In a recent blogpost, Mr. Cunningham posed the question of whether Beauty is a sense of belonging, or an object of desire. I suggest it is neither. In the attempt to critique a conference speaker’s articulation of what beauty is, we almost missed the (arguably more important) opportunity to discuss what beauty does.
Let’s remedy that now.
First, as to the definition of Beauty: I agree, it is lamentable for such an abstract concept to be thought of as “being at home in the world.” That would mean its very essence is relative to one of your (or my) fallen human desires. But often what catches us up into the heavens, what beckons us into worlds heretofore unknown, is when we observe a glimpse of something transcendent about Beauty—when it pulls us out of the human experience.
This is what Beauty does. It is more difficult to pin down what Beauty is, because, like pain and chivalry and the sun, it is something we cannot know at all if we only look at it rather than look at it along with first-hand experience (C.S. Lewis, “Meditations in a Toolshed”).
Of course, while this object is reminding us of the Eternal or exalting our souls toward the Divine, it’s frequently the impermanence of that thing itself which makes it precious to us. If it is here today but gone tomorrow, surely we must take advantage it today while the getting is good. Yet, as Mr. Cunningham rightly points out, it does an injustice to talk about Beauty in the “remarkably vulnerable position of commodity, as something to be used.” C.S. Lewis would agree, and he went to the trouble of separating the experience of Beauty into two very different kinds: Need-Pleasure and Appreciation of Pleasure (The Four Loves).
Need-Pleasure and Appreciation of Pleasure
Need-Pleasures always wind up taking the form of statements about ourselves in past tense (for example: “That’s exactly what I wanted for Christmas!”), whereas Pleasures of Appreciation are statements about the object in present tense (for example: “Wow, that sunset is gorgeous!”). Need-Pleasures “loudly proclaim their relativity not only to the human frame but to its momentary condition.”
But when we experience Pleasures of Appreciation, there is a “glimmering of unselfishness in this attitude…we somehow owe it to them to savour, to attend to and praise them.” The former is often a result of perverted innate desire, of addiction, while the latter serves as “the starting point for our whole experience of beauty.”
This distinction is helpful, if for no other reason than contesting claims like “Beauty is being at home in the world” or “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Both statements try to confine Beauty to the inferior plane of Need-pleasures. Plato would join Lewis in adamant disagreement with the latter assertion, as we see in the final act of Phaedo. Here Socrates proposes the theory of a universal Form of Beauty as a stepping-stone to his ultimate conclusion that the soul is immortal. If natural law extends to Beauty as something we can’t not know, then it becomes ridiculous to suggest that Beauty is entirely subjective: that we can ignore innate preferences for symmetry and curves and organic patterns.
The overall thrust is that, yes, Beauty is not something that can be “neatly taped up in a definitive sentence or treatise.” It is not just being at home, nor is it in the eye of the beholder. It is experienced in more than one way, and it manifests less often as a memory of the past than an invitation to a great journey in the present.
Joshua de Gastyne works in philanthropy consulting and non-profit market research in Colorado Springs. He studied neuroscience at Emory, anthropology at Oxford, and Arabic in Morocco. He is an alumnus of the John Jay Institute and Heritage Foundation Young Leaders Program, and writes a provocative weekly blog on LinkedIn.