“The perception of beauty is a moral test.” -Henry David Thoreau, Journal, 1850.
What do I perceive? What do I perceive as beautiful? What is beauty to you? How do you perceive beauty? How do our perceptions differ? How are they similar? What do our perceptions say about us as individuals, as human beings, or as spiritual beings? Can someone change how they perceive beauty?
As I started today, I wondered what other people have said regarding the Thoreau quote, so I Googled it. First, let me say there is nothing very intelligent that I found written about it.
However, I did find this, which I find to be a very poignant and accurate visual accompaniment to the quote. Brava to this artist.
It seems to me this artwork silently poses the questions: What do you see? How do you interpret these squiggly lines? Do you see relative chaos with no meaning? Do you see elegance and beauty? Do you see figures? Where does your imagination take you?
Similar to a Rorschach test, what a person sees in the squiggly lines is a test, but instead of a psychological test (as with Rorschach), it’s a test of beauty (how that person answers the questions in the preceding paragraph), and therefore of that person’s moral outlook (according to the Thoreau quote).
Now, I encourage you to take a look at the rest of the site, here. Note: I have never visited this site before today, and it was H.D. Thoreau, who brought me to it. I see a lot of artwork. But I do not find all of it beautiful. Similarly, earlier today, I was looking through a home-design magazine, and although I could see style, or fashion, there were many pages where I did not find the style or fashion beautiful.
Which brings me to the question: Is Thoreau right? Does perception of beauty indicate some sort of moral compass? I mean…didn’t I start out this Journey saying (basically), “I have no idea what beauty is, that’s why I need to do this Journey”? Even though I was mainly talking about how I express or create beauty, there was a bit of doubt about my aesthetic sense to be able to recognize beauty. According to Thoreau, if I cannot recognize beauty, I’ve failed a moral test, and I really don’t buy that about myself.
Furthermore, I’ve held off from saying this cliche, but I think now is the appropriate time: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If I think something is beautiful, and you think it’s horrendously ugly, does that mean your moral compass is in question? How can I judge anyone’s morality based on what they find beautiful?
Thus, as it stands, I can’t agree with Thoreau.
However, I also don’t think the quote is exactly wrong. Here’s how I see it:
The quote is more about perception than it is about beauty. Perception, in a Course in Miracles, is explained sort of like this: Everyone has perceptions, which we get through our physical senses. But what most people don’t understand is that how we filter all of the information coming through our senses happens first in the brain. The brain chooses which perceptions to focus on before the opportunity for perception even happens. It’s like the experiment done with kittens: kittens who were raised in a room with horizontal stripes painted on the wall had no vertical perceptions as adult cats; their perception was conditioned to the horizontal, and therefore they could not even see the vertical. For a Course in Miracles, this is important because it implies that when you change what you think about, or how you think, you then change what you perceive, and therefore how you interact with the world.
Back to the Thoreau quote: the question is more what are you thinking? than what do you see? And the implication is that what you see points to what you are thinking, or how you are thinking about what it is you see. I do not (and this is my opinion) think there is any necessary or causal relationship between beauty and morality; but I do think that there is a correlation between what people perceive and how they interact with the world.
This discussion could go on and on, couldn’t it? For example, what if I were someone who saw fashion and style as beautiful, and wanted to be surrounded by that beauty, and so had to do some unethical things to get the money or relationships to have a house full of those beautiful things?
Or, what if I found the forest beautiful, and living simply off the land the most beautiful expression of my life, but then someone else had an idea that beauty was making my small piece of heaven into a shopping mall?
Who is right? What is beauty? Who decides?
I had two intentional expressions of beauty today. The first was that I hung some of Tam’s artwork on the wall, thus beautifying the space. Second, I wrote this, which feels a bit like word-play, but there is something to it! I know nothing that I know and know that I know nothing that I know. For I is the first nothing that I cannot know beyond the being of itself, which is nothing.