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Did college kill the beautiful?
By Joel E. Mann, Assistant Professor of Philosophy

Josephine Dobson
Josephine Dobson, wife of our contributor, took a sculpture class taught by Bill Bohné (Art). Here, she works on a bust of the philosophy professor.

Should you keep watch on the faculty at your local liberal arts college – indeed, at any institution of higher education in the United States – you would find very little in the way of communist sympathy or flagrant libertinism. Whether the lack of these once-fashionable perspectives on scholarship would relieve or disappoint you, I do not know. But I think you should be disappointed to find that, along with busts of Marx and Byron, Beauty, too, would be conspicuous by her absence.

What do I mean? I mean only that among discussions of erotic subtext in James Joyce novels and gender issues in Cindy Sherman photographs – the kind of thing hotly debated in art and literature classes these days – you’re unlikely to hear uttered the words “beauty” or “beautiful.” Much less likely will you encounter a discussion of just what makes novels or photographs beautiful. Once upon a time, college professors were not shy about waking their students up to the beautiful. But now we are asleep to Beauty, and she is asleep to us.

Why is that? To be sure, I don’t know the whole tale, but I suspect it has something to do with the naturalness of the personification employed a few lines above, when I referred to Beauty as a “she.” Historically, beauty has been a standard applied to women so vigorously and, I should say, viciously that a reactionary recoil from the very idea must, for the educated woman and enlightened man, take on the form of a psycho-physical reflex: Beauty makes us barf. Sometimes literally. As children and adults we are assaulted by images of “beautiful” women (and men, too); images designed to highlight our physical inadequacies until they glow so red-hot nothing else is visible. Beauty hurts; sometimes Beauty even kills.

Shouldn’t we be glad to be rid of Beauty, then? I think not. After all, Beauty is ... well, beautiful. When we encounter something truly beautiful, we encounter something good. We feel as though something is right with the world, that somehow it all makes sense, even if we can’t articulate precisely the sense that it makes. No technical argument for God’s existence possesses a persuasive power on a par with the awesome beauty of nature. For some, the encounter with beauty reinforces our faith in science, which is just our faith that the world can be explained and understood. We philosophize, says Socrates in Plato’s “Theaetetus,” because we are in awe.

So should we embrace Beauty? Yes, but with a qualification. Even Plato was acutely aware of Beauty’s dangers, toils, and snares. What we today call philosophy was in fact first defined by Plato in contradistinction to rhetoric, the “art of beautiful speech.” In Plato’s day, certain orators and politicians had made a profession of propagating the vilest of ideas by concealing them in the prettiest of packages. Examples from our own time – such as Hitler’s rise to power largely on the strength of his rhetorical skill – seem to validate Plato’s concern. This tension between superficial beauty, which runs only skin deep, and real beauty, which goes to the bone, is evident in much of Plato’s writing. It is the question at issue in his all-too-often neglected dialogue, “Phaedrus.” How can we appreciate real Beauty without being led astray by her bewitching twin? A difficult question. A philosophical question.

So should we listen to what philosophers say about beauty?

Probably not, or at least not uncritically. Having harangued professors of literature and the arts for abandoning the beautiful, let me now confess that no professors have so shamefully abdicated their obligations to aesthetics – the study of art and beauty – as philosophers. After several millennia of preoccupation with the problem of the good and the beautiful, mainstream philosophy in the modern era subordinated itself to the constraints of science so single-mindedly that morality and aesthetics were reduced to “feelings,” and feelings in turn were reduced to a mere froth floating on the surface of scientific reality. Only in the last few decades has this started to change, but even now much of what philosophers such as Plato have said about beauty is ignored. Aesthetics is alive, but it lives hand-to-mouth on the margins of “respectable” philosophy.

What can we do to help? Question Beauty. When under assault from that army of words and images – political speeches and ads, commercial voice-overs, images of women, men, cars, sunsets, and everything else – stand your ground. Demand some account of their beauty. Reject any whose beauty is superficial; seek out a beauty conducive to the good. Remember that true beauty does not make you feel bad, either about yourself or others. Rather, it makes everything around it better, more radiant, and, ultimately, more real.

Let’s talk about Beauty again.

July 8, 2012

Summer 2012 magazine

Web extra

Look here for web-exclusive content that expands on topics presented in the current St. Norbert College Magazine.

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Story ideas? Your ideas for future magazine stories are most welcome. Write to the editor with any suggestions or comments.

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