Why believe p? Because it is true. Why want x? Because it is good. Why look at y? Because it is beautiful. In some way, philosophers have argued, those answers are on a par: each brings a state of mind into the ambit of reason, by connecting it to something that it is in our nature, as rational beings, to pursue. Someone who asked ‘why believe what is true?’ or ‘why want what is good?’ has failed to understand the nature of reasoning. He doesn’t see that, if we are to justify our beliefs and desires at all, then our reasons must be anchored in the true and the good.

Does the same go for beauty? If someone asks me ‘why are you interested in x?’ is ‘because it is beautiful’ a final answer—one that is immune to counter-argument, like the answers ‘because it is good’, and ‘because it is true’? To say as much is to overlook the subversive nature of beauty. Someone charmed by a myth may be tempted to believe it: and in this case beauty is the enemy of truth. A man attracted to a woman may be tempted to condone her vices: and in this case beauty is the enemy of goodness. Goodness and truth never compete, we assume, and the pursuit of the one is always compatible with a proper respect for the other. The pursuit of beauty, however, is far more questionable.

– Roger Scruton, Beauty (2009)

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4 thoughts on “

    1. Quite. And elsewhere in the text we are reminded that divine beings may themselves be just as susceptible to beauty and just as likely to privilege surface appearance over deep structure. “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” “The sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose.”

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      1. So, here’s something interesting (well, maybe) about that. The Hebrew word in both those cases is *tov*; *tov* has an aesthetic and an ethical dimension. Something *tov* is good, or lovely, or maybe whatever is good is lovely, both the ideas are always there in *tov*. There’s another word, *yafeh*, that also means “beautiful,” but is more purely aesthetic. And whenever someone in the Bible is *yafeh*, something bad is about to happen (e.g., Joseph will be sexually harassed by Potiphar’s wife and thrown into prison, Tamar’s creepy half-brother Amnon will rape her), or has already happened (e.g., there are no women in all the land as *yafeh* as Job’s new daughters).

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      2. That is interesting. But it seems clear in context that the “sons of God” who took earthly wives acted wrongly. Perhaps some allowance should be made for stylistic choices: some biblical authors may have used *tov* where others would have gone with *yafeh*. In any case, it’s precisely the halo effect (the tendency to associate goodness with beauty) that interests me.

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