Tuesday, 28 July 2015

52 Ordinary Words: Beauty

It is with some relief that I see David Whyte’s word for this week is Beauty.  We all know beauty when we see it and Whyte’s response is not complex, for which I am grateful.  He is a traditionalist:  for him, beauty can be counted among the ultimate values, with goodness, truth, and justice.

When I read philosophy at university I soon discovered that the nature of beauty is one of the most enduring and controversial themes in Western philosophy.  In essence, the debate is over whether beauty is subjective or whether it is an objective feature of beautiful things.

Though Plato and Aristotle disagreed on what beauty is, they both regarded it as objective, in the sense that it is not localised in the response of the beholder.  Indeed, until the eighteenth century, most philosophical accounts of beauty treated it as an objective quality: they located it in the beautiful object itself or in the qualities of that object.

Tributes to the objective pleasures of beauty were often described in quite ecstatic, subjective terms, as in Plotinus: “This is the spirit that Beauty must ever induce: wonderment and a delicious trouble, longing and love and a trembling that is all delight” (Plotinus 23, [Ennead 1, 3]). 

But, by the eighteenth century Locke – and others – maintained that our appreciation of something beautiful is merely our subjective response to it.  Nothing is inherently beautiful of itself.  

However, if beauty is entirely subjective, then it seems that the word has no meaning; or that we are not communicating anything - other than our own opinion - when we call something beautiful.

Both Humes and Kant considered that the purely objective view reduced beauty to a matter of taste or social and cultural constructs.  They then went on went on to acknowledge that reasons can count, but that some tastes are better than others (!) Thus, in their different ways, they agreed that every judgment of beauty is based on a personal experience, and that such judgments vary from person to person.

And so on, and so forth…  Until the 21st century, when Crispin Sartwell in his book, Six Names of Beauty (2004), "attributes beauty neither exclusively to the subject nor to the object, but to the relation between them and, even more widely, also to the situation or environment in which they are both embedded. He points out that when we attribute beauty to the night sky, for instance, we do not take ourselves simply to be reporting a state of pleasure in ourselves; we are turned outward toward it; we are celebrating the real world. On the other hand, if there were no perceivers capable of experiencing such things, there would be no beauty. Beauty, rather, emerges in situations in which subject and object are juxtaposed and connected."

On a first reading Whyte’s conception is classical: beauty consists of an arrangement of integral parts into a coherent whole, according to proportion, harmony, symmetry, and similar notions.  And yet, he is also an idealist: his is a mystical vision of the beauty.  In this tradition, the human soul, as it were, recognises in beauty its true origin and destiny. Whyte specifically uses the word bridge as a metaphor to describe the moment when our eyes, ears and imagination carry us from the realm of the world to the heart: to describe what happens to us when when we look at something of beauty and it resonates with the beauty that already resides within us. 

Even so, I find Whyte’s use of language quite tricky and there are a number of holes in his argument.  “Beauty is the harvest of presence” sounds very lovely, but I have to dig deep to really understand what it is that that he’s saying.  Is “beauty an achieved state of both deep attention and self-forgetting?”  We don’t usually describe the state of transcendence that can be acquired through long periods of prayer and meditation as a state of beauty.  And I can’t quite get my head around “beauty invites us, through entrancement, to that fearful frontier between what we think make us; and what we think makes the world.”  Equally beauty “is an inner and an outer complexion living in one face.”  And I fail to see how beauty “especially occurs in the meeting of time with the timeless,” with the scattering of apples blossom, for instance. 

But perhaps I can appreciate that “the passing moment framed by what has happened and what is about to occur” is beautiful.  Yes, I can see that beauty is to be found in being truly present to this; even if I am not prepared to go along with calling it the harvest of presence, which suggests – to my mind – a finality, a finished product.

Fans of David Whyte will doubtless disagree with me!  For the record, I do delight in the beautiful profusion of the things of this world that merge into a single spiritual unity.  I’m an idealist, too.


  1. Beauty, it seems, is not easy to wrap our heads around. People have been trying to define it for thousands of years. Thank you for the background on this word. I do see beauty as subjective, however, am intrigued by the idea that this might make beauty meaningless. There is an article about this over at The Book of Life this week - http://www.thebookoflife.org/why-you-should-never-say-beauty-lies-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder/

    I was focused this week on "beauty as the harvest of presence" and John O'Donohue's "beauty as invisible embrace." I resonate with Sartwell's description of beauty as the relationship between subject and object.

    Curious about the image you posted here and what it means to you, regarding beauty.

    1. When I used this image to illustrate beauty I had in mind a quote by H.G. Wells, who said, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholden.” To my mind, the grey smoke/steam is subjectively observing the sun rising; and the sun, as it comes up over the horizon, is objectively beautiful – it just is (!)

      The notion that subjective opinion can be meaningless particularly applies to works of art and literature; because there can be no consensus. If beauty is completely relative to individual experiencers, it ceases to be a paramount value, or even recognizable as a value at all across persons or societies. Ergo, for a thing to objectively beautiful it must conform to a standard of beauty that sets out the qualities that a thing has to possess in order to be beautiful.


      Thank you for the link; and I have ordered a copy of ‘Divine Beauty: The Invisible Embrace’.

    2. Oh, I like that visual of the smoke subjectively observing the sun rising. I've often thought that something being just what it is, has an inherent beauty, whether others can see it or not.

  2. I feel that beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder and on our inner state too when we observe something. For example, not all art is beautiful when I look at it, but it can be so for someone else who is perceiving it through their own eyes and filters.
    When I consider something as beautiful, I feel harmony inside.
    I can see beauty in your photo here, Sophia and can also feel something else coming in with that billowing smoke which joins the ether of the sky to create its own type of beauty and atmosphere.
    I like the idea of ether being the fifth element on a more spiritual level which connects us to that which is invisible.

    1. Well now, I’ve learnt something! I never knew there was a fifth element, but I do now http://goo.gl/lXOWsq

      “The fifth element is known as quintessence or ether. It is the intangible element that seems to hold all the others together … The spirit that exists beyond matter.”

      Thank you so much for enlightening me, Sandra; and for your insightful comment.