Beauty is a Big Deal

As I began doing my research for this series, I became acutely aware that, until now, I had not given the concept of “Beauty” nearly the amount of thought that it merits. I further realized that I was not alone in this.

It turns out that Beauty is a central concept in sacred literature from all religious traditions. Moreover, it is a pervasive concept in science, mathematics, metaphysics, and mysticism. Indeed, for how central the concept is to the grander domains of human thought, it is given shockingly little popular attention. Or rather, the popular attention is directed mostly towards cheap social ideas of beauty, such as those that the magazine covers urge us to strive for. However, beauty, as a concept, is far more than skin-deep.

Here are just a few examples:

  • In the Genesis account of the creation, when God proclaims everything “good” over and over again, the word translated as “good” is the Hebrew word טוֹב, which also means “beautiful”.
  • In Jewish, Christian, and mystical traditions, the idea of “completion” is central. In Genesis, for example, God declares His work “finished”, and then rests on the seventh day due to that fact. Thus, the number seven is associated with completion. Also, just before Jesus died on the cross, He is said to have proclaimed, “It is finished”. This theme of completion is closely connected in religious and linguistic ways to both the concept of “perfection” and the concept of “beauty”.
  • Beauty has long been, and continues to be, a guiding principle in mathematics and science. This is related to the mathematical/scientific concept of “symmetry”, which has long been thought indicative of a theory’s likelihood to express something true. This emphasis on symmetry has come under attack in the last few years, but the likely result will not be that we jettison the idea of symmetry entirely, but rather, that we balance it more appropriately with other principles. This, I believe, will not amount to a rejection of beauty as a guiding principle. As explained below, it will more likely result in a more subtle definition of mathematical/scientific beauty.
  • While mathematics and science have long sought beauty in symmetry, Heraclitus proclaimed millenia ago that “the most beautiful arrangement is a pile of things poured out at random”. The word used for “arrangement”, naturally, is the Greek word “κόσμος”, that is, “Kosmos”, from which we get the English word “Cosmos”.
  • If Heraclitus was correct, and if the contemporary scientific consensus about the general randomness of the universe is correct, then perhaps Leibniz, though ridiculed for supposing that we inhabit “the best of all possible worlds”, was also correct. I digress. However, my point is also that there are infinite such digressions, and so it turns out that “Beauty” will lead us on a very deep and wide journey.
  • Consider the common fact that the human perception of beauty in another human face is directly related to the symmetry of that face. However, upon second thought, this is only partly true, as the symmetry in question is entirely that of symmetry across the vertical axis. Were a human face to be also symmetrical across the horizontal axis, it would not look beautiful. It would look grotesque.
  • Perhaps then, beauty is actually a balanced juxtaposition of symmetry and non-symmetry. That is, perhaps it is equal parts Heraclitus and contemporary mathematics/science. After all, isn’t the beauty of life, in all its diversity, on planet earth, in some way the beauty of the juxtaposition of all that order against the background of apparent cosmic randomness and chaos?

I’ll conclude this line of thought for now, as I think I’ve sufficiently illustrated just how far the contemplation of Beauty can take us. This illustration doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface, as we will later see.

Next: Shame is Also a Big Deal