The Adjective Beautiful

THIS little book, like the great branch of mental science to which it

is an introduction, makes no attempt to "form the taste" of the public

and still less to direct the doings of the artist. It deals not with

ought but with is, leaving to Criticism the inference from the

latter to the former. It does not pretend to tell how things can be

made beautiful or even how we can recognise that things are

l. It takes Beauty as already existing and enjoyed, and seeks

to analyse and account for Beauty's existence and enjoyment. More

strictly speaking, it analyses and accounts for Beauty not inasmuch

as existing in certain objects and processes, but rather as calling

forth (and being called forth by) a particular group of mental

activities and habits. It does not ask: What are the peculiarities of the

things (and the proceedings) which we call Beautiful? but: What

are the peculiarities of our thinking and feeling when in the presence

of a thing to which we apply this adjective? The study of single

beautiful things, and even more, the comparison of various

categories thereof, is indeed one-half of all scientific aesthetics, but

only inasmuch as it adds to our knowledge of the particular mental

activities which such "Beautiful" (and vice versa "Ugly") things

elicit in us. For it is on the nature of this active response on our own

part that depends the application of those terms Beautiful and

Ugly in every single instance; and indeed their application in any

instances whatsoever, their very existence in the human vocabulary.

In accordance with this programme I shall not start with a formal

definition of the word Beautiful, but ask: on what sort of

occasions we make use of it. Evidently, on occasions when we feel

satisfaction rather than dissatisfaction, satisfaction meaning

willingness either to prolong or to repeat the particular experience

which has called forth that word; and meaning also that if it comes

to a choice between two or several experiences, we prefer the

experience thus marked by the word Beautiful. Beautiful, we may

therefore formulate, implies on our part an attitude of satisfaction

and preference. But there are other words which imply that much;

first and foremost the words, in reality synonyms, USEFUL and

GOOD. I call these synonyms because good always implies

good for, or good in, that is to say fitness for a purpose, even

though that purpose may be masked under conforming to a

standard or obeying a commandment, since the standard or

commandment represents not the caprice of a community, a race or a

divinity, but some (real or imaginary) utility of a less immediate

kind. So much for the meaning of good when implying standards

and commandments; ninety-nine times out of a hundred there is,

however, no such implication, and good means nothing more than

satisfactory in the way of use and advantage. Thus a good road

is a road we prefer because it takes us to our destination quickly and

easily. A good speech is one we prefer because it succeeds in

explaining or persuading. And a good character (good friend,

father, husband, citizen) is one that gives satisfaction by the

fulfilment of moral obligations.

But note the difference when we come to Beautiful. A beautiful

road is one we prefer because it affords views we like to look at; its

being devious and inconvenient will not prevent its being

beautiful. A beautiful speech is one we like to hear or

remember, although it may convince or persuade neither us nor

anybody. A beautiful character is one we like to think about but

which may never practically help anyone, if for instance, it exists

not in real life but in a novel. Thus the adjective Beautiful implies

an attitude of preference, but not an attitude of present or future

turning to our purposes. There is even a significant lack of

symmetry in the words employed (at all events in English, French

and German) to distinguish what we like from what we dislike in the

way of weather. For weather which makes us uncomfortable and

hampers our comings and goings by rain, wind or mud, is described

as bad; while the opposite kind of weather is called beautiful,

fine, or fair, as if the greater comfort, convenience, usefulness of

such days were forgotten in the lively satisfaction afforded to our

mere contemplation.

Our mere contemplation! Here we have struck upon the main

difference between our attitude when we use the word good or

useful, and when we use the word beautiful. And we can add to

our partial formula "beautiful implies satisfaction and preference"--the

distinguishing predicate--"of a contemplative kind." This

general statement will be confirmed by an everyday anomaly in our

use of the word beautiful; and the examination of this seeming

exception will not only exemplify what I have said about our

attitude when employing that word, but add to this information the

name of the emotion corresponding with that attitude: the emotion

of admiration. For the selfsame object or proceeding may

sometimes be called good and sometimes beautiful, according

as the mental attitude is practical or contemplative. While we

admonish the traveller to take a certain road because he will find it

good, we may hear that same road described by an enthusiastic

coachman as beautiful, anglice fine or splendid, because there

is no question of immediate use, and the road's qualities are merely

being contemplated with admiration. Similarly, we have all of us

heard an engineer apply to a piece of machinery, and even a surgeon

to an operation, the apparently far-fetched adjective Beautiful, or

one of the various equivalents, fine, splendid, glorious (even

occasionally jolly!) by which Englishmen express their

admiration. The change of word represents a change of attitude. The

engineer is no longer bent upon using the machine, nor the surgeon

estimating the advantages of the operation. Each of these highly

practical persons has switched off his practicality, if but for an

imperceptible fraction of time and in the very middle of a practical

estimation or even of practice itself. The machine or operation, the

skill, the inventiveness, the fitness for its purposes, are being

considered apart from action, and advantage, means and time,

to-day or yesterday; platonically we may call it from the first great

teacher of aesthetics. They are being, in one word, contemplated

with admiration. And admiration is the rough and ready name for

the mood, however transient, for the emotion, however faint,

wherewith we greet whatever makes us contemplate, because

contemplation happens to give satisfaction. The satisfaction may be

a mere skeleton of the "I'd rather than not" description; or it may be

a massive alteration in our being, radiating far beyond the present,

evoking from the past similar conditions to corroborate it; storing

itself up for the future; penetrating, like the joy of a fine day, into

our animal spirits, altering pulse, breath, gait, glance and demeanour;

and transfiguring our whole momentary outlook on life. But,

superficial or overwhelming, this hind of satisfaction connected

with, the word Beautiful is always of the Contemplative order.

And upon the fact we have thus formulated depend, as we shall see,

most of the other facts and formulae of our subject.

This essentially unpractical attitude accompanying the use of the

word Beautiful has led metaphysical aestheticians to two famous,

and I think, quite misleading theories. The first of these defines

aesthetic appreciation as disinterested interest, gratuitously

identifying self-interest with the practical pursuit of advantages we

have not yet got; and overlooking the fact that such appreciation

implies enjoyment and is so far the very reverse of disinterested.

The second philosophical theory (originally Schiller's, and revived

by Herbert Spencer) takes advantage of the non-practical attitude

connected with the word Beautiful to define art and its enjoyment

as a kind of play. Now although leisure and freedom from cares

are necessary both for play and for aesthetic appreciation, the latter

differs essentially from the former by its contemplative nature. For

although it may be possible to watch other people playing football

or chess or bridge in a purely contemplative spirit and with the

deepest admiration, even as the engineer or surgeon may

contemplate the perfections of a machine or an operation, yet the

concentration on the aim and the next moves constitutes on the part

of the players themselves an eminently practical state of mind,

one diametrically opposed to contemplation, as I hope to make

evident in the next section.