Discover more from Five O'Clock with Theral Timpson
On Beauty. . .
We live in a noisy world. Cell phones, opinions, wars. Everyone has to have one these days.
It’s the great age of the individual.
I’m glad about this. But it leads to a clamoring din. Perhaps when the majority of us followed the three major religions, things were quieter. Perhaps not.
Three values bring me quietness. Goodness, truth, and beauty.
In our cacophonous world, we are constantly being recruited for this or that. Come to my party. Friend me on Facebook. Vote for this person. Sign my petition for this or that: to ban caste discrimination or to legalize drugs. Buzz. Buzz. Buzz. Beep. Beep. Beep. Ring. Ring. Ring.
I’d like to sign a petition advocating for beauty in each endeavor we make.
Is beauty merely superficial stimulation, or is there some timeless universal value in it? Is beauty a matter of appearance or being? When we apprehend it, are we discovering the sentiments of people, or are we beholding a deep structure of the universe? In other words, is there “real” beauty?
A few years ago, the New York Times ran a fascinating article on the subject by Ferris Jabr, the subtitle of which ran, “The extravagant splendor of the animal kingdom can’t be explained by natural selection alone—so how did it come to be?
Here's how it began:
A male flame bowerbird is a creature of incandescent beauty. The hue of his plumage transitions seamlessly from molten red to sunshine yellow. But that radiance is not enough to attract a mate. When males of most bowerbird species are ready to begin courting, they set about building the structure for which they are named: an assemblage of twigs shaped into a spire, corridor or hut. They decorate their bowers with scores of colorful objects, like flowers, berries, snail shells or, if they are near an urban area, bottle caps and plastic cutlery. Some bowerbirds even arrange the items in their collection from smallest to largest, forming a walkway that makes themselves and their trinkets all the more striking to a female — an optical illusion known as forced perspective that humans did not perfect until the 15th century.
Yet even this remarkable exhibition is not sufficient to satisfy a female flame bowerbird. Should a female show initial interest, the male must react immediately. Staring at the female, his pupils swelling and shrinking like a heartbeat, he begins a dance best described as psychotically sultry. He bobs, flutters, puffs his chest. He crouches low and rises slowly, brandishing one wing in front of his head like a magician’s cape. Suddenly his whole body convulses like a windup alarm clock. If the female approves, she will copulate with him for two or three seconds. They will never meet again.
The bowerbird defies traditional assumptions about animal behavior. Here is a creature that spends hours meticulously curating a cabinet of wonder, grouping his treasures by color and likeness. Here is a creature that single-beakedly builds something far more sophisticated than many celebrated examples of animal toolmaking; the stripped twigs that chimpanzees use to fish termites from their mounds pale in comparison. The bowerbird’s bower, as at least one scientist has argued, is nothing less than art. When you consider every element of his courtship — the costumes, dance and sculpture — it evokes a concept beloved by the German composer Richard Wagner: Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art, one that blends many different forms and stimulates all the senses.
This extravagance is also an affront to the rules of natural selection. Adaptations are meant to be useful — that’s the whole point — and the most successful creatures should be the ones best adapted to their particular environments. So what is the evolutionary justification for the bowerbird’s ostentatious display? Not only do the bowerbird’s colorful feathers and elaborate constructions lack obvious value outside courtship, but they also hinder his survival and general well-being, draining precious calories and making him much more noticeable to predators.
Numerous species have conspicuous, metabolically costly and physically burdensome sexual ornaments, as biologists call them. Think of the bright elastic throats of anole lizards, the Fabergé abdomens of peacock spiders and the curling, iridescent, ludicrously long feathers of birds-of-paradise. To reconcile such splendor with a utilitarian view of evolution, biologists have favored the idea that beauty in the animal kingdom is not mere decoration — it’s a code. According to this theory, ornaments evolved as indicators of a potential mate’s advantageous qualities: its overall health, intelligence and survival skills, plus the fact that it will pass down the genes underlying these traits to its children. A bowerbird with especially bright plumage might have a robust immune system, for example, while one that finds rare and distinctive trinkets might be a superb forager. Beauty, therefore, would not confound natural selection — it would be very much a part of it.
I appreciate that Mr. Jabr does not come out and say that beauty is the product of natural selection—but a part of it. The question raised here is fundamental. Can beauty be explained by natural selection? Do we admire beauty because it has made us more fit for survival? Are we adapted to prefer beautiful things to further our species?
There are two different thoughts on natural selection in the philosophy of biology. First, it is an underlying universal and causal theory. Second, it is a more ad hoc narrative that we use to explain the past. This second theory sees natural selection as more context-specific, not universal. According to the first theory, the natural selection argument for beauty would root it into the structure of life, of existence. The second would propose that beauty is more random and irrational. Perhaps we’ll never know for sure. I can say that reading the above narrative, I am already in a quiet place.
Beauty excites us. Beauty ravishes our senses and leaves us vulnerable, sometimes disturbed. At the end of the day, it is my belief that real beauty also quiets and centers us. Some philosophers (Kant and Aquinas) write that beauty is merely sensory and not intellectual. But why should we separate the two? Do not the senses feed the mind? There is a profound quality about beauty, like truth, which says and asks, “You are now beholding the essence of all things; what more can you want?”
It is obligatory to mention the English poet John Keats, who wrote at the end of his Ode on a Grecian Urn that beauty is truth, that they are the same.
Ode on a Grecian Urn
Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring'd legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the Dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
I am in the camp with Keats and Plato holding that beauty is an ultimate value. Like truth and goodness, it justifies rational arguments and is part of the structure of the world. Real beauty is common to all cultures. We can define its aspects. However, I question whether truth is the same thing as beauty. We often say, “the ugly truth of the matter.” Truth has to do with language and concepts. This is a true statement or that. Beauty can have to do with but is not limited by language. The poet E. E. Cummings wrote a poem with the line “one's not half two" on the face an untrue statement. He then goes on to say that “it’s two are halves of one,” a true statement. He is putting the language at odds with itself to tease out other possibilities to statements, to language, rather than being merely true or false.
(. . .one’s not half two. . .)
one's not half two. It's two are halves of one:
which halves reintegrating, shall occur
no death and any quantity; but than
all numerable mosts the actual more
minds ignorant of stern miraculous
this every truth-beware of heartless them
(given the scalpel, they dissect a kiss;
or, sold the reason, they undream a dream)
one is the song which fiends and angels sing:
all murdering lies by mortals told make two.
Let liars wilt, repaying life they're loaned;
we(by a gift called dying born)must grow
deep in dark least ourselves remembering
love only rides his year.
All lose, whole find
This poem challenges the notion that reason is ultimately satisfying. We live in a time when everything, even a kiss, is explained scientifically. I do not mind truth being dissected, and we must be cautious that such a poem might lead to the anti-intellectual, the irrational, and chaos. But, I agree with Cummings that there is something in us that resists such analytical treatment of aesthetics. At its best, this poem is an argument for the existence of beauty in its own right.
For the British philosopher Roger Scruton, beauty is also "more than elegance, delightfulness, intricacy, fineness, expressiveness, discipline, orderliness, prettiness, charm, attractiveness: To speak of beauty is to enter another and more exalted realm.”
The German philosopher, Schopenhauer, sums it up in his theory of art. We call something beautiful when we gain pleasure from encountering it as an object, for its own sake, as a form. When we approach this object in a disinterested way, we become entirely devoted to the object or the form. An interested approach relegates things to our interests, considering them means to satisfy ends. By suspending our own interests and goals and becoming one with the object, we achieve transcendence from our petty lives of desire and death, however briefly. As Scruton says, this encounter is not an individual opinion but a binding verdict that would be agreed to by all rational beings.
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