Emerson on What Beauty Really Means, How to Cultivate Its True Hallmarks, and Why It Bewitches the Human Imagination
By Maria Popova
Creative culture is woven of invisible threads of influence — someone sees something created by another and it sparks something else in their own mind. We can trace some of these influences, but thanks to the psychological phenomenon of cryptomnesia, few of these unconscious impressions are remembered by those who receive them, even fewer recorded, and fewer still retained by posterity — and yet the rare chance to witness the cross-pollination of great minds is nothing short of magical.
Every once in a while, I chance upon one such previously invisible thread of influence and am infinitely delighted to participate however obliquely, across space and time, in the continual weaving of our cultural fabric. This is precisely what happened when I was revisiting Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals (public library; free download) — the beautiful writings of the trailblazing astronomer who paved the way for women in science.
In a journal entry from November of 1855, seven years after she became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 37-year-old Mitchell recounts attending a lecture by Emerson, which “turned at length upon beauty” and impressed her greatly. Embedded in her intellectually smitten account is timeless insight into what makes a great public speech:
Last night I heard Emerson give a lecture. I pity the reporter who attempts to give it to the world. I began to listen with a determination to remember it in order, but it was without method, or order, or system. It was like a beam of light moving in the undulatory waves, meeting with occasional meteors in its path; it was exceedingly captivating. It surprised me that there was not only no commonplace thought, but there was no commonplace expression. If he quoted, he quoted from what we had not read; if he told an anecdote, it was one that had not reached us.
I was tickled to track down this “beam of light” and — at the risk of being that pitiable reporter — to recover the ideas that so moved Mitchell, as articulated by Emerson in the original. Fortunately, I happened to have a copy of his Essays and Lectures (public library; free download) — the same magnificent volume that gave us Emerson on the two pillars of friendship, the key to personal growth, and how to live with maximum aliveness — and struck gold: On page 1093, under the title “Beauty,” there appears the very lecture Mitchell attended.
To picture the great astronomer sitting awestruck in the audience that night only lends Emerson’s already luminous thoughts more electrifying sparkle.
He considers what beauty really means:
Beauty is the form under which the intellect prefers to study the world. All privilege is that of beauty; for there are many beauties; as, of general nature, of the human face and form, of manners, of brain, or method, moral beauty, or beauty of the soul.
The question of Beauty takes us out of surfaces, to thinking of the foundations of things. Goethe said, “The beautiful is a manifestation of secret laws of Nature, which, but for this appearance, had been forever concealed from us.” And the working of this deep instinct makes all the excitement — much of it superficial and absurd enough — about works of art, which leads armies of vain travelers every year to Italy, Greece, and Egypt. Every man values every acquisition he makes in the science of beauty, above his possessions. The most useful man in the most useful world, so long as only commodity was served, would remain unsatisfied. But, as fast as he sees beauty, life acquires a very high value.
And yet Emerson is wary of confining beauty to a concrete definition, which constricts its expansiveness and inevitably damages its essence. Instead of a complete definition, he sets out to enumerate “a few of its qualities,” beginning with simplicity and a certain clarity of feeling:
We ascribe beauty to that which is simple; which has no superfluous parts; which exactly answers its end; which stands related to all things; which is the mean of many extremes. It is the most enduring quality, and the most ascending quality.
Nature, Emerson argues, is masterful at such unsuperfluous beauty:
Beauty rests on necessities. The line of beauty is the result of perfect economy. The cell of the bee is built at that angle which gives the most strength with the least wax; the bone or the quill of the bird gives the most alar strength, with the least weight. “It is the purgation of superfluities,” said Michelangelo… In rhetoric, this art of omission is a chief secret of power, and, in general, it is proof of high culture, to say the greatest matters in the simplest way.
From this unsuperfluous form springs an elegance and efficiency of function:
Elegance of form in bird or beast, or in the human figure, marks some excellence of structure: or beauty is only an invitation from what belongs to us… It is a rule of largest application, true in a plant, true in a loaf of bread, that in the construction of any fabric or organism, any real increase of fitness to its end, is an increase of beauty… The cat and the deer cannot move or sit inelegantly… The tint of the flower proceeds from its root, and the lusters of the sea-shell begin with its existence.
In a sentiment that calls to mind the ideals of Japanese aesthetics, Emerson adds:
Hence our taste in building rejects paint, and all shifts, and shows the original grain of the wood: refuses pilasters and columns that support nothing, and allows the real supporters of the house honestly to show themselves. Every necessary or organic action pleases the beholder. A man leading a horse to water, a farmer sowing seed, the labors of haymakers in the field, the carpenter building a ship, the smith at his forge, or, whatever useful labor, is becoming to the wise eye… Nothing interests us which is stark or bounded, but only what streams with life, what is in act or endeavor to reach somewhat beyond. The pleasure a palace or a temple gives the eye, is, that an order and method has been communicated to stones, so that they speak and geometrize, become tender or sublime with expression. Beauty is the moment of transition, as if the form were just ready to flow into other forms.
But Emerson argues that this flow from one form into another requires a certain elegance of transition — an insight that defies our present fetishism of “disruptive innovation” and instead considers the key to meaningful, lasting works of beauty:
The fashions follow a law of gradation, and are never arbitrary. The new mode is always only a step onward in the same direction as the last mode; and a cultivated eye is prepared for and predicts the new fashion. This fact suggests the reason of all mistakes and offense in our own modes. It is necessary in music, when you strike a discord, to let down the ear by an intermediate note or two to the accord again: and many a good experiment, born of good sense, and destined to succeed, fails, only because it is offensively sudden.
Beauty, Emerson argues, is what lends things their immortality — after all, if he wasn’t the thinker of beautiful thoughts and writer of beautiful words that made awestruck attendees preserve his ideas in their journals, these very writings on beauty wouldn’t be here today. He captures this elegantly:
Beauty is the quality which makes to endure… Burns writes a copy of verses, and sends them to a newspaper, and the human race take charge of them that they shall not perish.
What Neil Gaiman asserted of stories — that they’re symbiotic organisms propagating by evolutionary laws — Emerson asserted of beauty more than a century and a half earlier:
In our cities, an ugly building is soon removed, and is never repeated, but any beautiful building is copied and improved upon, so that all masons and carpenters work to repeat and preserve the agreeable forms, whilst the ugly ones die out.
The pinnacle of beauty, Emerson argues, is the human female form:
The felicities of design in art, or in works of Nature, are shadows or forerunners of that beauty which reaches its perfection in the human form. All men are its lovers. Wherever it goes, it creates joy and hilarity, and everything is permitted to it. It reaches its height in woman… A beautiful woman is a practical poet, taming her savage mate, planting tenderness, hope, and eloquence, in all whom she approaches. Some favors of condition must go with it, since a certain serenity is essential, but we love its reproofs and superiorities.
And yet Emerson is careful to point out that true beauty isn’t something one objectifies — a static quality to behold — but something in dynamic dialogue with the intellect. The true beauty of a woman, as a supreme form of all true beauty, is something far more expansive than her aesthetic attributes:
We all know this magic very well, or can divine it. It does not hurt weak eyes to look into beautiful eyes never so long… They heal us of awkwardness by their words and looks. We observe their intellectual influence on the most serious student. They refine and clear his mind; teach him to put a pleasing method into what is dry and difficult. We talk to them, and wish to be listened to; we fear to fatigue them, and acquire a facility of expression which passes from conversation into habit of style.
And yet — it is not beauty that inspires the deepest passion. Beauty without grace is the hook without the bait. Beauty, without expression, tires… The radiance of the human form, though sometimes astonishing, is only a burst of beauty for a few years or a few months, at the perfection of youth, and in most, rapidly declines. But we remain lovers of it, only transferring our interest to interior excellence.
Long before Kurt Vonnegut admonished that “the most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not,” Emerson notes:
The secret of ugliness consists not in irregularity, but in being uninteresting.
To this I’ll add a necessary corollary: The key to being interesting is being interested — in the world, in other people, in the seething cauldron of phenomena and experiences and ideas we call life. Curiosity, therefore, is a supreme manifestation of beauty.
Emerson returns to the ineffable aspect of beauty and argues that much of what lends it its luster is precisely this quality of escaping the intellect’s analysis but enchanting the imagination. In a sentiment that calls to mind Stendhal’s theory of why we fall out of love, Emerson writes:
Things are pretty, graceful, rich, elegant, handsome, but, until they speak to the imagination, not yet beautiful. This is the reason why beauty is still escaping out of all analysis. It is not yet possessed, it cannot be handled… It is properly not in the form, but in the mind. It instantly deserts possession, and flies to an object in the horizon. If I could put my hand on the north star, would it be as beautiful? The sea is lovely, but when we bathe in it, the beauty forsakes all the near water. For the imagination and senses cannot be gratified at the same time.
He examines the deepest source of beauty:
The new virtue which constitutes a thing beautiful, is a certain cosmical quality, or, a power to suggest relation to the whole world, and so lift the object out of a pitiful individuality. Every natural feature — sea, sky, rainbow, flowers, musical tone — has in it somewhat which is not private, but universal, speaks of that central benefit which is the soul of Nature, and thereby is beautiful.
He remarks of the men and women we come to admire:
They have a largeness of suggestion, and their face and manners carry a certain grandeur, like time and justice.
All beauty points at identity, and whatsoever thing does not express to me the sea and sky, day and night, is somewhat forbidden and wrong. Into every beautiful object, there enters somewhat immeasurable and divine, and just as much into form bounded by outlines, like mountains on the horizon, as into tones of music, or depths of space. Polarized light showed the secret architecture of bodies; and when the second-sight of the mind is opened, now one color or form or gesture, and now another, has a pungency, as if a more interior ray had been emitted, disclosing its deep holdings in the frame of things…
This is that haughty force of beauty, “vis superba formæ,” which the poets praise — under calm and precise outline, the immeasurable and divine: Beauty hiding all wisdom and power in its calm sky.
Centuries after Francis Bacon wrote of beauty as a function of virtue and shortly before social reformer Frederick Douglass pioneered the notion of “aesthetic force” as a powerful agent of change, Emerson arrives at the deepest well from which beauty springs — a kind of moral virtue:
All high beauty has a moral element in it… Gross and obscure natures, however decorated, seem impure shambles; but character gives splendor to youth, and awe to wrinkled skin and gray hairs. An adorer of truth we cannot choose but obey, and the woman who has shared with us the moral sentiment — her locks must appear to us sublime. Thus there is a climbing scale of culture, from the first agreeable sensation which a sparkling gem or a scarlet stain affords the eye, up through fair outlines and details of the landscape, features of the human face and form, signs and tokens of thought and character in manners, up to the ineffable mysteries of the intellect.
Emerson’s Essays and Lectures remains an indispensable read. Follow the invisible threads of cultural influence in this particular portion to Ursula K. Le Guin’s sublime meditation on what beauty really means and Susan Sontag on beauty vs. interestingness.
UPDATE: Find more of Mitchell, her unusual life, and her far-reaching legacy, and more of Emerson, in my book Figuring.
Published June 26, 2015