Have you ever seen an ugly river? No. Even the most eroding or channelized streams — those considered unstable or unnatural by hydrology standards — are beautiful. I’ve seen homes sited to capture a view of a head-cut, calendars featuring photos of streams so channelized they would make a fluvial geomorphologist weep. I’m sorry to say it, but the above picture — from a fishing site highlighting wonderful rivers — would be a great lecture slide for illustrating the classic ways in which degradation begins and evolves along the South Fork of the Tongue near my own hometown. AND it’s beautiful anyway.
Objectively, a particular river reach may be damaged. But…
But objective definitions of beauty — like those based on proportion, symmetry, or the golden ratio — have been suspect as far back as 600 BC when Saphho considered “the most beautiful sights the dark world offers” and famously concluded “I say its whatever you love best.”
What’s your beauty sense?
Do you, like Sappho, find that what you love is what you consider beautiful? Kant added two more options when he noted that beauty triggers not only:
- a loving response but also/or
- pleasurable response [if you think this is the key then you’d get along with Locke who thought pleasure was THE origin of beauty], and/or
- profound response.
Still these beg the question of WHY a particular thing triggers such a response. Or maybe the question is HOW.
G.E. Moore tried to get super-practical when he decided that we consider something beautiful when it is a necessary element in something which is good.
But then what is “good?”
And surely the “profound” calls for something more cosmic. Or intimate. Happily — to satisfy my desire for both at once — along comes Alexander Nehamas. In Only a Promise of Beauty he specifies that beauty is “not to be regarded as an instantaneously apprehensible feature ” but rather as:
“an invitation to further experiences, a way that things invite us in… to explore, interpret... Beautiful things don’t stand aloof but direct our attention and our desire… they quicken the sense of life, giving it a new shape and direction.”
The river is right in front of us — available, open, transparent. We can wade, dive, swim, or float submerged in its channel, yet, the next morning, the river invites us once more.The same is true of beautiful art, beautiful music, and our beautiful beloveds. That sparking of our own vitality helps explain how:
“This is the spirit that Beauty must ever induce: wonderment, a delicious trouble, longing and love and a trembling that is all delight.”