What Is Beauty?

There are many things that can be considered beautiful. For example, you might consider a painting a thing of great beauty. A particular song, a pair of shoes, a deer in the woods, an elegant theorem — all might be considered beautiful.

But what exactly does that mean?

Studies have been done where people rate the attractiveness of faces shown to them. As it turns out, people tend to prefer a face that is more symmetrical. Why? The presumption is that symmetry denotes health, which means a good candidate for successful mating. What we find beautiful is encoded in our genes as an evolutionary strategy.

Or is it? It seems that notions of beauty change over time. In the middle ages, women as depicted in paintings tended to be larger than the wafer-thin models that stride the catwalks.

Are we simply programmed by our society as to what constitutes beauty? The people we see in magazines and on television… are they in our media because they are beautiful, or do we consider them to be beautiful because they are in our media?

Similarly, we can consider the art world. Imagine a particular painting is prominently displayed in a museum, or is sold for a large sum of money, or is presented in an art history class. Might we not start to assume it has great beauty?

Some people describe ideas as being beautiful. But what does beauty mean in that case? Does it simply mean that it is useful? Some might describe a theory that explains a complicated idea in a few short words or equations as elegant. Is “beauty” in this case just a synonym for “simple”? And do we mean the same thing when talking about art, or ideas, or faces?

What is beauty?

Related questions: Why do we like what we like? How much of our thoughts are our own? How important is the artist to art?

What Do You Revere?

The positive emotions we associate with the people or things in our lives can vary quite drastically. We might feel love; we might feel fondness. Desire, kinship, envy, even respect. Beyond all of those feelings, however, lies a deep and powerful feeling of admiration bordering on worship: reverence.

The things we revere can tell us a lot about ourselves, about what we value and who we want to be.

For example, if your reverence is to a deity, you might be a deeply religious person, which can shape your social circle and your views on others. If you revere an idea, like equality, that might influence your political views and actions. Those with reverence for money might seek out high-paying careers.

It might seem illogical, but you can even revere irreverence. Someone who is an iconoclast, who bristles at authority or expectations of normality, irreverence may be held up above all else.

What do you revere?

To figure this out, you might think about what you have been drawn to your entire life. What books you read, what topics of conversation come up again and again. Think about what ideas resonate with you.

Do you think you share this with the people you spend time with, either your family, your friends, or your co-workers? How important is it that you revere the same things as the people around you? How important is it to find a group of people who revere the same things as you?

Related questions: What is important? Why is love important? What humbles you? How important is respect?

What Is Unknowable?

Knowledge is ever increasing, and often it seems to increase by leaps and bounds. We know more today than we have ever known, and we add to that store of information every day.

The universe, our own genetics, manipulation of materials, the building blocks of matter — all are areas where we are learning more all the time. Sometimes it seems that we will be able to keep on learning and growing what we know indefinitely.

But even if we continue to accumulate knowledge, some things may be beyond our grasp.

It may be that some problems are just too large. For example, the number of ways an ordinary deck of player cards can be arranged is greater than the number of atoms on the earth. Writing them all out can’t be done.

However, some things just might be impossible to know. What is it like to live in five-dimensional space?

What is unknowable? How might we classify unknowable things? Which Intellectual Roundtable questions have unknowable answers?

Related questions: How do we know what we don’t know? How does creative expression help us to know ourselves better? Why are we fascinated with the unknown? What’s the most useful thing you’ve ever learned?