The Great Personality Test

I think I’m fairly smart. Someone once told me that I “look smart”. This is not a compliment. I also had a friend that told me that I have a way about me that puts other people at ease. In short, I have a “Great Personality”. … and we all know what that means. Earlier this year, First Lady, Michelle Obama, made Maxim magazine’s hot chicks list. Ok, she was in the 90s, but, hey she made the list. Former supermodel and wife of David Bowie, Iman said the she was going to be honest about the whole Michelle Obama thing. She said, and I’m taking some liberties in recalling this, that the First Lady is not all that, and that she is an “interesting” looking woman. Iman polished the insult by adding that, more importantly, Michelle Obama is very intelligent — and that, in the long run, that’s what’s important. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out what Iman meant. If you have a list of hot chicks, Michelle Obama does not belong on that list — even if her guns are spectacular. Hot chick lists, let’s face it, are basically a list of chicks that a guy (and I guess some ladies, if they are so inclined) whack it to. A really tall black chick with big biceps and an underbite I would guess wouldn’t pop up in a list that includes the likes of Scarlet Johansson and Megan Fox. What we’re talking about, whether we say someone is hot, smokin’, fine, tight, the bees knees or the cat’s pajamas, or just plain “f”-able, is beautiful. And as usual, philosophers will stick their noses into any subject on which one can form an opinion. The science of beauty is no exception. The arena of philosophy that deals with beauty and what is beautiful is called aesthetics. When philosophers speak about beauty it’s usually in discussions about art, music, or nature, or (even) the sciences or the beauty in a theory. When Bertrand Russell wrote about mathematics, he wrote mathematics, “rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty — a beauty cold an austere… without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music…” . The beauty of mathematics, for Russell, is found in the symmetry and consistency of things like a math equation. Now, I realize that I have stepped into the glass house and locking the door behind me, but if one looked at Mr. Russell, one would not wonder why he felt as such. I suppose that many a philosophy professor has, on the first day of class, surveyed his class, knowing which students are destined to become philosophy majors. I would guess that it’s safe to assume that the good looking students are there for the credits. And that we are truly flabbergasted when they are not. Which, may in my case, explain why not one, but three of my philosophy professors recommended that I become a philosophy major (winking emoticon). There is all sorts of philosophy talk about beauty when it comes to art, or music, or even the beauty of math or science. But what about people? …Which makes me think of our latest pop cultural encounter with Britain’s Got Talent second runner-up and recent freak-out participant, Susan Boyle. Unfortunate Sue has been described as “unique”, “talented”, “special”, “endearing”, and so on. The thing is, is that people are attempting to find something complimentary to say about a woman in a culture where most of any compliments payed to anyone is focused primarily on one’s looks. Since she’s not … we must find something nice to say. Hence, Susan Boyle is “great”, or the half-assed insult a “plain jane”. In a Star Magazine article from May 4, 2009, the article was entitled “What A Voice!”. The article even featured a digitized “make-over” of Susan Boyle if she decides (oh, please do!) to change her image. But, the emphasis on her voice made me think of what Iman said. We can say to Susan Boyle, “At least you have your voice, because in the long run, that’s what’s important”. (What’s funny is that in that same issue, there was an article about IndyCar racer, Danica Patrick, who was featured in a bikini. I don’t think that the article contained anything about her racig record or anything about IndyCar racing in general. The point of the feature is that Danica Patrick is hot.)If one is so inclined, pay attention to how the entertainment press speaks about Susan Boyle. Her looks become the 500 lb. gorilla in the room. At times, they speak of her appearance as one would speak of someone with a handicap or birth defect. (Susan “overcomes” the odds and “triumphs”. What odds, I wonder?) They show digitized “before and after” photos like the before and after photographs are displayed on informercials about little kids in Central America after they get surgery on their cleft palates. It’s kind of sickening. But strangely, alot of philosophy is mum on the matter. That doesn’t mean that it’s not discussed. There is plenty of talk about what or who we consider beautiful. But it seems that the old pros to whom we often refer are strangely silent about beauty and people. Maybe it’s because, unlike our thoughts on the nature of reality or whether utlitarianism or Kantianism are viable moral theories, judging how we look, whether we are considered “beautiful” or not, is kind of personal. That is, beauty, unlike the way we’d like to think of our philosophy, is a matter of taste. It’s what you think that matters — but not in the quatifiable, logically sound, way that philosophers like their theories — it’s gut reactions, it’s… what or who you like, and there’s absolutely no logic to be found in that. We can’t say with certainty that our belief that such and such or whoever is beautiful is true. Enevitably, someone will disagree with our choice. When we talk about beauty, it affects us in a way that our beliefs do not. You can be the smartest, most talented guy in the world (and you’ve figured out how to get around Hume’s problem of induction), voted five times– in a row– the funniest fellow on earth, but if you look like Joseph Merrick, chances are you won’t be dating much (especially if you happen to be of the female persuasion). When it comes to the perceptions and judgments of others, we can obscure our beliefs in ways that we cannot when it comes to our appearance. We can hide our atheism in a crowd of Christians, but hiding your face, unless one has religious reasons for doing so, is slightly more difficult. Beauty, being a matter of taste and as we all know, is a matter of contrasts. That is, things tend to be judged in accordance to something else. Something that is beautiful is more pleasing than some other thing. So, if Bertrand Russell were to look at any standard derivation next to my own theory of inconsistentism, it’s fairly obvious which one would be more pleasing to his eye. But, when we say something is more pleasing, what we may be suggesting that something is better than something else. When we say something is better, we imply that something is good (one thing is gooder than another thing). Good, according to the philosopher, is something that is not merely physical, but is something that is transcendent. The mere pleasures associated with the corporeal are often favored less than those goods that go beyond the transitory physical world. Aristotle famously wrote that a life devoted exclusively to physical pleasure is the life of beasts. (it’s worth noting that Aristotle wrote “exclusively” devoted to pleasure). We know that, by reading Plato, Kant, Mill, and the like, that what is good is not always what is pleasurable. This suggests that, if beauty is associated with some good (I really should be using a capital G when writing good), that what is beautiful may not always be what is pleasing to the eye. If anyone remembers high school algebra ( I do, I took it twice), quadratic equations are most displeasing to the eye. If we were to ask Russell, we could bet that he would see nothing but pure beauty. Good, as it is thought of philosophically, involves some sort of ultimate end, purpose or function. It’s easy to see this when we think of art. Although we may disagree what is art, or which art is beautiful, we can agree that when we look at a piece of art, we have in our minds some list of qualities that we use to judge the merits of a particular piece of work. We may look for symmetry or overall composition. We look at color, or how closely the piece reflects reality. If I say that I judge the artistic merit of a particular piece of art on how it represents reality, I am saying that I am judging how closely the piece comes to showing the world as it really is. What I am looking for is how accurately the piece tells the truth. And we know, of course, that Truth is Good. Truth is an element of the Good. And good art,if it is Good then, it must be truthful. Any truth contributes to the overall, collective good (oops, Good). Plato’s Republic, bk. III has Socrates explaining how the arts must be taught to bring about the ideal society. Socrates says that art, music, poetry, education, exercise (among other things) must be taught correctly if society is to foster the right characteristics in its citizens. (These characteristics include moderation, courage, and truthfulness). On the topic of music, Socrates states that is important to teach the right kind of music, “Because rhythm and harmony most of all insinuate themselves into the inmost part of the soul… and they make a man graceful in he is correctly reared, if not, the opposite… the man properly raised on rhythm and harmony would have the sharpest sense for what’s been left out and what isn’t a fine product or craft or what isn’t a fine product of nature…” According Plato (or Socrates, whichever one you believed actually existed), a man who is raised on the right art is a better perciever of what is Good. This ability contributes to the soul. A good judge of what is Good has an enhanced soul, a Good soul. This, of course, allows us to infer that a person who lives life philosophically is, in the Platonic sense, a beautiful person, even if, according to our standards, they are not. Other philosophers, such as Nietzsche, made a similar connection between art and the soul. Art, says Fred, binds the emotion and rational spirits within man (oops, Man) together. From Plato to Marx, art serves a social/political function. “Beautiful” art enhances the individual. But what about people? Beauty in art, from the artist’s perspective, is meant to illicit an response. Most likely, the desires response is emotional. (I really can’t imagine any artist who wanted exclusively physical repsonses from his audience. Oh, wait. I may have thought of one. One may be the late Bob Flannigan. There’s no way you can look at what he did and not react physically). Anyway, where was I? Was I anywhere? If an artist wants to cull an emotional response from his audience, he knows that the reaction will enevitably be varied and relative. “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure”, they say. But, that’s what we want to avoid in philosophy — Relativity. Relativity negates the notion of innate goodness (or truth), which is exactly what we are speaking of when we look for the Good. What the philosopher looks for is some quality that is universally applicable (transcendental ideals or forms, if you prefer), or at least something near consistent. But art or whatever we’re looking at that can, in one man stir his emotions while leaving another man stoically unaffected is not what we want. It doesn’t help us to answer the question. If we regard beauty in the way that the artist takes his art, then what we deal with is mere felt responses, we get good, but only in the material sense — not the higher, transcendent, capital G good that we’re looking for! Maybe that’s the problem. If we look at the biological function of beauty, we see that beauty or appealingness serves the purposes of reproduction. I heard on the news that there is a greenery that houses a flower called a “corpse flower”. It is set to bloom sometime this week. The smell of the flower, they say, is akin to the smell of rotting flesh. That smell, although cringe inducing to us, is the sweet smell of honey to the various incects that catch a whiff of the aroma and are drawn to it. The smell is how the flower attracts bugs that will aid in its reproduction. We don’t like the smell (and anyone who does seriously needs to get checked out). But the smell is not for us. It’s to get a response out of another animal. The smell’s please-a-bility is relative to what kind of species you are. The same may be for beauty. That is, it isn’t a matter of goodness (unless you consider reproduction a Good), but a matter of taste. Perhaps the intrinsic goodness of beauty is that it facilitates a greater goodness, namely that finding Angelina Jolie smokin’ hot contributes to the propagation of the human species. I know that this is something of a look to the biology (i.e. reductionist) answer. And I know that reductionist answers (or explanations, as I say), do little if anything to satisfy the philosophic heart of the questions we are attempting to answer. But, really, it’s the best I can do. If it’s any consolation, as someone who sports one of those terrific personalities, I’d personally like to think that there is something that is intrinsic to beauty that is beyond one’s mere physical appearance. That there is indeed, such a thing as a beautiful soul.

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