The Beautiful And The Ugly

A charge frequently brought against the nature-mystic is that he

ignores the dark side of nature, and shuts his eyes to the ugly

and repulsive features of the world of external phenomena. If

nature can influence man's spiritual development, what (it is

asked) can be the effect of its forbidding and revolting aspects?

Is the champion of cosmic emotion and of Nature Mysticism

prepared to find a place for the ugly in his general scheme? The

issue is grave and should not be shirked. It is, moreover, of long

standing, having been gripped in its essentials by many thinkers

of the old world, more especially by Plato, Aristotle, and


Let us begin by examining one or two characteristic statements

of the indictment that there are ugly, and even revolting, objects

in a world we would fain think fair. Jefferies says of certain

creatures captured in the sea: "They have no shape, form, grace,

or purpose; they call up a vague sense of chaos which the mind

revolts from. . . . They are not inimical of intent towards man,

not even the shark; but there the shark is, and that is enough.

These miserably hideous things of the sea are not anti-human in

the sense of persecution, they are outside, they are ultra and

beyond. It is like looking into chaos, and it is vivid because

these creatures, interred alive a hundred fathoms deep, are

seldom seen; so that the mind sees them as if only that moment

they had come into existence. Use has not habituated it to them,

so that their anti-human character is at once apparent, and stares

at us with glassy eye."

Kingsley, in his "At Last," asks, "Who will call the Puff Adder

of the Cape, or the Fer-de-lance, anything but horrible and ugly;

not only for the hostility signified, to us at least, by a flat

triangular head and heavy jaw, but by the look of malevolence

and craft signified, to us at least, by the eye and lip?"

Frederic Harrison puts the case from the more general point of

view: "The world is not all radiant and harmonious; it is often

savage and chaotic. In thought we can see only the bright, but in

hard fact we are brought face to face with the dark side. Waste,

ruin, conflict, rot, are about us everywhere. . . . We need as little

think this earth all beauty as think it all horror. It is made up of

loveliness and ghastliness; of harmony and chaos; of agony,

joy, life, death. The nature-worshippers are blind and deaf to the

waste and the shrieks which meet the seeker after truth. . . . The

poets indeed are the true authors of the beauty and order of

nature; for they see it by the eye of genius. And they alone see

it. Coldly, literally examined, beauty and horror, order and

disorder seem to wage an equal and eternal war."

In considering the substance of these strong statements,

characteristic of very different types of mind, we note in the

first place that two different problems are to some extent fused--

that of the ugly, and that of the morally evil. Of course, it is

frequently impossible to separate them; still, for purposes of

analysis, the attempt should be made; especially as our present

quest is aesthetic rather than ethical.

In the second place it must be remembered that the nature-mystic

is by no means a nature-worshipper. His claim of kinship

with nature surely implies the contrary! He knows that

evil and ugliness (however interpreted) are in man, and he

expects therefore to find them permeating the whole.

Confining our attention as far as may be to the aesthetic aspect

of the objections raised, let us at once define and face the

real issue now before us, namely, the significance for the

nature-mystic of what is called "ugliness."

There are certain judgments known as aesthetic--so called

because they determine the aesthetic qualities of objects. And it

is agreed, with practical unanimity, that they rest much more

upon feeling and intuition than upon discursive reason. To this

extent they rank as genuine "mystical" modes of experience,

and from this point of view have bulked largely in the systems

of mystics like Plato and Plotinus. But while claiming them as

mystical, it is necessary to note that they possess a characteristic

which constitutes them a special class. They imply reference to

a standard, or an ideal. The reference need not be made, indeed

seldom is made, with any conscious apprehension of the

standard; but the reference is none the less there, and a

judgment results. The place of reflective reasoning process

which characterises the logical judgment is filled by a peculiar

thrill which accompanies a feeling of congruence or incongruence,

according as the ideal is satisfied or otherwise.

It is in accord with this view of the aesthetic judgment that

while, for reason, the outward form and semblance of the object

is of subsidiary import, save from the point of view of abstract

form and physical quality, for the aesthetic feeling or intuition it

is paramount. For example, a botanist, _qua_ botanist, will reck

little of beauty of colour, or curve, or scent--indeed at times his

interest in a plant may be in inverse ratio to its beauty. But the

lover of flowers, or the poet, or the artist, will fix upon such

aesthetic qualities as determining his mood and judgment. Not

that the reflective and the aesthetic judgments are antagonistic--

they are supplementary, and, when rightly appreciated, they are

interdependent; nevertheless, they must not be confused.

The doctrine of Plotinus, the prince of mystics, is very helpful

when the problem of the ugly is in debate, and fits in admirably

with the considerations just advanced. His theory was that

material objects are beautiful in proportion as they share in

reason and form. The converse of this proposition is, that

objects are ugly in proportion as they lack the capacity for

sharing in reason and form. Passing over certain other phases of

his doctrine, let us see how far this theory will carry us in

answering the question--Is there in nature such a thing as

ugliness, in any absolute sense of the term?

Matter, as known to the modern scientist, is universally

possessed of form of some kind, and is, moreover, found to

share in reason, when tested by its responsiveness, so to speak,

to the processes of human ratiocination--or, in other words, by

its obedience to natural law. It would seem to follow that there

is no object in nature which is absolutely ugly. And the

conclusion surely commends itself to common sense. If, in spite

of this, certain objects are called "ugly," what is intended?

Following up the lead of Plotinus, we seem to be driven to the

conception of "degrees of beauty"--of "higher" and "lower"

forms of beauty. And the moment the existence of such

"degrees" is accepted, the aesthetic horizon is indefinitely

extended. The whole problem assumes larger and more generous

proportions, especially when viewed in the light of the

evolution hypothesis. For where there are degrees, or stages, it

is an easy step to conceive of transition from stage to stage. An

ugly object is only relatively ugly; and by entering into new

relations with its environment may be raised to even higher rank

in the aesthetic scale of values. In brief, true progress becomes

possible for the whole universe. Herbert Spencer stopped short

at progress from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous. It is

more interesting, not to say, inspiring, to postulate increase of

capacity for sharing in reason and form. The vast process of

evolution may then be viewed as an upward sweep into fuller

beauty and into correspondingly fuller life.

Of the fact that there is such an upward process, there is

abundant and accumulating evidence. The struggle upwards of

organic life, culminating so far, in man as we know him--the

increasingly complex beauty of natural forms--the haste of

nature to conceal her scars--all alike speak of a striving upward.

Nay, we are being told that the atoms themselves, so long

regarded as ultimates, have been subjected to the evolutionary

stress and strain, and have advanced from the simplest forms to

higher and more complex symmetries. And in another field, the

arts, more particularly painting and the drama, almost demand

the recognition of some such principle of progress; for they are

constantly and necessarily using elements which in themselves

are accounted ugly, for the production of their supremest


The use of discords in music is singularly suggestive in this

regard. There are combinations of musical sounds which, when

produced as isolated combinations, are harsh, and even painful.

But let them be heralded by other chords, and let them be parted

from by suitable resolutions, and they can charm, or thrill, or

kindle deep emotion. What does this fact imply? That discords

in music, when used with knowledge and mastery, do not take

their places as aliens in musical progressions--as insertions of

ugliness in a texture of surrounding beauty--_but as themselves

beautiful_. Their aesthetic value is gained by their being linked

up in a network of relations which makes them part and parcel

of that which is an ordered and rational whole. In short, discords

are potential beauties; they have capacity for form and reason.

The ugly, then, is not to be opposed to the beautiful as its

contrary, but as standing in the relation to it of the less to the

more perfect. There will thus be grades of beauty as there are

grades of reality. And mystic intuition will have corresponding

grades of dignity and insight. The grand process of evolution is

thus revealed as a many-sided whole--the amount of real

existence increases in proportion to the increase of capacity for

sharing in form and reason; and along with this goes a growth in

power to appreciate the ever higher forms of beauty which

emerge in the upward-striving universe.

A further thought calls for emphasis. For beings like ourselves,

living under conditions which involve so many limitations, a

_purely_ aesthetic judgment is practically out of our reach. And

on this score also we may venture to tone down the strong

expressions used by Jefferies in his estimate of the anti- or

ultra-human character of the strange creatures in the sea. Individual

likings and dislikings are the resultants of an enormously

complex system of impulses, instincts, prejudices, motives,

habits, associations, and the rest. Few of these factors appear

above the threshold of consciousness, though they are

continually and influentially operative. Hence it by no means

follows that because a particular object is displeasing or

disgusting to one individual, or group of individuals, it will be

so to all. So undoubted is the resulting relativity of our aesthetic

judgments that Hegel was inclined to hold that below the level

of man and art there is no real ugliness at all. "Creatures" (he

says) "seem ugly to us whose forms are typical of qualities

opposed to vitality in general, or to what we have learnt to

regard as their own special or typical form of animate existence.

Thus the sloth as wanting in vitality, and the platypus as

seeming to combine irreconcilable types, and crocodiles and

many kinds of insects, simply, it would appear, because we are

not accustomed to consider their forms as adequate expressions

of life, are all ugly."

Just as, in music, discords become beautiful by being brought

into fitting relations with other parts of an ordered whole, so is

it with objects which are usually considered ugly, but which are

capable of aesthetic beauty when treated in pictures by masters

of their craft. To set them in new and fitting relations of light

and shade, of colour and composition, is to transform them.

Schopenhauer lays great stress on the transforming power of art.

He instances many typical paintings of the Dutch school, simple

interiors, homely scenes, fruit, vegetables, the commonest tools

and utensils, even dead flesh--all are taken up into material for

pictures, and, in their special setting, compel our admiration.

We have in these facts concerning pictorial art, a strong

corroboration of the inference from the use of discords in

music--the relativity of ugliness, and the possibility of its

progressive transformation. But there is a further point to be

emphasised, one which music, by reason of its abstractness,

could not well enforce, and one which is of profound

significance for the nature-mystic. Pictorial art is concerned

with the representation of external objects. How explain its

transforming power? Schopenhauer has an excellent answer to

the question. He says that the artist is endowed with an

exceptional measure of intuitive insight. He enjoys a genuine

vision of the Idea immanent in the object he reproduces in his

particular medium--he fixes attention upon this Idea, isolates it,

and reveals much that would otherwise escape notice. The result

is that his skill enables others to slip into his mood and share his


It is on some such lines as those tentatively traced in the last

few paragraphs that the most hopeful solution of the problem of

the ugly must be sought. The heart of the matter is that there is

no object in external nature which is absolutely ugly--no object

which cannot, even as things are, be transformed to some

degree by being set in fitting relation to others--no object which

is not capable of progress in its capacity for sharing and

manifesting the form and reason towards which the universe is

striving. Should there be thinkers who, like Kingsley, cannot

quite rid themselves of the feeling that ugliness is an absolute

reality--a positive mode of existence over against beauty--they

can only take refuge in the wider problem of evil. But care must

be exercised, as before observed, to distinguish between moral

evil and physical ugliness. To what extent the one may be

reflected in the other is a question on which it would not be safe

to dogmatise. The main theory, however, stands out clearly, and

involves a belief that the material phenomena of the universe, as

a grand whole, enjoy a wholesome freedom from positive

ugliness. Tennyson's "Ancient Sage" expresses the nature-mystic's

hopes concerning the fundamental beauty of the world he loves.

"My son, the world is dark with griefs and graves,

So dark, that men cry out against the Heavens,

Who knows but that the darkness is in man?

The doors of Night may be the gates of Light;

For wert thou born or blind or deaf, and then

Suddenly healed, how wouldst thou glory in all

The splendours and the voices of the world!

And we, the poor earth's dying race, and yet

No phantoms, watching from a phantom shore,

Await the last and largest sense to make

The phantom walls of this illusion fade,

And show us that the world is wholly fair."

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