"Beauty is the promise of happiness." Stendhal
Is it? What is the relationship between Beauty and Happiness? I recently listened to a talk about beauty and its relationship to individual character. The speaker, Alexander Nehemas, made the point that an encounter with Beauty can shape a person's character, alter a life's course, and enhance our overall sense of Happiness. Do you think Beauty and our ability to appreciate it can have such a profound effect on us? What do you think Beauty is?
I believe Beauty is a word that describes our emotional and intellectual reactions to certain sensory perceptions. When we say "that is beautiful" (usually regarding a work of art) is it due to neurological activity? Or is there some "thing" called Beauty that all beautiful things share in common? I don't think there is anything of the kind...that would involve some extra-physical phenomenon and I just don't have any time for metaphysics. No, for me it is all about the neurology...a marvelously complex, intricate network of electrochemical pulses generated by our sensory perceptions of things like color, symmetry and texture producing profoundly moving feelings and thoughts. Does Beauty need to be about more than this? Not for me.
The experience of Beauty can provoke powerful responses. When we encounter something truly Beautiful the intellectual and emotional effect can be life altering. A painting, sunrise or 5 star meal might open our imaginations to possibilities we've never considered...a career path, a spiritual awakening, or the creation of something unique and Beautiful. In his lecture on this subject Alexander Nehemas used his own life as an example. His passion for a particular painting led him deep into the exploration of art, it's history and practitioners. He was driven to achieve intellectual mastery of these subjects. Along the way he met people and had experiences that directed his life in ways he never expected. This passion became a major part of his life and a profound source of Happiness. All of this he attributes to a chance encounter with something he found truly Beautiful.
I have never had that kind of singular inspirational response to Beauty. For me it seems to have been a cumulative process. Rather than a singular event my experience with Beauty has been spread over a number of subjects and years. Two objects of my passion are photographs and music. Do I find the promise of Happiness in their Beauty? Unlike Nehemas I have not devoted my life to intense study and intellectual mastery of these subjects. However, I do return to them time after time and find a reservoir of intense emotional and intellectual stimulation which feels like Happiness. So in that way Beauty does offer the promise of Happiness...to me.
What do you find in your encounters with Beauty? What are some things which arouse your passion?
You can follow this link to hear Alexander Nehemas' talk...it is interesting, entertaining and inspiring.
What does any of this have to do with Humanism? I have 4 points...
first: Beauty, Happiness, passion, intellect and emotion are all essential elements of what it means to be human.
second: Each of us chooses his/her own path through life. The sum of all our choices sets the direction for humanity as a whole...determines, apart from chance, what happens in the world. As I've said elsewhere this life is all we have, and we are all in it together...like it or not. It is incumbent upon each of us to make thoughtful choices about what we do. We are after all responsible to and for each other, aren't we? If we humans aren't responsible who is?
third: As with choices, individual Happiness affects the course of events in the world. Individual Happiness is cumulative. It can be shared and spread...not through Karma or some other spiritual hocus pocus but by the sheer weight of numbers. The more Happy people there are the better this world becomes.
fourth: This post started with the suggestion that Beauty is a source of Happiness. Our best interests are served by creating, propagating and promoting Beauty throughout the world. Beauty is a vehicle for creating Happiness and affirming what is best in human nature...and that affirmation is a bedrock principle of Humanism.
That's all I have for now.