My pleasure in beauty is therefore like a gift to the object,
which is in turn a gift offered to me.
Beauty: A Very Short Introduction (public library) by Roger Scruton is part of the series Very Short Introductions from Oxford University Press. In his preface, Scruton explains the central argument of his philosophy of beauty: "Beauty . . . is a real and universal value, one anchored in our rational nature, and the sense of beauty has an indispensable part to play in shaping the human world" (xii).
|Beauty with Sister Hilda's color swatches for painting icons.|
In his first chapter entitled "Judging Beauty," Scruton explores the kind of attention we direct toward an object we deem beautiful. As we make those judgements, we should be mindful of the minimal yet still significant beauty of everyday objects and settings, such as a harmonious city street:
Rather, it [the harmonious street] suggests that we can understand beauty better if we describe it in another and less loaded way, as a form of fittingness and harmony. Were we to aim in every case at the supreme beauty exemplified by the Sta Maria della Salute, we should end with aesthetic overload. The clamorous masterpieces, jostling for attention side by side, would lose their distinctiveness, and the beauty of each of them would be at war with the beauty of the rest (11).
|Sta Maria della Salute (The Basilica of St. Mary of Health) in Venice. |
credit: Jakubhal - CC BY GFDL
Focusing on the individual object outside of any purpose it serves is part of wanting and approaching beauty:
But wanting it for its beauty is not wanting to inspect it; it is wanting to contemplate it - and that is something more than a search for information or an expression of appetite (16).
Always there is the demand that we approach beauty for its own sake, as a goal that qualifies and limits whatever other purposes we may have (18).
Scruton also suggests that we refrain from overemphasizing the sensory experience of beauty to the detriment of the relationship established between the person and a given object:
I propose that, rather than emphasize the 'immediate,' 'sensory,' 'intuitive,' character of the experience of beauty, we consider instead the way in which an object comes before us, in the experience of beauty. When we refer to the 'aesthetic' nature of our pleasure in beauty it is a presentation, rather than a sensation, that we have in mind (21).
My pleasure in beauty is therefore like a gift to the object, which is in turn a gift offered to me. In this respect, it resembles the pleasure that people experience in the company of their friends. Like the pleasure of friendship, the pleasure in beauty is curious: it aims to understand its object, and to value what it finds (26).
Drawing on Kant, Scruton concludes the first chapter of Beauty by emphasizing beauty as an activity of rational creatures:
And one thing is surely right in Kant's argument, which is that the experience of beauty, like the judgement in which it issues, is the prerogative of rational beings. Only creatures like us - with language, self-consciousness, practical reason, and moral judgement - can look on the world in this alert and disinterested way, so as to seize on the presented object and take pleasure in it (28).* * *
My thanks to Professor Mark Woolman for his conversation about Beauty: A Very Short Introduction.