Elaine Scarry

An Idea of Beauty

The following text is an excerpt from the catalogue “An Idea of Beauty”, edited by CCC Strozzina, Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi and published by Mandragora (www.mandragora.it).
Elaine Scarry

On Beauty and Being Just

What is the felt experience of cognition at the moment one stands in the presence of a beautiful boy or flower or bird? It seems to incite, even to require, the act of replication. Wittgenstein says that when the eye sees something beautiful, the hand wants to draw it.

Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people. Sometimes it gives rise to exact replication and other times to resemblances and still other times to things whose connection to the original site of inspiration is unrecognizable. […]

Beauty, as both Plato’s Symposium and everyday life confirm, prompts the begetting of children: when the eye sees someone beautiful, the whole body wants to reproduce the person. But it also—as Diotima tells Socrates—prompts the begetting of poems and laws, the works of Homer, Hesiod and Lycurgus. […] This phenomenon of unceasing begetting sponsors in people like Plato, Aquinas, and Dante the idea of eternity, the perpetual duplicating of a moment that never stops. But it also sponsors the idea of terrestrial plenitude and distribution, the will to make “more and more” so that there will eventually be “enough”. Although very great cultural outcomes such as the Iliad or the Mona Lisa or the idea of distribution arise out of the requirement beauty places on us to replicate, the simplest manifestation of the phenomenon is the everyday fact of staring. The first flash of a bird incites the desire to duplicate not by translating the glimpsed image into a drawing or a poem or a photograph but simply by continuing to see her five seconds, twenty-five seconds, forty-five seconds later—as long as the bird is there to be beheld. People follow the paths of migrating birds, moving strangers, and lost manuscripts, trying to keep the thing sensorily present to them. […]

Beauty is sometimes disparaged on the ground that it causes a contagion of imitation, as when a legion of people begin to style themselves after a particular movie starlet, but this is just an imperfect version of a deeply beneficent momentum toward replication.

Again beauty is sometimes disparaged because it gives rise to material cupidity and possessiveness; but here, too, we may come to feel we are simply encountering an imperfect instance of an otherwise positive outcome. […] Something beautiful fills the mind yet invites the search for something beyond itself, something larger or something of the same scale with which it needs to be brought into relation. Beauty, according to its critics, causes us to gape and suspend all thought. […]

On Beauty and Being Fair

The banishing of beauty from the humanities in the last two decades has been carried out by a set of political complaints against it. But, as I will try to suggest, these political complaints against beauty are themselves incoherent […] and it may even be the case that far from damaging our capacity to attend to problems of injustice, it instead intensifies the pressure we feel to repair existing injuries.

[…] When I say that beauty has been banished, I do not mean that beautiful things have themselves been banished, for the humanities are made up of beautiful poems, stories, paintings, sketches, sculpture, film, essays, debates, and it is this that every day draws us to them. I mean something much more modest: that conversation about the beauty of these things has been banished, so that we coinhabit the space of these objects […] yet speak about their beauty only in whispers.

The political critique of beauty is composed of two distinct arguments. The first urges that beauty, by preoccupying our attention, distracts attention from wrong social arrangements. It makes us inattentive, and therefore eventually indifferent, to the project of bringing about arrangements that are just. The second argument holds that when we stare at something beautiful, make it an object of sustained regard, our act is destructive to the object. […] The complaint has given rise to a generalized discrediting of the act of “looking”, which is charged with “reifying” the very object that appears to be the subject of admiration. […] It is clear at the outset that they are unlikely both to be true since they fundamentally contradict one another. The first assumes that if our “gaze” could just be coaxed over in one direction and made to latch onto a specific object (an injustice in need of remedy or repair), that object would benefit from our generous attention. The second assumes that generous attention is inconceivable, and that any object receiving sustained attention will somehow suffer from the act of human regard. […]

Beauty, far from contributing to social injustice in either of the two ways it stands accused, or even remaining neutral to injustice as an innocent bystander, actually assists us in the work of addressing injustice, not only by requiring of us constant perceptual acuity—high dives of seeing, hearing, touching—but by the more direct forms of instruction. […]

People spend so much time noticing one another that the practice will no doubt continue regardless of the conclusions we arrive at about beauty. But many arguments can be made to credit the pleasure people take in one another’s countenance. Staring, as we earlier saw, is a version of the wish to create; it is directly connected to acts of drawing, describing, composing, lovemaking. It is odd that contemporary accounts of “staring” or “gazing” place exclusive emphasis on the risks suffered by the person being looked at, for the vulnerability of the perceiver seems equal to, or greater than, the vulnerability of the person being perceived. In accounts of beauty from earlier centuries, it is precisely the perceiver who is imperiled, overpowered, by crossing paths with someone beautiful. Plato gives the most detailed account of this destabilization in the Phaedrus. A man beholds a beautiful boy: suddenly he is spinning around in all directions. Publicly unacceptable things happen to his body. First he shudders and shivers. Then sweat pours from him. He is up, down, up, down, adopting postures of worship, even beginning to make sacrifices to the boy, restrained only by his embarrassment at carrying out so foolish an activity in front of other people. Now he feels an unaccountable pain. Feathers are beginning to emerge out of his back, appearing all along the edges of his shoulder blades. Because this plumage begins to lift him off the ground a few inches, he catches glimpses of the immortal realm. Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that the discomfort he feels on the inside is matched by how ridiculous he looks on the outside. The beholder in Dante’s Vita nuova is equally at risk. Coming face-to-face with Beatrice, Dante undergoes a violent trembling. All his senses go into a huddle, alarmed at the peril to which he has just exposed them. Soon he is so immobilized he might be mistaken for “a heavy inanimate object”.

It is hard—no matter how dedicated one is to the principle of “historical difference”—to account for the discrepancy between the aura of radical vulnerability beholders were assigned in the past and the aura of complete immunity they are assigned today. Someone committed to historicism might shrug and say: “We just no longer see beauty in the same way.” But how can that be an acceptable answer if—as an outcome of this newly acquired, wretched immunity—people are asking us to give up beauty altogether? A better answer might be to say not that we see the beauty of persons differently but that we do not see it at all. Perhaps only if one spins momentarily out of control, or grows feathers, or begins to write a sonnet can one be said to have seen the beauty of another person. The essentialist who believes beauty remains constant over the centuries and the historicist or social constructionist who believes that even the deepest structures of the soul are susceptible to cultural shaping have no need, when confronting the present puzzle, to quarrel with one another. For either our responses to beauty endure unaltered over centuries, or our responses to beauty are alterable, culturally shaped. And if they are subject to our willful alteration, then we are at liberty to make of beauty what we wish. And surely what we should wish is a world where the vulnerability of a beholder is equal to or greater than the vulnerability of the person beheld, a world where the pleasure-filled tumult of staring is a prelude to acts that will add to the beauty already in the world—acts like making a poem, or a philosophic dialogue, or a divine comedy; or acts like repairing an injury or a social injustice. Either beauty already requires that we do these things (the essentialist view) or we are at liberty to make of beauty the best that can be made—a beauty that will require that we do these things. […]

It is important to contemplate the way beauty works not only with respect to someone one loves, but also with respect to the large array of beautiful persons walking through the public sphere. […] The structure of perceiving beauty appears to have a two-part scaffolding: first, one’s attention is involuntarily given to the beautiful person or thing; then, this quality of heightened attention is voluntarily extended out to other persons or things. It is as though beautiful things have been placed here and there throughout the world to serve as small wake-up calls to perception, spurring lapsed alertness back to its most acute level. Through its beauty, the world continually recommits us to a rigorous standard of perceptual care: if we do not search it out, it comes and finds us. The problem of lateral disregard is not, then, evidence of a weakness but of a strength: the moment we are enlisted into the first event, we have already become eligible to carry out the second. […]

One final matter will enable us to move forward to the positive claims that can be spoken on behalf of beauty. We saw that the two political arguments are starkly incompatible with one another […]. If we were to move not into the intricate interior [of them] but outside to the overarching framework—if we were, in other words, to move outside the political arguments and contemplate their relation to the non-political arguments used to assault beauty—we would come face-to-face with the same incoherence.

A case in point is the demotion of beauty that has come about as a result of its juxtaposition with the sublime. It is not the sublime that is incoherent, nor even the way in which the sublime systematically demotes beauty that is incoherent. What is incoherent is the relation between the kinds of claims that are made by this demotion and the political arguments looked at earlier.

The sublime has been a fertile aesthetic category in the last twenty years and has been written about with such intricacy that I will sketch its claims only in the briefest form, so that those unfamiliar with it will know what the aesthetic is. At the end of the 18th century, writers such as Kant and Edmund Burke subdivided the aesthetic realm (which had previously been inclusively called beauty) into two realms, the sublime and the beautiful. […]

The sublime occasioned the demotion of the beautiful because it ensured that the meadow flowers, rather than being perceived in their continuity with the august silence of ancient groves (as they had when the two coinhabited the inclusive realm of beauty), were seen instead as a counterpoint to that grove. Formerly capable of charming or astonishing, beauty became the not-astonishing; as it was also the not-male, the not-mountainous, the not-righteous, the not-night. Each attribute or illustration of the beautiful became one member of an oppositional pair, and because it was almost always the diminutive member, it was also the dismissible member. […]

One can see how oddly, yet effectively, the demotion from the sublime and the political demotion work together, even while deeply inconsistent with one another. The sublime (an aesthetic of power) rejects beauty on the grounds that it is diminutive, dismissible, not powerful enough. The political rejects beauty on the grounds that it is too powerful, a power expressed both in its ability to visit harm on objects looked at and also in its capacity to overwhelm our attention in such a way that we cannot free our eyes from it long enough to look at injustice. Berated for its power, beauty is simultaneously belittled for its powerlessness. […]

Beauty Assists Us in Our Attention to Justice

The positive case that can be made on behalf of beauty […] will stand forth more clearly if we place before ourselves the question of the relation between the be-holder and the object beheld. The question can best be posed if we, for a moment, imagine that we are speaking not about the person who comes upon beauty accidentally, or the person who—after valiantly resisting beauty for all the reasons one should be warned against it—at last succumbs, but instead about a person who actively seeks it out.

What is it that such a person seeks? What precisely does one hope to bring about in oneself when one opens oneself to, or even actively pursues, beauty? When the same question is asked about other enduring objects of aspiration—goodness, truth, justice— the answer seems straightforward. If one pursues goodness, one hopes in doing so to make oneself good. If one pursues justice, one surely hopes to be able one day to count oneself among the just. If one pursues truth, one wishes to make oneself knowledgeable. There is, in other words, a continuity between the thing pursued and the pursuer’s own attributes. Although in each case there has been an enhancement of the self, the undertaking and the outcome are in a very deep sense unself-interested since in each case the benefits to others are folded into the nature of my being good, bearing knowledge, or acting fairly. […]

There are at least three ways in which one might wish to say that the same kind of continuity between beauty and its beholder exists. The beholder, in response to seeing beauty, often seeks to bring new beauty into the world and may be successful in this endeavor. But those dedicated to goodness or truth or justice were also seeking to carry out acts that further the position of these things in the world; the particular alteration of self they underwent (the thing for which we are seeking a parallel) is something additional to the fact that they supplemented the world. A second answer is to say that beholders of beautiful things themselves become beautiful in their interior lives: if the contents of consciousness are full of the calls of birds, mental pictures of the way dancers move, fragments of jazz pieces for piano and flute, remembered glimpses of ravishing faces, a sentence of incredible tact and delicacy spoken by a friend, then we have been made intensely beautiful. Still, this cannot be a wholly satisfying reply since though the beautiful object may, like the beholder, have internal beauty, it also has external features; this externality has long been held to be crucial to what beauty is, and even to its particular way of turning us toward justice. But there is a third answer that seems more convincing. […]

The thing perceived, the beautiful object, has conferred on it by the beholder a surfeit of aliveness: even if it is inanimate, it comes to be accorded a fragility and consequent level of protection normally reserved for the animate; if inanimate, like a poem, it may, by being memorized or read aloud to others, thereby be lent the aliveness of the person’s own consciousness. If what is beheld is instead a person, he or she may sponsor—literally— the coming into the world of a newborn, so that the person now stands companioned by additional life; the more general manifestation of this same phenomenon is visible in the way one’s daily unmindfulness of the aliveness of others is temporarily interrupted in the presence of a beautiful person, alerting us to the requirements placed on us by the aliveness of all persons, and the same may take place in the presence of a beautiful bird, mammal, fish, plant. What has been raised is not the level of aliveness, which is already absolute, but one’s own access to the already existing level of aliveness, bringing about, if not a perfect match, at least a less inadequate match between the actual aliveness of others and the level with which we daily credit them. Beauty seems to place requirements on us for attending to the aliveness or (in the case of objects) quasi-aliveness of our world, and for entering into its protection.

Beauty is, then, a compact, or contract between the beautiful being (a person or thing) and the perceiver. As the beautiful being confers on the perceiver the gift of life, so the perceiver confers on the beautiful being the gift of life. […]

Radical Decentering

At the moment we see something beautiful, we undergo a radical decentring. Beauty, according to Simone Weil, requires us “to give up our imaginary position as the centre. […] A transformation then takes place at the very roots of our sensibility, in our immediate reception of sense impressions and psychological impressions” (Simone Weil, “Love for the Order of the World”, in Waiting for God, Harper & Row, New York 1951, p. 159). […] When we come upon beautiful things […] they act like small tears in the surface of the world that pull us through to some vaster space (ivi p. 163); or they form “ladders reaching toward the beauty of the world” (ivi, p. 180), or they lift us (as though by the air currents of someone else’s sweeping), letting the ground rotate beneath us several inches, so that when we land, we find we are standing in a different relation to the world than we were a moment before. It is not that we cease to stand at the centre of the world, for we never stood there. It is that we cease to stand even at the centre of our own world. We willingly cede our ground to the thing that stands before us.

The radical decentring we undergo in the presence of the beautiful is also described by Iris Murdoch in a 1967 lecture called The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts. As this title indicates, her subject is goodness, not beauty. “Ethics,” Murdoch writes, “should not be merely an analysis of ordinary mediocre conduct, it should be a hypothesis about good conduct and about how this can be achieved” (Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts: The Leslie Stepehn Lecture, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1967, p. 2). How we make choices, how we act, is deeply connected to states of consciousness, and so “anything which alters consciousness in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity and realism is to be connected with virtue.” Murdoch then specifies the single best or most “obvious thing in our surroundings which is an occasion for ‘unselfing’ and that is what is popularly called beauty” (ivi, p. 10).

She describes suddenly seeing a kestrel hovering: it brings about an “unselfing”. It causes a cluster of feelings that normally promote the self (for she had been “anxious… resentful… brooding perhaps on some damage done to [her] prestige”) now to fall away. It is not just that she becomes “self-forgetful” but that some more capacious mental act is possible: all the space formerly in the service of protecting, guarding, advancing the self (or its “prestige”) is now free to be in the service of something else.

It is as though one has ceased to be the hero or heroine in one’s own story and has become what in a folktale is called the “lateral figure” or “donor figure”. It may sound not as though one’s participation in a state of overall equality has been brought about, but as though one has just suffered a demotion. But at moments when we believe we are conducting ourselves with equality, we are usually instead conducting ourselves as the central figure in our own private story; and when we feel ourselves to be merely adjacent, or lateral (or even subordinate), we are probably more closely approaching a state of equality. In any event, it is precisely the ethical alchemy of beauty that what might in another context seem like a demotion is no longer recognizable as such: this is one of the cluster of feelings that have disappeared. […]

This seems a gift in its own right, and a gift as a prelude to or precondition of enjoying fair relations with others. It is clear that an ethical fairness that requires “a symmetry of everyone’s relations” will be greatly assisted by an aesthetic fairness that creates in all participants a state of delight in their own lateralness. […]

Beauty may be either natural or artifactual; justice is always artifactual and is therefore assisted by any perceptual event that so effortlessly incites in us the wish to create. Because beauty repeatedly brings us face-to-face with our own powers to create, we know where and how to locate those powers when a situation of injustice calls on us to create without itself guiding us, through pleasure, to our destination. The two distinguishable forms of creating beauty—perpetuating beauty that already exists; originating beauty that does not yet exist— have equivalents within the realm of justice, as one can hear in John Rawls’s formulation of what, since the time of Socrates, has been known as the “duty to justice” argument: we have a duty, says Rawls, “to support” just arrangements where they already exist and to help bring them into being where they are “not yet established” (John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (MA) 1971, pp. 83–87). […]

But what if now the deliberation turned to objects and events that instead of being evenly distributed across the world were emphatically nondistributional. “Shall there be here and there an astonishingly beautiful underground cave whose passageways extend several miles, opening into crystal-lined grottos and large galleries of mineral latticework, in other galleries their mute walls painted by people who visited thousands of years earlier?” Those from whom we are seeking counsel cannot assume that they are likely to live near it, for they have been openly informed that the caves about which they are being asked to vote exist in only two places on earth. Nor can they even assume that if fate places them near one of the caves, they will be able to enter its deep interior, for climbing down into the galleries requires levels of physical agility and confidence beyond those that are widely distributed among any population. But here is the question: isn’t there every reason to suppose that the population will—even in the face of full knowledge that the cave is likely to be forever unavailable to them—request that such a cave be kept in existence, that it be protected and spared from harm? Isn’t it possible, even likely, that the population will respond in exactly the same way toward objects that are nondistributional as to those that are shared across the surface of the earth, that they will—as though they were thinking of skies and flowers— affirm the existence of remote caves and esoteric pieces of music (harder to enter even than the cave) and paintings that for many generations are held by private collectors and seen by almost no one’s eyes? People seem to wish there to be beauty even when their own self-interest is not served by it; or perhaps more accurately, people seem to intuit that their own self-interest is served by distant peoples’ having the benefit of beauty. For although this was written as though it were a thought experiment, there is nothing speculative about it: the vote on blossoms has already been taken (people over many centuries have nurtured and carried the flowers from place to place, supplementing what was there); the vote on the sky has been taken (the recent environmental movement); and the vote on the caves has innumerable times been taken—otherwise it is inexplicable why people get so upset when they learn that a Vermeer painting has been stolen from the Gardner Museum without any assurance that its surface is being protected; why people get upset about the disappearance of kelp forests they had never even heard of until the moment they were informed of the loss; why museums, schools, universities take such care that beautiful artifacts from people long in the past be safely carried forward to people in the future. We are not guessing: the evidence is in.

The above  text is taken from the book On Beauty and Being Just (Princenton University Press, Princenton 2009, pp. 3–7, 29, 57–59, 62, 72–75, 77, 81–90, 111–115, 119, 122–124).



Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts: The Leslie Stepehn Lecture, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1967, pp. 2, 10.
John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (MA) 1971, pp. 83–87 [versione dell’autore].
Simone Weil, “Love for the Order of the World”, in Waiting for God, Harper & Row, New York 1951, pp. 159, 163, 180 [versione dell’autore].


Elaine Scarry (1946, XXX USA) is the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University and also the author of a number of acclaimed books, articles and monographs. She received her BA at Chatham University in English and Political Science, then went on to earn both an MA and a PhD from the University of Connecticut. Her interests include the theory of representation, the language of physical pain and the structure of verbal and material construction in art, science and the law. She was formerly Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. Among her works can be included: The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford University Press, New York 1985); Literature and the Body: Essays on Populations and Persons (Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 1990); Resisting Representation (Oxford University Press, New York 1994); Dreaming by the Book (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, New York 1999); On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ 1999); Who Defended the Country? A New Democracy Forum on Authoritarian versus Democratic Approaches to National Defense on 9/11 (Beacon Press, Boston MA 2003); Rule of Law, Misrule of Men (Boston Review Books, MIT Press, Cambridge MA 2010); Thinking in an Emergency (W.W. Norton, New York 2011).

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