Despairing of Beauty

Having spent much of my PhD pondering the relationship of philosophy to beauty, this article by Andy Martin is refreshing in its topical focus on human beauty – and ugly philosophers.

socrates

Socrates (www.historyguide.org)

Martin suggests that the self-examination at the centre of the philosophical mindset is in opposition to the sense of one’s own beauty; when you start looking for flaws, of course you find them, as many a teenager has discovered in front of the mirror.

“I can’t help wondering if ugliness is not indispensable to philosophy. Sartre seems to be suggesting that thinking – serious, sustained questioning – arises out of, or perhaps with, a consciousness of one’s own ugliness. Philosophy, in other words, has an ironic relationship to beauty.”

Here there is also the implication that philosophy involves a drive to better oneself (and one’s thinking), so that there is no place for self-satisfaction. The idea that one can never be good enough is indeed familiar in the context of beauty and, as Martin points out, cosmetics companies make a lot of money from this urge to attain perfection.

However, the antagonistic relationship between philosophy and beauty which Martin sets up makes me wonder whether philosophy is, then, the best medium with which to analyse beauty. It seems to allow for only one interpretation of beauty: as an ineffable, impossible ideal that can never be made flesh.

This is a valid and convincing concept of beauty, but I am still searching for alternatives. Perhaps philosophy may be able to offer a better way for us to engage with the impossible beauty ideal – or would we be better off giving up all this self-examination? The less-examined life might just be worth living.

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