Beauty and Mastery

By Katsushika Hokusai – Metropolitan Museum of Art

What came first, the chicken or the egg?  It’s a joke, a metaphor, a twisted question to ask yourself when you have nothing better to think about.  And yet it persists, a commonly repeated useless phrase.  We know that there is no practical reality to its solution or its ask.

But us humans are a clever species.  We seek to understand everything about our environment.  Unfortunately for us, we are not omniscient.  Our understanding is often messy.  Our journey towards such, fraught with peril. 

One of the most fundamental questions we must ask ourselves, time and again, regards the nature of a causal relationship between two things.  “Are these items actually connected to each other, and if so, which one is the cause of the other?”  You may have heard the adage, “correlation does not equal causation.”  And it’s true.  Very true.  It’s easy to see that two things may be related to each other.  But very hard to determine what relation those two things share exactly.  Is it just a coincidence that we see them together so often?  Are they caused by the same thing?  Or does one cause the other?

It is certainly this way, with the elusive nature of beauty.  “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” as the common refrain goes.  And folk knowledge says that we are all beautiful in our own way.  But what exactly is beauty?  And why does it matter to us so much, let alone at all? 

We all know when we’ve seen it.  The rush of a sunset, washing over us like a wave.  The glint of a star falling over the horizon, signaling to us something great about where we are, and what we see. 

But beauty is more than just a feeling.  Certainly given our understanding of the way in which the human mind was created, we must admit that there should be some function to beauty.  And science has borne this fact out piecemeal with regard to the nature of physical attractiveness.

We’ve found that largely every aspect of what we would call “physical beauty” arises from a natural necessity.  That is, that form follows function.  But what about beauties of a more esoteric nature.  The nature of a sunset, or a clear night sky.  What function is there to looking up at the stars?  What function is there to enjoyment of large open spaces, or a quiet forest covered in snow? 

Though they have most certainly not all been discovered at this time.  It is the case that there almost certainly is a plausible explanation for all of these moments. 

Perhaps our ancestors hid in the forest in the snow, perhaps we see the ocean horizon as hope for our tribe; a home near water and food.  A sprite of a melody, the rhythm of things falling into their places, of teamwork and universal intra-group knowing; a chorus of minds.

Beauty is powerful 

I don’t just mean that beauty has a powerful effect on us, though that certainly is true.  I mean that beauty is power.  The ocean-inlet that feeds the growth of the forest, and nourishes your tribe, gives to, and creates in you: strength.  The dance of a village: an organism greater than the sum of its parts.  City lights, a promise of hope and possibility.  We enjoy these things subjectively.  But their nature is not found in subjectivity.  They are intrinsically empowered, and empowering.  We see beauty, we feel beauty, but beauty exists outside of our minds. 

Beauty is mastery.  Beauty is a thing that wills itself upon the world.  Beauty is an alluring force; drawing our focus to it in reverence for what strength it holds over the things around it. 

When a great painter pens a masterpiece; we say that for his having captured beauty he is a master.  But in the moment that his creation grabs hold of us, he has in himself created beauty.  He does not approximate something outside of the painting.  The canvas is the thing of power; and its sway over us unconditional surrender to a higher force that wills itself be known. 

To view an artist like a sunset; is to view the process by which their art takes hold of yourself and others.

About the author

Professional hacker & security engineer. Currently at Google, opinions all my own. On Twitter as @zaeyx. Skydiver, snowboarder, writer, weightlifter, runner, energetic to the point of being a bit crazy.

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