All You Need Is Love?
"A thing of beauty is a joy for ever | Its loveliness increases; it will never |Pass into nothingness; but still will keep | A bower quiet for us, and a sleep |Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing." Those three lines of John Keats sum up one of the most romantic positions about the relationship between beauty and love: beauty is love. To have an aesthetic experience means to indulge into some sort of pleasure.
And yet, is it really like Keats has it? Just one moment of reflection shows that there are plenty of circumstances where our love seems to be disconnected from beauty, and where beauty seems to be disconnected from what we love. As to the first horn of the disconnection, consider this: how often have you placed your passion, for a person or an endeavor, in bad hands? How often do you find yourself, or some of your acquaintances, love what’s ugly? Or, think of the passion for kitch items, or for disgusting experiences. None of those could be explainable if love would always agree with beauty.
As for the second half of the disconnection, what about those situations in which you definitely know that a certain painting or musical piece or movie or person is beautiful, but you just can’t bring yourself to really love it? It often happens with classical items in a genre, but also with the latest hits.
Beauty, Love, and Expertise
The relationship between beauty and love passes necessarily through the development of taste. Our taste, expressed in our aesthetic judgments and – ultimately – in our preferences, does not always agree with what we regard as beautiful. (Of course it does not even agree also with what others regard as beautiful, but that’s a far more obvious circumstance.)
Those who wish to defend Keat’s position, will at this point suggest that, if taste does not ally with beauty, it is because of a weakness in education. If you do not realize that such and such a song is beautiful, it is because you must lack some key information or understanding that would make you come to see the beauty of the song.
However, we know that the relativity of judgments about taste still holds also among experts, as Hume famously discussed in his essay On the Standards of taste. Therefore, it seems that we cannot safely claim that beauty and love are in disagreement just because of a lack of education: even with the most sophisticated training, the possibility of a disconnection still looms large.
Love Is in the Beauty
The relationship between beauty and love, however, is also interesting also for another reason. It seems that the appreciation of beauty is a form of love. This is not to say that love is never disconnected from beauty, and that beauty is never disconnected from love; yet, when a beautiful thing or event is appreciated, then there is some form of love involved.
Beauty, in other words, can be a driving force of passions. Actually, for some philosophers, including classic figures such as Plato, the highest form of love is directly connected to beauty. After all, for him, love is love of beauty and beauty is truth and it is justice as well.
How Much Beauty?
Plato’s position was, of course, very optimistic. It is clear, to some of us, that there are plenty of ways in which too much love for beauty can result in a miserable life, whose protagonist will struggle for balance and, hence, justice and truth.
Plato’s response to this line of criticism would have been to deny that the subjects in question are genuinely loving and appreciating beauty. In order to be able to love beauty in the highest possible form, indeed, you have to educated yourself to appreciate only those things that will give you also justice and balance at once. That is, alas, one of the most difficult tasks to accomplish. But, who said that the philosophical life is an easy one to live by?