On beauty

by Lorenzo Piccoli


I have recently defended beauty in a conversation. The truth is I enjoy spending time with beautiful people and by beautiful I mean aesthetically beautiful. I also tend to trust a person better if he/she is beautiful. Even more, I consider beauty a virtue and I choose my friends accordingly. I know: this is a hugely controversial argument and as I was speaking about it I probably ended up coming across as a narcissist and frivolous person. Which I might very well be; but for other reasons than this. Here I am determined to stand my ground and show you that beauty matters a lot – especially when choosing your friends.

I should add that initially I did not want to write about this topic. But then today I read a New York Times article about Novak Djokovic and tennis which, rather incongruously, brought me to an essay written by Susan Sontag.  And I could not resist summarizing it here. Sontag writes: To be concerned with one’s own beauty is to risk the charge of narcissism and frivolity. Why? Because beauty can illustrate an ideal; a perfection. Or, because of its identication with women (more accurately, with Woman), it can trigger the usual ambivalence that stems from the age-old denigration of the feminine. Much of the discrediting of beauty needs to be understood as a result of the gender inflection. Misogyny, too, might underlie the urge to metaphorize beauty, thereby promot- ing it out of the realm of the ‘merely’ feminine, the unserious, the specious. For if women are worshiped because they are beautiful, they are condescended to for their preoccupation with making or keeping themselves beautiful. Beauty is theatrical, it is for being looked at and admired; and the word is as likely to suggest the beauty industry (beauty magazines, beauty parlors, beauty products)–the theatre of feminine frivolity–as the beauties of art and of nature. How else to explain the association of beauty–i.e., women–with mindlessness? Obviously Sontag is suggesting that beauty is not frivolous at all.

In fact, beauty demands sophistication, knowledge, discernment, commitment. People can appear beautiful precisely because they reach such a level of sophistication in the way they appear. They must not necessarily be physically attractive, but they might have a distinctive style, or something that is, in fact, aesthetically beautiful. Sure enough, there is something élitist about it. Fine with me, I won’t contest it. But there is more. Assuming beauty as an aesthetic category puts it on a collision course with the ethical. But Sontag also writes that the ascription of beauty is never unmixed with moral values. Far from the aesthetic and the ethical being poles apart, as Kierkegaard and Tolstoy insisted, the aesthetic is it- self a quasi-moral project. Arguments about beauty since Plato are stocked with questions about the proper relation to the beautiful (the irresistibly, enthrallingly beautiful), which is thought to flow from the nature of beauty itself. So the perennial tendency to split beauty up into ‘inner’ and ‘outer,’ ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ is just a way to colonize pure judgments about beauty by moral judgments. Which is to corrupt beauty and to grossly misunderstand its value.

Beauty, as every other virtue, needs to be cultivated. A beautiful body requires commitment; a beautiful grace requires sophistication; a beautiful style requires knowledge; and even beautiful eyes required stories to tell. Not only that. For beauty to arise, a combination of these factors is necessary: a person who has a beautiful body but dresses horribly, without style, is generally regarded as a cafone, or a tamarro. And so on. For all these reason, I very much enjoy spending time with beautiful people and I think this is so because their beauty suggests that there is more about them. I make it a pride to have friends who are, well, pretty beautiful. In more than one way.

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