The Moral Imperative of Beauty

Our aesthetic evaluations are moral imperatives. Beauty presents itself to us not just as an appearance, but as an appeal, and as an alluring proposal for how we might live, and indeed therefore ought to live. If we had no practical interest in beauty and its reproduction in and by our acts, it would be to us dead, flat, mute. It would be, precisely, uninteresting. We would not find it significant or important. Indeed, we would not even notice it.

And aesthetic evaluations cannot but be moral evaluations.

To find one thing more beautiful than another is to find it better; to find it uglier is to find it worse.

Our interest in the beautiful is our interest in discovering how we might be better.

Ugliness contrariwise presents itself as a caveat. It is repulsive. Disgust is the “ugh” in ugliness. It is an aesthetic evaluation of experience that motivates us to take action. We want to flee from it, and we ought to do so. To find a thing repulsive is to find that avoiding it is proper, morally appropriate – good.

Being eo ipso moral evaluations, aesthetic feelings are a guide to morals.

Beauty and ugliness then are moral imperatives. They tell us how we ought to live – not just we ourselves individually, but we together, communally. To feel that a scene or a tune is beautiful is to feel that it is just and proper for society to be so ordered as to reproduce its sort more often; to feel that it is ugly is to feel that society ought to be so ordered as to prevent it and its ilk.

It’s no good to retreat at this point of discomfort into the notion that our apprehension of beauty is merely subjective – that it is nowhere but in the eye of the beholder – and that it is therefore morally indifferent, imposing on us and our fellows no true obligation. That’s a cop out. Feelings of beauty and ugliness are to each of us inarguable facts. That others often feel differently about things does not affect how we feel about them, except insofar as we learn from them of aesthetic features we had overlooked. If we did not think our feelings of beauty were true, we would not find their objects truly beautiful. We would not then be able to recognize our feelings of beauty as such. That we do means that we find their objects truly good.

In practice, no one can gainsay his own moral and aesthetic apprehensions. We cannot feel that we do not feel what we do in fact feel.

The appeal to moral humility in the face of the epistemic limits inherent in subjectivity never works anyway. It devours itself: if we can’t know by our aesthetic evaluations that x is truly beautiful quite apart from our feelings about it, then we can’t know that we can’t know that x is truly beautiful.

Beauty and ugliness then are either objective features of things, or they are illusory altogether, the sorts of phantasms that we can see in retrospect were simply, totally mistaken.

They are not illusory.

People do differ in their tastes, of course. Some prefer Mozart, some Bach; some the Beatles, some the Beach Boys. Some prefer the grandeur of the desert, some the mystery of the forest. Some like Italian cuisine, others Thai. But these differences are not disagreements. To say that Mozart is good is not to say that Bach is not. They are beautiful in different ways, and they may be reconciled in a social milieu that makes room for both.

The remarkable thing about our apprehensions of beauty is not that they are different – given that reality is so various in her aspects, how could it be otherwise? – but that they are so similar. As with our languages, they share a common deep grammar. Symmetry, self-similarity, the Golden Rectangle, the Golden Mean, the Fibonacci sequence, recursion with variation, integrity, order, signification, clarity, spaciousness, Aristotle’s dramatic arc (in poetry, narrative, and music), fecundity, parsimony, harmony, and so forth: these in their many variations please us all. Dissonance, noise, conflict, tragedy, mess, confusion: these operate in healthy operations only as motivating their ultimate resolution, settlement, and healing in some state of proper and beautiful order.

Arrival in rest at such resolutions feels proper and good to us inasmuch as we are wholly participant in a world that feels and works the same way. Dissonance and disagreement among things drive them to agreement and consonance. Noise propagates more poorly than signal, in every medium; it damps itself. Agreement and consonance, on the other hand, are strange attractors: they allure, perdure, and propagate. Mount two mechanical clocks on a wall, set them to tick at slightly different times, and soon they will entrain each other to tick in synchrony.

The perfect fifth is more beautiful to everyone than any dissonance. Indeed, the perfect fifth is more attractive even to molecules in suspension than any dissonance. And the difference between dissonance and consonance may be formalized mathematically: it is an objective feature of reality derived from eternal forms, and participating therein.

Likewise a strong, manly man is more beautiful and attractive to everyone than an epicene man, for he agrees more completely with his male nature, and with the Form of manhood. Likewise again, and for the same reason, a competent, sagacious, canny Odyssean man is more attractive to everyone than a buffoon, a knave, or a fool. And these preferences are not merely conventional among us. On the contrary, they are conventional only because they are baked into reality: the strong, manly, competent, sagacious man is more likely to succeed in every way than the man deficient in the masculine virtues.

As objective features of reality, beauty and ugliness impose themselves upon us morally, not just as individuals but as societies. They guide us to what is good and away from what is evil, not just by motivating us but by obliging us. To reproduce ugliness is to do evil – to ourselves, to our fellows, and in the limit to the world. To reproduce beauty is to do good.

Insofar as a society generates ugliness, it cannot seem good to itself. Ugliness is a sign of disease, and of impending death. And just as elastic media naturally operate to frustrate the reproduction of noise and disorder of every sort, to delete it, and to tune what remains in a harmony everywhere homeostatically pursued by every part of the world, so will men seek to frustrate and destroy a sick society, and to delete it so as to make way for something healthier. Even their efforts at social reform will have the perverse effect of worsening its disorder.

Insofar likewise as a society anywhere generates beauty, men will favor and seek it, nourish and imitate it. Our duty as patriots, then, is clear: leave the dead to bury the dead, and in all things seek and serve and succor whatever is beautiful. Enact beauty.

28 thoughts on “The Moral Imperative of Beauty

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  3. Kristor, what are your opinions on our proper faculty for enjoying beauty? If the mind knows the truth, and the will desires the good, what is going on with pulcher? Id quod visum placet is a start, but it raises more questions than it answers. In particular, how does beauty relate to the other transcendentals? Thoughts?

    • This is by no means well thought out, but I shall essay an answer, so far as it has yet revealed itself to me. What I mean in so saying is that what follows is not something I’ve worked out, but that rather has come to me. I have not yet even tested it.

      It seems to me that the organ of beauty is the heart. I say this not to correct St. Thomas, but to generalize from his analysis of visual beauty, for the faculty of beauty cannot be only the organ of sight, as that would not cover musical beauty or formal beauty (of, e.g., math, theory, idea). There is in the experience of sublime beauty something akin to heartbreak, albeit pleasant. And beauty reconfigures, salves and glorifies the whole person from his most inward part, whence his very life springs. So, the heart.

      If we analyze a moment of becoming in Whiteheadian terms, there are three phases to it. In the first, an occasion of becoming prehends its past, grasps and feels it. The data reaped from this prehension form the grist for the intellect’s mill. The intellect goes to work on them, and arrives at a distillation and summary of what has been prehended, a synecdoche of the truths that its prehensions have grasped. To be is to know.

      In the last phase, the occasion proffers its vision of things, in the form of its own final character. As final, it is finally intended: it intends a final end. To be is to propose, and to urge that proposal. Such is the operation of the will. To be is to do.

      In the middle phase of this process is the heart. The mind knows the truth, and the will informed by the mind intends the good implicit therein. But the whole process is motivated by the heart, which at the central pivot of an occasion of becoming loves the truth that the mind has seen, and longs for it. Truth is a lure. The mind sees it; the heart is what is allured, and then either sated with enjoyment, or not. To be is to love.

      I’m not sure this answers your question about the faculty of beauty.

      As to the relations of the transcendentals: the Good is the Father, Truth is what the Son knows of his Father, and Beauty is what it is like to know the Truth of the Son about the Father. The Good, then – to complete the circumincession – is the recognition of the Goodness of that Beauty.

      So they all run together; such is perichoresis.

  4. People do differ in their tastes, of course. Some prefer Mozart, some Bach; some the Beatles, some the Beach Boys….They are beautiful in different ways, and they may be reconciled in a social milieu that makes room for both.

    That is an awfully liberal sentiment. Good thing you later go on to declare that there can only be one standard of male beauty, or we’d think you were going soft.

    Actually I largely agree with your post. But I’m not sure it helps. Roughly speaking everyone believes they are pursuing the good, the true, the beautiful. But if their ideas about those things differ, and they do, it produces conflict and/or liberal tolerance. Which is fine for me, but I thought you hated it.

    So the idea of beauty is not objective but is socially constructed and evolves over time. The beauty of The Beatles was not exactly recognized by cultural conservatives at the time. So, while I’m happy their tastes have evolved, it also implies that the stuff you find ugly and horrific today may be seen as beautiful in the future, even by people who share your underlying worldview.

    • Roughly speaking everyone believes they are pursuing the good, the true, the beautiful. But if their ideas about those things differ, and they do, it produces conflict and/or liberal tolerance. Which is fine for me, but I thought you hated it.

      Conflict is OK. It needn’t be messy or violent. Indeed, usually it is not, if it is allowed to proceed naturally and quickly to its resolution. No one was forced by the courts to close down their concert hall because they refused to book that long hair Beethoven or that hippie Berlioz.

      Tolerance enforced so as to prevent conflict fails doubly. It fails in the first place because if the disagreements are real, the conflict over them is inevitable; better then to get it over with sooner, than later. It fails in the second because the liberal obsession with tolerance is itself intolerant. It can succeed at quashing conflict only via a tyrannical conflict with all alternative notions.

      So the idea of beauty is not objective but is socially constructed and evolves over time.

      Traditions do not rule out evolution. On the contrary, they enable it, by constraining the search space so that there is a chance of reaching a satisfactory solution to the problem of search – so that, i.e., the criteria of a successful solution are specified. You can’t write a new sonata if there is no such thing as the form of the sonata out there. Nor can you elaborate the form of the sonata, and suggest a new sort of search, except from the platform provided by the old. Evolution is of an order, or it is not evolution in the first place, but rather chaos.

      That evolution does occur, and that it is mediated by society, does not mean that the limits in which alone it can occur are not objective. Death is right there patiently waiting to cull novel ideas that violate that order; wages of sin, not nice to fool with Mother Nature, and so forth.

      • There is a big difference between the idea that standards of beauty are objective, and “the limits in which they can occur” are objective. I don’t think I’d disagree with the latter. But the point about the Beatles is that we don’t know what those limits are, and conservative critics have been demonstrably wrong when they complain that something new and seemingly bizarre violates some objective standard of beauty that they claim to have access to.

      • A limit *is* a standard.

        I think that you are correct in saying that we don’t know certainly what the limits of beauty are. Not always, anyway. And ascertaining those limits is always a challenge for the creative imagination. So I think there is something in what you say about the conservative fogies having been wrong from time to time. They have a role to play in the artistic ecology, to be sure. They were and are right about Jackson Pollock and Serrano and all their ilk, whose work is just stupid. And they are right, too, about serialism and aleatory music, which while interesting and serious clearly transgress the outer limits set by human physiology. Schoenberg has no audience, nor does Cage. Barber, Rorem, and Britten do, and probably always will. But the conservatives were certainly wrong (in my opinion) about, e.g., Berlioz and Stravinsky.

        In the hurly burly of real life as lived, ascertaining what is good and beautiful is ever a chancy, murky project. Outside of the purely formal arts – math, logic, metaphysics, theology – beauty is an inexact science. Any art is risky.

        But this is just where tradents would point out that traditions provide quite a good indication, tested over generations, of where the limits lie, and, for that matter, where the vicinity of superb beauty. The scientific method is one such discipline. The traditional disciplines of the arts – now, alas, almost lost – furnished artists with ways to ascertain that in their work they were approximating to beauty. When an artistic patrimony is revered, and its masters understood as such, and mastery of its rules and techniques treated as the prerequisite basis and forecondition of professional work in the field, formal evolutions can proceed within the limits set by tradition, and indeed evolve those limits in sweet and orderly renovations – not as destroying them, but as ascertaining them more completely.

        There have been many, many eras of explosive innovation in the arts which provoked no outcry from the conservatives, but rather on the contrary cries of exaltation. The discoveries of perspective and polyphony come to mind. In the High Gothic, people would flock to the cathedrals to hear the Ars Antiqua, and would weep with astonished joy at the beauties the choir masters had mined from plainchant. Organum is not a rejection of plainchant. It is plainchant raised to a higher power, hair-raising, almost unbearably beautiful and majestic.

        Perspective and polyphony were florescences of the traditions that gave them birth, intensifications of what had come before rather than rejections. The same could be said for the Baroque, the Classical, and the Romantic in music. Beethoven was not repudiating his master Haydn: he was Haydn cubed. Brahms did not spit on Beethoven; he tried to be Beethoven squared. Even Berlioz was an intensification of Liszt.

        But since the Great War, the arts have concluded that at every moment, what has gone before is simply garbage. The culture of the arts since the October Revolution has explicitly repudiated the notion of beauty (this was a conscious project of the Communist International and the KGB, aimed at sapping the patrimony and morale of the West). So artists are no longer interested in determining whether what they are doing is any good. Indeed, they explicitly avow their hatred of the good, and of the beautiful. Their avowed intent is to smash and transgress all rules and standards of beauty. Artists who still pay attention to them (Copland, Wyeth) are treasured by hoi polloi both great and small, but execrated by the intelligentsia. Artists are no longer interested in ascertaining limits or standards, except to destroy them. Even ostensibly respectful modern performances of classics – Shakespeare, Purcell, Mozart – intend to sabotage the intentions of their authors, rather than honor them.

        Predictably enough, the output of modern artists is almost all shit. Much of it tries to be shitty. It will not last. Much of it is not even intended to last.

      • The Beatles were not that great.

        Good point. The Beatles were great in the sense that eating a bon-bon is great, and a lot of the Beatles is great only in the sense that sitting and eating only bon-bons all day is great. What they (or the serialists or minimalists of modern “serious” music) either do not begin to comprehend or only comprehended as much as a spoiled rotten child might comprehend it, that Brahms or Beethoven had as if grafted into their nature, was the idea of measured restraint, of the almost total lack of self-indulgence, of the essential idea in art of “this much, and absolutely no more,” or the beauty of which I am merely a servant will depart.

      • I tend to like modern art, but I don’t think liking it is obligatory. Either it speaks to you or it doesn’t. Part of understanding and accepting and appreciating it is realizing that artists in the modern era (particularly around the time of WWI, as you mention) had the choice of responding to the extraordinary level of industrialized brutality in the real world, or ignoring all that and taking on the job of creating artificial worlds of beauty. Both seem perfectly valid things to do, but the former had more cultural resonance and ended up getting more respect.

        IOW, if art become ugly, maybe let’s not blame the artists but the world they live in. They didn’t invent trench warfare and mustard gas and genocide, but maybe felt an obligation to respond to them.

        Funny you should mention Cage; I just went to a concert in honor of minimalist composer Terry Riley where he told a story about Cage’s influence on him. That influence was important and is going to be felt going forward, like it or not.

        The culture of the arts since the October Revolution has explicitly repudiated the notion of beauty (this was a conscious project of the Communist International and the KGB, aimed at sapping the patrimony and morale of the West).

        I think your history is confused, it was actually the CIA promoting modern art as a sign that America was a land of freedom in contrast to Soviet artistic conservatism. After an early period of experimentation after the revolution, Soviet art adopted an extremely conservative esthetic, and like the Nazis, considered nonrepresentational art degenerate, decadent, and dangerous.

      • That abstract expressionism was supported by the CIA does not mean it was not a project intended by the Left to destroy and replace the traditional culture of the West (a project that goes back to the very origin of the Left). A passage from the article you link:

        The US government now faced a dilemma. This philistinism, combined with Joseph McCarthy’s hysterical denunciations of all that was avant-garde or unorthodox, was deeply embarrassing. It discredited the idea that America was a sophisticated, culturally rich democracy. It also prevented the US government from consolidating the shift in cultural supremacy from Paris to New York since the 1930s. To resolve this dilemma, the CIA was brought in.

        The connection is not quite as odd as it might appear. At this time the new agency, staffed mainly by Yale and Harvard graduates, many of whom collected art and wrote novels in their spare time, was a haven of liberalism when compared with a political world dominated by McCarthy or with J Edgar Hoover’s FBI. If any official institution was in a position to celebrate the collection of Leninists, Trotskyites and heavy drinkers that made up the New York School, it was the CIA.

        From the orthospherean perspective, the CIA and the USSR are different heads of the same hydra – salients respectively of the Girondist and Montagnard factions of the Jacobin movement more generally.

        Nevertheless there is much in what you say about the ugliness of modern art arising from the ugliness of the modern era. I doubt that any orthospherean would object to the correlation. But that there might be such a correlation does not somehow make ugliness beautiful. Modernity is mostly ugly, that’s all. It is against that ugliness – aesthetic, moral, spiritual – that orthosphereans set their faces.

    • Plotinus clears up a lot of confusion about the necessity of the objectivity of the Beautiful and the necessity of spiritual transformation in order to experience it:

      And what does this inner sight see? When it is just awakened it is not at all able to look at the brilliance before it. So that the soul must be trained, first of all to look at beautiful ways of life: then at beautiful works, not those which the arts produce, but the works of men who have a name for goodness: then look at the souls of the people who produce the beautiful works. How then can you see the sort of beauty a good soul has? Go back into yourself and look; and if you do not yet see yourself beautiful, then, just as someone making a statue which has to be beautiful cuts away here and polishes there and makes one part smooth and clears another till he has given his statue a beautiful face, so you too must cut away excess and straighten the crooked and clear the dark and make it bright, and never stop, working on your statue, till the divine glory of virtue shines out on you, till you see, self-mastery enthroned upon its holy seat. If you have become this, and see it, and are at home with yourself in purity, with nothing hindering you from becoming in this way one, with no inward mixture of anything else, but wholly yourself, nothing but true light, not measured by dimensions, or bounded by shape into littleness, or expanded to size by unboundedness, but everywhere unmeasured, because greater than all measure and superior to all quantity; when you see that you have become this, then you have become sight; you can trust yourself then; you have already ascended and need no one to show you; concentrate your gaze and see. This alone is the eye that sees the great beauty. But if anyone comes to the sight blear-eyed with wickedness, and unpurified, or weak and by his cowardice unable to look at what is very bright, he sees nothing, even if someone shows him what is there and possible to see. For one must come to the sight with a seeing power made akin and like to what is seen. No eye ever saw the sun without becoming sun-like, nor can a soul see beauty without becoming beautiful. You must become first all godlike and all-beautiful if you intend to see God and beauty. First the soul will come in its ascent to intellect and there will know the Forms, all beautiful, and will affirm that these, the Ideas, are beauty; for all things are beautiful by these, by the products of intellect and essence. That which is beyond this we call the nature of the Good, which holds beauty as a screen before it. So in a loose and general way of speaking the Good is the primary beauty; but if one distinguishes the intelligibles [from the Good] one will say that the place of the Forms is the intelligible beauty, but the Good is That, which is beyond, the spring and origin of beauty; or one will place the Good and the primal beauty on the same level: in any case, however, beauty is in the intelligible world.

      – Ennead 1.6

    • Do you really believe in “liberal tolerance” in this day and age? In the long run is there ever really such thing as a “tolerant society”?

  5. Kristor, I understand how beatiful is good but does it imply morally good? For example, does perfect maleness necessarily involve being just?

    • I meant there can be a beauty that is good but not good in moral sense. Perfect maleness is not a good example, perhaps perfect “catness” is better because there is no moral component in being a beautiful and perfect cat.

      However, I realized you mean something like “man seeks beauty and avoids ugliness”. So there is a moral obligation to seek objective beauty as there is obligation to pursue good. Including proper feeding one’s cat in order to be as perfect a cat as possible.

  6. This seems to hold true universally, for instance in sexuality. The beauty of man and woman joined as one flesh and enjoying mutual love, fulfilling their roles as dictated by Tradition, is unassailable and only ever worsened by factors external to the union itself such as the poor upkeep of an individual within the union. All deviant sexualities are intrinsically ugly and while the masses may cheer for all of them at a level of base politic, they struggle to actually see beauty in what is being done because there is none, only rank ugliness and lust.

    Also notice how beauty tracks with Traditional forms and cultural undercurrents.

    Romania’s heads of state yesteryear –

    Romania’s heads of state today –

    You can actually see in Kali Yuga how the beauty in everything has been sucked out, cheapened, repackaged and sold back without a shred of glory or grace. This coheres entirely with our fall further and further from the Divine Realm as our societal compasses all point south to which we race at an ever more frantic peace away from the past forms, away from everything that was once good about this world.

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  8. I think aesthetic is essentially the closest thing a conservative atheist has to religion.

    If there is one thing I learned on LessWrong.com, it is that **there is no instrumental rationality without terminal goals**.

    The standard liberal terminal goal is basically maximal pleasure and minimal pain, essentially becoming a “lotus eater”.

    Religious people have different terminal goals. But what can a conservative atheist say to this one, other than that becoming a “lotus eater” is inherently repulsive, because it lacks the essential human values of striving, overcoming, sacrifice, heroism and so on?

    The clever liberal will dodge the problem by saying all these values were instrumental to max pleasure, min pain in the past, although not necessarily to that of your own, but more often that of other people. However they are not instrumental to that anymore.

    A wiser libertarian, older-liberal like Eric S. Raymond can say “lotus eater” societies are extremely vulnerable to systemic shocks from world wars to cataclysms, so a truly long term max-pleasure, min-pain view will value striving, overcoming, sacrifice and heroism as a way of hedging bets for the inevitable shocks.

    All right and true. But beyond all this, they are simply beautiful. I have a vague conviction, not sure why, that you have to keep your terminal values simple. Follow-the-inherently-beautiful-and-aweinspiring is a simple enough terminal value.

    But still there is a problem I must struggle with. Different cultures evaluate beauty differently. This is not an inherent problem. Different cultures have also different ideas about why there is a tide in the ocean or what are stars made of, most of them are completely wrong, while the culture(s) that developed science have the correct answer. It is entirely possible for one or a few cultures to be correct about beauty as well and most of them being wrong. This is a “horribly insensitive” thing to say but we must at the very least keep the possibility open that truth and falsehood can exist in everything, MAYBE beauty is just culturally relative and has no truth or falsehood, right or wrong, but that is a low probability hypothesis which should be accepted only after provided with very serious proof, and not as a generally “sensitive” common opinion.

    But wouldn’t that make beauty instrumental and not terminal again? Isn’t a piece of artwork supposed to DO something, most likely in people’s minds, and if it fails at that, it is objectively bad? Back to instrumentality again?

    • >I think aesthetic is essentially the closest thing a conservative atheist has to religion.

      Oh, I wanted to mention D’Annunzio here. If you have the time, read this: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Constitution_of_Fiume

      No, D’Annunzio wasn’t a fascist. Some of his ideas were imitated by them, and that is a different thing. (He was actually very much into liberal rights, like freedom of conscience and speech or every profession open for women.) Yet D’Annunzio was the essential conservative atheist believing in aesthethics:

      “54. Schools, well lighted and ventilated, must not have on their walls any emblems of religion or of political parties.The public schools welcome the followers of every religious profession, the believers in every creed and those, too, who are able to live without an altar and without a God. Liberty of conscience receives entire respect. Each one may offer up his silent prayers.
      But there will be inscribed on the walls inspiring words that, like an heroic symphony, will never lose their power to raise and animate the soul. And there will be representations of those masterpieces of the painter’s art which interpret most nobly the endless longings and aspirations of mankind.”

      I would say, I am with this guy, this really resonates well with me… not sure even “conservative atheist” is a proper term here though. I don’t really know what label or category fits best. I would associate a certain sense of ascension to it, though.

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