The only popular thought about beauty today, the one that has the widest currency in the world, is the idea that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. It’s a kindly notion. It seeks to make peace between people who have very different tastes. People are delighted by wildly variant things and that’s how it should be, the thinking goes – so don’t get worked up trying to figure out which things are beautiful.
Yet the success of this generous approach keeps attention away from deeper, more important questions. Whether it is a Baroque Cathedral, the face of a child, or the coast of Sweden seen from a plane window, we have all had the mysterious experience of finding something beautiful. But what is actually going on when we find these things beautiful?
In 1795, the German dramatist and poet Friedrich Schiller published a book with a fearsome title – On the Aesthetic Education of Man in a Series of Letters. It has never become well-known, which is a pity, because it contains some of our most useful insights into the nature and value of beauty. Schiller’s starting point is an analysis of the human condition. He wants to understand our delight in what we find beautiful. Instead of asking which things are beautiful, Schiller is curious about what is going on in us when we respond with this distinctive, intimate thrill and enthusiasm that leads us to say ‘that’s beautiful’. Different things might provoke this response in different people. But why do we have it at all?
Schiller thinks of human nature as an arena in which two powerful psychological drives are at work. On the one hand, there is the ‘sense’ drive which lives in the moment and seeks immediate gratification. It craves contact and possession. It can be coarse, as when one yearns to swig great draughts of beer; but it can also be elevated. Schiller associated the sense drive with his friend Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who longed to see things with his own eyes. Goethe was a direct observer, a natural empiricist who immersed himself in practical detail.
The second drive identified by Schiller was the ‘form’ drive: the inner demand for coherence over time, for abstract understanding and rational order. This drive, thought Schiller, seeks to leave behind the peculiarities of one’s own experience and discover universal principles. It is at the heart of justice – which is not about getting what you want for yourself – and is animated by principle. When we think that a person is entitled to a fair trial, we are motivated, Schiller says, by the rational ‘form’ drive. We are loyal to the abstract, general ideal of due process.
What he’s calling the sense drive and the form drive are powerful impulses in us. But they are often in conflict. The demands of the short term are at odds with the hopes of the longer view. Comfort and ease struggle against a sense of duty and responsibility. The allure of freedom clashes with the longing to be steadfast and rooted in existing commitments.
Schiller’s point is that human nature is fired by two divergent kinds of longing: we can’t hope to see why beauty matters to us unless we pay attention to them both. If we want to understand beauty, we can’t just talk about the things we find beautiful. We have to talk about our lives.
Adapted from https://aeon.co/essays/can-beauty-help-us-to-become-better-people