As much as our culture idolizes beauty, it also thinks it’s shallow and superficial. But both of these evaluations get something wrong. The idea of beauty as only skin-deep is based on a long-debunked division between body and soul. Yet the fleeting admiration of a stranger’s beauty also misses the point. True appreciation of beauty takes attention, care, and love, argues David Egan.
Beauty is only skin deep, we’re told. It’s superficial to be too concerned about surfaces and deep to love the depths of a person’s character. Stories like Beauty and the Beast and The Wife of Bath’s Tale emphasize the importance of seeing past a person’s outward appearance to their inner beauty.
And yet. People are drawn to physically attractive people, and not only when it comes to mate choice. With voter preference, jury verdicts, students’ evaluation of teachers, teachers’ evaluation of students, looks, apparently, count. Good-looking people tend to be judged more intelligent and honest. Even tales of loathly ladies and princely beasts make the significant concession of rewarding the pure-hearted lover who sees their hideous beloved’s inner beauty with a magical transformation at the end. The reward for being able to see past someone’s outward appearance is, curiously, a really good-looking partner.
Is all this just hormonal prejudice, which moralists and fairy tales try to correct in vain? I don’t think so. Beauty is important—too important for us to outsource its appreciation to ad agencies and Instagram influencers.
Even those intangible qualities of character—the kindness, compassion, and integrity that make pure-hearted lovers swoon—are significantly conditioned by genetics and upbringing.
Beauty and its discontents
What’s wrong with assessing a person based on their looks? Determining jury verdicts or student evaluations on that basis is a straightforward rational error: the characteristics you’re supposed to be assessing don’t correlate with physical appearance. But it’s not so obvious when it comes to love that looks don’t matter. Physical appearance might be the wrong criterion for assessing criminal culpability but surely it’s not a bad one for sparking physical desire.
The obvious answer, to cite another cliché, is that looks aren’t everything. To the extent that we’re talking about love and not just lust, we’re talking about an affection that extends to the whole person and not just to their physical attributes. But this response only gets us so far. Presumably a person’s appearance is a part of the ‘whole person.’ It might not be everything but surely it’s something.
Another concern might be for fairness. We don’t get to choose the way we look so it’s unfair that some people benefit and others lose out on account of a genetic lottery. But intelligence is also largely a matter of luck and no one scolds sapiosexuals for favouring unearned advantages. Even those intangible qualities of character—the kindness, compassion, and integrity that make pure-hearted lovers swoon—are significantly conditioned by genetics and upbringing. These are all qualities a person can cultivate, but physical beauty, too, can be enhanced or marred by lifestyle choices. Yet if you work to cultivate compassion you’re admired and if you obsessively sculpt your physique you’re vain.
Contrarianism aside, I think there’s something right about the conventional wisdom. I’d be happier and better off if conventional standards of attractiveness had less of a hold on me. But I think the metaphors of inner and outer, surface and depth, misdiagnose the nature of the tension. As a result, they come off as puritanical and uncompelling.
Sam Roddick, Bence Nanay and Justine Kolata explore life, beauty and meaning.
The metaphysics of the body-soul distinction
What’s at issue is the soul. Those metaphors of inner and outer, surface and depth, are rooted in a particular concept of the self. The body is impermanent, on this view, subject to age and sickness, and ultimately disappointing. It is of little worth next to the inner self or soul, which isn’t subject to bodily corruption. This—the rational intellect or the immortal soul—is who I really am. Preening concern for the body—yours or that of others—is fundamentally misguided. You find forms of this idea in Plato and Stoicism, in Christian theology and the Upanishads. Descartes was working in a similar vein when he argued that we are essentially thinking things and that it is in thinking that we confirm that we exist.
A person’s outward form, on this line of thinking, is both concealing and distracting. Physical ugliness can conceal an inner beauty and vice versa. And because the physical aspect is so much easier to see, we tend to get hung up on it, unable to discern the character it conceals. To the extent that a person’s soul is what is most truly theirs, evaluating a person on the basis of their physical appearance is as mistaken as evaluating a criminal defendant’s guilt or innocence on the basis of their looks.
This high-minded instruction is hard to put into practice. When I reflect on people I love—friends every bit as much as lovers—that reflection is markedly visual. I admire Aleks for her ease with herself and others, her ability to make those around her feel loved without making a production of it, and her lively sense of the absurd. But the only way I have of picturing these qualities of character is to picture Aleks: the expressive face with its comical childlike frowns and explosions of laughter; or how, in her serious moments, small creases at the corners of her mouth betray her inability to take anything too seriously. I can’t reflect on the complexities of Mei Pin’s character without picturing the changes of expression that pass over her face, the way she can shift from angelic sweetness to a sudden seriousness that makes me hang on every word as if the future course of my life might depend on it.
Trying to describe what I love about a person always feels inadequate. Words can only get me so far because words are fungible in their application and people are unique. Charles and Aarti both have adventurous souls. In Charles, I see it in his posture, straight back and jaunty limbs, and in the kindness of his eyes, which hold that hint of wickedness that you need to know him well in order to see. In Aarti, I see a mouth always poised to react with a smile or a witticism, a mouth supported by a somewhat impertinent chin. But above all I see shining eyes that are unwilling to leave any corner of the universe unseen. They’d both make the shortlist of people I’d want to go on the lam with but their differences only make sense in their particular modes of expressiveness.
The trouble with appeals to ‘inner’ qualities is that those qualities are abstractions and the trouble with abstractions is that, well, they’re abstract.
The trouble with appeals to ‘inner’ qualities is that those qualities are abstractions and the trouble with abstractions is that, well, they’re abstract. Interpersonal love is love for the particular and it takes delight in the particular. The particularity of a person is inseparable from the particularity of their physical form.
When I picture someone I love, I don’t picture what they look like; I picture them. The outward form doesn’t conceal the person; it expresses them. Where else should I look if I want to apprehend their souls? As Wittgenstein puts it, challenging the idea of a hidden, inner self, ‘The human body is the best picture of the human soul.’
The shallowness and depth of appearances
Like I said, I think the conventional wisdom that condemns an obsession with physical beauty holds a kernel of truth. The sleazy guy who leers at young women is getting something wrong. But his mistake is just the inverse of the puritanical admonitions that what’s inside is all that counts. Both accept a basic dichotomy between outer and inner and just differ in where they place their concern. But if character is visible then the dichotomy is flawed. Our mistake isn’t that we’re too concerned about the way others look. It’s rather that, in an important sense, we aren’t concerned enough.
It’s not what’s inside a painting that counts. What you see on the surface of the canvas is really all there is to see.
Think of the ways we might get things right or wrong in our appreciation of artworks. Music that charms me on a first listen might become trite on repeat hearings. I come to realize that I was too easily seduced by cheap gimmickry or by a harmonic progression that’s emotionally satisfying but too predictable to carry much expressive force. Or a painting that seemed a noisy jumble at first might slowly cohere, if I attend to it with the patience it demands, and I see a rich and surprising harmony that escapes the casual glance.
It’s not what’s inside a painting that counts. What you see on the surface of the canvas is really all there is to see. But you can do a better or worse job of seeing it. Seeing well takes training and practice. But above all it takes love. You have to care about the work, and the rewards it might offer you, to take time with it and to allow yourself to see it on its own terms.
I have similar experiences with people. Initially won over by one person’s easy charm, I gradually come to see a hollow self-absorption: he’s unable to take a real interest in others and his limited repertoire of wit and bonhomie shows that he’s unable even to take a real interest in himself. With another, what I initially take for a stiff manner reveals itself to be a deep sincerity; or another might simply present innocuously because her unassuming gentleness doesn’t exactly jump out at you.
When Wittgenstein writes that the human body is the best picture of the human soul, he’s reminding us that the human form is essentially expressive. We don’t, in the first instance, see faces and bodies. We see people. But learning to see a person, really learning to see them, is an endless task, even more challenging and more fruitful than learning to see art. When I come to appreciate a person more fully, that’s my reward for learning to look at them more closely.