Is Beauty for the Birds?

Is Beauty for the Birds?

We set up our deck fountain fairly late this summer and — as a result, it seemed – no birds came.  For weeks, they just stayed away.  This was very disappointing, since we watch them while we talk about deep things over breakfast.

We reasoned that, when they saw no fountain in June or July, they formed other habits, collected around other water coolers for their gossipy bird socializing, and that birds – like the rest of us – are much inclined to groupthink. The word must have got out not to come here.

So imagine our untrammeled delight when, after many featherless weeks, one and then another began to visit our fountain!  At first, there were only wrens or sparrows.  Little pale, unpretentious things.  They didn’t “flock” to our fountain.  A lone bird would poke a wary little beak in the water, turn and look scared, and fly fast away.

But little by little, bird by bird, they began to congregate.  Even lordly cardinals have now joined, in their elitist style — squawking indignantly and lashing out with beaks aggressively when the lesser wrens and sparrows presume to share the space of the fountain.

It doesn’t seem fair to me — since there’s surely room on the rim for all — but beauty has its own preeminence.

Last night, I just finished a book with the title, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, by a writer on aesthetic subjects named Roger Scruton.  I’ve not done work in aesthetics as a philosophical field. I did used to paint, when we owned the house on Bayview Street, setting up my easel in the attic of the barn overlooking Narraguagus Bay.  When I look up now from my computer, one of those scenes of the bay is on the wall above my head, smiling down.

So why am I not interested in aesthetics?  I’ve sensed that, to discuss topics like taste, beauty, art – what are they? – you need to maintain a certain distance from the phenomena.  I’ve got no distance.  For example, it’s said that, to fully appreciate fictional narratives, you’ve got to “suspend disbelief.”  I’ve got no disbelief to suspend.

Scruton raises the question of whether “beauty” is entirely subjective, or actually has certain objective features.  His question reminded me of something I’ve long believed:

people can’t live without beauty.

If everything around them is ugly, people get hopeless.  Even the most relativistic sophisticates choose lovely environments for themselves to live in.  So it can’t be quite true that there is no disputing over taste, that beauty is entirely in the eye of the beholder, or that there is nothing objective about beauty.

Tourists all over the world come to see the great monuments to artistic and architectural genius.  They come to see the Taj Mahal and the Sistine Chapel.  They don’t come to see housing projects or your average factory.

Scruton wants to account for this need, this responsiveness, this consensus.  There must be something real about beauty, something deep, something attached to the terra firma on which we stand by nature – not just by convention.

By the same token, we can generally sense that there is something ugly about rudeness, cynicism, pornography, or propaganda.

This isn’t something I’ve reflected about before now, or written about in any philosophical article.  Ordinarily, I don’t even like to think about it.  It’s too private, too personal, too precious and vulnerable a subject.

 Too sacred.

There.  I said it.  Beauty is a clue to the qualitative side of life.  The deepest truths of our lives are not quantifiable.  Rather, they express a certain natural fit between

the inwardness of things

and their outward form. 

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father, the "Genius" Among the Giants. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to Is Beauty for the Birds?

  1. Judy says:

    The anthropologist sees many examples of the perception of what is beautiful being linked to culture. Like personal attributes, or what could be considered “art.” But the perception of beauty in the natural world seems part of all cultures, recognized by everyone. Who doesn’t go “ooh” when the setting sun makes the trees toward the east light up with gold?

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    • Abigail says:

      Hi Judy dear, Thaanks for your Comment — from one who has actually done field work in New Guinea — bearing the stamp of the authentically anthropological! The question of whether the cultural differences in values, ethical, aesthetic, etc., prove that values ARE just cultural practices (what those people do) is the one raised by anthropological reports from the field. Philosophers and opinion-shapers have been deeply affected by these reports. That said, anthropologists’ value neutrality is methodological. They suspend their own value judgements so that they can report what they see without bias. Their method is fine for their purposes but it doesn’t settle the question of whether what people actually do is the same as what they ought to do.

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