On Beauty

Why do we call something beautiful? Why do we say Florence is a beautiful city? Or why is a person said to be beautiful? What is it that we mean when we say something is beautiful?

In an October 2, 2006 New Yorker article on String Theory Jim Holt writes:

“The gold standard for beauty in physics is Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity. What makes it beautiful? First there is its simplicity…Then there is its surprise: who could have imagined that this whole theory would flow from the natural assumption that all frames of reference are equal...? Finally, there is its aura of inevitability. Nothing about it can be modified without destroying its local structure. The physicist Steven Weinberg has compared it to Raphael’s Holy Family, in which every figure on the canvas is perfectly placed and there is nothing you would have wanted the artist to do differently.”

I like that: Simplicity. Surprise. Inevitability, although I like that less than the first two.

Later Holt writes:

“In the post-modern era, we are told, aesthetics must take over where experiment leaves off. Since string theory does not deign to be tested directly, its beauty must be the warrant of its truth."

And later:

“The idea that beauty is truth, truth beauty may be a beautiful one, but is there any reason to think it is true? Truth, after all, is a relationship between a theory and the world, whereas beauty is a relationship between a theory and the mind. Perhaps, some have conjectured, a kind of cultural Darwinism has drilled it into us to take aesthetic pleasure in theories that are more likely to be true.”

But that can’t explain the enormous variability of what individuals regard as beautiful. One person’s beauty is another person’s ugly.

David Hume wrote:

“Beauty is not a quality in things themselves. It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty.”

Hume has got it just right, as usual.

And in The Maytrees Annie Dillard writes:

“In her last years Lou puzzled over beauty…She never knew what to make of it. Certainly nothing in Darwin, in chemical evolution, in optics or psychology or even cognitive anthropology gave it a show. Having limited philosophy’s objects to certainties…”

And so I continue to ponder the meaning of beauty. How about you? Have you given much thought to the concept? What does it mean to you?

I do know this: that I am grateful for the beauty that surrounds me. I was reminded of how grateful I am by Theodore Dalrymple’s sentiment

“…gratitude for the beauty of the things that sustain us.”