Division ofHumanities

Beauty is not only good for the soul, it makes us better human beings 

I believe, but can’t prove, that beauty is good for us – by which I mean it makes us better people. It’s morally good for us. Of course, the minute I say that, there springs to mind the countervailing example of Auschwitz commandants, after a day at the ovens, sitting enraptured by the beauties of Schubert Lieder. Yet there’s also the image of Lenin putting aside Beethoven, music he loved, precisely because its beauty impeded his conducting of a bloody revolution: it made him want to pat heads instead of beat them.

Campbell English

"There’s also the image of Lenin putting aside Beethoven, music he loved, precisely because its beauty impeded his conducting of a bloody revolution: it made him want to pat heads instead of beat them."

I was struck some years ago reading philosopher Elaine Scarry’s “On Beauty and Being Just,” feeling that, finally, someone with real credentials was proposing a connection between aesthetics and morality, reviving a 19th century view of the relationship between truth and beauty that’s always made sense to me. She suggests that an encounter with beauty, in any of its forms, calls us to an intensity of consciousness, to a sense of life’s utter preciousness and amplitude, actually prompting us to replicate the beauty we see. It ignites our desire for truth and fuels our desire to repair the damage done by injustice. She isn’t offering a proof, of course, but I find her argument very persuasive. Experiences of beauty seem to me the rare moments when we actually feel something like grace, moments when we can seem connected to other things and times and states of being. Beauty is certainly transformative. I’m not the only one who believes that: most folks have been moved, shaken, stunned, been altered by the beautiful in life or in art. And maybe most folks even think such an alteration is for the good. I don’t know.

 But I know that I think it is. I believe beauty makes us better people; it can make us more alive, more connected, more receptive, more humble, more inquiring and discerning, more generous and generative. In a time of ideological brutalities and ugly partisan brawls, it seems a notion worth considering.

Tom Campbell, Professor of English