May’s Concept of Beauty

One of many reasons I love May’s books is how he explores the meaning of words. He devotes the entire second chapter of this book to defining “beauty.” And, typically, he traces the meaning of the word from the Greek meaning of the word to contemporary meanings.

He begins with a definition that might satisfy most people:

Beauty is the experience that gives us a sense of joy and a sense of peace simultaneously. Other happenings give us joy and afterwards a peace, but in beauty these are the same experience. Beauty is serene and at the same time exhilarating; it increases one’s sense of being alive. Beauty gives us not only a feeling of wonder; it imparts to us at the same moment a timelessness, a repose-which is why we speak of beauty as being eternal.

Beauty is the mystery which enchants us. Like all higher experiences of being human, beauty is dynamic; its sense of repose, paradoxically, is never dead, and if it seems to be dead, it is no longer beauty.

Although a rather abstract definition, most people would recognize their own feelings about beauty in this definition, certainly in the idea that beauty gives us a sense of wonder and timelessness.

But Mays extends the meaning of Beauty, offering further possibilities that many of us (at least those of us who called ourselves Liberal Arts majors) may have studied long ago but have probably long since forgotten. May’s commonly returns to the roots of words to discover their meanings.

Classical Greece was not afraid to talk of beauty. The Greeks had two ways of describing it. One was that beauty is the condition when everything fits, when in a scientific theory or the Parthenon one has the conviction that nothing could be added or subtracted. All the parts are in harmony with all the other parts. This was the definition which Aristotle liked; it fits the empirical enthusiasm which characterized him and his countless followers through the ages.

This sounds like what I mean when I say I’m having a “beautiful day,” though the latent mathematician in me still remembers thinking exactly that way when I had found the perfect move in chess or a “beautiful” proof in Geometry.

It’s been a long time since I’ve thought about Plato’s ideas, versus Aristotle’s ideas, but I’m reminded that I generally sided with Plato’s argument versus Aristotle’s way back them. Perhaps because this:

The other description of beauty, invented by Pythagoras and held by Plato and later by Plotinus, has nothing to do with parts. Beauty, rather, is the eternal splendor of the One showing through the Many. That is, in the many different forms in our universe, the One shines through and gives splendor and meaning to all. The former definition is more passive, the latter more active, as I shall indicate below.

When Plato considered the great trilogy of Beauty, Truth and Goodness, he placed Beauty at the top because Beauty is harmony, and whether Truth or Goodness are harmonious is the test of their integrity. Goodness gives a person self-respect, Truth gives gratification, but Beauty gives both peace and joy simultaneously. Plato believed that Goodness, or ethics, consists of acting in a way that is harmonious with your fellow human beings, and this makes the action testable by its beauty. Indeed, the Greek word for beauty and for goodness is the same, “kalon.” When Rilke wrote his sonnet, “To the Torso of the Unknown Apollo,” and ended it with the ethical challenge, “You must change your life,” he was accurately expressing the Greek view of life. And when Socrates gave his enchanting prayer at the conclusion of the Phaedrus, “0 Pan, and all ye other Gods that haunt this place, give me beauty in the inward man, and may the outward and inward man be at one,” he was illustrating again that ethics follows beauty.

is exactly the way Bill and I used to talk about nature when we hiking high in the wilderness of the Cascades. It also sounds an awful lot like Emerson and Thoreau’s concept of the Oversoul, the Holy Spirit, as it were. There are too few moments in life when I have felt such harmony.

May foreshadows later chapters in his book by contrasting Beauty to Progress:

The timelessness of beauty saves us from worshipping at the shrine of progress, or kneeling at the altar to pray that tomorrow we will make more money than today, and the future will be better than the past, until we are caught up in a sordid merry-go-round that makes it impossible for us to appreciate the delicious calm of a moment of timelessness. The God who became Providence after the Renaissance, and then became Progress after the Industrial Revolution, is not the God of beauty. For beauty has nothing to do with progress. Who will be so rash as to proclaim that our present buildings are more beautiful than the Parthenon? Or our present churches more beautiful than Chartres? Or our present dishware more beautiful than the Greek vases? Or modern music better than Mozart and Bach? Beauty is beyond the confines of progress.

This seems like a provocative distinction to me, particularly in our Progress-oriented society. And, yet, it seems like the kind of choice that artists are generally forced to make. Few painters, much less poets, can earn enough to live on without working outside their chosen profession.

May also introduces Friedrich von Schiller into his discussion of beauty, noting that, “Many people, including myself, believe that the greatest and richest discourse on beauty in our Western culture was written by von Schiller, just before 1800.

Schiller’s central idea-and inspiration, as I would call it-is that beauty is born in play. When I first read this I thought it a frivolous idea; but I then recalled that we speak of Mozart and Beethoven playing the piano, the very opposite of superficiality. And we refer to Shakespeare’s plays; and I agreed that such “playing” describes the most profound and humanizing of all human activities.

Play is the one activity where the fusion of inner vision and objective facts is achieved. Out of this comes the living form which is beauty. This living form is vital, alive, dynamic; and at the same time it gives serenity and repose, as for example in music.

Play unites the inner world of our personal reverie with the outer world of people and nature. “The object of the play instinct, represented in a general statement, may therefore bear the name of living form,” asserts Schiller, “a term that serves to describe all aesthetic qualities of phenomena, and what people style, in the widest sense, beauty.” “A marble block, though it is and remains lifeless, can nevertheless become a living form by the architect and sculptor; a man, though he lives and has a form is far from being a living form on that account . . . . For this to be the case, it is necessary that his form should be life, and that his life should be a form. As long as we only think of his form, it is lifeless, a mere abstraction . . . . It is only when his form lives in our feelings, and his life in our understanding, that he is the living form, and this will everywhere be the case where we judge him to be beautiful.”

For me, the key phrase here is “fusion of inner vision with the outer world of people and nature.” It’s that nebulous quality that most attracts me to a poet, though I suspect that my inner vision, articulated or not, plays a large part in determining whether or not I find that in an artist.

The idea of an artist playing when he’s working also rings true. I’m not sure I consider myself an artist, but oftentimes my best photos are those where I try new ways of photographing a subject and, more importantly, play around with the photos in Photoshop, looking for better ways of conveying what I felt when I shot a subject.

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