Skeptics of Beauty

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More questions and musings from resident Philosophy Professor, William Edelglass:

Some recent thinkers and artists have argued that beauty is not the support for ethics and justice that earlier thinkers had imagined.  Instead, they have argued, the valorization of beauty is an expression of privilege: only people who have all their basic needs met could really care about beauty.  Moreover, attention to beauty lifts us out of the ethical demands of a world in which there is suffering.  Instead of contemplating beautiful scenery or works of art, we need to respond to that suffering, it is argued.  And if we do make works of art, they should not reflect the tastes of the privileged but should disturb them, to draw our attention to social and political truths which are obscured by the devotion to beauty.  What is the relationship between beauty—say, for example, the beauty of a painting by Mark Rothko — and morality, justice, and politics?  Ought we to be skeptical of beauty and strive to escaped the “cult of beauty”?




I don’t believe in beauty.

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Or at least I try not to.

What I mean is that beauty is so wrapped up in aesthetics, which are so subjective and yet socially inscribed, that I don’t believe anything is purely, ultimately, innately beautiful. I fear that we limit ourselves in our thoughts of what could possibly be beautiful – day to day, we enter into routine and forget to really see, hear, touch, feel…

Therefore, I think we should question why we think something is beautiful to see what it implies about what we don’t think is beautiful. It’s easy to see where I’m going with this – I often wonder why I turn heads (and apparently invite comments on my “beautiful” appearance) when I strap on a pair of heels, as opposed to when I go to the corner store in my sweatpants. I wonder, doesn’t ugliness have its own beauty, and maybe beauty its own ugliness? This is why I attempt to disregard beauty all together.

When I think about this question in relation to my own experience, I often think about people’s labeling of themselves as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ dancers. As a dancer and dance-maker, I run into so many people who, upon hearing what I do, comment on their inability to dance. Do they not believe they are beautiful dancers? To me, the awkward stumblings of these pedestrians are more innovative and inspiring than the calculated precision of a ballerina. The way I see it, what qualifies as beauty – or ability to create a “beautiful” dance – is the motivation behind the person performing a dance, their own joy in movement. I see the uninhibited commitment to movement (whether that movement could be see as beautiful or ugly) as beautiful. And there, I’ve admitted my own surrender to beauty.

Maybe it’s arbitrary to do so, but I don’t want to call it beauty. Beauty implies form, implies an image – just as the word “movement” implies a particular shape. Why can’t we define a particular “beauty” or “movement” by intent or by how it arose. I want beauty, like movement, to be a process, not a hard image which bodies try to recreate.

In lieu of flushing all these snip-its of ideas out, I pose to you this video as a site of investigation:

Beauty in Cultural Context

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Between individual feelings of pleasure in the beautiful and objective properties of the beautiful object, there is also the question of the cultural contexts in which we cultivate our tastes.  The first time I saw Tibetan opera it was culturally interesting but not particularly beautiful.  But after several years of living with Tibetans in northern India, regularly hearing Tibetan music, and seeing many hours of traditional opera, I did find it both entertaining and more and more moving and beautiful.  Does one have to enter into another culture to appreciate its aesthetic productions and find them beautiful?  Do some manifestations of beauty just take more time to appreciate than others?  What is the relationship between beauty and cultural contexts?

– William Edelglass

Philosophy Professor

Beauty is a Roommate

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My roommate and I this year are half best friends, half the same person. We finish one anothers sentences, like the same kind of music, and wear the same size shoes. Soulmates are not necessarily a romance thing. A soulmate is a person who understands you, and loves you, even the pieces that drive them nuts, and sometimes, if you’re lucky, a soulmate is also a roommate.

There is beauty in not having to explain why you’re cranking loud rock music at 11pm, and there is also beauty in dancing around your dorm room folding clothes just because you can.

There is beauty in laughing so hard with someone that you literally fall on the floor and can’t breathe.

There is beauty in discussing, in September, where you want to live together the next year, and in making the assumption that after another year of living together, you’ll still want to live with each other.

There is a strange kind of beauty in singing “What Is This Feeling” from Wicked with your roommate every time you get in the car.

There is beauty in sitting on opposite sides of the room playing Words With Friends with one another, and yelling “Play a word! Play a word!” 30 seconds after you send a word.

There is beauty in watching TV shows and movies together that you won’t admit you watch to anyone else because they’re so bad.

There is beauty in accidentally staying up until 2am talking about life across the room in the dark.

There is beauty in having a bad behavior spray bottle for one another, and then deciding that you’re going to drive each other nuts with it, and so seriously debating getting water guns instead.

There is beauty in being in class together and reaching for the other person’s water bottle without asking because you don’t need to.

There is beauty in having an unspoken agreement to leave the windows open until it’s literally so cold you have to close them or get frostbite at night.

There is beauty in living together, and knowing you have someone there for you all the time.

If you’re lucky, there’s beauty in a roommate.

-Rosie Kahan ’15 (the one on the left)

The Problem of Naked Dead Things

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The mind isn’t always a beautiful place. Leontius, for example, couldn’t restrain himself from looking at the naked corpses lying at the executioner’s feet. At first, he covered his eyes, turning away from the grisly scene. Eventually, his prurient interest won out.  His eyes popped open and his legs propelled him forward for a closer look. Embarrassed to find himself standing over the bodies, Leontius cried out, “Look, you damned wretches, take your fill of the fair sight.”

A modern reader might diagnose Leontius as psychotic. His contemporary Athenians, however, had a different vocabulary. According to Socrates, the great doctor of cities and psyches, Leontius was a man whose inner desires were in revolt against the authority of reason. The “damned wretches” were not the bodies before him but his own unruly passions. The cure for this uncomfortable condition was not medication but dialectical philosophy. Once Leontius reasserted the rational part of his soul – through reason, argument, and experience – his mind would achieve its natural beauty.

Socrates was impressed with Leontius’s anger, a spirit that usually aligns itself with reason. Leontius’s strange public outburst, he explained, shamed the appetitive aspect of the soul into submission. If Leontius’s ruling function could then show the “damned wretches” some love and kindness, his soul would get back on track. While not providing us with the rest of the conversation, Socrates gives us enough information to chart the course. Begin with a terrible embarrassment and then call out the wretches. Next, lovingly guide them in a healthier direction.

I am most impressed Leontius’s public performance. His recovery not only requires humility and courage, it also demands a wild sense of humor. He is training his inner demons like dogs to a whistle. “Leave it!” he shouts as they rush towards the pornographic. “Come!” he commands, bringing their crazed unruliness back home. No longer ashamed of their puppy ways, the man with the beautiful mind can channel their exuberance to his own delight and to the comic relief of any spectators. How lovely that we humans can improve and still be entertaining!

– Meg Mott

Political Theory Professor

Beauty is Where your Head Turns

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Beauty is where your head turns when it seems to be out of your control. We see and touch and taste things all day long, automatically doing what we’re doing. But on occasion a switch flips inside us and our senses connect to memories—places we’ve been or a voice we heard once—or to some animal impulse deep within, preserved from our days as hunters and gatherers. The connection happens without us knowing, until we feel a jerk in our gut, like someone tugging on a fishing hook and line that was dormant for years. Whether it is inherent in an object or dependent on the genius of some compartment in our brain, beauty, when it matters most to most people, is something we feel. It stirs, shakes, pokes and prods, like new organs growing and dying inside us.

Beauty isn’t just something that pleases your senses—it’s something that triggers that organ-growing effect inside of you, that makes you step back from the comfortable touching and tasting and seeing you’d been contentedly doing all day long. When you experience beauty, you open and escape, however briefly, from your own little world and recognize how big and all-encompassing everything around you is. Beauty transcends individuality. It’s almost as though it causes you to connect more deeply with some energy or source of power in the universe, even though you probably don’t know what you’re connecting to, or even that something touched and changed you at all.

You might try to translate the feeling into something familiar, but the beauty that pulls you up always puts you back down, like being cast back into a veil of salty gray water. You have to resort to fishing analogies to describe the feeling because beauty is beyond language and, with it, comprehension. As close as you may come to capturing that experience, you are still left with just a shadow of what you experienced, and must hope that something in your description resonates with someone else who has also known beauty. And maybe realizing that you’ve felt the same way they have makes you both remember that touch to your soul, or hook in your gut, and feel it again. Remembering beauty connects the two of you, which is the same thing as when you experienced it in the first place—it opens you up to realizing the world is bigger than you, that you’re connected to everything. And that connection is what is beautiful.

– Patrick Magee, ’14

Structure is Beautiful

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As someone who spends her time studying science, I have come to truly value what the natural world has to offer.  Here at Marlboro, I have the luxury of spending my time looking at all different aspects of life on Earth.  For example, this past semester, I began taking Comparative Anatomy.  When I walked into the lab last week, a model of a human skeleton was staring me in the face.  Across the room stood the actual skeleton of a cat accompanied by a few bird skulls, a dog skull, and a hyena skull.  To anyone else these may be just bones.  But they aren’t simply bones.  They are a contributor to life and that’s magnificent.

I find that the beauty is in the life form entirely, but the root of this form is the skeleton.  These bones are the basis of our structure, some of our mobility, and our self-protection.  How can something so seemingly fragile be so important?  For example, the tailbone of a cat appears as though is could snap in an instant and, yet, without at least some of that tail, the cat lacks the strong sense of balance it requires for everyday life.  Similarly, that same cat relies on its ribcage to protect many of its vital organs.  However, with some impact, it’s possible that a few of the ribs could crack.  Without even thinking about it, living organisms put a lot of faith on these breakable forms to allow them to live their daily lives.

Further more, I find the commonality of structure just as beautiful.  It’s amazing to me that humans and cats have many of the same bones in their skeletons.  For example, our skulls are categorized into the same three sections as a cat skull.  By looking at these structures, we can see similarities between humans and many other organisms, which can provide a basis by which all organisms relate to each other.  Our bones are the same.  The pure foundations of our forms are what we all, as living beings, have in common.

While the skeleton of any organism is fascinating to study, the bones themselves are not necessarily what is so beautiful.  It’s how living things rely on them so heavily, how they provide us with the ability to exist in life as we know it, and how we are able to believe that something that appears so fragile will be strong enough to carry us and other organisms wherever we need to go.  Because of bones we are here and we have structure and that is what is so remarkably beautiful.

– Emma McCamant ’14


Is Beauty REALLY in the Eye of the Beholder?

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Another set of thought provoking questions from Professor William Edelglass:

Is beauty a property of things out in the world, or is it really “in the eye of the beholder”?  To experience something as beautiful is to be moved, to feel a certain pleasure.  And we can sometimes say why something is beautiful. We can indicate the properties of a tree or a painting or a song that might lead others to recognize its beauty.  Thus, we act as if beauty is when we feel a particular kind of response to things, as well as a property of the object.  But when I experience beauty — say the glory of Palestrina — I never experience it as something which is relative to me. I feel it as something that others should also feel, that they are missing something important if they do not feel the pleasure of this particular beauty.  Can this dilemma between subjective feelings of beauty on the one hand and objective properties on the other be sustained? Or does one have to abandon one or the other to have a consistent understanding of beauty?

Check out William’s first post for an introduction and more questions!

– William Edelglass

Philosophy Professor

Beauty is…

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a chocolate cake


a vintage dress


a place of one’s own


fresh flowers




a sunlit porch


sharing it with someone you love.


-Desha Peacock,

Director of Career Services

& Style Blogger


Photo Credits: Desha Peacock and Elle James

Beauty is Having Super Powers

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On Saturday, I was leafing through the local weekend paper and came across a photo spread of the Paralympics. Across the page were photos of amazing athletes with what many of us would think to be impossible challenges. Many of the athletes were playing their sports from wheel chairs. Some were leaping or running with one or both legs supplemented by prosthetic running legs.  Other aquatics athletes were swimming or diving with an arm missing or both legs amputated at the knees. The looks of determination, strength and joy were so inspiring I started to tear up. If these folks can do these amazing things with the impediments they face, what is holding anyone else back from their goals?

What I find beautiful is that grit and magic we do find within us to push ourselves beyond what we thought humanly possible. This is when we discover our “super powers.” When Vermont was ravaged by Tropical Storm Irene last year, the whole state rediscovered their super power of caring for each other, doing what needed to be done in order for their neighbors to be okay, to dig out, to clean up, to get back on their feet. There wasn’t necessarily a plan in place for exactly how everything needed to happen. People simply responded. They came together, looked at who and what was in front of them, and did what made the most sense: picking up trash, making food, lending a hand, being good to each other.

In improv theater, actors are constantly tasked with exactly this problem every time they are onstage together. A set of circumstances are randomly assigned to a group. They arrive on the scene and go.  When they perform, pulling ideas out of what seems like nowhere, audience members are awed. It does seem like magic when these actors seamlessly pull together and perform what ends up sounding like a cleverly written Tom Stoppard or Woody Allen script.

Where else do you find that magic, those super powers that give someone or even you the strength, knowledge, determination, the shear awesomeness to do what you didn’t think was possible?

The magic that all of these people are drawing on is that of working hard to hone the skills of handling what seems impossible. All of these folks in their communities, gyms, fields or rehearsal spaces have been super heroes in training, working together, learning from each other how their individual or combined “wonder twin” powers prepare them to take on big challenges.  Super powers are truly beautiful, and they change the world.

– Jodi Clark

Director of Housing and Residential Life

Beauty is Truth, Ye Know

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Let’s just forget for the moment that T.S. Eliot considered the last two lines of John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to be a blight upon an otherwise lovely poem. Keats wrote: “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Okay, let’s also forget that the quote is craftily lifted from Sir Joshua Reynolds, an 18th century English painter. Finally, and this is my favorite, let’s ignore the fact that our man Keats distilled this fetching bit of wisdom, with the sleek simplicity of a mathematical proof, from contemplating a dusty old vase. At face value, I mean really, can you imagine a finer description of beauty than John’s?

If you’re living in the captivating psychological thriller known as the teenage years, you probably can. Is it an “Ode on a Double Latte,” or a computer program that randomly generates the mating calls of all known mammals, or a kinetic sculpture of the Big Bang constructed entirely of matchsticks? All it takes is a bit of that crazy, way-out-of-the-box, cross-multi-inter-disciplinary, Harry-Potter-meets-Lady-Gaga thinking that happens when you’re watching YouTube videos and thinking “this yoga breakdancing is awesome but would be even cooler if…,” imagining what the character in your favorite book would look like in person, or just laughing with friends.

And just think, first prize is $1000, or enough for a Grecian urn full of lattes. I kid you not—beautiful, eh? And that is all ye need to know.

– Philip Johansson (aka Potash Phil)
Senior Writer & Editor

Democracy is Beautiful

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Marlboro was founded in the wake of World War II with the explicit goal of redefining democracy in a world of uncertainty, a world where ideas such as fascism and communism were fresh, raw, and frightening. With the foundation of democracy in mind, Marlboro pushed its students to participate democratically through Town Meeting.

As the editor of Marlboro’s school newspaper, The Citizen, I have seen and participated in my fair share of democratic messiness. Marlboro is a small institution and is dramatically affected by the actions and opinions of the individuals who make it. When people talk, they talk to each other, they challenge each other, and they force each other to fully articulate their opinions. A diversity of thought and opinion forces them to think harder and learn how to interact more reasonably and intelligently with one another. When people are silent, the college stagnates, and so do students’ minds.

When people talk, the result is a gorgeous, frightening, and entirely unpredictable organism. The beauty of Marlboro is that people are not only encouraged to speak their minds; they are expected to. And if people speak enough and are able to find common ground, they can make real and tangible changes to the college. I’ve seen it happen over and over. I have seen students stand up, either through a speech or through articles in The Citizen, and demand more from their school, and I have seen those demands transformed into action.

Marlboro absolutely needs disagreement and its resulting discourse. Marlboro needs opinions that clash. Marlboro’s students, no matter how much they have changed over the past six decades, still expect their voices to be heard. And they should make them heard, because nothing here is more beautiful than the knowledge that someone is listening.

– David Amato ’14

Former Editor, Marlboro Citizen

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


Searching for Beauty

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Student in the Library

Katheryn Lloyd ’11 in the Marlboro College Library

As a librarian and researcher, when presented with a question like “What is beauty?” or “How do I explain why my creation is beautiful?,” I immediately think about finding information on how others, be they scholars, bloggers or anyone, have approached the subject of beauty. In an academic environment, we often stress the importance of building on the research completed by others before us.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the first use of the word beauty back to 1325, then in its Middle English form of bealte. 1325! The OED also provides eight different definitions of beauty. Just as there are several different definitions of the word beauty, there are many different ways to approach the question of beauty and, in turn, different disciplines that tackle the study of beauty from the arts to the sciences. Even the Library of Congress devotes several different subject headings connected to the study of beauty. Just a few examples: aesthetics, art —philosophy, beauty—personal.

I think we often forget how significantly the words we choose to search for information influence the results we get. Gee, that sounds obvious, but think about it and test it out. Try substituting the word aesthetics for beauty and vice versa. Try ambling around in your research. Try many different searches. Explore. Read. Get a bit lost.

If you are looking for inspiration or places to search, you might want to check out a few of following great freely available online resources and well as visiting your local library:


A catalog of books in libraries around the world. Use the “Find a copy in a library” feature to locate books in a library near you or visit your local library to learn more.

Google scholar:

A free place to search for scholarly books and articles. Some are available freely, others you’ll need to check with your local library to get access.
A fantastic place to search and browse public domain books, articles and videos.

– Amber Hunt

Reference and Technology Librarian