The Significance of Beauty
Some mornings are better than others.
When I leave home for work in the Winter, I am usually fortunate enough to catch the sunrise in full flow. If I am really fortunate, I step outside my front door and am immediately indulged into an otherworldly pink hue blanketing the street, building and cars, prompting an immediate glance upwards towards the sky. At this point I am left consistently speechless at the raw display of beauty above me, and I slow down my actions to take a moment to be present.
Witnessing such spectacles of nature are hard to describe. They elicit feelings of awe and leave us deeply satisfied. But what exactly causes these feelings?
Marketing studies have shown that when we see an item we find desirable, parts of the brain are triggered which initiate hand movement. In other words, when we see what we like, we are literally moved by it to the extent that we want to reach out and grab it.
This longing for that which pleases us is innate to our disposition, and if this is the case for man-made products of our own making, then how about the awe-inspiring expressions of natural beauty we experience from time to time?
But the questions go even deeper.
What effect does beauty have on us and why are we so enthralled by it?
It is impossible to be only slightly distracted by a faithful representation of beauty. Either it is not beautiful or it ardently demands and subsequently consumes your attention - consciously or unconsciously.
We are naturally enthralled by beauty because it represents and alludes towards perfection, the virtue that mankind has always striven toward yet never attained in character, work or art. Seeing it represented so effortlessly in the natural world means we are captivated by its expression and are universally drawn to it. Is it possible to be faced with immense beauty and yet to ignore it?
Beauty demands that it be noticed.
Contrary to what we may assume, beauty is just as much about fitting in as it is about standing out. We tend to think of popular, socially recognised masterpieces when asked to think of something beautiful, but we often fail to appreciate that for something to stand out, it must be a part of an environment that humbly pays homage to it. Were we to place every beautiful architectural landmark in the world next to each other, their individual beauty would be overwhelmed by the ugliness of incoherence in style and competition between them. When there is no mutual coherence of structure, competing styles values clash, creating a disarray which strikes us as unnerving. We do not find solace in such places and do not feel at ease.
In his book 'Beauty', Roger Scruton writes:
"Much that is said about beauty and its importance in our lives ignores the minimal beauty of an unpretentious street, a nice pair of shoes or a tasteful piece of wrapping paper ... Yet these minimal beauties are far more important to our daily lives, and far more intricately involved in our own rational decisions, than the great works which (if we are lucky) occupy our leisure hours. They are part of the context in which we live our lives, and our desire for harmony, fittingness and civility is both expressed and confirmed in them."
When we see a stunning sunrise or sunset, we experience the backdrop of sublime beauty that everything around us pays homage to. Whether we are surrounded by skyscrapers, mountains, oceans or farmland, all is enveloped and bows with humility to the bright rays from the sun and its affect on the clouds on the horizon. It provides a physical representation of the metaphysical background for our lives, which is a reassurance that this world was made for us. We belong.
This sense of belonging also serves to prompt us towards meaning in life. When faced with such sublime beauty, we cant help but feel a sense of humility. "What have we done to experience such beauty?" our soul whispers to us, as though we recognise its favour and our lack of deserving. When appreciated, natural beauty prompts the soul to search for meaning, this process forces us to zoom out on our lives and brings into perspective what really matters. Absorbing and appreciating natural beauty makes a person feel like the protagonist of existence, yet it comes with none of the arrogance. It is a sweepingly simple perspective that places you simultaneously at the center of the world and yet at its service.
Scruton also writes:
"Our need for beauty is not something that we could lack and still be fulfilled as people. It is a need arising from our metaphysical condition, as free individuals, seeking our place in a shared and public world. We can wander through this world, alienated, resentful, full of suspicion and distrust. Or we can find our home here, coming to rest in harmony with others and with ourselves. The experience of beauty guides us along this second path: it tells us that we are at home in the world, that the world is already ordered in our perceptions as a place fit for the lives of beings like us."
An Elusive Experience?
We may be inclined to think that experiencing brilliant displays of natural beauty is limited to exotic locations at hard to reach places in far away countries, or to high-end hotels with rooms that have floor to ceiling windows that we so often see marketed on social media. It can elicit feelings of despair that we in our normal, average lives will ever be able to experience such splendour.
Thankfully, this is far from the truth.
While we often have to pay to experience the latest cinematic and artistic masterpieces, access to the most basic forms of natural beauty are free for all. Even better, they can easily outstrip the beauty of anything we may experience otherwise.
We can freely view and experience sunrises, sunsets, the splendour of the moon, the breath of fresh air that spring brings and the blanketing joys of snowfall. Many live though such events, but few really experience them. This is only achieved by paying attention and showing appreciation.
It is a blessing we take for granted that nature's beauty never gets old. Where we may tire of seeing the same piece of artwork again and again, we never hear of anyone tiring of seeing the beauty of nature every day, though we may experience the same event thousands of times over the course of our lives. We have free, unlimited access to the most impactful examples of it at a whim.
A Call to Transcendence
Beauty surrounds us. It can provide feelings of belonging and elicit meaningful introspection for those who contemplate it. The next time you notice an abnormally colourful sunrise or sunset, be cognizant of the fact that such beauty has an implicit effect on your soul. It triggers feelings of belonging, meaning and perspective.
This is especially important in modern times, and at its peak value for anyone living in heavily urbanised surroundings, for our environments can often be deceptive; engineered and designed to draw attention away from the natural sublime towards the craftmanship of steel, concrete and glass.
But our hearts are not moved by cold steel, nor by the smoothness of glass. We are not inspired by concrete, or moved to contemplation by plastic. We don't see them represent any higher values, nor do they prompt introspection. They are monuments to our experiments, a reminder merely of physical achievement and an ironic barrier against introspective and metaphysical reflection.
Take time to turn your gaze towards that which envelops us in awe.