“Things of Beauty Affirm Our Power to Change the World for the Better,” Roger Scruton: Why Beauty Matters Now More Than Ever

The Symmetry of Paris
The Symmetry of Paris

I have to admit I had a hard time thinking of what to write for today’s post.  After the tremendous horror of this past Friday night in Paris, I did not now how to respond.  All of the beauty stories that filled my feed seemed trivial compared to these events.  How could I write about a recent story regarding the genetic factors underpinning our perceptions of beauty or about the controversy in social media over the site 100 Years of Beauty?  They are all interesting stories, but they all seemed so banal.  How could I talk about beauty at a time like this?

But then I remembered Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky’s famous quote, “Beauty will save the world.” At a time like this, maybe this is EXACTLY what we need.  I’m not talking about being pollyannish and seeing the good or beauty in everything.  No, I’m talking about the actual social need for beauty, and how satisfying this need may actually make the world a better, safer and more loving place.

What do I mean? I’ve actually written about this topic in posts a few years back.  But the thinking, while super heavy, is still true today. Elaine Scarry points out in On Beauty and Being Just, the pursuit of beauty is really the quest for improvement. This dense but provocative piece explains: beauty’s spectacle encourages replication and further creativity. When I see a beautiful woman, for example, I’ll check out her look and make it my own. This inclination towards creativity affirms our uniquely human ability, that is, our power to make change and create a better, more just future.  Yes, the world sucks sometimes, but we KNOW that we can make it better.

In Beauty, Roger Scruton explains beauty is so vital, as it presents our ideals and compels us to seek them out.  Here are my words from my post, Beauty: A Moral Imperative: “things of beauty, like art, move us because they take us out of our everyday ‘by providing us (says Scruton) 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.'”

Trying to summarize Scruton further, I wrote: “In our attempts to experience beauty, we measure our lives, circumstances, and surroundings against the order and fittingness presented … and we have the freedom to challenge the injustices, hardships and disharmony we see around us…Things of beauty affirm the transcendental part of all of us and our power to change the world for the better.”  We are compelled — at the moment we encounter beauty or after contemplation of it — to see our world in comparison to it.  This forces us to challenge ourselves and our world.

What am I really saying here?  When we feast our eyes on a painting at the Louvre or a garden at Versailles, we are seeing something extraordinary.  It shows us the power of people to make something from nothing.  We have the ability to improve our world.

When terrorists choose to massacre innocent people, we can’t just wallow in misery or cower in fear.  We need to believe we can overcome such horrors.  Sometimes it’s hard to have that sort of optimism or strength.  But when we engage with things of beauty, we are reminded that we have the brilliance and creativity to do so.

The topic of beauty may seem to irrelevant to us this weekend.   We are grieving, we are trying understand how something so terrible can happen, and we are challenging humanity.  But don’t dismiss it.  Embrace it. Things of beauty remind us that we can all be better.  Beauty not only soothes us during these moments, but it shows us we have the agency, the creativity, the sense of justice, to get us all closer to harmony.

Weekend Observations: Remembering Through Beauty

Have you ever seen an ugly memorial?  Of course not.  In fact, memorials are often more beautiful than what laid before it or what they actually symbolize.

Case in point?  The 9/11 memorial.

Here’s how the memorial’s website describes it:

…It features two enormous waterfalls and reflecting pools… and the Memorial Plaza is one of the most eco-friendly plazas ever constructed. More than 400 trees are planned for the plaza, surrounding the Memorial’s two massive reflecting pools. Its design conveys a spirit of hope and renewal, and creates a contemplative space separate from the usual sights and sounds of a bustling metropolis.

Swamp white oak trees create a rustling canopy of leaves over the plaza. This grove of trees bring green rebirth in the spring, provide cooling shade in the summer and show seasonal color in fall. A small clearing in the grove, known as the Memorial Glade, designates a space for gatherings and special ceremonies.

Unquestionably the Twin Towers were design feats but the experience of this memorial is far different.

So why do we create beautiful memorials when the acts they recall were so ugly? As a society we seek things of beauty because they not only elevate our spirits but force a hard question on us: Is our current reality as magnificent, harmonious or vibrant as the beauty we are currently encountering?  If not, maybe we should try to change that reality.  As Elaine Scarry points out in On Beauty and Being Just,  the pursuit of beauty is really the quest for improvement.

Obviously, the 9/11 memorial reminds that our reality isn’t rosy.  Our world is full of people who hate themselves and others, and are willing to hurt people because of this hatred.

While I’m in awe of the splendor of the 9/11 memorial and am proud that we, New Yorkers, are remembering our fallen brothers and sisters so fondly, I also hope that the beauty of the experience encourages us to change our world for the better.