The famous column overlooking the town of Astoria, Oregon has had a long and chequered history. Immense human capital has been expended on the construction of this tourist attraction on the Northwest coast of the US. Given the expense and time needed to restore it to its original appearance, one could be forgiven for asking, what was the point?
The Column—like many pieces of art—was inspired by the intrinsic human motivation to make the world more beautiful. As Roger Scruton puts it, beauty “is a real and universal value, one anchored in our rational nature, and the sense of beauty has an indispensable part to play in shaping the world.” We need unifying ideals to counterbalance our ongoing political polarization, and beauty may be one good place to start.
Beauty is the pleasurable experience of contemplating an object or subject that reveals an underlying truth. If John Keats’ poetic claim “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’” is to be believed, such experiences can help us construct the world in ways that facilitate human flourishing.
Beauty, then, is more than just an esoteric or subjective phenomenon. It has pragmatic value for how buildings are constructed, art is made and humans interact with one another. This does not require guidelines so rigid that beauty becomes a new puritanism, but we must accept that some things are beautiful and others less so. Like philosophy, as Sam Harris portrays it, beauty is a vast spectrum with many peaks and valleys. Some of these may be taller or deeper, but beauty is always a tangible experience that humans strive to have.
Defined in this manner, the rules governing beauty are loose enough that a person without expertise can nevertheless produce something beautiful and supposed experts need not analyse every example of beauty in order to understand and convey its core features. This is also true of the rules governing things that are aesthetically pleasing or stylish: two characteristics often encompassed by the idea of beauty.
The desire for beauty is an intrinsic human motivation. Babies prefer more attractive faces before they can even speak; people who have been blind from birth seem to prefer the feel of certain body types; and symmetrical structures not only look more pleasing but provide better structural support for monuments and buildings. As Denis Dutton writes, most beautiful art is well received outside its home country and culture. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but clearly something guides humanity towards the true and the beautiful.
Far from being only the possession of the privileged, beauty is essential to improving everyone’s lives. Symmetry comes into play every day for the carpenter tasked with completing the home that will hopefully stand for many decades and house several different families. Not only is the structural integrity of her craft incumbent on this concept, but her personal integrity and reputation. The mundane measurement of each length of lumber, the careful sanding of edges and the frustrating hours hanging drywall culminate to create something greater than the sum of its parts. Enough of these buildings will produce a neighborhood filled with different architectural expressions built atop similar looking constructions. Everyday beauty is universal and yet promotes individuality.
When we uphold cultural standards of beauty, it improves relationships and increases mutual trust and responsibility. We dress better for those we want to impress and present ourselves in particularly alluring ways if the intended audience includes potential mates. Mutual trust tends to increase when people attempt to adhere to rules of personal adornment (while leaving room for individual variation). We want medical professionals to wear white coats or scrubs: the costume of caring. People seem more trustworthy when they have taken that first step in caring for themselves. A well-groomed appearance and a pleasant living space implies that you are driven to make yourself and the world a little more beautiful. As John-Mark L. Miravalle notes, beauty both motivates and requires virtue.
The films, artwork and music we collect allow us to pass the sacred and beautiful on to future generations. We still listen to Mozart, but have forgotten the works of Salieri. Buildings are often filled with landscape paintings whose country vistas contrast with the cold interiors of office spaces and perhaps this stems from what E. O. Wilson calls biophilia—the love of seeing things that convey life and connect us to nature. This may also partly explain the ongoing appeal of environmental movements motivated by the need to protect what is inherently beautiful for the next generation.
Beauty surrounds us because we humans have a tendency to make the world more pleasing for ourselves and others. We often wish to look beautiful and act beautifully for selfish reasons (because we seek reputation or mating opportunities), but beauty also creates collective benefits.
The pursuit of beauty should not be confused with the pursuit of perfection. Beauty has a broad appeal, while ideals of perfection are often quite narrow and destructive—particularly when implemented at the societal level. Maoist China predicated its Great Leap Forward on the misguided notion that central planning could perfect agriculture and manufacturing. The results were catastrophic. The Nazi regime, guided by the idea of a master race, was also based on a destructive ideal of perfection. When leaders are guided by such ideals, all those who question them are viewed as ugly by comparison. In other words, perfection devalues beauty.
While the pursuit of perfection can motivate destructive behaviors, the pursuit of beauty inspires individuals to better themselves and society. As Jordan Peterson has argued, beauty “is a vision of the potential future” and “the proper dwelling place for an enlightened consciousness, and we ignore it at our spiritual and economic peril.” It is no accident that the most popular vacation and pilgrimage destinations include many national parks, as well as the beautiful cities of Rome and Paris. The former allow us to revel in our biophilia, and the latter to marvel at collective human endeavors to produce beauty. The appreciation of our own luck at living amid so much beauty, coupled with the awe we experience at the beautiful accomplishments of others can inspire us to pursue our goals and do good in the world. As meditation teacher Sarah Monk puts it:
What really moves me when I observe something beautiful, especially in nature or in the selfless behaviour of others, is how this experience makes me feel simultaneously small and insignificant but also connected and part of a bigger whole … I get a glimpse of what the universe might be about, my part in it and the potential for good in our world.
Beauty motivates us to improve our surroundings, and allows us to avoid the destructive ideologies of perfection while simultaneously escaping the doldrums of mediocrity.
If beauty contributes to our well-being in this way, then we should be concerned about those who vilify and combat the idea of beauty. It is difficult to recall a time when so many people on both ends of the political spectrum have been committed to visions of ugliness and the rejection of shared truths. Qanon devotees depict certain political leaders as cannibal pedophiles; the woke left believe that western society is so systemically racist that it must be remade; and some radical Trump supporters believed so fervently that the recent US presidential election was stolen that they marched on the Capitol en masse.
What all these groups have in common is their rejection of beauty and their belief in the overwhelming prevalence of ugliness. Whether it takes the form of conspiracy theories about the foulest acts of depravity or the ability to see bigotry where it cannot reasonably exist, many are conjuring up ugliness out of thin air and destroying beauty either by accident or on purpose. In a world where ideologues increasingly portray their adversaries as ugly, it is increasingly difficult to speak of beauty.
And what a shame that is. Beauty is much more inclusive than the applied postmodernist left and conspiratorial right claim. Beauty is an idea and a goal, not a political ideology. Since it is universally desired, the celebration of beauty could be unifying and could help us reject the ugly hyperbole of radicalism.
Beauty is real and we should not be afraid to say so. The Astoria Column is a small beacon of beauty—whether masked by the morning mist, hidden by heavy rainfall or draped in holiday lights. The pursuit of beauty may seem trivial or naive, but any society that does not value beauty will quickly become overwhelmed by the encroaching ugliness. As Scruton writes, “Without the conscious pursuit of beauty we risk falling into a world of addictive pleasures and routine desecration, a world in which the worthwhileness of human life is no longer clearly perceivable.”