Beauty is Salutary, Ugliness Noxious

My wife and I are enjoying a short vacation with my in-laws in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It is a lovely place, rendered sublime along the western edge of the valley by the unearthly majesty of the Grand Tetons. The Tetons seem to the eye of this experienced outdoorsman one of those sublime landscapes in which natural beauty is so intense as to verge on numinous sanctity (other such places I have sojourned: Grand Canyon, Yosemite Valley, the Snæfellsjökull Peninsula in Iceland). Such places command awe, and foster an inward hush.

Driving along the other day to the vantage point where I took the photo above, and surrounded on all sides by staggering beauty – not just of the Tetons, but of all that country from which they rise, which is almost completely unmarred by the works of man – I became conscious suddenly that I felt good. I felt not just happy, but healthy. To my wife and sister in law I said, “You know, it seems to me that being immersed in such beauty on every hand heals us. It is good for us. It is good, not just for our morale, not just because a vacation is a break from the routine drudgery, and all that. It is all that, to be sure. But I think that it is good for our bodies. It is a physiological relief from the stress we all suffer because of the ugliness prevalent in human settlements, especially the newest bits of them.”

They both agreed.

Thinking about the thing in these terms, it seemed clear to me that the constant stress of ugliness, discord, violence, noise, conflict, and absurdity we all suffer as we navigate the urban hells of modern Western civilization – and the even wilder and more vicious hells of their subsidiary virtual realms – cannot but take a grievous toll upon our endocrine system, and so upon our whole being. Ugliness of all sorts is inherently problematic. It is a sign that something is wrong with us or with our world, and that we ought to act somehow to correct the problem. So ugliness puts us on alert. It amps up our anxiety, our adrenal output, and our blood pressure and heart rate. But because there is almost nothing we can do to ameliorate the prevalent ugliness of modern life, we are left in a more or less constant state of low grade anxiety, and cannot effectively relax.

Relief from that stress of ugliness ubiquitous in modern civilization then is one reason we seek out the woods, the mountains, the sea, and the great cathedrals and charming older precincts of European settlements. It is the reason we resort to immersive experiences of intense beauty such as the opera, the symphony, and the great musea.

What is it about beautiful landscapes – or buildings, faces, bodies (of living organisms, especially), skyscapes, stones, flowing water, music, art – that makes us feel better? I suppose it is that they innocently express the forms proper to their natures. Mountains are not the least bit vicious. They cannot err. They are, then, totally and completely virtuous: they express with perfect fidelity the forms that specify their proper natures. So the beauty of the formal realm, in which all is both complete and consistent, and in which perfect order, coordination, harmony and integrity prevail without jot of defect, is in such landscapes made to us concretely manifest. That same manifestation happens also with the other beautiful things we love.

The beautiful is that which is virtuous; is that, i.e., which is faithful and true to its proper formal nature under Providence, and which therefore shines forth and resonates in our dark sublunary coil the ravishing music of the spheres, the love that moves the stars.

There is more. Sure, beauty allows us some surcease from stress. But as like calls to like, so too it evokes such beauty as still remains in us, harried, beset, buried and diminished, but still till death a guttering flame. It kindles our deep steeped embers so that they blossom and flower for a time. Beauty resonates with beauty; so our awakened selves then in their own revived natural beauty invoke and pray our better angels, who may then come and enter in, blessing us all the more. Then may we ourselves more perfectly fill our original evangelical mission to the created order.

15 thoughts on “Beauty is Salutary, Ugliness Noxious

  1. It seems to me that Beauty is Goodness concretely perceptible, and Goodness is like unto the primal fuel without which we perish.

    Or something like that. Goodness is so basic that it cannot be explained. It is right next door to God.

    • Yes. Or something, indeed. As one approaches the summit, everything comes together in the One, and it becomes difficult – and in the end, rather pointless – to pick out their relations and differences.

      Beauty is the aesthetic character of the Good; or, Beauty is what it is like to feel the Good, and so to be an image and participation thereof. In the terms of the post, Beauty is what it is like to be virtuous – which is to apprehend and again instantiate in oneself and one’s own acts that Good. Goodness is beautiful because it is faithful and true to what is True, to Reality qua Ultimate Truth, in just the way that Truth is proposed to a given particular occasion of being as the truth of its own nature.

      Beauty, Truth and Goodness are all aspects of the concrete manifestation of what Richard, with Berdyaev, calls the Ungrund, and that Dionysius calls the Suprapersonal Godhead.

      • I am not even sure I see the difference between the three.

        What is also interesting are the implications inside the urban hells. Not understanding the lack, we idolize personalities, create fakes or dig deeper into the perversion, because the current one is not enough and so we hope that the next level will bring fulfillment.

      • One way to think of it is to recall that Beauty is the aesthetic character of the One, Goodness is his moral character, and Truth is his logical character. For creatures, Beauty is the aesthetic character of their moral character, which is an index and artifact of the fidelity of their logical character to their nature – and, by implicit extension, to the logical character of Reality (which at bottom is the Truth of the One).

        As to your second paragraph, yes. One of the reasons the urban hells are so hellishly ugly is that, because ugliness is a sign of problematic discord, we are bound to notice it more than beauty (or for that matter than run of the mill normality). So in a noisy environment like the city, the noisiest thing earns more of our attention. The result is a competition among those whose spirits are most hurt and so most defective for the generation of the ugliest noise, that will garner the most attention from the crowd.


      • Beauty can be imitated. Like in the case of Makeup, Plastic Surgery or in the Beauty of the prostitute or Babylon with its sparkling Jewels and Gold.

        But Beauty comes into its own when it is True and Good. Beauty, Goodness and Truth made Perfect is exemplified in the New Jerusalem.

        Hunger can be satiated but not with food. By fooling it into thinking it is filled with food. Yet Hunger presupposes food.

        Our hunger for Beauty is similar in that regard. Apprehending Goodness as it was meant to be even though it can be fooled.

        But the fact that our sense of Beauty can be fooled also gives rise to suspicion of Beauty as “Whited Tombs”. False Beauty as a false representation gives fuel to the envious who want to tear down all Excellence by giving Envy “Righteous” Cover.

        Or by the envious/deranged seeking to redefine Beauty according to their envious and deranged wishes. Giving rise to the Modernist, Post-Modernist Abominations of Architecture/Art.

        Just like Good is called Evil and Vice Versa. So is this push to make “Fat” Beautiful or by inverting Sex roles. And by tearing down older standards of Beauty saying that it is “In the Eye of the Beholder” or “Subjective” or by simply inverting said standards even when acknowledging “Objectivity”.

  2. Beautifully written reflection. The good work of God’s beauty shines through this post as close proximity to God caused Moses to shine when he emerged from the tent (iirc). Thank you for sharing this.

  3. Pingback: Saturday tidbits, on Sunday – Dark Brightness

  4. Very important discussion here. I had not thought it possible in this age of intentional ugliness and fraud that many Americans have witnessed something akin to what I have. Epoch Times has recently published a series on Beauty; I find some young people drawn to the idea, etc. We should be encouraged. While the Regressives parasitically destroy their own edifices, there are tender shoots of an ancient ideal sprouting all over the place.

    What we discover, when we glimpse Beauty, is that which is already within us. It is a true-ing of ourselves (our fallen selves, as Christians might say?) to receive with conscious perception what we have already been given.

    • What we discover, when we glimpse Beauty, is that which is already within us.

      Yes. What remains in us of beauty aches for its own completion. This, in just the way that we want music to arrive at melodic or harmonic resolution, or that we want the play or novel to finish as we feel it ought to finish.

      This, in just the way that we yearn for our homeland in Eden, where we have never been.

      So the beauty in us responds to beauty, and is by it magnified.

      • That is what I have found. So delightful to know others who have.

        A corollary is this: He who merely regurgitates the ugliness of the world and pronounces it, in his work, irredeemable, is never an Artist. Modern museums, television, film, music, poetry, literature, where the opposite of this corollary has found stubborn lodgment, have got it backwards. This is because in my opinion the education factory system, run now by hacks rather than Artists, supported by popular critics whom they mistaught, have guided their charges away from essential nature of Art. (By Art, I mean, not fine art, but Art with a capital “A.”) That is, the discovery of Beauty and its expression into the world.

        Now, Beauty thrown to the wayside, everyone and anyone can label himself an Artist. And so many do, oh the desperate hack’s desire for personal exaltation. But the Artist is a rare creature, historically so. Few glimpse Beauty; even fewer have the innate talent and the training to deliver it in fixed form to those who might otherwise not become aware of it. That is why the Artist was always exalted — his scarcity multiplied the diamond worth of his work. And that is why the factory education system can never produce what is never capable of mass production.

      • Yes. Other than by the lightning of sheer genius which cannot be taught or learned, you can’t get Artists, or even Artisans, from an educational process unless it involves a relation of Master to Apprentice. On the other hand, if the educational process does involve that relation, then I think that, as the slave boy in the Meno was capable of geometry whether he had ever realized as much, so in the same way are we almost all capable of becoming competent and creative Artisans (at least) in *some* field of endeavor or other, provided some Master is available and willing to draw out – literally, to educate, to lead out – our original genius.

        The creative and intellectual resources available to man via anamnesis are unfathomable.

        But when we throw out Beauty as a telos of our work, we not only render the relation of Master to Apprentice obtuse and indeed rather abhorrent – this being perhaps one aspect of the Modern abhorrence of authority more generally – but we jettison the notion of education altogether. Deleted also are any standards of excellence; for, all excellences are sorts of success in the faithful realization – and, thus, participation and manifestation and magnification – of the Forms, which are the basis and origin of all Beauty. With all standards of excellence gone, it becomes impossible to found or to justify any evaluation of this or that work. Indeed, any such evaluation is in such a case likely to be greeted with resentment, as the mere opinion of a Philistine who holds himself out wrongly as an authority of some sort.

        It would seem that such a situation would render the profession of critic untenable. But no; rather than evaluating works on the basis of their excellence at instantiating Beauty, critics instead can judge works on the basis of their transgression of this remnant standard of excellence or that. The uglier the work, the better; if only because, ugliness being by nature problematic and so catalyzing attention, the ugliest works get the most attention. Which, given the rejection of Beauty as telos of works, is the only standard left: what’s getting notorious notice right now?

        An arms race to the bottom ensues. That’s how you get all these talentless “artists” cranking out dross. Ugliness is easy; anyone can do it, without a jot of skill, talent, training, or intellect. So the most notorious “artists” are those who can crank out the ugliest most offensive crap.

  5. Yet, the FED has an annual meeting there. Apparently beauty is in the eye of the beholder, because it does not seem to have much of a salutary effect on them.

  6. @Kristor Yes, I agree with all you wrote above. Thankfully, Beauty and Excellence (I’m becoming German capitalizing nouns willy-nilly…) are (for want of the right verb) even without human beings to perceive them. Once that is understood, felt, known — such I consider the most important lesson of all to learn by the arts — then all the grotesque fantasies masquerading as works of art immediately become apparent for what they really are.

    The numinous ideal is what the materialists of ’68 and their progeny fail to comprehend, let alone even find themselves will to postulate. Because it’s all about them and the crucial essentialness to them of the dreck of their lives. Wallow wallow wallow…

    When I lived in New Haven, I spent many, many hours in the Yale art museums. The easiest way to see the break with Beauty is to first walk through the Renaissance wing and then the modern wing. Only a hack would think Caravaggio/Zurbaran and Jackson Pollock/Mark Rothko were on about the same thing. They were not.

    • That’s a pretty good test of whether a work is Art or dross (albeit, not whether it is any good): does it resonate what came before it? As you walk from one area of the museum to the next, i.e., do you suffer a rude shock and momentary disorientation? If not, then you are witness to the survival and evolution of the Tradition. If not, you have suffered a revolution away from Beauty toward horror.

      Then the Impressionists, e.g., are Art. They do not reject their Realist inheritance, but rather explore one aspect thereof. Abstract “art” per contra does not marry well with what came before, but rather rejects it root and branch; and so is not Art.

      Modern “art” is not trying for Beauty. It is *rejecting* Beauty. That’s a sure tell. It is an operation not of art, but of destruction.

      Consider then Stravinsky, Copland, Britten, Tavener, or Pärt. They marry well with their musical patrimony – as we can in retrospect see, perhaps more readily than the audiences who first heard them. John Cage, on the other hand … not so much. His whole project was explosion of the musical tradition that furnished to him his career.

      • Impressionists were wonderful They found a beauty, not in representation, but in response to nature

        John Cage was a fraud. 33 seconds of silence? I mean, childish, contemptuous. Even Satie. A fantastic essay I read several years ago, dating from 1919, I think, totally disemboweled Satie. Irony was the characteristic and irony is totally the province of the post-modernist. A wonderful book: Reilly, Robert, Surprised by Beauty, Ignatius Press. Very highly recommended!


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