Three Beauties


Talented beauties: Avril Lavigne, JoJo Levesque, and Eliza Dushku

The Idea:  By making beauty scarce, we have paradoxically lessened, rather than increased, its value. This article explores how and perhaps why this paucity of beauty has come about, and the damage it has done to our psyches.

What is it about extraordinary beauty that takes away our breath and tears away our reason? The words we use to describe it, drawn from many languages, all suggest madness or physical incapacity: stunning, knock-out, mesmerizing, hypnotic, pretty (from the Germanic word meaning ‘pratfall-causing’), spell-binding. Exceptional beauty can literally render us speechless, weak at the knees, without volition. All we want to do is stare, and sometimes we simply cannot help ourselves.

What can nature have intended to make us this way?

I believe that in nature there are ‘three beauties’, and each has an essential purpose, one which succeeds in an evolutionary sense, making us better able to survive and thrive and desirous of doing so. The purpose of beauty is attraction.

The first beauty is beauty of place. It is what keeps us from going elsewhere and disturbing the ecosystems of others. We are drawn to certain places because of their unquestionable beauty, as if they were always calling us home. We still love, and consider beautiful, forests and streams and waterfalls and hills and flowers and wild animals, because they are all part of our natural home, and were essential elements of our place for three million years before we strayed. It is only if or when that beauty is destroyed that we wander, looking for the beauty we have lost. It is no surprise that today we travel incessantly, almost automatically. We have lost our place.

The second beauty is personal beauty. It is what attracts us to community and drives us to procreate. It comes in two forms: physical beauty and beauty of personality, often called charisma. It makes us want to be with those people, be a part of their community, surround them and protect them. This is the beauty whose purpose civilization has most perverted — I’ll return to that in a minute.

The third beauty is beauty of community. It is the joy of friendship and of play and of collaboration. It is collective spirit and companionship and creating and doing things together that make us say: We did that! This kind of beauty, too, is now scarce. Here’s how I think that happened:

We love all three types of beauty, and our lives are stories of our love. When we first appeared on the planet our lives were full of love and beauty, but then civilization was invented (for well-intentioned reasons) and it produced, for the first time, a scarcity of love and beauty. Civilization required people to behave in unintuitive ways, so its inventors had to create a motivation for these strange new behaviours. What better motivation than to allow only the obedient to experience beauty? So the concept of hierarchy and private property was created, and all things beautiful were appropriated for the elite and apportioned sparingly to their obedient followers. The most beautiful land was restricted, or destroyed to create artificial beautiful things for the elite and the obedient. The most beautiful people were no longer a gift that held the community together, bestowed in return by the community with breeding privileges so they could produce more beauty; they became chattels owned by the elite and jealously kept from the gaze of others. The concept of the ‘family’ was invented to break the bonds of community, limit and destroy the expression of love, lock beauty out of sight, make it a scarce and coveted possession. The family was designed to encourage everyone to procreate, and hence produce more workers for the farms and then the mines and armies and factories and offices owned by the elite. Adultery and coveting beauty became sinful, and people were told by the lords and generals and preachers that they had to work hard and individually both in their daily labours and in their family lives, and that this work was its own reward and necessary to deal with growing scarcity. This scarcity was, of course, created by the exploding human population, and by the destruction of beauty and natural wealth to keep all those people alive and obedient. It was also created by the ever-widening gap in wealth between the elite and the rest of the people, needed to keep the masses worried about survival and hence obedient and busy procreating the only useful resource that isn’t in short supply: babies. The human gene pool has been diluted by making everyone want to be, and able to be, a parent. I suspect that, on average, we’re getting less beautiful every year. Other creatures must find us now, on the whole, a pathetically unattractive species.

In nature, beauty is a gift. It is the attractor that keeps the community together, and it gives the community great and endless joy. The astonishing plumage and preening of birds is for the pleasure of the entire community (and judging by the number of birdwatchers in the world, that pleasure is not limited to their own species). We mimic this ancient longing to see beauty with our films, rock concerts and ‘beauty pageants’, nature documentaries and ‘homes of the rich and famous’ tours, but the effect is perverse: Because this joy is no longer from beauty that belongs to the community, it merely reduces our pride, increases our longing, and ‘brings home’ the scarcity, the distance, the inaccessibility of beauty in our modern world. Instead of the delight and gratification of belonging to a community replete with such beauty, we jealously guard what little beauty we have, and covet and seek to possess much more of it. All the conflicted and deviant emotions and behaviours that now so often stem from beholding or imagining beauty may stem from our civilization’s obsession with making it perpetually scarce.

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6 Responses to Three Beauties

  1. Darren says:

    I’ve got no time to read that essay, but I did manage to read your caption. I don’t know about you, but I don’t Ms. Lavigne can’t carry a tune in concert, and Ms. Dushka is a charisma-free zone.

  2. Denis says:

    Very insightful. Thanks for this article!

  3. Cyn says:

    Unlike Darren, I had bags of time to read this post, which, by the way, is a thing of beauty onto it’s own. It is true, however, that I’ve often just skimmed through some of your other posts, as lengthy and charty as they can be, but I have been captivated by this one in particular, as somewhat less lengthy and pictoral as it is.Those of us who’s souls feel ‘owned’ by someone else or by an organization aren’t of much use to our communities, beautiful or not. The idea of beauty being at the centre of our purpose to procreate, participate and appreciate is, in itself, a beautiful idea.This sense of ownership is deep. It goes beyond interpersonal and into nature itself. As you have pointed out…look what we have done!

  4. So you’re saying that humans are getting “uglier” or de-evolving…At least that seems to be one of the closing points, correct me if I’m wrong. Unlike you I suspect that on average, we’re getting more beautiful. Can you say Dental work?Our highly evolved tool set allows us to focus our energies, in a less dangerous manner than ever before in human history. I don’t have to risk bodily harm; broken bones, scars ect. in providing food for myself. Of course there is a whole new set of problems, (obesity, pollution, ect.) in this day and age, but I wouldn’t trade today’s problems for yesterday’s. I have enough faith in mankind’s survival instinct, and creative resourcefulness that I can reasonably say that I would be more comfortable living at some point in the future rather than any time in the past. Perhaps I’m too optimistic, but that’s just my opinion on the matter.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Darren: Hope you’ll have time to read it eventually ;-)Denis, Cyn: Thank you. PP: I wondered if anyone would pick up on this. This was a mischievous last-minute addition to the post just to be provocative. It was when I first saw grey wolves up close in the wild that I realized how amazingly healthy, well-groomed and beautiful animals in the wild are. Pre-civilization there were no bad teeth and no need for dentists — that’s all a result of the sugars and other decay-causing and unhealthy substances we’ve added to our diet. Sadly, we now inflict these same poor diets on our pets.

  6. Point taken, however I won’t sign up for the “past was better” fan club just yet. I will admit that the average person’s diet isn’t the best choice, however I think that especially in this day and age, that more people have the option of eating healthy than ever before. Food from the other side of the world can be bought in the store down the street. The knowledge and information is there, but it’s up to the individual to make the correct choices. I suppose that is one of the greatest downsides of human advancements. Everything we do to make life easier, also makes us lazier, and less able to adapt. There never seems to be an easy solution.

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