What is beauty?

A review of Beauty by Roger Scruton and The Sense of Beauty by George Santayana

It may be the most important question for a philosopher to concern himself with–more important, perhaps, than questions about politics, or epistemology, or proofs of the existence of God–is beauty. What is beauty? How is it known? And how, given the answers to these questions, may it be evaluated? I recently acquired two books on this subject: Beauty by philosopher and critic Roger Scruton (1944- ), and The Sense of Beauty by the early 20th century philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952). Both writers are consummate prose stylists who display as well as discuss a fine aesthetic sensibility in these little volumes.

Cover image for Roger Scruton's "Beauty"
Roger Scruton, Beauty

Aesthetics is the study of beauty as it is perceived by the senses. Sense experience varies from person to person, and the varying opportunities and means of experiencing beauty suggest to us that not every person will percieve beauty equally or in the same way. Nevertheless, we are all drawn to beauty in some way, and generally agree that it is something worthwhile. Scruton suggests that there are general statements about beauty he calls “platitudes” which can be generally accepted:

(i) Beauty pleases us.
(ii) One thing can be more beautiful than another.
(iii) Beauty is always a reason for attending to the thing that possesses it.
(iv) Beauty is the subject-matter of . . . the judgment of taste.
(v) The judgment of taste is about the beautiful object, not about the subject’s state of mind. In describing an object as beautiful, I am describing it, not me.
(vi) Nevertheless, there are no second-hand judgments of beauty. (Scruton 6)

Aesthetics according to Santayana must likewise be concerned with the individual experience of beauty, even as the beautiful thing which is the object of aesthetic contemplation must never be confused with the activity of contemplating it.

Criticism implies judgment, and aesthetics perception. To get the common ground, that of perceptions which are critical, or judgments which are perceptions, we must widen our notion of deliberate criticism so as to include those judgments of value which are instinctive and immediate . . . and at the same time we must narrow our notion of aesthetics so as to exclude all perceptions which are not appreciations, which do not find a value in their objects. (Santayana 12)

Cover image for George Santayana's "The Sense of Beauty"
George Santayana, The Sense of Beauty

Santayana and Scruton’s aesthetic philosophies share common concerns and to some extent a common approach. Both recognize that the appreciation of beauty is not a rational activity, at least not in the first place. “The rational part is by its essence relative;” Santayana writes, “it leads us from data to conclusions, or from parts to wholes; it never furnishes the data with which it works” (Santayana 14). Since aesthetic judgments are made upon particular and external objects, it also follows that a judgment cannot be made based on the purely intellectual understanding of an aesthetic ideal. Both Santayana and Scruton decline for this reason to begin with an aesthetic philosophy founded upon the presumed existence of universal archetypal ideals, i.e. Platonism. Santayana first exalts the attractive qualities and sublimity of the Platonic ideas as expressions of “aesthetic experience,” but he separates the knowledge of aesthetic theory at least temporarily from the sphere of that experience. In doing so he suggests an outline of the course of aesthetic theory: “…how an ideal is formed in the mind, how a given object is compared with it, what is the common element in all beautiful things, and what the substance of the absolute ideal in which all ideals seem to be lost; and, finally, how we come to be sensitive to beauty at all, or to value it.” In seeking answers for these questions, Santayana hopes to return, in the end, to “justify” Platonism “by showing that it is the natural and sometimes the supreme expression of the common principles of our nature” (Santayana 9, 10). Similarly, Scruton recognizes the abiding appeal of the idea that beauty is something worth pursuing for its own sake in the same way that truth and goodness are inherently worth seeking, but questions whether it is accurate, with examples of how the pursuit of beauty at times appears to be opposed to the life of virtue or even to the life of contemplation. “The prose of Flaubert, the imagery of Baudelaire, the harmonies of Wagner, the sensuous forms of Canova have all been accused of immorality, by those who believe that they paint wickedness in aluring colours” (Scruton 3). In the end, Scruton declares that the appeal of beauty is not, as Plato supposed, akin to an erotic pursuit. Rather, to understand beauty is to stand philosophically outside of it in an attitude of contemplation. “Beauty comes from setting human life, sex included, at the distance from which it can be viewed without disgust or prurience. When distance is lost, and imagination is swallowed up in fantasy, then beauty may remain–but it is a spoiled beauty, one that has been prised free from the individuality of the person who possesses it” (Scruton 165).

Both Scruton and Santayana discuss religion from the viewpoint of aesthetics. Santayana, though agnostic toward the factual claims of religions, nevertheless identifies traditional religious ideas and especially persons, such as the Virgin Mary, with deep aesthetic meaning. For him, religious ideas are more valuable inasmuch as they have been evolved and perfected over time into beautiful images of man’s highest aspirations and most sublime feelings. Conversely, attempts by philosophers to traverse by reason alone the path to God vex Santayana; he believes these efforts do violence to the idea of God and the sacred that traditional religion has perfected over time.

That is the reason why the reconstructed logical gods of the metaphysicians are always an offense and a mockery to the religious consciousness. There is here, too, a bare possibility that some one of these absolutes may be a representation of the truth; but the method by which this representation is acquired is violent and artificial; while the traditional conception of God is the spontaneous embodiment of passionate contemplation and long experience. (Santayana 116)

The most striking difference between the aesthetics of Santayana and that of Scruton becomes evident in this consideration of aesthetics in religion. Santayana, more sympathetic to Platonic thought, deals mainly in abstracts and ideas–sublime, beautiful ideas. Scruton discusses practically every aesthetic question with reference to particular objects which are examples of beauty and taste or their opposites. This stylistic difference between the two philosophers illuminates the divergent character of their conceptions of beauty. Scruton, ultimately, finds beauty in persons and things; Santayana finds it in ideals. For Santayana, man develops an aesthetic ideal of God or the Virgin Mary; for Scruton, man encounters them through sacred nouns; places, persons, things, and artistic representations, and indeed, his book is replete with examples so that the reader may taste the experience of aesthetic appreciation and judgment under Scruton’s tutelage. For this reason Scruton also spends much more time on the subject of artistic taste, explaining the difference between good art and “kitsch,” and the crucial distinction between respectful portrayals of the human body and pornography, which Scruton calls “desecration.”

To understand why, let us return to one of Santayana’s introductory comments on the use or misuse of theory. “If when a theory is bad it narrows our capacity for observation and makes all appreciation vicarious and formal, when it is good it reacts favorably upon our powers, guides the attention to what is really capable of affording entertainment, and increases, by force of new analogies, the range of our interests” (Santayana 6). Scruton abominates pornography because it desecrates the human being, “narrowing our capacity,” in Santayana’s words, to truly know and thus, truly love the person. Artistic beauty expands the soul of the person who contemplates it; pornography contracts and destroys the faculty of contemplation in debased lust, which is as alien to true eros as prostitution is to marriage.

The lover of beauty and of good writing can scarcely do better than to read Santayana and Scruton, adding their insights to his own understanding and doubtless expanding his perceptions of the great and varied charms of the world we live in.

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THOMAS HOLGRAVE is a conservative but not necessarily a hipster. He is the publisher of The Hipster Conservative. He has never read a comic book he liked. He is an occasional theologian who has been known to become quite exercised over questions of Puritan doctrine and practice. Not much else is known about him.

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