The Eye of the Beholder

When describing our landscape we find much that is attractive – verdant green pastures,  majestic forests, rippling streams and, of course the beautiful blue sky.

Let us focus a little on the latter.

When we look up at the heavens we can be faced with a myriad of vistas. The sky is often obscured from us or more often partly hidden by clouds. We sometimes see the ominous storm building or the confluence of clouds and wind has sculpted mares’ tails across the sky. But most would agree that a clear blue sky is indeed beautiful.

Well let me put it to you that we probably see it as beautiful because it is largely a sign of benign weather, a sunny day we can enjoy devoid of concerns about storms and downpours.

Now a blue sky probably doesn’t look so beautiful to a pastoralist who hasn’t had rain for twelve months, but for the majority of us it rings the right bells. The notion is so ubiquitous that blue skies are often used as a metaphor for good times. (As Ella Fitzgerald sang, “Blue days, all of them gone. Nothing but blue skies from now on.”)

When I go for a walk in the morning one of the highlights is walking past the bakery. The smell of bread baking makes the mouth water. Similarly when I go past the little café up the road and it is cooking bacon for breakfast. How good that smells! It is a positive let down to go home to my Spartan breakfast of fruit and cereal. No doubt our bodies are attuned to such wholesome smells of foods.

But the opposite also applies. Humans are universally disgusted by the smell of rotting flesh and excrement. In this regard evolution has served us well. We have learned as a species that such things are dangerous if ingested. Our protection mechanisms are enhanced because we find such smells offensive.

And when we walk in the countryside how much more attractive is the clear water of a rippling stream than the smelly discoloured water of a swamp. More than likely the clear water will be far safer to drink. So again beauty and utility are linked.

So just as that which we thought visually beautiful signalled something benign, similarly generally what smells good is benign and what smells bad is problematic. There are exceptions however, and many struggle to come to grips, for example, with those who have a taste for mature cheese!

It is, therefore, a matter of common sense that beauty is often not a discrete quality that emanates from the physical world unaided. We are in many ways led to our notions of beauty. That is not to say that we won’t often disagree about what is beautiful, because beauty also arises from meeting our needs for meaning and those needs in themselves differ from person to person.

I remember once listening to the radio hearing two well-known commentators talk about religion. The female commentator asked the male, “Why is it that you believe in God?”

The male commentator said, “I am astounded by the beauty of women. I cannot imagine that such beauty is just a chance outcome of evolution. That is the principal reason I believe in a divine creator.”

But of course men find women beautiful! That is perhaps the most quintessential of evolutionary outcomes. Surely this is one of the fundamentals of the propagation of the species. How likely is it that the species would survive if males and females did not find those of the other sex attractive?

I mused to a friend wouldn’t a male warthog find a female warthog beautiful? A female warthog might seem rather ugly to us but I bet that’s not the case for a male warthog. So it occurs to me that no matter how you look at it, beauty is often relative and as has been famously stated “in the eye of the beholder”.

As I have described above, what we perceive as beautiful is often beneficial to us in other ways.

A closer look at beauty suggests that it is often linked to symmetry and regularity. Members of the opposite sex look more attractive if their faces are symmetrical.

The ancient Greeks held that the circle was the most divine form in geometry. It was because of this that Ptolemy believed that the heavenly bodies were spheres and they moved in regular circular orbits. But the more astronomers came to understand the movements of the stars the more convoluted the circular orbits needed to be to explain such movements. The universe as portrayed by Copernicus, for example, required 48 epicycles for the paths of the then five known planets. Finally Kepler simplified astronomy with his discovery that the heavenly bodies in fact moved in elliptical orbits. So in this case the beauty of circles was eclipsed by the simplicity that followed by giving the celestial bodies elliptical orbits.

Mathematicians have been prone to seek beauty in their equations. It is said that James Clerk Maxwell, the Scottish physicist, when developing his wave equations to describe the phenomenon of electro-magnetic radiation, added a term to one of his equations in order to preserve symmetry. It could not initially be proven but was later found to be correct.

But much as we would like to think that mathematical order and symmetry somehow showed the way to truth, the contrary examples are far more dominant.

Martin Gardner, the prolific American writer on mathematics and popular science, for example, wrote:

In 1879, Sir Alfred Kempe published a proof of the four colour map theorem. It was so elegant for 10 years it was accepted as sound. Alas it was not.

[The four colour map theorem stipulates that any map that is subdivided into coloured sections requires only four colours to ensure no contiguous sections have the same colour.]

Many years later a proof of the theorem was found. Gardner continued:

Proof of the four colour map theorem required a computer printout so vast that it could be checked only by other computer programs.

Now there may be something beautiful in this elaborate proof but it is not obvious to most of us.

The same goes for Andrew Wiles’s proof of Fermat’s last theorem. It is not computer-based, but it is much too long and complicated to be called beautiful.

[The French mathematician, Pierre de Fermat, in 1637 wrote in the margin of his copy of Arithmetica that he had found a proof to the theorem that an+bn=cn could not be possible for any integer value of n greater than 2. He apologised that his proof was too extensive to write in the margin of the book. The proof was finally published by Andrew Wiles in 1995.]

Beauty has often been the subject of poets. Perhaps the most famous statement regarding beauty was made by the poet John Keats in his Ode on a Grecian Urn. He rounded off this famous work with the couplet:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

The discussion above would seem to indicate Keats’ statement is likely erroneous.

It would seem then that beauty might have many utilitarian functions but it is hardly synonymous with truth.

And indeed there are many beautiful things that don’t portray the truth as many of us know it. The Christian religion has inspired much beautiful music and many different beautiful paintings. But you don’t need to be a Christian and believe in the truth of the Christian dogma to appreciate such beauty. In music I admire the Verdi Requiem or the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria. There is an inherent beauty in such works that transcend the religious inspiration behind them.

One of my favourite examples of the utilitarian attachment of beauty is a new born child. Despite the fact that it is wrinkled, vociferous and incontinent, we all line up and gush about what a beautiful baby it is. And despite all the evidence to the contrary most of us actually mean it! Our nurturing instincts are such that we can put aside the all the evidence to the contrary and queue to admire and praise and hopefully care for the young one. Again we can see beauty with a utilitarian facet. In this way the race is propagated and genes preserved. We bestow unconditional positive regard on the child. Unfortunately for the child, that regard will probably not last long, and he will shortly be required to “do the right things” to earn positive regard. But that is another story.

So then beauty has many aspects. It sometimes appears to us behind a façade of utility. It sometimes comes cloaked in symmetry and regularity. But it sometimes comes accompanied with force and fear. If we are caught in a violent thunderstorm and the dark sky is lit up with blinding lightning and the air is rent with deafening thunder, even though we are afraid we can often see an awesome beauty.

It has always seemed to me that beauty is indeed often in the eye of the beholder.  Or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say beauty is in the mind of the beholder.

I have often had to deal with people who have depression. Many people who are depressed, for example, suffer from anhedonia. Such people find it difficult to take pleasure in anything. They have a limited ability to perceive beauty (as well as a curtailed sense of humour). In many ways they fear the world and focus much more on avoidance and survival than enjoying the world.

In my little book Augustus Finds Serenity I wrote a little parable to explain this phenomenon. Let me close by sharing it with you.

Takygulpa Rinpoche and Augustus walked slowly along the path by the river’s bank.

 The river was deep and the current swift.

 The sound of water running over the rapids further downstream carried through the evening air.

 ‘I enjoy the river,’ said Augustus. ‘I find it peaceful and enervating.’

 ‘There are many who are afraid of the river,’ said his master. ‘How do you think it is that some can look at the river and feel fear and others look at it and feel joy?’

 Augustus walked on deep in thought, but without answering.  ‘Surely the river is the river and would appear to all in the same way?’ he finally ventured.

 ‘Suppose,’ said his master, ‘that you had been walking all day and finally, tired and thirsty, you arrive at the river’s bank. How does it appear to you then?’

 ‘It would be very inviting.’

 ‘On the other hand, say it was cold and wet and walking in the woods you come across a bear. The bear is angry and gives chase. You run as fast as you can but the bear is close behind. Then, you come to the river’s bank where the water is wildest and the torrent swiftest. How does the river appear then?’

  ‘It is a frightening obstruction.’

 ‘What has changed?’

 ‘My state of mind.’

 ‘Yes. So you see, we can see things differently because of our different states of mind. Fear, in particular, distorts our viewpoint.’

 ‘It is good then that we don’t often get chased by bears.’

 ‘Oh, but we do. Many of us are always being chased by bears — imaginary bears — in our minds. Or, just as fearful, we are anticipating being chased by bears when there are no bears. We are forever dealing with our interpretation of the world, not the world as it is. This is a major cause of suffering.’