Beauty is making a comeback in science and theology. Will it find its place in the lives of believers?
| posted 8/08/2007
First, beauty displaces the observer from the center of things, even from the center of his own life. One can, of course, merely ingest beauty as a pleasant commodity, chewing on it selfishly. But Scarry maintains that when we encounter beauty, we tend to welcome beauty and give way to it. Thus in consenting to beauty's commanding presence—its "glory," we might say—we displace our self-centeredness. Such a willingness to "step aside" for beauty can displace our egos. It can also dispose us next to displace our egos for others—including the needy.
Second, beauty prompts us both to retain it and to propagate it. We want to remember a beautiful sky, so we paint it. We want to retain the image of a beautiful face, so we photograph it. We want to treasure a beautiful moment, so we write a poem about it. Beauty calls us to extend it, to be generous, to spread the wealth. Again, we might simply propagate beauty for our own satisfaction. But the impulse to multiply beauty instead can prompt us to share it with others.
Third, beauty awakens us to pay attention to things and people we tend to ignore. A spectacular waterfall gives us fresh appreciation of even tiny movements of water on a windowpane or on a drinking glass. Likewise, this quality of "distribution" can prompt us to do justice, as the dramatically beautiful reminds us to pay attention to things less obviously beautiful but still worthy of care. Yes, to admire the beauty of a particularly lovely face might cause us to despise all others. Then again, sustained attention to beauty can educate and sensitize our eyes to note the gracefulness of another person's smile, the curve of her neck, the sparkle in his eyes, in ways we had not appreciated before. This person is a human being we notice, and not just an object to be manipulated or an obstacle to be avoided.
Finally, beauty demonstrates symmetry, fitness, proportion, and other harmonies that have clear connections, and not mere analogies, to justice. Thus, we use the same word—"fair"—to describe someone who is comely and someone who is just. Indeed, Scarry says that beauty calls for justice as a twin seeking its counterpart.
One might wonder if Scarry is a starry-eyed romantic. Many who have a keen aesthetic sense show little moral sense. Doesn't she know about the scandalous lives of artists, from Liszt to Picasso? Has she not seen Amadeus or Pollock?
Scarry knows that beauty does not always lead to justice and that we often manipulate beauty for our own ends—in cynical advertising, pornography, disguise, and so on. She also notes that some scientific theories are so elegant that one can hold onto them too long in the face of conflicting evidence. The idea that the orbits of the planets are all perfect circles, rather than wildly varying ellipses, is a case in point.