You know the saying “looks can be deceiving”? Well, I was a bit deceived when my new Amazon purchase, Beauty, by Roger Scruton, arrived at my doorstep. It’s a small, cute-ish book, whose diminutive stature seems to imply that it’s an easy read.
Far from it! More like a dinner table conversation with Freud and Einstein. But as soon as I got my brain used to reading it, I was really moved.
Scruton’s goal is to explain the power of beauty (beauty of people, art, music and nature) and show that, despite cultural relativism, beauty can be judged.
But even more importantly to me, he justifies beauty. While Western culture has devalued the role of beauty over the past decades in favor of science, technology and economics, he passionately expresses the fundamental human need for it in our lives.
There’s no way I can do justice to the deep thinking presented in Beauty, but I’ll try to summarize, to the best of my ability, its message. Let me warn you. It’s a bit heady, so take a sip coffee (or shot of tequila, as the case may be) before you launch in.
In summary, beauty has a moral purpose. It presents our ideals and compels us to seek them out.
Here’s how he explains it: things of beauty, like art, move us because they take us out of our everyday “by providing us with objects, characters, scenes and actions with which we can play … in play … free (of) contemplation, reason and sense are reconciled, and we are granted a vision of human life in its wholeness.” He goes on to say: “Our favorite works of art seem to guide us to the truth of human condition and (ultimately)… show the worthwhileness of being human.”
Ok, this sounds a bit la di da, right? How does it help the world at large to recognize our own “worthwhileness”? Because beautiful objects — their lines, colors, chords, etc., offer a sense of harmony, “fittingness” in our world, so when we experience them, we feel like we fit, that we’re at home within society. As a result, we feel compelled to live in harmony with the world, with nature and fellow human beings alike.
Moreover, beauty provides ”images and narratives of humanity as a thing to live up to.” In our attempts to experience beauty, we measure our lives, circumstances, and surroundings against the order and fittingness presented.
In the end, beauty shows us that despite being rational beings, who live in the here and now, we have the freedom to challenge the injustices, hardships and disharmony we see around us.
So the next time you’re running from one place to the next, try to stop and experience the things of beauty around us — the sculpture, music piece, painting, landscape, garden, building or child. It’s these things that affirm the transcendental part of all of us and our power to change the world for the better.