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.