Essays

Harmonious and Extraordinary Beauty – Irina Symons

Beauty. The beauty of a face, the beauty of a flower, the beauty of a sunset, the beauty of a building, the beauty of a soul, the beauty of a gesture, the beauty of a mathematical proof, the beauty of a life, the beauty of a work of art, the beauty of a rug, the beauty of a meal, the beauty of a melody. The list could go on. How can both a building and a life be described as beautiful? What traits do faces and mathematical proofs share that render them beautiful? Is it the same attributes that makes all these things beautiful, or is the beauty of each dependent on different attributes?

In this essay I will argue that we can divide the domain of the beautiful in two parts, each associated with complimentary aspects of the human condition: on the one hand, our being finite and imperfect, and on the other hand our capacity to transcend time and space, to reach towards the infinite and to accomplish the universal. I will argue that the first aspect of our condition predisposes us to appreciate beauty whose essence is harmony, while the second kind of traits open us to appreciating beauty whose essence is the extraordinary. The experience of harmony offers comfort and peace of mind, while the experience of the extraordinary gives one hope and meaning.[1]

The history of philosophy and of aesthetics, up to the 19th century, looked down upon everything that had to do with the everyday, and therefore argued that objects and attitudes, useful and relevant for daily concerns do not rise to the category of the beautiful. After all, philosophers, and later artists, were men who could afford, and who desired to escape the daily duties and routine of the household, hoping to secure for themselves a place on the pedestal of history. The practical demands and concerns of daily life were considered too trivial for history to immortalize.

According to Arthur Schopenhauer, beauty can only be created by a genius; the genius is someone who has the capacity to capture and express the ideal and the universal. “The work of genius may be music, philosophy, painting or poetry; it is nothing for use or profit. To be useless and unprofitable is one of the characteristics of genius; … All other human works exist only for the maintenance and relief of our existence; [the works of genius] alone exist for their own sake. … Our heart is therefore gladdened at the enjoyment of them, for we rise out of the heavy earthly atmosphere of need and want.”[2] Art, and the kind of beauty that it creates is an occasion for gratuitous enjoyment, an experience of being uplifted from one’s desires, needs, and wants.

In a fashion very similar to Schopenhauer’s, Immanuel Kant argues that the concept of beauty pertains to the kind of judgement that expresses “an entirely disinterested satisfaction.”[3] These two philosophers, together with the entire history of philosophy, regard the body, the locus of desires, needs, wants, feelings, and emotions difficult to control and overcome, as the limit of one’s freedom, and an obstacle in the way of the human quest for the universal and the eternal. While they might be right in identifying the body and its unruly nature as an important limit, disparaging it, or trying to ignore it, is not a path to freedom from the body and its limits.

As the initial paragraph suggests, we call beautiful many more things than Schopenhauer and Kant would permit us to. I don’t think that we are wrong to do so; in the end, the practical and the day to day are part of our lives and define us just as essentially as the capacity to reach beyond earthly limits does. Therefore, our best bet is probably not to try to ignore the aspects of daily life and our finite being that are said to hold us back, but to understand who we are, and try to reach balance between our freedom and our limits. The more acceptance and understanding, the more freedom.

Appreciation of harmony and of the extraordinary, or the desires for peace of mind and for the universal are expressions of the complex kind of beings that we are, of the contradictions that are constitutive of humanity. On the one hand, due to our bodies, we are limited in space and time, and vulnerable; on the other hand, our minds reach beyond the time and space that confine our bodies, towards the infinite. For a good life, the unpretentious beauty of the small things and gestures is just as important as the grand beauty of nature, and as that of extraordinary ideas and accomplishments that defy time.

Harmony is not just an ingredient of embodied, or physical beauty, but also of attitudes and ways of being. We don’t only find faces and architecture to be beautiful because of their harmonious features, but also how people act, how they treat each other, and how they live.

For the most of us, adult life is a never-ending attempt to fix things, to make relationships successful, to improve ourselves, to do better, to be better. Even if the desire to improve, the desire for progress, and the desire to understand each other and the world are noble and should be part of every life, picturing our lives as a never ending attempt to fix and improve can be overwhelming. We need periods of time and spaces that don’t require effort from our part. Harmony creates such space and time.

Each of us knows the feeling of seeing an arrangement, either a room, a garden, a sentence, or an outfit, that does not feel quite right. When we have that feeling, our minds start to fix that scene. We imagine removing items, rearranging them, or reshaping them. Our mind is put to work; we cannot resist taking some action. That means that the experience of lack of harmony is accompanied (not necessarily reflexively) by the experience of effort.

On the other hand, harmonious arrangement will be experienced as perfectly balanced and requiring no intervention. Harmony is experienced as an opportunity for self-abandonment and rest. Harmony irresistibly lures us by instilling in us a feeling of comfort. Harmony is a sign of the tamed, the balanced, the pleasant, and the comfortable. The beauty of harmony belongs to the small, unpretentious things and gestures of the everyday, it offers islands of peace from the daily unrest.  Beauty as harmony is rest.

We use words like attractive, desirable, pretty, appealing, inviting, good-looking, charming, or pleasant, to describe the beauty of the everyday harmony. Kant would probably say that we should refrain from using beautiful to describe the objects and situations that fulfill our desired and meet our needs, as the above listed adjectives describe more accurately the pleasant experiences that fit in the day-to-day.

To capture the beauty of the extraordinary, words like magnificent, astonishing, sublime, breath-taking, splendid, marvelous, and, of course, beautiful are fitting. Harmony is not the essential ingredient of beauty that takes one’s breath away and imposes itself as magnificent, dramatic, or extraordinary. Be it the magnificence of nature, or the excellence of human accomplishment, this kind of beauty inhabits a realm different from the everyday, the realm of the eternal. Magnificent and extraordinary beauty is not about offering relief from daily concerns; rather, such experience lifts one above the practical day to day desires and concerns, offering the chance of an objective perspective on oneself, on what is to be a human being, on what life means, and on the world as a whole.

Extraordinary beauty is not experienced as an object of our desires. To desire something is to be able to anticipate appropriating and consuming the desired. The extraordinary is experienced as having the distance constitutive of it. It reveals itself as impossible to be appropriated, used, or consumed. I would argue that the beauty of the everyday, as the words used to describe it suggest, is deeply experienced in our bodies. The beauty of the extraordinary is rather an intellectual, or spiritual experience.

Harmony invites us to abandonment and self-forgetting, while the experience of the extraordinary gives hope and reason to challenge one’s limits. Experiencing the everyday beauty of harmony settles one in their ways and reinforces the understanding of oneself in one’s social and cultural context, while the experience of extraordinary beauty detaches us from the contexts we move in on a daily basis, and gives us access to what it objectively means to be a human being.

 


[1] I will define harmony as “a consistent, orderly, or pleasing arrangement of parts.” https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/harmony. I use extraordinary emphasizing that it signals the out-of-the-ordinary, something beyond the usual or the regular, something that does not fit in, and exceeds daily goals and concerns.

[2] Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, trans. E.F.G. Payne (New York: Hafner Publishing Company, 1958), 2:388. My italics.

[3] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, trans. J.M. Bernard Payne (New York: Hafner Publishing Company, 1951), 45.

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