What is Beauty?
In the absence of Beauty, consciousness becomes a burden: the realisation of our physical decay, the effort needed to stand tall in the face of that silent pain which comes from being alive, the questions without answers, the gore violence that we bestow upon each other, the lies, the mundane walks to the post office, in the parks, to schools and graveyards, the energy needed to muster hope, the notion of time, without Beauty to heal and ease our hearts, the experience of life becomes a cross that is too hard to bear.
Sir Roger Scruton explained that Beauty places us in a state of contemplation. Pursuing and engaging with Beauty brings us closer to God, to the Universe, to the essence of Creation: eternity. More so, through Beauty, we share our environment with others, and we become part of our surroundings: You and I become We, and We and Them becomes Us.
Therefore, we can say that Beauty helps us transcend the human condition, opening the doors of an unlimited and universal world of here and now. In other words, Beauty enables us to fulfil the function of human life, which is to experience eternity. As Joseph Campbell wrote:
“Eternity isn’t some later time. Eternity isn’t even a long time. Eternity has nothing to do with time. Eternity is that dimension of here and now that all thinking in temporal terms cuts off…. the experience of eternity right here and now […] is the function of life”.
By Beauty I understand, first of all, a spiritual and therefore universal quality of Existence.
Beauty doesn’t always come through the senses. It can also emerge through ideas and imagination, which may not always be informed by the surroundings with which we engage or did engage. The song, the first story, the first painter, the first to imagine or create something: a genre, a field, an idea, before thoughts were cyclical, in the Primordial Mist where our common human past resides, a place without specific space and time, forever shrouded in mystery, which we can only imagine, that’s where Beauty emerged in abstract through thoughts, visions, dreams and imagination.
However, Beauty is also perceived with our senses and felt throughout our bodies as a feeling of belonging, a calling to contemplate, an inspiration to dream, a trance of both detachment from and connection to something that is at once bigger than ourselves and at the same time intimately relatable. Through these tangible aspects of Beauty, the abstract and the material are bridged and as we engage with Beauty, we are slowly realising the deep mystery of what we are: more than beasts that crawled down from trees.
Beauty is not a matter of taste: the soul doesn’t have a taste. Our biological minds, through the senses, as they bounce against the walls of culture, form views on fashion and style that can change often or seldom, but which do inevitably change. Beauty speaks to the human soul through the language of universal aesthetic which never changes: the Universe is perceived by all, even if we convey this common perception differently because we are different expressions (star stuff) of the same whole (the Universe).
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe” wrote John Muir.
All are One and One is All.
Beauty and Morality
There are, it seems to me, two kinds of Beauty: natural Beauty, a quality of the Universe itself and Beauty that is a quality of certain things that we make: music, clothing, literature, paintings, architecture and so on. Regardless of where it is natural or manmade, Beauty is essential for life to become more than just living. It is part of that strange mixture of alchemical fuel that transform life into Life.
In a talk with architect Marc Tuitt, Scruton reminded us that it was Edmund Burke who realised that all people have a need to engage with and pursue Beauty, and even those who don’t find it in human creations, they find it in nature.
Why is this so? Because it is a spiritual experience. Not necessarily religious, although it can be part of a religious creed or rite, but spiritual. Spirituality is the immaterial quintessence of Existence and religions are the venues of engaging with it. Religions are like different roads going up the same mountain: they all lead to the top eventually, even though the paths may go different ways or intersect sometimes.
The mountain is Existence itself, which can be explored through spiritual quests, irrespective of the path one takes. In this sense there are no such thing as atheists because we all are, whether or not we want, part of the Universe and we all explore it, even after death as mindless atoms. Indeed, science has a deeply spiritual component to it: the desire to engage with the Unknown, although it may be narrowed by a compulsion to quantify, the initial impulse to “see what’s there” invites one to a spiritual adventure. We have no choice but to accept that we are all part of the Universe. Given this perspective, some may argue that Existence is nothing but a cage — it is Beauty that transforms this cage into a homely room.
Dostoevsky wrote: “Beauty will save the world”.
Beauty allows for redemption. By engaging with and pursuing Beauty, we can become our own saviours and no longer need a Messiah to come and rescue us. Zapffe’s last Messiah may therefore never need be born: through Beauty, we are sufficient.
If this is true then, does it mean that Beauty strengthens our moral compass? Unfortunately, the answer is “no”. History is full of examples of people who were surrounded by Beauty and indulged in its spiritual fruits and yet committed atrocities: tyrant kings and queens, communist dictators, Nazi officers and so on. Even today, our society consists of people who live surrounded by Beauty and their actions are oppressive and destructive to the individual, i.e. immoral.
However, what does this oil-and-water mix of Beauty and immorality suggests is that despite the actions of these people, buried beneath the piles of dead bodies, the waves of coagulated blood and walls of ashes that resulted from their crimes against the individual, the souls of these oppressors screamed at them, faintly but desperately, telling them to redeem. Hence why they engaged with Beauty.
Nevertheless, through rationalisation, one can silence this voice and justify any action, but it doesn’t mean that the voice wasn’t there. It was muted on purpose, making their engagement with Beauty partly a false experience.
What is Beautiful?
How do we know what’s beautiful? We cannot know. Knowledge, as the sum of gathered facts, is not the vessel of Beauty. We may extract facts about something that is beautiful but not about its beauty. We may have an intuition about it, or we may feel it, but reason, the cognitive tool used to extract and classify facts, plays little role in engaging with Beauty.
Intuition, as Terrance McKenna explained, is “a feeling into things that comes to answers and leaves no trail. It expresses truth in contravention to the flow of logic and casuistry”. It is through this cognitive tool that Beauty more often reveals itself.
Intuition is sharpened through the pursuit of truth about who we are: when we are true to our own nature, we are on the difficult and rewarding path of becoming an individual. All individuals have Beauty in them: that is why what is beautiful resonates with so many from different places, across different time frames.
This doesn’t meant that reason and imagination have no role to play. Without reason, precise calculations that are necessary to lift beautiful buildings or to construct telescopes and admire the stars are impossible. Without magnetisation, there is no motivation to do any of these. Indeed, the cognitive trinity: reason, intuition and imagination ought to be used together. We are complete when we use all three and Beauty, as it belongs to the universal aesthetic of the soul, is most amply explored when we are complete.
Beauty and Progress
“Beauty seems to be vanishing from our world because we live as if it doesn’t matter” wrote Scruton.
This is probably most visible in the buildings we erect. In a move that desecrated the function of creation, modern architecture adopted the motto “form must follow function”, meaning that the material purpose of a construction was to take priority over its aesthetics. Adolf Loofs underlined this argument in his ‘Ornament and Crime’ in 1910, stating that architects who designed beautiful buildings were committing a crime against their profession.
I think we can say that the peak of “form must follow function” in today’s society may very well be the giant, often grey or dirty white, rectangles, sometimes squares, which make for our supermarkets. They replaced the inefficient farmer markets with their counters full of limited supply of food products that smelled like gardens and farms. In their place, we built a massive box that is supposed to be a display of the power of economies of scale, offering an unlimited supply of genetically modified foods that look and taste like plastic.
The white glowing neon lights radiating from all angles as if you are walking through a giant X-ray room from some bizarre version of a hospital, pushing a metal cart through rows of colourful packages, looking right and left, bamboozled by too many choices, most of which have no nutritional value, with minimal to no human interaction: the discussions, laughs and shouts have been replaced by robotic voices that blast from hanged speakers some random announcements about customer service or health and safety regulations. Everyone is a customer, faceless and nameless. The only thing that matters is to match the price displayed. The farmers’ dirty faces and hardworking hands, their tired smiles and ability to negotiate was replaced by automated bands with a bored to death person that moves the plastic from right to left.
Now, even that inefficiency is being improved through further innovation: we have self-serving cubicals where you place your plastic basket to pay yourself for the food manufactured on mass scale, at the zenith of a chart that shows the optimal cost and price per tonnage of stuff. “Tic, tic, tic” the scanner goes over each barcode, registering your product. And, in the name of maximum efficiency, your face is also recorded, for some kind of safety requirement. In this nauseating rectangle, there is a stark absence of Beauty, but an abundance of things. The essence of Life does not exist under the white neon lights, only the grind to stay alive.
The obsession with functionality and efficiency can be seen in many other facets of today’s society: charts that capture productivity, strictly measured as output (which is vaguely defined) per hour, an unhealthy culture of grinding until you turn your depression into exhaustion, guidelines and rules of how ideas have to be expressed, art is no longer created but produced, better, faster and more of the same technology which we call innovation even though is not improving much, if at all, further specialisation that reduces one’s individuality to titles, and the list can go on.
Beauty takes time. It cannot be rushed or made to obey some made up laws of economics or architecture, or any other profession.
Beauty cannot exist in a world too rigid and nihilistic that places Nothingness above Something, and then wonders why being alive feels like such a burden: Life without Beauty is not possible.
Still, a world without Beauty seems impossible. Even if our creations cease to be beautiful and, in parts of the world this is already apparent in the buildings we erect, the music we make, the books we write, the paintings we paint, the language we use and the savageness with which we treat one another in politics, in markets and other social institutions, despite all of this, nature continues to provide an oasis of Beauty.
However, as Hunter S. Thompson wrote, land developers are “the final plague of all paradises lost”, referring to the greedy investors that marched into the tiny Aspen in mid-late 1960s with their bulldozers and advertisement campaigns, polluting creeks, cementing grasslands and attracting an international crowd of ski enthusiasts. Money and comfort were brought to Aspen, ruining the simpler, rougher but more profound relationship of the people that built the town with the surrounding nature. Beauty had no chance of standing in the way of progress: a better, more prosperous tomorrow replaced the tranquillity and hardship of the present.
The world is beautiful by default. Our world is not, however. We have to make a conscious effort to preserve Beauty. It may mean less technology, less growth, less money, less of everything that is not that important but promoted as crucial, and more of the things that are overlooked but which make all the suffering of being human worth it.
Without Beauty, we are worse than dead, even if we manage to fool ourselves into not admitting it. There is no Life without Beauty, only a lethargic state of decaying flesh around a trapped soul, on a rock revolving a giant nuclear bomb called the Sun.