The nature of beauty is one of the most persistent themes in Western philosophy. Counted among the ultimate values, along with goodness, truth, and justice, the classical conception is that beauty consists of an arrangement of integral parts into a coherent whole, according to proportion, harmony and symmetry. This notion of beauty as an intelligible object to be regarded and appraised has meant that the dominant theoretical argument surrounding beauty has been whether it is objective or subjective: can beauty be defined or does it exist in the eye of the beholder? But what if beauty has nothing to do with the extrinsic but everything to do with our inner experience - our thoughts, our actions and our view of the world?
“Everywhere there is tenderness, care and kindness, there is beauty.”John O’Donohue
According to Plato, beauty was absolutely linked to our inner world; it was an idea of which beautiful things were a consequence. Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume said, “Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.” Conversely, Ralph Waldo Emerson proposed that the secret of ugliness consisted not in irregularity, but in being uninteresting, paraphrasing the Ancient Greek belief that one's physical, outward appearance was a reflection of one's inner character. In his book Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue goes further however and challenges the reader to completely reconsider intellectually, philosophically and psychologically what the experience of beauty is. Putting aside one of the huge mistakes of our age, to confuse glamor with beauty, he proposes that “Beauty is about becoming.…Beauty is about an emerging fullness, a greater sense of grace and a deeper sense of depth.”
“We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are.”Anaïs Nin
While the word beauty may initially evoke a landscape, a piece of music or art or the faces of the people you love, O’Donahue argues that it does not belong exclusively to the regions of light and loveliness, cut off from the conflict and conversation of oppositions. “The graced eye can glimpse beauty anywhere,” he says. “When our eyes are graced with wonder, the world reveals its wonders to us. There are people who see only dullness in the world and that is because their eyes have already been dulled. The quality of our looking determines what we come to see.”
Beauty therefore does not exist in perfection or on a special elite plane but is present in everything. It is a free spirit and will not be trapped within the grid of intentionality. Beauty is also a gentle but urgent call to awaken, he says - etymologically, the word beauty means to call - and so it has an element of action. It is up to us to beautify our gaze, to feel, think and act beautifully in the world. Creating beauty everyday, in everything, is within our power, and once that power is awakened “we can slip into the Beautiful with the same ease as we slip into the seamless embrace of water; something ancient within us already trusts that this embrace will hold us.”