Term Paper: Price Beauty?

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[. . .] These ideas provide an excellent overview of that Age's understanding of the subject. In the second edition of his Enquiry (1759),

Burke addressed the idea of Beauty, by which he meant "that quality or those qualities in bodies by which they cause love, or some passion similar to it." Burke's goal of identifying the physiological relationship between external objects and their emotional apprehension is most apparent in Part Four [of the Enquiry], where he hoped to "discover what affections of the mind produce certain emotions of the body; and what distinct feelings and qualities of body shall produce certain determinate passions in the mind."

Physical beauty, therefore, was seen as inspiring an emotional response; specifically a feeling of love and affection on the part of that individual who had been exposed to it. Beauty is linked intimately with its power to create romantic attachments, and to inspire in one individual a desire to "worship" and please another. One is drawn to beauty on an emotional and spiritual level -- logic does not enter into the equation. Whatever constitutes beauty can thus be expected automatically to produce a particular effect upon those who experience it.

The sheer naturalness of beauty can be seen in the fact that it was often considered unnecessary to elaborate on the physical description of a woman who was described as "beautiful." James Boswell, in his Journal -- a record of the author's own life that was first published only in the Twentieth Century

-- describes a woman by the name of Louisa, as follows:

'Louisa is just twenty-four, of a tall rather than short figure, finely made in person, with a handsome face and an enchanting languish in her eyes. She dresses with taste. She has good sense, good humour, and vivacity, and looks quite a woman in genteel life ...." All these descriptive terms are about as vague as they can be. All he really tells us is that she is taller than she is short -- the rest presents a blur.

Physical beauty is conventional. Any man would be attracted to Louisa. The few details that Boswell provides regarding Louisa are merely a few vague characteristics that serve to show that she is a specific individual. On the whole, however, Louisa is simply a type. Her age and height are facts of subsidiary importance -- evidently some men might wish to involve themselves with beautiful women who are of only a certain size and age. Perhaps some men have personal requirements. Possibly they do not wish to be with a woman who is too much taller or shorter than themselves, or who is too young or too old. These are not definitions of physical beauty. It is as if a man of the Twenty-First Century would say that he only "goes out with women who live in Hollywood," or who are "under forty." Beauty is beauty, and it is taken for granted.

Despite its largely emotional and "soulful" effects, beauty was obviously something real and substantial. The Eighteenth Century was a period of great intellectual ferment; of huge advances in the sciences. The age of Voltaire and the philisophes, was also the age of Linnaeus. Much effort was expended in attempts to classify the whole of the natural world. The encyclopedists gathered together all the branches of knowledge. They produced lists of carefully arranged facts; each in its proper place, and under its appropriate heading. The same scientific attitude was applied to beauty. The intellectually-inclined believed that beauty possessed clearly defined physical characteristics, as too did its opposite -- ugliness.

In the eighteenth century, the 'science' of physiognomy sought to categorize and define a vast array of deviations from a norm, and to give those deviations moral significance. Later still, phrenologists believed that the slightest 'imperfections' of the skull corresponded to imperfections of the mind. Both health and beauty, then, are here understood in terms of a single ideal of the appearance of the 'normal' human being.

By measuring and quantifying "beauty," one could hope to understand much about civilization, and the complex web of human interactions that made it possible. Still, in his, Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1764), Burke was able to categorically state that, "all mankind was agreed on what constitutes beauty."

Nevertheless, Burke enunciated a series of principles:

His definition of the beautiful, consequently, stressed order and submission .... beauty, the qualities of which were smallness, smoothness, gradual variation, and fairness, caused the "social quality" of love and affection. Burke argued that the origin of what he saw as the universal love for beauty was the love of society which was intrinsic to all mankind.

No sooner was beauty defined as a specific set of characteristics than those same characteristics were left largely to the imagination. Burke seemed to recognize that beauty was an essentially human notion. The idea that different cultures might have different concepts of beauty never entered into his head. The standardizing hand of science was clearly visible in these attitudes. The Linnaean world was one of order and hierarchy. This was no less the case among those subjects that were not quite as simple to define. Burke's description does give a certain sense of "the beautiful," but much is left up to the imagination. All of these Eighteenth Century savants agree on one thing: that in order for something to be "beautiful" it must induce a very specific emotional response; a response that is always pleasant and desirable. Beauty cannot be divorced from desire anymore than men or women can be separated out from the Divinely-ordered natural world. There is positively no doubt that beauty can be measured, and quantified, it is simply a matter of discovering and cataloging the appropriate criteria. Wrote Joseph Spence went so far as to assign a system of ratings to the known beauties of his time:

"I should assign to Lady B, * * *, Eight for Color, Four for Shape, Twenty-five for Expression, and Ten for Grace; in all, Forty-seven; not quite half-way in the complete Sum of Excellence: -- To Mrs. A ...."

and so on, and so on.

Eighteenth Century Europe represented, in the minds of its leading intellectuals, the ultimate in contemporary civilization. European tastes, manners, and mores were the most refined and desirable to be found anywhere in the world. The ability to set forth a numerical scale of beauty was just another incidence in which European cultural assumptions were "scientifically proven."

A mixed, increasingly heterogeneous audience could in theory be united through its shared responsiveness to select aesthetic phenomena. The numerical evaluation of known beauties renders theory concrete: it proves that men of discernment (but, by extension, all correctly trained individuals) can make judgments of value according to a shared norm, the perfect one hundred. "

To be able to define female beauty was to possess the key to understanding much of human interaction. Knowledge is power, and in this case, Europe's educated and cultured male ruling class was delving into one of humanity's most potent power relationships. For beauty extended far beyond the merely physical, it was a concept that defined an entire ethos -- a complete worldview.

Outward appearances had always been thought to reflect inner qualities. It was once customary, in many parts of the world, to remove from power a king or chief who had suffered some physical deformity such as blindness, or lameness. In Ancient Ireland, "According to the Book of Acaill and many other authorities no king who was afflicted with a personal blemish might reign over Ireland at Tara."

Such customs reflect the belief that an "imperfect" or "corrupted" body was evidence of an "imperfect" or "corrupted" soul. While Eighteenth Century Europe certainly did not demand the destruction of its infirm, or force its kings to abdicate when they became sick or feeble; the conviction remained that the body was the "mirror of the soul." Countless examples of this philosophy exist in this and other periods. To describe a character's appearance in a certain manner was to use an easily- recognized "shorthand." Blond hair or dark hair; blue eyes or brown eyes; fair skin or dark skin -- each had its own meaning for the reader; a meaning that was universally understood by all. One read a body as one read book.

By breaking down the elements of beauty a la Joseph Spence, one compiled a moral, as well as, a physical catalog of an individual. All those ideas of goodness and virtue that had, in times past, depended upon the immeasurable, and unquantifiable, doctrines of Christianity, could now be fitted into a clear substantive scheme.

[John] Locke's denial of innate ideas, including those of good and evil, threatened traditional notions of morality, and eighteenth-century theorists were left with the problem of re-establishing moral conduct on the basis of the new psychology of sensation, of domesticating the new epistemology.

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