BOOK REVIEW: Beauty: A Very Short Introduction by Roger Scruton

Beauty: A Very Short IntroductionBeauty: A Very Short Introduction by Roger Scruton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This isn’t so much a book about what beauty is as where we find it, and in what kind of traits we find it, including the question of whether all that is aesthetically pleasing is beauty (or is beauty one element among multiple sources of aesthetic pleasure.) Scruton proposes four major locations of beauty: the human form (and face,) nature, everyday objects, and art. Each of these four has its own chapter (ch. 2-5,) and those chapters form the core of the book. Other chapters examine related questions such as: whether (/how) we can judge beauty, whether it means anything to say someone has good or bad taste, and how / why we find aesthetic appeal in places often consider devoid of beauty (e.g. the profane, the kitsch, the pornographic, etc.)

I found this book to be well-organized and thought-provoking. I liked that the author used a range of examples from literature and music as well as from the graphic arts. (Though the latter offer the advantage of being able to present the picture within the book — which the book often does.) I felt that the questions were framed nicely and gave me much to think about.

Some readers will find the occasional controversial opinion presented gratuitously to be annoying, as well as the sporadic blatant pretentiousness. I forgave these sins because the overall approach was analytical and considerate.

If you’re looking for an introductory guide to the philosophy of aesthetics and beauty, this is a fine book to read. [Note: there is a VSI guide (from the same series) on aesthetics that (I assume) has a different focus (though I haven’t yet read it.)]


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BOOK REVIEW: The Critic as Artist by Oscar Wilde

The Critic as Artist: With Some Remarks Upon the Importance of Doing NothingThe Critic as Artist: With Some Remarks Upon the Importance of Doing Nothing by Oscar Wilde
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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In this dialogue, the characters of Ernest and Gilbert reflect upon the value, nature, and limits of artistic criticism. Ernest serves largely as foil and questioner, taking the everyman view that critics are failed artists and that criticism is a puny endeavor that isn’t good for much. Gilbert, on the other hand, defends criticism of art as an art unto itself, and a difficult one at that, one that requires revealing elements and ideas of the artistic piece that the artist didn’t put in the piece in the first place. Throughout, Gilbert lays down his counterintuitive bits of wisdom about the job of the critic, the characteristics of good critics, and – also – about artists and art, itself. [Ideas such as that all art is immoral.]

Oscar Wilde was famed for his wit, quips, and clever – if controversial – turns of phrase, and this dialogic essay is packed with them. A few of my favorites include:

“The one duty we owe to history is to re-write it.”

“Conversation should touch everything, but should concentrate itself on nothing.”

“If you wish to understand others you must intensify your own individualism.”

“Let me say to you now that to do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual.”

“Ah! don’t say that you agree with me. When people agree with me I always feel I must be wrong.”

“…nothing worth knowing can be taught.”

This is an excellent essay, and I’d highly recommend it for anyone who’s interested in art, criticism, or who just likes to noodle through ideas. You’re unlikely to complete the essay as a convert to all of Gilbert’s tenets, but you’ll have plenty to chew on, mentally speaking.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Three-Cornered World by Natsume Sōseki

The Three-Cornered WorldThe Three-Cornered World by Natsume Sōseki
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novel was originally entitled Kusamakura or “Grass Pillow,” and it’s the Alan Turney translation that bears the title The Three-Cornered World. Turney drew from a concept that Natsume presents in the book – i.e. that an artist lives in the triangle created by the collapse of a corner called common sense. It’s a poetic and philosophical novel that is very much character-centric. In other words, if you must have an intriguing story, this book is not so much for you. However, if you find ideas and clever use of language appealing, you’ll love it.

The premise is that an artist takes retreat in the mountain countryside, and becomes infatuated with a local woman with a storied past. As the book tells us of the artist’s experience, it discusses aesthetics, the philosophy of art, and the place of emotion in artistic experience. This book is often compared to Bashō’s travelogue (i.e. Narrow Road to the Deep North) as it involves a great deal of elegant imagery and the occasional interspersed poem.

While the book is light on story, I was wowed by the author’s thought process and his use of language. While I’ve never read the original in Japanese, Turney’s translation is beautiful writing in its own right and I suspect it captures the sparse beauty for which Natsume’s work is famed. It is definitely worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Three Japanese Buddhist Monks by Saigyō, Chōmei, and Kenkō

Three Japanese Buddhist MonksThree Japanese Buddhist Monks by Saigyō
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book collects three essays composed between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. They are in chronological order, but also in order of increasing length, i.e. Saigyō’s piece is a short excerpt, while Kenkō’s essay makes up the bulk of the book.


An excerpt from Saigyō’s Senjūshō tells the story of the monk’s meeting with a wise reclusive meditator on Mt. Utsu. Saigyō tries to talk his way into living / meditating with the hermit, but the sage convinces him that that wouldn’t be good for either of them. The monk goes away, planning on visiting the hermit on his return, but he wistfully tells us that he took another route.


“The Ten-Foot Hut” is about the benefits of a simple, minimalist existence. It discusses Impermanence, and takes the view that having more just means one has more to lose. A quote that offers insight into the monk’s thoughts is, “If you live in a cramped city area, you cannot escape disaster when a fire springs up nearby. If you live in some remote place, commuting to and fro is filled with problems, and you are in constant danger from thieves.” The author’s solution? Build a tiny cabin in the woods and – in the unlikely event it burns or gets robbed while one is away – what has one really lost?


The Kenkō essay makes up about eighty percent of the book. Its rambling discussion of life’s impermanence delves into morality, aesthetics, and Buddhist psychology. There are many profound bits of wisdom in this piece. Though it’s also a bit of a mixed bag in that some of the advice feels relevant and insightful, while some of it hasn’t aged / traveled well.


I enjoyed this book and found it thought-provoking. Some may be disappointed by finding how little of Saigyō’s writing is included (he being the author of greatest renown,) but I found each author had something valuable to offer.


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BOOK REVIEW: Hippias Major [a.k.a. Greater Hippias] by Plato

Hippias MajorHippias Major by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Socrates questions the arrogant sophist, Hippias, about the nature of beauty. The dialogue begins, as do most, with a meeting and pleasantries. This involves Socrates’ seemingly sarcastic praise of Hippias (we’re given no indication that Hippias sees the sarcasm, but – given the degree to which the sophist is in love with himself – that’s no surprise.) It’s possible Socrates is being sincere, but given the views attributed to him elsewhere, it seems uncharacteristic that Socrates should truly think Hippias wise because the sophist rakes in cash for making eloquent speeches.

The dialogue plays out with Hippias offering a range of unacceptable “definitions” of beauty. Hippias first presents a set of examples of things which are beautiful. This, of course, is unacceptable because if there is some common property of these varied entities, Socrates believes that property should be definable such that a person could see how the trait applies to other things. There are a series of other false starts involving goldenness, goodness, usefulness, popular agreement about what is beautiful, and a combination or two of the aforementioned.

Finally, Socrates suggests a definition of that which is pleasing to the eyes or to the ears. The discussion peters out after this definition is shown to be incomplete because pleasantness to eyes and to ears still begs the need of a common characteristic, as well as the fact that there are many concepts that are called beautiful that aren’t sensory experiences at all (e.g. a beautiful idea.)

This dialogue is more satisfying than Lesser Hippias, but is by no means one of the best. However, it does encourage thought about beauty, as well as about how both members of a set can have a characteristic that each does not have individually. If you’re interested in aesthetics, check it out.

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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Aesthetics: A Graphic Guide by Christopher Kul-Want

Introducing Aesthetics: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Aesthetics: A Graphic Guide by Christopher Kul-Want
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This volume is one in a large series of books that provide concise outlines of various subjects using graphics for support. In this case, it examines the philosophy of aesthetics. Aesthetics (the study of perception, sensation, and beauty) is a sub-discipline of axiology (the study of value), which – in turn – is a sub-discipline of philosophy.

The book consists of over one-hundred short (1 to 2 page) sections that present aesthetics from various angles. Some of that chapters focus on philosophers that had a particular impact on the subject, including: Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, Hegel, Adorno, Nietzsche, Barthes, Derrida, and Lyotard. Others examine the approaches to evaluating aesthetics during various eras, including: ancient, medieval, Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Romance, Modern, Post-modern. Some define key terms, and others relate the subject to the broader human world. Still others relate the subject to other philosophical concepts, such as: reality, semiotics, or modes of governance and economy. There are sections that explore the subject’s classic questions, such as: “Are truth and beauty synonymous?” and “Should art have a purpose, and – if so – what?”

This entire series uses graphics as a support for the text. As with many of the books in the series, this volume mostly uses cartoon drawings that repeat key lessons from the text, sort of like an elaborate text-box. I can’t say that there was any point at which these graphics made anything easier to understand, but they don’t hurt either.

I found this book useful in getting a basic overview of the topic. There were times when it felt like it was straying from the topic of aesthetics, but I think that was just because so much of philosophy from post-modernism onwards looks at everything through a certain lens, regardless of whether such an examination seems particularly relevant or not (e.g. psychoanalysis, Marxism, etc.) [It’s interesting to think about “Communist Aesthetics” as the very term seems like an oxymoron. If you’ve ever seen the brutalist architecture or sculptures of Cold War Eastern Europe, you might conclude that the absence of aesthetic viewpoint was the prevailing Communist aesthetic viewpoint.] At any rate, while the book is not highly engaging reading, it’s a quick and concise outline of the subject (which is what it’s meant to be.)

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POEM: Beauty

People prefer a face that can launch a thousand ships to one that can stop a clock. But did the clock-stopping face break the clockwork mechanism or halt the steady increase in entropy?

[Speaking of entropy, and it’s insistence on increase, a more disordered face reflects a more advanced state of progression, and yet that advancement isn’t honored.]

Back to the clock-stopping face. Breaking the brittle plastic gears of a mass-made clock is no great feat compared to ship-launching. But binding up the inexorable flow of the universe? That’s power.

POEM: What Is this Thing Called Beauty?

We see beauty in nature, but we see more in nature reigned in — kept in check by the hand of man. Why should a fresh-cut patch of grass please the eye more than its shaggy state of nature?

What soul doesn’t sore at the sight of a Japanese garden? It’s nature, but micromanaged in the slightest details of distance, shape, light, and order. Not a leaflet out of place. Gravel pads equidistantly furrowed with great precision. A bonsai tree could be called grotesque in its gnarled, shriveled deformation, but — instead — the bonsai has a universal visual appeal. Is it because they are stunted and deformed in precisely the manner man has chosen?

We see beauty in the human form, as well — but too rarely in our own. We like them depilated — plucked to the point that not a hair stands out of place. Biology tells us our eyes should seek the figure capable of staying strong while chasing prey across the savanna or gathering nuts and berries through wastelands where those foods are sparse. But our eyes covet those leaner than that — that leanness expresses our beloved ordered angularity.

Pure nature is frisson-laden — ever uncontrollable, unpredictable, and disordered. Its beauty is never separated from the fear it inspires.

Manicured nature offers a pleasing feel of dominion — an illusion of control that puts the mind at ease.