The Virtue of Beauty

In response to Masha, The Beauty We See, and Mr. Pond, Mononoke Tachi dake

Last week, for the sake of lighter conversation, we discussed our own images of beauty. And I could sympathize with the lot, from Masha's 'scent of bread' to Mr. Pond's Princess Mononoke theme song. I never really listed mine, but if I had, the list might have included fog among the darkly spring-green hills, the feel of warm sun and cool water, 'The Forest Again', polyphony in a Gothic church, Psalm 139, the scent of lilac blossoms, a good sweet Riesling, bravery, compassion, Dante's Paradiso, peace lilies, chickadees, the human face, the Liturgy of the Hours, and innocence. Among other things.

Masha ends her piece with a lovely statement:
"I find [beauty] in these things because they touch something beyond themselves, and I love them for it."
In other words, if I understand correctly, she'd go along with the philosophers who counted the Beautiful as one of the transcendentals, along with the True and the Good. Well may she do so. I would.

Mr. Pond expounds upon that idea:
"Nor do I think—or can I think—that beauty is equated with happiness. Or with seriousness. Beauty can be heartbreakingly terrible. Beauty can be silly. Beauty is capricious and winsome, Beauty frustrates and eludes us and then rewards us with a sudden unexpected burst of laughter.

There was, I think, a deeper intent than the pragmatic when painters drew and poets sang of Beauty as a woman."
And later, describing the Mononoke theme,
"I don’t claim to understand it quite, but I don’t think beauty is ever quite understood."
Agreed, wholeheartedly. To a certain extent we can put beauty in strict scientific or mathematical terms; the eight notes of the scale may be beautiful sung in solfeggio, but not if they're all pounded at once on the piano. But the disciplines of logic will have a harder time explaining why we weep over Beethoven's ninth symphony. And if they succeed, I'm not sure I want to know about it.

Beauty is difficult to define or categorize because it is greater than the sum of its parts. Perhaps, then, it might make for interesting discussion if we come at it from the side of mystery, and attempt to describe what beauty is not.

I'll begin simply by positing that beauty is not, in and of itself, wicked. Admittedly, wickedness loves to hide in the beautiful, as that's how it sells itself. And I love fantasy literature in part because it allows us to strip away that base marketing tactic and separate the evil from the beautiful, showing the former in all its horror and the latter in all its purity. Beauty, if I'm right, does not carry evil by nature.

And now I'll look forward to what Masha and Mr. Pond have to say.


  1. Ooh, nice..I like working in negatives. :) I think you took great parts of each of our posts to highlight! And fortunately for me, I discovered how to write in advance and delay posts until another day..I'm going to write up a bunch now for later "automatic posting"!

  2. Aha, the secret of automatic posting. :D It's very helpful, although I tend to make mistakes with it.

    If you're excited about working in negatives, I'll look forward to your post even more. Blessings to you, too!

  3. I agree with you, Jenna, when you say: "Beauty, if I'm right, does not carry evil by nature."

    And I'd go even further and add that Beauty--well, true Beauty--excludes evil. Yes, I used the question-begging term, so now I bear the burden of justification.... I think that if one knows what to look for or how to see, that any evil trying to cloak itself in Beauty can be detected in some way or another, which will either provide an avenue for extracting the evil aspect from the Beautiful or rendering the original object/person non-Beautiful. For example, someone might at first glance look beautiful (whether it's some objective standard, convention, or personal taste, I'll leave aside for now), but if there is a willful glint of malice in that person's eyes, the whole person is tarnished for me and I at least can no longer find that person Beautiful. Or, say, I discover that a shiny apple is actually poisoned (had to get in a fairy tale allusion...), then I will not want it any longer and it loses its appeal. Of course, discovering the evil might be challenging, and it presupposes that one knows what's good.

    Hmmmm.... I think that I'm finding it impossible to start with what Beauty isn't, since I believe that concepts like bad, evil, ugly, etc. are parasitic on the positive standards/concepts of Good, Beauty, etc. as violations of the normative standard. I hadn't thought I'd be going in this direction, but here I am. I'll stop here for now.

  4. Carrie-Ann, I really like your thoughts. A lot. Beauty and goodness are very much associated in my mind, though I agree that like the poison in the apple, the perversion is often difficult to find or even invisible to anyone who does not know what they're looking for.

    Way to get the fairy tale reference in there. :)


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