Some Thoughts on Beauty

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

Much has been said on the subject of beauty that will not bear close scrutiny. What is said is often moving, even uplifting. It frequently gives one the sense of being on the verge of getting at the heart of the matter, but like epigrammatic discourse at its best, it leaves one unsure that the promise of penetrating in sights can be fulfilled by patient thought expressed in plain speech.

The test of the intelligibility of any statement that overwhelms us with its air of profundity is its translatability into language that lacks the elevation and verve of the original statement but can pass muster as a simple and clear statement in ordinary, everyday speech. Most of what has been written about beauty will not survive this test. In the presence of many of the most eloquent statements about beauty, we are left speechless — speechless in the sense that we cannot find other words for expressing what we think or hope we understand.

This is not to say that, in the discussion of the great ideas, there has been more disagreement about beauty than about truth and goodness. With regard to beauty as with regard to truth and goodness, the same fundamental issues are argued, issues concerning their objectivity and subjectivity. The difference lies in the fact that with regard to truth and goodness, the issues can be addressed with a clarity that is lacking in the case of beauty.

There is less that can be said about beauty with clarity and precision than can be said about truth and goodness. In the pages that follow, I am going to limit myself to observations that can be expressed in the language of common speech and to distinctions that I think are immediately intelligible to common sense.

I will carry the analysis no further than it can go within these limits. This may leave many questions unanswered for the reader, but he or she will at least understand the questions that have not been answered.

In the tradition of Western thought, two writers — and only two — provide the guidance we need to proceed along the lines just indicated. One is a thirteenth-century theologian, Thomas Aquinas; the other, an eighteenth-century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. While these two do not agree with each other on all points, certain observations made by Kant help us to understand certain words used by Aquinas that are critical terms in his definition of the beautiful.

“The beautiful,” Aquinas writes, “is that which pleases us upon being seen.” In this definition of the beautiful, the two critical terms are “pleases” and “seen.”

Many things please us and please us in different ways, but everything that pleases us is not beautiful. If we use the word “pleases” as a synonym for “satisfies,” then any good that we desire pleases or satisfies us when, coming into possession of that good, our desire for it is calmed, put to rest, or made quiescent .

Pleasure itself, bodily or sensual pleasure, is among the goods that human beings desire. We have a natural craving for sensory experiences that have the quality of being pleasant rather than unpleasant. It is also the case that some human beings, generally regarded as abnormal, have a predilection for pain — for physical pain or for sensory experiences that are unpleasant in quality rather than pleasant. When these desires, normal or abnormal, are gratified, we are pleased or satisfied.

When sensual pleasure or pain is an object of desire, it does not differ from food or drink, wealth or health, knowledge or friendship, as something needed or wanted. Anything needed or wanted is something that pleases or satisfies us when we get it. How, among all the things that please or satisfy us, shall we identify the special character of the beautiful as an object that pleases us?

The answer to this question can be found in Aquinas’s definition. The object we call beautiful is one that pleases us in a very special way — “upon being seen”. Food and drink, health and wealth, and most of the other goods we need or want please us upon being possessed. It is having them, to use or consume, that pleases us. They please us when they satisfy our desire to have them, not just to see them.

Here Kant throws light on the special character of the pleasure afforded by objects we call beautiful by telling us that the pleasure must be a totally disinterested one. What Kant means by “disinterested” is that the object falls outside the sphere of our practical concerns. It is an object we may or may not desire to acquire, to possess, to use, consume, or in some other way incorporate into our lives or ourselves. We may be quite content simply to contemplate or behold it. Doing just that, and nothing more, gives us the special delight or joy that we derive from objects that please us upon being seen. And if, in addition, we do desire to possess it, we do not regard it as beautiful because of that fact.

The person who says, as many do, “I do not know whether that object is beautiful, but I know what I like, and I do like it,” should understand himself to be acknowledging the disconnection between enjoyable and admirable beauty. He is, in effect, saying, “I do not know what expert judges would think about the intrinsic excellence or perfection of the object in question, but I do know that it pleases me to behold or contemplate. It may or may not be admirable in the judgment of experts, but I enjoy it nevertheless.”

There is one further difference to be noted between the expert judgment of admirable beauty and the expression of taste for enjoyable beauty, whether by experts or by laymen. It requires us to recall Immanuel Kant’s observation that the apprehension of an object from which we derive disinterested pleasure is nonconceptual. It is the apprehension or contemplation of that individual object as such, not as a particular instance of one or another kind of object.

Contrariwise, the expert judgment of the admirable beauty of an object based on its intrinsic excellence or perfection can not be a judgment devoid of conceptual content because it is always a judgment about the individual object, “not as an individual”, but as a particular instance of a certain kind.

The knowledge that is involved in being an expert is knowledge about the kind, specimens of which are being judged. The skill of the expert is skill in discriminating the degrees of excellence possessed by less and more admirable specimens of the kind in question. That is why the person who is an expert judge of Greek temples will probably not be an expert judge of Gothic cathedrals, and why the person who is an expert judge of flowers is unlikely to be an expert judge of dogs.

The objectivity of truth lies in the fact that what is true for an individual who happens to be in error is not true at all. The objectivity of goodness lies in the fact that what is called good by an individual whose wants are contrary to his needs is not really good for him or for anyone else. What is true for the person whose judgment is sound ought to be regarded as true by everyone else. What is good for the person whose desires are right ought to be regarded as good by everyone else.

When we come to beauty, the parallelism fails. What is enjoyable beauty for the individual whose taste is poor and who derives pleasure from inferior objects is really enjoyable beauty for him regardless of what anyone else thinks, including the experts. What is admirable beauty in the judgment of the experts may not be enjoyable beauty for many laymen; nor can we say that they ought to admire as well as enjoy it because of its intrinsic excellence. All we can say, perhaps, is that they ought to learn to enjoy what is admirable.

At the bottom line, it remains the case that the enjoyable belongs to the sphere of the subjective — a matter of individual taste about which there is no point in arguing. The best wine experts in the world may all agree that a certain red Bordeaux of a certain vintage is a supreme specimen of claret. It does not follow that an individual who prefers white wine to red, or Burgundies to clarets, or has a taste for whiskey rather than for wine, must necessarily enjoy drinking the wine accorded the gold medal by the experts.

What is true of wines is true of everything else that, on the one hand, can be judged for its admirable intrinsic excellence and, on the other hand, may or may not give pleasure or enjoyment to the taste of individuals.

One concluding observation. readers who feel dissatisfied or disappointed by what I have been able to say about admirable beauty — the intrinsic excellence of objects judged admirable by experts — have reason on their side. They are justified in expecting something more: a clear and precise statement of the features shared in common by all instances of admirable beauty, whether in nature or in works of art, and in any and every sphere of art.

I sympathize with such dissatisfaction or disappointment. I have suffered it myself. Expert judges in a given field of art may be able to state the underlying principles or criteria of intrinsic excellence in that sphere of workmanship. They seldom can do so unanimously. But even if they were all to agree about the objective criteria of admirable beauty in the field in which they were experts, even if they all subscribed to principles by conformity to which a judgment concerning the admirable beauty of a certain object could claim to be true, that would still be insufficient.

More can be reasonably expected of the philosopher who undertakes to deal with the idea of beauty. In dealing with the ideas of truth and goodness, the philosopher discharges his intellectual responsibility. He is able to tell us what truth and goodness consist in, not in some particular domain, but universally. That intellectual responsibility the philosopher does not seem able to discharge in dealing with the idea of beauty.

I would have wished to write this in a philosophical manner not disappointing to its readers, not failing to provide the clear and precise statement about what beauty objectively consists in, which they have good reason to expect. I have failed for two reasons. One is that I am not able to find that clear and precise statement in the literature of the subject. The other is that I lack the insight or wisdom needed to supply it myself.

Disappointed readers must, therefore, convert their dissatisfaction by transforming it into a challenge — to do for themselves what has yet to be done by anyone. To do what? To say what is common to — what universal qualities are present in — the admirable beauty of a prize-winning rose, Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, a triple play in the ninth inning of a baseball game, Michelangelo’s Pieta, a Zen garden, Milton’s sonnet on his blindness, a display of fireworks, and so on.

[Great Books of the Western World GBotWW=”1″]


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