Throughout the animal world, nature uses superficial looks (along with every other appeal that the senses can distinguish, from mating calls to aromas to pheromones) to bring the sexes together, in order to accomplish the great work of procreation. The love of the beautiful takes on still greater importance for human beings, especially as we become mindful of death and necessary decay. The beautiful lures us into regarding it as a bulwark against death, a haven from the ugliness of disintegration. The beautiful beckons, promising permanence and happiness: the beautiful seems to us to be the skin of the good. Yet appearances are often deceiving on the side of both viewer and viewed. Imagination, colored by human hopes, often distorts what we see…
Even apart from such distortions, the pursuit of the beautiful may be altogether a dead end. Appreciation of the beautiful may inspire the soul, but efforts to capture it leave one unfulfilled – even when seemingly successful. For what do we really have if and when we “possess” the beautiful? Can a beautiful wife really satisfy our soul’s longings for the eternal or the good? Does union with a beautiful woman make us any less ugly or any less perishable?
The visibly beautiful, through its harmonious and well-proportioned appearance, always seems to promise some underlying goodness. Were it able to deliver on its promise, the love of the beautiful might bring us to the good, and hence to our felicity. But as experience teaches, the promise is only infrequently fulfilled; what strikes us as beautiful is rarely yoked to the good. Nonetheless we persist, seduced by the next beauty into believing that this time we shall gain our heart’s desire. We willingly allow ourselves to be betrayed by the testimony of our eyes; we naturally and repeatedly mis-take the beautiful for the good.
Leon Kass – The Beginning of Wisdom p.158