Beauty and the Beast

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“We could be beautiful. We must be because it is crucial at this time. And we could be beautiful by striving to be in constant aesthetic conversation with our Creator. This way, and only this way, would we successfully cross this raging river we need to ford today.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Ben Malayang III is the immediate past president of Silliman University. He is currently principal investigator of USAID-BFAR.

The Beauty and the Beast is a French fairy tale (originally: La Belle et la Bête) written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. It was first published in 1740 in La Jeune Américaine et les contes marins (The Young American and Marine Tales; https://en. wikipedia.org).

            Since then, there’ve  been many versions and recasting of this story. It’s been staged and made into movies.

            But I don’t want to talk about the tale itself. Not today. I’d rather share with you some musings about beauty and the “beast” in us, particularly at this time of hardships and peril across our land.

(I use “beast” here in the sense of Thomas Hobbes’ “man in the state of nature”. Hobbes was a 17th century English philosopher).

            Beauty, to me, is not what’s in “the eye of the beholder.” It’s neither in the beholder nor in the one being beheld, in fact. It’s never only about the beholder and the beheld. As I see it, beauty is having a soul-soaking sensation spawned by a shared experience between the beholder and creator of the one being beheld. It’s a sensation that could range from deeply disturbing to extremely exhilarating.

            Beauty is a powerful and exquisite experience beyond merely appreciating an object or appearance, or being pleased by a performance. It’s a “deep conversation” between the soul of a beholder and of the creator of the beheld, using the beheld as the language spoken between them.

The beheld may later change – lose color, break form, get discordant, or gets lost – but the experience created by the initial conversation between beholder and creator remains because by then it had already forever transformed both.

            Beauty is like taking a trip, from the low and baser stations of our humanity toward its higher heights. Being pleasant to the eyes or to the ears, or to touch or to taste, caters only to the thinnest veneer of our wants, avarice, and lusts. Real beauty is a moving – transporting – spiritual locomotion from where we are low to where we are better – from being in our state of Hobbesian bestiality to where we live the life of Christian charity.

The beheld may be a piece of art crafted by an inspired genius, or a picturesque piece of Nature or person created by God. Because both genius and creation are God’s, the “aesthetic conversation” is really – ultimately – between beholder and God.

Beauty is “conversation with God”. It’s a conversation that’s intimate and leads us to become our better selves.

In contrast, being “beast” in Hobbes’ definition is catering to our baser instincts. It refers to “man’s natural state” which is a state bereft of moral ideas and compass. It’s when “every man is enemy to every man … wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal..” It’s when “… Nature should thus dissociate and render men apt to invade and destroy one another ..”, that “when taking a journey he arms himself and seeks to go well accompanied; when going to sleep, he locks his doors; when even in his house he locks his chests; and this when he knows there be laws and public officers, armed, to revenge all injuries shall be done him;..” (Leviathan Chapter VI).

This is a state of being selfish, self-centered, self-adulating, and constantly strutting with elevated chins of self-importance and elevated claims of constant entitlement.

Beauty wrenches us away from this state. When experiencing beauty, we leap away from being low or a lowlife, and from being sordid in our character. When immersed in beauty, we glow in gentle care and consciousness of the sublime, the sweet, and the sensible in our world.

Beauty liberates us from our beast-like tendencies. And in these times of pandemic and panic, we need to be less beasts and more the beautiful creatures that God had intended us to be.

We need to be helpful to neighbors. To rule like you are being ruled. To follow rules as if you’re a ruler needing to be obeyed and so protect others. To be kind to those afflicted, and feel their pain. To be charitable in our criticisms when due, so that they would cause a rethinking of things and a constructive correction of mistakes rather than maligning. We engage to help build what is right and best.

These are key to our being able to ford together a raging river of despair, depression, and despondency, as are these times to many of us.

My take: We could be beautiful. We must be because it is crucial at this time. And we could be beautiful by striving to be in constant aesthetic conversation with our Creator. This way, and only this way, would we successfully cross this raging river we need to ford today.