands, and of making cripples and monsters, such as all pictures and statues are.”
The claims made for the value of art are, on their face, preposterous

John Passmore (Australian philosopher, 1914-2004; former President of the Australian Academy of the Humanities), “The Representative Arts as a Source of Truth,” from The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Delivered at Clare Hall, Cambridge University, November 20, 1980, p. 141; Online: www.tannerlectures.utah.edu/lectures/documents/passmore82.pdf, accessed May 8, 2008

“Shelley notoriously tried to persuade us that poetry ‘comprehends all science’ and is that ‘to which all science must be referred.’ In a cool hour, however, who can possibly believe this, can bring himself to believe either that the theory of relativity forms part of poetry or that Einstein should have referred it to an eisteddfod of bards for their approval? Yet such rhetorical extravagances cannot be set aside as a nineteenth-century romantic excess. Here is a recent specimen: ‘Through art man can discover the fundamental forms and processes of our universe and give them new energy and function.’ Once again, the objection is so obvious that one feels ashamed, as if breaking a butterfly on the wheel, to insist upon it. In search of knowledge about ‘the fundamental forms and processes of the universe’ we should surely turn to science, not to the arts, and in order to give them ‘new energy and function’ — so far as that is consistent with the conservation of energy — to technology.”
Art does not last: whole categories of artistic effort are now essentially abandoned

Ralph Waldo Emerson (American transcendentalist philosopher, essayist, and poet, 1803-1882), “Art” in Essays: First Series, 1841, reprinted in The Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Black’s Readers Service: 1928, p. 206

“Already History is old enough to witness the old age and disappearance of particular arts. The art of sculpture is long ago perished to any real effect. It was originally a useful art, a mode of writing, a savage’s record of gratitude or devotion, and among a people possessed of a wonderful perception of form this childish carving was refined to the utmost splendor of effect. But it is the game of a rude and youthful people, and not the manly labor of a wise and spiritual nation.”
Art is not independent: it truckles to social, political, and commercial trends

Judith Clark (painter and printmaker; former lecturer in art history at the Open University, Great Britain), The Illustrated History of Art from the Renaissance to the present day, 1992, p. 75

“Art is inevitably in the service of political and economic forces, and implicated in the balance of power between conservative and radical forces — disseminating the message of its patrons, whether they are kings, clerics, or dissident voices. The enclosed world of artistic activity is never immune from social or political conditions.”
The artist deceives us

John Passmore (Australian philosopher, 1914-2004; former President of the Australian Academy of the Humanities), “The Representative Arts as a Source of Truth,” from The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Delivered at Clare Hall, Cambridge University, November 20, 1980, p. 171-172; Online: www.tannerlectures.utah.edu/lectures/documents/passmore82.pdf, accessed May 8, 2008

“Nevertheless, we can learn from the artist, we can come with his help to see. In the process, we have to keep our wits about us; he may use his gifts to mislead us, to deceive us. We need not suppose that this sort of thing only happens in Nazi art or socialist realism; the ideologies of our own artists may be concealed from us, precisely because they are our own. In quantitative terms, by far the greatest percentage of representative works of art — using the phrase ‘works of art’ in its neutral sense, as including what is bad as well as what is good — deceive, conceal, misrepresent.”
The artist’s life is ghastly

John Passmore (Australian philosopher, 1914-2004; former President of the Australian Academy of the Humanities), “The Representative Arts as a Source of Truth,” from The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Delivered at Clare Hall, Cambridge University, November 20, 1980, p. 139; Online: www.tannerlectures.utah.edu/lectures/documents/passmore82.pdf, accessed May 8, 2008

“As Jack Tanner puts it in Man and Superman : ‘The true artist will let his wife starve, his children go barefoot, his mother drudge for his living at seventy, sooner than work at anything but his art’ .In our Romanticist-inspired hagiographies, our modern equivalents of Foxe´s Book of Martyrs, the artist must not only suffer but be a source of suffering, confirming his genius by a life lived in exile, actual or spiritual, by his total indifference to the responsibilities inherent in everyday human attachments. ‘Ce monstre inhumain, c’est moi-même’.”
Our ability to appreciate beauty fades

Robert C. Solomon and Kathleen M. Higgins (both professors of philosophy, Univ. of Texas at Austin), A Short History of Philosophy, 1996, p. 228

“Despite its evident attractions, the aesthethic life had its perils, its built-in dissatisfactions, the danger of becoming ‘jaded.’ Indeed, so did the ethical life, for the more morally sensitive and dutiful a person tried to be, the more despairing he would inevitably become, given the unjust and generally immoral behavior of humanity in general.”
Art is not independent: it serves social, political, and commercial trends

Judith Clark (painter and printmaker; former lecturer in art history at the Open University, Great Britain), The Illustrated History of Art from the Renaissance to the Present Day, 1992, p. 75

“Art is inevitably in the service of political and economic forces, and implicated in the balance of power between conservative and radical forces — disseminating the message of its patrons, whether they are kings, clerics, or dissident voices. The enclosed world of artistic activity is never immune from social or political conditions.”
Art tends to reflect the defects of the artist, rather than the artist’s strengths

Bryan Magee (UK television documentarian, former Member of Parliament, and former philosophy lecturer or visiting fellow at Yale, Harvard, Oxford, and Cambridge), Confessions of a Philosopher: A Journey through Western Philosophy, 1997, p. 184

“It is quite common for an artist’s work to be in some profound way compensatory, and thus to embody what the artist lacks in himself. For example, when Wagner decided to compose Tristan and Isolde he wrote to Liszt, ‘Since I have never in my life enjoyed the true happiness of love, I want to erect a monument to this most beautiful of dreams in which, from beginning to end, this love will for once be properly sated.’ He composed Tristan not because he was immersed in love but because he was not immersed in love. This is characteristic of how a lot of great art comes to be created (and helps to explain why the popular notion that artists are articulating their personal experience is so uncomprehending).”
Absolute esthetics is hardly useful in daily life — even when art is the subject matter

John Dewey (1859-1952; American pragmatic philosopher and educator; prof. of philosophy, Univ. of Chicago), The Quest for Certainty, 1929, p. 264-265



“We can hardly imagine an architect getting aid in the construction of a building from an ideal at large, though we can understand his framing an ideal on the basis of knowledge of actual conditions and needs. Nor does the ideal of perfect beauty in antecedent Being give direction to a painter in producing a particular work of art. In morals, absolute perfection does not seem to be more than a generalized hypostatization of the recognition that there a good to be sought, an obligation to be met — both being concrete matters.”



Prager’s LD Vault: Beauty · Revised June 2009 · © 2009 John R. Prager


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