Wisdom Regarding Beauty. Self-effacement and One’s Right Relationship to Beauty

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Wisdom Regarding Beauty

Self-effacement and One’s Right Relationship to Beauty


Alexandra Hayes


What does it mean to cultivate aesthetic virtue in a way that contributes to our character? Pursue beauty, not its effect. Many contemporary theories emphasize the great effects of aesthetic life—expertise, individual style, aesthetic community, and so on. Directly pursuing these effects effaces our endeavors. We should instead love beauty itself because it is worthy of love. This love cannot be measured as easily as these effects, though it is characteristically marked by a self-forgetting receptivity and childlike curiosity.

Key Words
aesthetic virtue; beauty; character;  love


1. Introduction

In this paper, I will offer an answer to the question, “what is it to live in the right relationship to beauty?” I will do so by situating what it means to live in the right relationship to beauty in the broader framework of one’s overall good life. In my view, what it means to lead a good and meaningful life is to recognize and pursue what is worthy of love directly—without aiming toward the consequences one can attain by doing so. Aiming toward aesthetic consequences often causes us to overlook beauty’s independent worth and encourages an egoism in a way loving beauty ought to defeat. In other words, what it is to live in the right relationship to beauty is to pursue beauty, not its effects.

When I speak of a relationship to beauty, I do not mean to suggest that this relationship can be held entirely independent of one’s relationships with other sources of value. Each of us is one being with one life; when I speak of one’s character, I mean to point to the rightful unity of character each being possesses. The good life is a life of wisdom. Wisdom is genuinely valuing what is genuinely valuable. It is loving what is worthy of love. The self—even the cultivation of this very character—is neither the reason for love nor the attribute of the beloved. This holds for anything of inherent value, such as truth and goodness, but here I wish to focus on beauty. The aesthetic dimension of character is worth focusing on because, though it has received less attention than the moral or epistemic aspects of character, it too comes with its unique sets of questions, circumstances, and attitudes that are particular to it. One can be wise in different ways. Aesthetic character is wisdom regarding beauty.

One might ask, “what is so wrong with consideration of the self and what we might attain, at least when beauty is concerned?” Many feel confident that truth and goodness are values that ought to be treated with a disinterested respect, but at the same time hold that our personal attachment to aesthetic objects is what gives beauty meaning. Like truth and goodness, I think beauty already has meaning. This is a starting assumption that I hold. I will not offer much by way of argument to convince readers that beauty, the already extent value, exists. I will say, however, that most of us live our lives already as if beauty exists, just as truly—and mostly non-relativistically, which we will get to later—as we live our lives as if truth and goodness exist. For now, that is good enough for me as a starting point to discuss where we go from there and how we live our lives to reflect what I take to be very real values. If the reader is not convinced, she or he can hopefully entertain the ideas I have to offer about how to live a good life as if beauty, truth, and goodness are values.

I readily acknowledge that, in a sense, there is something much more satisfying about giving some external or independent answer to the purpose of aesthetic life, whether that be achievement discerned by a network of experts, self-knowledge, community, personal style, emotional sharing, moral cultivation, or overall flourishing and well-being.[1] My account, in comparison, seems like a non-answer. Why make beauty a central part of your life? Because it is worthy of love. Why is it worthy of love? I am confident that beauty, truth, and goodness are eternal and absolute values. That being said, if someone does not already think this, there does not seem to me much by way of argument that could convince this person. More convincing, I would think, is to echo Emerson’s call to action—“let him look at the stars.”[2]

That might be satisfying enough for a reader, but that reader still might wonder if it really matters whether we start with the conviction that beauty already has value or with the alternative thought that beauty is given value by us, in our life. One might think truth and goodness are different matters because other people are affected by our decision of whether we think they are valuable in themselves or whether we think we just give them value by the consequences we derive from them. To this, I offer a two-fold reply: firstly, something affecting others is not the reason truth and goodness are values in themselves (consider the epistemic and moral duties one has toward oneself), so even if it were true that there was a different consequence amongst these values, it would not matter. Secondly, I do not think this is actually a difference among these values, as I see our relationship to beauty affecting others too, though sometimes in less obvious ways than our relationship to truth and goodness. Furthermore, this is not just a theoretical debate. I think what view we adopt here has significant practical import. A life loving the consequences of beauty looks different from a life loving beauty itself. In certain cases, the differences will be obvious even from an outside observer; for example, someone who openly composes operas that will be well-received instead of ones that he or she thinks are truly beautiful. In other cases, the difference will be subtle—a matter of the heart, if you will—but importantly different nonetheless.

The most important upshot, for me, is that effects do not confer value. The effects are valuable, but they are not the value of beauty. I see our relationship to beauty as affording us glorious effects—great artistic achievement, narrow or widespread expertise or good taste, better self-knowledge, emotional sharing with others, pleasure, moral cultivation, and a sense of overall flourishing and well-being.[3] I do not deny the unique reality of any of these effects, and by that I mean that our relationship to beauty plays a distinctive and often irreplaceable role in providing these effects for us. A life without beauty would be lacking in so many ways. It does not follow from this that these great consequences are what gives beauty value or makes beauty a proper object of love.[4]

The idea that beauty affords us a variety of great effects has come before. In response to Peter Goldie’s neo-Aristotelian account that art matters because it contributes to our well-being by affording us “the permanent possibility of emotional sharing,”[5] Dominic Lopes suggests that we have a “problem of fragmentation” because “some art matters just because it figures in emotional sharing, some art matters just because it focuses contemplation of perceptible structures, some art matters just because it embodies profound truths, some art matters just because it is a break from the daily grind, and so on.”[6]

In light of this problem of fragmentation, Lopes offers an alternative answer. Lopes’ virtue of art theory is not grounded in an independent account of human well-being. For those that question whether a theory of appreciation can be extracted from an account of human well-being, they might opt for Lopes’ neo-Moorean approach that states that “episodes of good taste and the character trait of good taste are intrinsically good because beautiful states of affairs are intrinsically good.”[7] This theory is developed and perfected in the celebrated network theory of aesthetic value offered in Lopes’ Being for Beauty, which, to oversimplify a sophisticated argument for sake of time, aims aesthetic life toward aesthetic achievements.

Both Goldie and Lopes offer compelling accounts, and I agree with a lot of what they have to say. Beauty does contribute to our well-being, and aesthetic achievements are laudable. I wish to offer another kind of account, an account that grounds the worth of aesthetic activity neither in an account of human well-being nor a consequentialism of any kind. My account is informed by Plato, Murdoch, Shaftesbury, Kant, and Emerson, among others.[8]

2. Two faces of self-effacement

Each of these genuinely great consequences of aesthetic life are self-effacing; I mean this in two distinct senses—one is the negative traditional sense of the term, and the second is a positive play on the term. The first sense has to do with our motivation in pursuing beauty; in this I have two worries. This is the traditional sense of self-effacement, in that it is actually counter-productive to directly pursue these things.[9] Here is the first way that aiming toward a consequence makes a practical difference, and not for the better: the worry is that we are not likely to find the best version of the effect by seeking it directly. For example, if one has maintained no interest in figure drawing, but realizes that one is decent at capturing proportions, one is not likely to achieve or excel greatly at this action with the mere motivation of achievement. This worry may turn out to be a good thing, if it guides one to a realization that mere achievement is not the value of beauty and thus one keeps searching. It might turn out to be a good thing for other people’s characters, if they love beauty as a response to the work (though like I said, unlikely). It is perhaps much worse—this is my second worry—for this confused route to succeed, for one may conclude that one has reached an end or conquered a goal and, in so doing, miss the independent value of beauty. For another example, suppose one thinks better self-knowledge is what gives aesthetic life meaning, and suppose one has successfully come into better touch with oneself because of one’s relationship with beauty. The reader may be thinking now, “what is so wrong with that?” To this question, I will reply with another: if someone looks for oneself on every page of Moby Dick, has one even really read it? My answer is “no.” The worry is sustained by the fact that one may continue to operate one’s aesthetic life like this without being guided back to seeking the true value of beauty. One has reason to choose to engage with works that most effectively teach one about oneself, not works that possess or display the highest aesthetic value. Even more worrisome, perhaps, is that one has no reason to stick with aesthetic activity at all if it becomes the case that something else—perhaps therapy—better achieves one’s end.

The second sense in which I mean self-effacement is the positive play on the term as it relates to the great consequences of aesthetic life. These consequences—when the pursuit is toward beauty itselfefface the self. When we pursue the consequences of aesthetic life directly, egoism rears up. When we pursue beauty for its own sake, egoism dies, even in the face of these consequences. To really know some area of beauty well is of great value because the beauty itself is valuable. It is not valuable because of how distinguished it makes the person who has this knowledge. This might seem right, considering the knowledge in question does not concern the self, but the reader might be thinking, “Okay, surely self-knowledge is a different matter. Self-knowledge by definition concerns the self.” The wonderful thing about self-knowledge as a consequence of aesthetic experience where beauty is pursued for its own sake is that it shows oneself in relation to reality, not reality in relation to oneself. When Rilke gives us the imperative “you must change your life” as an end to the “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” the imperative is to change our life in the face of the beauty we have just confronted, to meet its demand. We do not always rise to meet this demand, of course. Like Murdoch, I see our distortion of this great consequence as indicative of a natural tendency to be self-absorbed. But also like Murdoch, I believe art and nature can serve as the antidote to this tendency. Good art is more likely to facilitate what Murdoch calls an “unselfing,” and bad art is more likely to facilitate the opposite. The reason for this is clear—good art participates in beauty more fully. Unfortunately, even good art does not necessitate a good response in us. We can abuse great art, and even nature, for our own selfish purposes too. Murdoch is right to suggest that using “nature as an occasion for exalted self-feeling” is misguided.[10]

That being said, I am not entirely on board with the Murdochian conclusion that the goal is to “take a self-forgetful pleasure in the sheer alien pointless independent existence of animals, birds, stones, and trees.”[11] These things appear pointless to Murdoch because she starts with the assumption that there is no external point or telos. I, instead, begin with the opposite assumption. There is a point, yet that point cannot be given in an appeal to its consequences, nor even in a mere rule or particular property. Consider the experience Murdoch gives us:

I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious to my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel.[12]

This strikes me as a mostly accurate picture of what the experience of beauty is like in terms of quality of consciousness, when I consider one’s right relationship to beauty. The experience of beauty takes you outside of yourself. It is not you observing the kestrel. The reality of the kestrel is enough to claim your focus. But there is more than just kestrel.

Murdoch and I both wish to speak of beauty’s power to redirect us away from our selfish concern. I agree that the goal is to see things as they truly are and not colored by your own self-centered perception, I just see reality as beyond what she does. I instead opt for a more Emersonian picture, where “things more excellent than every image…are expressed through images…Things admit of being used as symbols, because nature is a symbol, in the whole, and in every part.”[13] Murdoch asks us to change our self-centered perspective on the world; I think she is right to do so. However, I think the task is greater than altering your perspective on what is seen (though that is no small task); it is changing your heart toward what is unseen. I believe this is what Emerson means when he writes:

to speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward sense are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood.[14]

3. Curiosity, commodity, and correctness

Few adults see nature because they see everything as a commodity. When one looks to what can be owned, one misses that of the highest value. The most important thing the lover of beauty gains cannot be measured, or even fully taught or said. It is no wonder, though, why we look to what can be owned and be taught when we seek to evaluate one’s aesthetic life—we can measure those things so much easier! All of these considerations of the self and the consequences of aesthetic life must be forgotten to truly love beauty. The spirit in C.S. Lewis’s Great Divorce endeavors to lead the diminished ghost of a former painter to the mountains, to take a drink from the waters that allow one to “forget forever all proprietorship in your own works. You enjoy them just as if they were someone else’s: without pride and without modesty.”[15] Beauty beheld with a lack of proprietorship is the mark of aesthetic virtue.

Consider Emerson’s distinction in Nature between the stick of timber of the woodcutter from the tree of the poet:

The charming landscape which I saw this morning is indubitably made up of some twenty or thirty farms. Miller owned this field, Locke that, and Manning the woodland beyond. But none of them owns the landscape. There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet. This is the best part of these men’s farms, yet to this their warranty-deeds give no title.[16]

There is a clear difference in the motivations of the woodcutter and the poet, but it is not just that. The way one is motivated to act aesthetically changes the quality of the action. When one is in a mindset of individual achievement and ownership, one counts and measures where one should save only soft and sincere praise. Elsewhere, Emerson writes, “Here we find ourselves, suddenly, not in a critical speculation, but in a holy place, and should go very warily and reverently. We stand before the secret of the world, there where Being passes into Appearance, and Unity into Variety.”[17]

Consequences, as ends in themselves, are a kind of commodity. It is like owning the land, but not integrating it into the landscape. Critical speculation is like measuring the lot and counting the lumber. When one aims toward consequences of aesthetic life in a way that is not sustained by a genuine love of beauty, there is a chance of aesthetic indifference.[18] Being left cold by beauty is an indication that one is not wholly loving what is worthy of love. It is true that a case of so-called “locked in aesthetic indifference” is not necessarily the kind of thing one can actively will one’s way out of, by trying harder or doing more. Instead, the ails of aesthetic indifference (especially in a case where there once was a genuine love) are generally best treated by the actions of un-learning one’s expertise and re-discovering, with the curiosity of a child, the love he once knew.[19]

An expert may perfect her outward sense, but in a way that is unadjusted to her inward sense.[20] Continuing to perform aesthetic acts in this state will make one no more aesthetically virtuous. What one needs is to regain a “spirit of infancy.” Why is the child’s curiosity never lost? If you have spent time with children, you know they ask questions and seek answers. But you also know that no limited answer—no answer that is a mere rule or particular—will satisfy. There is always another question; it is “why?” The beautiful makes us curious, not whether it is beautiful (and worthy of love), but as our way of loving its beauty.

How do we know beauty? How do we access it? What is involved in seeing it? And how can we be sure that we are correct in our perception, and that we are loving the right thing?[21] Even if unsatisfying for the reader, the only answer that I can give to these questions is of a primitive kind. The child knows beauty and how to access beauty. We ought to know what beauty is without asking. We ought to know how to access it. If we have forgotten, we must become like the child and know beauty by interfering less and receiving more.

Unlearn what you know and rediscover what is before you. It does not take a community of specialized experts, nor any set of rules or criteria. The kind of knowledge that is mere rules or particulars is not sufficient for this kind of learning. What is sufficient is curious presence and a conversion of the heart toward the beautiful.

There is no precise formula to grow our character in this way. We also cannot white-knuckle our heart’s conversion toward beauty like we might be able to do with the cultivation of a mere skill or another sort of achievement. (That is not to say it does not require our will!) I take these both to be merits of my account, instead of reasons to discredit it. I believe beauty is great enough to lead us without us getting in the way.

We may disagree with others concerning what particular thing is beautiful, but that should be held lightly. Engagement is valuable (though, again, not the value of beauty), but I do not think aiming at correctness in token aesthetic judgments encourages the right kind of engagement.[22] Aiming at correctness encourages an engagement of the mind on rules and criteria. Aiming at a life rich with a relationship to beauty encourages receptivity of the soul. Particular things (that is, in Emerson’s words, appearance and variety) participate more or less in the beautiful (being and unity) and in different ways. The beautiful itself will never contradict the true and the good (but particular things that participate in them imperfectly clearly will).

4. Self-effacement and the good life

I began with a claim that one’s relationship to beauty is a necessary part of a good life. From this, one might assume that I mean to call upon a eudaemonistic virtue ethical framework to make sense of this. If that were true, a new question about motivation arises: is the point in pursuing beauty (and truth and goodness) that they contribute to my flourishing? In his “Virtue Ethics is Self-Effacing,” Simon Keller ties the notion of self-effacement back to Michael Stocker’s classic paper on the self-effacement of deontological and utilitarian ethics. Keller hopes to show that, contra Stocker, the self-effacement of two of these leading theories does not give one reason to opt for virtue ethics, because virtue ethics is similarly self-effacing. The idea is that at least certain moral acts that are done for the sake of being moral—whatever that means in relation to its corresponding theory (conforming with duty, maximizing utility, or being virtuous)—are less moral than if they were not done for that reason. The case that is initially examined by Stocker, and revisited by Keller, is that of a friend visiting you in the hospital. It is better, the argument goes, for that friend to visit you out of genuine care for the friendship rather than moral consideration. From this starting point, there is debate on whether or not virtue ethics is self-effacing and whether it is egoistic[23] and how these two concepts relate to one another.[24] My account is very clearly not compatible with a consequentialist framework, as I have stated explicitly that my view is that consequences of action do not confer value. That being said, my account appears to be both compatible with (at least some versions of) a deontological and a virtue ethic framework, but arguing for one over another is not my aim here.

My goal here is neither to attack nor defend deontology or virtue ethics as self-effacing or egoistic, but to offer a start to an account of the good life, with a particular emphasis on the role that beauty plays in that good life, that circumvents either of these issues. Unlike eudaemonistic virtue accounts, I am not asserting that the one final value, that justifies all other values, is eudaemonia, though I am not denying that it is among these as a final value, either. I begin with another assumption, that beauty, truth, and goodness are final values —that they are ends in themselves.

Like Thomas Hurka, I am deeply troubled by the presence of egoism and, like Stocker, deeply troubled by a disconnect between value and motivation.[25] My theory circumvents Hurka’s concerns about other virtue theories for being foundationally egoistic, and Stocker’s concerns for deontological theories about the separation of value and motivation. That being said, I am not myself necessarily adopting either Hurka or Stocker’s concerns with respect to virtue theory and deontology as a whole.

Defenders of virtue ethics as a non-egoistic theory (such as Julia Annas) suggest that merely acting like a virtuous person would act, in order to pursue one’s own flourishing, does not make one virtuous. However, taking on the goal of becoming virtuous can be pedagogically significant for the aspiring virtuous agent. This basic concept transfers over in the aesthetic context—practically, you might try to emulate someone that loves beauty, but real aesthetic virtue is genuinely loving beauty. Keller points out where you can find in both Aristotle and Mengzi that focusing too narrowly on the outcome of virtue is counterproductive.[26] Motivations are paramount, even when eudaemonia is taken as the sole final value. Out of all the many great consequences of a life with beauty in it, one’s overall flourishing and human well-being is hard to top. Still, this is not the right aim. We ought not love beauty because it leads to our flourishing, but because it is worthy of love. Though this may sound at first opposed to eudaemonistic virtue theories, it is actually quite similar to what many of its staunch defenders propose. A life that pursues beauty (and also truth and goodness) is a flourishing life, but that does not mean that the pursuit of these is in direct service of attaining that flourishing life. The seed that pursues sunlight, water, and nutritive soil is a flourishing plant, but that does not mean that it does these things with the consciously deliberate goal to flourish.

5. Love and personal connection

There is a lingering, related concern that is admittedly harder for me to brush off and it has to do with loving the beloved object. Let us return to Stocker’s example of the hospital visit. There is something troubling, Stocker thinks, when you find out your friend acted out of moral consideration instead of genuine care for your friendship. If one’s motivation is genuine friendship, but the reason one thinks this action is valuable is something else, there is a disharmony, according to Stocker. This disharmony is analogous to the problem egoists have with love: “It is essential to the very concept of love that one care for the beloved, that one be prepared to act for the sake of the beloved. More strongly, one must care for the beloved and act for that person’s sake as a final goal; the beloved, or the beloved’s welfare or interest, must be a final goal of one’s concern and action.”[27]

This disconnect is not only true for egoists, says Stocker, but even for the impartial theoretical frameworks of modern-day theories. According to Stocker, a utilitarian—even a Moorean utilitarian that does not locate pleasure as the only good—cannot truly love. “If you try to carry on the relationship for the sake of goodness, there is no essential commitment even to that activity, much less to the persons involved.”[28] The initial clause captures a concern of mine about aesthetic aims: if the aims are something other than beauty—like pleasure, self-knowledge, or moral cultivation—you have no reason to continue the activity if you can achieve your end elsewhere.

This concern is typified most obviously with egoism, but is extant even in extreme cases of self-sacrifice, for example, in the name of aesthetic achievement but not the love of beauty. (This kind of self-sacrifice strikes me entirely differently than would, for example, a pious ascetic; this self-sacrifice may just be egoism in disguise.) Neither the egoist nor the self-sacrificer are able to embody their reasons in their motives. Neither love beauty, but love achievement, community, self-knowledge, and the like. But there may be an analogous concern that parallels Stocker’s deeper one—just as he thinks modern day ethicists do not truly value people, might he say that I do not truly value aesthetic objects?

I will not offer a defense of a consequential framework (for obvious reasons) but will attempt a defense for a deontological one. The point is not to offer a wholesale defense of deontology, but to make a case for how one might love people and aesthetic objects genuinely, while valuing the good and the beautiful. As I see it, there are two ways to consider this question of value and motivation for deontological ethics both leading us in very different directions, yet also both shedding light on what claims I am seeking to make for my own project. According to deontological ethics, the same action has different moral standing with differing intentions. It is superior to perform that act out of duty than out of inclination.[29] It is good to do good even when you do not feel like it. But is a life full of this kind of action the good life? Is it even the sign of a truly moral life?

On one hand, we have a picture of the perhaps somewhat curmudgeonly, dutiful law-keeper. She or he does not seem to be the exemplar of genuine love. However, there is another picture of the virtuous agent that I would like to draw our attention to. In Religion Within the Bounds of Mere Reason, Kant writes that virtue is the “firmly grounded disposition strictly to fulfill one’s duty.”[30] When we encounter virtue in the world, we see that “morally oriented reason (through the imagination) calls the sensibilities into play.”[31] Reason relies on the imagination to provide sensible symbols for beneficent consequences. Kant even mentions what the symbol of virtue itself is—the life of joy.

This is a framework where we are not able to definitively know our own reasons for actions, let alone the reason for another agent’s actions. However, the imagination symbolically presents our lives in order to better know the state of our moral vocation, or what I would like to think of as our character more generally. The aesthetic character of virtue is “courageous and hence joyous,” rather than “fear-ridden and dejected.”[32] The fear-ridden and dejected person harbors a secret hatred for the moral law that shows that his or her actions are disingenuous. On the other hand, “a heart joyous in the compliance with its duty—not just complacency in the recognition of it—is the sign of genuineness in virtuous disposition”[33] This joyous temperament is a sign that one has truly attained a love for the good; in Kant’s words, that one has “incorporated the good into one’s maxim.”[34]

The point of this discussion is not at all to get into an interpretative debate about Kantian ethics. The point, for me, is to complicate what a characteristic motive is of the virtuous agent. The characteristic motive of the perhaps somewhat curmudgeonly, dutiful law-keeper is an explicit or direct motive to fulfill the moral law. The virtuous agent, the joyful but just as dutiful law-keeper, does not strike me this way. Her or his heart is oriented toward the good in a different way. My interpretation of deontological virtue concerning self-effacement parallels the contemporary interpretations of eudaemonistic virtue concerning self-effacement: the truly virtuous simply acts in the virtuous way (in this case, in conformity with duty) without even a conscious deliberation.

What does this all mean concerning genuinely loving people and aesthetic objects, not just abstract concepts of goodness or beauty? The truly virtuous do not need to choose between caring about the friend or caring about goodness, nor make a distinction between caring about an aesthetic object or caring about beauty. We have relationships with individual beings and things. We value the consequence of a human relationship like the consequence of a particular relationship with an object of beauty. Why do we take on active commitments to practically engage with beauty? We do so for the same reason we take our beloved on special dates—to share an experience and get to know our beloved better. Truth, beauty, and goodness are not often pursued by us in a vacuum. These are values that should be pursued directly, but you can (and ought to) still have a genuine relationship to the things that display those values. Love for the other does not derive from the fact that it is deeply personal; rather the genuine relationship may be deeply personal because of the depth of your love for the other.

The recognition that particular objects of beauty have shaped your life is compatible with recognizing that their beauty is independent of you and worthy of love regardless. Not only is this compatible, but it seems to be necessary for this to be a true instance of valuing. Our knowing and experiencing the people and things we love is so wonderful that sometimes we begin to believe that these constitute the value of our pursuit in its entirety. The consequences of either of these relationships are not what makes these people or these things valuable. In fact, it is because these people and things are independently so wonderfully full of value that we are able to gain these great consequences. What is more, we keep on loving even when the great consequences of our relationship seem to elude us. Real love is visiting the friend in the hospital even when it is hard to do so. Real love is continuing to dance even when the injury has set you back.

The virtuous life accommodates moments like this, but as a whole is characterized by joy. One’s relationship to beauty is unique in providing that joy—through childlike curiosity, receptivity, and playfulness. This joy is found, not in its own pursuit, but in the pursuit of beauty.[35]


Alexandra Hayes

Alexandra Hayes is a Lecturer in Philosophy at Auburn University. Her research focuses on aesthetic character and the philosophy of dance.

Published on November 28, 2023.

Cite this article, “Wisdom Regarding Beauty. Self-effacement and One’s Right Relationship to Beauty,” Contemporary Aesthetics, Volume 21 (2023), accessed date.



[1] Peter Goldie, “Towards a Virtue Theory of Art,” British Journal of Aesthetics 47:4 (2007), 372–87; Peter Goldie, “Virtues of Art and Human Well-being,” Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 82:1 (2008), 179-195; Peter Goldie, “Virtues of Art,” Philosophy Compass 5:10 (2010), 830-839; Dominic McIver Lopes, “Virtues of Art: Good Taste,” Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 82:1 (2008), 197-211; Dominic McIver Lopes, Being for Beauty: Aesthetic Agency and Value (Oxford University Press, 2018); Nick Riggle, “Toward a Communitarian Theory of Aesthetic Value,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 80:1 (2022),16-30.

[2]Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature,” in The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Harvard University Press, 1836/1971), p. 5.

[3] My thinking on the aesthetic value question has been influenced by James Shelley. For his discussion on this, see James Shelley, “Punting on the Aesthetic Question,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 102:1 (2021), 214-219; James Shelley “Simple Theory of Aesthetic Value” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 81:1 (2023), 98-100; James Shelley, “Beyond Hedonism about Aesthetic Value in Larissa Berger (ed.) Disinterested Pleasure and Beauty: Perspectives from Kantian and Contemporary Aesthetics, (De Gruyter, 2023), pp. 257-274.

[4] One might object, such as an anonymous reviewer—thank you for your question—that because beauty can be understood quite differently in different cultural contexts [see, for example: Crispin Sartwell, Six Names of Beauty (Routledge, 2004)], we cannot generalize just one aim for aesthetic life across all contexts. I have to admit, this line of reasoning is not often convincing for me. For instance, I deny a moral cultural relativism despite morality being understood differently across contexts. However, in this case I find my view to be completely compatible with the view proposed of cultural contextualism. In fact, it is actually the views that appeal to an external consequence that have a harder time making sense of aesthetic aims that are outside of that paradigm. For example, some cultures may hold the cultivation of individual style higher than other cultures do, and if that is given as your main aesthetic end, then there will not be much making sense of it in places that disagree. Even with different valued consequences, all cultures can, and in my view, ought, to see beauty as a worthy object of love.

[5] Goldie (2008), 193.

[6] Lopes (2008), 209.

[7] Ibid., 210.

[8] For a recent discussion of aesthetic value that is consonant with this view, see Keren Gorodeisky, “Aesthetic Value: The View from Here,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 81:1 (2023), 85-86.

[9] See Michael Stocker, “The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories,” Journal of Philosophy 73:14 (1976), 453-466; Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984).

[10] Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good, (London: Ark Paperbacks, 1970/1985), p. 85.

[11] Ibid., 85.

[12] Ibid., 84.

[13] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet,” in The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, (Harvard University Press, 1844/1971), p. 292.

[14] Emerson, (1836/1971), p. 5.

[15] C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, (Harper One: 1945/2015), p. 85.

[16] Emerson, (1836/1971), p. 5.

[17] Emerson (1844/1971), p. 293.

[18] Take Lopes’s case (which he cites from Bence Nanay) of Aesthetic Indifference:

“In the last couple of decades of his life, Ernst Gombrich reported that he was able to judge whether a painting was beautiful or graceful, but it left him completely cold (Nanay 2016: 15). Nothing could warm his heart to painting after a lifetime dedicated to its study. His was a case of locked-in aesthetic (p. 150) indifference: he could not be reasoned into caring. According to the network theory, Gombrich still had aesthetic reasons to perform many aesthetic acts. Suppose that he did sometimes advise important galleries on acquisitions. In proffering his advice, he must have been motivated by a mixture of an aesthetic evaluation and some non-aesthetic desire” (2018), 149-150.

[19] “Neither does the wisest man extort her secret, and lose curiosity by finding out all her perfection. Nature never became a toy to a wise spirit. The flowers, the animals, the mountains, reflected the wisdom of his best hour, as much as they had delighted this simplicity of his childhood.” Emerson (1836/1971), p. 5.

[20] Emerson (1836/1971), p. 5.

[21] My thanks to Anthony Cross, who commented on this paper at the ASA, for posing these great questions.

[22] Like Thi Nguyen, I think our aesthetic achievements are made meaningful by a process of engagement. Unlike Nguyen, I do no think aiming at the end of correctness makes the process meaningful. Nguyen writes, “If my aesthetic activities weren’t oriented towards getting it right, I would be free to imagine and impose as I please. I would have no motivation to stick to the details of the object and thus no reason to study that object with care.” From: C.T. Nguyen, “Autonomy and Aesthetic Engagement,” Mind 129:516 (2019), 1145-1146. I actually think aiming at correctness give us less reason to attend to the object with care, attention, and long-held curiosity than loving it does.

[23] Thomas Hurka, Virtue, Vice, and Value (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[24] Julia Annas, “Virtue Ethics and the Charge of Egoism,” in P. Bloomfield (ed.), Morality and Self-Interest (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

[25] “Not to be moved by what one values—what one believes good, nice, right, beautiful, and so on—bespeaks a malady of the spirit. Not to value what moves one also bespeaks a malady of the spirt.” Stocker (1976), 453-454.

[26] Consider the following discussion of self-effacement in virtue ethics: “Aristotle can be interpreted as saying that one who is learning to be virtuous may find it useful to have the explicit motive emulating the fully virtuous person, but that once true virtue is achieved, the agent will respond immediately to the features of her situation, not to explicit thoughts of virtues. Mengzi says that one whose efforts are overtly directed towards the manifestation of virtues is like a farmer who tries to help his crops grow by pulling on the shoots; in both cases, it is counterproductive to focus too narrowly on a desirable goal.” Simon Keller, “Virtue Ethics is Self-Effacing,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 85:2 (2007), 227-228.

[27] Stocker, (1976), 456.

[28] Ibid., 458.

[29] Kant Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, (Early Modern Texts, 2017), 8. Trans. Jonathan Bennett.

[30] Kant, Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason and Other Writings. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019). Trans. Allen Wood and George di Giovanni.

6:23 footnote.

[31] Ibid., 6:23.

[32] Ibid., 6:23.

[33] Ibid., 6:23.

[34] Ibid., 6:23.

[35] I am thankful for the suggestions made by the editor and referees of this journal as well as the many conversations with the members of the Auburn Aesthetics Forum and Abraham Stone.