Looking out over the marsh on a midsummer morning, one could see acres of magenta flowers, their color just coming to life as the sun rose over the ridge. The person next to me said, “Isn’t that beautiful?”
I guess it was, in a way. If one did not know that the sun was shining upon waves of purple loosestrife, an invasive plant that crowds out other species, devastating the complex habitat required for native insects, waterfowl, and songbirds, one might almost think the sight was, indeed, beautiful.
Knowledge can shatter the illusion of beauty; it can also reveal a substantial beauty underlying appearance.
This is a fact overlooked by most people today. We tend to think of beauty as superficial, as all about image rather than substance. Do a Google search for “beauty” and one finds thousands of ads featuring photoshopped images of young, attractive models. It is no surprise that many people think of beauty as something that hides what is real, rather than revealing it.
Yet, many ancient thinkers linked beauty together with truth and goodness as one of three transcendental values providing a glimpse of reality lying beyond our everyday senses. The Greeks had two words for beauty: “kalos” (noble, good) and “cosmos” (order).
The close relationship between beauty and goodness was revived in the 18th century by philosophers like Hutcheson and Lord Shaftsbury who advocated the “moral sense” theory, the idea that human beings are naturally disposed to take pleasure in virtue.
The problem is, human beings can learn to take pleasure in all sorts of things, not just virtue but vice as well. And if today we tend to think beauty is an unreliable guide to virtue, it could be because we tend to confuse genuine beauty with its counterfeits.
So, how do we know genuine beauty?
The first characteristic of beauty is that it cannot be possessed, manufactured, or manipulated. Whenever we experience genuine beauty, it seems like an act of grace—a pure gift from somewhere outside our control.
Second, in the presence of genuine beauty, we are transported to a place outside of time. The experience has a duration, but it feels eternal.
Third, beauty is ineffable. No description, however detailed, can convey it to another. We try to tell a friend about the sunset over the bluffs, the way the light broke through the clouded horizon, illuminating the river below, but words fail us. “You had to be there,” we finally concede.
The final way we know beauty is by the emotions it arouses within us. In the presence of genuine beauty, we invariably feel lifted up and inspired. The world around us seems grander, more substantial, and we ourselves feel humbled, as if our ordinary worries and concerns were not as significant as they were moments before.
Beauty’s counterfeits, by contrast, arouse desire and envy. They do not take us out of ourselves, they enmesh us even more deeply in our own private concerns and preoccupations.
One of the few places beauty still finds serious consideration today is in nature writing, and that is most likely due to the influence of Aldo Leopold.
Leopold considered beauty central to the Land Ethic, writing: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.” His best-known work, A Sand County Almanac, shows us how to look more deeply at the world, seeing beyond the surface to the complex interrelationships among plants, animals, and humans. As soon as we do so, we begin to see beauty all around us, even where we had never looked for it before.
It is the same way with people. As soon as we know how to look, we begin seeing people differently, and we discover beauty in every act of generosity, every act of courage, every smile sincerely worn on a kindly face.
The other day I was out walking with a friend. We were on a trail along the Mississippi River, the sun just coming up, geese flying overhead, and there was a peacefulness to the scene at odds with the chaos being felt all over the world.
“Doesn’t this seem strange?” he observed.
I knew exactly how he felt. But that is only because we had been distracted, and the simple act of going for a walk along the river had restored us to our senses.
I went back home to my office on the second floor, turning on the computer to face another long day filled with conference calls and Zoom meetings. People appeared on my screen, some I had known for years and others I was meeting for the first time—all of them working long hours while caring for their children, their parents, their spouses, working in isolation from their colleagues and uncertain about their futures. They were dressed t-shirts and hoodies, their faces illumined by the harsh blue glare of laptops, stressed, anxious, and determined. Every one of them eager to do more.
My God. I have never seen so many beautiful people.
April 2, 2020