Why do we find one person irresistible and not another? Why does one man prefer brunettes and another blondes? Why does one woman daydream about the boyish good looks of a scrawny 1990s Leonardo DiCaprio while another only possesses libidinous lust for macho man body builders? Why do traditionally handsome men with striking jaw lines and chiseled abs attract some but repel others?
Attraction is ultimately an enigma. “Does beauty give birth to love, or does love give birth to beauty?” Alain de Botton’s nameless narrator asks in his incomparable part-novel, part-philosophical treatise On Love, “Surrounded by an infinite number of people, we may ask [staring at our lover while they talk on the phone or lie opposite us in the bath] why our desire has chosen to settle on this particular face, this particular mouth or nose or ear.” What constitutes beauty has always puzzled poets and philosophers. Is beauty universal, a principle shared across all time periods and cultures? Is it a checklist of a few consistent characteristics, readily identifiable? Or is beauty more mysterious? Does it slip through semantic boxes of easily understood definition and depend— as the old saying goes— on the eye of the beholder?
With his philosophical acumen and trademark wit, de Botton outlines two opposing theories of beauty: the Platonic and the Kantian. Fashion magazines promote a Platonic conception of beauty, the idea that in the realm of aesthetics, there’s only one universal standard. To both the world’s magazine editors and the ancient Greek philosopher, beauty is a mathematical equation with a single indisputable answer: a glowing complexion; glossy coiffed hair; pouty, perfectly pink lips; a thin, perfectly-proportioned figure. The fashion model is the consummate Platonic ideal, the embodiment of elegance, as architecturally awe-inspiring and symmetrical as a statue.
If, as Plato argues, there is an objective benchmark of beauty, the non-supermodels among us fall tragically short of the standard. Our eyes are too far apart. Our lips are too big. Our noses are off-center. In magazines, fur-coated models look effortlessly chic, their gazes subtly seductive as they hold themselves in eternal poses of aloof nonchalance. In On Love, Chloe, the narrator’s beloved, uses these images as instruments of torture, finding herself repugnant next to the flawless models on the stylish pages of Vogue and Glamour. When we compare ourselves, real life women, to these manipulated airbrushed Barbie dolls, we have no choice but to view ourselves as monstrously disfigured:
“According to Plato and the editor of Vogue, there exists such a thing as an ideal Form of beauty, made up of a balanced relation between parts, which earthly bodies will resemble to a greater or lesser degree. Everything we consider beautiful, said Plato, partakes in the essential Form of beauty and must hence exhibit universal characteristics. Take a beautiful woman and you will see there is a mathematical basis for this beauty, an inherent balance that is no less precise than that found in the construction of a classical temple…Plato had said that only when elements match is there a proper balance that gives an object a dynamic stillness and self-completeness… If Plato had said that only ‘the qualities of measure (metron) and proportion (symmetron) invariably constitute beauty and excellence,’ then Chloe’s face must have been lacking in both beauty and excellence.”
Though Chloe deviates from conventional notions of beauty, our narrator still finds her hopelessly attractive. How, he wonders, can he be enticed by a lover who possesses so many perceived imperfections, so many unforgivable cracks when he could have a classical statue? After all, she has a gap between her two front teeth and freckles. The mainstream conception of winsomeness is as simple as arithmetic in elementary school: straight white teeth + freckle-less face = beautiful. So how can he remain so mesmerized with Chloe when so many others would dismiss her as ugly, or worse, forgettable?
The answer, de Botton asserts, is that beauty is subjective rather than objective, irrational rather logical. Just as it’s impossible for art historians to unanimously agree on what constitutes a “good” painting (is it originality of composition? sharpness of lines? playfulness of color?), it’s impossible to decide on a singular basis for beauty. While one man might be drawn to the classic Audrey Hepburn aesthetics of a slim frame and pale skin, another might lust after a Marilyn Monroe bombshell with big hair and a voluptuous figure. Though we all have physical “types,” one kind of woman or man isn’t objectively better than another: no matter how we try to justify our preferences or defend our tastes with reason, something about beauty always defies description:
“But clearly Plato…must have neglected to include something in his aesthetic theory, for I found Chloe devastatingly beautiful. I hesitate to describe what exactly it was that I found so attractive. Did I like her green eyes, her dark hair, her full mouth? I stumble in answering because of the difficulty of ever explaining in words why one person is attractive and another is not. I could talk of the freckles on her nose or the curve of her neck, but what would it do to convince someone who did not find her attractive? Beauty is, after all, not something that one can ever convince someone else about. It is not like a mathematical formula, through which one may lead someone and arrive at an incontestable conclusion. Debates over the attractiveness of men and women are like the debates between art historians attempting to justify why one painting is superior to another. A Van Gogh or Gauguin? The only way to make a case for one or the other would be by an attempted re-description of the work in language [“The lyrical intelligence of Gauguin’s South skies…” next to the “Wagnerian depth of Van Gogh’s blues…”] or else by an elucidation of technique or materials [“The Expressionist feel of Van Gogh’s later years…” “Gauguin’s Cezanne-like linearity…”]. But what distance would this go toward actually explaining why one painting works, affects us, grips us by the collar with its beauty? And if painters have traditionally disdained art historians who come in their wake, it is perhaps not so much out of inverted snobbery as out of a sense that the language of paint [the language of beauty] could not be collapsed into the language of words.”
Unlike the Platonic understanding of aesthetics, which insists beauty can be tallied and totaled using an established rubric, the Kantian school of thought maintains beauty is particular rather than universal:
“It was not beauty that I had hence hoped to describe, only my own subjective response to Chloe’s appearance. I could not claim to be laying down an aesthetic theory of universal validity, I could simply point out where my desire had happened to settle while allowing the possibility that others would not locate the same perfections in the same body. In so doing, I was forced to reject the Platonic idea of an objective criterion of beauty, siding instead with Kant’s view that aesthetic judgements were ones ‘whose determining grounds can be no other than subjective.'”
When we fall in love, what draws us to our beloved? Is it his brawny arms? her long legs and ample chest? No, we’re charmed by their idiosyncrasies, those endearing quirks that precariously flirt with weirdness. Those attributes that are normally considered “desirable”— for men, a tall, muscular body, for women, a tiny waist and big breast— don’t mesmerize us as much as those features that are deemed unattractive: the mole on their right shoulder, the perfume of their particular scent. For our narrator, Chloe’s crooked smile is adorable for the exact reason that it isn’t perfect:
“Yet what was distinctive about my attraction to Chloe was that it was based not on the obvious targets of desire as much on precisely those features that might have been imperfect by someone considering her from a Platonic perspective. There was a certain pride in locating desire in the awkward features of her face, in precisely those areas where others would not look. I did not for instance see the gap in between her two front teeth as an offensive deviation from an ideal arrangement, but as an original and most love-worthy redefinition of dental perfection. I was not simply indifferent to the gap in between the teeth, I positively adored it.”
Though we understand beauty as the antithesis of ugliness, beauty most often contains a degree of the grotesque. Beauty and ugliness are an interdependent marriage, not an estranged couple with irreconcilable differences:
“True beauty cannot be measured because it is fluctuating, it only has a few angles from which it may be seen, and then not in all lights and at all times. It flirts dangerously with ugliness, it takes risks with itself, it does not side comfortably with mathematical rules of proportion, it draws its appeal from precisely those areas that will also lend themselves to ugliness. Nothing can be beautiful that does not take a calculated risk with ugliness.”
To be conventional is to be based on or in accordance with what is generally done. If in the Platonic worldview there is a conventional notion of attractiveness, then it must follow that Platonic beauty is formulaic and, thus, tediously unoriginal. After all, it doesn’t take much artistic sensitivity to find beauty in the obvious; any one can appreciate the grandeur of exquisite surroundings, an exhibition of Cezanne paintings, a cobblestone street, a French cathedral. In the realm of romance, most can recognize the enticing allure of a debonair man in an impeccably tailored suit or a full-figured vixen in a too-tight sweater. It requires more imagination to locate beauty in what most disregard as ugly or unremarkable. As Proust would say, the true artist knows beauty exists not just in Italian Renaissance paintings but underdone, unsavory cutlets on half-removed tablecloths.
Because our beloved has the capacity, like Wittgenstein’s duck rabbit, to be both hideous and beautiful, we the viewer become essential. In a purely platonic relationship, a person’s crooked teeth or freckles remain limitations; in a romantic relationship, love transforms these supposed inadequacies into something lovable. “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound?” the old philosophical conundrum goes. If we were to reframe this question in terms of love, we might ask: “If a person has the potential to be beautiful but no one is around to witness it, is he/she still beautiful?” For Alain de Botton, the answer is no: an object (the loved) depends on the subject (the lover) to exist. Perhaps this is why we become so enthralled with the beloved— not because they are paragons of some unattainable Platonic ideal, but because their physical flaws, their too small eyes, their disproportionately large arms, render us, the observer, refreshingly indispensable:
“Because her face had evidence within it for both beauty and ugliness, my imagination was given a role in holding on to the precarious thread of beauty. In its ambiguity, Chloe’s face could be compared to Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit, where both a duck and a rabbit seem contained in the same image, much as there seemed to be two faces contained within Chloe’s features.
In Wittgenstein’s example, much depends on the attitude of the viewer: If the imagination is looking for a duck, it will find one; if it is looking for a rabbit, then it too will appear. There is evidence for both, so what counts is the predisposition, the mental set, of the viewer. What was of course providing me with a beautiful image of Chloe [rather than a duck] was love. I felt that this love must have been more genuine because it had not settled on a face that was obviously, unambiguously proportioned. The editor of Vogue might have had difficulty including photos of Chloe in an issue, but ironically, this only reinforced my desire, for it seemed confirmation of the uniqueness that I had managed to find in her. How original is it to find a classically proportioned person “beautiful”? It surely takes greater effort, greater Proustian imagination, to locate beauty in a gap between the teeth. In finding Chloe beautiful, I had not settled on the obvious. I could perhaps see in her features things that others could not see. I had animated her face with her soul.”
In the end, On Love suggests beauty is not something that can be computed and calculated according to an unambiguous scale— it’s manufactured by love. For more penetrating insights into this at times maddening, mysterious human emotion, read de Botton on the lover as a detective obsessed with decoding symbols and discerning meaning, dating as a form of performative playacting, and love’s two stages: idealization and disillusionment. If you’re more interested in his philosophical musings on success and status, revisit him on status as the construction of culture, how gazing upon once great ruins can cure us of our status anxiety, and how expectation causes anxiety, malaise and discontentment.