Trending towards beauty is considered to be a common human trait. It has been more so with me from a very young age, with all things beautiful claiming undivided attention, ranging from people, literature, forms of art and performances thereof, sculptures, paintings, designer constructions and landscapes, to being outdoors at golden dawn hours and silvery moon-lit nights. Who would not like to recall, in the context of beauty, the opening lines of Keats’ Endymion, celebrating the eternal love between Selene, the mythological moon goddess, and Endymion, the shepherd, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever: / Its loveliness increases; it will never / Pass into nothingness; but still will keep / A bower quiet for us, and a sleep / Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing”? As a distinctive characteristic of a person, animal, place, object or idea that provides a perceptual experience of pleasure or satisfaction, beauty often involves an interpretation of some entity as being in balance and harmony with nature, which may lead to feelings of attraction and emotional well-being. Since the experience is mostly subjective, it is often said that beauty dwells in the eyes of the beholder. Integral to aesthetics, sociology, social psychology and culture, an ideal beauty is an entity admired for perfection or possessing features widely attributed to be in sync with symmetry and harmony of proportions.
The classical Greek noun for beauty is kallos and the adjective beautiful, kalos. Beautiful in Koine Greek is horaios, derived from the word hora, meaning ’hour’. In Koine Greek beauty was thus associated with ‘being of one’s hour’. A ripe fruit is, thus, deemed to be beautiful, whereas a woman trying to appear either younger or older than her age would not be considered beautiful, even though the view can be shouted down in this day and age by the fair gender, and the humongous cosmetic industry. The criteria for attractiveness are similar across different genders and cultures, showing a preference for beauty as emerging from one’s early age. Style and fashion may vary widely, but the perception of beauty is seen to be mostly based on common grounds across cultures and nationalities. The earliest western theory of beauty can be traced to Greek philosophers from pre-Socratic period, such as Pythagoras, who saw a pronounced connection between mathematics and beauty. It was noticed that objects proportioned in accordance with golden ratio (in math, two quantities are in golden ratio if their ratio is the same as the ratio of their sum to the larger of the two quantities, a factor applied, not just in math, but across all disciplines) seemed more attractive. Ancient Greek architecture is based on the above view of symmetry and proportion. According to Plato, beauty is the form or idea above all other ideas; Aristotle perceives a relationship between what is beautiful and virtuous, arguing that “virtue aims at the beautiful”. Sculptures of human forms created according to tenets of Greek philosophers relating to ideal human beauty were rediscovered in Renaissance Europe, leading to a re-adoption of what came to be known as ‘classical ideal’, whereby a woman whose appearance conforms to these tenets is described as a classical beauty.
The foundations laid down by Greek and Roman artists also constitute the standard for male beauty in western civilization. Paine’s ‘The Age of Reason’ saw increased interest in beauty as a philosophical subject. Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson argued that beauty is ‘unity in variety and variety in unity’. The Romantic poets, notably Keats, contemplated on the nature of beauty, as in ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all, / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”, a postulate that finds expatiation in the Upanishads, as satyam, shivam, sundaram, meaning ‘truth, godliness, beauty’. The truth of existence is experienced as godliness manifesting as beauty. Satyam means the truth as it really is outside the perceptions of the conditioned and prejudiced mind. The human mind is largely conditioned by society, religions and ego-driven notions and prejudices. It has to be totally emptied of all these falsities and distortions to arrive at its purest presence for truth to emerge, in a thoughtless state where one simply sees the truth as it verily is, not any conception of it. Shivam means virtue, the ultimate good, godliness; the person experiencing truth goes logically on to live the truth, and doing so is shivam, or truth in action.
The proof of world’s divinity is a person of truth; when queried as to what is truth, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa famously responded, ‘I am the argument, and if you cannot see in my eyes the proof and the evidence, you will not find it anywhere else. I am the only proof that existence is not dead, that existence is not only matter, that existence is not only available to science, that existence is much more than matter, that you are much more than the body, that you are much more than the mind..’ Ramakrishna’s ‘much more’ defied definition in logic or science, compelling the need to consider shivam, the mystic in action, his way of life as proof and the only possibility of attaining realization of the divine surrounding the universe, the window through which one can see beyond, leading to the spiritual. The action of the mystic contrasts with those in the mundane world, informed as it is with a totality fully dedicated to task on hand, and the fullness and intensity of such dedication equate to sundaram or beauty, collectively constituting the mystic trinity of satyam, the truth, shivam, the good and divine, and sundaram, the beauty. Beauty in its familiar forms exist in glorious sunrises and colourful sunsets, star-lit skies and surging ocean waves, majestic mountains, flowery country sides and horizons of shifting clouds dotted with winged birds in flight. Beauty in its most sublime form resides beyond all of these; it exists in the totality and intensity of the mystic, as the greatest flowering of consciousness itself; it can be realized by people possessing a humility and receptivity that leaves all windows of being open, living a life of love and kindness, like the Shivas, Krishnas, Zarathushtras, Buddhas, Christs, Muhammeds and other sages and prophets who walked the earth. It has no existence in closed lives of fear, hatred, selfishness and paranoia. Truth is the experience, shivam is the action arising out of the experience, and beauty, as the beautiful rose blooming in the heart of the mystic, is the flowering of consciousness of the person who has experienced truth. In such a state, the experiencer transforms worship as the enjoyment of beauty, as the perception of unity in diversity and divinity in all forms of life. It is safe to deduce that Saundariya Lahiri was composed in such a state by Adi Shankara, after his vision of the divine mother. It is by virtue of the beautiful that we are able to acquire a lasting remembrance of the true world. Plato describes the beautiful as that which shines forth the most clearly and draws us to itself, as the very visibility of the ideal.
Aside from external and metaphysical aspects of beauty, at the other end of the scale is the opposite, described as ugliness, defined as the characteristic of a person or an object that is unpleasant to look at, aesthetically unattractive, repulsive or offensive. Such features of external form can often be misleading if one takes a look at history, as ugliness is a central aspect of the persona of many a distinguished personage. Jean Paul Satre had a lazy eye and a bloated, asymmetrical face, and he attributed many of his philosophical ideas to a life-long struggle to reconcile with his self-described ugliness. Socrates used his ugliness as a philosophical landing point, concluding that philosophy could redeem people from outward ugliness. Widely known around the world during his time for his perceived ugliness, Abraham Lincoln was described, rather uncharitably, by Edward Dicey, a contemporary British journalist, “To say he is ugly is nothing, to add that his figure is grotesque, is to convey no adequate impression”. His looks, however, proved to be an asset in his personal and political relationships, as William Herndon, his biographer and partner in law firm, wrote, “He was not a pretty man by any means, nor was he an ugly one; he was a homely man, careless of his looks, plain-looking and plain-acting. He had no pomp, display, or dignity, so-called. He appeared simple in his carriage and bearing. He was a sad-looking man, his melancholy dripped from him as he walked. His apparent gloom impressed his friends, and created sympathy for him – one means of his great success”. And so it is, with a large number of people in many strata and walks of life, distinguishing themselves with great distinction, grotesqueness of external appearance notwithstanding.
The twentieth century saw an increasing rejection of beauty by artists and philosophers alike, culminating in post-modernism’s anti-aesthetics, in spite of beauty being a dominant concern of one of post-modernism’s main influences, Friedrich Nietzsche, who argued that the Will to Power was the Will to Beauty, “Beauty is for the artist something outside all orders of rank, because in beauty opposites are tamed; the highest sign of power, namely power over opposites; moreover, without tension: — that violence is no longer needed: that everything follows, obeys, so easily and so pleasantly – that is what delights the artist’s Will to Power”. Aesthetic experience, as executed through art, is a manifestation of the ‘will to power’. The artist, the viewer, and the art itself propagate and amalgamate in power relationships with one and other, all executing power in their own right.
In the aftermath of post-modernism’s rejection of beauty, thinkers have returned to beauty as an important value. Guy Sircello, American analytic philosopher, proposed his new theory of beauty in a bid to reaffirm its status as an important philosophical concept, maintaining that beauty is mostly objective in that, when a judgment of beauty is made, it relates to qualities possessed by the object; an alpine sunset is seen as beautiful due to the quality of light expressed in the sunset, or perhaps because of the intense depth of the vista, or because some other attribute of the scene that stands out as exceptional in some way. For Sircello, beauty resides in the possession by objects, scenes, and actions of qualities to a very high degree. For Elaine Scarry, beauty is related to truth and justice. A thing of beauty ignites the desire for truth and justice by giving us, with an electric brightness the experience of conviction and error. The liability to error, contestation, and plurality, for which beauty has often been belittled, has sometimes been cited as evidence of its falsehood and distance from truth, when the actual case is that our very aspiration for truth and fairness is its legacy. It creates, without itself fulfilling, the aspiration for enduring certitude. It comes to us, almost greeting us in welcome, with no work of our own; then leaves us duly prepared to undertake laborious effort aimed at advancing towards fairness and truth. The word ‘fair’ is used to denote loveliness of countenance, and ethicality in dealings as in being fair, playing fair and fair distribution. It may be debated that fairness as an ethical principle originated, not from its adjectival usage to mean comely beauty but from the wholly distinct noun, as in ‘annual fair’, to mean an exhibition to promote sale of merchandise or items of art. An etymological analysis can nail the debate in favour of the adjective, ‘fairness’, tracing from a cluster of roots in European languages and cognates in both East European and Sanskrit, all pointing to the aesthetic use of ‘fair’ to mean beautiful, pleasing to the eye, similarly placed, as when something matches or exists in accord with another object’s shape or size; ‘fair’ is connected to the verbs vegen (Dutch) and fegen (German) meaning ‘to adorn’, ‘to decorate’, and ‘to sweep’; fegen is in turn connected to the verb fay, the transitive and intransitive verb meaning ‘to join’, ‘to unite’, ‘to pact’; in turn, the making of a covenant or treaty or agreement, is from the same root as pax, pacis, the word for peace. The connect between fairness in beauty and fairness in justice clarifies itself in John Rawls’ definition of fairness as a ‘symmetry of everyone’s relations to each other’. It links in proximity to Aristotle’s statement that justice is a perfect cube, equal and proportionate in all directions. Beauty and justice share balance and the weighing of sides, according to Stuart Hampshire. We are drawn to symmetry intuitively, and injustices are perceived as imbalance, when something is amiss, not only through reason but also through sensory faculty.
The characterization of a person as beautiful, either individually or by consensus, is often based on some combination of inner beauty, which includes psychological factors such as personality, intelligence, grace, politeness, charisma, integrity, congruence and elegance, in addition to external aesthetic attributes that make for physical attractiveness. The outer cannot be a substitute for the inner, whereas it, vice versa, can be. And that explains the abiding success and renown of Socrates, Satre, Lincoln and legions of others who dazzled brilliantly on the world’s stage purely on strength of their inner radiance. The perspective is very much the same if one scans some of the major religions; Shiva, Rama and Krishna were all dark complexioned, contrary to their fairly glowing depictions in art and paintings; Krishna is described in scriptures as kaarmukil varna, Sanskrit for the ‘colour of rain-clouds’. The name krishna means ‘dark and all-attractive’, the darkness that attracts everything to itself and illumines the world, in contrast with white colour that only reflects light. Similarly, the depiction of Christ in fair and compassionate features is born out of creative genius of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Hans Holbein, Raphael, Titian, Ghiberti, Vasari and other European artists; according to researched findings, Christ was short, with a patchy beard, and swarthy, in sharp contrast to the fair and well featured portraits by artists.
In light of larger and many dimensions of beauty, it would appear regrettable that popular culture is pathetically skewed in the perception of human beauty, mostly locked in externalities of features and complexions. Generations have grown up, fed on prejudices of colour, and culture of discrimination. When there is nothing in any religion to associate black with ugliness and negativity, many of the cultures and languages reek of colour prejudice; look at the many expressions in English such as blackguard, blackleg, black-market, black-money, blackball, black hole, black arts that include black-magic, blacklist, blackmail, black sheep, black mass, Black Maria, black spot, black widow, blackshirt, black eye, blackthorn, blackfly, black humour, all carrying negative connotations in varying degrees, so wide ranging that to communicate anything that is unfair, malevolent, cruel, illegal, harmful, the word ‘black’ is a handy prefix. Why not consider a racial purge of languages and use the prefix ‘white’, ‘brown’, or any other substitute, to convey all these negativities, just so that it may wean future generations away from unhealthy bias and prejudices? Ivone Gebara stated loudly that “The beauty that will save us is, above all, not pretty… Beauty does not exist without justice. Such beauty is false, a façade”. We need generations to grow up imbibing proper values and right perception of beauty, encompassing its many facets, beauty that promotes virtue, fairness and justice, as without it, there would no longer be anything to do to the world. In its comprehensive and sublime form, “beauty will save the world”, as Dostoevsky’s Prince Myskin emphatically stated, with unimpaired vision and heightened awareness, even in the midst of bodily ailment, grappling with a disfigured world trapped in darkness and spiritual epilepsy. Verily, it is beauty, and the preservation of beauty, that will save the world.