Wednesday, August 17, 2016

On the Beautiful

I will be presenting a talk on concepts of the beautiful in Plato and in modern biology to an English class at Northern.  This post is a version of my talk. 
Plato presents all or almost all of his thought in a series of dialogues.  The central figure in each of these is either Socrates or someone who sounds just like Socrates.  Most of what we know about Socrates comes either from Plato or from another student named Xenophon, or from the playwright Aristophanes.  My discussion will present a concept of the beautiful that is based on the first two sources. 
Socrates was fond of “what is” questions: what is beauty, truth, justice, etc.?  In the Greater Hippias he raises the question: what is the beautiful?  The sophist Hippias first tries to answer the question the way most people would answer it, by naming beautiful things.  The beautiful is a beautiful girl, he offers.  I could offer Catherine Zeta Jones (in Zorro) and Brad Pit (in A River Runs Through It) as examples, though I am more confident of my answer in the first case.  By contrast, my fourth grade teacher Mrs. Fezer and Donald Trump stand as examples of the ugly. 
The problem with such an answer, according to Socrates, is that it doesn’t tell us what puts these items in the same category.  What does a beautiful man and a beautiful sunset have in common?  Consider the following by way of analogy. 
Red powder plus oil makes red paint.
That is a materialist explanation of the latter.  This stuff plus that stuff.  It answers the what is question so long as we are confident that we understand the materials.  
Heat plus iron equals red, hot, iron. 
For a long time science offered a materialist explanation: heat was a substance that can be transferred from one sponge to another, as when heat leaks out from a hot plate into the dinner table.  Today we understand heat to be molecular energy, which is a formalist explanation.  That’s more like what Socrates is looking for. 
A hemispherical shape plus a ceramic material makes a bowl. 
Here we have a perfect Socratic answer.  Fix a point, draw a circle around it and draw a line through the diameter.  Rotate the circle a full turn around the diameter, and you have a sphere.  Cut the sphere in half, and you have a hemisphere.  That, in geometrical precision, is what is added to the material to make a bowl.  So:
X plus a maiden makes a beauty.
Solve for X. 
Socrates’ answer is that the beautiful is the good.  This looks plausible.  The good plus a human body makes a beautiful person.  The good plus something edible makes a beautiful meal.  The good plus writing makes a beautiful book.  It raises, however, a number of difficult questions. 
Perhaps the least difficult is this: what is the good?  The answer is easy: the good is the choice worthy.  The good road is the one we choose over the bad road.  The good man is the one we choose as a friend and/or ally, etc.  This answer obviously doesn’t tell us what to choose, but it explains how we sort out the examples.  The beautiful maiden is the one he would choose if he were faced with a choice.  We still need to know why this maiden is more choice worthy than that one. 
A more difficult problem is distinguishing the beautiful from the good.  If they were exactly the same thing, why do we need two words?  A still more difficult problem is the fact that some things that seem to be beautiful are not good at all.  A cruise looks beautiful if you don’t know that the boat is going to sink.  To an addict, nothing is more beautiful than a lump of black tar heroin dissolving in a heated spoon. 
Socrates’ answer is that genuine beauty arises from the accurate perception of what is genuinely good and that the latter is good from all angles.  If something looks good before we choose it and then looks bad afterward, the former was not the perception of a genuine good.  I think of the demonic hag in horror movies.  He sees her as a beautiful maiden when she is in fact a withered beast who is going to eat his soul.  If you want a less colorful example, think of junk food or blood money.  Just ask Judas about the value of that thirty bucks just before he hangs himself. 
Socrates understood intelligence as the capacity to see things for what they really are.  The ability to appreciate the beautiful is the ability to appreciate what is genuinely good and will be seen to be so before and after a choice, even if the observer is not involved in the matter.  Someone who can make good choices for himself in each situation can usually recognize good and bad choices made by others. 
This fact, that intelligence can recognize good choices available only to others, is key to understanding that the beautiful is larger than the good.  The good for me is not the same as the good for someone else.  This is not so because the good is the selfish.  A father may choose to sacrifice himself to save his children or his spouse or his country.  The good for me is restricted to choices I can make.  I can and must choose how to vote in this next election.  I cannot choose to stand in defense of ancient Rome against barbarians but I can appreciate and enjoy the story of those who did so. 
The capacity for appreciating what is beautiful enlarges and enriches the human soul.  I can love the crews of American torpedo planes as they heroically and fatally charged Japanese carriers at the battle of Midway because I know that they attracted the Japanese fighters down and left the carriers defenseless against American bombers from above.  I can do so precisely because I wasn’t there.  I can admire Simone Biles as she went from one perfect routine to another, with a body full of power and grace, doing something I cannot chose to do. 
Beauty is the honey in the stories we tell.  When Jean Valjean steals a pair of candlesticks from his benefactor, Bishop Myriel, only to be brought back by policeman who are sure of his crime, the Bishop informs them that he gave these as a gift to Valjean.  By this gift, the Bishop buys back the soul of a wretched man.  This of course, is fiction.  It is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.  One of my best students, Miranda, noted that when I described this scene in a lecture my eyes filled with tears. 

The beautiful is rooted in the good, as Socrates supposed.  It flowers larger than the most basic good and becomes something good in itself.  


  1. I remember that lecture well.

    Two questions:
    If the good is what is worth choosing, then couldn't something immoral be good? For instance, New Gingrich chose to cheat on his cancer stricken wife with his mistress. This benefitted him in a number of ways. He gained a partner who he said understood him better and who was younger, more attractive and more energetic than his wife. He does not seem to have regretted his choice and, indeed, seems to have lived happily with his new partner ever since. His choice, then, seems relatively choice-worthy. But was it good?

    Regarding beauty: If beauty is good, what do we call the quality we usually refer to as beauty when it describes something bad? Deadly storms or poison dart frogs come to mind.

  2. Two good questions. I think I will respond in a new post.