The Beauty Mystique

The first reflection on the concept of Beauty in Greek Literature came with Homer. There we find that the word “beautiful” denotes principally the beauty of the physical world i.e. beauty as seen by us. Moral beauty has slight mention during this time and even when certain actions were labelled as beautiful, that was because they were considered aesthetically pleasing. A work of art or song was appreciated and called beautiful because of their spectacular value, not their ethical worth or technique. Artists and painters started categorizing their activity. The word kalos which translates as beautiful has different contextual interpretations, according to the corresponding philosophical thought it came to be referred to as something affable because of its form.  

We cannot talk of one solitary concept of beauty, but we should acknowledge that there are several versions, according to the social, political, historical, cultural, and philosophical background of their advocates.

Plato has talked about a connection between harmony and beauty in his work Symposium. The beauty of man does not depend on the soul or the body alone, rather it depends upon the harmony of both. Helen of Troy, whose face is believed to have launched a thousand ships, she was referred to as an imperfect copy of the form of beauty and truth by Plato as he associates some moral standards with beauty and places ethics above all. According to him, beauty cannot pertain to physical objects alone; wisdom, virtue, etc. can also be beautiful, a balance of values is necessary. 

Plato in his work, the Republic, has referred to beauty as goodness. Xenophon has also argued for the same utilitarian concept. The identification of beauty and goodness as balancing values came as a result of Greek humanism. 

Plato has clearly stated that goodness and beauty cannot be incompatible. Leo Tolstoy dismissed this concept of Plato and said: ‘It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness’. Indeed, we seem to be trapped in this concept of Beauty Mystique. Physical beauty is used to symbolize inner moral or spiritual goodness or beauty, so too physical ugliness is believed to symbolize an inner evil. Our everyday language indicates the presence of this beauty mystique. We might say that somebody ‘looks good’, ‘looks angelic’, or is ‘divinely beautiful’: phrases which effortlessly equate beauty and goodness. Conversely, the phrases ‘as ugly as sin’ or ‘looks like hell’ equally deftly associate ugliness, malevolence, and the devil. t. To be lovely is to be lovable and, by implication, to be loved. Conversely, to be unlovely is to be unlovable and unloved; and to be ugly is to be repulsive and to repel. Beauty and ugliness are evaluated linguistically therefore, not only as physical opposites but as moral opposites.

In Germany, for example, Hitler presented the Jews as both physically ugly and morally ugly in Mein Kampf; the Aryans, on the other hand, were physically and morally beautiful, and biologically and spiritually greater. Riefenstahl’s film, ‘The Will to Power’, showed the Nazis as good-looking, blonde, upright, and strong.

In the USA from the earliest days of contact, Blacks were stigmatized by Whites. They created a dichotomy between the black and the white, the purity and the filthiness, virginity and sin, virtue and baseness, beneficence and evil, beauty and ugliness, God and the devil. Centuries later Black nationalists responded with ‘Black is beautiful!’ – by insinuation, white, its opposite is ugly. The issues remained polarized, but the moral poles were reversed; now Blacks were beautiful and good, and whites were evil and ugly.

Cesare Lombroso, the Italian criminologist, determined that a physical ‘criminal type’ existed, illustrious in their bodies by prehensile feet, left-handedness, and hernias, and in their faces by outstanding ears, plentiful hair, a scant beard, enormous frontal sinuses’, prognathism, broad cheekbones, a low and retreating forehead, oblique eyes, a small skull and in women, a masculine face. This idea was resonated by many including Agatha Christie, who in her book The Secret Adversary, describes villain as looking villainous. This is like reinforcing the belief that appearances symbolize ‘reality’. Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and Ian Fleming are archetypal of the colossal literary genre from the late eighteenth century to the present using the techniques of physiognomics. 

Beauty mystique is also rooted in literature. Hans Andersen’s story, ‘The Ugly Duckling’, tells how the poor duckling was detested and victimized by his brothers and sisters, and everyone else. Even his mother wished he had never been born. His problems are only resolved when he becomes a beautiful swan. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the monster was so outrageous that even his creator rejected him and absconded; yet he was intrinsically ‘benevolent and good’. Society however rejected him for his ugliness – even young children were prejudiced and despised abnormality. He explained: ‘Once I falsely hoped to meet with beings who, pardoning my outward form would love me for the excellent qualities which I was capable of unfolding’. But he found no Beauty for his Beast. In the Strange Case of Dr. Jehyll and Mr. Hyde, the good doctor not only becomes the evil Mr. Hyde, but he also becomes ugly- his face is malformed and his body is warped. In Oscar Wilde’s story, The Picture of Dorian Gray, the paradox was how Gray could be so wicked, so debauched, and yet still be so good-looking. Fairy tales equate women’s worth with beauty. The process by which the malevolent, however, defined, are depicted as ugly, and the good are shown as good-looking, both express and underpin fascist principles and the beauty mystique. 

Instances of beauty mystique can be seen in Indian mythology also. Manthara, the house servant who convinced Queen Kaikeyi that the throne belonged to her son and Ram should be exiled from the kingdom is portrayed and described as an ugly, obnoxious, hunchbacked, and antagonistic woman. Our literature is also promoting the idea that the face is the mirror of the person. Ugliness and physical deformities, particularly facial deformities, are stigmatized. 

In Ireland and England during the Fenian crisis, cartoonists from each side showed the other as ugly: as apes, Yahoos, Frankensteins, vampires, and mostly unpleasant. 

Fascism and the beauty mystique are not only literary, they are principally visual. They may be deliberated in theological works and children’s stories, literary essays, and philosophical treatises; but they are most ostensible in films and television programs, advertising, and comics. Even the Indian cinematic narratives have cemented and fanned the sign of dereliction associated with dark skin colour. The iconic Bollywood song – hum kale hai toh kya hua hum dilwale hain; is a testament to the normative belief regarding the impossibility of a dark-skinned person being warm-hearted and nice. The beauty mystique can also be seen in the archetype created by dichotomizing between the good and the bad characters in the Indian daily soaps. 

The ghastlier people become, the uglier they look; this view replicates John Milton’s description of Satan; contrariwise the ethically good person ‘will always look lovely’. 

Charles Davis also makes a similar point, the bodily beauty of men and women, the beauty that shines forth physically, is not purely physical. He says facial beauty insofar as it comes from perfect physical proportions, firm flesh, and finely textured skin, can of itself be dead and unattractive. Indeed, such features may be the basis of an ugly countenance, expressing a selfish or hateful personality. But a face can have a quite extraordinary beauty in the mobile expressiveness with which it presents a rich, lovable personality, despite features in themselves physically ugly. 

Children are taught that if a person has unpleasant thoughts, it begins to show on the face. And when that person has ugly thoughts every day, every week, every year, the face gets uglier and uglier until it gets so ugly you can hardly bear to look at it. A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. If you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.

This concept of the halo effect of beauty and attractiveness and horns effect of ugliness and plainness has become so normalized in our societies. It is resonated by many in unanimity. Not everyone agrees that virtue shines through physical ugliness. Societal approval coupled with social media, magazines, advertisements, builds up women’s chase of conventional beauty. This not only creates space for male dominance but also prioritizes beauty over other essential things for women, which leads to the gradual removal of women from visible public spaces and reinforces male dominance.

Nevertheless, the face may misinterpret the self and the body may disguise the soul. Francis bacon has a totally opposite view on virtue and physical beauty and he thinks that a very beautiful person is generally not very virtuous. It seems that nature was interested in making their appearance perfect and did not bother about making their inner spirit. The writer says that virtues are like a precious stone which looks best when set in a plain background. 

I would like to conclude by talking about the concept of kernel of beauty, as propagated by Plato through his works, where things are not beautiful in comparison with something else, rather they are constantly and unconditionally beautiful. Eternal beauty is not created, nor corruptible, nor beautiful for one and ugly for another. Bodies and souls are beautiful if they resemble this idea of absolute beauty. According to Plato, beauty has left the world of becoming to occupy that of being or reality. Absolute beauty that dwells in the world of reality is the only true beauty, for it is the only beauty that can be known. Beauty can never be ugly itself.

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2 years ago

So ‘beautifully’ portrayed

2 years ago

Great work 🔥

Bhanu Pratap Singh
Bhanu Pratap Singh
2 years ago

Great job

Last edited 2 years ago by Bhanu Pratap Singh
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