What is the meaning of beauty? Is it an awakened affinity that arises in the eye of the beholder, or something else, something more?
Would you say these lines beautiful? They are from Shelley’s Prometheus Unbounded.
My soul is an enchanted boat,
Which, like a sleeping swan, doth float
Upon the silver waves of thy sweet singing;
Historically, the meaning of beauty has been associated with perfection, with truth, with mathematics and Friedrick Nietzsche even argued that the will to power was the will to beauty. And then in the last few decades the postmodernists have rejected the whole idea of beauty.
Whatever our take on beauty our understanding of it comes back to how we understand Meaning, which is given to each of us as intelligent energy to have and to use whatever our social, cultural or linguistic contexts. It is a given that is prior to all relativities.
Yet Meaning is both absolute and relative: absolute in terms of the meaning of Meaning, which is the given, and relative in terms of the meanings we make of everything else.
The central quality of Meaning is symmetry and this is the first of its three relations: symmetry, non-symmetry and asymmetry. These are the relational and structural elements of Meaning and meaning.
Aristotle understood beauty to have the elements of order, symmetry and definiteness. In a sense these can be spoken about as symmetry, non-symmetry and asymmetry for these relations provide us with ordered patterns. For example, from the potentials of symmetry come definiteness and this is another term for the relations of asymmetry and non-symmetry.
Within the heart of the absolute of Meaning is the sense of beauty – symmetry. This realization accepts beauty to be the harmonious quality at the core of our life, spirit and soul.
The architect, Christopher Alexander has said something similar, but talks about ’the quality without a name’. At the beginning of his Chapter 2, in The Timeless Way of Building, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), he says: “There is a central quality which is the root criterion of life, and spirit in man, a town, a building, or a wilderness. This quality is objective and precise, but it cannot be named”.
I believe the quality Alexander speaks of is the quality of Meaning and while I have given it the name ‘Meaning’, no label is entirely adequate to represent this supreme quality.
When beauty is seen as the aesthetics of symmetry then it becomes an absolute value in itself, beyond and prior to social, cultural or individual differences. If this is the case then beauty will be apparent in any culture, any society and within any environment.
If beauty is the ground of our soul then it should be open to analysis and assessment in terms of the patterns of interconnection and aliveness that Alexander writes about.
This understanding of beauty as the expression of symmetry through patterns that involve asymmetry and non-symmetry is an engaging yet detached view. It is not the postmodern view or the view that relativizes beauty in ’the eye of the beholder’.
The beholder may well find beauty in a particular scene where others do not, however, such a situation is always open to discussion and assessment in terms of the symmetry patterns that flow from the poem, physical body or a scene.
This also means that not everyone has an equal capacity to appreciate symmetry patterns. This is because the ability to find patterns that connect is a much harder thing to do than finding differences that separate. This is especially the case in modern Western culture that is prone to over-value differences that separate and to under-value similarities, isomorphic connections and connecting symmetries.
Hence, a highly technically trained westerner may not be capable of appreciating a set of symmetry patterns that construct ‘beauty’ that are clearly apparent to a person who has become spiritually evolved to the extent that connections and similarities are easy for them to see or such appreciations have become ’second-nature’.
An appreciation of symmetries involves the relative and individual capacity to hear or see self-similar patterns of interconnection. In other words, the mark of the spiritually evolved person is a developed capacity to realize, appreciate and understand similarities, interconnections and symmetries, or in other words, a person who is capable of seeing beauty all around them.
Beauty is, therefore, not some combination of special elements ‘out there’ that are separate from us, but rather represent the actual potentials of our being. Thus there is no separation of ‘within’ versus ‘without’ and such a duality is a false dichotomy. The inner and outer worlds represent patterns that interconnect with each other and which together constitute our mind and spirit; our single holographic consciousness.
The aesthetic of symmetry represents an organic rather than a mechanistic or objective view of beauty. This approach says that beauty is within us for the potentials of beauty are the potentials of symmetry and these potentials are the foundation of our soul.
As a consequence, the symmetry potentials of our soul represent beauty and their recurring patterns of self-similarity are felt as love. When we love it is beautiful and when we see beauty it is to awaken recurring patterns of love. Beauty and love are common experiences for the spiritually evolved person.