Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

BEAUTIFUL (THE).

Since we have quoted Plato on love, why should we not quote him on “the beautiful,” since beauty causes love. It is curious to know how a Greek spoke of the beautiful more than two thousand years since.

“The man initiated into the sacred mysteries, when he sees a beautiful face accompanied by a divine form, a something more than mortal, feels a secret emotion, and I know not what respectful fear. He regards this figure as a divinity. . . . . When the influence of beauty enters into his soul by his eyes he burns; the wings of his soul are bedewed; they lose the hardness which retains their germs and liquefy themselves; these germs, swelling beneath the roots of its wings, they expand from every part of the soul (for soul had wings formerly),” etc.

I am willing to believe that nothing is finer than this discourse of the divine Plato; but it does not give us very clear ideas of the nature of the beautiful.

Ask a toad what is beauty — the great beauty To Kalon; he will answer that it is the female with two great round eyes coming out of her little head, her large flat mouth, her yellow belly, and brown back. Ask a negro of Guinea; beauty is to him a black, oily skin, sunken eyes, and a flat nose. Ask the devil; he will tell you that the beautiful consists in a pair of horns, four claws, and a tail. Then consult the philosophers; they will answer you with jargon; they must have something conformable to the archetype of the essence of the beautiful — to the To Kalon.

I was once attending a tragedy near a philosopher. “How beautiful that is,” said he. “What do you find beautiful?” asked I. “It is,” said he, “that the author has attained his object.” The next day he took his medicine, which did him some good. “It has attained its object,” cried I to him; “it is a beautiful medicine.” He comprehended that it could not be said that a medicine is beautiful, and that to apply to anything the epithet beautiful it must cause admiration and pleasure. He admitted that the tragedy had inspired him with these two sentiments, and that it was the To Kalon, the beautiful.

We made a journey to England. The same piece was played, and, although ably translated, it made all the spectators yawn. “Oh, oh!” said he, “the To Kalon is not the same with the English as with the French.” He concluded after many reflections that “the beautiful” is often merely relative, as that which is decent at Japan is indecent at Rome; and that which is the fashion at Paris is not so at Pekin; and he was thereby spared the trouble of composing a long treatise on the beautiful.

There are actions which the whole world considers fine. A challenge passed between two of Cæsar’s officers, mortal enemies, not to shed each other’s blood behind a thicket by tierce and quarte, as among us, but to decide which of them would best defend the camp of the Romans, about to be attacked by the barbarians. One of the two, after having repulsed the enemy, was near falling; the other flew to his assistance, saved his life, and gained the victory.

A friend devotes himself to death for his friend, a son for his father. The Algonquin, the French, the Chinese, will mutually say that all this is very beautiful, that such actions give them pleasure, and that they admire them.

They will say the same of great moral maxims; of that of Zoroaster: “If in doubt that an action be just, desist;” of that of Confucius: “Forget injuries; never forget benefits.”

The negro, with round eyes and flattened nose, who would not give the ladies of our court the name of beautiful, would give it without hesitation to these actions and these maxims. Even the wicked man recognizes the beauty of the virtues which he cannot imitate. The beautiful, which only strikes the senses, the imagination, and what is called the spirit, is then often uncertain; the beauty which strikes the heart is not. You will find a number of people who will tell you they have found nothing beautiful in three-fourths of the “Iliad”; but nobody will deny that the devotion of Codrus for his people was fine, supposing it was true.

Brother Attinet, a Jesuit, a native of Dijon, was employed as designer in the country house of the Emperor Camhi, at the distance of some leagues from Pekin.

“This country house,” says he, in one of his letters to M. Dupont, “is larger than the town of Dijon. It is divided into a thousand habitations on one line; each one has its courts, its parterres, its gardens, and its waters; the front of each is ornamented with gold varnish and paintings. In the vast enclosures of the park, hills have been raised by hand from twenty to sixty feet high. The valleys are watered by an infinite number of canals, which run a considerable distance to join and form lakes and seas. We float on these seas in boats varnished and gilt, from twelve to thirteen fathoms long and four wide. These barks have magnificent saloons, and the borders of the canals are covered with houses, all in different tastes. Every house has its gardens and cascades. You go from one valley to another by alleys, alternately ornamented with pavilions and grottoes. No two valleys are alike; the largest of all is surrounded by a colonnade, behind which are gilded buildings. All the apartments of these houses correspond in magnificence with the outside. All the canals have bridges at stated distances; these bridges are bordered with balustrades of white marble sculptured in basso-relievo.

“In the middle of the great sea is raised a rock, and on this rock is a square pavilion, in which are more than a hundred apartments. From this square pavilion there is a view of all the palaces, all the houses, and all the gardens of this immense enclosure, and there are more than four hundred of them.

“When the emperor gives a fête all these buildings are illuminated in an instant, and from every house there are fireworks.

“This is not all; at the end of what they call the sea is a great fair, held by the emperor’s officers. Vessels come from the great sea to arrive at this fair. The courtiers disguise themselves as merchants and artificers of all sorts; one keeps a coffee house, another a tavern; one takes the profession of a thief, another that of the officer who pursues him. The emperor and all the ladies of the court come to buy stuffs, the false merchants cheat them as much as they can; they tell them that it is shameful to dispute so much about the price, and that they are poor customers. Their majesties reply that the merchants are knaves; the latter are angry and affect to depart; they are appeased; the emperor buys all and makes lotteries of it for all his court. Farther on are spectacles of all sorts.”

When brother Attinet came from China to Versailles he found it small and dull. The Germans, who were delighted to stroll about its groves, were astonished that brother Attinet was so difficult. This is another reason which determines me not to write a treatise on the beautiful.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25