Not Everyone is Educated: a Response to Nathan Biberdorf
I have been pondering this post for well over a month now.
I read this article here: http://nathanbiberdorf.wordpress.com/2014/06/09/not-everyone-is-beautiful/
on Facebook when it was shared by at least six of my friends as being a wonderful defense of truth. A refreshing look at how our world sees beauty.
Except it isn’t.
In fact, this article doesn’t ask us to look for beauty at all: it asks us to close our eyes.
The nature of beauty, what it is, what defines it, who appreciates it, etc. has been a topic of discussion for at least 2500 years now, probably longer, but that is when Socrates was talking about it so it’s as good a place to start as any.
Here is the line in Mr. Biberdorf’s blog that really got me thinking:
“Yes, the word “beautiful” has many different meanings. But by and large, the primary definition of the word refers to physical attractiveness.So why do we use the word as a catch-all for any sort of positive attribute?”
Well, since you asked, I’ll tell you. Because we have always done that. Historically speaking, the word “beauty” has always been applied to ideas, sounds, people, places, words, etc. The term “beauty” is also discussed at great length in relationship to two other ideas: “truth” and “goodness”.
Beauty, Truth, and Goodness.
Wise men and women have been attempting to determine these three things for centuries now.
And Mr. Biberdorf has asked us to stop. He states in his blog:
“Let go of “beautiful”. Not everyone can be beautiful, just like not everyone can climb Everest or play saxophone or be a good kisser.”
This might sound good to you if you believe in a singular, narrow definition of beauty. If you believe that beauty is something you can do, own, or possess. If you believe the marketing mumbo-jumbo that beauty is a commodity that can be bought, sold, and traded for something else much the same as a skill or an object, then by all means let go of that singularity.
But do not let go of beauty.
Mr. Biberdorf, whether he knows it or not, is a product of our age. As a society we have largely accepted the Darwinian and Freudian view of beauty which is this:
Darwin: Beauty is almost entirely a means of attracting the opposite sex
Freud: “psycho-analysis has less to say about beauty than about most things…its derivation from the realms of sexual sensation…seems certain.”
By this definition, which claims beauty is solely the property of sexuality, then the marketers of our society are correct. If our current, cultural definition of sexual attractiveness is large breasts, a small waist, eternally visible navels, hairless bodies, and perpetually pouting lips then they are not wrong in marketing to the masses what the masses apparently find attractive.
But Darwin had something else to say about beauty and mankind. In his words “No other animal is capable of admiring such scenes as the heavens at night, a beautiful landscape, or refined music; but such high tastes are acquired through culture and depend on complex associations; they are not enjoyed by barbarians or by uneducated persons.”
This, the belief that beauty is defined not by a state of being but by a state of understanding, is my point here. This belief is a product of education, not the result of ignoring the opinions of the world in which we live.
If our aim is to ensure that no man or woman believes that they are valueless, then we should not be attacking beauty; because beauty does have value. Any teenage girl who reads a fashion magazine or watches “America’s Next Top Model” is going to know that you are lying to her when you say physical beauty isn’t important, so just stop right now. We cannot ignore the importance of beauty in our culture without risking becoming ignorant. We already have a surfeit of ignorance, let’s try something different.
Our only hope to ensure that each individual feels valued, respected, and loved for their contribution to our society is to reconnect with the past and our once broad definition of beauty; not discard it altogether. What we really need is an education.
Why not, instead of telling ourselves that beauty is an ugly word, that good looks are a product of a cosmic game of chance and some people are the unlucky losers, that they should just settle for the consolation prize of being valuable for some unknown reason, that if they have lost a limb they will have to give up on beauty, that if they gain weight they’ll just have to find something else to value in their life, why don’t we try opening our eyes and minds instead?
Leonardo Da Vinci, one of the geniuses of the Renaissance, who changed the world of art simply by changing the way we represent the world, said:
“The average human looks without seeing, listens without hearing, touches without feeling, eats without tasting, moves without physical awareness, inhales without awareness of odour or fragrance, and talks without thinking.”
As an artist he spent his entire life following this paradigm:
“Principles for the Development of a Complete Mind: Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses- especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”
Beauty is not a product of birth, potions, lotions, surgery, hair extensions, a neatly trimmed beard, small feet, big breasts, or any other thing that we can “be” or “have”. Beauty is a product of learning how to “see” what is around us.
Beauty is not a culmination of how the world sees you, it is a marker of how you see the world.
For example: Most of us have met someone who upon first meeting we noted that the form their body or face, or hair, or voice pattern took was not particularly pleasing to us, but because of the training of our civilization we refrained from pointing out these “negative” responses to their physical traits. Upon knowing them better, understanding their motivations, beliefs, passions, and purposes we no longer found those traits to be negative but positive or even endearing. They had not changed. Our knowledge of them had changed. By contrast, most of us have met someone who was physically handsome, fit, and pleasant to the senses; but with further acquaintance we discovered that the physical traits were not enough to hold our interest where there was callous disregard for others, rudeness, and coarseness in their character. They had not changed, again our knowledge was the only difference.
Sexually attractive bodies are not the sole definition of beauty, and to suggest that is the only way in which beauty is made manifest undoes the purpose of civilization altogether, which purpose is the transmission of education. Along with that education is the knowledge that while we may be animal in nature, mankind has the capacity to be more than what he is born as.
By this definition, and in keeping with great minds from Plato to Kant, Aquinas to Darwin; beauty is a discovery of self, others, and the world.
So don’t give up on beautiful. You DO own that word; you ARE that word.
Da Vinci made another statement which I believe belongs here. “He who does not oppose evil……commands it to be done.”
If we do not engage in the cultural debate on beauty, the war waged daily on young men and women with deadly blows to their self-esteem and worth, then we are permitting the abduction of that word by the body-centric media we claim to despise.
How do we start? How do we open our eyes instead of closing them? How do we tell our child they are beautiful in a way that makes them know they are?
Start with the basics and get an education.
Read the great books. Read what Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Darwin, Kant, Milton, and hundreds of others had to say on beauty.
Learn to see. Enroll in a drawing class in your community, spend hours upon hours learning to represent the lines in the faces of the people you pass, the town you live in, the blades of grass in your yard. Nothing physical will EVER be ugly to you again. The only ugliness you’ll see will be in the actions of people, the things they say and do to one another.
Share your thoughts. If enough people change the conversation, then the words our young people hear will be different. Perhaps my daughter’s daughters will hear “beauty” and think of their minds first. Perhaps my sons will hear the word “beautiful” and think “good and true” before any other adjective.
On the face of things, Nathan Biberdorf is correct: not everyone is beautiful. But it has nothing to do with their physical features.
The real truth is this: not everyone is educated. There are too many people in our civilization who simply don’t know what beauty is. I think it’s time we told them.