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Mar 30, 2022

Why Beauty is Indispensable to the Common Good

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Claus Dierksmeier

University of Tubingen

Claus Dierksmeier researches and publishes on the idea of freedom, political and economic philosophy, business ethics, corporate social responsibility, and globalization ethics.

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Why Beauty is Indispensable to the Common Good

Screen Shot 2022 03 30 At 1 44 12 Pm

Design for an alcove with an arched ceiling and a window by Frederick Crace, 1802.

In the realms of politics and business, the beautiful is oftentimes regarded as a subject of lesser gravitas and importance than, say, the mundane requirements of governance and strategy. Beauty, in the eyes of many, is something superficial and non-essential, secondary to allegedly more pressing and serious concerns of human conduct and collaboration. This ubiquitous view is, however, starkly at odds with the Western philosophical tradition. From the earliest textual sources of antiquity up to the grandees of contemporary philosophy, quite a different assessment prevails. In what follows, I am presenting these countervailing positions with the intention to shed a light on why we—individuals, institutions, and society—continue to have sound and strong reasons to care for beauty. 

Let me begin with a qualification. In what follows, I am not presenting theorems that explain (away) beauty. Such efforts have indeed been frequently made, either by way of reductive materialism or through identificatory idealism, and both approaches can shed light on the issue. In the former case, for example, if one leans toward a social-Darwinist reading of the world (survival of the fittest), one sees the beautiful as emergent from and for evolutionary purposes (signaling fitness, supporting pattern recognition, identifying symmetries, recognizing boundaries). Ultimately, then, beauty is reduced to whatever assures species propagation. In the latter case, if one possesses idealistic proclivities, one may enjoy theories (by the likes of Kant, Schiller, and Schelling) that, by positioning the beautiful as the capstone of the architecture of human reason, tend to integrate the aesthetic domain with, and interpret it by, a larger narrative about the universe and its metaphysical/spiritual underpinnings. The beautiful turns into a worldly reflection of the Absolute. In both cases, surely, aesthetic theories gain more metaphysical oomph from their respectively invoked (material or ideal) realms, but that extra power comes at the expense of a prior acceptance of farther-going theories, thus mortgaging philosophy without, I fear, necessarily disclosing the phenomenon at hand—beauty and its effect on us humans—that much further. 

So, instead of either, I take a pragmatist-cum-phenomenological approach by considering not so much what beauty is but rather what it does (socially, that is), as well as not so much what else the beautiful shows or points to but rather what it presents itself to be. As we will see, from age to age, philosophers have concentrated on different aspects of that phenomenon, centering at times more on beautiful objects, at other times on the subjects that produce or behold them and/or their relations. In stark simplification, we could say that, historically, the object commanded the center stage during antiquity and the Middle Ages; then, around 1700 CE, the object yielded to the subject; and lately, say, from the outset of the twentieth century onward, their relation moved increasingly into the foreground. 

Antiquity to the Eighteenth Century

Up until 1700 CE, the beautiful was typically discussed in the context of the good and the true. The three notions—beauty, goodness, and truth: the transcendentalia of medieval thought—share interesting properties. 

  1. They cannot be “thought away” without eradicating what it conventionally means to think / be conscious. You cannot, for example, pursue the good of your child without inquiring into what truthfully rather than apparently benefits her or him. 
  2. The consistent pursuit of one eventuates the pursuit of the others. Certain truths reveal themselves only to those of moral and aesthetic sensitivities, and, vice versa, the ability to engage in a dispassionate pursuit of the truth enhances our capacity for moral action and aesthetic production as well as reception.
  3. Being constitutive for the functioning of the human mind at large, their mastery proves highly useful in a wide area of applications, but their instrumental value can only be fully appropriated if they are pursued intrinsically. For instance, once you have mastered an art or a craft, the skills so acquired can certainly be employed to make a living, but if your only motivation when studying an art is to make money from it, you shall not get far.

Countless thinkers emphasized proximities between the good and the beautiful. In antiquity, the good (agathon) and the beautiful (kalon) were fused into an ideal of how to live well (kalokagathia). In Hellenistic times, even the distinction between the elements of said ideal collapsed when kalon simply came to mean “morally good.” Even at present, we use terms like ugly and beautiful to express ethical disapproval and approval. What resonates across the divide of the aesthetic and ethical domains is the notion of fair-ness (fair itself being etymologically connected to both spheres), which merges the aesthetic notion of fit-ness/proportionality with the ethical stricture of suitability/appropriateness.

Thinkers identified similar analogies regarding truth and beauty, emphasizing mostly the transformative nature of their pursuit. To attain either truth or beauty, we let go of a self-centered perspective and engage in a lifelong process of learning, erring our way forward in increasing approximation of an ideal that we will never own but that instead gradually takes ownership of us: only those who submit to the immanent mandates of their (epistemic or aesthetic) domain will truly advance. The true masters disappear behind their works. Both truth and beauty share a revelatory nature; while work toward them is incremental, their unveiling often happens in leaps, fits, and bounds, leading to experiences of an ek-static (standing outside oneself) nature. Not incidentally, therefore, experiences of the beautiful have forever served religious communities as metaphors for and conduits to the Sacred.

The consonance of the beautiful, the good, and the true was seen as indicative of a primordial unity of life. In spiritual parlance, they emanated each and all from the Divine and were ultimately in harmony. This ultimate unity assured the commensurability of the transcendentalia in mundane life. While their eventual and perfect harmony, however, was often left for the end of time, they were believed to beckon humanity in the here and now to aspire to ever greater approximations in and through daily work and relationships. The reconciliation of conflicting elements through beautiful objects/works/creations was emblematic of both the Beginning and the Beyond of the world at large. Aesthetic enthusiasm is etymologically and conceptually linked to perceiving “God within.”

Eighteenth to Twentieth Centuries

Even though many modern Western philosophers avoided such theological overtones, later notions of gift and creation remained closely linked to beauty. The coincidence of opposites that the beautiful accomplishes—the harmonious fusion of disparate elements such as order and irregularity in the beautiful object, the merger of toil and pleasure in the producer, the combination of concentration and relaxation in the beholder, and so on—are still seen as betokening something special (a grace, a faculty for bestowing life, starting afresh, creating something novel, combined with a spirit of elevation/generosity/superabundance or supererogatory giving) that enables human life to transcend itself and its animal nature. While ever fewer thinkers adduce the beautiful for proofs of the existence of God, the mundane grist and gist of such traditional theorems—the notions of both an original creativity/spontaneity and an eventual pacification/redemption of all existence—still lingers in modern notions of the beautiful as reinvigorating or soul-saving. Nowhere in modern philosophy do spiritual overtones linger as much as in the discourse on aesthetics.

After 1700 CE, the overall focus shifted to the subjective dimension of aesthetic experiences. Beauty was now highlighted as providing privileged access to the mystery of personal consciousness and interpersonal communication. Allowing individuals to experience revelatory glimpses of interpersonal immediacy (wordless understanding of one another, mutuality in attention and focus) and wholeness (unselfish cooperation, disinterested pleasure in the artistic prowess of the other), otherwise rare in everyday life, the beautiful was seen, if not outrightly as the eminently real itself, then certainly as a conduit to the deeper meaning and destination of life: one was to make oneself into a beautiful soul so as to realize one’s true human potential. 

The beautiful could, it was held, overcome the confines of nature and thus open the gates to a realm of freedom. The rapture experienced when listening to grand musical compositions, for example, afforded deliverance from slavery to one’s own (individuating, separative) will through a fusion with what the “veil of Maya” (Schopenhauer) normally occludes from sight: our innermost union with (other forms of) being. It could make individuals from all walks of life into “brothers” (Schiller); not incidentally does Beethoven’s 9th, when breaking the mold of previous symphonies by introducing a choir, culminate in a recital of Schiller’s famous “Ode an die Freude,” a eulogy of human brotherhood-in-freedom. Aesthetic experiences brought out what humans had in common beneath and beyond all their ideological and partisan differences.

Where this succeeds, aesthetic concord can trump epistemic and moral agreements. How?  All (instrumentally) rational beings can agree on the laws of gravity. Epistemic congruence of that type is universal. Moral congruence is a bit narrower, including only subjects that are also capable of (ethical) reasoning. Still, the agreements reached are very general—and thus not very exciting. In either (the theoretical or the practical) case, the agreements can be forced by demonstrations or arguments. No such thing is possible in the aesthetic domain. Here, things are much more individualized and personal.

While we desire others to agree with our aesthetic judgments (and while our arguments may indeed help us make our case and, at times, convince others to see beautiful objects the way we do), concurrence can be neither presumed (“If only they were reasonable!”) nor forced. Rather, concurrence fills us with joy precisely because we know that agreement can only come about voluntarily—through a “free play of their powers of imagination,” in the words of Kant and Schiller. Harmony that is based on freedom and unity despite diversity marks what makes aesthetic agreement precious. This concord is neither a given nor trivial, since such harmony-in-judgment does not result from a foregoing community (of faculties or interests or tastes), but it may result in a newfound community of appreciation that forges new social bonds as it informs us of hitherto unknown commonalities with those whose tastes we already share. 

Could the pro-social aspects of aesthetic experiences be harnessed to pedagogical projects? If the arts helped people to understand what others felt, to see the world with their eyes, to sing or move in sync with them, why not employ such paragons of uncoerced collaboration to educate people to become better citizens of the world? Such an “aesthetic education of mankind” (Schiller) envisions the aesthetic realm—especially, but not only, the stage of the modern theater—as promoting an unselfish regard for the world. 

The key lesson taught by modern philosophers? In the same way that love bestows many benefits but cannot spring from their pursuit alone, beauty needs to be appreciated first as such before we can unlock its bounty of treasures. Thus does an aesthetic formation, by the by, teach us how to approach unconditional goods (freedom, for example). Instead of valuing them merely for the effects they condition or the benefits they bestow, we should approach and appreciate them for what they are in themselves. For their fruits are secondary and, what is more, they are most readily available when these goods are pursued primarily on their own behalf.

Instrumentalism spoils not only intrinsic values but also crowds out many of the effects it seeks. Society, modern philosophers concluded, stood to benefit much from the lesson implied therein: that, paradoxically, utilitarianism is not the path to optimal utility, whereas empathy and unconditional commitments are.

The Recent Decades

These days, discourse on the beautiful centers mostly on the relations that beauty fosters, be it the relationship between the object and the subject of beautiful experiences or between several subjects, some or all who are engaged in aesthetic pursuits. Classical notions of the beautiful (beckoning, welcoming, greeting, calling, enlivening) and modern interpretations of the experience of beauty (saving the alienated soul from estrangement and ennui; eliciting reverence, awe, astonishment, and humility) often resurface as elements of social relationships engendered and/or intensified by aesthetic engagement. Although, or perhaps rather because, many contemporary philosophers shy away from analyzing beauty for its own sake, they are at pains to make the case—for example, in the following arguments—that a concentration on beauty is not frivolous but advantageous even for those not so engaged. 

Beauty sparks innovation. Artistic imagination gives shape to yet unformed notions, provides expression for suppressed or still inchoate feelings, disruptive ideas, alternative ideals, and so on. Entire genres of modern literature (utopias, dystopias, science fiction, to name a few) are dedicated to exploring avenues not yet taken and thus plumb hitherto untested possibilities. The contours and concepts so created import novel templates of interpretation and action. On a more general plane, all belletristic literature is about sounding out counterfactual scenarios. Aesthetic creation always transcends the status quo by stimulating our powers of associative and analogical thinking, inviting us to play with—and so loosen, recombine, probe, rethink—our standard conceptions about ourselves and the world we inhabit. 

Beauty invites emulation. Few are the people who behold something exquisitely beautiful—a painting, a picture, a statue, a landscape, a scenery—who do not try to share (directly) their experience with others or communicate (indirectly) its nature. Whether they take a photo of the object, bring someone to the site, verbalize its features or whatever they experienced in situ; whether they aspire to remake the object itself or transpose its perceived resonance into other works (like writers copying the tone of authors who inspired them or music composers trying to mimic the sounds of nature or express the feeling of beholding something sublime); whether they analyze its properties intellectually (e.g., in academic discourse) or practically take up the very craft that led to the original work—in these and countless other forms, people tend to emulate and so augment the beauty that struck them. 

Beauty stimulates unselfish regard. The experience of the beautiful lures us into a nonpurposive mindset. As a gift that keeps giving, the beautiful stands out as a noncompetitive good. Beholding beauty does not, as a rule, diminish the selfsame experience of others but, more often and much rather, expands and improves it. Moreover, the best way to immerse oneself in the experience of the beautiful is to disinterestedly but never dispassionately participate: give center stage to one’s capacities of immersion, not driven by partisan affiliations and mundane concerns but by unbiased desires to bring the thing itself to the fore. 

Beauty supports non-zero-sum relationships. Aesthetic judgment aspires to a yet nonextant universal assent (Kant). Giving others access to the object in question and promoting the free formation of their respective judgments is a consistent move on the part of those who want to confirm and intensify their own aesthetic pleasure through others’ concurrence. The more equitably the chances for aesthetic enjoyment are spread, the larger the chances for finding fellows in approval. Walk this notion a bit further and you end up with a universal right to education and cultural participation on aesthetic grounds. What is more, since the appreciation of beauty is premised on a “disinterested pleasure” (Kant), aesthetic undertakings tend to promote non-instrumental social relations that can carry people beyond the realm of transactional thinking—for at least as long as the aesthetic moment lasts or its reverberations linger. 

513Px Haeckel Trochilidae

A color plate illustration of hummingbirds from Ernst Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur, 1899

Beauty widens the ambit of appreciation. One stops regarding ornithologists as crazy once one realizes for the first time the astonishing beauty of but a single bird. Having seen its beauty, we promote all birds to the rank of potential objects of aesthetic regard. Our visual world becomes richer. What was before disregarded or overlooked entirely now takes on crisper shape and clearer hues, and consequently we find beauty in previously unsuspected locations. Having had such experiences with birds, we wonder what other treasures the world may hold. In every nook and cranny, aesthetic preciosities wait to be uncovered. All it takes is a mindful gaze (or an altruistic pointer from an already initiated beholder)—and yesterday’s realm of dire scarcity turns into today’s world of delightful abundance.

Beauty stimulates care. People who willfully destroy or neglect what they venerate as beautiful are rare; the deliberate destruction of cultural artefacts—whether in arenas of war or simply through vandalism—leads to outrage among most people the world over. Fortunately, far more common is the unintended spillover from aesthetic contemplation to theoretical consideration and practical conservation. Such care—if premised on unselfish regard and a decentered perspective—is a powerful force for good. A world perceived as beautiful is one whose preservation we crave, and efforts to sustain it thus turn from an ungainly chore to a celebrated choice. What is more, care emerging from aesthetic veneration is oftentimes more sensitive, circumspect, and situation-adequate than are actions brought forth solely by enlightened self-interest (preserving nature as a resource for present and future human consumption) or moral duty (preserving nature out of respect for the rights of future generations).

Beauty suspends (narrow) subsumption and triggers (wider) reflection. Beauty strikes us, hits us, overwhelms us, surprises us, and jars us out of the conventional conceptual schemes by which we order our daily routines. In the moment of first encounter, we are speechless, thoughtless, because we are concept-less: We lack the general term under which to subsume the aesthetic phenomenon at hand. We pause and become still. Attentiveness and mindfulness may follow in the wake of such experiences. Soon thereafter, however, our intellectual faculties go into overdrive to make sense of what made us lose our step. What was it in THIS bird or in THAT song or in YONDER painting that touched us, whereas before we strode past so many of their kind in stolid indifference? We begin to reflect—to search for a common denominator, connecting these exemplars of beauty to yet others in other times and places—and thus expand our concern from here to there. Our mind wanders and begins to inhabit an ever-wider world; thus, aesthetic experiences can assist in transforming us, step by step, from a denizen of the here and now into a citizen of the world at large, a “cosmo-politan.”

Beauty leads to (self-)correction. Our tastes change with the years and under the influence of education. The more refined our taste is, the greater and more versatile our pleasure. We come to recognize yesterday’s mistaken judgments and errors in taste with the pleasure that the advanced level of aesthetic engagement that we presently enjoy now affords us. To admit and mend errors eventually becomes part and parcel of a pleasurable pursuit of pleasure. Aesthetic learning can trigger a willingness to unlearn old ways. Where learning is experienced as joyful, we are more likely to admit failure or renew efforts. The search for aesthetic improvement may thus function as a paragon for our lifelong quest for intellectual or moral progress.

Beauty enlivens. Beauty animates lifeless objects. A canvas takes on a spirit, a statue an expression, a melody a meaning. Our pulse quickens when we face a very beautiful person; what is more, their beauty alerts us to the fact that this very individual is unique and irreplaceable and, at the same time, just as vulnerable as we are. Highlighting the preciousness of one, beauty shows us the aliveness of all and breaks the spell that has us registering people only from the outside: as a sheer material of duty or, worse, as expandable masses. Resisting a schematic and totalitarian treatment of our aesthetically beloved, it is but a small step to ascribe to all others what we ascribe to them: respect and regard for their one-of-a-kind-ness. 

Beauty begets cooperation. Beautiful works, even when they come from a single creator, are never solitary achievements. They rest on centuries of skill building, taste formation, and criteria development. Creating, perpetuating, and promulgating beautiful works is a collective effort in which people subordinate themselves on behalf of something larger, greater, lasting. When people come together in and for uncoerced cooperation, they are coming into their own: the gregarious symbolic animals that they are.

Awe and Beauty

When trying to compress systematically what historically Western philosophers had to say on the matter, it seems to me that the most trenchant socially relevant functions of the beautiful are the following, which slightly overlap:

  1. the heuristic and expressive function: Beauty puts us in touch with our un-/sub-/pre-conscious intellectual capacities and helps us express the ineffable/counterfactual.
  2. the hermeneutic and representative function: Beauty conveys symbols of meaning/sense/purpose/“fit” and can help us identify and express our innermost desires and ultimate destination.
  3. the innovative and transformative function: The quest for the beautiful ceaselessly drives the creation of novelty/change/amelioration—from a holistic perspective.
  4. the restorative and reconciliatory function: Beauty is indicative of life lived well and can serve as a regulative/aspirational ideal for identifying and strengthening forms of non-alienated labor as well as of pursuits essential to the human condition.

The above are plentiful reasons to care for the beautiful, to look after beauty, and to pay attention to the teachings of contemporary philosophers when it comes to probing the implications of aesthetically grounded or founded relationships. 

Yet, the history of Western philosophizing on beauty is not one of one-directional progress. Insights were gained and refined over the centuries while, at the same time, profundities of previous eras were lost. This is particularly noteworthy regarding the theological dimension that characterized the discourse on the beautiful in antiquity and, in good part, up until the nineteenth century. Omnis ad maiorem gloriam Dei (“All for the greater glory of God”) was the motto of many a great artist, poet, and composer throughout the entire history of Christianity, for instance. Similarly, to identify traces of the Sacred in the aesthetic object as well as in the subject that produced or beheld it was par for the course in philosophical treatments of the matter from Plato to Hegel. 

It seems doubtful whether contemporary philosophy can, or should even try to, do without this dimension. This is not to say that we need to, or could, return to the aesthetic dogmatism of yesteryear, which at times operated from the assumption that there was a God-given sensus communis for aesthetic appreciation that, once correctly identified by master metaphysicians, would lead to error-proof certainties in aesthetical judgments. The modern turn to a critique of the subject, its capacities as well as its ineradicable involvement in what constitutes aesthetic encounters, must not be revoked, not least because it helps us discern what is genuinely beautiful from what pleases us for sundry other reasons (be they moral, metaphysical, or hedonistic). 

And we should not go so far as to eliminate the sense of awe from the aesthetic experience. The fact that a clear sense of something sacred in aesthetic encounters prevailed for over two thousand years, giving rise, time and again, to many a philosophical-theological reflection, should alert us to the possibility that a transcending dimension might, far from being an eliminable add-on, constitute an immanent aspect of the aesthetic experience. Seen in this vein, the analysis of aesthetic phenomena comes round to corroborating the adage that a half philosophy leads us away from God, whereas a whole philosophy leads us back.