Along with love, beauty is one of the most commonly discussed, and poorly defined, concepts in our lives. The word ‘beauty’ has such a vague meaning, varying from person to person, from context to context. Wittgenstein, that dedicated analyst of language, must have either loathed the word or been fascinated by it.
Take the example of a baby boy. To me, as his father, and to his mother, this particular child is the most beautiful, most perfect child. There is no question of any other child taking his place at the top of the pile. To you, the independent, emotionally detached observer, he probably doesn’t stand out at all. If you walk into the maternity ward of a hospital and find yourself surrounded by babies, all totally unconnected to you personally, your general thought is probably along the lines of “they all look the same”. To most people, my baby boy is indistinguishable from any other but to me he is beautiful.
So what is ‘beauty’? What does it mean to describe a person, object or place as beautiful? The best answer is that of Confucius “Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it”. Beauty is not an objective property like mass or velocity. Upon seeing a building, I can’t take out my measuring equipment, perform a sequence of tests and declare confidently “This is indeed a beautiful building, 17% more beautiful than the one I visited yesterday.” This is clearly a completely nonsensical idea. What is not clear though, is where beauty can be found and how it can be recognised.
For me, beauty is a combination of different factors, some physical- colour, lighting, shape etc.- but the most important are the peculiar timing of when I see something and, most important of all, any emotional association or attachment I feel toward what I am seeing. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that beauty and love are so intertwined that one is impossible without the second, but I definitely feel there is a strong link between the two.
We men take great pleasure in discussing the beauty of women- those from our places of work, movie stars, it doesn’t matter, we’re happy to spend time praising, comparing, criticising. I feel that, though we use the words ‘beauty’ and ‘beautiful’ in such talks, they are not the right ones. We should talk of ‘shapeliness’ or ‘good structure’. Beauty, like love, can only come from knowing the subject and the details of the story behind the simple appearance before us. Everyone knows a different version of the story, different details, and feels differently, and this is why universal agreement on the beauty of any subject is impossble