Artistic and Moral Beauty

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(4 of 11 in a series)

When we turn our calculating scientist’s eye on ourselves, we capture observation number three.  Man has an incredible capacity for beauty.  Both in our ability to reflect on beauty and our ability to act in ways that are morally beautiful.

In the first instance, reflecting on beauty, who has not marveled at an incredible sunset or the majestic peaks of a snow-covered mountain range?  In the beauty of the natural world as well as in the work of the artist and musician, collective man does not respond with a shrug and a “whatever”.  Instead, we purchase tickets to the concert or play.  We buy pieces of art that inspire us.  We photograph nature, people, and action.  We celebrate beauty in all its forms.  This capacity completely separates us from the animal world.  What causes us, the human race, to act this way?

In the second instance, our ability to act in ways that are morally beautiful is another hallmark of being human.  Man has a moral code.  Despite centuries of ebb and flow of philosophy and human history, man has not been able to shake this sense of right and wrong that resides inside him.  Even in the midst of a world full of tragedy and disappointment (as we will soon explore), acts of moral beauty surround us.  From well known acts of heroism, courage, and mercy in times of war, famine, and disease to the smallest act of tucking our child into bed at night with an “I love you”, we have a sense of the right thing to do.  Where did this sense of right and wrong come from?  Who put in our hearts what we intrinsically know about being faithful to our wives, or teaching our children not to steal, and the idea that altruism is morally superior to selfishness?

Despite this capacity for beauty, we know that all is not well with the world.  In fact, in one of the most paradoxical observations about man, his incredible capacity for beauty is equaled and sometimes trumped by his incredible capacity for cruelty.  Man’s ability to inflict pain on his fellow man would be almost incomprehensible were it not, sadly, so recognizable.  Man’s capacity for cruelty is observation number four which we will take up next time.