It seems amazing that a quality this subjective should have become in our time so narrowly defined: a face with a certain symmetry, a body of a certain shape. So few of us can meet the standard, so few, no matter the content of their souls, feel beautiful in the eyes of others. Beauty becomes an accidental virtue, the result of good genes and little else.
Like intelligence, however, beauty manifests itself in many ways apart from physical appearance. Spiritual, intellectual, interpersonal, artistic, emotional are a few of the areas in which some people can demonstrate ugliness, plainness or exquisite beauty. To appreciate these qualities, however, requires more than a casual glance. It is common in college catalogs to see courses called "art appreciation" or "musical theory." These appear to promise, not that you will become more skilled artistically or learn to play an instrument, but that you will be better able to discern what qualities make one painting or composition "better" than another. Even though these are matters of taste, there is an assumption that there are at least general rules about what can be classified as "art," that is, work that has some lasting value. (I note here that without a trace of irony, today's pop musicians, including the most profane of rappers, are referred to as "artists.")
We all understand the evanescence of physical beauty in human beings. "As we grow old, the beauty steals inward," said Emerson. What he meant was that certain attributes of character replace the good connective tissue that is the sole property of the young. These traits, fortunately for those wise enough to appreciate them, are usually discernible early in our lives, certainly by late adolescence. The problem for most of us is that we are too imperceptive (or uninformed) to recognize them, especially since we are blinded and deafened by our hormonal impulses and by the lopsided emphasis on physical attractiveness encouraged by our superficial culture.
Just as a morsel of food is beautiful to a starving person, it is our most strongly felt needs that determine what and whom we are drawn to. If we require the admiration of others (and who does not covet this) and are uneasy about our own acceptability, we will likely conform our sense of what is attractive to the cultural norm. This may cause us to overlook the fact that conventionally beautiful people are frequently treated in ways that undermine the development of other characteristics that turn out to be more durable.
In the end we are forced to the realization that beauty exists at the intersection of the two great longings that dominate our lives: love and happiness. The mistakes in judgment to which we are prone are related to our underdeveloped ability to judge accurately who has the capacity (and inclination) to love us and who evokes similar feelings on our part. Then there is the widespread confusion of the concepts happiness and pleasure; the latter omits the crucial component of meaning in any definition of what it signifies to be fulfilled over time.
We are genetically programmed to seek excitement; the survival of the species demands it. In the process we are drawn to certain people who induce in us feelings of desire. In many ways our responses to others are culture-bound and "automatic." We are likely to focus attention toward similar images of physical attractiveness. We are in this way prisoners of our senses and subject therefore to mistakes about what it is that we want and need. Whether we are able to see clearly with our minds and hearts, however, depends on whether we have learned what it is that we truly require.
One of the things that makes this learning difficult is that the stories we are told, our cultural myths, about what it means to be good, to be strong, to be heroic are told by actors, people who embody the narrow but agreed upon standards of physical beauty. We are prone to forget that they are speaking words and expressing emotions crafted for them by others. (Why are there no photo spreads in popular magazines of the Writers Guild Award Show?) No wonder there is so much confusion about how to detect qualities such as intelligence or empathy and distinguish them from the superficial attributes manifested by the people who populate our movie and television screens.
We suffer mightily from this deficit in discernment. Our beholders' eyes are not equal to the task of separating gold from dross. We have, in effect, been trained to be insensible about the relationship between image and reality. We can only overcome this disability by learning through experience that our eyes do indeed deceive us and are unreliable guides to what we seek. The great deception is not just that we thoughtlessly adopt the societal consensus about what is beautiful. Our mistake is to neglect an unsparing inventory of our own desires so that we can recognize which of them are shallow and momentary and which are worthy of lifetime pursuit.
And where is beauty in all of this? If people are drawn together by some shared combination of need and longing, how do we account for the fact that so often our choices are unsatisfying in the long run? There are those who believe that all behavior, even the most apparently altruistic, is the product of self-interest. Generosity, especially if publicly disclosed, is potentially self-serving. Only a small percentage of those who give to good causes choose to do so anonymously. Much of the money privately raised for the least fortunate in the society comes from opulent events that are in part advertisements for the wealth of the donors. Does this make them any less generous or public-spirited? Perhaps not.
Still, this conflation of wealth, beauty and charity further confuses us who are faced with the more prosaic task of deciding whom we are drawn to. If lust for the perfect face or figure is an unreliable guide, what standard can we apply in choosing not just the person we want to sleep with but the one we want to wake up next to for the rest of our lives? I would argue that we need to look closely at another, larger question: When I am around this person do I feel beautiful? If the answer is "yes" (especially in the face of contrary evidence provided by any available mirror) then there may be something occurring other than self-delusion.
In fact, this question could be applied to any of the virtues we seek in others. The best indication that our search is over is whether we feel more inclined to exhibit these traits in ourselves. It is one explanation for the old saw that like attracts like (and a refutation of the equally well known adage that opposites attract). It is not simply that we spend our lives with those in similar circumstances, social, economic, occupational and so naturally are drawn to people who resemble us, but that when we spend time with others we become more like them. Just as soldiers can become brave by being with courageous comrades, so couples who have spent years in each other's company tend to share emotional, and sometimes even physical, characteristics. This is, perhaps, the best argument for choosing for a partner the person you want to become.