[This piece ran as a newspaper op/ed at the end of June and beginning of July, 2023.]
It seems clearly part of human nature to respond to beauty with a special kind of pleasure.
“Human nature” is best understood as something that got crafted in us over eons of time by a process that consistently chose what could survive over what could not, and therefore helped make it possible for our ancestors to get their genetic design into the future. (We are that future.)
That leads to the question: Why would an appreciation of beauty get into our nature? Which equates to asking: How would that sense of beauty have helped our ancestors to survive?
One piece of the answer likely concerns the survival-value of seeing beauty in our potential mates. (I know that in my own case, while I’ve always loved beauty of many kinds, no other kind so stirs me as beauty in a woman.)
Not only have studies shown that there is substantial agreement across cultures about which faces and body-shapes are beautiful, but also that the attributes that are widely considered beautiful (symmetry and lustrous hair) are good signals of adaptive qualities like fertility and good health.
(Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but that eye was built to be able to see what matters.)
But how would that explain the way we can love the beauty of a painting, or musical composition, or a poem, or a sunset?
Is “beauty” in each case some version of the same thing? Is there a “beauty” that is common to the “beauty” of the young Elizabeth Taylor, or of a concerto by Bach, or of Michelangelo’s David?
They aren’t identical. But there does seem to be something common to them all. And perhaps, if we could articulate that “something,” it would provide a clue about why it’s in our nature.
Here’s my hypothesis:
In every case, the “beautiful” thing exemplifies how such a thing is supposed to be.
When we experience aesthetic pleasure – from the rose in bloom, the flow of the music, the “beautiful catch” an outfielder makes, the beautiful face, the statue’s form — we feel that the elements of whatever it is have been put together in something of an ideal way.
One can see why being motivated to seek beauty might have helped our ancestors to survive, since beauty would imply things being in some kind of good order.
We humans have had an especial need for such motivation, once we adopted culture as our main adaptive strategy.
The flexibility of culture conferred great advantages. But – in contrast with pre-cultural species more confined to the path set by their biologically-evolved nature – culture also brought new dangers. Culture’s widening of the range of paths any human group might take increased the possibilities for taking a wrong path, for disorder,.
That danger of disorder made it life-serving for the “cultural animal” to develop new sources of motivation to want good order.
Evolution thus rewarded those of our ancestors whose pleasure from seeing things “in good order” helped guide them toward a more life-serving path.
The fact that our love of beauty is part of our inherent nature implies that aesthetic pleasure was life-serving prior to the rise of civilization – because civilization arose too recently to have installed such a thing evolutionarily).
And indeed, we find that our pre-civilized ancestors made beautiful paintings on the walls of caves tens of thousands of years ago, and material objects whose shape and decorations demonstrate a striving toward an aesthetic not necessitated by mere practicalities. Even a jug without a pleasing shape will hold water.
So culture itself evidently created the danger that the human world could diverge from paths good for survival into the future.
But those dangers multiplied greatly when culture eventually took off — mere millennia ago – into the whole new stage of Civilization.
I’ve explained elsewhere how systemic forces inevitably drove civilization to develop in life-degrading directions. (Google “Schmookler ugliness history”). The fact of that danger could not be clearer: When civilization first emerged, it took the path of tyranny, brutal enslavement, and chronic warfare.
So Civilized Humankind has continually had to fight a Force of Ugliness.
Which is the fight that we Americans – in our present crisis – are especially embroiled in. A very ugly forces has been visibly working to make the American civilization what it emphatically should not be.
Lately, I’ve noticed that I’ve turned to the word “ugly” to describe a political force that, over the past generation, has gained power to drive America in the opposite direction from those that are life-serving.
“Ugly” is the Force that has been assaulting the “thing of beauty” that’s always been the heart of America: the constitutional order.
That force is Ugly also in how it
- deals in lies;
- cruelly targets vulnerable people,;
- shows contempt for the rule of law;
- expresses an insatiable greed and the lust for power;
- is utterly self-serving, indifferent or hostile to the well-being of the world;
- prefers conflict to cooperation.
One way of describing America’s present crisis is this: “we are engaged in a great civil war” to determine whether our nation – our civilization — will be beautiful or ugly.”
It seems no coincidence that this is the moment that I feel moved to write about Beauty. The more we crave beauty, the more we will be inspired to drive the “Ugly” away from the helm of our civilization.