A&O – BEAUTY and its attributes






A thing of beauty is a joy forever

(Keats, “Endymion” 1818)

 “Beauty is truth, truth beauty

(Keats, “On a Grecian Urn” 1819) 



Beauty, like love, doesn’t always make you feel good.  The constellation of ideas—beauty, joy, truth—and by extension the sublime[i] and the need to suspend disbelief[ii] in the face of certain truths may be pursued as we pursue all knowledge


Biologists! Why would one pursue potentially distressing truths? Because the benefit exceeds the cost. 


“What is beautiful is a joy for all seasons and a possession for all eternity.” (Oscar Wilde in A Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891)

Recalls Keats: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever;  its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness” (Book 1 of Endymion) and “What the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth.”[iii]


Such observations where time is rendered irrelevant by truth and beauty echoes transcendence are deeply spiritual in that an individual’s uniqueness may be open to transformation and then their senses and the deep meaning of the perceptions converge with context in a perfect storm.    


Never doubt the potential power of art—possibly music in particular.  The great composer, Mendelssohn once played Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on the piano for Wolfgang von Goethe – a scientist but also the author of Faust.  When the performance concluded, Goethe  exclaimed,  “It is stupendous, absolutely mad.  It makes me almost fear that the house will collapse. And supposing the whole of mankind played it at once”  (Goethe’s comment to Mendelssohn after he played Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on the piano for him)[iv]



SUFFICIENT of ITSELF? (“autotelic”)

  • Oscar Wilde called Beauty “… a form of genius—higher, indeed, than genius, as it needs no explanation. It is of the great facts in the world like sunlight, or springtime, or the reflection in dark water of that silver shell we call the moon.”


  • “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.” — Einstein[v]


And mystery leads to discovery:  Goethe treats beauty as a kind discovery: “Beauty,” he says, “is a manifestation of secret natural laws, which otherwise would have been hidden from us forever.”


RESONANCE? HARMONY?   Pascal famously ventured that “Beauty is a harmonious relation between something in our nature and the quality of the object which delights us.” 

·        There is something going on here … and we can’t be surprised that music is particularly effective: musical moments more easily touch something—recruit something—deep within us.   This  stirring … this momentary  alignment of sound and spirit …  recalls what Joseph Campbell called  “the crystalline purity of the bed or ground of ones own and yet the worlds true being.”

“ Like perfectly transparent crystal, [the song is there], and yet as though not there.”  And all creation both hears it and participates.  (apologies to Joseph Campbell 1968: 66)

·        Even the great 19th c. polymath Jules Henri Poincaré speaks to this: It is the harmony of the diverse parts, their symmetry, their happy balance; in a word it is all that introduces order, all that gives unity, that permits us to see clearly and to comprehend at once both the ensemble and the details.  (Poincaré, quoted in in Ultra Low Power Bioelectronics, p.3.  https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Symmetry)



  • “All deep things are song,” said Thomas Carlyle, “It seems somehow the very central essence of us, as if all the rest were but wrappages and hulls!” 



  • Whether creating or appreciating music, it is a bridge between the senses and the spirit.  It is, as Beethoven put it, “the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life.”    “There is nothing in the world so much like prayer as music.” said William P. Merril.    Peter Shaffer, author of Amadeus. in an Homage to Mozart (1984)[vi], identified moments of great spiritual power for him … he was fairly precise:  the setting of the words “Tutti contenti” at the end of “The Marriage of Figaro;” or the harmonization of the Priest’s response “Starkt mit Geduld sie in Gefahr” in “The Magic Flute;” or  the bar in “Cosi Fan Tutte” at the reprise of the tenor’s tune “Un’aura Amorosa,” wherein a single note in the accompaniment descends a semitone, from F sharp to F natural.)

A great moment in music was related to me by a friend:  Howard Pollio had an Indian Hindu expert on spiritual consciousness visiting his class.  His poor English language skills allowed him to focus on only one point:  he sung the one-word prayer: OM, and beckoned the class to join him.  They began hesitatingly, significantly distracted by dissonances and the inability of some of them to hit the note they were aiming at: BUT with urging, OVER A FEW MINUTES, each individual, whatever their natural pitch or ability, was able to find their place in the harmony …  at THAT INSTANT, the wave of pleasure that swept across the class was almost tangible. (Greenberg 2011)[vii]

[iii]. Beauty and truth are associated several times in Keats’s letters: “What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth” (Nov. 22, 1817); “. . . in close relationship of Beauty and Truth” (Dec. 21, 1817); “I can never feel certain of a truth but from a clear perception of its Beauty” (Dec. 31, 1818).

[iv] Story related by Maynard Solomon in Late Beethoven Music, Thought, Imagination UC Press, cited in Lewis Lockwood’s review in NYRB July 17 2003 pp 27-29).

[v]. http://www.aip.org/history/einstein/essay.htm   And also, Einstein quoted on pg. 289, Adventures of a Mathematician, by S. M. Ulam(Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1976). Apparently these words also occur somewhere in What I Believe (1930).  Another version:  The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.  It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.  Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.  It was the experience of mystery‑‑even if mixed with fear‑‑ that engendered religion.

[vi] The New York Times Magazine, 2 September, 1984. pp. 22-38

[vii] Greenberg, Neil (2011) Songlines.  Sermon at TVUUC August 17, 2011.