Beauty and Life





Beauty and Life



Judgments of beauty are always comparative and contrastive. One thing is deemed to be more beautiful than another or to contrast to something thought dowdy or ugly. There is no such thing as maximal or absolute beauty; the concept is essentially ordinal. If someone says that a certain bird is beautiful, she has in mind other less beautiful birds (or some other standard of beauty); you can’t judge something beautiful but be unprepared to compare its beauty to other things. The concept of beauty is like the concept of health: the primary notion is “x is healthier than y”. It is not like the concept of truth (or arguably the concept of good or right). We can conceive of an aesthetic judge as operating against a background of aesthetic judgments that form a standard of comparison, and this background can vary from judge to judge. Someone surrounded by a plethora of beautiful things will judge differently from someone surrounded by aesthetic dross, proceeding from a different aesthetic baseline. The example of clothes perhaps illustrates this best: a dress will be judged beautiful according to how it compares to other dresses with which the wearer is acquainted or can imagine.

            Is there some basic standard that applies universally? Is there some object that forms a baseline of comparison for everyone at all times and places? Do we judge the beauty of a given object by comparing it to thatobject? For example, do we judge beauty by comparison with the starry sky? Something is deemed beautiful or not according to whether it is more or less beautiful than the stars. That could be so for some conceivable species of being: the sky is available to everyone (more or less) and it is certainly an object of aesthetic evaluation, so it might form a universal standard of comparison. It is a better candidate than, say, a particular species of bird or a certain tradition of painting, which are only selectively available, as well as arbitrary. But it is hard to believe that the night sky could play such a pivotal and pervasive role in the case of ordinary human judgment. Do we ever refer our judgments of beauty to such a standard? Do we ever say: “Yes, this is a nice diamond ring, but not as beautiful as the starry sky”?

            Judgments of beauty by different people converge fairly closely, suggesting that there is a universal point of comparison—something with which everyone compares the things that come his way. There is something fixed that anchors aesthetic comparisons, but what is it? I suggest the following: human life. We judge the beauty or otherwise of our life as a human being and we compare other things to that life. And the point I want to make is that human life is not beautiful and is recognized to be so. That is why we judge beauty as we do—because we sense the contrast between ourselves and other things. Things in general tend to be more beautiful than we are and we know that to be the case. We are somewhat beautiful, or beautiful in certain respects, but mainly we are not. There are two main aspects to this: our organic nature and the shape of our lives. Birth and death are not beautiful, nor are diseases and injuries, and we live daily with the disgusting aspects of our biological nature. However outwardly beautiful, a human being is intimately acquainted with his or her less attractive aspects—and hence aware of the contrast between these and other objects (paintings, birds, etc). These objects represent an aesthetic ideal to which no human being can aspire, because of the lack of beauty manifest in human existence. But the second aspect is equally compelling: the narrative arc of human life is formless and chaotic, poorly plotted, incoherent, just not the product of an artist. We feel this keenly—the formlessness of life. Hence we tell ourselves consoling stories in which our life has some inner coherence or point or destiny, but we are well aware from our day to day existence that it is just one damn thing after another. It’s mainly a jumble, dependent on chance and exigency, on the accidents of our place and time, with no more aesthetic form than the life of any animal. A ballet it is not, nor an opera. So we cannot find in ourselves the kind of beauty we seek, except in certain pockets—we are far from aesthetically ideal. We are thus susceptible to art in which we are represented as more perfect than we are—as idealized beings. We also appreciate the perfectly formed and immortal: crystals and stars, symphonies and sculptures. Likewise, we sometimes make comparisons favorable to ourselves: the rat or worm is ugly compared to us, and scenes of devastation have even less form than our lives. In both cases we use ourselves as aesthetic yardstick.

            Two consequences of this account of aesthetic judgment may be noted. The first is that it presupposes a certain type of self-consciousness: we make such judgments against a background of awareness of our own aesthetic condition. We judge our own beauty first and other judgments are referred back to this. Animals don’t have this kind of self-consciousness; and this may have something to do with their lack of aesthetic experience. Our outer-directed aesthetic experience is conditioned by our self-directed aesthetic experience—by our sense of ourselves as aesthetic beings (very much a mixed bag). Judgments of beauty are not like judgments of color and shape, though we may speak of perception in both cases; they are far more conceptually sophisticated and dependent on our conception of ourselves. Animals and babies see color and shape, but they don’t see beauty, because that requires a structure of self-reflective thought that they lack. Judgments of beauty take place against a cognitive-affective background of comparison and contrast, with ourselves at the center, casting a jagged shadow.

The second consequence is that judgments of beauty depend upon the beauty of the judger: is the object more or less beautiful than myself with such-and-such a degree of beauty? Consider the gods: being beautiful themselves, they find little in art or nature to compare to them; their ascriptions of beauty are therefore restricted and qualified. They are not much impressed by Michelangelo’s David or Leonardo’s Mona Lisa: for they outshine such merely human products in their own divine nature. Works of art leave them cold, though they see why we imperfect beings might be impressed by them given our own dismal point of comparison. The gods live with beauty in themselves day in and day out; they need no relief from their own want of beauty. Who needs art if you are art? The sublime can be found without ever looking outwards, just by self-examination. The gods may be utter philistines when it comes to anything outside themselves.

            The human aesthetic sense is governed by an awareness of comparisons anchored in our assessment of our own aesthetic nature: it is, in one sense, anthropocentric. This baseline, common to all humans, determines the way we rank objects in our environment from an aesthetic point of view, and it shapes the way we produce art and respond to nature. To put it simply, when I say, “This object is beautiful” I am saying, “This object is more beautiful than I am”.  [1] A great many things count as beautiful by this criterion, anything with more aesthetic value than one’s own dull and dreary (and ugly) life. We don’t live beautiful lives, but the consolation is that we find beauty outside ourselves, thus beautifying our lives. Such beauty as we find in our lives springs from the lack of beauty ofour lives. Our urge to create and appreciate beautiful things stems from our awareness of the lack of beauty within us. We are aesthetic beings because we are unaesthetic beings.


Colin McGinn                  

  [1] This is a bit too simple, but it serves to get the point across: judgments of beauty are shaped by our aesthetic response to our own lives.

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