The Power of Beauty

by Mike Gustafson

In the book, Six Names of Beauty, Crispin Sartwell explores six conceptions of beauty derived from six different cultures. He does not attempt to prove that one of those conceptions is correct. He does not try to identify a common theme to serve as the basis of beauty. He does not even evaluate the costs and benefits of each of the conceptions. In fact, he doesn’t attempt conclusions at all. The striking aspect of Sartwell’s book is that he makes no attempt to actually understand beauty. The irony of Sartwell’s position is that it is the concept of beauty which motivates man towards understanding. Because Sartwell does not attempt to understand beauty, he misses out on its role in man’s life as the source of spiritual fuel.

In order to understand the role of beauty in man’s life, one must first understand the role of ideas in general. Man needs ideas because his life depends on his ability to discover the requirements of life and to act to achieve them. They are a tool of survival; and as such, they must be taken seriously. To take ideas seriously means to not accept ideas divorced from facts or facts divorced from ideas—and, it means to not accept ideas divorced from action or action divorced from ideas. To put the point positively, to take ideas seriously is a commitment to tie ideas to facts and then live by them. Crispin Sartwell does not take ideas seriously. He is content with vague approximations of ideas. He openly admits that his idea of beauty is “cursory”, “general”, “open-ended”, and lacking definition.[1] His ‘stream of consciousness’ style indicates his disinterest in clarity and precision. He admits, too, that he had trouble “saying what he wanted to say;” which is a common symptom of writers who draw ideas from emotions rather than from facts.[2] There is a reason why Sartwell does not take ideas seriously—he does not think that man is capable of fully understanding the world.

The basic relationship between man and the world is the province of metaphysics. The basic metaphysical alternative is: either, (1) nature is ordered and man is powerful, or, (2) nature is chaotic and man is weak. Each man’s stance on this issue colors every aspect of his life and sets the stage for his entire philosophy. Most men, with rare exception, do not hold their metaphysical stance consciously; instead, it is summed up automatically by his subconscious. Each man has a basic emotional state—or, sense of life—which underlies ever moment of his life and sets tone of his experiences. A sense of life is a subconscious equivalent of metaphysics, i.e., it is a basic estimation of man’s relationship to the world—but it takes the form of subconscious emotions rather than conscious ideas. Sartwell has a desperate sense of life. He is a man searching for answers while believing that no answers are possible. His negative view of life displays throughout the book: at one point, he writes that a “fundamental condition” of the world is that it is like a “fire” which “consumes” everything we have including ourselves. Sartwell believes that nature is chaotic and man is weak. He writes, “…people are ill and the world, putting it mildly, is impure.” A man who is so open about his cynicism is surely desperate for relief from it. Ironically, the best cure for despair is a proper recognition of beauty.

The source of beauty is man’s need of order. To prove this, I must first recap a few points. In order to live, man needs to take ideas seriously. The most fundamental ideas are metaphysical, i.e., they concern man’s basic relationship to the world. Metaphysical ideas must be taken very seriously because they are the foundation of one’s approach to life. If a man holds that the world is ordered and he is powerful, then he will stop at nothing to make his life the best life it can be. On the other hand, if a man holds that the world is chaotic and he is weak, then he will lack the motivation to advance his life. The purpose of beauty is to show man that the world is ordered; which means, to show him that he is capable of dealing with it. Beauty proves to man that order is possible. Before a man can attempt to take control over his own life and pursue happiness, he must know that such control is possible. It is for this reason that beautiful art or beautiful scientific discoveries are closely associated with periods of flourishing. The Iliad showed the Greeks that a heroic life on earth is possible; the David showed the Renaissance that man is strong and good; and Newton’s laws showed the Enlightenment that objective order is possible. Because man’s need of order is the source of beauty, order is also the standard by which man judges which objects, people, or actions are beautiful.

Order, though, is a metaphysical term—in esthetics, order is called harmony. Harmony is the state of perfect order. In a harmonious object, all of the attributes are integrated. In a harmonious novel the plot, characterization, style, and theme are perfectly integrated. In a harmonious man, his thoughts, actions, emotions and habits are perfectly integrated. In a harmonious equation, the facts from which it is derived are perfectly integrated into a relationship between variables. Instances of full integration are powerful. They provide man with proof that he is capable of creating unity out of diversity—or, in other words, that he is capable of creating order out of chaos. The more complex and various the parts of a beautiful object are, the more powerful the creator had to be in order to create order, and the more beautiful the object is. A beautiful object is harmonious, a harmonious object is ordered, and ordered objects provide the necessary fuel for a spirit which thrives by creating order. This argument is not arbitrary; it is derived from facts; specifically, the needs of man’s survival.

Esthetic values—like all other values—are objective, i.e., they are based on certain facts of man’s life on earth. In order to live, man must evaluate the world around him. He must know what is good for him and what is bad. If not, he abdicates control of his life to chance. However, man is a volitional being; as such, he can choose to evaluate the bad as the good or the good as the bad—or, he can choose to not evaluate at all. Sartwell’s attempt to find beauty in everything is equivalent to choosing not to evaluate at all. This is because evaluation consists of selecting some objects as possessing a certain quality that other objects do not possess. If all objects are deemed to have a certain quality, the no evaluation is possible. (It is a useful psychological trick to conclude that everything is valuable as opposed to admitting that you do not want to evaluate (!))

While men are free to find beauty in disharmony; they are not free to benefit from it. This is analogous to saying: while men are free to evaluate a wrong action as right; they are not free to benefit from it. No matter how much I think that drinking excessively, and lethargy, and gluttony, and excessive spending are good for me—those actions are not good for me. No matter how much I think that a Pollock painting is beautiful—it cannot provide the same spiritual fuel, i.e., motivation towards ordering one’s life, which harmonious objects do. Sartwell’s attempt to find beauty everywhere undercuts his ability to recognize it where it really exists. As a result, he lacks the spiritual fuel that it provides; and, as a result of that, he has lost the drive to understand the world, to create order out of chaos, and to look for answers.

Beauty holds an ordered universe up to man as a beacon for all those who haven’t lost the best within them. This is why the idea of beauty is important to understand, because man needs to be motivated towards order in order to flourish; he needs spiritual fuel to keep up the good fight, to pursue happiness, to seek harmony, and to not give up.

Lastly, in order to really grab hold of the importance of beauty, imagine this scene: you’re a twelve year old in a communist country. Your dad’s business has been taken over by the government. Your friends are all leaving. You best friend vanished one night without notice. You live in a hut made of wood with ten other people. You eat the same rotten meal day after day and your only joys are your precious books. And then, one day, in a book, you find a picture—it is a picture of the skyline of New York City with the Statue of Liberty in the foreground. To you, her torch is calling out, “Come here and be free! Look here! This is possible!” Think about the contrast between the two worlds. Think about how you’ve never known any world besides your own; then think about how you’ll never have to know that world again. That is the power of beauty.[3]

[1] CRISPIN, SARTWELL. (2007-03-20). Six Names of Beauty . T & F Books US. Kindle Edition. (Forword).

[2] Ibid.

[3] The outline of this story was from Ayn Rand.


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