What is beauty? Why is it important? “Perhaps we should think of beauty—not only as something that we should have—but as something we should be.”
Beauty is a concept I’ve been struggling with lately.
What is it? Why is it important? In Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed Howard Gardner says that beauty is one of three virtues needed for a functioning society.
I can readily understand the necessity of truth and goodness, but why beauty?
Another puzzling aspect of beauty is its magnetism. Beauty can grab you, entice you, or send you on an unending search. Richard Jefferies, in The Story of My Heart, describes how his whole life was dedicated to searching the world for beauty. For Jefferies, this search was more than a momentary urge or a pleasant pastime. It was a powerful unrelenting force.
I’m a big fan of both Jefferies and Gardner, but after reading their interpretations about beauty and the role it plays in our lives, I wondered if they might be exaggerating a bit. I went back to their writings and looked for explanations or justifications of what I thought they said. Gardner definitely states that beauty is a necessity, “a crucial part of life.” Jefferies, however, suggests that finding beauty isn’t all that easy. For Jefferies, the search for beauty involves going “higher than a god, deeper than prayer ... straight to the sun, to the immense forces of the universe, to the Entity unknown.”
Finding beauty, then, seems like an overwhelming challenge. Gardner doesn’t make it any easier. He refers to beauty as “a moving target,” something you can’t pin down with a definition or description. Gardner even says that the idea of beauty—or what we perceive as beauty—changes over time.
According to Gardner, history, cultures, technologies, and vagaries of art, all play a role in shaping and reshaping our perceptions of beauty. Now that I’m getting older, I find myself drawn to the beauty of other aging things—weathered rocks, old stone walls, and decaying trees. I’m more enthralled with the Ancient Pueblo dwellings than with the recently constructed Spaceport not far from where I live.
I’ve noticed that our ideas of beauty can also be influenced by new understandings about the natural world and the role of humans in shaping this world. Consider the damming of rivers, for example. We’ve impounded rivers for hundreds of years. We did this to generate electricity, to control floods, and to irrigate our crops. Many of the dams and resulting reservoirs are aesthetically beautiful. Yet, the fact that many dams are creating environmental havoc warrants a reconsideration of what is really beautiful and necessary in our lives.
Today I’m thinking about beauty and how it might help us in the making of beautiful people. While we need beauty in our lives, perhaps we should think of beauty—not only as something that we should have—but as something we should be.
[Also read: “Finding Your Sense of Self.”]
If we can combine Jefferies’ passion for beauty, Gardner’s realization that beauty is necessary for a well-functioning society, and a commitment to making beauty a part of who we are, we might then enjoy a beautiful life.
What does it take for us to become beautiful people? That’s another tough question and challenging to address. I don’t think they are winners and losers in this. It’s not a beauty contest, and it’s not about just one person. Different people will have different ideas; but to get us started, I’m willing to share a few thoughts.
Beautiful people, as I see it, are people who exude beauty in who they are and what they do. They are people who:
- Live with a sense of wonder
- Show respect and compassion for people around them
- Have a deep appreciation of the natural world
- Care about the common good
- Are actively involved in creating a more peaceful and sustainable society
Read about revealing your true self to the world.