Thursday, June 21, 2007

On What Can Be Beautiful

Aristotle, in Poetics, says, "the beautiful is in both the magnitude and the arrangement. Wherefore neither the very small should become a beautiful animal (for since the vision [of it] occurs in a nearly unfelt extent of time it is confused) nor should the very large (for the vision [of it] does not happen all at the same time, but the single and whole thing is gone from the vision of those who see it, if, for example, the animal should be a thousand stades long)" (1450b35ff, Thorgerson trans.).

In Plato's Timaeus, Timaeus says that the cosmos is beautiful: it is the "most beautiful of things born" (29a); the god "joined together the all so that he had fashioned a work that would be most beautiful and best in accordance with nature" (30b); and "the god wanted to make it as similar as possible to the most beautiful of things grasped by the intellect" (30d-31a).

Now I take it that the cosmos counts as a very large object. So is Aristotle disagreeing with Plato/Timaeus on this matter?

But there's more. Timaeus says that the four elements (fire, air, water, earth) are "preeminent in beauty" (53e). Naturally, these elements are very, very small (though not the smallest of things). So now Plato/Timaeus seems to also be disagreeing with Aristotle about the possibility that small things can be beautiful.

I'll look in Aristotle's De Caelo to see if he makes similar comments about the universe.

But now I wonder who's right? We might say that pace Aristotle, microorganisms are beautiful. But our saying this depends upon looking at them through a microscope, by which a larger image of the organism appears to us. So is the microorganism beautiful, or just its larger image?

Similarly for the universe. We often say that the universe is beautiful. But don't we just mean that an image (usually a picture) of some region of the universe is beautiful?

Plato's way out: Defend the position that what is most beautiful is not visible.


Thorgersen said...

But Ar. is speaking specifically in reference to plots, and only using the animals and physical size as a comparison. In the next sentence (beg 1451a), he carries his analogy through so that as the animals should be neither grotesque in their size nor miniscule to be really beautiful ("εὐσύνοπτος": a word which I think Aristotle coined--"easily viewable at once") so plots should possess magnamity, but be "εὐμνημόνευτος"--easily remembered ... memorable.

To try to reconcile the two (not that they want to be, but I'll take a page from Abelard) by carrying Ar.'s analogy to "kosmos" ...

Any overly large animal is going to, by this reasoning, exclude itself from "the beautiful" simply by its innate physical size. Therefore Elephant is not beautiful, end of story, so sorry Babar.

But I think Aristotle would have to agree with Plato that, by definition, the "universe" (ie., the kosmos ... orderliness to the point of beauty) is beautiful. Doesn't he have to for his whole system of categories to work?

Thus, perhaps the kosmos (or perhaps more generally just "matter") as it exists in toto is kind of like the way Aristotle explains any person's life: (Section 8, 1451a, rough trans) "many innumerable things happen to a single person, out of which there does not at all arise one single action". But at this point the poet comes in, takes this rough material, and crafts his "one single action" -- the plot or "story", as we have been translating it--which when properly done, is beautiful.

Along these lines, then, would Aristotle say about the Universe, that it is the "unity of movement" (to take a very wild stab at what is the fitting thing for universe to be about if tragedy is about unity of action) made beautiful (kalos) by having order (kosmos)? This would perhaps make the Universe--as the animal is to be easily-viewable and the plot easily-memorable-- something easily-experiencable but still magnaminous in that it cannot be experienced all at once, and so beautiful in the manner proper to its nature.

bourgeois wife said...

I am confused about Aristotle's large and small discussion. Aren't largeness and smallness relations and therefore "relative to" something else? In this case, they are relative to the viewer, namely the human person. By why is the human person the measure of beauty? Isn't this indirectly, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder"? To be cheezy, isn't beauty rather in the eye of The Beholder?