Most people assume that the nature of beauty is of interest only to artists and philosophers: the painter tries to create it, the philosopher tries to understand it, but everyone else is preoccupied with career, money, and relationships. And yet deepening and enhancing their appreciation of beauty will make anyone's life happier, richer and more fulfilling.
In January 1946, amid the bombed ruins of post-war London, George Orwell wrote an article titled Pleasure Spots about plans to build "pleasure resorts of the future" on the island of Hawaii. In such places, he writes, with the weather shut out and the light and temperature regulated, the customers will spend their time swimming, eating, lounging about on sunbeds, and generally enjoying themselves. It will be, Orwell writes, like returning to the womb.
Unsurprisingly, he was appalled by the prospect of such resorts which, he argued, are based on a misunderstanding about human nature. Yes, human beings need "leisure, comfort and security", but they also need "solitude" and a "sense of wonder". And this sense of wonder is closely bound up with a sense of mystery. Why does anything exist at all? Why is there something rather than nothing? Allow yourself to reflect on these questions and you may find your sensitivity to beauty, especially natural beauty, intensifies.
Orwell uses the example of a botanist. Imagine a man spends his entire life studying just one species of flower. He learns everything he can about it, from its molecular structure to its life cycle, but, even after years of such study, he must admit that its essence or being continues to elude him.
The 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer also had some interesting things to say about beauty. For Schopenhauer, everything is moved by a restless 'will' (roughly what the modern physicist means by energy). This includes human beings, who are forever trapped between frustrated desire (for food, sex etc.) and depressed boredom once the desire has been satisfied. Only when transfixed by beauty, Schopenhauer argued, are we free of this painful cycle. In the presence of beauty a person feels neither desire nor boredom.
In the late 19th century, many artists, writers, and painters identified themselves with what became known as the aesthetic movement. This began in the 1860s and was concentrated mostly in England and France. Aesthetes placed beauty above all things and argued that its worship and creation should be the center of life.
Many loathed the hideous new factories and huge industrial towns and longed to return to the simplicity and beauty of the medieval world. In England, this led to the formation of a new artistic school known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The artists involved sought to recapture the mystic beauty and craftsmanship of the medieval period and tried to do so in their paintings and designs. Many supported and defended this group, such as the Oxford professors and art critics John Ruskin and Walter Pater (both tutors to the young Oscar Wilde, who was to become perhaps the most famous of the aesthetes).
Aesthetes believed that beauty should be everywhere, woven into the fabric of everyday life, from the way you dressed to the way you decorated your home. In 1873, for example, Pater published Renaissance Studies and concluded it with a passionate call for people to live their lives by a philosophy of beauty. Ruskin believed that a reverence for beauty would also lead to a more humane and moral society. If you loathe ugliness, you will behave decently because cruelty is ugly. For Wilde, the love and creation of beauty was the purpose and meaning of life itself.
Any discussion of beauty has to begin with the natural world. Sadly, as the population increases and more houses, cars and roads appear, it is becoming increasingly difficult to be alone with nature. This is a tragedy, since these moments are nothing less than a primal need.
Whenever possible, go into the woods or mountains and absorb everything. It doesn't matter what time of year it is – all seasons and all weather conditions are beautiful. Be fully present in the here and now. Begin by clearing your mind. Become conscious of your thoughts, no matter how trivial. Remember, you are in control of these thoughts, not the other way around. Just allow them to be there, without judgement or resistance. Now adopt the same attitude to your emotions. Far too often, people do not really see a beautiful sunset or the spring blossom. Physically they are there, but mentally they are absent, wholly absorbed by their worries and plans.
Imagine it is early morning. The sky is blue, the sun is shining and there is a light dusting of snow on the ground. Absorb it all. Feel the chill, crisp air on your skin, listen to the gurgling of the river and the rustling of the leaves. Now look at the light. Notice the way it sparkles on the water. Why do such things exist? Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is all this here instead of a black, empty void? These questions should send a little shiver through you and make the mundane seem miraculous – because, ultimately, the natural world is miraculous.
Everyone has had one of those days when, through sheer bad luck, they encountered nothing but spite and rudeness. But it is vital never to become too cynical or to give up on people.
Children in particular can be astonishingly beautiful, especially their curiosity, innocence and delight in new things. Even human actions can be beautiful. Kindness, for example, when it flows from deep and sincere pity, is a wonderful sight. Observe the expression on someone's face when they are overwhelmed with sympathy and desperate to comfort someone else. Courage, especially when it is dignified and graceful, is also beautiful.
Ask the average person what they want and they will probably answer "well, to be happy of course". In pursuit of this, people buy self-help books, attend seminars, and seek out therapy. No doubt such things help. But simply taking the time to look, really look, at the beauty around you will make life so much richer, deeper, and happier than you ever thought possible.