Beauty is one of the great topics of today, it is considered by many as a frivolity or a luxury, and even promote the idea that it is a superficial response to life to be guided by beauty; although it is true that we live in a society that perceives beauty as an idealized and consensual standard of what is pleasant and desired, this is not the correct conception of it, this conception is born from not understanding what beauty is.
Beauty is a subject that has always been tried to cover within art in its different forms and this happens because beauty is essential for a life full of meaning, and deep if you want; beauty is about something superior, something greater and it is precisely for this reason that great authors have been given the task of describing it. According to Borges "beauty is a physical sensation, something we feel with the whole body. It is not the result of a judgment, we do not reach it by means of rules; we feel beauty or we do not feel it"; Émile Zola postulated it as a state of mind; Philip K. Dick thought that absolute suffering leads to absolute beauty; and for Plato beauty is the salvation of the soul, of the individual. *
Beauty is about seeing reality with a sharpness of perception in its intensity and meaning, it is "the total expression of nature itself" since nature is always expressing itself in a symbolic and aesthetic way, and that is why there is beauty in pleasure but also in pain, in heaven and in turn in hell. And this is beautiful not only because it leads us to contemplate the beauty of a body or form but also to contemplate an idea, a moral or even the truth signified in the world.
There is an intimate relationship between beauty and truth within Platonism, which says that both words are interchangeable. In Spanish the word "bonito" (referring to beauty) has the same root as the word "bueno" (good), and in Greek "bueno" is the connotation of the word kallos, but in turn the Hebrew word tov ― which is used in the book of Genesis when it says "and God saw that it was good" ― can be translated as "beautiful". So there is a relationship between truth and beauty, which implies then that ethics and aesthetics are always linked. But if there is a relationship between truth and beauty, then beauty will also have a close kinship with wisdom, and this is suggested by the English poet John Keats in his poem "Ode on a Grecian Urn", inspired by a Greek urn that represents for him an ecphrasis (the detailed description of an object) that tells through the voice of the poet the story of a people portrayed on a marble surface, and Keats assures that the urn does it better than any human verse.
The poem is particularly about memory and time; all Greek history, its peoples and myths are represented as a scene frozen in time, like a photograph; the urn is a mirror of all this and in turn of the poet's mind, the poet is reflected in the urn and speaks of himself, so what we see in the poem is what the poet saw in the urn, telling it in a way free of old age, so that time does not pass; and is not what art seeks to immortalize? That is what the realization of an ecphrasis is all about, to immortalize, to try to make time stand still, to make the object something permanent, something that will never cease to exist. This is how the art object of an artist and the artist himself transcend; the poet, in front of the object, does not speak of its colors or its form, but transcends them and is able to see what only an artist can see in an object, he is able to see what only a poet can see in an urn: what the object does not show at first sight, and this he does through language. The Greek urn speaks of the finite and the beauty of time, Keats ends the poem with "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know" and this follows Plato: "Beauty is the splendor of truth."
"Beauty will save the world."
Fyodor Dostoevsky in The Idiot
Now, there is also a relationship between beauty and suffering. In suffering there can be beauty and it is beauty that drives the desire to save, perceiving beauty in suffering generates compassion. Beauty redeems suffering and it is then understood as beauty, in a manner free of identity; seeing suffering generates an act of "sacrifice" in which suffering is transmuted into a timeless beauty. In one of his notebooks Dostoyevsky once wrote that "suffering is the sole origin of consciousness", referring to a moral and higher consciousness that makes the soul manifest and grow beyond suffering which then manages to transform into the beauty of wisdom; this is the light of consciousness, remember that Rumi once said "the wound is the place where the Light enters you." This interpretation is very much in line with the Christian interpretation, Josep Ratzinger said:
"Beauty, whether that of the natural universe or that expressed in art, precisely because it opens up and broadens the horizons of human awareness, pointing us beyond ourselves, bringing us face to face with the abyss of Infinity, can become a path towards the transcendent, towards the ultimate Mystery, towards God.
(...) Authentic beauty, however, unlocks the yearning of the human heart, the profound desire to know, to love, to go towards the Other, to reach for the Beyond. If we acknowledge that beauty touches us intimately, that it wounds us, that it opens our eyes, then we rediscover the joy of seeing, of being able to grasp the profound meaning of our existence."
It is the desire to know what beauty awakens, and it also awakens the desire to enjoy with the ecstasy of the senses, with the body. Even so, beauty does not remain only in the knowledge within the contemplation or the material when it acts in all its expression within the individual, but it attracts towards what is behind the symbol that the body represents, and it is here where beauty becomes love, one that leads us to wisdom: love as wisdom in action.
There is a philosophical passage in which the priestess of Eros, Diotima, reveals "the ladder of beauty" to Socrates, in which we see the process of transformation that goes from the superficial to the profound:
"A lover who goes about this matter correctly must begin in his youth to devote himself to beautiful bodies. First, if the leader leads alright, he should love one body and beget beautiful ideas there; then he should realize that the beauty of any one body is brother to the beauty of any other and that if he is to pursue beauty of form he’d be very foolish not think that the beauty of all bodies is one and the same. When he grasps this, he must become a lover of all beautiful bodies, and he must think that this wild gaping after just one body is a small thing and despise it. After this he must think that the beauty of people’s souls is more valuable than the beauty of their bodies, so that if someone is decent in his soul, even though he is scarcely blooming in his body, our lover must be content to love and care for him ...
You see, the man who has been thus far guided in matters of Love, who has beheld beautiful things in the right order and correctly, is coming now to the goal of Loving: all of a sudden he will catch sight of something wonderfully beautiful in its nature; that, Socrates, is the reason for all his earlier labors ..."
There is also a relationship between beauty and virtue that is considered in the essay "On Beauty" by the philosopher Francis Bacon, according to him the perfect combination between the two rarely occurs, but he says that if virtue is sufficiently luminous then there will be beauty:
"Virtue is like a rich stone, best plain set; and surely virtue is best, in a body that is comely, though not of delicate features; and that hath rather dignity of presence, than beauty of aspect. Neither is it almost seen, that very beautiful persons are otherwise of great virtue; as if nature were rather busy, not to err, than in labor to produce excellency. And therefore they prove accomplished, but not of great spirit; and study rather behavior, than virtue. But this holds not always: for Augustus Caesar, Titus Vespasianus, Philip le Belle of France, Edward the Fourth of England, Alcibiades of Athens, Ismael the Sophy of Persia, were all high and great spirits; and yet the most beautiful men of their times. In beauty, that of favor, is more than that of color; and that of decent and gracious motion, more than that of favor. That is the best part of beauty, which a picture cannot express; no, nor the first sight of the life. There is no excellent beauty, that hath not some strangeness in the proportion. A man cannot tell whether Apelles, or Albert Durer, were the more trifler; whereof the one, would make a personage by geometrical proportions; the other, by taking the best parts out of divers faces, to make one excellent. Such personages, I think, would please nobody, but the painter that made them. Not but I think a painter may make a better face than ever was; but he must do it by a kind of felicity (as a musician that maketh an excellent air in music), and not by rule. A man shall see faces, that if you examine them part by part, you shall find never a good; and yet altogether do well. If it be true that the principal part of beauty is in decent motion, certainly it is no marvel, though persons in years seem many times more amiable; pulchrorum autumnus pulcher; for no youth can be comely but by pardon, and considering the youth, as to make up the comeliness. Beauty is as summer fruits,) which are easy to corrupt, and cannot last; and for the most part it makes a dissolute youth, and an age a little out of countenance; but yet certainly again, if it light well, it maketh virtue shine, and vices blush."
So, we could say that the identity of beauty is formed between truth, suffering, love and virtue; a relationship of mutual creation. Beauty seeks to tell us that there is something we must do, something to discover and that perhaps it is nothing more than the very meaning of existence, something to which we must return. Thus, beauty becomes the axis of a human axiom, a reason to act, is it not the beauty of the world that makes us want to preserve it and always change our methods of creation? And art is nothing more than beauty seeking to transcend. Beauty gives dynamism to life and rejects the paralysis of evolution. It is nothing more than the nature of the soul itself, a springboard to the true and truly meaningful, and the attraction is only a magnet that seeks to transcend beauty to immortality: the intelligence of the soul.
“You fell in love with my flowers but not my roots, so when autumn came you didn't know what to do.”
This content is the english version of an article of mine that was originally in spanish and posted almost 3 years ago on my blog. I wanted to share it with the english-speaking community in this opportunity. This "translation" was made by myself @ailindigo, the original author, and you can read the post in spanish here.
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