Why Do We Find Things Beautiful?
The limit and the unlimited. Order and beauty.
I am Kenta. I share my learnings on improving the quality of experience through this newsletter.
I was thinking about the definition of beauty and The Dream of Reason, a book about the history of western philosophy, gave me an answer.
The following is Plato explaining the Pythagoreans' belief about beauty and order.
The men of old, who were better than ourselves and dwelt nearer the gods, passed on this gift in the form of a saying. All things, so it ran, that are ever said to be consist of a one and a many, and have in their nature a conjunction of limit and unlimitedness.
The author adds:
Order and beauty are created when some form of limit, or definition, is imposed on the unlimited raw material of the universe.
We all know the Pythagorean theorem. Numbers were everything for the Pythagoreans. They thought everything consists of numbers. The limited and the unlimited are the fundamental concepts in Pythagorean thought.
This is about 2500 years ago. What would it feel like to think about the definition of beauty when there wasn't even science.
I wonder why we find something beautiful.
I know I find tumbling autumn leaves beautiful. But why?
The ability to find beauty is widespread on the earth. We all share that to some extent.
Is it then innate? Or does society teach us to see things in a certain way?
Usually, when there are two extremes, I feel the answer is in the middle—the middle way.
No one explicitly told me to find autumn leaves beautiful. But every year, everyone says they are beautiful. So maybe it's a subconscious thing.
Not everyone likes autumn leaves. Some people don't care about them. But everyone finds something beautiful.
Then I have to doubt this human function is a biological necessity. This ability might be necessary for survival.
Of course, I can look up some research on this topic. I might get a clue about the biological reason why we find things beautiful. Maybe I'll do that after writing this up.
I guess there are many answers to this question. I can relate with the Pythagorean idea that the limit on the unlimited creates order and beauty.
It's like the object or architecture we find beautiful turns out to be following the golden ratio.
Then why are order and beauty important to us?
The first thing is that order calms us down. Our minds go quiet when we see something beautiful.
We need order. But we cannot control the world. So our minds cannot stay peaceful all the time. Things don't go as we expect most of the time. For many people. Especially since the pandemic started.
The world is full of uncertainty. And it's about how certain we can be in the uncertainty of our lives.
That's why we need a sense of peace from beauty. We can't help but try to notice the beauty of order and peace.
And by observing the beauty, we take in the order in our minds.
Order creates the sanity of the mind.
Other animals don't have the culture of enjoying art as much as humans do.
Our minds are more complex than theirs. Other animals biologically don't have the same levels of consciousness as humans.
So there's no mind to be disturbed. And things that can't be disturbed don't need order.
Honey bees are the most advanced insects. Their brains have about one million neurons. In contrast, human levels of intelligence need a hundred billion of them.
So art and beauty are very human.
The reality is that everything in the world is following some physical law. But we can't comprehend the nature of reality so easily. A hundred billion isn't enough to wipe out the uncertainty.
So we need to restore peace in our minds by absorbing the beauty we find.
I will end this edition by quoting this poem by Ada Limon.
I remembered what had been circling in me: I am beautiful. I am full of love. I am dying.
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