The Sense of Beauty - Being the Outlines of Aesthetic Theory
by George Santayana
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Now this destruction of nature, which the metaphysicians since Parmenides have so often repeated (nature nevertheless surviving still), is but a theoretical counterpart and hypostasis of what happens in every man's conscience when the comprehensiveness of his experience lifts him into thought, into abstraction. The sense of the sublime is essentially mystical: it is the transcending of distinct perception in favour of a feeling of unity and volume. So in the moral sphere, we have the mutual cancelling of the passions in the breast that includes them all, and their final subsidence beneath the glance that comprehends them. This is the Epicurean approach to detachment and perfection; it leads by systematic acceptance of instinct to the same goal which the stoic and the ascetic reach by systematic rejection of instinct. It is thus possible to be moved to that self-enfranchisement which constitutes the sublime, even when the object contains no expression of evil.

This conclusion supports that part of our definition of beauty which declares that the values beauty contains are all positive; a definition which we should have had to change if we had found that the sublime depended upon the suggestion of evil for its effect. But the sublime is not the ugly, as some descriptions of it might lead us to suppose; it is the supremely, the intoxicatingly beautiful. It is the pleasure of contemplation reaching such an intensity that it begins to lose its objectivity, and to declare itself, what it always fundamentally was, an inward passion of the soul. For while in the beautiful we find the perfection of life by sinking into the object, in the sublime we find a purer and more inalienable perfection by defying the object altogether. The surprised enlargement of vision, the sudden escape from our ordinary interests and the identification of ourselves with something permanent and superhuman, something much more abstract and inalienable than our changing personality, all this carries us away from the blurred objects before us, and raises us into a sort of ecstasy.

In the trite examples of the sublime, where we speak of the vast mass, strength, and durability of objects, or of their sinister aspect, as if we were moved by them on account of our own danger, we seem to miss the point. For the suggestion of our own danger would produce a touch of fear; it would be a practical passion, or if it could by chance be objectified enough to become aesthetic, it would merely make the object hateful and repulsive, like a mangled corpse. The object is sublime when we forget our danger, when we escape from ourselves altogether, and live as it were in the object itself, energizing in imitation of its movement, and saying, "Be thou me, impetuous one!" This passage into the object, to live its life, is indeed a characteristic of all perfect contemplation. But when in thus translating ourselves we rise and play a higher personage, feeling the exhilaration of a life freer and wilder than our own, then the experience is one of sublimity. The emotion comes not from the situation we observe, but from the powers we conceive; we fail to sympathize with the struggling sailors because we sympathize too much with the wind and waves. And this mystical cruelty can extend even to ourselves; we can so feel the fascination of the cosmic forces that engulf us as to take a fierce joy in the thought of our own destruction. We can identify ourselves with the abstractest essence of reality, and, raised to that height, despise the human accidents of our own nature. Lord, we say, though thou slay me, yet will I trust in thee. The sense of suffering disappears in the sense of life and the imagination overwhelms the understanding.

The comic.

Sec. 61. Something analogous takes place in the other spheres where an aesthetic value seems to arise out of suggestions of evil, in the comic, namely, and the grotesque. But here the translation of our sympathies is partial, and we are carried away from ourselves only to become smaller. The larger humanity, which cannot be absorbed, remains ready to contradict the absurdity of our fiction. The excellence of comedy lies in the invitation to wander along some by-path of the fancy, among scenes not essentially impossible, but not to be actually enacted by us on account of the fixed circumstances of our lives. If the picture is agreeable, we allow ourselves to dream it true. We forget its relations; we forbid the eye to wander beyond the frame of the stage, or the conventions of the fiction. We indulge an illusion which deepens our sense of the essential pleasantness of things.

So far, there is nothing in comedy that is not delightful, except, perhaps, the moment when it is over. But fiction, like all error or abstraction, is necessarily unstable; and the awakening is not always reserved for the disheartening moment at the end. Everywhere, when we are dealing with pretension or mistake, we come upon sudden and vivid contradictions; changes of view, transformations of apperception which are extremely stimulating to the imagination. We have spoken of one of these: when the sudden dissolution of our common habits of thought lifts us into a mystical contemplation, filled with the sense of the sublime; when the transformation is back to common sense and reality, and away from some fiction, we have a very different emotion. We feel cheated, relieved, abashed, or amused, in proportion as our sympathy attaches more to the point of view surrendered or to that attained.

The disintegration of mental forms and their redintegration is the life of the imagination. It is a spiritual process of birth and death, nutrition and generation. The strongest emotions accompany these changes, and vary infinitely with their variations. All the qualities of discourse, wit, eloquence, cogency, absurdity, are feelings incidental to this process, and involved in the juxtapositions, tensions, and resolutions of our ideas. Doubtless the last explanation of these things would be cerebral; but we are as yet confined to verbal descriptions and classifications of them, which are always more or less arbitrary.

The most conspicuous headings under which comic effects are gathered are perhaps incongruity and degradation. But clearly it cannot be the logical essence of incongruity or degradation that constitutes the comic; for then contradiction and deterioration would always amuse. Amusement is a much more directly physical thing. We may be amused without any idea at all, as when we are tickled, or laugh in sympathy with others by a contagious imitation of their gestures. We may be amused by the mere repetition of a thing at first not amusing. There must therefore be some nervous excitement on which the feeling of amusement directly depends, although this excitement may most often coincide with a sudden transition to an incongruous or meaner image. Nor can we suppose that particular ideational excitement to be entirely dissimilar to all others; wit is often hardly distinguishable from brilliancy, as humour from pathos. We must, therefore, be satisfied with saying vaguely that the process of ideation involves various feelings of movement and relation, — feelings capable of infinite gradation and complexity, and ranging from sublimity to tedium and from pathos to uncontrollable merriment.

Certain crude and obvious cases of the comic seem to consist of little more than a shock of surprise: a pun is a sort of jack-in-the-box, popping from nowhere into our plodding thoughts. The liveliness of the interruption, and its futility, often please; dulce est desipere in loco; and yet those who must endure the society of inveterate jokers know how intolerable this sort of scintillation can become. There is something inherently vulgar about it; perhaps because our train of thought cannot be very entertaining in itself when we are so glad to break in upon it with irrelevant nullities. The same undertone of disgust mingles with other amusing surprises, as when a dignified personage slips and falls, or some disguise is thrown off, or those things are mentioned and described which convention ignores. The novelty and the freedom please, yet the shock often outlasts the pleasure, and we have cause to wish we had been stimulated by something which did not involve this degradation. So, also, the impossibility in plausibility which tickles the fancy in Irish bulls, and in wild exaggerations, leaves an uncomfortable impression, a certain aftertaste of foolishness.

The reason will be apparent if we stop to analyze the situation. We have a prosaic background of common sense and every-day reality; upon this background an unexpected idea suddenly impinges. But the thing is a futility. The comic accident falsifies the nature before us, starts a wrong analogy in the mind, a suggestion that cannot be carried out. In a word, we are in the presence of an absurdity; and man, being a rational animal, can like absurdity no better than he can like hunger or cold. A pinch of either may not be so bad, and he will endure it merrily enough if you repay him with abundance of warm victuals; so, too, he will play with all kinds of nonsense for the sake of laughter and good fellowship and the tickling of his fancy with a sort of caricature of thought. But the qualm remains, and the pleasure is never perfect. The same exhilaration might have come without the falsification, just as repose follows more swiftly after pleasant than after painful exertions.

Fun is a good thing, but only when it spoils nothing better. The best place for absurdity is in the midst of what is already absurd — then we have the play of fancy without the sense of ineptitude. Things amuse us in the mouth of a fool that would not amuse us in that of a gentleman; a fact which shows how little incongruity and degradation have to do with our pleasure in the comic. In fact, there is a kind of congruity and method even in fooling. The incongruous and the degraded displease us even there, as by their nature they must at all times. The shock which they bring may sometimes be the occasion of a subsequent pleasure, by attracting our attention, or by stimulating passions, such as scorn, or cruelty, or self-satisfaction (for there is a good deal of malice in our love of fun); but the incongruity and degradation, as such, always remain unpleasant. The pleasure comes from the inward rationality and movement of the fiction, not from its inconsistency with anything else. There are a great many topsy-turvy worlds possible to our fancy, into which we like to drop at times. We enjoy the stimulation and the shaking up of our wits. It is like getting into a new posture, or hearing a new song.

Nonsense is good only because common sense is so limited. For reason, after all, is one convention picked out of a thousand. We love expansion, not disorder, and when we attain freedom without incongruity we have a much greater and a much purer delight. The excellence of wit can dispense with absurdity. For on the same prosaic background of common sense, a novelty might have appeared that was not absurd, that stimulated the attention quite as much as the ridiculous, without so baffling the intelligence. This purer and more thoroughly delightful amusement comes from what we call wit.


Sec. 62. Wit also depends upon transformation and substitution of ideas. It has been said to consist in quick association by similarity. The substitution must here be valid, however, and the similarity real, though unforeseen. Unexpected justness makes wit, as sudden incongruity makes pleasant foolishness. It is characteristic of wit to penetrate into hidden depths of things, to pick out there some telling circumstance or relation, by noting which the whole object appears in a new and clearer light. Wit often seems malicious because analysis in discovering common traits and universal principles assimilates things at the poles of being; it can apply to cookery the formulas of theology, and find in the human heart a case of the fulcrum and lever. We commonly keep the departments of experience distinct; we think that different principles hold in each and that the dignity of spirit is inconsistent with the explanation of it by physical analogy, and the meanness of matter unworthy of being an illustration of moral truths. Love must not be classed under physical cravings, nor faith under hypnotization. When, therefore, an original mind overleaps these boundaries, and recasts its categories, mixing up our old classifications, we feel that the values of things are also confused. But these depended upon a deeper relation, upon their response to human needs and aspirations. All that can be changed by the exercise of intelligence is our sense of the unity and homogeneity of the world. We may come to hold an object of thought in less isolated respect, and another in less hasty derision; but the pleasures we derive from all, or our total happiness and wonder, will hardly be diminished. For this reason the malicious or destructive character of intelligence must not be regarded as fundamental. Wit belittles one thing and dignifies another; and its comparisons are as often flattering as ironical.

The same process of mind that we observed in wit gives rise to those effects we call charming, brilliant, or inspired. When Shakespeare says,

Come and kiss me, sweet and twenty, Youth's a stuff will not endure,

the fancy of the phrase consists in a happy substitution, a merry way of saying something both true and tender. And where could we find a more exquisite charm? So, to take a weightier example, when St. Augustine is made to say that pagan virtues were splendid vices, we have — at least if we catch the full meaning — a pungent assimilation of contrary things, by force of a powerful principle; a triumph of theory, the boldness of which can only be matched by its consistency. In fact, a phrase could not be more brilliant, or better condense one theology and two civilizations. The Latin mind is particularly capable of this sort of excellence. Tacitus alone could furnish a hundred examples. It goes with the power of satirical and bitter eloquence, a sort of scornful rudeness of intelligence, that makes for the core of a passion or of a character, and affixes to it a more or less scandalous label. For in our analytical zeal it is often possible to condense and abstract too much. Reality is more fluid and elusive than reason, and has, as it were, more dimensions than are known even to the latest geometry. Hence the understanding, when not suffused with some glow of sympathetic emotion or some touch of mysticism, gives but a dry, crude image of the world. The quality of wit inspires more admiration than confidence. It is a merit we should miss little in any one we love.

The same principle, however, can have more sentimental embodiments. When our substitutions are brought on by the excitement of generous emotion, we call wit inspiration. There is the same finding of new analogies, and likening of disparate things; there is the same transformation of our apperception. But the brilliancy is here not only penetrating, but also exalting. For instance:

Peace, peace, he is not dead, he doth not sleep, He hath awakened from the dream of life: 'Tis we that wrapped in stormy visions keep With phantoms an unprofitable strife.

There is here paradox, and paradox justified by reflection. The poet analyzes, and analyzes without reserve. The dream, the storm, the phantoms, and the unprofitableness could easily make a satirical picture. But the mood is transmuted; the mind takes an upward flight, with a sense of liberation from the convention it dissolves, and of freer motion in the vagueness beyond. The disintegration of our ideal here leads to mysticism, and because of this effort towards transcendence, the brilliancy becomes sublime.


Sec. 63. A different mood can give a different direction to the same processes. The sympathy by which we reproduce the feeling of another, is always very much opposed to the aesthetic attitude to which the whole world is merely a stimulus to our sensibility. In the tragic, we have seen how the sympathetic feeling, by which suffering is appreciated and shared, has to be overlaid by many incidental aesthetic pleasures, if the resulting effect is to be on the whole good. We have also seen how the only way in which the ridiculous can be kept within the sphere of the aesthetically good is abstracting it from its relations, and treating it as an independent and curious stimulus; we should stop laughing and begin to be annoyed if we tried to make sense out of our absurdity. The less sympathy we have with men the more exquisite is our enjoyment of their folly: satirical delight is closely akin to cruelty. Defect and mishap stimulate our fancy, as blood and tortures excite in us the passions of the beast of prey. The more this inhuman attitude yields to sympathy and reason, the less are folly and error capable of amusing us. It would therefore seem impossible that we should be pleased by the foibles or absurdities of those we love. And in fact we never enjoy seeing our own persons in a satirical light, or any one else for whom we really feel affection. Even in farces, the hero and heroine are seldom made ridiculous, because that would jar upon the sympathy with which we are expected to regard them. Nevertheless, the essence of what we call humour is that amusing weaknesses should be combined with an amicable humanity. Whether it be in the way of ingenuity, or oddity, or drollery, the humorous person must have an absurd side, or be placed in an absurd situation. Yet this comic aspect, at which we ought to wince, seems to endear the character all the more. This is a parallel case to that of tragedy, where the depth of the woe we sympathize with seems to add to our satisfaction. And the explanation of the paradox is the same. We do not enjoy the expression of evil, but only the pleasant excitements that come with it; namely, the physical stimulus and the expression of good. In tragedy, the misfortunes help to give the impression of truth, and to bring out the noble qualities of the hero, but are in themselves depressing, so much so that over-sensitive people cannot enjoy the beauty of the representation. So also in humour, the painful suggestions are felt as such, and need to be overbalanced by agreeable elements. These come from both directions, from the aesthetic and the sympathetic reaction. On the one hand there is the sensuous and merely perceptive stimulation, the novelty, the movement, the vivacity of the spectacle. On the other hand, there is the luxury of imaginative sympathy, the mental assimilation of another congenial experience, the expansion into another life.

The juxtaposition of these two pleasures produces just that tension and complication in which the humorous consists. We are satirical, and we are friendly at the same time. The consciousness of the friendship gives a regretful and tender touch to the satire, and the sting of the satire makes the friendship a trifle humble and sad. Don Quixote is mad; he is old, useless, and ridiculous, but he is the soul of honour, and in all his laughable adventures we follow him like the ghost of our better selves. We enjoy his discomfitures too much to wish he had been a perfect Amadis; and we have besides a shrewd suspicion that he is the only kind of Amadis there can ever be in this world. At the same time it does us good to see the courage of his idealism, the ingenuity of his wit, and the simplicity of his goodness. But how shall we reconcile our sympathy with his dream and our perception of its absurdity? The situation is contradictory. We are drawn to some different point of view, from which the comedy may no longer seem so amusing. As humour becomes deep and really different from satire, it changes into pathos, and passes out of the sphere of the comic altogether. The mischances that were to amuse us as scoffers now grieve us as men, and the value of the representation depends on the touches of beauty and seriousness with which it is adorned.

The grotesque.

Sec. 64. Something analogous to humour can appear in plastic forms, when we call it the grotesque. This is an interesting effect produced by such a transformation of an ideal type as exaggerates one of its elements or combines it with other types. The real excellence of this, like that of all fiction, consists in re-creation; in the formation of a thing which nature has not, but might conceivably have offered. We call these inventions comic and grotesque when we are considering their divergence from the natural rather than their inward possibility. But the latter constitutes their real charm; and the more we study and develope them, the better we understand it. The incongruity with the conventional type than disappears, and what was impossible and ridiculous at first takes its place among recognized ideals. The centaur and the satyr are no longer grotesque; the type is accepted. And the grotesqueness of an individual has essentially the same nature. If we like the inward harmony, the characteristic balance of his features, we are able to disengage this individual from the class into which we were trying to force him; we can forget the expectation which he was going to disappoint. The ugliness then disappears, and only the reassertion of the old habit and demand can make us regard him as in any way extravagant.

What appears as grotesque may be intrinsically inferior or superior to the normal. That is a question of its abstract material and form. But until the new object impresses its form on our imagination, so that we can grasp its unity and proportion, it appears to us as a jumble and distortion of other forms. If this confusion is absolute, the object is simply null; it does not exist aesthetically, except by virtue of materials. But if the confusion is not absolute, and we have an inkling of the unity and character in the midst of the strangeness of the form, then we have the grotesque. It is the half-formed, the perplexed, and the suggestively monstrous.

The analogy to the comic is very close, as we can readily conceive that it should be. In the comic we have this same juxtaposition of a new and an old idea, and if the new is not futile and really inconceivable, it may in time establish itself in the mind, and cease to be ludicrous. Good wit is novel truth, as the good grotesque is novel beauty. But there are natural conditions of organization, and we must not mistake every mutilation for the creation of a new form. The tendency of nature to establish well-marked species of animals shows what various combinations are most stable in the face of physical forces, and there is a fitness also for survival in the mind, which is determined by the relation of any form to our fixed method of perception. New things are therefore generally bad because, as has been well said, they are incapable of becoming old. A thousand originalities are produced by defect of faculty, for one that is produced by genius. For in the pursuit of beauty, as in that of truth, an infinite number of paths lead to failure, and only one to success.

The possibility of finite perfection.

Sec. 65. If these observations have any accuracy, they confirm this important truth, — that no aesthetic value is really founded on the experience or the suggestion of evil. This conclusion will doubtless seem the more interesting if we think of its possible extension to the field of ethics and of the implied vindication of the ideal of moral perfection as something essentially definable and attainable. But without insisting on an analogy to ethics, which might be misleading, we may hasten to state the principle which emerges from our analysis of expression. Expressiveness may be found in any one thing that suggests another, or draws from association with that other any of its emotional colouring. There may, therefore, of course, be an expressiveness of evil; but this expressiveness will not have any aesthetic value. The description or suggestion of suffering may have a worth as science or discipline, but can never in itself enhance any beauty. Tragedy and comedy please in spite of this expressiveness and not by virtue of it; and except for the pleasures they give, they have no place among the fine arts. Nor have they, in such a case, any place in human life at all; unless they are instruments of some practical purpose and serve to preach a moral, or achieve a bad notoriety. For ugly things can attract attention, although they cannot keep it; and the scandal of a new horror may secure a certain vulgar admiration which follows whatever is momentarily conspicuous, and which is attained even by crime. Such admiration, however, has nothing aesthetic about it, and is only made possible by the bluntness of our sense of beauty.

The effect of the pathetic and comic is therefore never pure; since the expression of some evil is mixed up with those elements by which the whole appeals to us. These elements we have seen to be the truth of the presentation, which involves the pleasures of recognition and comprehension, the beauty of the medium, and the concomitant expression of things intrinsically good. To these sources all the aesthetic value of comic and tragic is due; and the sympathetic emotion which arises from the spectacle of evil must never be allowed to overpower these pleasures of contemplation, else the entire object becomes distasteful and loses its excuse for being. Too exclusive a relish for the comic and pathetic is accordingly a sign of bad taste and of comparative insensibility to beauty.

This situation has generally been appreciated in the practice of the arts, where effect is perpetually studied; but the greatest care has not always succeeded in avoiding the dangers of the pathetic, and history is full of failures due to bombast, caricature, and unmitigated horror. In all these the effort to be expressive has transgressed the conditions of pleasing effect. For the creative and imitative impulse is indiscriminate. It does not consider the eventual beauty of the effect, but only the blind instinct of self-expression. Hence an untrained and not naturally sensitive mind cannot distinguish or produce anything good. This critical incapacity has always been a cause of failure and a just ground for ridicule; but it remained for some thinkers of our time — a time of little art and much undisciplined production — to erect this abuse into a principle and declare that the essence of beauty is to express the artist and not to delight the world. But the conditions of effect, and the possibility of pleasing, are the only criterion of what is capable and worthy of expression. Art exists and has value by its adaptation to these universal conditions of beauty.

Nothing but the good of life enters into the texture of the beautiful. What charms us in the comic, what stirs us in the sublime and touches us in the pathetic, is a glimpse of some good; imperfection has value only as an incipient perfection. Could the labours and sufferings of life be reduced, and a better harmony between man and nature be established, nothing would be lost to the arts; for the pure and ultimate value of the comic is discovery, of the pathetic, love, of the sublime, exaltation; and these would still subsist. Indeed, they would all be increased; and it has ever been, accordingly, in the happiest and most prosperous moments of humanity, when the mind and the world were knit into a brief embrace, that natural beauty has been best perceived, and art has won its triumphs. But it sometimes happens, in moments less propitious, that the soul is subdued to what it works in, and loses its power of idealization and hope. By a pathetic and superstitious self-depreciation, we then punish ourselves for the imperfection of nature. Awed by the magnitude of a reality that we can no longer conceive as free from evil, we try to assert that its evil also is a good; and we poison the very essence of the good to make its extension universal. We confuse the causal connexion of those things in nature which we call good or evil by an adventitious denomination with the logical opposition between good and evil themselves; because one generation makes room for another, we say death is necessary to life; and because the causes of sorrow and joy are so mingled in this world, we cannot conceive how, in a better world, they might be disentangled.

This incapacity of the imagination to reconstruct the conditions of life and build the frame of things nearer to the heart's desire is dangerous to a steady loyalty to what is noble and fine. We surrender ourselves to a kind of miscellaneous appreciation, without standard or goal; and calling every vexatious apparition by the name of beauty, we become incapable of discriminating its excellence or feeling its value. We need to clarify our ideals, and enliven our vision of perfection. No atheism is so terrible as the absence of an ultimate ideal, nor could any failure of power be more contrary to human nature than the failure of moral imagination, or more incompatible with healthy life. For we have faculties, and habits, and impulses. These are the basis of our demands. And these demands, although variable, constitute an ever-present intrinsic standard of value by which we feel and judge. The ideal is immanent in them; for the ideal means that environment in which our faculties would find their freest employment, and their most congenial world. Perfection would be nothing but life under those conditions. Accordingly our consciousness of the ideal becomes distinct in proportion as we advance in virtue and in proportion to the vigour and definiteness with which our faculties work. When the vital harmony is complete, when the act is pure, faith in perfection passes into vision. That man is unhappy indeed, who in all his life has had no glimpse of perfection, who in the ecstasy of love, or in the delight of contemplation, has never been able to say: It is attained. Such moments of inspiration are the source of the arts, which have no higher function than to renew them.

A work of art is indeed a monument to such a moment, the memorial to such a vision; and its charm varies with its power of recalling us from the distractions of common life to the joy of a more natural and perfect activity.

The stability of the ideal.

Sec. 66. The perfection thus revealed is relative to our nature and faculties; if it were not, it could have no value for us. It is revealed to us in brief moments, but it is not for that reason an unstable or fantastic thing. Human attention inevitably flickers; we survey things in succession, and our acts of synthesis and our realization of fact are only occasional. This is the tenure of all our possessions; we are not uninterruptedly conscious of ourselves, our physical environment, our ruling passions, or our deepest conviction. What wonder, then, that we are not constantly conscious of that perfection which is the implicit ideal of all our preferences and desires? We view it only in parts, as passion or perception successively directs our attention to its various elements. Some of us never try to conceive it in its totality. Yet our whole life is an act of worship to this unknown divinity; every heartfelt prayer is offered before one or another of its images.

This ideal of perfection varies, indeed, but only with the variations of our nature of which it is the counterpart and entelechy. There is perhaps no more frivolous notion than that to which Schopenhauer has given a new currency, that a good, once attained, loses all its value. The instability of our attention, the need of rest and repair in our organs, makes a round of objects necessary to our minds; but we turn from a beautiful thing, as from a truth or a friend, only to return incessantly, and with increasing appreciation. Nor do we lose all the benefit of our achievements in the intervals between our vivid realizations of what we have gained. The tone of the mind is permanently raised; and we live with that general sense of steadfastness and resource which is perhaps the kernel of happiness. Knowledge, affection, religion, and beauty are not less constant influences in a man's life because his consciousness of them is intermittent. Even when absent, they fill the chambers of the mind with a kind of fragrance. They have a continual efficacy, as well as a perennial worth.

There are, indeed, other objects of desire that if attained leave nothing but restlessness and dissatisfaction behind them. These are the objects pursued by fools. That such objects ever attract us is a proof of the disorganization of our nature, which drives us in contrary directions and is at war with itself. If we had attained anything like steadiness of thought or fixity of character, if we knew ourselves, we should know also our inalienable satisfactions. To say that all goods become worthless in possession is either a piece of superficial satire that intentionally denies the normal in order to make the abnormal seem more shocking, or else it is a confession of frivolity, a confession that, as an idiot never learns to distinguish reality amid the phantasms of his brain, so we have never learned to distinguish true goods amid our extravagances of whim and passion. That true goods exist is nevertheless a fact of moral experience. "A thing of beauty is a joy for ever"; a great affection, a clear thought, a profound and well-tried faith, are eternal possessions. And this is not merely a fact, to be asserted upon the authority of those who know it by experience. It is a psychological necessity. While we retain the same senses, we must get the same impressions from the same objects; while we keep our instincts and passions, we must pursue the same goods; while we hare the same powers of imagination, we must experience the same delight in their exercise. Age brings about, of course, variation in all these particulars, and the susceptibility of two individuals is never exactly similar. But the eventual decay of our personal energies does not destroy the natural value of objects, so long as the same will embodies itself in other minds, and human nature subsists in the world. The sun is not now unreal because each one of us in succession, and all of us in the end, must close our eyes upon it; and yet the sun exists for us only because we perceive it. The ideal has the same conditions of being, but has this advantage over the sun, that we cannot know if its light is ever destined to fail us.

There is then a broad foundation of identity in our nature, by virtue of which we live in a common world, and have an art and a religion in common. That the ideal should be constant within these limits is as inevitable as that it should vary beyond them. And so long as we exist and recognize ourselves individually as persons or collectively as human, we must recognize also our immanent ideal, the realization of which would constitute perfection for us. That ideal cannot be destroyed except in proportion as we ourselves perish. An absolute perfection, independent of human nature and its variations, may interest the metaphysician; but the artist and the man will be satisfied with a perfection that is inseparable from the consciousness of mankind, since it is at once the natural vision of the imagination, and the rational goal of the will.


Sec. 67. We have now studied the sense of beauty in what seem to be its fundamental manifestations, and in some of the more striking complications which it undergoes. In surveying so broad a field we stand in need of some classification and subdivision; and we have chosen the familiar one of matter, form, and expression, as least likely to lead us into needless artificiality. But artificiality there must always be in the discursive description of anything given in consciousness. Psychology attempts what is perhaps impossible, namely, the anatomy of life. Mind is a fluid; the lights and shadows that flicker through it have no real boundaries, and no possibility of permanence. Our whole classification of mental facts is borrowed from the physical conditions or expressions of them. The very senses are distinguished because of the readiness with which we can isolate their outer organs. Ideas can be identified only by identifying their objects. Feelings are recognized by their outer expression, and when we try to recall an emotion, we must do so by recalling the circumstances in which it occurred.

In distinguishing, then, in our sense of beauty, an appreciation of sensible material, one of abstract form, and another of associated values, we have been merely following the established method of psychology, the only one by which it is possible to analyze the mind. We have distinguished the elements of the object, and treated the feeling as if it were composed of corresponding parts. The worlds of nature and fancy, which are the object of aesthetic feeling, can be divided into parts in space and time. We can then distinguish the material of things from the various forms it may successively assume; we can distinguish, also, the earlier and the later impressions made by the same object; and we can ascertain the coexistence of one impression with another, or with the memory of others. But aesthetic feeling itself has no parts, and this physiology of its causes is not a description of its proper nature.

Beauty as we feel it is something indescribable: what it is or what it means can never be said. By appealing to experiment and memory we can show that this feeling varies as certain things vary in the objective conditions; that it varies with the frequency, for instance, with which a form has been presented, or with the associates which that form has had in the past. This will justify a description of the feeling as composed of the various contributions of these objects. But the feeling itself knows nothing of composition nor contributions. It is an affection of the soul, a consciousness of joy and security, a pang, a dream, a pure pleasure. It suffuses an object without telling why; nor has it any need to ask the question. It justifies itself and the vision it gilds; nor is there any meaning in seeking for a cause of it, in this inward sense. Beauty exists for the same reason that the object which is beautiful exists, or the world in which that object lies, or we that look upon both. It is an experience: there is nothing more to say about it. Indeed, if we look at things teleologically, and as they ultimately justify themselves to the heart, beauty is of all things what least calls for explanation. For matter and space and time and principles of reason and of evolution, all are ultimately brute, unaccountable data. We may describe what actually is, but it might have been otherwise, and the mystery of its being is as baffling and dark as ever.

But we, — the minds that ask all questions and judge of the validity of all answers, — we are not ourselves independent of this world in which we live. We sprang from it, and our relations in it determine all our instincts and satisfactions. This final questioning and sense of mystery is an unsatisfied craving which nature has her way of stilling. Now we only ask for reasons when we are surprised. If we had no expectations we should have no surprises. And what gives us expectation is the spontaneous direction of our thought, determined by the structure of our brain and the effects of our experience. If our spontaneous thoughts came to run in harmony with the course of nature, if our expectations were then continually fulfilled, the sense of mystery would vanish. We should be incapable of asking why the world existed or had such a nature, just as we are now little inclined to ask why anything is right, but mightily disinclined to give up asking why anything is wrong.

This satisfaction of our reason, due to the harmony between our nature and our experience, is partially realized already. The sense of beauty is its realization. When our senses and imagination find what they crave, when the world so shapes itself or so moulds the mind that the correspondence between them is perfect, then perception is pleasure, and existence needs no apology. The duality which is the condition of conflict disappears. There is no inward standard different from the outward fact with which that outward fact may be compared. A unification of this kind is the goal of our intelligence and of our affection, quite as much as of our aesthetic sense; but we have in those departments fewer examples of success. In the heat of speculation or of love there may come moments of equal perfection, but they are unstable. The reason and the heart remain deeply unsatisfied. But the eye finds in nature, and in some supreme achievements of art, constant and fuller satisfaction. For the eye is quick, and seems to have been more docile to the education of life than the heart or the reason of man, and able sooner to adapt itself to the reality. Beauty therefore seems to be the clearest manifestation of perfection, and the best evidence of its possibility. If perfection is, as it should be, the ultimate justification of being, we may understand the ground of the moral dignity of beauty. Beauty is a pledge of the possible conformity between the soul and nature, and consequently a ground of faith in the supremacy of the good.


1 Schopenhauer, indeed, who makes much of it, was a good critic, but his psychology suffered much from the pessimistic generalities of his system. It concerned him to show that the will was bad, and, as he felt beauty to be a good if not a holy thing, he hastened to convince himself that it came from the suppression of the will. But even in his system this suppression is only relative. The desire of individual objects, indeed, is absent in the perception of beauty, but there is still present that initial love of the general type and principles of things which is the first illusion of the absolute, and drives it on to the fatal experiment of creation. So that, apart from Schopenhauer's mythology, we have even in him the recognition that beauty gives satisfaction to some dim and underlying demand of our nature, just as particular objects give more special and momentary pleasures to our individualized wills. His psychology was, however, far too vague and general to undertake an analysis of those mysterious feelings.

2 Cf. Stendhal, De L'Amour, passim.

3 This is not the place to enter into a discussion of the metaphysical value of the idea of space. Suffice it to point out that in human experience serviceable knowledge of our environment is to be had only in spatial symbols, and, for whatever reason or accident, this is the language which the mind must speak if it is to advance in clearness and efficiency.

4 The discussion is limited in this chapter to visible form, audible form is probably capable of a parallel treatment, but requires studies too technical for this place.

5 The relation to stability also makes us sensitive to certain kinds of symmetry; but this is an adventitious consideration with which we are not concerned.

6 Cf. Fechner, Vorschule der Aesthetik, Erster Theil, S. 73, a passage by which the following classification of forms was first suggested.

7 See Introduction, p. 12.

8 The contention of Burke that the beautiful is small is due to an arbitrary definition. By beautiful he means pretty and charming; agreeable as opposed to impressive. He only exaggerates the then usual opposition of the beautiful to the sublime.

9 When we speak of things definite in themselves, we of course mean things made definite by some human act of definition. The senses are instruments that define and differentiate sensation; and the result of one operation is that definite object upon which the next operation is performed. The memory, for example, classifies in time what the senses may have classified in space. We are nowhere concerned with objects other than objects of human experience, and the epithets, definite and indefinite, refer necessarily to their relation to our various categories of perception and comprehension.

10 In the Aegina marbles the wounded and dying warriors still wear this Buddha-like expression: their bodies, although conventional, show a great progress in observation, compared with the impossible Athena in the centre with her sacred feet in Egyptian profile and her owl-like visage.

11 Symposium of Xenophon, V.

12 It is a superstition to suppose that a refined taste would necessarily find the actual and useful to be the perfect; to conceal structure is as legitimate as to emphasize it, and for the name reason. We emphasize in the direction of abstract beauty, in the direction of absolute pleasure; and we conceal or eliminate in the same direction. The most exquisite Greek taste, for instance, preferred to drape the lower part of the female figure, as in the Venus of Milo; also in men to shave the hair of the face and body, in order to maintain the purity and strength of the lines. In the one case we conceal structure, in the other we reveal it, modifying nature into greater sympathy with our faculties of perception. For, after all, it must be remembered that beauty, or pleasure to be given to the eye, is not a guiding principle in the world of nature or in that of the practical arts. The beauty is in nature a result of the functional adaptation of our senses and imagination to the mechanical products of our environment. This adaptation is never complete, and there is, accordingly, room for the fine arts, in which beauty is a result of the intentional adaptation of mechanical forms to the functions which our senses and imagination already have acquired. This watchful subservience to our aesthetic demands is the essence of fine art. Nature is the basis, but man is the goal.

13 Not only are words untranslatable when the exact object has no name in another language, as "home" or "mon ami," but even when the object is the same, the attitude toward it, incorporated in one word, cannot be rendered by another. Thus, to my sense, "bread" is as inadequate a translation of the human intensity of the Spanish "pan" as "Dios" is of the awful mystery of the English "God." This latter word does not designate an object at all, but a sentiment, a psychosis, not to say a whole chapter of religious history. English is remarkable for the intensity and variety of the colour of its words. No language, I believe, has so many words specifically poetic.

14 Curiously enough, common speech here reverses our use of terms, because it looks at the matter from the practical instead of from the aesthetic point of view, regarding (very unpsychologically) the thought as the source of the image, not the image as the source of the thought. People call the words the expression of the thought: whereas for the observer, the hearer (and generally for the speaker, too), the words are the datum and the thought is their expressiveness — that which they suggest.


Achilles, 179, 187. Aesthetic feeling, its importance, 1. speculation, causes of its neglect, 2. theory, its uses, 6, 7. Aesthetics, Use of the word, 15. Angels, 55, 182. Apperception, 96 et seq. Arabic inscriptions as ornament, 195. Architecture, Effects of Gothic, 165, 166. governed by use, 161, 162. Aristotelian forms, 156. Aristotle, 174, 175, 288. Associative process, 198 et seq. Augustine, Saint, quoted, 252.

Beauty a value, 14 et seq. as felt is indescribable, 267, 268. a justification of things, 268, 269. defined, 49 et seq. verbal definitions quoted, 14. Beethoven, 43. Breathing related to the sense of beauty, 56. Burke, 124, note. Byron, quoted, 136. Byzantine architecture, 108, 109.

Calderon, 174. Centaurs, 183, 256. Character as an aesthetic form, 176 et seq. Characters, Ideal, 180 et seq. Charles V.'s palace at the Alhambra, 44. Christ, the various ideas of his nature, 189. Circle, its aesthetic quality, 89. Classicism, French and English, 109. Colonnades, 108. Colour, 72 et seq. its analogy to other sensations, 74, 75. possibility of an abstract art of colour, 75. Comic, The, 245 et seq. Conscience, its representative character, 33, 34. Cost as an element of effect, 211 et seq. Couplet, The, 108. Criticism, Use of the word, 15.

Definite and indefinite, meaning of the terms, 138, note. Degradation not what pleases in the comic, 247 et seq. Democracy, aesthetics of it, 109 Descartes, 16, 183. Disinterestedness not the differentia of aesthetic pleasure, 37 et seq. Don Quixote, 179, 255.

Economy and fitness, 214 et seq. Emerson, 144. Epicurean esthetics, 10, 11. sublime, The, 241, 243. Escurial, The, 95, 210. Ethos, 174, 175. Evil, life without it aesthetic, 29, 30. in the second term of expression, 221 et seq. conventional use of the word, 223. an occasion of the sublime, 235 et seq. excluded from the beautiful, 260, 261. Evolution, its possible tendency to eliminate imagination, 26 Exclusiveness a sign of aesthetic vigour, 44. Experience superior to theory in aesthetics, 11, 12. Expression defined, 192 et seq. of feeling in another, 202, 203. of practical values, 208 et seq. Expressiveness, Use of the word, 197.

Fechner, 97. Form, There is a beauty of, 82 et seq. the unity of a manifold, 95 et seq. Functions of the mind may all contribute to the sense of beauty, 53 et seq.

Geometrical figures, 88 et seq. God, the idea of him in tradition and in metaphysics, 188, 189. Gods, development of their ideal characters, 185 et seq. Goethe, 9, 170, 179. Grammar, its analogy to metaphysics, 169. Gretchen, 179. Grotesque, The, 256 et seq.

Hamlet, 179. Happiness and aesthetic interest, 63, 65. Health a condition of aesthetic life, 54. Hedonism opposed by the moral sense, 23, 24. History an imaginative thing, 141, 142. Home as a social and as an aesthetic idea, 64. Homer, 171. his aesthetic quality, 205, 206. his epithets, 179. Horace, quoted, 172. Humour, 253 et seq.

Ideals are modified averages, 121 et seq. immanent in human nature, 262. stable, 263 et seq. Imagination has a universal creative function, 190, 191. and sense alternately active, 55, 56. Impression distinguished from expression, 84, 85. Impressionism in painting, 134, 136. incongruity not what pleases in the comic, 247 et seq. Indeterminate organizational et seq. Infinite beauty, the idea impossible, 148 et seq. Inspiration, 252, 253.

Kalokagathia, 31. Kant, 105. Keats, quoted, 67, 105, 181, 264. King Lear, 229. Kipling, R., quoted, 68.

Landscape, 133 et seq. with figures, 135, 136. Liberation of self, 233 et seq. Love, influence of the passion, 56 et seq. Lowell, J. R., quoted, 148. Lower senses, 65 et seq. Lucretius, quoted, 172. on the sublime, 236.

Maps, 209, 210. Material beauty most easily appreciated, 78 et seq. its effect the fundamental one, 78. Materials of beauty surveyed, 76 et seq. Methods in aesthetics, 5. Michael Angelo, 182. Miser's fallacy, its parallel in morals and aesthetics, 31, 32. Modern languages inferior to the ancient, 173, 174. Moliere, 174; quoted, 20. Monarchy, its imaginative value, 34, 35. Moral and aesthetic values, 23 et seq. the authority of morals over aesthetics, 218 et seq. Morality and utility jealous of art, 216, 217. Multiplicity in uniformity, 97 et seq. its defects, 106 et seq. Musset, Alfred de, quoted, 170, 226. Mysticism in aesthetics, 126 et seq.

Naturalism, the ground of its value, 21. Nature, its organization the source of apperceptive forms, 152 et seq. the love of it among the ancients, 137, 138. New York, the plan of the streets, 95. Nouns, idea of a language without them, 171.

Objectification the differentia of aesthetic pleasure, 44 et seq. Ornament and form, 63 et seq. Othello, 237. Ovid, quoted, 149.

Pantheism, its contradictions, 242, 243. Perception, the psychological theory of it, 45 et seq. Perfection, illusion of infinite, 146 et seq. possibility of finite, 258 et seq. Physical pleasure distinguished from aesthetic, 35 et seq. Physiology of the perception of form, 85 et seq. Picturesqueness contrasted with symmetry, 92. Platonic ideas useless in explaining types, 117, 118. Platonic intuitions, their nature and value, 8 et seq. Platonists, 159. Plot, The, 174 et seq. Preference ultimately irrational, 18 et seq. necessary to value, 17, 18. Principles consecrated aesthetically, 31 et seq. Purity, The aesthetic principle of, 70 et seq.

Rationality, the source of its value, 19, 20. Religious characters, their truth, 188. imagination, 185 et seq. Rhyme, 173, 174. Romanticism, 150.

Schopenhauer, 263. criticised, 37, note, on music, 69. Scientific attitude in criticism opposed to the aesthetic, 20, 21. Sculpture, its development, 153, 154. Self not a primary object of interest, 39, 40. Sensuous beauty of fundamental importance, 80, 81. Sex, its relation to aesthetic life, 56 et seq. Shakespeare, 151, 174, 175; quoted, 51, 114, 229, 237, 251. Shelley quoted, 12, 244, 253. Sight, its primacy in perception, 73, 74. Size related to beauty, 123, 124. Sky, The, its expressiveness, 8. Social interests and their aesthetic influence, 62 et seq. Socrates, his utilitarian aesthetics, 157. Sonnet, The, 173. Sound, 68 et seq. Space, its metaphysical value, 66, note. Stars, the effect analyzed, 100 et seq. Stendhal, 61. Stoic Sublime, The, 241. Straight lines, 89, 90. Subjectivity of aesthetic values, 3,4. Sublime, The, its independence of the expression of evil, 239 et seq. Sublimity, 233 et seq. Sybaris, 216. Symbolists, 144. Symmetry, 91 et seq. a principle of individuation, 93. limits of its application, 95. Syntactical form, 171 et seq.

Tacitus, 173, 252. Terms, the first and second terms in expression defined, 195. influence of the first term in the pleasing expression of evil, 226 et seq. Theory a method of apperception, 138 et seq. Tragedy mitigated by beauty of form and the expression of good, 228, 229. mitigated by the diversity of evils, 229. mixed with comedy, 224, 225, 228. consists in treatment not in subject, 224. Translation necessarily inadequate, 168. Truth, grounds of its value, 22, 23. Truth, mixture of the expression of truth with that of evil, 228 et seq. Types, their origin, 116 et seq. their value and that of examples, 112 et seq.

Ugly, The, not a cause of pain, 25. Universality not the differentia of aesthetic pleasure, 40 et seq. Utility the principle of organization in nature, 155 et seq. its relation to beauty, 157 et seq. the principle of organization in the arts, 160 et seq.

Value, aesthetic value in the second term of expression, 205 et seq. all in one sense aesthetic, 28 et seq. physical, practical, and negative transformed into aesthetic, 201 et seq. Venus of Milo, 165, note. Virgin Mary, The, 189, 190.

Whitman, 112. Wit, 250 et seq. Words, 167 et seq. Wordsworth quoted, 105. Work and play, 25 et seq.

Xenophon quoted, 123. his Symposium, 157.


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