Widgets The Good Place (Michael L. Umphrey on gardening, teaching, and writing)

"Peace is not an absence of war; it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice. - Benedict Spinoza."

Before it snowed again
     I was enjoying the white crocuses

white crocuses

The beauty of crocuses arrives suddenly, often before winter is really finished. They don’t last long but their vibrant emergence reminds of the glories of summer ahead.

In Hebrew, the word for beauty is ”yapha.” Originally this meant “to be bright, to glow.” This might be related to an Aramaic term for bursting forth. Flowers represent this luminous, blossoming sort of beauty. Who doesn’t appreciate this sort of beauty? Wealthy Romans used to have slaves strew crocus blossoms through their banquet halls, filling the air with its lovely fragrance. They scattered them along the fountains and streams that flowed through their courtyards.

When moderns can afford it, they quickly purchase such amenities. What would a luxury hotel be without fine gardens? The best suites are graced with fresh bouquets.

We have become a stunningly wealthy people, and our wealth gets expressed in buildings and neighborhoods of great beauty.

Is our instinctive attraction to beauty anything more than an appetite? John Keats famously asserted that “beauty is truth, truth beauty.” This doctrine has enormous appeal. It’s a beautiful thought.

Unfortunately it, doesn’t appear to be true, or at least not always, as anyone who’s been deceived by things that appear beautiful well knows. The sirens sing lovely songs. Even hell has its beauties, I imagine.

Still, the persistence of the doctrine suggests that people continue to find it useful. William M. Burke quotes psychologist Nancy Etcoff from the Harvard Medical School, suggesting that “beauty is one of the ways life perpetuates itself, and love of beauty is deeply rooted in our biology” He cites several scientists who link the perception of beauty to the perception of truth, including astronomer John Wheeler, who says that “God or evolution has formed the minds of some of us in such a way that our instinctive ability to recognize beauty is a practical tool for finding truth.”

The trouble is that beauty is made by the perceiving mind. It is never just “out there.” It is all mingled up with what we know and what we desire. Furthermore, a moment’s thought reminds us that if true solutions are often beautiful, false solutions are also sometimes lovely. Such problems led Chinese thinkers, by the eleventh century, to conclude that if bad or dishonest persons could create beautiful literature and paintings, then beauty must exist outside the moral realm of truth and rightness. It could not serve a serious moral purpose.

I think that’s probably right. Aesthetic judgments are of a different order than ethical ones and we can pursue beauty without much regard to what is good and true. Aldo Leopold, an early champion of an ecological world view, urged his fellow citizens to consider each question about land use in terms of what is “ethically and aesthetically right.” In his celebrated “land ethic” he wrote that “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” A lovely vision, but not always a helpful one when hard choices need to be made.

Still, when we get it right, one of the things we get is beauty. We would be foolish to pay it no mind. A life or a culture without beauty languishes in a spiritual wasteland; a culture that does not nurture the beautiful creates impoverished and unhealthy places.

To cultivate our love of beauty, we refine our attention, turning our souls toward reality and cleansing ourselves of egoism.

It’s one reason to live in a garden.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

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