I seem to be getting more and more superficial as I get older. As a teenager, I was a devotee of Hamlet, whose horror at artificial surfaces and elevation of inner purity led him to oscillate between righteous rage—“God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another”—and dark depression: “How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world!” Now that I’ve turned forty you can make my day with a memorable bottle of wine. Just as I get depressed when it’s gray, wanting to curl up and do nothing at all, so too anything ugly depresses me—why can’t Google offer scenic routes?—and anything beautiful, no matter how banal, seems to lift me up. My development from adolescent angstmeister to champagne socialist may be algorithmically unsurprising, but the fact remains that it’s when I allow myself to delight in the surface of things that life now seems most worth living. “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances,” wrote Oscar Wilde, and I am inclined to agree—which is precisely why I have never been able to finish that ugliest of novels, The Picture of Dorian Gray.
A few weeks ago I met a woman whose warm, sleek eyes were on my mind for some time afterwards. Being a happily married man I should probably give some context. I was at a dinner in South Philadelphia for international faculty from the Tri-College Consortium of liberal arts colleges (Bryn Mawr, Haverford and Swarthmore) and I was feeling a little sheepish since unlike everyone else I didn’t seem to know anyone. Fortunately there was some mildly unpleasant natural wine to provoke conversation and soon enough I was in my element, trading anecdotes about expat life with an Argentinian guy whose infectious smile and nonchalant demeanor reminded me of Jean Dujardin. There were about twelve of us, so when a lesbian couple arrived late and sat at the other end of the table I didn’t think much of it. Before long, though, my wandering gaze disclosed that one of the women was really quite beautiful. When she came over to chat with the organizer, I made sure to introduce myself, and we ended up locked in conversation for a good twenty minutes or so. Perhaps I’m protesting too much, but I wouldn’t say there was any sexual tension between us. We spent most of the time talking about the difficulties of bringing up kids in America, and then I hope I’m not being impolite when I say her gray hair made her seem quite a bit older than me. What I will admit, though, is that I doubt I would have enjoyed it so much if she hadn’t been so beautiful.
Beautiful people make me want to talk. Perhaps there’s a competitive element to this in terms of wanting to show off, but I think the main feeling is one of excitement: I feel more alive somehow, and I find my words quicker as a result. It’s like I’m a plant and the sun has started to shine on me. And then there’s a feedback effect because in the back of my mind I know I can only stay in that light if I keep the conversation going, so I try extra hard to be engaging, and then the whole process becomes a temporarily self-sustaining reaction that bubbles up with an effervescence that presages its own inevitable soufflé-like end. What keeps the reaction going, of course, is if the other person is feeling and doing the same. If there’s a sexual edge in addition, we call it falling in love. Ever since I was a toddler I’ve been notorious for requesting early nights—“Shall I go to bed now?” was apparently my preschool catchphrase—but at 6 a.m. on April 28, 2013, five days after meeting the woman who became my wife, I could be found perched on the ramparts of the city walls in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, deep in conversation, captivated and entranced, raging at the dawning of the light.
But although the desire to prolong the moment reaches its peak in the early stages of love, I experience it whenever I’m talking to someone beautiful. Some might call this a feature of our reaction to beauty in general, perhaps even part of the concept of beauty. But I can get my fill of a beautiful landscape pretty quickly, and I couldn’t stay with a beautiful painting for five hours. I do want to see them again, but that’s not quite the same. The feeling I have with beautiful women in particular is about not wanting to let them slip away: they have a kind of radiance that warms and energizes you, but you can’t hold it in your hands, it slips through your fingers, so the only way to keep it with you is to throw more fuel on the fire.
Playing with fire isn’t always the best idea, and one thing can certainly lead to another. But although Nietzsche was probably right that “the degree and nature of a person’s sexuality extends into the highest pinnacle of his spirit,” we can still make distinctions. In and of itself, the feeling I’m referring to makes you want to talk with someone, not touch them. You can feel its pull even in the presence of the very old or the very young, or members of the “wrong” sex (if you have one). And whereas romantic passion is characterized by a distinct kind of hope that is bound up with the possibility of possessing and being possessed, the drive I’m thinking of doesn’t require projecting a future with the other person beyond the conversation itself.
Professional deformation inclines me to reach for the word “Platonic” here—not so much because of “platonic relationships,” which in Plato’s own version are not actually all that platonic, but rather because of the observation, credited to Diotima in the Symposium, that love of beauty can engender philosophy. Being in the presence of beautiful people, Diotima claims, makes those with philosophical souls “instantly teem with ideas and arguments about excellence.” The Plato-induced self-deception of middle-aged college professors is by now its own cliché, but I genuinely believe Diotima was right.
There’s no doubt beauty can motivate us: whatever else it does, it attracts. Some say this attraction gives us an intense desire to learn everything we can about its source, and that this necessarily leads the mind both outwards and upwards. Because everything beautiful is beautiful in its own way, both Elaine Scarry and Alexander Nehamas have claimed, we can only understand the call of a particular beautiful thing by grasping its uniqueness; that requires understanding how it differs from everything that might at first seem similar; and that requires learning about all those other things as well. It’s a clever argument, but I would be lying if I said talking with beautiful women has ever made me want to compare and contrast.
Diotima’s account of eros in the Symposium strikes me as truer to the way beauty draws the mind upwards. The basic idea, as I see it, is that beauty is “in harmony with the divine.” Being in its presence inspires us to reach beyond our earthly finitude and so liberates our creativity. There are higher and lower versions of this. Purely physical attraction leads those who are “pregnant in body” to want to conquer immortality by reproducing in the biological sense; intellectual attraction leads those who are “pregnant in soul” to aspire toward the divine by discussing excellence and then trying to imitate or engender it. In the ideal case there is a corresponding developmental ladder that leads a philosophical soul from love of one beautiful body to love of all beautiful bodies, and then to love of beautiful souls, and from there to love of beautiful cultures and beautiful ideas and finally to love of beauty itself, the so-called form of beauty. This ascent might sound bloodless and monastic, but for Plato it is clearly meant to be passionate and personal, the stuff of erotic intoxication. It’s just that in his mind the ultimate object of attraction is the basic principle of goodness that structures the cosmos into a harmonious and intelligible order.
Stendhal suggests that beauty issues “a promise of happiness,” and that seems right as a description of what Plato was getting at, especially if we add, as Stendhal did, that the promise can be misleading. Being struck by beauty changes your mode of attunement to the world, the aspect under which you see life as a whole. To put it in terms that do not come naturally to me, what I find myself wanting to say is: there is a god. That sentiment is almost irresistible to me when I hear beautiful music in a beautiful place, and in fact I sometimes wonder if music isn’t the essence of religion. But it happens to me with human beauty as well. When someone glows, their luminescence induces in me a kind of inchoate faith that seems to restore my intellectual energy and ambition—a feeling that the world is at bottom a good order.
Or perhaps it activates a faith that was already latent. Certainly I’ve noticed in myself a form of optimism bias that involves my imagination filling in the gaps of what I can’t quite see so as to render it beautiful. Last fall I was busy humiliating myself in a Pilates class when I started to form the belief that the girl doing everything perfectly a couple of rows in front of me was a clone of Olga Kurylenko. She was not. A trivial example, admittedly, but some version of that experience happens to me so often I think it must reveal a fundamental assumption on my part, irrational but irrepressible, perhaps even biologically rooted, that things unknown will turn out to be well ordered, or at least that harmony at one level is evidence of harmony at another level. Just as a stick in water seems bent every time you look at it, no matter what you know about refraction, so I can’t help feeling, in the moment, that a perfectly formed backside portends a perfectly formed face or that a beautiful smile portends a beautiful world.
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Read more essays like this in our
“What is beauty for?” symposium,
such as “Unnatural Gifts” by Becca Rothfeld
and “The Emancipation of Sensibility” by Jesse McCarthy
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“Some physiognomies augur well,” writes Montaigne. Where the beautiful themselves are concerned, I have something like the opposite feeling. I don’t know what this says about the coherence of my superstitions, but I can’t help fearing for them. In transcending the ordinary run of human life, their very existence seems to risk incurring the wrath of the gods. It ought to be spoken of in hushed tones, if at all. In fact, some people’s beauty is so intimidating it feels arrogant to even talk to them. As Plato knew, to find something beautiful is to find yourself in awe of it, to experience it as higher than you, to be ashamed before it; in the Phaedrus, he has Socrates describe the fear and reverence that a philosophical soul feels in the presence of a “godlike face or bodily form that has captured Beauty well.” Aristotle went so far as to claim that if there were humans as beautiful as the statues of gods, “everyone would say that those who fell short deserved to be their slaves.” As a normative proposition that is evidently mad, but psychologically speaking we do seem to have a terrible urge to submit to the beautiful—to praise them for their beauty, to anatomize it, to register its effect on us, to reward it with our attention. Even academics who spend their lives critiquing the culture industry are regularly swayed by striking faces or appealing accents, and despite their obsession with watching words they generally can’t help themselves when it comes to telling a beautiful child how lovely they look, no matter how corrupting or invidious they know such pronouncements to be.
“Plato thought it was important to love people for what they are like on the inside—not for what they look like or for what they have,” says my four-year-old’s least favorite board book, Love with Plato. “If you love people for who they really are, and love things you can’t see, you can be wise like Plato.” This mantra might not be the most effective way of selling philosophy to preschoolers—my daughter has concluded that Plato is for babies—but in its flat-footed way it expresses something everyone with a post-preschool level of moral development knows to be true, namely that judging people based on their appearance is typically offensive and unfair, even when the judgment is positive. It reeks of that most absurd of sciences, physiognomy, whose malign effects do not need recounting. So why not retreat, as the Plato book suggests, to the notion of inner beauty? “When people love us for who we are on the inside,” after all, “we feel understood.”
I do think there can be beauty in the way someone’s mind works. If I ask myself who I find most divine among the people I know—most awe-inspiring, but also most likely to risk the wrath of the gods—my mind turns to my oldest and closest friend, who makes half a living out of sitting down at the piano with no plans or thoughts and somehow improvising his way to transcendence: when he hangs his head above the keys and starts to feel his way toward bliss, note by note, swaying with the rhythms he discovers, letting out the occasional moan, it really does seem as if he’s not quite fully human. If I had to rank, then, I suppose I would agree with Plato that beauty of the soul is higher than beauty of the body. But at the risk—or cost, I should say—of being pedantic, I can’t help pointing out that unlike his board-book avatar, the real Plato never denies the value of bodily beauty. Although Diotima says the beauty of bodies is “a thing of no importance” relative to everything higher, she also insists that those pregnant with wisdom will be “much more drawn to bodies that are beautiful than to those that are ugly.” Socrates may be possessed of a magnificent soul, but he still spends much of his time following beautiful boys around. From the Platonic point of view, beauty is inspiring wherever it is found.
In any case, the whole inner-outer divide is too simplistic. Where human beauty is concerned, to quote Nehamas, “psychological and bodily features interpenetrate.” Sometimes you don’t realize how beautiful someone is until you really get to know them, and then something about who they turn out to be transforms the way you look at them. At the limit, in infatuation, everything about that person becomes sacred, from the minutest details of their biography to the patterns on their pockets, and then we can reach a limit case where (in Stendhal’s words) “ugliness even begins to be loved and given preference, because in this case it has become beauty.” The opposite can also happen: often someone seems beautiful until you talk to them, after which they have no pull on you at all. But in those cases you can normally still understand what others find attractive in them, which suggests that physical beauty is hard to unsee completely. And anyway I tend to find that seeing someone as beautiful makes their thoughts more interesting in the first place.
It’s that interpenetration of the physical and the psychological, which makes human beauty, encapsulated by the eyes, so much more fascinating than that of flowers or landscapes, at once hard to trust yet impossible to resist. The complexity is only increased by the fact that humans are capable of acting for the sake of the beautiful and asking what it consists in. George Orwell may have been exaggerating when he said that at fifty everyone has the face they deserve, but there’s something to it. People naturally create a picture around themselves, consciously or not, through the way they dress, the way they fix their hair, the company they keep, the music they listen to, the objects they surround themselves with, and we have no way of pulling apart, and no reason to pull apart, this whole mise-en-scène from their appearance. When we find someone beautiful, then, we are often also finding their sense of beauty beautiful. This isn’t a matter of disconnected tastes for this or that; it hangs together as a style of life, a mode of being in the world, a way of moving through space and time. In the end, then, the interpenetration is not so much between the physical and the psychological as between the physical and the existential.
I’m pretty sure I’ve become more sensitive to the existential aspect of beauty as I’ve grown older. I used to think of makeup, for instance, as reflecting a catastrophic failure to grasp what really matters in life: God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another. Depending on the person and the style, it now seems no different from putting flowers on a windowsill. By the same token, though, curation that is overly confected—punctilious accessorizing, ironed hair, fake eyebrows, frozen foreheads—generally leaves me as cold as a mercilessly manicured suburban lawn. Human beauty is necessarily in motion; to embalm it is to kill it. There is therefore a distinct form of beauty that lies in the way someone ages. Gracefulness demands surfing the waves of time rather than opposing them, and some are able to get to the shore unbowed. This genre of beauty is largely inaccessible to the young; they cannot manifest it and they cannot see it. With time, though, it becomes increasingly salient. Like the pristine wildernesses of North American mountain ranges, the perfection of youth can still stop me in my tracks. But what I find myself coming back to again and again are the lived-in valleys and gentle slopes of the English Lake District, whose natural features are inextricable from the human history written across their face—and something similar goes for people too.
That might sound like wishful thinking, but I mean it as a matter of aesthetics, not morality: just as the best wines develop secondary and tertiary layers to envelop and enrich their slowly fading fruit, so the form of beauty that now energizes me most, the one that makes me want to talk and talk, is inextricable from a biography and a history. I’m still vulnerable to human beauty in its primary form, I can’t deny, and anyway the point is that we can’t easily distinguish the existential and the physical: my wife obviously isn’t responsible for the steep curve of her hips or the eyelashes that sparkle her smile, but I can’t subtract them from the way she lights up in laughter when I tease her or the way she strides through the garden with a wheelbarrow in her hands—it’s the whole ensemble that allows me to hope, watching her from the window, that my children will grow up believing, perhaps even recollecting, that the world is a good order.
There is nothing just, or fair, about this form of goodness. Whatever human beauty is, it will never be distributed equally, and neither will its enjoyment. Few statements are more patently false than Elaine Scarry’s claim that “folded into the uneven aesthetic surfaces of the world is a pressure toward social equality.” Some will always be more elegant or more brilliant than the rest. That’s precisely what makes them seem divine. Even if we could somehow isolate a form of beauty that was entirely due to individual self-fashioning, it would still depend on an underlying capacity that some are better endowed with than others. From an egalitarian point of view, then, Love with Plato, which strips all content from the notion of beauty in the interest of teaching kids how to get along, is probably more salutary than the Symposium, which elevates it into an essential life-giving force.
But there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in today’s moral and political philosophy. Aside from the question of what we owe each other, there is also the question of why we should care about anything in the first place—for if anything is weary, stale, flat and unprofitable, it is surely the world called forth by puritanical egalitarianism. Without pockets of exuberant effervescence, unevenly distributed as they must be, we would lose the will to imagine and to create and to transform, to marvel at the world and to aspire to self-transcendence. Or perhaps I should speak for myself: I would. But I doubt I’m alone in that. Oscar Wilde may have been deliberately contrarian when he made Lord Henry tell Dorian Gray that only shallow people fail to judge by appearances, but he wasn’t exactly joking either. It is only through reconciling ourselves to our superficiality, he thought, that we can liberate our profundity. “One should sympathize,” he wrote in his great essay on overcoming capitalism, “with the entirety of life, not with life’s sores and maladies merely, but with life’s joy and beauty and energy and health and freedom.” Even socialism must have its bubbles.
Art credit: Patrick Kramer, Shattered Venus, 2021, Oil on panel, courtesy of the artist.