By David Hegg
In the academic arena, the study of philosophy is usually broken down into the areas of metaphysics, ethics and aesthetics.
The last of these seeks to understand the area of beauty, its nature and its benefits. We all understand at some level the need for ethics in order for society to move along in some ordered and managed fashion.
Ethics are the norms we share, to which we submit, in order to live together in a way that benefits us all. Of course, some engage in unethical behavior and so the need arises for laws and those who enforce them.
But if ethics allow for the ordering of community life, it is beauty that makes life enjoyable.
Beauty is to life what taste is to food, and color is to art. Beauty infuses gladness into the passage of time and reminds the heart that life was certainly intended to be more than mere existence.
When we think of beauty, we most often consider something pleasing to the eye. And certainly that which is visually pleasing can be beautiful.
But here is where we run into the dilemma around which the study of aesthetics often winds itself. Just what constitutes beauty?
And once we determine this, what other areas of perception are capable of assessing and perceiving beauty?
Certainly the ear and the nose and the tongue can find the notes, aromas, and tastes of life beautiful. And isn’t it also true that our minds and hearts can be the recipients of beauty in the form of thoughts and nuances that even those deprived of physical senses could know?
It is not my intention here to take us all down the deep, dark hole of aesthetical theory. But I can suggest that, if we did, we would find that beauty is, indeed, “in the eye of the beholder.” That is, each of us assess beauty and benefit from it in our own way, according to our own standards, motivated by our own unique set of life experiences.
Simply put, what I think is beautiful may not be so to you. And a trip together to a modern art gallery would probably be all the proof either of us would need!
Of course, the pervasive cultural norms of a society will in some measure set standards for what may be considered beautiful.
An example is the way the feminine form has been portrayed down through the history of fine art. What was beautiful to Reubens is a far cry from the models in the latest fashion magazine. And something as simple as dress styles demonstrates that the broad conception of beauty changes year by year.
What looked great at the party three years ago would be mocked today. But, hold on to it because in 15 years or so your kids will think it’s rockin’ retro.
Given that beauty is, to a large extent, determined by the beholder in concert with some of the trends of the day, what can we say about the very nature of beauty? Does it exist? And if so, what is the connection between beauty and the enjoyment of life, if any?
My view is that beauty does exist, but it is not to be found in the object considered beautiful. While we think that snow-capped mountain is beautiful, it is so because of the way it excites our vision, stirs our passion, and brings a sense of wellbeing.
Simply put, beauty is what exists when I respond positively to something that plays on my senses, my emotions, or my memory. It is my response that creates the sensation we call beauty, and further, it is this sensation that is vital to the enjoyment of life.
The search for this sensation is a driving force in our lives. That trip to the mall, or an evening at the symphony, and any other kind of leisure activity in between all may be seen as a determined, intentional search for beauty.
Whether it is found in that new sweater, or the magnificent interplay between the sounds and timbre of the orchestral instruments, we know beauty when we find it. And when we find it, we feel it. And that feeling reminds us that life is to be enjoyed, and not just lived.
It is also my belief that, fundamentally, we are addicted to beauty. I mean this in the sense that lives that are deprived of beauty become narrower and shallower and lose that vibrancy that is essential to what we might call a full life. This also means that we are incomplete in ourselves, for we cannot provide the very things we need for life. Like food, water, and air, beauty has to be supplied to us from outside of ourselves.
Turns out we are not independent, but very much dependent on an outside source for all of these essentials.
I suppose that God could have created a universe much different than this one. He could have left us with only two flavors, or only six colors, and maybe only five notes and one octave.
He could have done this, and we would never have known.
But, graciously, He has lavished on us myriad colors and sounds and combinations of flavors. And beyond this gracious display, He has also granted us the privilege of relationship with one another, which is the greatest beauty, and the promise of eternal beauty in relationship to Him through Jesus Christ.
Now that’s a beautiful life.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.