Harrison Middleton University

Defining Beauty

Defining Beauty

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


March 5, 2021

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

The Great Books Foundation recently hosted a virtual Great Books Chicago (in place of the usual in-person Great Books Chicago). Beauty was the topic of discussion. I gained wonderful perspectives from the weekend and so, today’s blog attempts to address a number of comments. Obviously, I do not have time for the majority of comments and conversation, but here are a few thoughts that stick with me as I continue to dwell upon ideas of beauty.

My first question comes from near the end of the conference. During a discussion of modern art, the idea was raised that though there may be timeless aspects of beauty, it generally evolves. I have since been trying to discern whether or not there are timeless aspects of beauty. If it evolves are there timeless (or essential) characteristics that might define beauty? As usual, I begin with Merriam-Webster. Its definition reads: “the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit.” I can see this as a rather faulty premise from which to begin, mostly due to the fact that I am not convinced that all beauty actually gives pleasure. Rather, it seems from the texts that we read, that beauty arrives along with sadness or some other extreme longing. Furthermore, both the definition and the literature seem to agree that beauty happens on an individual basis and that beauty is not in the object per se, but rather in the viewer.

This in no way clarifies what things are essential to a timeless definition of beauty, but perhaps an exploration through some of the weekend’s texts will further the argument. We read a number of texts, including Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice,” Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, bell hooks’ Appalachian Elegy, and a handful of shorter works.

These readings gave excellent dimension to ideas of beauty. For example, in The Bluest Eye, Claudia’s family insists that she should want a blue-eyed doll for Christmas, though the doll disgusts her. Claudia, a young African American child, wants to know why everyone (but herself) sees beauty in it. The doll fills Claudia with emotions, none of them linked to happiness, however. A definition of beauty has been imposed upon her and she struggles to make sense of it. Her disgust comes from the fact of the doll itself, or the fact that no one ever thinks to ask what she might actually desire. Others simply assume that the doll’s beauty is universal.

In Anton Chekhov’s “The Beauties,” the narrator feels sadness and longing in beauty’s presence. He writes, “And the oftener she fluttered by me with her beauty, the more acute became my sadness….Whether it was envy of her beauty; or that I was regretting that the girl was not mine and never would be; or that I was a stranger to her; or whether I vaguely felt that her rare beauty was accidental, unnecessary, and, like everything on earth, of short duration; or whether, perhaps, my sadness was that peculiar feeling which is excited in man by the contemplation of real beauty, God only knows.” I am still not sure the distinction that the narrator makes here between beauty and “real beauty” though it is clear that a rare kind of beauty strongly affects a person. Moreover, this beauty is fleeting. Its movement passes through the viewer and very quickly turns to memory. In addition, Mann’s “Death in Venice” contains a very similar passage, underscoring a similar sort of experience with beauty.

Many readings demonstrated beauty’s effects in ways unique to individuals. Though there must be some shared characteristics which enable us to view something and claim it as beautiful, there is no way to clearly state that you and I experience the same feeling when in the presence of beauty. Rather, beauty may stem directly from an internal experience. The external sensory experience inspires a movement that can only happen on a unique basis, and is, by definition then, fairly difficult to translate. This leads me back to the initial question about the way(s) in which beauty may be timeless, or ephemeral, continuous, or constantly evolving. How does one define something that happens on an individual basis? And yet, we all agreed that we have indeed experienced something beautiful.

Another point of interest is the way that many of these texts merged from beauty into an experience of love. Does beauty always lead to a type of love? I do not know, but I do think that in looking closely at an object, in measuring its full spectrum, we begin the process of love. In other words, close attention to an object opens pathways for love. When adoration (or appreciation of beauty) merges into love is unclear to me, however.

In the poem “My Mistress’ Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun,” Shakespeare describes and delights in the imperfections of his mistress. He describes her reeking breath, pale cheeks and lips, and wiry hair. Yet, even with these imperfections, he notes that “I think my love as rare/ As any she belied with false compare.” In other words, though the object of love is imperfect, the narrator experiences a love which is beautiful, rare, unique, and individualized. This poem also examines the way that idyllic love presents a false adoration with which humans cannot compare. But again, the focus is on the speaker, the unique individual experience who loves despite all odds.

Finally, in a number of places, we looked at the way that beauty has been personified. For example, in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Euclid Alone Has Looked on Beauty Bare,” we learn of Beauty who evades all those who seek her except for those fortunate few “Who, though once only and then but far away,/ Have heard her massive sandal set on stone.” In finding and explaining the basic principles of geometry, a system at once spare and universal, Euclid alone has seen beauty. For Millay, this ephemeral being exists within nature’s simplicity. The rest of the world hopes to hear beauty, but as soon as they begin to speak about it, they become prating fools. In the poem, Beauty is massive, overpowering, something which, in its entirety, would shatter most humans.

These discussions were truly a pleasure. Thanks to Great Books Chicago and the many wonderful participants for a fantastic weekend!

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