Sunday, September 23, 2012

What is Beauty?

What is beauty?

This is certainly not a new question, nor a question to which I aspire to offer any new answers, but to me, at least, it is an important question.  Perhaps my conception of beauty was purest when I was a child, and now I only catch glimpses of the beauty and wonder of the world that once continually flooded my experience.  Since my youth I have often yearned to travel in order to experience the beauty of other peoples and places, and I have been blessed with ample opportunities to do so. Nevertheless, my heart resonates with Marcel Proust's keen observation that, "
Le véritable voyage de découverte ne consiste pas à chercher de nouveaux paysages, mais à avoir de nouveaux yeux."- "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes."  

How does one obtain new eyes?  If eyes can change, then the oft repeated dictum that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" would suggest that beauty is ever changing with our changing perceptions.  I find this definition of beauty to be unsatisfactory.  In his poem Ode on a Grecian Urn, Keats wrote: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty," – that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. (lines 46–50)" If Keats was right, then beauty, like truth, is unchanging, fixed like images on the urn.  But that Keats employs different words suggests that he is describing two different, though related, phenomena. 

One dictionary defines beauty as follows:


  1. A combination of qualities, such as shape, color, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, esp. the sight.
  2. A combination of qualities that pleases the intellect or moral sense.

I recently stumbled upon an article about a woman named Lizzie Velasquez.  Lizzie has a rare undiagnosed condition: she was born with no body fat or cells to support fat storage.  In high school she was ridiculed for being ugly, and she was terribly mocked in a youtube video.  But rather than respond with revenge, this beautiful and courageous young lady decided to transform her challenge into a victory.  I was deeply moved by Lizzie's courage, and the beautiful way in which she responded to adversity and to her accusers.  I could not help but trace her story to the fountain of both truth and beauty, namely Jesus Christ, of whom it was written:

"For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.
He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not." (Isaiah 53:2-3; Mosiah 14:2)

Paradoxically, this same tender plant with no beauty is praised as Beautiful Savior:

"Beautiful Savior!
Lord of the nations!
Son of God and Son of Man!
Thee will I honor, praise, and give glory,
Give praise and glory evermore!"

What then is beauty?  Perhaps we have hid our faces from it.  Perhaps we have closed our eyes to it, and the real voyage of discovery consists in having new eyes.