Sign up for our RWE mailing list


Chapter III. Beauty

A nobler want of man is served by nature, namely, the love of Beauty.

The ancient Greeks called the world {kosmos}, beauty. Such is the
constitution of all things, or such the plastic power of the human eye, that the
primary forms, as the sky, the mountain, the tree, the animal, give us a delight
in and for themselves; a pleasure arising from outline, color, motion, and
grouping. This seems partly owing to the eye itself. The eye is the best of
artists. By the mutual action of its structure and of the laws of light,
perspective is produced, which integrates every mass of objects, of what
character soever, into a well colored and shaded globe, so that where the
particular objects are mean and unaffecting, the landscape which they compose,
is round and symmetrical. And as the eye is the best composer, so light is the
first of painters. There is no object so foul that intense light will not make
beautiful. And the stimulus it affords to the sense, and a sort of infinitude
which it hath, like space and time, make all matter gay. Even the corpse has its
own beauty. But besides this general grace diffused over nature, almost all the
individual forms are agreeable to the eye, as is proved by our endless
imitations of some of them, as the acorn, the grape, the pine-cone, the
wheat-ear, the egg, the wings and forms of most birds, the lion’s claw, the
serpent, the butterfly, sea-shells, flames, clouds, buds, leaves, and the forms
of many trees, as the palm.

For better consideration, we may distribute the aspects of Beauty in a
threefold manner.

1. First, the simple perception of natural forms is a delight. The influence
of the forms and actions in nature, is so needful to man, that, in its lowest
functions, it seems to lie on the confines of commodity and beauty. To the body
and mind which have been cramped by noxious work or company, nature is medicinal
and restores their tone. The tradesman, the attorney comes out of the din and
craft of the street, and sees the sky and the woods, and is a man again. In
their eternal calm, he finds himself. The health of the eye seems to demand a
horizon. We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.

But in other hours, Nature satisfies by its loveliness, and without any
mixture of corporeal benefit. I see the spectacle of morning from the hill-top
over against my house, from day-break to sun-rise, with emotions which an angel
might share. The long slender bars of cloud float like fishes in the sea of
crimson light. From the earth, as a shore, I look out into that silent sea. I
seem to partake its rapid transformations: the active enchantment reaches my
dust, and I dilate and conspire with the morning wind. How does Nature deify us
with a few and cheap elements! Give me health and a day, and I will make the
pomp of emperors ridiculous. The dawn is my Assyria; the sun-set and moon-rise
my Paphos, and unimaginable realms of faerie; broad noon shall be my England of
the senses and the understanding; the night shall be my Germany of mystic
philosophy and dreams.

Not less excellent, except for our less susceptibility in the afternoon, was
the charm, last evening, of a January sunset. The western clouds divided and
subdivided themselves into pink flakes modulated with tints of unspeakable
softness; and the air had so much life and sweetness, that it was a pain to come
within doors. What was it that nature would say? Was there no meaning in the
live repose of the valley behind the mill, and which Homer or Shakspeare could
not reform for me in words? The leafless trees become spires of flame in the
sunset, with the blue east for their back-ground, and the stars of the dead
calices of flowers, and every withered stem and stubble rimed with frost,
contribute something to the mute music.

The inhabitants of cities suppose that the country landscape is pleasant only
half the year. I please myself with the graces of the winter scenery, and
believe that we are as much touched by it as by the genial influences of summer.
To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the
same field, it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and
which shall never be seen again. The heavens change every moment, and reflect
their glory or gloom on the plains beneath. The state of the crop in the
surrounding farms alters the expression of the earth from week to week. The
succession of native plants in the pastures and roadsides, which makes the
silent clock by which time tells the summer hours, will make even the divisions
of the day sensible to a keen observer. The tribes of birds and insects, like
the plants punctual to their time, follow each other, and the year has room for
all. By water-courses, the variety is greater. In July, the blue pontederia or
pickerel-weed blooms in large beds in the shallow parts of our pleasant river,
and swarms with yellow butterflies in continual motion. Art cannot rival this
pomp of purple and gold. Indeed the river is a perpetual gala, and boasts each
month a new ornament.

But this beauty of Nature which is seen and felt as beauty, is the least
part. The shows of day, the dewy morning, the rainbow, mountains, orchards in
blossom, stars, moonlight, shadows in still water, and the like, if too eagerly
hunted, become shows merely, and mock us with their unreality. Go out of the
house to see the moon, and ‘t is mere tinsel; it will not please as when its
light shines upon your necessary journey. The beauty that shimmers in the yellow
afternoons of October, who ever could clutch it? Go forth to find it, and it is
gone: ‘t is only a mirage as you look from the windows of diligence.

2. The presence of a higher, namely, of the spiritual element is essential to
its perfection. The high and divine beauty which can be loved without
effeminacy, is that which is found in combination with the human will. Beauty is
the mark God sets upon virtue. Every natural action is graceful. Every heroic
act is also decent, and causes the place and the bystanders to shine. We are
taught by great actions that the universe is the property of every individual in
it. Every rational creature has all nature for his dowry and estate. It is his,
if he will. He may divest himself of it; he may creep into a corner, and
abdicate his kingdom, as most men do, but he is entitled to the world by his
constitution. In proportion to the energy of his thought and will, he takes up
the world into himself. “All those things for which men plough, build, or sail,
obey virtue;” said Sallust. “The winds and waves,” said Gibbon, “are always on
the side of the ablest navigators.” So are the sun and moon and all the stars of
heaven. When a noble act is done, — perchance in a scene of great natural
beauty; when Leonidas and his three hundred martyrs consume one day in dying,
and the sun and moon come each and look at them once in the steep defile of
Thermopylae; when Arnold Winkelried, in the high Alps, under the shadow of the
avalanche, gathers in his side a sheaf of Austrian spears to break the line for
his comrades; are not these heroes entitled to add the beauty of the scene to
the beauty of the deed? When the bark of Columbus nears the shore of America; —
before it, the beach lined with savages, fleeing out of all their huts of cane;
the sea behind; and the purple mountains of the Indian Archipelago around, can
we separate the man from the living picture? Does not the New World clothe his
form with her palm-groves and savannahs as fit drapery? Ever does natural beauty
steal in like air, and envelope great actions. When Sir Harry Vane was dragged
up the Tower-hill, sitting on a sled, to suffer death, as the champion of the
English laws, one of the multitude cried out to him, “You never sate on so
glorious a seat.” Charles II., to intimidate the citizens of London, caused the
patriot Lord Russel to be drawn in an open coach, through the principal streets
of the city, on his way to the scaffold. “But,” his biographer says, “the
multitude imagined they saw liberty and virtue sitting by his side.” In private
places, among sordid objects, an act of truth or heroism seems at once to draw
to itself the sky as its temple, the sun as its candle. Nature stretcheth out
her arms to embrace man, only let his thoughts be of equal greatness. Willingly
does she follow his steps with the rose and the violet, and bend her lines of
grandeur and grace to the decoration of her darling child. Only let his thoughts
be of equal scope, and the frame will suit the picture. A virtuous man is in
unison with her works, and makes the central figure of the visible sphere.
Homer, Pindar, Socrates, Phocion, associate themselves fitly in our memory with
the geography and climate of Greece. The visible heavens and earth sympathize
with Jesus. And in common life, whosoever has seen a person of powerful
character and happy genius, will have remarked how easily he took all things
along with him, — the persons, the opinions, and the day, and nature became
ancillary to a man.

3. There is still another aspect under which the beauty of the world may be
viewed, namely, as it become s an object of the intellect. Beside the relation
of things to virtue, they have a relation to thought. The intellect searches out
the absolute order of things as they stand in the mind of God, and without the
colors of affection. The intellectual and the active powers seem to succeed each
other, and the exclusive activity of the one, generates the exclusive activity
of the other. There is something unfriendly in each to the other, but they are
like the alternate periods of feeding and working in animals; each prepares and
will be followed by the other. Therefore does beauty, which, in relation to
actions, as we have seen, comes unsought, and comes because it is unsought,
remain for the apprehension and pursuit of the intellect; and then again, in its
turn, of the active power. Nothing divine dies. All good is eternally
reproductive. The beauty of nature reforms itself in the mind, and not for
barren contemplation, but for new creation.

All men are in some degree impressed by the face of the world; some men even
to delight. This love of beauty is Taste. Others have the same love in such
excess, that, not content with admiring, they seek to embody it in new forms.
The creation of beauty is Art.

The production of a work of art throws a light upon the mystery of humanity.
A work of art is an abstract or epitome of the world. It is the result or
expression of nature, in miniature. For, although the works of nature are
innumerable and all different, the result or the expression of them all is
similar and single. Nature is a sea of forms radically alike and even unique. A
leaf, a sun-beam, a landscape, the ocean, make an analogous impression on the
mind. What is common to them all, — that perfectness and harmony, is beauty.
The standard of beauty is the entire circuit of natural forms, — the totality
of nature; which the Italians expressed by defining beauty “il piu nell’ uno.”
Nothing is quite beautiful alone: nothing but is beautiful in the whole. A
single object is only so far beautiful as it suggests this universal grace. The
poet, the painter, the sculptor, the musician, the architect, seek each to
concentrate this radiance of the world on one point, and each in his several
work to satisfy the love of beauty which stimulates him to produce. Thus is Art,
a nature passed through the alembic of man. Thus in art, does nature work
through the will of a man filled with the beauty of her first works.

The world thus exists to the soul to satisfy the desire of beauty. This
element I call an ultimate end. No reason can be asked or given why the soul
seeks beauty. Beauty, in its largest and profoundest sense, is one expression
for the universe. God is the all-fair. Truth, and goodness, and beauty, are but
different faces of the same All. But beauty in nature is not ultimate. It is the
herald of inward and eternal beauty, and is not alone a solid and satisfactory
good. It must stand as a part, and not as yet the last or highest expression of
the final cause of Nature.

(Visited 2,448 times, 2 visits today)


Support RWE.org


Live Video Streaming


ViewLive Streaming from RWE.org of the documentary, Emerson: The Ideal In America

All proceeds go to supporting RWE.org - The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Ideal in the West


From the director/author of Emerson: The Ideal In America

"Ide­al­ismthe old­est continuously-operating philo­soph­i­cal sys­tem in the West. 

Kindle Edition Is also available!

Emerson: The Ideal in America-Educator's Edition


Documentary on Life and Inspiration of
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson's house in Concord, MA

Educator's Edition, includes full interviews,
54 minute doc + 49 minutes of bonus material.

Emerson: The Ideal in America--Educator's Edition


Copyright© 2015 All Rights Reserved.