On Beauty

I think a lot of us are aesthetes and just don't want to admit it.

Well, a lot of us are aesthetes and do want to admit it: artists, designers and anyone who appreciates their work all qualify. Anyone who takes presentation of work and the beauty of something essentially functional into account loves beauty; anyone who spends time making themselves look better loves beauty. Our fucked-up attitude to attractiveness and the good doesn't help, either, since we assume that whatever is beautiful is good - or at least, that whatever is beautiful is more likely to be good.

At least, that's my cynical opinion. I don't think we can really escape the societal fascination with beauty.

This is where I run into the objections of people who like plainness, who say that they care more about the words on a page than whether they look pretty, who take a certain pride in not being vain and doing unnecessary things to themselves - and let's face it, a lot of things we do to ourselves in the name of beauty are wholly unnecessary.

My argument is that even they like beauty - but beauty of a different sort. Non-physical beauty should not be a particularly novel concept, and indeed it isn't; it's just most people don't tend to lump it in the same category as beauty, and I do. Maybe I'm wrong, but for now it seems to be making sense to me.

If people truly didn't care about beauty, I don't think they'd strive for elegance and clarity in their writing and thinking. Nor do I think mathematicians and physicists would be looking for the most elegant solution to a problem - instead, I think they'd just stick with the solution they found first (admittedly, that is what I do). I don't think we'd bother with music at all, or poetry, or drama, or literature in general...

...Any I've missed off the list? Probably so. Anyway, you get the point: without an understanding and appreciation of some kind of intellectual beauty, our world would be very different. It would be much less creative - not just in terms of the obviously creative subjects such as the arts, but also in terms of the sciences and maths, both of which are driven by desires to find elegant, accurate models of the universe. (At least, that's what drives me - I don't believe we can ever know the true nature of the universe, so I focus my attention on models.)

It comes to my attention that I haven't actually defined beauty at any point, and a lot of ideas come to mind: elegance and simplicity are the two foremost ones, but I might be biased because of my love of physics and mathematics. Besides, there are quite a lot of beautiful things which are neither elegant nor simple; the Design Student's Orgasm is one example. So my rough working definition of beauty (I'm no philosopher, so I really shouldn't be doing this) is something that is pleasing - to the eye, to the ear, to the mind, to whatever. And apparently humans like these pleasing things so much that the desire for something pleasing permeates our society - no, more than that. If this were something merely societal - difficult as that is to say - we'd perhaps be able to rebel against. But this goes deeper than society: it's known that babies prefer beautiful faces, or at least ones that are more symmetrical. Dead white guys have been writing about beauty for as long as we've had their writings preserved (and yes, I am perfectly willing to blame philosophers). If our desire for beauty isn't innate it's certainly deeply ingrained in our culture. Rebellion against it is difficult - and frankly I'm not sure it's even the best thing. I'd have no problem with things like attacks on our self-esteem going; indeed as someone with terrible self-image issues I'd welcome it. But the quest for something pleasing drives everything from drama to mathematics and I don't really want to live in a world without that higher thought.

I think in the end, all thinkers are aesthetes of some kind.