Taking “inner beauty” seriously
The term, ‘inner beauty’, typically elicits eye-rolling scorn. A beautiful character, it is implied, is a polite substitute for having an attractive body, a sort of aesthetic consolation prize. Indeed, applying aesthetic terms to ‘inner’ qualities, as when we talk of a person’s ‘lovely personality’, is often a kiss of death. Beauty proper, so goes the thought, is located in the body, ideally in a smooth, trimmed, tanned, toned body, cosmeticized and sexualised, obedient to the demands of the beauty industry. To talk of inner beauty, of a sort unavailable for adornment, commercialisation, or erotic gratification, falls out of the picture.
Such attitudes to inner beauty, sceptical or sneering, would dismay, but not surprise, those familiar with venerable discourses of beauty that connect body, virtue, and soul or character. Plato, Confucius, and the Buddha all acknowledged the immediacy of bodily beauty, but also recognised and esteemed a further mode of beauty – the Platonic ‘beautiful soul’, Confucian ‘consummate character’, or what Buddhists call forms of ‘beautiful consciousness’. Within those traditions, such talk was not a polite concession to the unlovely, nor vacuous participation in a ‘politically correct’ aesthetics of inclusion. It reflected a conviction that there are certain distinctive forms of beauty, difficult to achieve and to perceive, that are nonetheless genuine. So what, then, is this ‘inner beauty’?
The Buddha answers this question. ‘Beauty for a monk’, he explains, consists in their ‘right conduct, restraint, and perfect behaviour and habits’ – in effect, a set of virtues. A humble posture, gentle tone of voice, compassionate manner – these constitute the sort of beauty which Buddhist adepts ought to evince. It is an inner beauty of character, for sure, since it involves moral virtues. But it is a beauty, too, of the body, since those inner characteristics are manifested in outward behaviour – in the movements, speech, and actions of those Buddhists. Indeed, as Suzanne Mrozick explains, in her book Virtuous Bodies, a core aim of Buddhist religious training is dissolution of a ‘distinction between body and morality’. One’s inner qualities or virtues consistently find outer expression in perceptible bodily behaviour, such that one’s body becomes, as Wittgenstein put it, ‘the best image of the human soul’.
The Buddhist account of inner beauty generalises to those other ancient traditions. The Platonist and Confucian, too, express their virtues – courage, wisdom, filial piety – in their bodily comportment. A courageous posture, wise words, and pious acts and gestures all testify to the inner qualities of the sage. Moreover, the perception of those virtues, in bodily forms, is beautiful, for what is perceived is the fundamental good of those traditions, whether wisdom or consummateness. Beautiful things or places elicit pleasure, satisfaction, or longing, since they express some aspect of the good. People can do this, too, since a person’s posture, words, and gestures can express virtues, the excellences of character that show the good in human form, as it were. The Buddhist monk, Platonic sage, or Confucian ‘consummate person’ are possessed of inner beauty, since their bodily comportment consistently expresses their virtues, wisdom, or consummate character. Seeing the good, in this way, is a source of pleasure or satisfaction, and beautiful for that reason.
Some might worry, though, that inner beauty is still confined to the ancient spiritual traditions that I have drawn upon. Can those of us in a later culture, with different sensibilities, still experience inner beauty of the sort those ancient Greeks, Indians, and Chinese apparently did? Modern beauty norms are centred on bodily fitness, sexualised attraction, and commercialised cosmeticism – hardly natural companions to the inner beauty of moral character. In a culture saturated by a focus on ‘outer beauty’, is it still possible to take seriously, or to experience, inner beauty? I think it is, even if, like many forms of aesthetic experience, it might require imagination, attentiveness, and openness.
Consider the following experience. A few years ago, I travelled with a friend to a conference overseas. We’re good friends and this was the first time we’d spent a sustained period of time alone together, and enjoyed, over beers and pizza, what folks nowadays called a ‘deep and meaningful’ conversation. We talked of aspirations, fears, anxieties, concerns of the heart – and, quite suddenly, I found my perception of my friend had changed. Listening to her words, I found her beautiful, newly changed, possessed of a loveliness unrealised before. It inspired – as experiences of beauty often do – a new sense of appreciation, a desire for closeness, and sense of enrichment of one’s own life. This altered perception was not of an erotic sort; the appreciation was not sexualised, nor the closeness desired physical. Nor did the experience take the form of a sudden realisation of some dimension of bodily beauty that had passed me by, like suddenly noticing someone’s good looks. It was an experience of a new type of beauty, one I had not previously experienced.
As the experience continued, its character was suddenly disclosed to me. What was beautiful to me about my friend was precisely her candour, sincerity, and depth of compassion, as reflected in her accounts of her life, feelings, and concerns. Suddenly I came to see, fully and for the first time, a dimension of her character, manifested in her comportment – a deep sincerity in her voice, say, and a profound sympathy with the marginalised in her eyes. What was beautiful about my friend was the manifestation of her virtues, her inner character, in her looks, gestures, and speech. I now saw her transfigured, experiencing her inner beauty, thereby perceiving a truth about her. This experience occurred quite spontaneously, shaped by my openness and attention to my friend, rather than by reflection or concentrated effort. Shaped too by my own emerging conviction that our idea of virtue must include its expression in bodily form. Looking back, thinking seriously about the ways that beauty, virtue, and the body can converge was a precondition for that fleeting but still powerful experience of the inner beauty of my friend.
The experience of inner beauty just described is not, I hope, an idiosyncratic one. Speaking to my students, many of them report similar cases, at least once they overcome their shyness and reluctance to talk of the beauty of people in anything other than erotic terms. Plato, Confucius, and the Buddha would not be surprised by this, since they recognised that it is easy to close people’s eyes and minds to moral beauty. Superficiality, crass sexualisation, vanity, and other vices block off other forms of beauty, by eroding our capacity to be imaginatively and perceptually open to them. Such closure is a main cause of the scepticism and scorn about ‘lovely personalities’. Alongside the well-documented costs of those vicious cultures of beauty is, I suggest, a further aesthetic loss – an inability to have and to enjoy experiences of the moral beauty of the people with whom we share our lives.
Ian James Kidd (Univeristy of Nottingham, Philosophy) is interested in the aesthetics of character, the ways that beauty, virtue, and the body relate. As well as defending the claim that there is such a thing as beautiful character, he considers the role of aesthetics of character in religious traditions. (https://sites.google.com/site/dfl2ijk/)