Is Beauty a Virtue?
A couple of weeks ago, I suggested that the heart of each genre may be the defining virtue of the main character. Among others, I suggested that the defining virtue of the superhero genre is strength and that of the romance genre is beauty. I got some pushback on that, though not quite the pushback I expected (that’s a good thing!).
I expected the pushback to be simply that beauty isn’t a virtue. Despite no one actually pushing back on that, I intend to defend it anyway. The concept of virtue is central to my genre schema. Without it, it falls apart. So I need to defend the proposition that beauty is a virtue.
So we are clear, I am not saying that being beautiful makes you virtuous. That would be saying that beauty is a cause of other virtues, not that it is a virtue in itself. Nonetheless, there is a long literary tradition associating beauty with goodness and ugliness with evil. The good witches of Oz are beautiful and the wicked ones ugly. The elves of Middle Earth are beautiful and the Orcs ugly. And where evil takes on the aspect of beauty, it is considered a mask, a kind of deceit. Thus in many stories the beautiful villain is unmasked at the climax of the story to reveal ugliness underneath.
Some people adamantly object to this tradition, arguing that it can lead to people who are ugly or deformed in some way being stigmatized and ostracized. There is a whole literary tradition around the ostracism of the ugly. The ugly duckling becomes a swan. Quasimodo is shown to have a beauty of spirit and purity of love, and wins the love of the beautiful Esmerelda. (His beauty is confirmed by hers.) But these stories still make a virtue of beauty. They are, in one way or another, a progress from ugliness to beauty.
Some will reject this association and seek to discount beauty altogether. They would object to the words ugly and deformed as I used them in the last paragraph. I doubt anything I could say on the subject would appease them. I would only say this, that the distribution of virtues in life, beauty among them, is not fair or equitable. Little in nature is. We were expelled from Eden long ago. But the unfairness of our fallen nature is not an argument against the existence of its unfairly distributed attributes.
Some will reject beauty as a mere subjective reaction of the individual. We can debate where our sense of beauty comes from and whether beauty is a subjective or objective property (see C. S. Lewis on this subject in the first chapter of The Abolition of Man). But what seems obvious to me is that while we do have our disagreements, human beings are actually in very broad agreement about what is and is not beautiful. We agree about it, in fact, just as much as we agree about many things, and perhaps more than most.
And why wouldn’t we? It is clear enough that we associate beauty with health and fertility. This is obviously true with human beauty, but it extends into the beauty of the natural world as well. It is those aspects of the natural world that feed and nurture us that we find most beautiful: vigorous plant life, flowing and still waters, forests and fields.
There are things that we consider beautiful that are not fertile. There are buildings we consider beautiful and those we consider ugly. But the language of beauty with which we describe a beautiful building is full of the language of fertility. When we describe a brutal functionalist concrete block we use words like “sterile”. The same applies to most of our utilitarian constructs. No one ever said that a road or a railway line improved the look of a river valley, even if it gives us a better look at it. Beauty in a building is a result of striving for something beyond the merely functional. Symmetry plays a large role in our finding buildings beautiful, and symmetry is found everywhere in nature. But decoration plays a significant role as well, and the fractal nature of living things is reflected in the well-executed decoration of buildings. We talk about how an attractive building fits into its setting. Harmony with the natural world is integral to architectural beauty.
Now, it is true that we also find beauty in deserts and snow-capped mountains, which are not fertile places, which are, in fact, hostile to life. Beauty is certainly not a about fertility alone. The beauty of mountains and deserts is, I suspect, founded in our sense of awe. (See Lewis again on this.) We don’t find beauty in an empty gravel lot with the odd weed poking through it, though it is nothing but a desert in miniature. Scale matters in these cases.
We find the same thing when we consider ugliness. We find disease ugly. We find pollution ugly. We find the broken, the abandoned, the neglected, the collapsing ugly. Abandonment and collapse speak of life absented, which is to say, of death. Order, symmetry, life, fertility, fecundity, and awe are the components of beauty. Disorder, death, disease, waste, and pollution are the components of ugliness.
But this is still not the full extent of our sense of beauty. Mathematicians often speak of the beauty of an elegant proof. The same sentiments appear in the sciences and in theology. Beauty is seen by many scholars as a guide to truth. A true theorem may be know, in part or in whole, by its beauty. (Beauty is truth; truth beauty.) Here is Bertrand Russel on the subject:
Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty—a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show. The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than Man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as poetry.
Beauty, therefore, is a property of all things good. Beauty is a virtue.
But perhaps you will object that beauty is not so much a virtue itself as a sign or an indicator of virtuous things. But even if we accepted this reductionist view, the thing that leads us to good things is surely itself a good thing. Without it we would have a harder time finding the good and the true. We should be much poorer for the lack of it. Even if you think beauty no more than a signal, therefore, it is a virtuous signal. I happen to think it is more than that (see Lewis again). But even if it is no more than that, it is still a virtue.
Now it must be said that if beauty is a signal leading us to things that make life good and pleasant, it is not a perfect signal. (In this fallen world, there are no perfect signals.) Avoiding ugliness and embracing beauty is a pretty reliable rule of thumb for living, but not entirely reliable. It can sometimes lead us into great cruelty and injustice if it is not balanced by virtues such as justice and charity. We must rely on a harmony of many virtues if we are to live full and just lives.
Still, some may object to the use of the word “virtue” for any but the strictly moral cases. Classically the four cardinal virtues are temperance, prudence, courage, and justice. To these the Catholic Church adds three theological virtues: faith, hope and love. None of these are actions. Rather, they are dispositions. These dispositions enable or dispose one to perform moral actions.
But to actually perform moral action, you need the means and capacity to act. Superman decides to rescue cats from trees because he possesses the virtues of prudence and love. He is able to do it because he has the practical virtue of strength.
If the cardinal and theological virtues enable us to choose the good, the practical virtues — strength, intelligence, etc. — enable us to execute the good we have chosen. Good deeds don’t get accomplished without both. If we take having virtue to mean having the capacity to do good, then the cardinal, theological, and practical virtues are united and indispensable to each other.
Or, as the comics express the same notion, in the words of Uncle Ben to Peter Parker: “With great power comes great responsibility.” The responsibility here is not only to use the power responsibly if you choose to use it. The responsibility is to use it actively because the power has responsibilities inherent in it. You can do what others cannot do, and therefore you must do them because you alone can. Peter Parker must choose to be Spiderman because he alone can be Spiderman. The guiding and practical virtues are inextricably linked and intertwined.
C. S. Lewis said something to the effect that something can be good like an apple, good like a book, or good like a deed. (I’d be obliged to anyone who can point me to the real quote.) Good like an apple means not having spoiled. Good like a book means well made. Good like a deed means generous or selfless — morally good. In these different senses of the word “good” we once again see how the means and the inclination to do good are linked. Virtuous things enable virtuous choices.
Making a virtue of the practical properties of things is widespread. For instance we speak of virtuous herbs in traditional medicine or of virtuous plants more generally. Emerson said, “A weed is but a plant whose virtues remain undiscovered.” Virtuous plants are not making moral choices. But they are essential practical means for doing certain kinds of good, such as healing the sick and feeding the hungry.
And beauty, as we have noted, is a highly practical guide to good things of many kinds. Surely then it deserves to be called a virtue as much as any other practical good.
Let me now bring this discussion back to the subject of genre. Genre is a means of classifying stories. Stories, I maintain, are fundamentally about people making choices between values. They are about virtue, therefore, or the lack of it, but also about the exercise of it, or its opposite. Temperance, prudence, courage, justice, faith, hope and love are present, or their opposites, in various degrees and combinations, in all stories.
If genres are to be distinguished by characteristic virtues, therefore, it is not going to be by the cardinal and theological virtues, which are a feature of all stories. What distinguishes one genre from another, at the most fundamental level, are the practical virtues. (This, at least, is my contention.) Superman gets his own comic book not because he has the prudence and love of a man from another planet but because he has the strength of a man from another planet. With great power comes great responsibility.
And thus I maintain that the defining virtue of the romance genre is beauty, in its many forms, both external and internal. Beauty, after all, is a signal and sign of fertility, and fertility is at the root of the romantic impulse. Even if today we often prefer to limit fertility, it is still the imperative to go forth and multiply that creates and sustains the mating drive. Beauty, then, is a virtue, and the defining virtue of the romance genre is beauty.