Beauty, Virtue
and Deception

Thomas Masini

Beauty is always conceived from the harmonic bonds between elements.


     This text obviously does not belong to the series of articles on the history of philosophyis ; in fact it is the transcription of a  speech I gave a month ago (Sunday 29thAugust) at a conference to which I was kindly invited to. In the marvellous setting of the Relais Villa Porta – formerly the Camin Hotel – in Colmegna, in the upper room of the tower overlooking Lake Maggiore, a conference entitled: «Il mondo della bellezza: un’opportunità per I giovani» (“The world of beauty: an opportunity for youngsters”) was held.   

     Under the patronage of the Rotary Club, District 2042 Laveno-Luino “Alto Verbano”, the Municipality of Luino and the Amici delle Sempiterne association, prestigious speakers – obviously excluding myself from the equation – took an insightful look into the theme of aesthetics, beauty and self-care, with a breadth of outlooks and skills that can rarely be found together in a single event. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Simona Fontana, who was involved in the organisation as the primary creator and chairwoman of the above-mentioned association, and Emanuela Lanni, the organiser and patroness of the day, who not only invited me to take part but also hosted and supported me as she has done for many years now, having granted me a friendship that I sincerely reciprocate and consider a precious asset.

     Although the term ‘aesthetics’ as a means of knowledge related to our senses, and therefore, as a philosophical discipline concerned with investigating its nature, only appears unequivocally in 1750 (Alexander G. Baumgarten’s Aestethica), man’s relationship with what we now call ‘beauty’ has clearly far deeper roots. What I would like to attempt to do this evening, albeit briefly, is to investigate a few examples of how the concepts of ‘aesthetics’ and ‘beauty’ have been understood throughout history, with their peculiar connection with virtue and deception.

     Like always, in philosophy, we must start from the Greeks, namely from an expression that encapsulates the classical understanding of beauty: kalòs kai agathòs [καλὸς καὶ ἀγαθός] (which translated literally means “beautiful and good”). The term kalòs has an aesthetic value: that realistic beauty that gives pleasure when experienced by one’s senses. The term agathòs, on the other hand, indicates goodness as a moral quality that belongs to one’s soul. It could be defined as ‘possessing all virtues’ that make a human being worthy of being praised. Even though this formula is not directly traceable in the Homeric matrix of Greek culture but only in a later period (the Athens of the Sophists, in the middle of the 5th century BC), Kalokagathìa [καλοκαγαθία] is certainly a peculiar conception of this entire culture. In fact, the idea that, what is beautiful can only be good, and what is not good is necessarily ugly, as a principle, is a recurring tòpos. It was such an ingrained conception that it applied not only to human beings or living beings in general, but also to the entire universe. As you already know, in Greek theogony (with particular reference here to Hesiod), the universe was originally nothing more than an empty cosmic abyss; Gaia (the Earth), Tartarus and Eros appeared first; then Gaia generated the sky (Ouranós) by herself and, with it, many children: the first was Ōkeanós (the deep ocean) and the last was Chrónos (time). The appearance of these naturally determined deities– with their respective elements – results in the disappearance of the abyssal void and the advent of the first formal order. From this point on, what was once Chàos became Kòsmos, i.e. Harmony. Now harmony is one with beauty, because beauty is always conceived from the harmonic bonds between elements.

     Speaking of harmonic measures, ancient Greece was also the scene of the discovery of the golden section (also known as the golden ratio, Phidias’ constant or divine proportion). While there is still a debate as to whether the Babylonians and Egyptians had knowledge of the golden section, it is now believed that its definition was certainly established during the 6th century B.C. by the Pythagorean school in southern Italy (then Magna Graecia). This measure is so often found in nature and in cultural and artistic artefacts, which are temporally and geographically distant, to be considered the geometric-mathematical formula of harmony and beauty.

     Hence, according to the conception of the Classical Era, we have a fundamentally harmonious reality, within which there is a living being – the human being – who can only achieve self-perfection by combining beauty and virtue. Furthermore, lògos (reason, the true discourse because it is rationally constituted) is capable of expressing in geometric or mathematical form the very law of material harmony between the physical elements.

     If in ancient Greece the concepts of ‘beauty’ and ‘virtue’ are closely intertwined, this also appears to be the case in the foundations of Christian culture. For example, let us consider the decorations of religious architectural buildings of the Middle Ages, and sacred art in general: in the vast majority of cases they tend to manifest inner virtue with external beauty (even if not those defined in Classical times), while manifesting malice through a horrifying and misshapen external appearance. Two paradigmatic examples in the literature of these periods are: the ‘angelic woman’ of Stilnovist poets, and the representation of the condemned in Dante’s Inferno. Yes, in the latter it is possible to find souls who do not have an unpleasant appearance per se but, they all share an inner sadness that is manifested by their appearance. Everyone remembers the characters of Virgil and the other inhabitants of the castle of the great spirits, Paolo and Francesca, Farinata degli Uberti and Ulysses. Although as sinners they evoke feelings of pity and respect for the tragic greatness of their characters, their appearance is sad. In Paradise, on the other hand, even the soul that least enjoys the fullness of divine grace has an aesthetically beautiful appearance, which stems entirely from the grace they have earned through virtue.

      Simultaneously, during the Middle Ages, a curious inversion takes place. One of the dogmas of Christianity is the banishment of mankind from Eden, which as is well known, occurs by the hands of Satan’s deception when disguised as a snake. When Satan was an archangel and bore the name of Lucifer (‘the light-bringer’), his appearance was beautiful (even though angels depicted in the ancient texts are quite different from the anthropomorphised forms we all know). However, the sin he is guilty of (rebellion against divine sovereignty) causes him to be cast into hell, and his same appearance suffers the consequences. He becomes a hideous and terrifying being, so much so that Dante writes: “Were he as fair once, as he now is foul, /And lifted up his brow against his Maker, /Well may proceed from him all tribulation”[1].  Yet, Satan (the Rival) is also the king of deception, lies and temptation. This is precisely where the inversion to which I referred to earlier appears: in order to tempt and flatter, from time to time he must assume an appearance that inspires confidence in his victims; this is why he prefers to present himself with a pleasant and beautiful appearance, so long as he is not certain of having conquered the soul he desires. In this manner, from the very idea that goodness is inseparably linked to beauty, Satan (as befits the ‘lord of subversion’) gives rise to the opposite idea that, at times, beauty is nothing more than a fictitious mask which hides both ugliness and wickedness behind it.[2] This gives rise to the idea of danger found in beauty, and all those practices of exterior self-abasement in the name of virtue.

     It will now be necessary to take a considerable leap in time from Christianity in The Middle Ages to 1800, that is to say to that historical period that in England is known as the Victorian Age. In doing so, we will continue our journey in a narrow way, and not let the thread of the relationship between beauty, virtue and deception falter. In 1890, Oscar Wilde published his novel Dorian Gray. Everyone knows the story: a beautiful young man is ensnared by a nobleman’s aesthetic ideas on morality and life, and by a painter’s lust for the eternal fixation of beauty. He makes a deal with the devil and while he gains immortality, his soul is imprisoned in a painting. What is worth noting here is that Wilde somehow takes the classical and Christian concepts of beauty and merges them into a single work. Since beauty is linked to virtue, the eviler deeds Dorian commits, the uglier the image of his soul fixed on the canvas becomes. It finally deforms into a monster that the young man cannot even look at because it shows him just how deviant and repugnant his soul is. Meanwhile, to everyone else, Dorian is still as beautiful as ever, because this seductive appearance acts as a mask for the ugliness he conceals. It must be said that for Wilde himself, it is a flaw that the underlying moral of the novel («the moral is this: All excess, as well as all renunciation, brings its own punishment»)[3] – is so evident – and not just a secondary character. His artistic conception and decadent aestheticism are summed up in the novel’s preface:

The artist is the creator of beautiful things.

Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.
They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty.

There is no such thing asa moral or an immoral book.

Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

     In the field of art, moral standards are not ruled strictly related by the value of a work, to the extent that the artist, the ‘creator of beautiful things’, can only use them as working material, but never as the work’s purpose. The work of art finds within itself, in its beauty, its own intent and any attempt to identify art and morality simply means creating something appalling. This concept has gone so far as to sever the close link between beauty and truth in classical times and, in a different way, also in the Middle Ages. The fundamental principle of art is lying [4]: portraying reality – even natural reality – as it is means reproducing all the distortions, shortcomings and roughness that exist in nature. The artist must leave all this out and lie in order to create something absolutely beautiful. This applies not only to what is positive, but also to what is negative: goodness must be represented purged of all faults, and malice must be depicted pure and without any justification.

     We are now drawing to the conclusion of this brief intervention by noting that the forms of beauty, ugliness, goodness and evil that we have seen so far are essentially firm and fairly fixed. Just as goodness stems from the ability to conform to ethical-moral norms and essentially from unconditional adherence to principles considered right, so beauty is the manifestation of a harmonious relationship between the parts and follows very precise norms both in the arts and in the human figure. In the twentieth century all this changed: the geo-political upheavals of the last century led to radical transformations also in philosophy and particularly in Morals and Aesthetics. I refer, on the one hand of course, to the atrocities of the Second World War and on the other, to the definitive completion of the industrial revolution, as well as to the arrival of what is commonly called the ‘Age of Technology’.

     From a moral point of view, the transition is from adherence to rigid principles that are considered undeniable, to the ethics of responsibility, where it is the individual who, thanks to their own free will, must take responsibility for deciding on the basis of their own conception of justice and goodness. This means that it is no longer possible to come up with the excuse that “I was only following orders”. In terms of aesthetics, the advancement in the sanitary field, and above all the mass production of objects that combine practical utility with aesthetic pleasure (which are now available to almost everyone in any form), have led to the overcoming of aesthetics as the mere possession or appreciation of what is beautiful. Today, each individual embodies their own aesthetic (as well as ethical) principles, moving from the concept of ‘beauty’ to that of ‘style’. Not only is it somehow necessary to ‘be stylish’, but what is even more desirable is to have ‘one’s own personal style’ (which is rare, given the obvious homologation that prevails). The term ‘style’ encompasses various aspects of the aesthetic experience, i.e. ‘beauty’ in itself, refinement of manners, culture, intelligence, care of one’s body, gestural expressiveness, speech and good taste in choosing one’s adornments and general possessions. If all this was once considered a gift from the gods – and those who possessed all these qualities were considered favoured by fate or divine providence – today it is a matter of predispositions that are considered acquirable with the right application. It is here that a more specific reflection on cosmetics, and on the world of cosmetics (which, let me point out, has the same root as Kòsmos, and therefore ‘assemblage of harmony and elegance’), comes into play.

     I believe that when one dedicates oneself to cosmetics, to the art of giving aesthetic value to the individual’s physicality, one is left with the entire trail that the concept of  ‘beauty’ has traced until today. As Parmenides would say, there are two paths, and in my opinion, one should be followed and the other neglected. The one to be avoided is the path that conceives aesthetics as disguising ‘ugliness’, hiding flaws, a sort of ‘false façade’ that conceals the faulty human being. Since this path leads to acting in a narrow and short-sighted way, one will certainly not only fail to achieve harmony but will always worsen the initial situation. It would be legitimate to use this sort of deception if it would at least accomplish what is intended; but I fear that the result is always far from being something ‘beautiful’. The other path, however, which I consider should be followed, is one that sees beauty as the manifestation of a complete harmony that does not aim to hide ugliness but rather enhance beauty and make it predominant. From this point of view, even if we find something we might consider partly beautiful and partly unattractive before us, since beauty is harmony, it is not by eliminating the imperfection that we achieve the desired result: any forced elimination of it is a brutal move, and bears its own punishment – the increment of unattractiveness (I would have a long and complicated theoretical demonstration to proveat this point, but I shall spare you as well as myself). I believe that what should be done is to spawn harmony from what we consider fair and what we consider foul, to make both strengths and weaknesses harmonious. In short: to carry out the work of the artist who is not the destroyer of ugly things but ‘the creator of beautiful things’.

[1] English translation provided by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, Inferno, Canto 34, vv. 34-36 (1867).

[2] With reference again to Dante, Geryon appears, personifying fraud and guiding both the poet and Virgil on horseback to Malebolge. This is how Dante describes him: «The face was as the face of a just man,/Its semblance outwardly was so benign, /And of a serpent all the trunk beside». Translation provided by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, Inferno, Canto 17, vv.10-12. 

[3] From an Oscar Wilde’s letter to director of Daily Chronicle, 30th June 1890.

[4] Cf. Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying.

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