Is beauty important? Why does it even exist in the first place? Everyone has a definition of beauty, and they are all different: A beautiful body, a beautiful painting, a beautiful sunset. It captivates and arrests the gaze. Beauty shines through the whole universe. When confronted by true beauty, one cannot turn away one’s eyes. We aspire to be beautiful so people will love us. It captivates all the senses, the soul and the spirit.
Maybe the question is not “what is beauty,” but “why is beauty?” Why is it any use to us at all? How do we know it? As Freemasons, we are taught that Beauty adorns all great and important undertakings. Beauty in the arts gives pleasure through inspiration. A gentle obsession with beauty is a source of much in our lives. Let us muse together on beauty.
How does one decide if something is beautiful or not? The Greek philosophers Socrates and Plato are said to have been the first who tried to define beauty. They thought that an object is inherently beautiful. Other philosophers argued that beauty is subjective. Beauty is not the quality of the object but it is an experience of our own, thus the popular phrase, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” For example, after seeing a starry sky, a gorgeous painting, or a mystical rainbow, a person may feel wonder and awe by the beauty in it. But not everyone may feel the same way about those same things.
Is beauty objective or subjective? Does our perception of beauty define us?
Plato uses the symbol of a ladder to show different levels of beauty in his dialogue in The Symposium. Each rung of the ladder gives a different perspective. On the first step or level, a person loves a body, and then all bodies. By the third step, he relates to the beauty of souls over that of bodies. This leads to the love of laws and institutions, leading to the love of certain types of knowledge. It ends in the pursuit of knowledge, or the love of wisdom. Upon reaching this, the person will see Beauty in its purest form or Beauty itself.
Step 1 – A beautiful Body
Step 2 – All beautiful Bodies
Step 3 – Beautiful Souls
Step 4 – Beautiful Laws, Institutions
Step 5 – Beautiful Knowledge
Step 6 – Beauty Itself
Looking at this it seems that beauty is not just about pretty things, but it’s something much deeper and vaster. It involves some sort of process of transformation. There is a saying In Italian, “bello da morire” which means “beautiful to die for.” The presence of beauty creates the possibility for a shift in us. If we change too much, we die of our old selves. According to philosopher David Hume, “Beauty is no quality in things themselves. It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty.”
I think that beauty is like love in that it is one of those big realities in our life. Our relationships may be complex and at times contradictory and difficult. For example, we know that someone who looks traditionally very beautiful could be very dreadful indeed.
Ultimately, we face a paradox. Beauty may be important because it has strength and the power to transform us. But there are parts of us that resist that; we are attached to our old images of ourselves, old dogmas, and habits, and therefore, we prefer not to let in too much to beauty. It can be dismissed or ignored, and life goes on anyway in quiet desperation.
Do we even dare climb the ladder to this ineffable beauty? Plato said that beauty is truth. For example, if a statement is true it will also be beautiful. But there is even a problem with this. We might see a statement that is beautiful to us, yet if we test it we find out it is not true. Beauty is a very complicated relationship.
Beauty in Freemasonry
In Freemasonry, we learn the concept of beauty cannot only be of a material beauty. If we go deep enough we will indeed find out that beauty is the splendor of truth. Inner beauty is goodness, and inner goodness is beauty. At some point, comes a decision to tread the way and be a better person. Embracing beauty helps with that.
Plotinus, one of the most influential philosophers in the ancient world, talks about fostering an inner vision:
Cut away that which is superfluous, straighten that which is crooked, purify that which is obscure: labor to make all bright, and never cease to fashion your statue until there shall shine out upon you the godlike splendor of virtue, until you behold temperance established in purity in her holy shrine.
By making “crooked things straight,” it seems that we can begin to experience a portion of those beautiful truths. Raise your consciousness and beauty will unfold before you. Attending a beautiful masonic ceremony or engaging in the creative arts can be enlightening and so can eating a box of chocolates. Divine!
I recently was listening to an interview by the late poet John O’Donahue. Something in his words and in his haunting deep Irish voice touched my soul ever so beautifully. I closed my eyes to as if to pay homage to the gods of poetry and philosophy. It was one of those rare encounters with beauty. We have all had them. In a moment of sublime Beauty, we are all rendered speechless. Beauty is ineffable. Why Beauty? It conveys something Divine that book knowledge doesn’t. Beauty gives way to contemplation. Admittedly, the very heart of Beauty cannot be captured in words.
Beauty does not linger, it only visits.
Yet beauty’s visitation affects us and invites us into its rhythm,
it calls us to feel, think, and act beautifully in the world:
to create and live a life that awakens the Beautiful.
– John O’Donahue