'I think therefore I am.'  Descartes            'I AM THAT I AM.'  Exodus.3.        'I am what I am.'  La Cage aux Folles

01 October 2010

Grace and Beauty

The Graces
These three on men all gracious gifts bestow
Which deck the body or adorn the mind,
To make them lovely or well-favoured show;
As comely carriage, entertainment kind,
Sweet semblance, friendly offices that bind,
And all the complements of courtesy;
They teach us how to each degree and kind
We should ourselves demean, to low, to high,
To friends, to foes; which skill men call Civility.
The Graces, Euphrosyne, Aglaia and Thalia were daughters of Zeus and Eurynome, they were the goddesses of joy, charm and beauty, presiding over banquets, dance, social enjoyment and the elegant arts.

Socrates speaking from Plato's Symposium
"These are the lesser mysteries of love, into which even you, Socrates, may enter; to the greater and more hidden ones which are the crown of these, and to which, if you pursue them in a right spirit, they will lead, I know not whether you will be able to attain. But I will do my utmost to inform you, and do you follow if you can. For he who would proceed aright.

"He who has been instructed thus far in the things of love, and who has learned to see the beautiful in due order and succession, when he comes toward the end will suddenly perceive a nature of wondrous beauty (and this, Socrates, is the final cause of all our former toils) -- a nature which in the first place is everlasting, not growing and decaying, or waxing and waning; secondly,  using these as steps only, and from one going on to two, and from two to all fair forms, and from fair forms to fair practices, and from fair practices to fair notions, until from fair notions he arrives at the notion of absolute beauty, and at last knows what the essence of beauty is. This, my dear Socrates," said the stranger of Mantineia, "is that life above all others which man should live, in the contemplation of beauty absolute; a beauty which if you once beheld, you would see not to be after the measure of gold, and garments, and fair boys and youths, whose presence now entrances you; and you and many a one would be content to live seeing them only and conversing with them without meat or drink, if that were possible -- you only want to look at them and to be with them. 

Such, Phaedrus -- and I speak not only to you, but to all of you -- were the words of Diotima; and I am persuaded of their truth. And being persuaded of them, I try to persuade others, that in the attainment of this end human nature will not easily find a helper better than love. And therefore, also, I say that every man ought to honour him as I myself honour him, and walk in his ways, and exhort others to do the same, and praise the power and spirit of love according to the measure of my ability now and ever.
The words which I have spoken, you, Phaedrus, may call an encomium of love, or anything else which you please."
Elegance of language may not be in the power of all of us; but simplicity and straight forwardness are. Write much as you would speak; speak as you think. If with your inferior, speak no coarser than usual; if with your superiors, no finer. Be what you say; and, within the rules of prudence, say what you are.- Alford

The beauty of the soul shines out when a man bears with composure one heavy mischance after another, not because he does not feel them, but because he is a man of high and heroic temper.- Aristotle

Anything in any way beautiful derives its beauty from itself and asks nothing beyond itself. Praise is no part of it, for nothing is made worse or better by praise.- Marcus Aurelius

Let grace and goodness be the principal loadstone of thy affections. For love which hath ends, will have an end; whereas that which is founded on true virtue, will always continue. - John Dryden

The pursuit of truth and beauty is a sphere of activity in which we are permitted to remain children all our lives. - Albert Einstein

"If you are out to describe the truth, leave elegance to the tailor."- Albert Einstein

I offer you peace. I offer you love. I offer you friendship. I see your beauty. I hear your need. I feel your feelings My wisdom flows from the Highest Source. I salute that Source in you. Let us work together for unity and love.- Mahatma Gandhi

Youth is happy because it has the capacity to see Beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see Beauty never grows old. - Franz Kafka

A thing of beauty is a joy forever: Its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness.- John Keats

Beauty is an ecstasy; it is as simple as hunger. There is really nothing to be said about it. It is like the perfume of a rose: you can smell it and that is all - W. Somerset Maugham

Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears.- Edgar Allen Poe

To me, fair friend, you never can be old For as you were when first your eye I eyed, Such seems your beauty still.- William Shakespeare

Beauty is all very well at first sight; but who ever looks at it when it has been in the house three days?George Bernard Shaw

The number of Guests at dinner should not be less than the number of the Graces nor exceed that of the Muses, i.e., it should begin with three and stop at nine - Marcus Terentius Varro

Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say and not giving a damn.Gore Vidal
The body has gone through many changes in the history of cultures and their art. The Egyptians used it with religious and political significance. The Greeks used it to display the perfection of the individuals mind and hence the body. Christians adopted the Platonic separation of body and soul and the body of Medieval times was seen as a hindrance to the greater life of the spirit and as such was demeaned and punished. During the Renaissance the Greek ideals found favour once again and the body was once again used as a tool to instruct on the higher ideals of humanity. Protestant values in the Victorian era once again pushed the body into hiding, at least amongst the public face of the ruling elite whereas the more liberal Europeans found greater acceptance of the pleasures of the physical world. Today attitudes change more rapidly. Political influence and fashion can alter public opinion from decade to decade. What is an ideal? - Ask me tomorrow and the answer may change.

In times past many societies in warmer climates were happy to promote nudity, and clothing was a mere necessity for occasionally keeping warm or denoting rank and status. Young soldiers, athletes, dancers, cup-bearers and entertainers were often unclothed and this was normal in certain climates and societies. The poor had little money for excess clothing, so the average man may posses a loincloth and a cloak of some description and little else was possible or necessary. The athlete who trained his mind and body for perfection, for battle and for admiration was proud to show his achievements. The gods and the kings displayed strong bodies to represent the power they possessed in their part in rule and creation. It is from these places and times that images of the body first arose to express the inner workings of mans ideas, ideals and achievements. Unfortunately, at all times, what some consider beauty and perfection, others deem unacceptable.

In the earliest of civilisations the perfection of the body held high status. The Pharaohs of Egypt were mostly depicted in an idealised muscular and youthful manner. This style of representation was not universal though and during the Armana period a naturalistic form took hold but soon disappeared, to be replaced by the tried and true images of strength and thus superiority. It was not until the 'democracy' of Greece arrived that the cult of the body was raised to a generalised and individual art. The Gymnasium (gymos, meaning naked) became the centre of this cult to perfect the body and thus this discipline would also raise the mind or soul to perfection. The aim was nobility of body and mind and training for battles yet to come, in defence of the state. Games were contested by naked athletes, banquets were served by naked slaves, naked statues of great gods, heroes and champions adorned the temples, public buildings and squares. Festivals existed, such as the Gymnopaediea in Sparta, which was the festival 'of naked youth' for song, dance and gymnastics. These activities were solely the prerogative of the male, women being barred from such activities. Women did eventually enter some sports, like running and possibly wrestling around 100AD but remained separate.

         Exercise produces strength and form, which is integral to power as well as the perfection of our appearance. A person may not achieve the attributes that he desires but he still wishes to project the image of possessing such idealised qualities. A portrait of a king will show him taller and more handsome then his subjects, and probably younger then he would normally appear. To intimidate his enemy, or impress his fellows, a warrior's breast plate will be moulded to show muscles that he may not possess. Today the aim of such attention to the idealisation of the physique seems to be merely linked to the attraction of a sexual partner or at least to gain admiration. The mind is generally the source of successful attraction but to gain the initial attention, a presentable appearance is considered a quick and easy way of instigating interest. The major problem with the quick and easy is that today, a Gym will build the body but it is forgotten that the Gym of ancient Greece was also a place to build the spirit. A balance of both elements, if neglected, will leave one wanting contrary to a quote from Christopher Isherwood who said "Life is not so bad if you have plenty of luck, a good physique and not too much imagination." 

Just what is the perfect physique? Mostly a subjective answer will be elicited from such a question. There are periods where a certain 'look' is admired more then others. An over-ripe woman of Rubens may not appeal as much today as it was once thought to. The paintings and statues of Michelangelo can be described as little more than 'beefcake'. The steroids affected muscles of a weigh-lifter are considered attractive to some, but the pale slender softness of many a modern male model may appeal to others. This is an attraction and not an ideal. Very few would disagree that the proportioned physique of the marble athletes statue would not be far from that ideal, at least to a Western eye. Culturally we are many and an ideal is dictated by what we are. Genetically we are various and that also influences perception. The baggage or personal history which forms us may dictate what we like and what we don't, but then again this is usually in regards to attraction. What is attraction? Perhaps no more than the seeking of a healthy mate. For a couple embarking on reproduction, love is said to spring from the perceived genetic combination of the partners to produce a healthy and more perfect offspring. Often we think about what we find sexually exciting, but this may and often does, differ greatly from what we can appreciate as beautiful. There are many things which I find beautiful, but towards which I have no further desire then to appreciate it as such, from a distance. I like to look at a large sparkling Diamond, but I have no desire to possess one, which does not mean that it is not perfect. Remember a book by it's cover and a rose by any name etc. 

Dance was also a practice in ancient Greece as it taught balance and movement, which would be an asset in battle as well as the for athletic skills. Today, apart from sport, it is dance, which, as a performance art, appears to accept and venerate the body and occasionally the nude without too much hysteria.  The training of a physical artist is geared to provide that perfection of health and appearance which will allow him to attract the attention of and convey his art to an audience. Of course there are avenues for showing off the body which demean and add nothing to the ascetics of our lives, but as with any aspect of life, there are always both sides necessary to balance the freedom of our existence. I sometimes wonder which is more offensive, the bloodied, swollen face and body of a boxer or the badly photographed naked open thighs of a nude. Which is stronger? A desire for superiority and overcoming another or a desire for sexual expression. Some will say that both are competitive. I don't.

Today the ideals of physical beauty  have been discredited amongst the thought leaders of our societies. Various philosophical and artistic trends have rejected the images of the body as reactionary, hypocritical, outdated and symptomatic of repression. Human nature being what it is, the dictates of the trend setters are not always followed, but the effect appears to be pervasive and can lead to a thoughtless loss of life's meaning. The popularity of strength is still aligned to battle as seen in any action movie. The body is certainly a tool of marketing as well and beauty can be worshipped in a mere photograph, but its relationship to humanity and the soul is seldom to be found. The subtlety of difference and the essence of informed individuality is rarely acknowledged by the fanatic, the thoughtless or the ignorant. I do not possess standard beauty of physique. I no longer have the appearance of youth. I am far from exhibiting the aura of good health, but I do have subjective ideals which change as often as the wind. It is all part of the experience of learning to live and identifying and heading towards the goal.
Grace, beauty and elegance; What are they and do we seek such things? Beauty I see as a Darwinian perceived aim of perfection, but generally one is aware of the subjective nature of what we call beauty. Variety in perception is essential and noble and must be respected or we would go nowhere. Is beauty held in the texture of the skin, the curve of a muscle, the light in the eye, the fashion that adorns the body or the body unclothed? Is it physical at all or is it the goodness within that shines though an expression or a stance or an idea believed? So many variations and each observed according to the needs of those who contemplate. Is Grace of demeanour or movement an essential attribute or is it merely suitable for specific circumstances? What is graceful to some is weak or unimportant to others. To live an elegant life is only possible in general to a few, but then again even in toil elegance can be part of the attitude if not the labour. In an ideal world of mine such things should be important, but this is a world without the reality of suffering. None the less it is still a goal. To experience such is to me a piece of Eden.

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