Beauty, the Sublime and the Sense of the Past

I would commend to you Brian Miller’s essay on whether beauty if belonging or practice. As he notes, beauty is something that must be aspired to; more a place we are meant to reach than one that we start out from. Appreciating beauty requires work and, as such, the less one puts into “practicing,” the more likely the aesthetic taste is to atrophy.

However, it is also worth noting that beauty is, in no way, uniform. As Scruton pointed out in Beauty half a decade ago, everything from cathedrals and orchestral music to door frames and table settings can be beautiful. But they possess different types of beauty. This is because sometimes beauty overlaps with the sublime more than other times.

They are not the same thing. There are beautiful things which are not sublime and sublime things which are not beautiful: An example of the latter may be the human skull I have known some to decorate a bureau with, as a reminder of the inevitability of death.

Nonetheless, to the extent that they overlap, the sublime element within beauty requires harder practice. Cathedrals are beautiful not only because of their exterior but also because their gargantuan size signifies that they are a human endeavor to represent something which is much greater.

The greater thing to which one aspires is not always something of divine. As I once told my students, when I was still teaching, respecting the classroom–by avoiding electronic distractions irrelevant to the class topic–was important, not because I, as an instructor, was particularly distinguished, but because they were at an institution which was respected because it  had a respectable history and it had chosen them, among a large crowd of aspiring students, to be there.

Perhaps this is why respecting beauty requires respect for the past as well. But it is precisely this sense which is difficult to maintain as the present becomes more distracting. This is, no doubt, why century-old institutions can up-and-vanish over the course of a week: If it only existed in the present tense in our minds, the Great Pyramid at Giza might even look like a pile of bricks.



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