Nature, Beauty, and Morality

The beauty of nature’s wonders can lead to a clearer view of the beauty of morality

Fresno Bee, July 28, 2017

Last week, I wrote about solitude and Yosemite. But solitude is not the only thing that lures us to the mountains. We also seek beauty. Lovers of nature cherish birdsong, gleaming granite and sparkling snow. The rainbow, the lightning and the wildflower fill us with awe and wonder.

The world contains many magical places of immense beauty. If the mountains are not to your taste, then enjoy the redwood forests, the ocean breakers, or the flowing river.

We spend too much time indoors. Americans devote about 10 hours per day to their glowing screens. One danger of this is obesity. As our waistlines expand, our attention spans shorten. The lack of natural beauty in our lives poses a spiritual, aesthetic and ethical danger.

Ethics has long been connected to aesthetics. Plato thought that beauty lifted us toward higher things, encouraging us to give birth to virtue and wisdom.

The good and the beautiful exhibit grace, balance and harmony. Good things have symmetry and order. The ability to experience beauty is connected with the knack for knowing the good.

A key here is what we might call “the aesthetic mood.” In the presence of beauty the mind is attuned to the world in a receptive and reverent fashion. When we pause to wonder at a Half Dome or Yosemite Falls, we shift perspectives. Beauty opens transcendent vistas. It encourages us to see beyond the narrow world of “me and mine.”

Only a perverse soul considers profit in the face of the beautiful. The rest of us smile and celebrate. We are grateful, inspired and humbled.

The beautiful is an end-in-itself. It is priceless and beyond exchange. Beautiful objects should be enjoyed and respected. They have inherent value, dignity and worth. It would be wrong to damage or destroy them.

The parallel with ethics is obvious. Morality requires us to value people for their own sake. Morality asks us to recognize the priceless dignity – and immense beauty – of the human being.

Some claim that all of this comes from God. Theists think that the value of human life is based on the fact that we are created in the image of God. They believe that beauty in this world is a sign of God’s love. John Muir said simply, “No synonym for God is so perfect as Beauty.”

Humanists appreciate beauty and humanity for its own sake. They think that morality and reason give value to life – as does the experience of order and harmony in nature.

Albert Einstein provides an inspiring source of the humanist idea. Einstein said, “Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life.” He thought that we are held captive by our egos. He explained that we find meaning and hope by “widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Aesthetic experience is an advanced human capacity. Children do seem to have an innate ability to wonder at sound and light. They are also caring and loving. But we have to be taught to see the beautiful, just as we have to learn to value human beings as ends-in-themselves.

That is why it is essential to take kids into nature and show them the beauty of the natural world. They need time away from their screens. They need to stretch their legs and their minds. They need to learn to develop the aesthetic mood. We help them cultivate reverence, humility, gratitude and awe by exposing them to the wonders of nature.

Adults need that too. Natural beauty provides reassurance and hope. Grace and joy are found beyond the depravity of the daily news. The mind is enlivened. The spirit is soothed. We think better and breathe easier in charming landscapes. We are elevated by the sense that this majestic world offers a secret to savor.

This is not selfish escapism. The demands of justice and love always remain. But we all need a refuge to reinvigorate the spirit. Natural splendor strengthens us for the sorrowful and the sordid. In the presence of the beautiful we want to be better people. Beauty inspires us to want to be worthy of this world and its wonders.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article163955142.html

Music At Glacier Point

In  moments of musical beauty, anger melts, hatred dissolves, peace dawns

Fresno Bee, August 27, 2016

WITHOUT HOPEFUL SPLASHES OF JOY, LIFE WOULD BE DULL AND MEANINGLESS.

Last Sunday, the Mariposa Symphony Orchestra performed at Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park. Perched on the edge of a cliff, the orchestra played original pieces composed in honor of Yosemite and the centennial of the National Park Service.

As Half Dome blushed in the setting sun, Yosemite’s granite gorges resounded with song. At dusk, a bat danced above the bassoons. After the last echo faded, a shooting star flashed into view. It quickly vanished into darkness.

img_0469-1Beauty is fleeting. It shines and echoes for a moment. Then it is gone. Youthful brilliance becomes old age. Summer sun gives way to winter winds. Music always returns into silence.

The fragility of beauty is a reminder of mortality. But beauty also soothes and reassures. Wonder and joy arouse our better angels. Natural splendor and human art make life worth living.

The concert at Glacier Point honored the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, whose work conserves the wild wonders of our continent. Some Park Service employees also play in the Mariposa orchestra. How cool for those rangers to serenade the park they love.

The arts and Yosemite

One might think it odd to stage a symphony at Glacier Point. But according to Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman, “From the signing of the Yosemite Grant to the present day, the arts have played a significant role in the creation and continued interest in preserving these public places.”

Yosemite sparkles in Ansel Adams’ photos. It is illuminated by John Muir’s prose. Yosemite has a new artistic champion in Les Marsden, the conductor of the Mariposa orchestra.

Marsden composed a complex cycle of four pieces to honor Yosemite and the Park Service. Marsden’s compositions are classically American, reminiscent of Aaron Copland. The music told the history of the national parks. It imitated wind, water, fire and animal life.

As Marsden’s dynamic baton came to rest and the music faded into silence, you could hear crickets chirping and birds singing. I was struck by the thought that human art is a response to nature’s call. The human imagination swells in the presence of Half Dome. Birdsong tickles our ears. Thunder quickens the heart. And Yosemite Falls provokes laughter and shouts.

WITHOUT HOPEFUL SPLASHES OF JOY, LIFE WOULD BE DULL AND MEANINGLESS.

Poetry, painting and music reflect the wonders of the world. Human art transcends matter. Without the soaring responsiveness of the human spirit the earth would be quiet and dull.

John Muir said, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.” Muir explained that gardens and parks satisfy our “natural beauty-hunger.” We plant flowers, tend our gardens, and visit parks looking for inspiration and consolation.

Muir claimed that natural beauty comforts “nerve-shaken, over-civilized people.” For Muir, mountain parks are “fountains of life.” Their sublime wonder stirs the spirit.

Fountains of life

Art and music are also fountains of life. The arts encourage us to savor the world.

One of my colleagues, Thomas Loewenheim, the conductor of the Fresno State SymphonyOrchestra, has confessed his hope that music provides a path toward peace. I think he is right. Music, beauty, art and nature encourage us to transcend our petty differences. They lift us beyond ourselves and bring us together in awe, reverence and delight.

Stand on Glacier Point. Immerse yourself in poetry. Fill your lungs with song. Dig your fingers into the soil. Smell the wonder of flowers. Or simply listen to the birds. The aesthetic mood encourages us to breathe more deeply – to listen, see and feel.

In moments of beauty, anger melts, hatred dissolves and peace dawns. Winter storms will come to the high country. Fires will burn the hills. And madmen rage in the lowlands. But peace is found in beauty. And hope is found in the fragments of color, song, granite and water that we carry in our hearts.

Without hopeful splashes of joy, life would be dull and meaningless. Hallelujah for Yosemite. Hurray for Marsden and the Mariposa symphony.

And thank goodness for the men and women of the Park Service, whose work has preserved nature’s wonders for 100 years. Here’s hoping that the artists, rangers and natural wonders of our world will continue to inspire and console for another century.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article98045307.html#storylink=cpy

Focus on Improving Souls, Not Just Our Bodies

Fresno Bee, January 24, 2014

When Michelle Obama recently turned 50, People magazine asked her whether she would consider cosmetic surgery. That is an oddly indiscreet question to ask the first lady, involving a variety of pernicious assumptions about gender, beauty and age.

Obama said she wouldn’t rule out cosmetic surgery. She added that women should have the freedom to do whatever they need to do to feel good about themselves. There is no doubt that we should have freedom to pursue happiness. And cosmetic and reconstructive surgeries can be therapeutic life-changers for those who have been disfigured.

But our focus on youthful appearance represents an interesting idea about happiness. Instead of learning to accept the changes of our aging bodies, we are encouraged to stay young with Botox and Viagra.

Philosophers have long viewed physical beauty and sexual attraction as minor goods not worthy of serious consideration. Many philosophers were notoriously ugly. Socrates had a snub nose. Crates, the Stoic, was a hunchback whose deformity was mocked in the gymnasium. Epictetus, the Stoic sage, was lame. Kierkegaard, the Danish Christian philosopher, was reputed to have a twisted back. And Thoreau was described by Nathaniel Hawthorne as being ugly as sin.

Insight and wisdom may develop from the alienation that results from an abnormal visage or a physical deformity. Would Socrates have become a philosopher if he had a nose job? Would Thoreau have spent his time alone in the woods reflecting on the meaning of life if he were not so ugly?

The philosophical tradition teaches that the source of happiness should be internal, based upon virtue and integrity. The tradition warns that good looks can deceive. And it reminds us that youthful beauty fades as it must with the passage of time.

One cannot blame people for desiring the accolades that come with physical beauty. Our culture rewards good looks. Attractive people tend to make more money. A study by sociologist Rachel Gordon seems to indicate that better-looking kids do better in school.

In such a culture, it’s not surprising that people would invest in surgeries and other procedures that enhance their looks. Nor is it surprising that some become unduly obsessed with their appearance, leading to eating disorders and self-mutilation.

Our culture celebrates what some scholars call “morphological freedom”— the freedom to alter our bodies. For some, the body is a canvas to be inked and sculpted as an expression of personality. So long as we don’t create unfair competition or harm anyone else, why not do what you want to your own body?

It is difficult to see where a line could be drawn limiting morphological freedom. We put braces on our teeth, cut our hair, shave, pluck and wax. We die our hair, paint our nails, wear wigs and so on. From those widely accepted practices, it’s a short step to a culture where tattoos, piercings and cosmetic surgery have become common.

But the philosophical tradition would suggest that excessive focus on the merely cosmetic appearance of the body creates a false dream. Lurking in the background is a narcissistic concern for perpetual youth and external beauty. While the law should leave us alone unless our narcissism harms others, there are better uses of our freedom than gazing in the mirror.

Our obsession with youthful beauty tells us something about our relation to old age and the seasons of life. An ancient Chinese proverb defines filial piety — the virtue of honoring parents and ancestors — in terms of care of one’s body. The Confucian proverb says that since we received our bodies — our very hair and skin — from our parents, we must not presume to injure or damage these gifts.

It is natural and normal to resemble our parents. We honor our parents and represent our heritage in our very bodies. What are we saying about our parents or grandparents when we take radical steps to avoid looking old and wrinkled like them? What if we viewed wrinkles and gray hair with pride appropriate to the season?

It’s easy to understand the desire for cosmetic assistance in a society that rewards youth and good looks. But Socrates would suggest that instead of changing our bodies, we should focus on improving our souls

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/01/24/3731213/focus-on-improving-our-souls-not.html#storylink=cpy