How Should We Respond to Beauty?

We have all had the experience where upon encountering something very special, we are emotionally moved. When we encounter such things we often say that the thing is beautiful, such as that was a beautiful ceremony or that was a beautiful rendition of Handel’s Messiah. 

Of course one might argue that beauty is subjective, in the eye of the beholder, and to them I would reply that they are correct. What cannot be denied though is that there are things which exist in the world that are beautiful. We might disagree on what is or is not beautiful, and what qualities must be present in order for something to be considered beautiful, but beauty exists nonetheless. 

So if beauty exists and it is something we encounter, how or in what ways ought we respond? 

Encountering Beauty

I first had this question a few years ago in Colorado while watching the last light of day land on the peaks of the snow-covered mountains around me. There I was, witnessing this incredibly beautiful moment. I did not know what to do with myself. I still cannot find appropriate words. What should my response have been?

I am reminded of this question because of what I am experiencing right now. Once again, I am in Colorado, this time in winter, and just beyond the window is the heaviest snowfall I’ve ever experienced barring some unremembered time in my childhood.  The world around me is grey and cold, but six inches of clean white snow is covering everything in sight. The snow on rocks and trees, sidewalks and cars causes me to take notice of shapes normally taken for granted. What should my response be?

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Obligation to the Moment

Words such as should or ought imply an obligation, or at the very least some kind of action in response to the stimulus. There before me was a beautiful mountain at sunset. Here before me now is beautiful snow. What is my obligation to this moment?

When things happen around us, physical events in physical space, we should respond to those events. To not respond is to not engage with the world around you, and that is a waste, for what is more significant than your direct experience? And yes, if you choose not to respond, that is still a choice, though not one I recommend.

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Though I stress a response to beauty is an obligation, I still do not know what the response should be. When hearing the music of Les Miserables, should the response be tears? When viewing a majestic form of nature, should the response be a poem or a painting? When looking into the eyes of a newborn child, should the response be a dance?

Just as what’s considered beautiful is unique to each individual, so should be the response. There is no right way to respond, just as there is no right way to grieve, so maybe saying that tears or dance is the right response to this or that is not the correct approach. There is no rubric.

Rather than trying to identify what the type of response should be, maybe we should look to what we hope will result from an encounter with powerful beauty.  

The Transcendent

An encounter with beauty is ultimately one of experience, so simply taking pleasure in it is one approach. To become lost in the moment of a song or the curves of an exquisite design, to look at your watch and wonder where the time went; these are moments of transcendence, when you lose your identity and become part of a greater whole. 

People often report this when encountering something dramatic in nature. They have a moment were the immensity of the world and the universe is suddenly revealed in a way never encountered before and come to find that, in some small way, they too are a part of what could be called the unity of all things.

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This same understanding occurs when a religious person experiences God in such an expansive way; they find their former names and categories for God completely inadequate. This was true for Saint Thomas Aquinas, a person who one might say wrote a bit about God. When upon having a religious experience near the end of his life, he famously said,

Everything I have written seems like straw by comparison with what I have seen and what has been revealed to me.

Another result could be what comes after you share the experience with others either directly or indirectly. What a privilege to experience striking beauty with another person creating a bond which can only be considered good. But also attempt to pass the experience on to others; your enthusiasm will be enough to inspire and enliven others to seek their own enriching experience with beauty.

The Good, The True, The Beautiful

To be perfectly honest, I don’t know what the response should be. The best questions do not often lend themselves to concrete answers, and I think this might be the case. What I do know is that the experience of beauty demands something of us and appeals to a greater reality.

I cannot but help think of Plato and his identification of the three highest virtues: The Good, The True, and The Beautiful. Though Plato and his pupil Aristotle both interpreted these virtues differently, they agreed on enough to say that the idea of The Beautiful was an expression of ultimate reality for it most closely resembled a perfect form.

Perhaps for us, when we encounter this degree of staggering beauty, we are experiencing, as close as we can, this ultimate reality.

Compliment this post on beauty and experience with another Honoring Existence and Encountering the Divine: Hiking Mount Bierstadt

Find other posts related to this one by visiting the Aesthetics category. 

 

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