Beauty and Politics

Lately on the morning drive, my toddler and I have been listening to songs from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Fred Rogers’ welcome song caught my attention on what must have been my thousandth listen:

It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood

A beautiful day for a neighbor

Would you be mine?

Could you be mine?

It’s a neighborly day in this beauty wood

A neighborly day for a beauty

Would you be mine?

Could you be mine?

Here Rogers invites us to think about the relationship between beauty and politics. Now, about that: I think many of us are at least a little suspicious of beauty.

Last year my friend Katie told me a story that comes to mind now. Katie teaches at a classical school in Dallas. She is one of those persons who attends to beauty. So, she was happy to find one day at her school a stack of free bumper stickers, which featured a line from Fyodor Dostoevsky: “Beauty will save the world.” She put one on her intrepid small SUV. Over the holiday break, Katie made the pilgrimage back to our home city, Baton Rouge. On her return to Dallas, across the swamps and through the pine, she notices the bumper sticker—or rather, she notices that it isn’t there. She calls her parents’ home phone. Her dad, a man who is certain about most things in life, answers. “Dad, do you know anything about my bumper sticker?” Comes the resolute reply: “Beauty won’t save the world, Katie—Jesus will.”

Katie’s dad is not alone in his suspicion of beauty. Look at the science and technology and economics and architecture of the west in the last hundred years. You’ll find our attention to beauty at best inconsistent. On the whole, it seems that most of the time we are suspicious of beauty or do not think of it at all. There are reasons for this lack of attention.

The first is “Reason,” with a capital R. In short, in the Enlightenment—which is, as Leon Kass once said, “a very big thing”—we focused our attention on the power of human reason. One consequence has been that we tend to think of reason and beauty on different planes. Reason is important, powerful, capable of bringing us to certainty and control.

Meanwhile beauty, whatever it is, seems flimsy or too childish or too feminine or too airy—in any case, it seems less important than Reason (with a capital R). I don’t want to impugn the Enlightenment wholesale—among other things, it gave us airplanes and Tylenol and iPhones. My only point here is that the Enlightenment did help some of us to consider beauty as less important in the “real world.”

A second reason that we are suspicious of beauty or do not think of it much is that humans’ experiences of violence have put a dent in our first confidence in beauty. In his 1957 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Albert Camus, describes his generation:

These men, who were born at the beginning of the First World War, who were twenty when Hitler came to power and the first revolutionary trials were beginning, who were then confronted as a completion of their education with the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, the world of concentration camps, a Europe of torture and prisons – these men must today rear their sons and create their works in a world threatened by nuclear destruction.

According to Camus, these experiences of destruction nearly destroyed this generation’s confidence in beauty and undermined its place in their society’s political imagination to this day. He says of these men that in order to refuse the nihilism of their own moment, “They have had to forge for themselves an art of living.” But they were rare men who in the wake of unprecedented destruction thought they should attend to beauty to save themselves and their world.

I will make a rough generalization and say that these fragments I’ve selected seem to present to us a consensus of strange bedfellows: religious fundamentalists like Katie’s dad, Camus’ post-War artists, and powerful scientists all basically agree that, if we are talking about important things, beauty shouldn’t really be part of the conversation. To tell you the truth, I find myself a little embarrassed to be talking about the theme.

Many of our important endeavors in science or social science or politics operate without reference to beauty. And that’s not surprising; many of us find beauty irrelevant to the aims of science or social science or politics. This inclination might even be inherent to constitutional democracy in America. Tocqueville observes in Democracy in America that Americans care little for beauty. He says it’s obvious that the key characteristics of democracy “make the taste for the useful predominate over the love of the beautiful in the heart of man” (DAII, 1.11). His account suggests that this preference for utility over beauty is, once again, native to the human heart and that democracy merely exaggerates this nascent tendency.

I should say here that by politics I mean, following Aristotle, how we can live well together. What about beauty? I will follow Wendell Berry. In his 2012 Jefferson Lecture, Berry names, as he says, the “vocabulary I have depended on in this talk: truth, nature, imagination, affection, love, hope, beauty, joy.” Then he says, “Those words are hard to keep still within definitions; they make the dictionary hum like a beehive.”

I will give you an example. If you search beauty in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, you can actually hear the humming. Listen: “Definition of beauty: the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit (see loveliness); [also,] a particularly graceful, ornamental, or excellent quality.”

Whatever beauty is, it seems to be connected to that in which we take pleasure. Yet it’s “hard to keep still within a definition.” And, whatever beauty is, it seems also to be related to the rest of the vocabulary Berry employs—again: “truth, nature, imagination, affection, love, hope, beauty, joy.”

“But,” Berry continues, “in such words, in their resonance within their histories and in their associations with one another, we find our indispensable humanity, without which we are lost and in danger.”

Beauty and politics don’t come naturally connected in our political discourse. At best, they seem to belong to different worlds. Mr. Rogers, Tocqueville, and Berry lead me to wonder: What difference would it make to how we think about and conduct our politics if we add to our account beauty? How might reflection on or encounters with beauty shape one’s vision of the meaning and purpose of politics?

Care for these questions might open us to better care for persons and for our shared political life.