Saturday, July 6, 2013

On Not Thinking About Beauty Enough

It is somewhat silly to express surprise at contradictions within our culture--as if any polity has ever enjoyed a perfectly unified conception of their common good--and as if one could expect anything approaching such unity in a polity as large as ours.

Yet one can occasionally learn a thing or two from reflecting on these contradictions, so forgive me for spending a few minutes on the bizarre and inconsistent ways in which we contemporary Americans relate to beauty.

Here is what I have in mind: a certain segment of us--perhaps all of us, some of the time--scorn any time spent thinking about beauty. We sneer at those who expend effort beautifying their persons, their houses, or their yards. We dismiss as superficial any effort to surround oneself with objects or cloak oneself in attire that others might find attractive. Those of us in the grip of this mood might shun shopping at Walmart--but only because we suspect that these goods were not created under humane conditions, not because we find them tasteless and plain.

And then there is another segment--again, perhaps all of us, some of the time--who obsess about our physical world and our appearance within it. The same woman who laughs at her friend who wasted $20 on a manicure during the day may crumble into a depression as she accidentally glimpses herself naked in the mirror that evening. And she may well find herself with renewed determination to beautify herself and her wardrobe in the future--and if she is successful, she will receive ample commendation from those happy that she is finally "taking care of herself."

Given the latter obsession, it is furthermore strange that so many people who spend extraordinary efforts on physical beauty end up with results that are so ugly. I will certainly not name names here, but consider what happens when an older man attempts to dress like a teenage boy, or the disastrous effect of too much makeup, too much cosmetic surgery, and too much too much everything.

One is tempted to think that the problem is not that we think about beauty too much. One is tempted to say that perhaps we do not think about it enough.

Consider this funny asymmetry: a beautiful exterior can quickly vanish when one discovers an unattractive interior. So as not, as Hume would say, to draw our philosophy from too profound a source, consider what we might call the White Christmas effect, when Bing Crosby's character withdraws, repulsed, from a lovely young woman's nasal, "Mutual, I'm sure."But the reverse does not hold: a physical deformity does not destroy the beauty of a lovely character. On the contrary, we tend to reinterpret the exterior when we come to find someone's character, mind, or heart lovable. Anyone who has ever fallen in love must know this phenomenon. Perhaps you found your partner quite dashing from the beginning, but it is only after one has fallen in love that one starts thinking that no one has ever had earlobes quite so charming . . . .

This transformation of the outer by the inner, which we do violence to by interpreting as mere self-deception, cannot make sense if beauty is a superficial, external value. If it is something worth dwelling on, living with, and offering a common account of, so that physical beauty is merely one instance of an enormously significant aspect of human life, then perhaps we can begin to make sense of such things.


  1. Wonderfully written, M . . .

  2. You are too kind, Elizabeth. Thank you.

  3. First, I'm elated that somebody else appreciates the sublimity of that particular moment in White Christmas, which elicits the most unbridled peals of laughter in my home several times a year. Secondly, thank you for this illuminating reflection.