When I drove from Napa to Berkeley and then south to San Diego earlier this week, I took the Pacific Coast Highway. When I was a boy I did this drive once with my parents, but that was 1997.
It was beautiful to do this drive, even while fighting a bit of lingering melancholy especially through mountaneous Big Sur. I pulled over many times to soak in the scene and snap photos. This is one of my favorite ones; this scene started me thinking again along the drive about what beauty is.
This is a question I’ve wrestled with for years, and expect to for the rest of my life. What is beauty? The trite idea that, whatever it is, it’s “in the eye of the beholder” has never been compelling to me. It’s not a definition or explanation at all. It’s just a reversal of Justice Potter’s definition of obscenity: I know it when I see it. Limp.
Anyway, a working definition of beauty hit me on the drive. What is beauty? Beauty is how we describe something that’s being what it is.
(There’s a problem with this definition, which is that it requires unpacking what “being” means, in its sense as the “essence” or “beingness” of things—a philosophical conversation has to happen, essentially.)
But if beauty is how we describe something that’s being what it is, it explains why we find virtue so attractive in people. We’re creatures designed to thrive when listening to the better angels of our nature. And if beauty is how we describe something that’s being what it is, it explains why we find nature so beautiful, but our own additions to nature so often less so.