Last week, I wrote about solitude and Yosemite. But solitude is not the only thing that lures us to the mountains. We also seek beauty. Lovers of nature cherish birdsong, gleaming granite and sparkling snow. The rainbow, the lightning and the wildflower fill us with awe and wonder.
The world contains many magical places of immense beauty. If the mountains are not to your taste, then enjoy the redwood forests, the ocean breakers, or the flowing river.
We spend too much time indoors. Americans devote about 10 hours per day to their glowing screens. One danger of this is obesity. As our waistlines expand, our attention spans shorten. The lack of natural beauty in our lives poses a spiritual, aesthetic and ethical danger.
Ethics has long been connected to aesthetics. Plato thought that beauty lifted us toward higher things, encouraging us to give birth to virtue and wisdom.
The good and the beautiful exhibit grace, balance and harmony. Good things have symmetry and order. The ability to experience beauty is connected with the knack for knowing the good.
A key here is what we might call “the aesthetic mood.” In the presence of beauty the mind is attuned to the world in a receptive and reverent fashion. When we pause to wonder at a Half Dome or Yosemite Falls, we shift perspectives. Beauty opens transcendent vistas. It encourages us to see beyond the narrow world of “me and mine.”
Only a perverse soul considers profit in the face of the beautiful. The rest of us smile and celebrate. We are grateful, inspired and humbled.
The beautiful is an end-in-itself. It is priceless and beyond exchange. Beautiful objects should be enjoyed and respected. They have inherent value, dignity and worth. It would be wrong to damage or destroy them.
The parallel with ethics is obvious. Morality requires us to value people for their own sake. Morality asks us to recognize the priceless dignity – and immense beauty – of the human being.
Some claim that all of this comes from God. Theists think that the value of human life is based on the fact that we are created in the image of God. They believe that beauty in this world is a sign of God’s love. John Muir said simply, “No synonym for God is so perfect as Beauty.”
Humanists appreciate beauty and humanity for its own sake. They think that morality and reason give value to life – as does the experience of order and harmony in nature.
Albert Einstein provides an inspiring source of the humanist idea. Einstein said, “Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life.” He thought that we are held captive by our egos. He explained that we find meaning and hope by “widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
Aesthetic experience is an advanced human capacity. Children do seem to have an innate ability to wonder at sound and light. They are also caring and loving. But we have to be taught to see the beautiful, just as we have to learn to value human beings as ends-in-themselves.
That is why it is essential to take kids into nature and show them the beauty of the natural world. They need time away from their screens. They need to stretch their legs and their minds. They need to learn to develop the aesthetic mood. We help them cultivate reverence, humility, gratitude and awe by exposing them to the wonders of nature.
Adults need that too. Natural beauty provides reassurance and hope. Grace and joy are found beyond the depravity of the daily news. The mind is enlivened. The spirit is soothed. We think better and breathe easier in charming landscapes. We are elevated by the sense that this majestic world offers a secret to savor.
This is not selfish escapism. The demands of justice and love always remain. But we all need a refuge to reinvigorate the spirit. Natural splendor strengthens us for the sorrowful and the sordid. In the presence of the beautiful we want to be better people. Beauty inspires us to want to be worthy of this world and its wonders.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala