A Theory Of Beauty
A contribution to the STSC Symposium on Beauty
An evolutionary biologist might claim that human’s taste for beauty merely exists for vetting potential partners through displays of health and fertility. Were that the case, not only would sexual selection have eradicated visually unappealing humans long ago but we would have also not developed a sense for beautiful landscapes, flowers, animals, symphonies, paintings, etc. There must be something deeper to the reality of beauty being a feature of existence that all humans can communicate about without giving it any clear definition beforehand. The following essay attempts to define the characteristics of beauty that permeate all planes of existence, from crystalline structures of diamonds over human art and attractivity to the spiral shapes of galaxies and the nebulas uncountable quantities of them form, irrespective of whether anyone ever perceives them or any instrumental purpose like procreation.
Accomplishing that attempt appropriately is a heralding task which might not be possible with my current level of writing ability. After all, it is an attempt to unpack a term that captures something so grand yet so elusive. Beauty has something mysterious to it, therefore can in its essence most probably not be broken down into an all-encompassing formula. It appears on many levels, the microscopic and macroscopic, as well as different dimensions, such as a beautiful face or beautiful laughter. There is some quality connecting all those instances of beauty. I will try to point that essence out to you, dear reader, to heighten your awareness of it and thereby enable you to perceive and appreciate it in many more subjective experiences for time to come.
When I first sat down to start writing this, my headspace was occupied by many emotions that were not conducive to my perception of beauty. I could have written a lot about hate, sadness and anger at that moment. I tell you that to reiterate the trope of “the eye of the beholder”. There is something true to it, but also misleading. It appeared impossible to me to think of or about beauty right then and there, yet had I encountered something amazingly beautiful from that vantage point of negative mindset, it might very well had pulled me out of it, even if just for a short moment. That is a clear hint at the mixture of perceiving beauty being in part determined by the subjective consciousness but it also being something objective. Beauty is a state of existence that is real apart from an individual consciousness interacting with it but rather beauty interacts with that individual consciousness.
To find an explanation for what it is, let us now contemplate the multitude in which it can be found. As three distinct examples, we shall now imagine a sunset over the nearly calm ocean with intensely colored dispersed clouds, an excellent musical piece of our liking and the cutest baby-animal stumbling around and then yawning with falling eyelids. Dependent on the individual examples everyone picks for themselves, it might be possible for all those three to invoke in some people the exact same intensity of perceived beauty. This being potentially possible shows that there is a complex underlying characteristic to these three vastly differing impressions. A random natural spectacle without any utility, a humanly engineered auditory artwork and an undeveloped animal hardly capable of walking or surviving on its own have at face value more differences than commonalities. That makes it easier to grasp the qualities that in combination make all of them appear beautiful.
All these impressions have a completeness to them. One could of course add a few more clouds and waves to the sunset scenery or a few more notes to the song or some more hair to the animal. But they are perfect the way they are. They might have their flaws or shortcomings. They could be different. But they don’t have to be. They are instances of existence that would in no way have to change. Even if adding to them might seem reasonable, taking away from them even just the least bit appears wrong. Completeness is the term I will use for that characteristic of beauty for now, while my colleagues Brady and Clint have chosen goodness and truth to hint at potentially the same aspect I am talking about right now.
Beauty being a pattern is the next aspect we will look at to paint a more comprehensive picture of what beauty entails. In the case of a song, it being a pattern is obvious. But the wildly dispersed colored clouds and waves of the sunset scenery in your mind or the baby animal falling over are also patterns, yet more chaotic. The baby has certain visual features like a small body in comparison to its big head and eyes but more importantly a behavioral pattern that makes it so adorable. The sunset scenery will change within minutes and seconds, the details being fixed in place are not relevant, but it all fits together. Everything beautiful is an intimation of the chaos of potential existence coming together in a coherent arrangement. Some music, especially jazz, plays with that chaotic element. True excellence therein is to be found in how well the musician is able to weave together seemingly unfitting parts into a harmonious pattern if perceived in its entirety.
Which brings us to the next and last characteristic for this theoretical description of beauty. Harmony. That word captures best the coherence of different parts creating a beautiful whole. Applying it to music is self-explanatory. The peaceful natural scenery with its color-palette, having soft transitions between the different shades, is also harmonious in the way that it creates a complete picture in its observer. How a stumbling and tired animal is displaying harmony might have to be explained. That newborn creature acts in harmony with its natural impulses. There is no masking of what it feels or wants. It behaves unfiltered and there is pure innocence to it. Even if it is failing in its early attempts to move, there is a sort of grace in its falls – cushioned by the fact of being built for these failures. It is right for it to stumble while learning to walk, it is right for it to yawn and have his eyelids fall from one moment to the next, because it lives in harmony with what it is. How soft its hair and body feel and how adorable those big eyes radiate an innocent state of being add just even more intensity to how beautiful it is.
To conclude, it must be pointed out that the terms harmony, patterns and completeness are not exclusive distinct characteristics of beauty. Just like my colleagues Brady and Clint used Goodness and Truth to explain the abstract nature of beauty, these words have been my crutches to explicate what I believe to be the central characteristics of this intersubjective phenomenon. Us humans are aware of our own flawed nature. We have a deep longing within us to feel whole, be it through accomplishments, relationships or experiences. That we can perceive and value beauty so greatly, in the infinity of forms it can come in, is in my estimation the result of wanting a complete, harmonious, good and true pattern of existence. The presumed lack thereof within ourselves can be momentarily compensated by connecting with it via external sources. When we experience beauty in the outside world, it reminds us of that wholeness we want to always have at the core of our consciousness yet have difficulty to maintain awareness of. That is the reason why we evolved to experience it. That is the reason why creating and perceiving beauty is among the most valuable endeavors of human life.