The War Against Beauty

Beauty is an excellent book by Roger Scruton that offers a philosophical justification for seeking, desiring, and celebrating beauty.

…beauty demands to be noticed; it speaks to us directly like the voice of an intimate friend. If there are people who are indifferent to beauty, then it is surely because they do not perceive it.

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Beauty, I argue, is a real and universal value, one anchored in our rational nature, and the sense of beauty has an indispensable part to play in shaping the human world.

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Only creatures like us—with language, self-consciousness, practical reason, and moral judgement—can look on the world in this alert and disinterested way, so as to seize on the presented object and take pleasure in it.

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…people associate beauty with their highest endeavours and aspirations, are disturbed by its absence, and regard a measure of aesthetic agreement as essential for life in society.

Beauty is an interesting quality in that we pursue it “for its own sake,” with no additional justification. An object is beautiful if you can enjoy it solely for its beauty. If someone asks you why you like a woman and you say because she is beautiful, other reasons are not sought. The person will not ask, “And what other qualities does she have that makes her worthy?”

Beauty, in a person, prompts desire.

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Although there may be fashions in human beauty, and although different cultures may embellish the body in different ways, the eyes, mouth and hands have a universal appeal. For they are the features from which the soul of another shines on us, and makes itself known.

Beauty is not only important for human forms:

There is an aesthetic minimalism exemplified by laying the table, tidying your room, designing a web-site… you want the table, the room or the web-site to look right, and looking right matters in the way that beauty generally matters—not by pleasing the eye only, but by conveying meanings and values which have weight for you and which you are consciously putting on display.

Only through aesthetics can you properly answer “Does that look right?” This is not something you can learn by reading Jezebel but through appreciation and thinking of the aesthetic over a period of time. It also conveys value—even moral value—and is perceived by others whether you like it or not. It’s a shame if you have a glandular problem that causes you to weigh 500 pounds, and it’s possible your inner beauty is ravishing (though I doubt it), but your outward appearance will pass judgement on your character and worth. Beauty is “part of the context in which we live our lives, and our desire for harmony, fittingness and civility is both expressed and confirmed in them.”

Should we unapologetically pursue beauty?

People who are always in praise and pursuit of the beautiful are an embarrassment, like people who make a constant display of their religious faith. Somehow, we feel, such things should be kept for our exalted moments, and not paraded in company, or allowed to spill out over dinner.

But at the same time we must not ignore it:

However, many people seem to live in an aesthetic vacuum, filling their days with utilitarian calculations, and with no sense that they are missing out on the higher life.

Scruton does not give us guidance on how much of the aesthetic must be pursued, but warns how the desire for beauty can never be entirely satisfied:

Wanting something for its beauty is wanting it, not wanting to do something with it.

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Here is a want without a goal: a desire that cannot be fulfilled since there is nothing that would count as its fulfilment.

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But what can you do with another person’s beauty? The satisfied lover is as little able to possess the beauty of his beloved as the one who hopelessly observes it from afar.

By having sex with a beautiful girl, your desire for beauty is satisfied but only momentarily, because there is nothing about her beauty that you can possess. You can’t take it from her. You only feel the presence or power of her beauty for a brief period of time.

At times Scruton raises more questions than answers. Why is a man’s desire stronger for beautiful women? It’s surely not a conscious decision. Even when the lights are off in the bedroom and aesthetic representations are minimized, you still get more pleasure from the beautiful girl than an ugly girl. This difference in pleasure perception can’t be avoided.

Evolutionary psychologists say we desire beauty because mating with a beautiful woman will yield beautiful children who will have an easier time of mating themselves. Thus beauty denotes fitness and health. But again, what exactly is the process of associating a beautiful face with health—or rather—how did the relationship between fitness and beauty come about? Why has nature created this link?

Does a woman with a large nose not have the same survivability as someone with a perfect button nose? Does a man whose height is 5’3 not have the same ability to live to be 100 as the man who is 6’3? We all understand what beauty preferences humans have, but they persist in a time where it makes little evolutionary sense, leading to backwards rationalizations by evolutionary psychologists that gives answers only because the final result is known.

In spite of a consistent beauty preference, a man will still have sex with women who don’t possess beauty. Why do we engage in “dumpster diving” for the sole sake of sex? Did our ancestors have fuck buddies they didn’t want to impregnate until they found their dream girl? At the same time, why are we willing to jump through hoops to be with a girl who is just a little more beautiful than the last? We do we put work into a fleeting sexual episode with a beautiful girl whose beauty we cannot possess, with sexual satisfaction that begins to fleet as soon as the orgasm is achieved, and who we don’t even want to impregnate?

My pleasure in beauty is therefore like a gift offered to the object, which is in turn a gift offered to me.

To understand the desire for beauty, I suspect we have to look at those who gave up on seeking it and are reproducing with ugly people. What had to happen for them to forgo the aesthetic? I suspect there is a switch in the brain which tells you whether to go for beauty or not, a sort of protection mechanism that ensures you reproduce with someone. I hypothesize the switch is based on your environment, where your subsconscious knows your sexual market value more than you do and thus determines your mating behavior.

If an ugly woman who has only dated ugly men becomes beautiful through advanced plastic surgery, how long will it take for her to adjust to the more handsome men pursuing her and notice aesthetic traits that she never appreciated before? How long until she becomes an expert at gaining affections of attractive men and extracting what she needs from them?

If an ugly man who has only known ugly women moves to a country with a surplus of beautiful women, how long will it take him to raise his standards and pursue—no, demand—an aesthetically pleasing woman? If you put him back into an unfavorable environment, and his sex life hangs in the balance, the switch will flick back and he will have sex with ugly women again.

The desire for beauty by humans therefore exists on separate order than reproduction. If you are unable to get beauty, you will still pursue sex and get it. But if you are able to get beauty, an ability known to your subconscious based on your environment and micro-responses from the opposite sex, you will pursue it with vigor.

Of course not all beauty is linked to the sexual, and Scruton takes considerable time examining its meaning in other areas.

There is hardly a person alive who is not moved by the beauty of the perfectly formed child. Yet most people are horrified by the thought that this beauty should be a spur to desire, other than the desire to cuddle and comfort. Every hint of arousal is, in these circumstances, a transgression. And yet the beauty of a child is of the same kind as the beauty of a desirable adult, and totally unlike the beauty of an aged face, which has emerged, as it were, from a life of moral trials.

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In seeing something as an ‘end in itself’, I immortalize it, lift it out of the world of practical concerns, mystify its connection to society.

Societies which have a principal pursuit of money tend to produce a grotesque aesthetic of status, social climbing, blind technological advancement, and fame. In such an aesthetic vacuum where beauty exists in only small amounts, the most minor of beauty is honored as godly, the most mediocre of female celebrities—even ones approaching middle age—are seen as perfections sculpted by the hands of Michelangelo himself.

40 year old woman proclaimed world’s most beautiful

Ugly and fat apologists would be the first to shame you for having beauty standards that accommodate their displeasing aesthetic, but these same shamers buy Apple products because of its beauty. They take pictures of fancy plates of food, sweeping mountains, sunsets, cute animals, and so on, all because they are beautiful. Rest assured they still value the aesthetic, but simply want an exclusion to the low value conveyed by their complete lack of it.

The aesthetic laziness movement is currently in full gear within Western societies. It’s coinciding with a decay of the beauty ideal into a “look at me just because” behavior where something exists simply to be noticed and shared, not admired and appreciated. Instead of the pursuit or curation of wisdom and planes of artistic expression that exist above the level of kitcsh, we’re now in the middle of a race to build the tallest piles of trash whose sole purpose is to be noticed and commented on. An overweight woman exists, therefore she has beauty, so we’re told. But this will not work…

Symmetry and order; proportion; closure; convention; harmony, and also novelty and excitement: all these seem to have a permanent hold on the human psyche.

Scruton also makes the case against pornography:

The purpose of pornography is to arouse vicarious desire; the purpose of erotic art is to portray the sexual desire of the people pictured within it…

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The pornographic image is like a magic wand that turns subjects into objects, people into things—and thereby disenchants them, destroying the source of their beauty. It causes people to hide behind their bodies, like puppets worked by hidden strings.

And so we come full circle, for the blunt sex can destroy beauty while it’s the same act—in a different context—that men seek with beautiful women as a way to appreciate it.

It’s also worth noting that some corporations are actively seeking to destroy beauty. The Dove company cynically appeals to the insecurities of fat and ugly women to sell soap and cream so profits can be diverted to shareholders, validating and encouraging the grotesque aesthetic. Every time such a product is purchased, they are more able to market their “ugly is beautiful” message that overweight American women can’t resist to swallow. Food companies, in their pursuit of “stomach share” at all costs, are doing even more damage.

…aesthetic judgement begins to be experienced as an affliction. It imposes an intolerable burden, something that we must live up to, a world of ideals and aspirations that is in sharp conflict with the tawdriness of our improvised lives. It is perched like an owl on our shoulders, while we try to hide our pet rodents in our clothes. The temptation is to turn on it and shoo it away. The desire to desecrate is a desire to turn aesthetic judgement against itself, so that it no longer seems like a judgement of us.

Corruption of the aesthetic will only get worse. Cursing is now common among women. The same women wear pajamas in public, wear sunglasses that cover most of their face, destroy their humanity with corny tattoos, and even shave their head to appear like they just finished a round of chemotherapy. Yes, a hot trend in America and Scandinavia is the sickly aesthetic. The next step for them is to burp in public. Adults are becoming not unlike farting children who can’t help but giggle about it afterwards, unaware of the shame and embarrassment they are bringing upon themselves.

Beauty is vanishing from our world because we live as though it did not matter; and we live that way because we have lost the habit of sacrifice and are striving always to avoid it. The false art of our time, mired in kitsch and desecration, is one sign of this.

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[Beauty] challenges us to find meaning in its object, to make critical comparisons, and to examine our own lives and emotions in the light of what we find. Art, nature and the human form all invite us to place this experience in the centre of our lives.

If we don’t demand beauty, if we don’t draw a line in the sand and punish those who take beautiful forms to the burning pyre, it will continue to decline, and all that will be left to appreciate is a shiny new gadget with its metallic casing and pleasing curves. When so many men are willing to throw themselves on the female representation of the grotesque aesthetic, I wonder if we even have a chance to preserve this value in humanity.

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