As we prepare to sit down at our ceremonial Thanksgiving tables one of the things that we should be grateful for is the presence of beauty in our lives.
In the eighteenth century, when organized religion and ceremonial kingship were losing their authority, when the democratic spirit was questioning inherited institutions, and when the idea was abroad that it was not God but man who made laws for the human world, the idea of the sacred suffered an eclipse. To the thinkers of the Enlightenment, it seemed little more than a superstition to believe that artifacts, buildings, places, and ceremonies could possess a sacred character, when all these things were the products of human design. The idea that the divine reveals itself in our world, and seeks our worship, seemed both implausible in itself and incompatible with science.
At the same time, philosophers like Shaftesbury, Burke, Adam Smith, and Kant recognized that we do not look on the world only with the eyes of science. Another attitude exists—one not of scientific inquiry but of disinterested contemplation—that we direct toward our world in search of its meaning. When we take this attitude, we set our interests aside; we are no longer occupied with the goals and projects that propel us through time; we are no longer engaged in explaining things or enhancing our power. We are letting the world present itself and taking comfort in its presentation. This is the origin of the experience of beauty. There may be no way of accounting for that experience as part of our ordinary search for power and knowledge. It may be impossible to assimilate it to the day-to-day uses of our faculties. But it is an experience that self-evidently exists, and it is of the greatest value to those who receive it.
When does this experience occur, and what does it mean? Here is an example: suppose you are walking home in the rain, your thoughts occupied with your work. The streets and the houses pass by unnoticed; the people, too, pass you by; nothing invades your thinking save your interests and anxieties. Then suddenly the sun emerges from the clouds, and a ray of sunlight alights on an old stone wall beside the road and trembles there. You glance up at the sky where the clouds are parting, and a bird bursts into song in a garden behind the wall. Your heart fills with joy, and your selfish thoughts are scattered. The world stands before you, and you are content simply to look at it and let it be.
Maybe such experiences are rarer now than they were in the eighteenth century, when the poets and philosophers lighted upon them as a new avenue to religion. The haste and disorder of modern life, the alienating forms of modern architecture, the noise and spoliation of modern industry—these things have made the pure encounter with beauty a rarer, more fragile, and more unpredictable thing for us. Still, we all know what it is to find ourselves suddenly transported, by the things we see, from the ordinary world of our appetites to the illuminated sphere of contemplation. It happens often during childhood, though it is seldom interpreted then. It happens during adolescence, when it lends itself to our erotic longings. And it happens in a subdued way in adult life, secretly shaping our life projects, holding out to us an image of harmony that we pursue through holidays, through home-building, and through our private dreams.
Here is another example: it is a special occasion, when the family unites for a ceremonial dinner. You set the table with a clean embroidered cloth, arranging plates, glasses, bread in a basket, and some carafes of water and wine. You do this lovingly, delighting in the appearance, striving for an effect of cleanliness, simplicity, symmetry, and warmth. The table has become a symbol of homecoming, of the extended arms of the universal mother, inviting her children in. And all this abundance of meaning and good cheer is somehow contained in the appearance of the table. This, too, is an experience of beauty, one that we encounter, in some version or other, every day. We are needy creatures, and our greatest need is for home—the place where we are, where we find protection and love. We achieve this home through representations of our own belonging, not alone but in conjunction with others. All our attempts to make our surroundings look right—through decorating, arranging, creating—are attempts to extend a welcome to ourselves and to those whom we love.
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