Nehamas makes his case with characteristic grace, sensitivity, and philosophical depth, supporting his arguments with searching studies of art and literature, high and low, from Thomas Mann's Death in Venice and Manet's Olympia to television. Throughout, the discussion of artworks is generously illustrated.
Beauty, Nehamas concludes, may depend on appearance, but this does not make it superficial. The perception of beauty manifests a hope that life would be better if the object of beauty were part of it. This hope can shape and direct our lives for better or worse. We may discover misery in pursuit of beauty, or find that beauty offers no more than a tantalizing promise of happiness. But if beauty is always dangerous, it is also a pressing human concern that we must seek to understand, and not suppress.
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Only a Promise of HappinessThe Place of Beauty in a World of Art
By Alexander Nehamas
Princeton University PressCopyright © 2006 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePlato or Schopenhauer?
All beautiful things, the Greek philosopher Plotinus wrote in the third century a.d., produce "awe and a shock of delight, passionate longing, love and a shudder of rapture." All beautiful things: natural objects and works of art, bodies and souls, ways of life, knowledge, virtue, and much else besides. Our time, by contrast, has confined such feelings to everyday life. It has drawn a heavy curtain between them and the true pleasures of art, which ordinary people, as Ortega y Gasset charged in 1925, are incapable of experiencing: "To the majority of people aesthetic pleasure means a state of mind which is essentially indistinguishable from their ordinary behavior. As they have never practiced any other attitude but the practical one in which a man's feelings are aroused and he is emotionally involved, a work that does not invite sentimental intervention leaves them without a cue"; ordinary people wallow in emotions not only different "from true artistic pleasure, but ... incompatible with aesthetic enjoyment proper."
Philosophy, too, has abandoned Plotinus's broad vision. Suspicious of passion, it limited itself to a kind of beauty to which desire seemed inappropriate-the beauty in great art and the wonders of nature, concentrated in museums and national parks. And so thebeauty that mattered to philosophy, to criticism, and often to the arts themselves, if it mattered at all, was separated from the beauty that mattered to the rest of the world, to whom it seemed irrelevant and empty: the higher and more refined its pleasures, the less like pleasures they seemed.
How did that happen? Is it purification or impoverishment? And what, if anything, are we-philosophers, critics, historians, the "educated" public that looks down on the "masses," and the masses themselves, who, when they bother to think about any of this, make fun of the educated-to do about it?
Plotinus's words were a conscious echo of Plato's description of a man who sees a beautiful boy for the first time. Such a man, Plato writes in the Phaedrus, first
shudders in cold fear ... and gazes at the boy with reverence, as if he were a god.... But gradually his trembling gives way to a strange feverish sweat, stoked by the stream of beauty pouring into him through his eyes and feeding the growth of his soul's wings.... He cares for nothing else. Mother, brothers or friends mean nothing to him. He gladly neglects everything else that concerns him; losing it all would make no difference to him if only it were for the boy's sake.
Plato and the ancients were not afraid of the risky language of passion because they thought that beauty, even the beauty of lowly objects, can gradually inspire a longing for goodness and truth. In the Symposium, Plato describes a long process that leads from the love of a single individual to a life governed by the love of all the beauty of the world, which is for him the life of philosophy itself. Passion in pursuing that life, its wisdom and virtue, and everything that leads to them, is just what the ancients encouraged and valued, and the pleasures they promised in return were vivid and intense.
The fiery reaction to beauty Plato and Plotinus describe was still comprehensible to lovers of beauty and art like John Ruskin, Walter Pater, and Oscar Wilde in the nineteenth century, but beauty had long ago ceased to go hand in hand with wisdom and goodness; it had eventually come to be, as it is to most of the world today, largely irrelevant and often opposed to them. Even Ruskin, the most moralizing of modern aestheticians, had to acknowledge the breach between beauty and morality, and his advice to painters reveals the conflict he faced: "Does a man die at your feet-your business is not to help him, but to note the colour of his lips.... Not a specially religious or spiritual business this, it might appear."
And so it did. Mistrustful of passion, the twentieth century gradually came to doubt beauty itself. The contrast between helping the suffering and painting them, between fighting for them and writing about them, became starker and deeper. Wary of the ability of art to transmute the greatest horrors into objects of beauty, philosophy disavowed it and relegated the beauty of human beings and ordinary things, inseparable as it is from yearning and from the body, to biology and psychology, to fashion, advertising, and marketing. It preserved the beauty of art and its equivocal satisfactions as its rightful subjects only by means of thinking of them as "aesthetic," a category that obliterated the vision that had once kindled Plato's imagination.
The aesthetic made it possible to isolate the beautiful from all the sensual, practical, and ethical issues that were the center of Plato's concern. The concept itself is part of the legacy of Immanuel Kant, who established the modern field of Aesthetics in the late eighteenth century. In an enigmatic formulation whose influence nevertheless permeates our attitude toward the arts and, as we shall see, countless aspects of everyday life, Kant disavowed the ancients. Beauty, he claimed, is manifested only through a contemplation of nature or art that produces "a satisfaction without any interest." The pleasure ("satisfaction") we find in beautiful things is completely independent of their relations to the rest of the world-of their uses and effects. We have no interest in possessing them or in their consequences for ourselves or others. It is a pleasure bereft of desire.
The beautiful is according to Kant different from both the "agreeable" and the good. The agreeable is anything that we like and enjoy in the most everyday sense of the word-strawberry ice cream, the smell of jasmine, silk, a large house or a good meal and perhaps canary wine (Kant's own example) to go with it. The pleasure such things give spurs the desire to possess them; we want them to continue to be, along with other things like them, available to us. That is, Kant says, to have a serious interest "in their existence." It is an attitude we also have toward good things-things that are either useful or morally valuable. Useful things are those that lead to an agreeable end-an ice-cream maker, for instance, if I like ice cream-and I have an interest in their existence, since I desire to possess the ends to which they are the means. Morally valuable things, finally, are valuable in themselves, things we want to be the case for their own sake-which is also to have an interest in their existence. But no such interest enters when we are concerned with the beauty of something: "If the question," Kant writes, "is whether something is beautiful, one does not want to know whether there is anything that is or that could be at stake, for us or for someone else, in the existence of the thing, but rather how we judge it in mere contemplation." Is such a thing pleasant to have? Is it good for us to have it? Is it good that it exists? Does it exist in the first place or is it a figment of my imagination? None of that matters. A palace can be beautiful despite being ostentatious, useless, and the product of oppression. If I want to own a painting because I find it beautiful or praise a novel because of its moral point of view, my judgement is undermined:
Everyone must admit that a judgment about beauty in which there is mixed the least interest is very partial and not a pure judgment of taste. One must not be in the least biased in favor of the existence of the thing, but must be entirely indifferent in this respect in order to play the judge in matters of taste.
Aesthetic pleasure is a pleasure we take in things just as they stand before us, without regard to their effects on our sensual, practical, or moral concerns. Moreover, beauty is not a feature of things themselves: the judgment of taste-"This is beautiful"-does not so much describe its object as it reports the feeling of pleasure we are experiencing. The judgment of taste, he writes, is made only on the basis of "the feeling of pleasure and displeasure, by means of which nothing at all in the object is designated, but in which the subject feels itself as it is affected by the representation."
Kant's views on the nature of beauty and art and their relationship to the rest of life are immensely complex. Although he dissociated beauty from desire, he did not himself limit it to the arts; the tradition that followed him, though, emphasized not only what has come to be known as the "disinterestedness" of beauty but, even more, the "autonomy" of art. Neither beauty nor art bears (or should bear) any relation to the everyday world of desires, and both move us (or should move us) as nothing else in that world does. Long before Modernism taught us to prize the difficult, the discomforting, and the edifying instead of the lovely or the attractive, the beauty that was important to philosophy had already been transformed from the spark of desire to the surest means of its quenching. For Arthur Schopenhauer in the mid-nineteenth century, desire can never be fully satisfied; no matter what we accomplish, we want more, our ultimate goal always hovering, like Tan talus's fruit, just beyond our reach. Desire is for him unending torture, from which only the contemplation of art can deliver us. But when the beauty of art lifts us above the everyday,
all at once the peace, always sought but always escaping us on the former path of the desires, comes to us of its own accord, and it is well with us. It is the painless state Epicurus prized as the highest good and as the state of the gods; we are for the moment set free from the miserable striving of the will; we keep the Sabbath of the penal servitude of willing; the wheel of Ixion stands still.
Schopenhauer values art because he thinks of beauty as a liberation from the disturbing travails and the distracting details of ordinary life. He believes that art reveals to us the real nature of things, the "persistent form" of their species. By focusing on the universal features that things have in common, we are removed from the vicissitudes of the specific and particular; we leave active participation behind and enter the realm of pure contemplation, where pain is absent: "Happiness and unhappiness have vanished; we are no longer the individual; that is forgotten; we are only the pure subject of knowledge. We are only that one eye of the world which looks out from all knowing creatures."
Nothing could be farther from Plato's celebration of desire in the Symposium than Schopenhauer's hymn to its cessation. For Plato, the only reaction appropriate to beauty is erös-love, the desire to possess it. Moreover, all beautiful things draw us beyond themselves, leading us to recognize and love other, more precious beauties, culminating in the love of the beauty of virtue itself and the happy life of philosophy. Plato agrees that beauty provides knowledge-love and understanding go hand in hand-but he also sees that it gives more: the philosopher is actively involved in the world, moved to act on it by love and able to act well through under standing. He also never leaves the body behind. He describes a long and difficult "ascent" that ends in the knowledge and love of the very Form of Beauty-the essential nature of beauty that is manifested in every beautiful thing in the world and explains why it is beautiful. But the first steps of that philosophic ascent are firmly rooted in the world of the senses-in sexual, paederastic desire. The whole process begins with a man falling in love with a beautiful boy-a common phenomenon in Classical Athens whose dimensions were not only sexual but also social and ethical. In return for the boy's affection, the older man was expected to provide him with the motivation and knowledge necessary for success and distinction in life-what the Greeks called arete and we often misleadingly understand as moral virtue.
In the phenomenon of paederasty, Plato saw an opportunity not only for the boy but for the man as well, at least if he was philosophically inclined. Such a man would want to understand what made the boy beautiful and sparked his desire. Desire for the boy, then, leads to a desire for understanding, and that desire leads to the beauty of the human body in general-the features all beautiful bodies share with one another and which, according to Plato's way of looking at things, make each beautiful individual beautiful. But since the reaction appropriate to beauty is love, a more philosophical man would now want to understand what makes the human body in general beautiful and inspires him to love it and what in turn accounts for the beauty of that, and would go on asking until he reached a full and final answer. Every new step reveals another beauty, and the man's desire to possess the boy is gradually amplified to a desire for more, and more abstract, things: not just the beauty of the human body but also that of the soul, which is for Plato responsible for bodily beauty; the beauty of the cultures whose laws and institutions produce people with beautiful souls; the beauty of the knowledge and understanding needed to establish such laws and institutions; and, at the end, the single and immutable essence of beauty, its "Form," which animates the beauty of everything that leads a lover to it-that is, of everything in the world. And though these "higher" beauties are abstract and seemingly impersonal, they never cease to provoke action and inspire desire and longing. Even the very last stage, when the philosopher understands through reason alone what beauty really is, is not a moment of pure contemplation: his understanding is inseparable from the truly successful and happy life he is now able to lead; his desire has not been sublimated into some sort of higher, disembodied phenomenon. Tellingly, the philosopher wants from the Form just what ordinary men who know no better want of beautiful boys: intercourse (sunousia)-without a second thought, Plato applies to the highest point of this philosophic ascent the very same word he uses for its lowest. In that way, he reminds us that beauty cannot be sundered from understanding or desire. The most abstract and intellectual beauty provokes the urge to possess it no less than the most sensual inspires the passion to come to know it better. Any satisfactory account of beauty must acknowledge that fundamental fact. No easy distinction between body and spirit, inner and outer, superficial and deep can accommodate its complexity.
That complexity is just what Schopenhauer refuses to accommodate. He wants to exclude passion and desire from the serious, contemplative aspects of life, and worst of all is sexual desire, which lurks behind every manifestation of love:
All amorousness is rooted in the sexual impulse alone, is in fact absolutely only a more closely determined, specialized, and indeed, in the strictest sense, individualized sexual impulse, however ethereally it may deport itself.... It is the ultimate goal of almost all human effort; it has an unfavorable influence on the most important affairs, interrupts every hour the most serious occupations, and sometimes perplexes for a while even the greatest minds.... It appears on the whole as a malevolent demon, striving to pervert, to confuse, and to overthrow everything.
Although, unlike many other philosophers, Schopenhauer pays serious attention to sexuality, he does so only to denounce it with an almost desperate determination. He builds a great wall between beauty and what we might call attractiveness or sensual appeal (another form of the distinction between the inner and the outer) and insists that even the body's beauty cannot be discerned unless we divorce perception from desire. As long as we find someone's body attractive we are failing to see it aesthetically, by which he means contemplating it as if it were a landscape or a work of art-disinterestedly, without any regard for its effects on us or anything else in the world. He admits that it is hard to appreciate the human form in that way. "Amorous ness" is a constant danger and so is the body itself, even when it is merely being represented. He rejects nude figures "calculated to excite lustful feelings in the beholder" because they demolish aesthetic contemplation and defeat the purpose of painting or sculpture. He even finds still life painting that depicts "edible objects, [which] necessarily excite the appetite" distasteful: "This is just a stimulation of the will which puts an end to any aesthetic contemplation of an object" (fruit, however, turns out to be acceptable: in art, he believes, we see it only as an organic development of the flower, not as food!). The will "springs from lack, from deficiency, and thus from suffering" and gives only ephemeral satisfaction, "like the alms thrown to a beggar, which reprieve him today so that his misery may be prolonged until tomorrow." To want is to lack and is a source of unrelieved misery. Wherever desire is present, there is also pain. Pain can be avoided only when desire has been left behind, in the pure contemplation of beauty, which shields us, if only for a moment, from the will's incessant demands.
Excerpted from Only a Promise of Happiness by Alexander Nehamas Copyright © 2006 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
CHAPTER I: Plato or Schopenhauer? 1
A Feature of Appearance? 13
Modernist Voices 22
Modernist Appropriations 30
CHAPTER II: Criticism and Value 36
Th e Role of Reviewing 44
Beauty, Love, Friendship 53
Beauty, Attractiveness, Evolution 63
CHAPTER III: Art, Beauty, Desire 72
Beauty, Community, Universality 78
Uniformity, Style, Distinction 84
Aesthetics, Directness, Individuality 91
CHAPTER IV: Love and Death in Venice 102
Manet's Olympia 105
CHAPTER Interpretation, Depth, Breadth 120
CHAPTER Interpretation, Beauty, Goodness 126
Beauty, Uncertainty, Happiness 131
What People are Saying About This
Alexander Nehamas is one of the most imaginative philosophers of our day, as well as one of the most learned. In the past he has written brilliantly about both Plato and Nietzsche. In Only a Promise of Happiness he tries to reconcile the two by showing how their accounts of beauty complement each another. His attempt is novel and very ambitious. It seems to me almost completely successful.
Richard Rorty, Professor Emeritus, Stanford University
Alexander Nehamas's brave ambition is to bridge the gap between philosophy and art criticism. Writing as a philosopher with a great interest in art history, he uses a wide range of examples, from high art and mass art, from the visual arts and literature. Most philosophers in the analytic tradition write in a detached way. Nehamas, by contrast, presents an account of great feeling. This is a great, bravely provocative analysis. There is nothing else like this in the literature.
David Carrier, Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Institute of Art
The quality of the thought and writing of Nehamas's book assures that it will be required reading for a long time to come. It is the achievement of a wise and literate thinker in whose thought and life the topic of beauty is a matter of urgent and abiding concern. It takes readers into a discourse that in its nature addresses issues that arise in their own lives. Like truth and goodness, beauty is one of the determinants of human life, a fundamental value whose pertinence rules out the possibility that anyone can put it to rest and settle, once and for all, the problems that belong to its essence.
Arthur C. Danto, Professor Emeritus, Columbia University
"The quality of the thought and writing of Nehamas's book assures that it will be required reading for a long time to come. It is the achievement of a wise and literate thinker in whose thought and life the topic of beauty is a matter of urgent and abiding concern. It takes readers into a discourse that in its nature addresses issues that arise in their own lives. Like truth and goodness, beauty is one of the determinants of human life, a fundamental value whose pertinence rules out the possibility that anyone can put it to rest and settle, once and for all, the problems that belong to its essence."Arthur C. Danto, Professor Emeritus, Columbia University"Alexander Nehamas is one of the most imaginative philosophers of our day, as well as one of the most learned. In the past he has written brilliantly about both Plato and Nietzsche. In Only a Promise of Happiness he tries to reconcile the two by showing how their accounts of beauty complement each another. His attempt is novel and very ambitious. It seems to me almost completely successful."Richard Rorty, Professor Emeritus, Stanford University"Alexander Nehamas's brave ambition is to bridge the gap between philosophy and art criticism. Writing as a philosopher with a great interest in art history, he uses a wide range of examples, from high art and mass art, from the visual arts and literature. Most philosophers in the analytic tradition write in a detached way. Nehamas, by contrast, presents an account of great feeling. This is a great, bravely provocative analysis. There is nothing else like this in the literature."David Carrier, Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Institute of Art