Monday, February 16, 2015


I remember talking with some philosophy people back in college about beauty.  What is beauty?  Is it objective or subjective?  Is beauty truth, truth beauty?  (No, Keats, I'm sorry, it's not.  Beauty is beauty and truth is truth.)

So I'm not a philosopher, but I am kind of obsessed with beauty.  Not my own beauty, so much, but beauty in general.  Maybe it doesn't seem that way because I can be awfully practical ... but part of that is because my standards for beauty are so exacting that I figure, best to stick with the beauty that comes naturally.

Here is my definition: something that is beautiful is something enjoyable to look at, listen to, or smell.  (Something enjoyable to taste is delicious, something enjoyable to feel is pleasurable or pleasant.  Hey, I don't make the rules.)  So beauty is the pleasure we feel when we look at [and secondarily, hear or smell] certain things.

What that means, to me, is that despite all the talk of the philosophy majors (sorry, philosophy majors) beauty is subjective.  It exists not in the object we find beautiful, but in the person who is enjoying it.  That's why we disagree about what things are beautiful.  I think red-orange is a gorgeous color, while some people hate it.  I think my friends are all beautiful, and yet for some reason no one's approached them for a modeling opportunity.  That doesn't make me wrong.  Their beauty exists, because I really do feel enjoyment when I look at them, but that isn't the experience of the modeling agent because he's looking for something of a more specific type.

We may not all agree on which things are beautiful, but we all agree on how the experience of beauty feels.  It is pleasant, but at the same time it may give us a sense of longing.  We desire to possess or experience more of the beautiful thing.  And yet many beautiful things can't actually be possessed or even indefinitely enjoyed, so we feel a kind of pain along with our pleasure, because we have a desire we can't satisfy.  Like Edna St. Vincent Millay in this poem --

"O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
   Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
   Thy mists, that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour!   That gaunt crag
To crush!   To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!"
We want to .... what?  I want something, I know that.  When I was a kid, every time we drove by water, I would say "I want to swim in that!"  Because it was beautiful to me, because the sight of the beautiful water gave me a desire that I wasn't quite sure how to express.  Now when I see something beautiful, I often think, "I want to paint that."  I can't actually paint.  When I hear beautiful music, I wish I could play the violin. I just want something!

With a beautiful person, we often read this desire as just attraction.  And perhaps that's just what it is.  It makes perfect sense for us to feel pleasure in the sight of a person we could theoretically have babies with.  Evolution would select for people who like looking at healthy people of the opposite sex.  Or who like the taste of apples.  But why in the world would people want to look at sunsets, or flowers?  Is it just because we like colors?  But what's so great about colors, and why do we like some combinations of colors and not others?  Why is a gray ocean beneath a gray sky so pretty?

I would call it just an evolutionary glitch, like homosexuality -- some people are just going to have variations that aren't immediately useful for survival.  But for everyone to have this?  Every individual of every culture knows what beauty is, and has some things they describe as beautiful.  And there are some commonalities between these things, even though of course there is variation in people's different tastes.

One more odd thing about visual beauty -- it's the one desire we have that we can't seem to entirely hack.  We love sweet things, so we've made substances much sweeter than anything in nature.  We love having sex, so we've found ways to have sex without having to have babies if we don't want to.  We like babies' faces, so we've bred animals that stay that adorable their whole lives long. 

But the most beautiful art ever produced is imitative of nature.  Abstract art might have useful messages (at least, the artists and critics claim it does) but to the average untrained person, a landscape is just prettier.

There is no requirement at all that we should feel pleasure on looking at the universe we happened to be born into.  We would have survived just as well if we thought it was ugly, and if we built much prettier buildings the moment we developed enough civilization to do so.  You could argue we're just used to it -- but I grew up in a house, spent most of my infancy in a house, and still like nature better, at least as far as looks go.  And what about the stars?  The Hubble Space Telescope is constantly sending back pictures of faraway galaxies, things no one ever saw before, and yet we all agree they are beautiful.

Why, if the universe wasn't meant for us, do we feel on some crazy level that it was?  The evolutionists have never been able to explain this to me.

And when I think about it, the simplest conclusion is that it was made for us.  It was a gift.  A gift universe.

This is not a proof of the existence of God.  But I do think it's a hint


SeekingOmniscience said...

The evolutionary explanation offered for why humans like landscapes, at least, makes sense to me: Some people argue that the landscape that tends to be most preferred by humans is also the kind of landscape humans would have found most congenial and easy to survive in as hunter-gatherers. So we tend to like things that look vaguely like a savannah, with both open areas and trees, running water, game animals or a promise of game animals, and so on.

Here's an article on golf courses and the evolution of aesthetics, which is pretty fun inasmuch as it explains how rich people spend their time trying to recreate the surroundings of hunter-gatherers:;wap2. To be fair, my understanding is that some people try to explain the preference for particular kinds of landscape as an influence of the ubiquity of western calendar design as well; I also haven't done a great deal of research on this, so there are probably other alternative explanations for this as well.

This doesn't, of course, explain why we find nebulae and galaxies beautiful.S

Sheila said...

Huh. I'm not a huge fan of wide-open spaces myself. I like mountains a lot, and also the ocean. I can't survive in the ocean. I just like to look at it.

What originally brought this to mind was a book of Michael Pollan's (The Botany of Desire) when he asks why people like flowers. It's pretty much universal that humans like flowers, but they are utterly useless to us. There was a theory that spotting flowers would help us find fruit later ... but often the showiest flowers go with no fruit, and plain flowers with good fruit. And we're not half so fond of looking at fruit as we are of looking at flowers.

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