My Quest for Beauty: Reflections on Beauty by Rollo May

Beauty is a necessary element of life. There are countless ways to encounter beauty - nature, art, ancient artefacts, sacred architecture, literature, music.... 

Many have tried to fathom beauty, but to speak of beauty today as an artist or in relation to creativity can be considered retrograde.....But why be against beauty? To me, this seems to impoverish us. If we deny beauty, we devalue our deep history of, and relationship with beauty, and all that it has inspired. I trust Oscar Wilde who said:

"Beauty is the only thing that time cannot harm. Philosophies fall away like sand, and creeds follow one another like the withered leaves of Autumn; but what is beautiful is a joy for all seasons and a possession for all eternity."

 


Rollo May and his quest for beauty....

As a young man in the early 1930s, Rollo May the existential psychologist, spent three years in Greece as a teacher of English at Anatolia College, in Saloniki. During this time, May began to experience a deep loneliness and loss of meaning in his life. He continued working hard until he experienced what he describes as a "nervous breakdown". Reluctantly May decided to take a break from his job and went to stay with friends in the country. 

It was an unexpected encounter with nature that awakened May to the power of beauty. One afternoon, walking home from a hillside village, May descended knee deep into a field of  swaying, nodding, scarlet poppies. Standing in the field of poppies, May felt himself enveloped in a moment of deep beauty. This encounter awakened May to the power of beauty, and is emphatic that, "beauty has kept me alive". He clarifies, that he does not mean in a physical sense, rather as his inner life expanded, hope and possibility reawakened. 


So why do we disregard, or devalue beauty? May believes that many people suppress their reactions to beauty as, "it is too soul bearing."

In our supercharged culture we worship change and novelty. We become "bored instead of serene." How then can we appreciate, or access the sense of eternity, and timelessness that an encounter with beauty offers, when we swim in a constant changing stream of ephemeral imagery and noise? How to still ourselves and engage with beauty, or even discern what beauty is? May observes that we:

"....mistakenly assume that beauty is passive, which is no doubt the influence of our culture which does not have time to listen to the active powers of beauty. But listening is an active process. Ever since Plato, beauty has been experienced by sensitive persons as an active agent: it is the sign of the splendour of truth, and it speaks out through this splendour to the mathematicians, physicists, and all those who listen patiently. "

"When we are before an image of beauty, we instinctively remain silent. We look and we listen. When we talk too much about beauty, we are objectifying it, and reducing it to objective chatter. We must preserve the capacity for wonder-which is the awareness that we can never fully explain the inner experience of beauty."


Beauty as Harmony according to the Greeks

 

It was many years later in 1985 that Rollo May wrote, My Quest for Beauty. May, sitting at his writing desk reflects upon a life size Greek head, a plaster cast of the goddess Hygeia, sculpted by Scopas about 390 B.C. sitting on his desk. May describes the head as, "...amazingly simple. The sense of repose, the calm expression, seem as eternal as the Milky Way." 

May observes no expression of emotion in the face, and discerns this as a key essence of beauty in Greek art. Strange as it may seem to us, in our hyper emotive culture, this lack of emotion expresses a dignity of being. May expands his observation:

....There is no emotion shown in this face of Hygeia. It reveals the dignity of being, not feelings such as laughter or grief which come and go. It illustrates the secret of classic Greek beauty in that it comes from a level deeper than feelings; it is ontological. The gesture of Greek culture is that it does not tell us of emotions as such but speaks out of the centre of being - Socrates would say the soul. This depth is in Greece’s drama, in its philosophy and its temples, but most of all in these figures carved in marble. The sign of decadence, which was to come shortly after Scorpas, is that sculptors, even Praxiteles, pictured emotions and not being.                                                                                                                 

Two conceptions of Beauty: Aristotle & Pythagoras

 As May explains, the Greeks had two ways of describing beauty. One that Aristotle espoused, and another description of beauty as described by Pythagoras, supported by Plato and later by Plotinus: 

Aristotle held that "beauty is a condition when everything fits. Such as a scientific theory or the Parthenon, where one feels nothing could be subtracted or added. This is beauty where all the parts are in harmony together. "

Pythagoras held that "beauty had nothing to do with parts. Rather, beauty is the eternal splendour of the One showing through the Many. Meaning, there are multitude of forms in the universe, and the One shines through and gives splendour and meaning to all."          

Both conceptions of beauty speak of personal predilections. Both sensibilities are valid guides to seeking and creating beauty. 


...beauty is a subjective vision at the same moment as it is an objective datum, and we need to respect this wholeness, this union of experience. This why, when we are before an image of beauty, we instinctively remain silent. We look and we listen. When we talk too much about beauty, we are objectifying it, and reducing it to objective chatter. We must preserve the capacity for wonder, which is the awareness that we can never fully explain the inner experience of beauty.
— Rollo May

Friedrich von Schiller's thoughts on Beauty

May shifts focus from the Greeks to Friedrich von Schiller, the 18th century philosopher. May, along with many believe that Schiller's discourse on beauty and creativity, Letters Upon the Aesthetic Education of Man, is one of the greatest in Western culture. As May explains:

"....Schiller offers some penetrating insights into the meaning of, and humanising necessity of beauty. He explores the inherent limitations of being a finite being and how this sense of limitation is crucial to our creating beauty. The energising paradox of our limits comes from being both nature and spirit, finite and infinite, objective and subjective. No one knows this struggle better than artists, be they painters or musicians or sculptors or dancers or any other figures in the arts. Artists, in fact all individuals involved in creative acts, struggle with the task of externalising their inner subjective vision."

 


If there were no such limits in human life, there would be no beauty.

Beauty is indeed the sphere of unfettered contemplation and reflection; beauty conducts us into the world of ideas, without however taking us from the world of sense.

Beauty alone confers happiness on all, and under its influence every being forgets that he is limited…but this forgetting is temporary - for the sense of limitations is crucial to our creating beauty.
— Friedrich von Schiller

May also reflects upon Schiller's view that beauty emerges from play: 

"....When I first read this i thought it a frivolous idea; but i then recalled that we speak of Mozart and Beethoven playing the piano, the very opposite of superficiality. Play is the one activity where the fusion of inner vision and objective facts is achieved. Out of this comes the living form which is beauty. This living form is vital, alive, dynamic;  and at the same time it gives serenity and response, as for example in music. Play unites the inner world of our personal reverie with the outer world of people and nature. "                                                                                                                  
 

Art is the instrument by which....

Although we will end with speaking of art and it's relation to beauty, this is not the only possibility of beauty. Certainly we can create, make, and try to capture beauty, but we can also encounter beauty though a multitude of ways daily, from nature, literature, images, arts history.....whatever your personal preference. On art in relation to beauty, May holds the view that: 

Art is the instrument by which beauty is actualised. Art is the eternal endeavour to realise beauty. Sometimes it is successful, sometimes a failure; but the poignancy of beauty will never let us go. The one thing we can be sure about is the timelessness of beauty.
Let us, as Walter Pater entreats us, seek the desire for beauty, the experience of poetic passion, the love of art, the highest quality of each moment for its own sake
— Rollo May

So let us not be afraid to speak of beauty, or to express beauty in artwork, writing, music, any aspect of our life. As Rollo May learnt, beauty is life giving, inner world expanding and takes one in many directions when openly sought and received. Go forth then, guided by beauty. 

The one thing we can be sure about is the timelessness of beauty. Let us, as Walter Pater entreats us, seek the desire for beauty, the experience of poetic passion, the love of art, the highest quality of each moment for its own sake.
— Rollo May