Beauty, truth, and “the hideous music admired by savages”

Beauty is truth, truth, beauty – that is all
Ye know on earth and all ye need to know

John Keats, Ode on a Grecian urn

With this, Keats articulated the Romantic poets’ protest against the vulgarity, squalidness and banality of the bourgeois world in which they lived. The poets’ response was to withdraw from that world into the realm of the imagination, where human emotions could reach their full expression. As Keats explained in a letter to Benjamin Bailey in 1817 “the imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream* – he awoke and found it truth.”

John Keats. Portrait by William Hilton

John Keats. Portrait by William Hilton

Keats’s preference for the pleasures of the imagination can also be taken as an expression of philosophical idealism: the real world is squalid and ugly; the ideal is beautiful – and this is where truth is to be found.

The second part of the line is, I believe, intended by Keats as a reaffirmation of the first: there is no truth other than beauty. However, it can be read another way: that whatever is true is beautiful.

It is this second interpretation that is discussed by science writer Philip Ball in an article in Aeon magazine, and in a recent interview on Radio New Zealand.  Ball discusses some eminent scientists and mathematicians whose criteria for judging the correctness of scientific ideas included – surprisingly, it seems, given the general scientific respect for the test of cold, hard, experimental facts – the beauty of the idea. Ball quotes physicist Albert Einstein, creator of the theory of General Relativity a hundred years ago, a theory which has stood the test of time well. Einstein said that ‘the only physical theories that we are willing to accept are the beautiful ones.’ Einstein’s mathematician colleague Hermann Weyl, said, ‘My work always tries to unite the true with the beautiful; but when I had to choose one or the other, I usually chose the beautiful.’ Further, “the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Paul Dirac agreed with Einstein, saying in 1963 that ‘it is more important to have beauty in one’s equations than to have them fit experiment.”

Comments Ball: “So much for John Keats’s ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.’ And so much, you might be tempted to conclude, for scientists’ devotion to truth: here were some of its greatest luminaries, pledging obedience to a different calling altogether.”

The article is worth reading, but it seems to go to great lengths to avoid naming the philosophical opposition between idealism and materialism which is at the centre of the discussion.

It is not accidental that the scientists Ball quotes in this regard are mostly mathematicians and theoretical physicists. These fields of science are the last refuges where the philosophical descendants of Plato, the idealists, still retain significant influence. Virtually all other branches of science have had to accept – sometimes with extreme reluctance – the primacy of the material world over the world of ideas. The greatest battle which idealism lost was in biology: the battle against Darwinism. The twentieth-century revolution in physics revolved around these opposing philosophical tendencies as much as around the experimental evidence.

Albert Einstein in 1921

Albert Einstein in 1921

Einstein, for all his colossal contributions, was hampered in these discussions by his reluctance to consider a universe where chance is an irreducible fact.  “God does not play dice,” he famously said. Einstein, in this instance, was at best an inconsistent materialist. Even the most advanced theoretical physicists were constrained by outdated forms of thought.

Darwin had also grappled with the question of chance and necessity in nature. Engels writes in the Dialectics of Nature, “Darwin in his epoch-making work, set out from the widest existing basis of chance. Precisely the infinite, accidental differences between individuals within a single species, differences which become accentuated until they break through the character of the species, and whose immediate causes even can be demonstrated only in extremely few cases, compelled him to question the previous basis of all regularity in biology, viz., the concept of species in its previous metaphysical rigidity and unchangeability. Without the concept of species, however, all science was nothing. All its branches needed the concept of species as basis: human anatomy and comparative anatomy – embryology, zoology, palaeontology, botany, etc., what were they without the concept of species?”

Meanwhile, although idealism still rules supreme in the field of mathematics proper, what began as a branch of mathematics has now outgrown its mathematical-idealist origins and stands on its own materialist foundations: the science of statistics. Like the rest of materialist science, but unlike mathematics, statistics proceeds from the facts of the real world in all their messiness, imperfection, and randomness, and attempts to make sense of them. The quest for beauty may drive mathematicians, but statisticians a lot less so, if at all.

So where does this leave us in respect to beauty and truth? Is it possible to develop a materialist analysis of beauty? And is there any point trying? Georgi Plekhanov thought it was both possible and necessary. Plekhanov was an early leader of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, just over a hundred years ago. In assembling the cadres of a revolutionary working class party, he sought to develop among workers the materialist view of history, as well as habits of thinking that transcended not just the bourgeois categories but bourgeois modes of thought themselves.

Georgi Plekhanov

Georgi Plekhanov

Plekhanov’s 1899 article “Historical Materialism and the Arts” is an argument in favour of a materialist view of history, including art. “The idealist view of history in its pure form maintains that the fundamental factor in the historical development of mankind is the development of thought and knowledge… The materialist conception of history is diametrically opposed to the above view. Whereas Saint-Simon, regarding history from the idealist standpoint, declares that the social relations of the Greeks are to be explained in terms of their religious beliefs, from the materialist standpoint we maintain that the republican Olympus of the Greeks reflects their social system.”

On the question of beauty, Plekhanov begins by quoting Darwin’s observation in his book The Descent of Man that even in some species of animals there is evidence of an aesthetic sense. Darwin pointed to the courtship displays of many bird species, commenting “If females birds had been incapable of appreciating the beautiful colours, the ornaments, and voices of their male partners, all the labour and anxiety exhibited by them in displaying their charms before the females would have been thrown away; and this it is impossible to admit.”

Plekhanov and Darwin were writing at a time when the widening spread of European empires was bringing Europeans into contact with diverse and hitherto unknown cultures in Africa, the Americas, and elsewhere. Their writings make ample use of the observations and comparisons of these cultures, albeit overlaid, at least in Darwin’s case, with a heavy dose of the prevailing bourgeois prejudices with respect to class, race and gender, and the assumed superiority of European art. The Descent of Man must surely be Darwin’s least ‘politically correct’ book.

Plekhanov’s quote from Darwin continues: “The taste for the beautiful, at least as far as female beauty is concerned, is not of a special nature in the human mind; for it differs widely in the different races of man, and is not quite the same even in the different nations of the same race. Judging from the hideous ornaments and the equally hideous music admired by most savages, it might be urged that their aesthetic faculty was not so highly developed as in certain animals, for instance, in birds.”

Picasso's painting influenced by African art

Picasso’s painting was influenced by African art

Even Darwin recognises here that in order to unravel aesthetics one must turn to sociology. (The course of cultural history very soon disproved Darwin’s value judgments in both art and music. As the fruits of imperial conquest, including art works and ornaments plundered from the colonial territories, increasingly made their way to Europe in the early twentieth century, they had a major influence on European aesthetics. Exhibitions of African masks in Paris deeply influenced the painting of Picasso and the Cubists, for example, who were convinced that European painting had become decadent.  European art music went into decline at the end of the nineteenth century, along with the Austro-Hungarian empire that had nurtured it. At the same time, African musical elements, suppressed for centuries, began to emerge in the music of the descendants of slaves in the United States. Jazz and blues eventually became among the most dynamic and influential musical styles in the  twentieth century world.)

Hamar woman, Ethiopia, wearing bracelets

Plekhanov goes on to trace the connections of aesthetics to complex associations of ideas related to the economic stage of development. He says about the wearing of iron anklets and bracelets seen among some African peoples, for example, “Passion for such ornaments developed, according to Schweinfurth, among those tribes living in the iron age, for whom iron is a precious metal. That which is precious seems beautiful, for the idea of wealth is associated with it.”

In class society, these complex associations of ideas, the psychology that guides aesthetic values, is intimately bound up with class identifications and struggles. Plekhanov uses the example of the conflicting aesthetic values between the revolutionary bourgeoisie (the Puritans) and the nobility (the Cavaliers) in 17th-century England.

Lord John and Lord Bernard Stuart by van Dyck

Lord John and Lord Bernard Stuart by van Dyck

“When the restoration of the Stuarts in England temporarily restored the reign of the ancient nobility, this nobility was not in the least inclined to imitate the extreme representatives of the revolutionary bourgeoisie – the Puritans; rather they displayed a strong inclination to habits and tastes directly contrary to the Puritan rules of life. Puritan strictness of morals gave way to extreme licentiousness. To do and to love that which the Puritans had prohibited became a virtue. The Puritans were very religious, the Cavaliers were latitudinarian, even atheistic. The Puritans persecuted literature and the theatre; their downfall was the signal for a new and violent passion for these things. The Puritans wore short hair and condemned luxury in dress; after the Restoration, long hair, elegant clothes and card playing became the rage.

“…Such virtues as industriousness, temperance, strictness of family morals, etc., were very necessary for the bourgeoisie, whose aim was to occupy a higher social and political position. But did the struggling nobility need the vices counteracting the bourgeois virtues? No, these vices sprang up not as a weapon in the struggle for existence, but as a psychological result of this struggle: hating the class whose final triumph would end all the privileges of the aristocracy, the nobility began to despise also all bourgeois virtues, and therefore began to practice the opposite vices.”

Looking at the same question from a different angle, Plekhanov discusses the changing place of the landscape in painting as the relationship of human beings to nature changes, noting the comments of French historian Hippolyte Taine: “We have the right to admire wild, uncultivated spots, as once men had the right of getting tired of them. Nothing uglier to the seventeenth century than a true mountain.”


The fisherman, by Theodore Rousseau

The fisherman, by Theodore Rousseau

Plekhanov explains, “It is to be noted that in the history of painting, the landscape in general is not always regarded in the same light. Michelangelo and his contemporaries neglected it. It becomes important in Italy only toward the very end of the Renaissance. For the French artists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries also it had no particular meaning. In the nineteenth century there is an abrupt change; the landscape comes to be esteemed for its own sake, and young painters such as Flers, Cabat and Theodore Rousseau seek inspiration in the bosom of nature, on the outskirts of Paris, in Fontainebleau, and in Medon; the possibility of such inspiration was not even suspected by painters of the time of Le Brun and Boucher. Why? Because the social conditions of France changed, and the psychology of the French changed as a result. And so in various epochs of social development man has different reactions to nature, for he looks upon it from different points of view.”

Plekhanov, then, throws some light on the historically and socially-conditioned character of beauty. That still leaves the question of truth.

Here I would just note that artistic truth and scientific truth are not exactly the same. To state the obvious, “Ode on a Grecian urn” is a poem – and part of the appeal of a poem lies in its ambiguities and contradictions.

Even Keats’s attraction to the world of the imagination is contradictory. I said that the Ode was an expression of an idealist tendency. Yet Keats at the same time protested against the sterility of idealist reasoning from first principles. In the same letter to Benjamin Bailey quoted above he says, “I have never yet been able to perceive how anything can be known for truth by consecutive reasoning… O for a life of sensation rather than of thoughts!”

Here, Keats leans towards the sensual, material world. The Romantic poets were a product of their time, to be sure, but even the least political among them also signalled the revolutionary century to come.

* A reference to Milton’s Paradise Lost Book 8, line 463 ff

The Creation of Eve. William Blake's illustrations to Paradise Lost

The Creation of Eve. William Blake’s illustrations to Paradise Lost

Though sleeping, where I lay, and saw the shape
Still glorious before whom awake I stood;
Who stooping op’nd my left side, and took [ 465 ]
From thence a Rib, with cordial spirits warme,
And Life-blood streaming fresh; wide was the wound,
But suddenly with flesh fill’d up and heal’d:
The Rib he formd and fashond with his hands;
Under his forming hands a Creature grew, [ 470 ]
Manlike, but different sex, so lovly faire,
That what seemd fair in all the World, seemd now
Mean, or in her summ’d up, in her containd
And in her looks, which from that time infus’d
Sweetness into my heart, unfelt before, [ 475 ]
And into all things from her Aire inspir’d
The spirit of love and amorous delight.
Shee disappeerd, and left me dark, I wak’d
To find her, or for ever to deplore
Her loss, and other pleasures all abjure: [ 480 ]
When out of hope, behold her, not farr off,
Such as I saw her in my dream…


2 responses to “Beauty, truth, and “the hideous music admired by savages”

  1. Most use of statistics in general commentary, social studies, and a good deal of medical and epidemiological studies is garbage. The typical fault is to leap from correlation to causation – an instance of pragmatism, not materialism.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Charles. I largely agree with your estimate of the quality of most statistical evidence presented in general commentary. In social studies, the fault lies as much with the nature of the data collected as with the methods of statistical analysis: for example, no capitalist state keeps statistics that give you a reliable indication of *class.* This means that even Marxists are forced to turn to indirect and often-misleading indications of class such as data categorised by *occupation*. The ‘occupation’ categories are then framed (deliberately or otherwise) to obscure class differences: for example the occupation ‘farmer’ can include anything from a capitalist exploiter, to a professional farm manager, to an independent family farmer, to a rural wage-labourer. This reflects the stunted and obfuscating nature of the social sciences generally in capitalist society – the bourgeoisie has no need for a scientific analysis of society in the way that it does need the natural sciences.
    The leap from correlation to causation is a different matter. It would be interesting to investigate the reasons why this remains such a pervasive and stubborn misconception. In this case I don’t think you can blame the statisticians, or, in most cases, the writers of medical and epidemiological reports – who are usually fairly careful about that issue. (That doesn’t stop the misconception being introduced in press summaries of such studies).
    The invention about 150 years ago of bivariate analysis – the study of correlation – transformed modern statistics from what had been a descriptive science into an investigative tool of great importance and utility to the other sciences. But it posed for statistical theorists many of the same problems of thought that the physicists were confronting at around the same time (as discussed above in my post). Like the physicists, they were unable to resolve many of them. The question of causation was one of these. The theorists of correlation (especially Karl Pearson) tried to deal with the problem by denying causation altogether – which was unhelpful, to say the least. Interestingly, the scepticism of these physicists and statisticians, who were under the influence of the philosopher Ernst Mach, found an echo in a section of the Bolshevik Party, in particular the party leader Alexander Bogdanov. In 1909 Lenin wrote a sharp polemic against Bogdanov, defending the materialist view, entitled Materialism and Empirio-criticism. It touches on many of the issues raised in Philip Ball’s article and in your comments.

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