On Beauty in a State
I once heard the comment “beauty can save the world”. This struck me as whimsical because I had always thought of beauty as pleasing and enjoyable and that’s about it. But then I read Plato’s Republic. His thoughts on beauty gave me new things to consider. To Plato, the presence of beauty in a state is the measure of the most important qualities of the state, primarily justice.
In our day, beauty is often synonymous with such words as loveliness, attractiveness, charm, splendor, elegance, or magnificence. Plato’s definition held some of these thoughts, but in a more tangible way. I think this definition is fitting:
If beauty has a role in the state, maybe there is some merit to beauty saving the world. To understand the role of beauty in the state it is important to see how Plato uses beauty in his discussions. Presence of beauty is the true indicator of perfection in justice, the central tenet of Plato’s state. Plato’s definition of justice can be summarized as “one doing ones own work” (433b3-5).
It was a matter of principle to him that a man should not do someone else’s work. “…The principle that it is right for someone who is by nature a cobbler to practice cobblery and nothing else…is a sort of image of justice – that’s why it is beneficial.” (443c3-6), Having this view of justice, it becomes clear that when the works of the craftsmen are beautiful, justice is perfect. (401 c4-d2). If a man does the work of another it is unjust, characterized by lack of beauty due to the lesser degree of skill and grace in doing a craft you have not mastered.
The founders of Plato’s state would be the philosophers, the only ones capable of doing the job of establishing a state. By his definition, a philosopher is one who “loves the sight of truth” (475e4). Truth is always beautiful, and only the philosophers can see beauty.
Plato uses the importance of beauty to clarify this concept of truth. Those who love beauty cannot see it, but there are those who can actually see the beautiful. The difference is the ones who see beauty are able to reach the nature of the beautiful and see it by itself, while the others are merely lovers of beautiful sights. (476b3-8) Only the philosopher knows what the beautiful is. For true beauty to have its proper place in the state, only the philosophers are capable to lead the affairs of human intercourse to be in the form and gracefulness of true beauty. (476c8-d2) Like justice, truth in the state is characterized by beauty in the sense that only what is truth has beauty.
To ensure the state is ruled according to excellence, the philosophers would also determine who would be the guardians and how they would be trained. (376c1-d8) This training would have to include musical and poetic stories. The importance of selection and content of music and poetry taught to guardian children is to ensure they will grow into a kinship with that which is graceful and fine. As they grow into adulthood, they will see the purpose of their work with the beauty of reason. (401c-d2). He goes on to relate that a good and beautiful character is matched by a beautiful body, and that which is most beautiful is most loveable. (402d5) This is not a licentious love, but the right kind of love for the sake of what is fine and beautiful. (403b7). The end of this part of their education is the love of the fine and beautiful. (403c6-7) If you love beauty you will seek excellence in your own work, and expect the same of others.
It is apparent then that beauty is critical to Plato’s state. But what is the result in a state if only visible beauty is valued, and not the nature of beauty itself? Plato concedes that everything that comes into being must decay. (546a1-2) The beginning of decay in a state is the begetting of imperfect children through lack of understanding the fertility of the human race.(546b-c) The best of this offspring, still being chosen for leadership training by the older generation, are incapable of seeing truth will neglect Plato and the philosophers of old.(546d-e)
One of the results will be less consideration for training in music and poetry. Straying from the good stories and allowing harmful stories to enter in leads to less appreciation for beauty. It is not the lack of beauty that results in decay. It is decay that leads to a lack of beauty. I now understand that when beauty is present, the world is most perfect. If beauty is missing it is because the world has decayed.
If Plato was right, beauty can’t really save the world, but behavior that leads to beauty will save the world. The next logical step for me is to look at our world today. If one says beauty can save the world, surely they must believe that the world is not beautiful in its present state and is in need of being saved. This raises the question of Plato’s, or any philosophers for that matter subjectivity for what beauty really is and who is qualified to define it.
Recall that Plato began with poetry and music in education to lead to appreciation to skillful craftsmanship. The goal is to strive for beauty in your own work. But today the main measure of work is its ability to earn money. The worker does whatever the one paying for the work wants. This complicates the definition of beauty today. Plato would indicate that this is because when men are taken over by the love of making money, it supercedes all else. (551a6)
This compulsive quest for money and delicacies such as sex, food, and other desires results in people ruled by unnecessary desires. This is the democracy of Plato. (561d+) It also describes our democracy, to a large degree. Beauty is found in pockets, no pun intended, and is truly in the eye of the beholder. But if arrived here through the process of decay, and decay is inevitable is it possible to regain beauty in the condition of the perfect state?
Plato would say no, that tyranny is the next inevitable step for us. I have digressed a little from beauty, however it is worth following this line of thinking just a bit further. To the tyrant, whatever is best for him is best for the state. (566b3-5) Beauty is far from his mind. (568-569)
In our system, it is similar. In many cases it is kill or be killed, politically at least. We are a democracy, but we have many tyrants masquerading behind the veneer of politically correct speech, occasionally throwing a bone to the people. Like Plato described, they hire loud mouth spin masters to compel the masses to follow them. But if you look at this as work they have a sort of beauty in their own way. If they do their work well, it has a measure, and like any work, if it is perfect, it is beautiful.
But when the perfect work can only exist in a decayed state, I say that it is not perfect. Of course it makes people happy because it makes them wealthy and powerful. Anybody strong enough to take over, can have happiness. This sort of replaces the selection of guardians by the philosophers with selection by war. The winners rule. The winners must be wise and powerful to win and to remain in power, even if it is ugly and lacking in beauty.
But we have one final element to deal with that Plato didn’t. We have a global community. Communication is instantaneous worldwide. People all over the world are a real part of each others daily lives. The state is becoming the world. As we enter this new type of state, I think the question shifts away from can beauty save the world to what is the definition of justice in a worldwide state?