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.