Beauty’s Broad Range of Meaning

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In Plato’s Apology, an early dialogue about the trial of Socrates, Socrates famously claims that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” By this he means that a life lacking in self-understanding, a life without the kind of inquiry and exploration that for him was characteristic of philosophy, would be constricted, with limited meaning and value. My students are often skeptical about such claims to set up a hierarchy of lives; they tend to recognize value in a multiplicity and diversity of ways of being in the world, including an unexamined life, whatever that might be—though they generally wouldn’t choose such a life for themselves.

But I can’t help wondering about beauty. Is beauty so important in my life that I would regard a life limited in beauty as fundamentally lacking? What would my life be without the commonplace moments of transcendent beauty: when I walk to school in the morning and marvel at the sunlight catching dew on a spider web; hearing students singing in harmony under the apple trees below my open office window; watching the first snowfall bring a kind of purity to the landscape?

As Plato pointed out, so much of what we take to be of utmost importance in our lives, we may not understand. I think of this when I think of beauty, for even as I recognize how singularly significant it is for me, I am not sure I understand it very well. Indeed, the more I think about beauty the more perplexing it becomes. Below I pose a question about beauty, the first of several I will offer in the coming weeks, to express some of my perplexity.

What are we referring to when we describe something as “beautiful?” In English, “beautiful” has a broad range of meaning. It includes, of course, the beauty of the Marlboro hills when the morning light plays with the rising mist.

But we might also hear someone describe as “beautiful” the embarrassment or humiliation of an arrogant politician or acquaintance. What does it mean to refer to both of these as beautiful? And what about sex appeal, which we often describe as beauty? Is sexual attractiveness its own kind of beauty or is it basically similar to the beauty of the opening first movement of the Schubert Cello Quintet, or is it something altogether different from beauty?

– William Edelglass

Philosophy Professor


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