I am not a philosopher, I should not stick my neck out, but sticking my neck out has been my karma all my life. Today is not the day to stop that, so here are some thoughts to ponder, if you like.
It is not uncommon, you show a photograph to your friends and their typical response is “it is beautiful.” You feel flattered, your friend is happy to have made you feel good, both of you move on without giving it any thought to what exactly is “beautiful.”
What is Beauty?
We take it to refer to something positive, something good, something flattering, but do we really know what it means? The photograph may be of a sunset, a waterfall, a baby, a woman, a landscape, etc., etc. Some take it to mean “pleasing to look at” but why do we not simply say “pleasing” or “pleasant?” There is something else implied in beautiful that is not apparent in pleasant. The latter sounds flatter, not flattering; whereas the former is taken as a big compliment.
The subject of beauty has kept philosophers thinking for ages, there are many works written and spoken on the matter of beauty. One aspect they refer to is aesthetics, the philosophy of art, the study of beauty and taste. Others refer to harmony, proportion, and symmetry, generally in the context of nature and the universe. Beauty is also used in sciences, physics, mathematics to refer to the simplicity and elegance of an equation or a law that may explain important phenomena. Think about E = mc2, in such a simple equation explaining profound consequences. Beautiful! Talk about elusive!
Beauty Has Context
Beauty also has cultural and temporal context. What was considered beautiful decades or a century ago may not hold the same status today, or vice versa. What we consider beautiful in western culture may not be so in eastern cultures or the other way around. Is beauty in the eye of the beholder or where the beholder is, or when the beholder passed a judgment? Can you imagine The Count of So And So in baggy pants and sagging T-shirts, wearing Converse sneakers in the 17th century? In one experiment, a journalist, Esther Honig, sent a simple photograph of herself to all parts of the world with a simple request “make me beautiful.” You can see the concept of female beauty expressed in different parts of the world in the article “What Beauty Looks Like, From Argentina to Vietnam.“
Beauty Is A Deep Well
I have not even scratched the surface of “beauty” which can be skin deep, or in the eye of the beholder. There is an even stronger word than beautiful: sublime. We will not go there in this post. But, let us return to the original beautiful photograph. When your friend calls it beautiful, does the word refer to what is depicted, like a flower, sunset, etc.; to what it is about, like the fleeting nature of beauty in flowers, beauty in unexpected places; or the photograph as an object being beautiful. In any case, the comment, the word remains as elusive as ever. If you care to learn more about how your friend feels about your work, ask what s/he means by beauty; and order another coffee or drink as the discussion will be a long one. Let me kick-start it by offering a few quotations on beauty.
- “The best part of beauty is that which no picture can express.” — Francis Bacon
- “Beauty and folly are old companions.” — Benjamin Franklin
- “There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportion.” — Edgar Allan Poe
- “Mathematics expresses values that reflect the cosmos, including orderliness, balance, harmony, logic, and abstract beauty.” — Deepak Chopra
- “Real mathematics must be justified as art if it can be justified at all.” — G. H. Hardy
(Opening image, a collage I’ve made of Esther Honig’s edited images, and equations from a Google search for “beautiful equations.”)