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What is beauty?

Is beauty a tangible, meaning can it be consciously reproduced, or is it purely based on a feeling? Definitions have changed over time, but there are some historical and evolutionary indicators that could help us to break it down to get a baseline of understanding.

There are hints of where the concept of beauty originated. In nature, symmetry is a sign of “normality”. Starfish, leaves, flowers, rabbits and more are all built symmetrically and are signs of healthy development. Lack of symmetry may have been a sign of disease or abnormal growth in food to our ancestors, which was avoided. In our modern day, when we see these symmetrical patterns, we tap into ancient recognition of safety and nutrition, which then activates the reward centres in our brain. Symmetry literally makes us feel good. That’s science.

In our modern culture, we have been told that beauty is only a surface aesthetic, or merely a preference, as it can change with our moods. But in ancient days, beauty was perceived as a noble truth, like love, like justice, and like goodness. Beauty was objective. People dedicated their lives to the pursuit of beauty. Beauty was something to aspire to, work for, and to hold. If you found beauty, it was like finding something holy, something to be revered and even worshipped. Plato brought us this idea in his Symposium. Beauty was one of the Holy Grails of existence.

During the 1800’s, poets and artists travelled the world in search of beauty. Great expeditions were launched to bring the experience of beauty home from distant lands. The Romantic movement emphasised emotion as an authentic source of experiential beauty. To express these feelings, it was considered that content of art had to come from the imagination and emotions of an artist, with as little interference as possible from "artificial" rules. Art became noble and worthy.

Beauty, in the past, was also considered the means by which we could rise higher “closer to the angels.” The idea that beauty elevated the spirit and brought us closer to God is evident, especially in Catholic settings. On a casual trip to the Vatican, one will be overwhelmed with the shock and awe of the artistry and craftsmanship on every square inch of St. Peter’s Basilica. Even the most cynical can not help but feel that they are in the presence of something “more.”

All these ideals of beauty were discarded with post-modernism. The beauty of the Vatican was dismissed as edifice, the pursuit of beauty deemed as frivolous. From animation to architecture, everything that makes up our aesthetic world has been presented from a functional perspective. The post-modern desire to strip expressions of beauty (and spirituality) from our cultural consciousness in deference to the “rational” has left us poorer in all meanings of the word. Beauty has been reduced to sexuality. Sexuality has become a dopamine-hit to compel consumption in our commercial culture. Spirituality is quaint tradition practiced by people of lesser “intelligence.” Beauty, in the ancient sense, has been taken from us. The worst part of it all is; we let them take it from us.

So when values of beauty, truth and love are not passed down from generation to generation, what kind of societies will we have? We live in them now. In a world where artists sell “invisible sculptures” for tens of thousands of dollars, we see that the arbiters of culture are laughing at our decline while they themselves purchase the beauty of the world for private collections.

I invite you to return to beauty in your life, and one by one we will recover ourselves. I promise you, not all of us are laughing at the fragments of romanticism left in our cultural psyches. Beauty will not only save our humanity, it will save our world.

“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.”

- Marcus Aurelius, 160 AD

Juliana Loomer

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