Op/Ed

Victor Nuovo: Santayana tries to explain ‘beauty’

36th in a series

“The Sense of Beauty” is the title of a book written by George Santayana. It was his first book, published in 1896. It is a path-breaking book, and it has become a classic. This essay offers a brief exposition of it.

Santayana wrote it to answer the question, “How is it that we [i.e. the human species] come to perceive beauty at all?” When we gaze at the western sky at sunset or the eastern sky at sunrise, or look upon a star or a multi-colored rose, or contemplate a Grecian urn, or listen to a performance of Beethoven’s choral rendition of Schiller’s Ode to Joy (the conclusion of the 9th Symphony), or Wagner’s rendition of Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, or when we gaze upon the smiling face of someone we love –– in all these instances, we perceive beauty. Beauty is like a halo, surrounding and illuminating an object that captivates our attention and holds us in thrall. Beauty captivates the mind.

Beauty is not an idea; it is a presence that we perceive in and through and around whatever we call beautiful; it is an aura. But it is more than something we perceive; it engages the mind; it causes the mind to reflect; it evokes judgment. Perceiving and judging are indissolubly yoked. Beauty takes root in our humanity and ennobles it. As the poet John Keats put it, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” He may have exaggerated, but not by very much. In any case, to seek to understand how it is that we perceive beauty, and what does it mean that we do, are questions we should all be asking. Consider it a duty.

Santayana made the task all the more difficult by his philosophical stance. He was a philosophical naturalist, a materialist, who imagined that the universe was the product of material particles dancing to the silent music of chance and necessity, which is the music of time. But even in such a world, it is easy to see how value originates. We have evolved into such a state that we require food, shelter, clothing and according to our needs we put a value on them, or a price, which means the same. Money has value, for it is the means by which we secure the things we need. Likewise, and for more noble reasons, we attach value to moral qualities: honesty, truthfulness, kindness. For these qualities are essential to a good life.

But beauty is different. Neither our health nor safety nor moral excellence depend upon it. Beauty is an aesthetic value, and aestheticians, that is, scholars who specialize in judging beautiful things, like to say that the proper state of mind to contemplate beauty is one of disinterestedness. To appreciate the quality of beauty in a thing, be it a work of nature or of art, the observer must approach it with a mind free from all desire, and with no preoccupations. The contemplation of beauty requires a mind that is cool and dispassionate. In sum, beauty has no use, or so it seems; among values, beauty is the odd man out.

Santayana thought otherwise. In fact, in “The Sense of Beauty” he comes near to providing a philosophical justification of Keats’s equating of beauty and truth.

To begin with, he notes that beauty is pleasant, although this may seem too mild a word to express his meaning. For the perception of beauty fills the mind with an exceeding joy and gladness, which is to say beauty pleases, but in a manner that transcends mere feeling. Indeed, the sense of beauty transfigures the mind and transports it to a higher level of existence. Santayana cites the opening lines of Lucretius’s “De rerum natura” [on the nature of things], an invocation addressed the goddess Venus, the Greek Aphrodite, goddess of love, and beauty, and fertility, “for whom the earth puts forth sweet flowers, the ocean laughs, the heavens are aglow in benevolent light,” and a longing for peace establishes itself in the minds of all the people. It is in such a way, Santayana supposed, that beauty pleases. Try it. I think you will find that Santayana was right.

I wrote earlier that Beauty is not an idea. Santayana was nonetheless taken with Plato’s effort to render it as such, as a supreme object of the mind, for which, he notes, the Greeks coined a word kalonkagathon, a compound noun, joining beauty and goodness: the beautiful and the good. It was Plato’s absolute, which he interpreted as the first principles of being, or being itself, from which all reality proceeds.

If this were a moral universe, this would be the way things are. Santayana was sure that it is not. But the contemplation of beauty enables the mind to imagine that it is. He didn’t imagine that the mind becomes self-deceived, as it were deceived by beauty, as though it were a temptress. It is the way things are. There is no need to explain it. Rather, the sense of beauty becomes for him the basis of human aspiration. And thus, even here, in this world, humanity can aspire to a state of existence more beautiful, more just, more perfect in goodness. Surely, this is a noble purpose for anyone’s life.

Postscript: Santayana’s  “The Sense of Beauty” was first published in 1896 and has never gone out of print. It is available in a paperback edition, published by Dover. Visit your local bookshop.

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