To Elucidate Further on the Feeling of Awe in Beauty

A while back, on another page, I quoted CEM Joad (philosopher) on the inability of science to account for the appreciation of beauty.  By appreciation of beauty, I mean specifically, the awe or wonder beauty inspires, which as far as I can work it out in my mind, has no specific purpose in evolution.  I do not attempt to discredit evolution in general, but it occurs to me that it might not be all that explains us.  Joad makes some good points in this regard, which actually led me to further explore these ideas in the ancient writings of Plato, which in my opinion, further supports this conclusion. I should not say conclusion, exactly, in that these are just beginnings of ideas in me so far. Although I have read Plato before, I did not read it with the same interest or thought as I do now.  Because this book, The Recovery of Belief, is rare and hard to find, I would like to quote directly from Joad, who illustrates this feeling more than I am able.

On the three Values of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty:

“They include the experience of a sunset or of a great view from a mountaintop; they include, also, some great act of heroism or self-sacrifice, and they are illustrated by a life which is devoted to the disinterested pursuit of Truth.

Of these experiences, four characteristics may be predicated. First, they are not merely contingent but convey a sense of their necessity; we realize, in fact, that they could not be other than they are, the universe being what it is.

Secondly, they are not arbitrary but are felt to be significant, significant of something beyond themselves. We feel that the reason why they could not be other than they are is that they reveal something of the nature of the universe. . . Now these experiences, when we have them are strangely moving.

Thirdly, they bring with them a sense of release, release from the needs and desires, the wants and cravings, the driving impulses of daily life. . .Wishing, fearing, craving, hoping, and willing, we may never, except in the rare moments of aesthetic enjoyment or the secure possession of truth, be at rest. We must be forever doing and stirring, meddling, changing, and improving.  But in the appreciation of pictures, of great music or of nature . . . we get a momentary and fleeting glimpse of the nature of that, the full knowledge of which may be conceived as constituting at least in part our true end. For that moment, and for so long as the glimpse persists, we realize in anticipation and almost, as it were, illicitly, the nature of the end. We are, if I may so put it, for the moment there, just as a traveler may obtain a fleeting glimpse of a distant country from a height passed on the way, and cease for a space from his journey to enjoy the view. And since we are for the moment there, we experience, while the moment lasts, that sense of liberation from the drive of life, which has been noted as one of the special characteristics of aesthetic experience. We, who are part and parcel of the evolutionary stream, are permitted for a moment to be withdrawn from the thrust and play of impulse and desire. We feel neither need nor want and, losing ourselves in the contemplation of a reality which is other than ourselves, become for the moment selfless. When we experience those significant combinations of forms or sounds to which we give the name of beautiful in art, our contemplation is, in a word, will-less in its character.

But, fourthly. . .Beauty often takes us by surprise, whether it comes to us as a sudden view of a landscape, as a harmony of shape and line, or, it may be, as music accidentally heard from an open window in the street.  Nor is the reason far to seek.  Aesthetic appreciation is unconditioned by considerations of time and space and, while it lasts, lifts us out of the arena of moral struggle and conflict in which our daily lives are passed. For this reason we are not allowed to indulge it overmuch. And so, before we are even fully assured that the vision of beauty is ours, we are caught up and thrust back into the whirlpool of want and need, of striving, loving, and fearing which is our day-to-day experience as individuals.  This no doubt is the reason for the fleeting and ephemeral nature of even the most lasting aesthetic experience; to this it owes its unsatisfactory and tantalizing character. . . The soul is at once gladdened and disappointed. The veil is lifted so quickly that we have scarcely time to know that it has gone before it has fallen again. But during the moment of lifting we get a vision of a something behind and beyond which passes, before it is clearly seen, and which in passing leaves behind a feeling of indefinable longing and regret. . .

And strangely, the longing and regret are for what is somehow familiar. There is an element of nostalgia in aesthetic experience which finds expression in philosophies of pre-existence from Plato’s theory of Reminiscence onwards. . .

These characteristics of our highest experiences, characteristics which I have tried to convey in terms of aesthetic experience, though they are by no means confined to this, are, I believe, most plausibly to be explained on the assumption that in them we obtain a fleeting glimpse,a foretaste, as it were, of the nature of that reality which is God.” –CEM Joad.

While I am sure that that there will be many who have thought of reasons to attribute these experiences to Natural Selection (I, too, have entertained some theories), this theory resonates with me, and I intend to think on it at length.

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