What is Beauty?
Oxford dictionary defines beauty as, “A combination of qualities, such as shape, colour, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight.” While true, can we all agree that beauty is so much more than that? Philosophers and great thinkers have been trying to define, classify, and explain beauty for centuries. I will not try to define it here (as I have neither the qualifications nor intelligence to do so), but I hope to briefly look at the role it has on individuals and further into societies. Like so many of the best things in life, beauty is experienced and is therefore different for each person. Beauty is the key inside a lock opening a door of potential. It elicits a holistic response in the observer: emotional, physical, and spiritual. And this response has the ability to change a person over time.
While all may agree that beauty impacts our emotions, it may come as a surprise to some that it can impact us physically as well. Stendhal syndrome, first experienced in Firenze’s Piazza Santa Croce, is when an observer experiences something so beautiful, they faint or feel dizzy. The name comes from author Marie-Henri Bayle (pen-named Stendhal) who was the first to describe this phenomenon in his book Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio. In Florence, it is more commonly called “tourist syndrome” and still occurs today!
I believe that Stendhal syndrome proves something about beauty. It shows that beauty has power over us; oftentimes more than we realize or can control. What we observe in the world around us shapes who we are and what type of people we become.
Experiencing beauty transforms you into a person who is beautiful. Not beautiful in the meaning of having a chiseled body or the “golden ratio” face but beautiful in a deeper way. It shapes someone who exudes an appreciation for beauty and a desire to perpetuate and continue to create beautiful things.
You are what you Contemplate
Have you ever wondered why there are so many creatives in Italy? Why art and culture thrive here both historically and in the present day? I believe author Hwee Hwee Tan, in her essay In Search of the Lotus Land (a highly recommended read), profoundly observed why this might be. After describing a period in her life of burnout, social anxiety, and creative exhaustion from her second novel, she says,
“The most regenerative trip I have ever taken, both spiritually and creatively, was to Italy…I was struck by Rome’s beauty; not just its natural beauty but the beauty of its architecture…even the streets were beautiful. New York is organized according to a grid whose uniformity, after a while, becomes mechanical and boring…the difference between European and American architecture is that the builders of the Roman Pantheons and villas were artists. They weren’t just interested in function, in creating utilitarian buildings; they wanted to create beautiful things. As I looked at these objects in Italy, the more beauty I saw, the more beautiful I felt inside. I began to understand a profound but simple truth, you become what you contemplate…I suppose that’s why the environment has such a powerful effect on the soul. What does your mind gaze at, stare at? If you look at ugliness and violence all day, you become ugly and violent yourself.”Hwee Hwee Tan
Part of the power of beautiful things is that they perpetuate and procreate. The more beauty in front of and around us, the more likely we are to create and establish it day after day. Tan further uses this observation to speak about God and what being in relationship with him looks like for those who are religious. She claims that it is by practicing His presence, gazing at Him day by day and moment by moment, that we are transformed into His Image, which is a beautiful one.
Beauty and the Senses
In talking about beauty, especially in the context of Italy, what first comes to mind is visual beauty, specifically art, architecture, and landscape. In this location, these forms of beauty are truly abundant, making it a breath-taking place to live. Nevertheless, beauty can be experienced in countless forms and through all of our five senses. Being a chef, what I think of most prominently is food and the beauty of tasting new flavors and expanding our palates. Yet, this can also carry into the sound of a well-composed piece of music or the touch of a close friend.
Being a sensory pursuit, beauty may also be thought of as a selfish pursuit. You cannot pursue it for someone else, it is only for personal experience or pleasure. But pursuing beauty does not have to be an act of selfishness. The pursuit of beauty becomes selfless in the act of creation. As I said previously, the more beauty you experience, the more beauty comes from you. Artists need inspiration, no matter their art form. And even for those who do not produce any form of “art” as traditionally defined, simply the act of observing beauty transforms us to be beautiful, contributing more to the world as a whole.
So, I say, let us not be ashamed to pursue beauty. May we always pause, look up, around, and within, and discover beauty that can transform us. This journey is one that is lifelong and only ends when we are too jaded to blind to see what this world has to offer.
It is with immense gratefulness that I can say I live in a beautiful place, but I believe every location has something to offer, something to contemplate. Wherever you are, look at the beauty that surrounds you and embody it. Let us all make the world more beautiful each and every day by our creativity and by our presence.
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